Five Criminally Under-Seen Movies for the Quarantine
Article by Paul Preston
With stay-at-home orders, films-on-TV are the only way motion pictures are getting seen (except for the glorious resurgence of the Drive-in! – separate article). Now there are more streaming services than ever, but if you’re like me, they’re frustrating because movies come and go from their catalogue at their whim. I watched the excellent and underrated Upgrade on HBO and as soon as I recommended it to a friend, it’s gone.
But good news, nearly every movie ever made is available if you’re willing to rent or buy it. I get that the streaming services are already paid for, but you’re missing some masterpieces confining yourself to the limited selection that Netflix, Hulu and others cough up and shift around carelessly (strong argument for Blockbuster, actually…)
So, while you’re stuck in your house, there are five movies worth seeking out that are criminally under-seen. If you want an article about movies about quarantine to watch during quarantine, hit up TheMovieGuys.net for that, but here I’m going to offer up really, really good movies that, chances are, you missed. Because too many people did. There will be a variety of styles here and you might be one of those people who is only watching uplifting films during a challenging time. I say, regardless of genre, if the filmmaking is excellent, THAT IS uplifting!
This strong drama laced with comedy is probably the most off-your-radar of all the films in this article. You may have heard of it because back in 2006, it received one Oscar nomination, but you should’ve heard bigger buzz by the buzzmakers for this excellent piece of work.
Junebug is about a Chicago couple who own an art gallery, they head to North Carolina to talk to an extremely eccentric artist about showcasing his works. And while they’re so close to the groom’s family, they plan to stop in and visit. Imagine an urban art gallery owner visiting her in-laws in RURAL NC. There’s your movie. There’s culture clash, there’s family dynamics and there is a cast of great actors that are a bargain at any price – Scott Wilson (you know him as Hershel from The Walking Dead), Embeth Davidtz (who, among other roles, was the maid Amon Goeth took a liking to in Schindler’s List) and Alessandro Nivola, who continues today to bring the goods in movies like American Hustle and Selma.
Standing out above them all is Amy Adams. Before now, she had appeared in Drop Dead Gorgeous and Catch Me if You Can, but her portrayal of the very optimistic and very pregnant Ashley is one for the ages. She was Academy Award-nominated (her first of many nominations), and I thought she deserved the award. It was the best performance by anyone, of any gender, in any category that year. She’s funny, warm, inspires compassion and rises to every occasion the script calls for with admirable authenticity.
Check IMDB and you’ll see that Junebug director Phil Morrison hasn’t directed enough movies. That needs to change as much as you not seeing this.
THE SALTON SEA (2002)
I’ll bet you won’t have to be too far along in The Salton Sea before you can say to yourself, “I’ve never seen anything quite like this”. Quirky, suspenseful, surprising, engaging, funny, slick, dark, smart and always original, there is much to recommend about this film.
It’s a story that has a couple of big reveals, so it’s worth it to keep the details to a minimum here, but it’s a deep dive into the world of “tweakers” and “speed freaks” with one outrageous storyline moment after another. It is a film for distinguished tastes, but if you’re up for going somewhere you’ve never gone, you won’t be disappointed.
Director DJ Caruso hasn’t dipped the whole film in overwhelming style, like many “hip” directors do, thus smothering the content in overpowering technique. I found Caruso’s movie to be seasoned just enough in style to suit the crazed minds that populate the film, while still having a firm grip on a very compelling plot. Val Kilmer gives one of his best performances and the supporting cast is solid, too, especially Vincent D’Onofrio, who is determined to be uncategorizable. He goes all-out playing drug dealer “Pooh Bear”, who’s snorted so much coke he pretty much doesn’t have a nose (this is the kind of movie you’re in for). He’s one of the great crime psychos of the last twenty years. Also very good is Peter Skarsgaard as Kilmer’s best friend. He plays hopeless, helpless and vulnerable in an acute balance.
The look of the film is seedy and consistent, combined with a raw energy and palpable suspense that riveted me to my seat and I always recommend people seek it out.
KNIGHT AND DAY (2010)
This is a big-time Tom Cruise summer movie that was never as big-time as it should have been. He’s Roy Miller, a spy who needs to clear his name, he’s been framed but along the way he sweeps up Cameron Diaz’ June Havens in the mix. She, of course, is a mild-mannered automobile restoration expert and bam – spy movie ensues.
This movie was made a few years after the PR crap-storm that saw Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah’s couch and condescending to Matt Lauer (which, in retrospect, doesn’t look so bad). Cruise went on a comedy offensive and we all win because of it, making, within a couple years of each other, Tropic Thunder, in which he upended any seriousness you wanted to attribute to him, and Knight and Day. His Roy Miller is charming to the max, and Cruise is onboard 100% with every smile, one-liner and badass action star move. Glib doesn’t always work with me in action movies, I often want the storyline to retain real-world stakes, but here, Roy’s workaday routine of doing the damn-near-impossible is a nice juxtaposition to June’s total freak-out at being in harm’s way.
This might be the Cruisiest Tom has been in decades. Remember when he was “the best”? The best pilot, the best racecar driver, the best bartender, the best pool player, etc.? He’s the best spy here and it’s just FUN. So, if you’ve read this far and aren’t up for a culture clash in the south or an intense thriller about drug users, then Knight and Day is your winner. All the great things summer movie fun should be.
LOST IN AMERICA (1985)
Albert Brooks is one of my heroes and this movie is him on comedic fire. Nearly everything he does is hilarious. He plays David Howard, an ‘80s yuppie who doesn’t get a job promotion he expected, so he gauges the fact that he’s too responsible and makes a big, irresponsible move to sell everything he owns and travel the country with his wife like in Easy Rider. But he’s not on a motorcycle, he’s in an RV.
I’ve watched this again since in quarantine and it remains one of my favorite funniest movies of all time. Brooks balances being annoying with charm somehow. You root for David, ‘cause he really does get the short end of the stick at the top of the movie, but he makes a series of bad decisions, and there’s your comedy. Julie Hagerty is a great counterpart for his road trip.
I’ve examined this script over and over during my lifetime and I’m continually impressed with the economy of writing. It dissects to about thirty scenes, none of which are dispensable, and each scene has a goal to reach and spirited dialogue to get there. If you want to laugh your ass off, check it out, but there’s also a comedy school in the workmanship on display here.
ELVIS AND NIXON
A photograph of a meeting between Elvis Presley and President Richard Nixon is the most requested from The National Archive. Elvis was coming out of his ’68 Comeback Special, tight leather look and moving into his Vegas glitz-and-glamour duds. Nixon was on the verge of a scandal-plagued administration, and soon would rigorously tape all of his Oval Office meetings and sessions. Presley visited before such recordings, so we can only guess what went on between these two men, each pretty sure they were the most influential man in America.
Presley came to visit Nixon for noble reasons. He wanted to help the United States crack down on the drug culture that was seeping into our American youth, so he arrived at the gates of the White House to request a badge, and the title “agent at large”. He thought he could infiltrate the sections of America engaged in what he was sure would bring us down and make a difference. Elvis. Infiltrating. Blending In. Elvis.
Liza Johnson (has otherwise directed TV)’s new film Elvis and Nixon explores this powerhouse meeting, within its every right to speculate as much as it cares to. Yet the biggest reason the film works is because it sidesteps every moment to be ridiculous and settles back into the more palatable “odd” and often “awkward”. Example – Michael Shannon plays Elvis, and all his preposterous desires and behavior are filtered through Shannon’s brilliant choice to underplay it all. The performance then becomes at once both disarming and empathetic.
Kevin Spacey as Nixon delivers up just the opposite. Director Johnson seems to have given him the “How to Play Nixon” book and told him to start at page one and GO. And Spacey pulls off a minor miracle, too, in pulling out all the Nixon-isms and yet being buy-able. If you can get on board with Nixon being a chest-puffing blowhard (not too difficult), Spacey’s take on the 37th President is a riot. His contempt for Elvis, who is essentially on the Mount Rushmore of musical acts, is entertaining as hell.
But Shannon’s performance remains the heart of the film, and the one on which the movie wisely spends the most time. His earnestness to help the U.S., to get that badge is endlessly enjoyable, and his trek to the Oval Office is met with letdowns, sidesteps and more while Shannon gives us the visible disappointment in it. Elvis, who seemed to have everything, was still capable of heartbreak, and both the heartbreak and the absurd Quixote-like mission are palpable in this funny, engaging film.
I just giggled beginning to end at this film, another tragically neglected winner.