20 Sleeper Hits You Can Rent for Free from Bay Street Video

Bay Street Video Films for Free

People love lists. It’s an all but proven scientific fact that if someone puts a list in front of the average reader, they’ll look at it more easily than if they’re handed some long form piece of writing that talks about several different things at once. It’s pretty economical. I’ll give it that.

Truth be told, I actually hate writing lists. They’re damn near impossible to get right. They require a ton of thought to properly reduce down a single topic to a given number of selections. Even then, most lists today will spark countless debates, complaints, and comments over potentially perceived oversights. That’s probably why you don’t see too many lists here on Dork Shelf from me. They’re just way too time consuming and honestly, kinda fruitless and thankless to write.

But, when I was approached to help out with a far more tangible list by the awesome folks at Toronto’s Bay Street Video to contribute to their Films for Free program I couldn’t help but jump at the chance. Focusing on a different theme every month, the Films for Free program allows patrons of the video store who have a valid membership to rent around a hundred or so titles absolutely free of charge (you can check out the full details here).

This month I was part of an esteemed batch of film critics (including Norman Wilner, Glenn Sumi, Rad Simonpillai and Andrew Dowler, all of whom I occasionally write alongside over at NOW Magazine, Metro and CTV’s stalwart critic and awesome sock enthusiast Richard Crouse, and Twitch/OWN/CTV critic and pundit Jason Gorber) that were asked to produce a list of “sleeper hits.” It was a pretty vague task considering the term at hand could mean any number of different things. It could technically mean:

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-A film that wasn’t expected to do well that ended up becoming a box office smash.

-A film that didn’t do so well upon first release, but soon found an adoring audience over time.

-Cult films and curiosities that are deeply loved by a small number of people

-Films that we personally never expected to love that we ended up adoring.

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-Films that that unjustly flew under the radar.

Even then, this was a hard list to put together. I was told to pick up to twenty movies, and I ended up picking 21. Despite my telling the good folks at Bay Street Video that they could have cut one of them, they graciously included my uneven number of selections. Now looking at the completed list (with some equally great selections that slipped my mind), I dare say it’s one of the coolest video store promotions I have ever seen. (Even though I am kicking myself that neither Norm, nor myself selected the brilliant MacGruber for inclusion here.)

So with all thanks to the staff at Bay Street Video for allowing me a chance to essentially give away their product for the next month or so at their request, here’s a look at the films I selected, some suggestions for further rentals (since you already got one movie for free, you might as well get another one), and why these films matter and are worthy of your time.

Bringing Out the Dead

Bringing Out the Dead (Martin Scorsese, 1999)

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Available on DVD only

This isn’t only Martin Scorsese’s most underrated films (and one of screenwriter Paul Schrader’s best works), but it also features Nicolas Cage’s most underrated performance. This purposefully bleak and episodic tale of a haunted New York City ambulance driver (played wonderfully by a twitchy Cage who perfectly blends his theatricality with a palpable and sympathetic sadness here) who’s losing faith in his ability to effectively save the lives of others, is a snapshot of New York in crisis mode adapted from Joe Connelly’s semi-autobiographical novel. Set pre-9/11 and pre-Giuliani, this New York isn’t a nice place, and it shows Scorsese back in his element after his more noted mob movie detours earlier in the decade. Exceptionally lensed by frequent collaborator Robert Richardson, expertly edited by Thelma Schoomaker, brilliantly production designed by Dante Ferretti, packed with spot on supporting performances (especially from John Goodman, Tom Sizemore, and Ving Rhames as Cage’s partners on the dreaded overnight shift and Patricia Arquette as a damaged potential love interest and kindred spirit), and featuring some of Scorsese’s best song choices yet (seriously, this soundtrack is note perfect and period appropriate), this is the most unjustly forgotten about film from a landmark year in American cinema.

Good films to pair it with: The most obvious choice would be Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, another perennially misunderstood effort that also shows the dark side of New York with almost anarchic glee. But the stronger choice would be Spike Lee’s The 25th Hour, which is an equally haunting and uniquely cathartic look at a city in flux and one man’s struggles with identity in the face of tragedy.

The Cable Guy

The Cable Guy (Ben Stiller, 1996)

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Available on DVD only

No one was truly prepared to receive a darker Jim Carrey performance in 1996, and even fewer people still were really thinking of crowning Ben Stiller as a formidable performer in the director’s chair. Sure, Carrey had massive amounts of success for two years prior to his turn as a demented, lonely, lisping, and wildly unhinged cable installer who begins terrorizing his latest customer (Matthew Broderick, playing a pretty great straight man in one of the last great roles he’s been offered), and Stiller was coming off the sleeper hit Reality Bites and some cult notoriety from his cancelled far too soon sketch TV show on Fox, but while this team up of comedic royalty was lauded by some big name critics (particularly Gene Siskel) most audience members were left scratching their heads. The Cable Guy was moderately successful upon its release, but this Judd Apatow produced effort didn’t find a truly solid audience until years later when people finally seemed to figure out that it wasn’t meant to be an outright comedy for the entire running time. Yes, there are some outdated moments that kind of make me cringe today (a basketball game set to Filter’s “Hey Man, Nice Shot” and an uneasy and useless subplot where Stiller plays Menendez Brother-like twins in the latest celebrity trial of the week), but overall the general conceit behind Stiller’s work here is incredibly strong and Carrey is clearly relishing the chance to revel in some sociopathy for once as text rather than subtext.

Good films to pair it with: Once again, Scorsese’s The King of Comedy most readily springs to mind (it will yet again later in this list), but perhaps a better choice would be to pick up Stiller’s even more brilliant, more successful, and still misunderstood effort Tropic Thunder. This would also pair well as a double bill with any number of great suburban thrillers where seemingly nice people turn out to be psychos. Pacific Heights, Lakeview Terrace, and Unlawful Entry are three pretty good places to start.

Darkman

Darkman (Sam Raimi, 1990)

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Available to rent on DVD, but a Blu-Ray is available for purchase or special order to buy

Everyone seems to think that the idea of Liam Neeson as an action star was something that was concocted within the last decade. In reality, Neeson has been fucking chumps and suckers up for years, and there’s no better example than this deliriously over the top effort from Sam Raimi in his first major effort for a major studio. Here playing a tough, but eggheaded scientist who’s run in with the mob leaves him a disfigured master of disguise, Neeson is able to showcase his starpower for the first time in a role that barely ever allows him to show his face. It’s the sign of a great actor, but even more impressive is just how far Universal was willing to let Raimi take his wild and crazy vision just a year after the far more conventional superhero theatrics of Tim Burton’s Batman became a megahit. Raimi’s work here should have been a logical and darker extension of what Burton did, but instead it was dumped in a thankless late summer release slot and it would more notably go on to spark two far lesser direct to video sequels.

Good films to pair it with: I’m convinced that Tim Burton saw Darkman and took healthy inspiration from him when he made the far darker, edgier, and more playful Batman Returns. Those who want a bit more Neeson in their life and want to see something from his early career should rush to pick up the cheeseball revenge flick Next of Kin, which has one of the best casts ever assembled. In it, Patrick Swayze plays a big city cop who goes back to his backwoods bayou community to seek out the killer of his brother (Bill Paxton) after a run in with the idiot hotheaded son of a mobster (Ben Stiller) turns sour. Swayze is the levelheaded one to Neeson’s balls to the wall eye-for-and-eye brother. Helen Hunt is their sister. It’s gleefully stupid and endlessly fun. Also, despite its inferiority, the Neeson and Raimi-free first sequel to this one, Darkman II: The Return of Durant, features a killer Larry Drake performance as the chief villain. Arnold Vosloo also does an admirable job filling Neeson’s face wraps. Just stay away from the third movie at all costs.

The Faculty copy

The Faculty (Robert Rodriguez, 1998)

Available to rent on DVD, but a Blu-Ray is available for purchase or special order

Oh the hell that screenwriter Kevin Williamson had wrought in the late 90s, some of it (Teaching Mrs. Tingle, I Know What You Did Last Summer) his own fault. The man who wrote the screenplay for Scream (itself included as a free rental from another writer in the Sleeper Hits program) became the go-to guy to ape for edgy, gory teen fare. One of his most noteable works, this Invasion of the Body Snatchers sci-fi riff from the winter of 1998, also happened to be his best film. Aside from his characteristically snappy dialogue, keen sense of the life of an average teenager, and his ability to cleverly keep plot twists under wraps better than M. Night Shyamalan, this film succeeds best because he’s also working with the best people to ever be attached to one of his scripts. It’s directed by low budget genre maven Robert Rodriguez (again, delivering his best work, as well) and it comes stacked with an ensemble cast that’s an embarrassment of riches in every respect. A literal take on teenage alienation (led by a great Elijah Wood as a nerdy outsider wishing to be cool, Shawn Hatosy’s great work as a jock who wishes he wasn’t cool, and a scene stealing Josh Hartnett as the requisite badass drug dealer) in opposition to out of touch authority figures (led by the always terrifying Robert Patrick as a football coach, the always underrated Famke Janssen as a woman who awakens her dormant sexuality, and JON FUCKING STEWART), The Faculty might not be high art in the purest sense, but every scene nails perfectly what this kind of genre exercise should feel like.

Good films to pair it with: Scream, I guess. That’s a fine place to start, and you can get that one for free. Those who want to see Wood in another great hero role should check out the recently released and underrated Grand Piano (available May 20th) where he plays a pianist held under the scope of a sniper (John Cusack) threatening to kill him. Also, while it’s not as good of a film overall, the 1998 teen sci-fi/horror hybrid Disturbing Behavior still manages to cover a lot of the same ideas of teenage identity and the desire to fit in. If this were a drive-in, that would be the perfect B-picture to Rodriguez and Williamson’s A-grade work.

Gremlins 2 The New Batch

Gremlins 2: The New Batch (Joe Dante, 1990)

Available to rent on DVD, but a Blu-Ray is available for purchase or special order

The epitome of “inmates running the asylum,” this belated sequel to Joe Dante and Steven Spielberg’s megahit 1984 collaboration Gremlins was made with Dante getting almost complete creative control over his product on a sequel he clearly didn’t want to make all that much in the first place. The results are full on comedic excellence that were never truly appreciated at the time when people were expecting yet another dark and somewhat serious creature feature. This time after a token set up reuniting the cute Mogwai Gizmo with is former owner in a swanky New York Trump-style tower and a restating of the rules (don’t get him wet, expose him to sunlight, or feed him after midnight), Dante deliriously finds ways to lovingly poke holes in his previous work (“What if you feed them on a plane? Isn’t it always midnight somewhere?” or film critic Leonard Maltin, who HATED the first film, doing a walk on cameo and being a good sport here) while creating something closer to the 1950s drive-in fare he always idolized and the Looney Tunes cartoon he clearly never got a chance to make. Also, bonus points for casting Christopher Lee as a mad scientist, John Glover as the Trump surrogate, Robert Prosky as a kindly schlock movie host, and a deliciously dry Tony Randall as a mutated, erudite villainous gremlin.

Good films to pair it with: Gremlins, but if only to see how vastly different they are. Dante’s smart, underrated, and literal Looney Tunes: Back in Action captures some of the same madness. Those who demand something that skews a bit older, however, should pick up Dante’s Matinee, a loving ode to moviegoing during the turbulent Cuban Missile Crisis. Those who want something equally as silly, but somewhat different should snag Jonathan Lynn’s reworking of the board game Clue into something just as smart, madcap, and fast paced. Also of note, Tobe Hooper’s oddball sequel The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, another follow-up to a mostly serious horror film that dares to be an outright comedy inspired by Wim Wenders and John Hughes at the same time (seriously).

Josie and the Pussycats

Josie and the Pussycats (Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont, 2001)

Available on DVD only

I should preface this by saying that I have never gotten more unjust shit for defending a film in my life than I have gotten for my steadfast adherence to Josie and the Pussycats being a brilliant piece of satirical cinema. I should also say that a great chunk of that criticism comes from people who flat out refuse to watch the movie. Ignore them and ignore the fact that the film takes place against the backdrop of the late 90s and early aughts boy band craze (which honestly just comes back again every five years or so, making the film unable to feel that dated). This tale of a trio of pop-punk musicians getting a taste of the big time via some record executives (deliciously silly Alan Cumming and Parker Posey) who want to use their hot new sound as a form of mind control to get teens to buy worthless shit manages to pull off a rare feat. It’s a gag a second delivery service that hits the mark almost every time it takes a shot. Even if someone isn’t saying something funny in the moment, there’s a ludicrous piece of obvious product placement in the background. It’s the very definition of unsubtle in a lot of respects (particularly on a visual level), but that’s kind of the point and almost all of the fun. Oh, and the tunes are pretty damned great, too. Now where did I put my Zima?

Good films to pair it with: I’ve found it makes a nice double bill with the similarly minded anti-sell out comedy of the original Wayne’s World (itself a sleeper hit in its own right). It also goes well with other Kaplan and Elfont productions Can’t Hardly Wait (which is the only other film they directed together) and The Brady Bunch Movie (which they wrote), both of which are available as part of this month’s free rental program. I would also suggest that if you wanted to kill yourselves laughing, pair this with MacGruber or The Great Muppet Caper, the only other two unassuming comedies that have this high and unexpected of hilarity levels. Or, if you want to go really old school, track down a copy of Frank Tashlin’s exceptional 1957 comedy Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, a Tony Randall starring romp about a struggling ad man that Josie wisely takes a lot of its cues from.

LA Confidential

L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997)

Available to rent on Blu-Ray or DVD

If you were to ask teenage Andrew Parker what his favourite movie of all time was, he would say L.A. Confidential without a moment of hesitation. Sure, plenty of people have seen it now, but it was also the very technical definition of a sleeper hit. A film that its own studio wanted no part of (they actually had to bring it to Cannes almost in secret because Warner Brothers thought it was a dud) featuring a cast largely made up of unknowns and character actors (including then untested leads Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe, with hot commodity Kevin Spacey playing second fiddle to them) in a hardboiled 1950s detective genre that hadn’t made a dime since… well, the 1950s, AND based on a James Elroy novel that was 600 pages and was told from dozens of different points of view, (deep breath) L.A. Confidential was a film that had failure written all over it. It’s obvious that almost everyone who doubted it was wrong. Brimming with lovely period detail, assure performances, and sharp Oscar winning writing, L.A. Confidential certainly found a lot of love where it counted.

Good films to pair it with: In terms of style, Brian De Palma’s take on The Untouchables or Roman Polanski’s Chinatown make for a pretty fun evening.

Observe and Report

Observe and Report (Jody Hill, 2009)

Available to rent on Blu-Ray or DVD

I’ll freely admit that this will probably be the most divisive film on this list to get behind if only because it’s almost unrepentantly and unapologetically nasty and sometimes brutal to watch. But those perceived weaknesses are also the film’s greatest strengths. Coming out almost presciently in the same year as the megahit and easily palatable crowd pleaser Paul Blart: Mall Cop this coal black comedy about a bipolar and thoroughly unlikable and arrogant mall security guard (played by Seth Rogen in his best performance) isn’t trying hard to win people over. It wants people to cringe along with its protagonists every move as he delusionally inflates his own ego into thinking he can become a proper police officer, save the mall from all its ills, and win over the girl of his dreams (Anna Faris, cranking the unlikability knob to its limits and ripping it off). Owing a lot to Scorsese’s early work, this is a very tough and very memorable film that would have been impossible to market to a mass audience that will at the very least get people talking about it. It also – during the film’s uniquely batshit climax – makes better use of “Where is My Mind” than Fight Club did.

Good films to pair it with: Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (there it is!), or perhaps more obviously Taxi Driver. It also goes well with Craig Zobel’s low key and thoroughly unnerving abuse of power thriller from 2012, Compliance. But if you insist on comedy and you somehow found yourself laughing at the pointed absurdity of it all, there are several season of Hill’s acquired taste TV show Eastbound and Down to choose from, which feels the same albeit drawn out over a much bigger canvas with a possibly even more unlikable protagonist.

Planes Trains and Automobiles

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (John Hughes, 1987)

Available to rent on Blu-Ray and DVD

Famed filmmaker John Hughes had made a huge name for himself with teen oriented comedies and writing gigs on silly comedies that could bridge the gaps between teen and adult audiences (National Lampoon’s Vacation, The Great Outdoors), but he really wanted to move on to more serious and straight up adult oriented comedies. The shift was gradual, starting with his more serious teen minded writing gigs Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful. The biggest risk in his career, however, was going all in on this wonderful comedy and drama with John Candy and Steve Martin as a pair of stranded and hopelessly mismatched travellers making their way across the USA so Martin’s workaholic ad man can be reunited with his family in Chicago for Thanksgiving. Disarmingly sweet, often pointedly funny (especially Martin’s profane rant against a rental car agent, which was the only scene that gave the film it’s teen-unfriendly R-rating when so many of Hughes’ other films had far edgier material), and boasting the best performances from both lead actors, this has been my go to holiday film for the past 15 years (it was also a favourite around the holidays of Roger Ebert). The often imitated and never duplicated hotel room showdown between Martin’s sarcasm and Candy’s wounded naïveté and the film’s gut punch of an ending never cease to reduce me to a blubbering mess of tears every single time. There isn’t another film I could ever say that about.

Good films to pair it with: It’s directly connected to Hughes’ other adult effort, the underrated but still kind of flawed She’s Having a Baby, via a cleverly placed cameo in this film’s opening. For other underrated films with the lead actors that bridge the gap between comedy and drama, try the Martin penned and starring updating of Silas Marner, A Simple Twist of Fate, from 1994, or Candy’s equally lovely and understated turn in Chris Columbus’ Only the Lonely from 1991.

The Player

The Player (Robert Altman, 1992)

Available to rent on Blu-Ray or DVD

The terms “inside baseball Hollywood jargon filled mystery” and “Robert Altman” have never been terms that are synonymous with box office success. And yet, one of Altman’s now more unsung and less talked about efforts was, by definition, a bit of a sleeper hit back in 1992. Working from Michael Tolkin’s adaptation of his already sharp novel, this sarcastically funny and pointed jab at the Hollywood establishment cast the studio system as a complete and utter villain, exemplified by leading man Tom Robbins’ slick performance as a shit eating grinned executive who begins receiving death threats from a scorned writer. It came in the middle of a down period for Altman, which might be why it shocked so many people that it was actually good. He would follow this one up with Short Cuts (which, like most anthologies, is all over the place in terms of quality) before falling into another career slump that would only get the slightest spark with Gosford Park in 2001. Around the time of his death in 2006, most of the attention towards Altman was lavished quite rightfully on Nashville, MASH, The Long Goodbye, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller, but in hindsight, The Player offers more insight into Altman’s work than anything before or after. It’s essential viewing and a great starting point for people who have never seen an Altman film before and are unaccustomed to his rhythms and humours.

Good films to pair it with: Of Altman’s work, McCabe & Mrs. Miller would go the best, but really anything other than Popeye would go well (even the dreadful, but somewhat similarly minded, Pret-a-Porter). Those wanting something Hollywood set and snappy should go in the direction of Shane Black’s cult curiosity Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which is a more openly slick and just as pointed tinseltown caper.

Ravenous - 1

Ravenous (Anotnia Bird, 1999)

Available to rent on DVD, but a Blu-Ray will be available for purchase starting on June 3rd

If you know my writing on here, you’ll know I already wrote 11,000 words on why Ravenous is a great film. You can find that here. I don’t think I need to explain it better than that.

Good films to pair it with: It might sound like an odd choice, but Kelly Reichardt’s minimalist and austere western Meek’s Cutoff would be an interesting sidebar. But if you’re looking for a different kind of comedic cannibal film set in America during a different era, check out Bob Balaban’s 1989 cult flick Parents, which casts Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt as a pair of 1950s homemakers literally eating the American dream alive. It’s equal parts terrifying and satirical. (It’s out of print on its own, but it’s available to rent from Bay Street as part of a double feature with the very wisely forgotten about Ally Sheedy thriller Fear, which you really don’t need to watch. Really. But Parents is worth it on its own.)

05_Flatbed_1 - DECEMBER

The Ref (Ted Demme, 1994)

Available on DVD only

Much like Ravenous above, I have also written several thousand words on why this is a pretty great little comedy. Again, you can check that out here.

Good films to pair it with: I’m going to be a complete jerk and suggest a film that’s sadly out of print and hard to find: Ted Demme and Denis Leary’s other great collaboration on the Boston set drama Monument Ave. It also makes for a great early Kevin Spacey double bill with the dark indie comedy Swimming With Sharks. But if it’s other great Leary performances you’re looking for, check out his movie owning performance as the villain in the urban thriller Judgment Night or his scene stealing turn in John McTiernen’s surprisingly strong 1999 reboot of The Thomas Crown Affair.

The Rundown

The Rundown (Peter Berg, 2003)

Available to rent on DVD, but a Blu-Ray is available for purchase or special order

The film that rightfully made former wrestling superstar Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson into a big screen superstar (and really established Peter Berg as a credible director and not just an actor) might just be another riff on the same kind of plot that Midnight Run had, but it’s literally the only other example of the genre that has actually worked in the slightest. The chemistry between Johnson’s proper and buttoned down tough guy and Seann William Scott’s wise ass criminal (which next to his turn in Goon is his best performance) makes their work here seem effortless, and things are definitely enlivened by Christopher Walken (at his absolute Walken-iest) as the villain. Anyone who wants to do a rehash of beloved and time worn material owes it to themselves to look at The Rundown to learn how to do it right.

Good films to pair it with: Dwayne Johnson is actually a pretty damn good actor, and there’s no better showcase of his talents than Michael Bay’s Pain and Gain or Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales. Seriously. I know both films are probably setting off alarm bells at the moment, probably for the name attached to the first one and the cultural infamy of the latter (and also probably the name attached to it). Pay that no mind. Both are very strong and wholly original works where Johnson is allowed free reign to create a well rounded, sympathetic, and completely insane character. He actually deserved a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Pain and Gain. No, I am not fucking with you. It would also make a great double bill with last year’s over the top Arnold Schwarzenegger action film The Last Stand, and equally fun reworking of western conventions that unjustly flew under everyone’s radar.

Safe

Safe (Todd Haynes, 1995)

Available on DVD only

The best purely psychological thriller of the 90s marked the arrival of Todd Haynes as a serious filmmaking talent and Julianne Moore as one of the best leading actresses in the history of cinema. It’s also cited by many as one of the most terrifying films ever made, which is astounding since it’s about something that not a lot of people can grapple with. Moore’s 1987 housewife has been diagnosed with an extremely rare autoimmune deficiency that leaves her extremely allergic to everything around her. But is this disease a real thing or a psychosomatic manifestation of deeper fears. It’s extremely hard to take, and it deserves being talked about in the same breath as Haneke or von Trier when it comes to the delivery of punishing subject matter. It’s a film that most people wouldn’t give a chance, but those who have over the years have rightfully heralded it as a masterwork.

Good films to pair it with: The similarly opaque, but vastly funnier Melancholia from von Trier would be a great place to start. It also pairs up nicely with Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, a film that also features a great performance from Julianne Moore that goes through a whole slew of undiagnosed psychological issues across its sweeping scope of Southern California life.

Searching for Bobby Fischer

Searching for Bobby Fischer (Steve Zallian, 1993)

Available on DVD only

You know who is an intensely underrated screenwriter? Steve Zallian. He’s the man who penned Schindler’s List, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Moneyball (alongside Aaron Sorkin, who nearly ruins that movie, if you ask me), but he got only a small amount of the credit that should have come his way for the success of those films. Granted, his directorial career hasn’t been all that great (A Civil Action is okay, but the fewer people who see his remounting of All the King’s Men, the better), but his best overall work was actually his unfairly slept on directorial debut about a young chess prodigy (played by Max Pomeranc) struggling to maintain his childhood, his identity, and his very humanity when everyone around him wants to turn him into the next Bobby Fischer. Chock full of excellent supporting performances from Ben Kingsley, Laurence Fishburne, and Joe Mantegna and boasting Zallian’s most touching and on point writing to date, this was a film that should have been huge, but the studio (Paramount) had almost no clue what to do with it.

Good films to pair it with: It actually aligns very nicely with something like Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting, but those who want to pair it with other films dealing with childhood struggles should place it in opposition and contrast to something like Richard Donner’s Radio Flyer or Jon Avnet’s The War, both of which are really underrated films in their own right (and the former of which almost made this list). But if you want another example of how great of a writer Zallian was in his early days, check out the deeply conflicted and uneasy feeling of Jack the Bear.

Strange Days

Strange Days (Kathryn Bigelow, 1995)

Available on DVD only

After the critical successes of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, the cult status of Point Break, and the general good will towards her debut feature Near Dark, it’s amazing how few people have come back around to notice how great this hidden sci-fi gem really is. Maybe it’s because the film can almost be pithily dismissed as the less shitty version of something like Johnny Mnemonic (which at least has a climax that features Dolph Lundgren as a priest fighting a psychic dolphin, but I digress) or something that could be lumped in on the scrap heap of mid-90s techno thrillers, but despite the film’s turn of the century setting and sometimes dated stabs at relevancy (which Blade Runner, this films closest antecedent has in spades) this tale of a “dream dealer,” played by Ralph Fiennes in one of his best performances, was one of the only great noirs of the decade. I guess it also helps that it was worked on somewhat by pre-Titanic James Cameron (Bigelow’s ex), but it’s an exciting ride that deserves a Blu-Ray release sooner rather than later in North America.

Good films to pair it with: The only other film that comes close to touching upon this same material is David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, but Bigelow and Cameron are still doing a better job of pulling it off. Aside from that, really anything from Bigelow goes good with this one, if only to illustrate the even hand that she has always been able to bring to even the most sprawling and ambitious of films.

STREETS OF FIRE [US 1984]

Streets of Fire (Walter Hill, 1984)

Available on DVD only

To be fair towards the commercial disappointment of Streets of Fire, it was a film that was probably thirty years too late to make a huge difference on a cultural level. That’s also what makes it such an awesome experiment for action movie maven Walter Hill, who really should be spoken of in the same breath as William Friedkin in terms of what he can bring to sometimes standard thrillers. An action movie musical set in the 1950s with the big budget swagger and bravado of a 1980s production, Hill’s tale of a badass (Michael Pare) trying to save his kidnapped rock singer ex-girlfriend (Diane Lane) from a bunch of deranged bikers might be one of the most gorgeous films of the decade. Full of energy and excitement, it was a film that really just went over audiences’ heads simply because it was a period piece. It’s also of note thanks to some great supporting performances from an awesomely deranged Willem Dafoe, an against type Rick Moranis, and Amy Madigan as one of the most badass people ever in the history of cinema. If the style and energy don’t suck you in immediately, the performances will.

Good films to pair it with: Hill’s similarly minded The Warriors, but SPECIFICALLY the “director’s cut” that transitions between scenes as if the film were a comic book that had come to life on the big screen. Is it better than the theatrical cut of The Warriors? Nope. Not at all. BUT you do get a chance to see where his head is truly at and how he could end up making the leap to something like Streets of Fire. Outside of that, West Side Story, which has a similarly tough, rocking feel to it despite having a lot more musical numbers.

Sunshine

Sunshine (Danny Boyle, 2007)

Available for rent on DVD, but a Blu-Ray is available for purchase or special order

I actually came quite late to the Sunshine party. I hadn’t seen it until Boyle’s most recent career renaissance was already in full swing – meaning I didn’t see it until after Slumdog Millionaire and 127 Hours. The only reason I even ended up seeing it was because every time Danny Boyle’s name came up in conversation, this was the film that most people cited as being their favourite, and now it’s hard not to see why that is. A brainy scientific and psychological thriller about a band of scientists trying to “restart” the sun and save what’s left of humanity, it’s one of the best collaborations between Boyle and one of his most frequent collaborators, writer Alex Garland, boasting an excellent ensemble cast (Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Rose Byrne, Michelle Yeoh) and a distinct human element that most sci-fi films overlook in favour of set pieces or endless jargon. It’s also Boyle’s best looking film, too.

Good films to pair it with: Both Tarkovsky and Soderbergh’s versions of Solaris are great space based parings for this one. Those wishing to pick up other underrated Boyle flicks, though, should try out the pleasantly batshit comedy A Life Less Ordinary or the over the top, video game inspired The Beach (which was based on a novel by Garland).

To Live and Die in LA

To Live and Die in L.A. (William Friedkin, 1985)

Available to rent on Blu-Ray or DVD

Perhaps next to or Michael Mann’s Thief or his TV work on Miami Vice, there’s no better example of the 80s crime thriller genre than this little spoken of, but fervently loved effort from 1970s master William Friedkin, who found his footing again quite nicely here after a string of underperforming flops and work for hire gigs. This tale of a secret service agent (William Peterson) on the trail of a ruthless counterfeiter (Willem Dafoe) crackles with the same kind of energy that Friedkin’s award winning The French Connection had in abundance (with a similarly exceptional car chase to match) and the kind of bravado that the best films of the 1980s had. It was a film made with old school showmanship and a modern eye that could tell music videos were the way of the future. Watch it now and marvel at how ahead of the curve Friedkin really was.

Good films to pair it with: The French Connection, obviously. Or if you want some other Friedkin greats, you can grab his Wages of Fear remake Sorcerer (available for free on DVD in this program, but you should buy it outright on Blu-Ray in its gorgeous new transfer) or the more recent and underrated work he did on the Tommy Lee Jones/Benicio Del Toro thriller The Hunted. Aside from those, Mann’s Manhunter would do quite nicely, which also features a great early performance from Petersen.

Wet Hot American Summer 2001

Wet Hot American Summer (David Wain, 2001)

Available on DVD only

Cult comedies don’t get much cult-ier and more hilarious than this gut busting period piece from comedy mastermind David Wain, one of the founders of sketch comedy mavens The State and Stella, and who would go on to make more commercially minded comedies like Role Models and Wanderlust. This 80s summer camp throwback to the days of Meatballs, Hot Dog, Hamburger, and any number of other shitty, entendre filled food named sex comedies of the decade boasts one of the craziest casts ever assembled (yes, that is Christopher Meloni and Bradley Cooper in the same movie acting insane). It also has some of the funniest and most quotable jokes from a fairly dark and uninspired time for comedic cinema. It was an indie, art house success when it first came out and the cult of this one rightfully continues to rise.

Good films to pair it with: MacGruber, Hot Rod, Role Models, or really any halfway decent film from the recent “frat pack” cycle, none of which would even exist without Wain’s efforts here.

You Can Count on Me

You Can Count on Me (Kenneth Lonergan, 2000)

Available on DVD only

One of the very best films of the still young century is also one of only two films made by masterful playwright Kenneth Lonergan. It’s a powerful and unnervingly verite kind of drama played out between two estranged siblings who will never be able to fully understand each other. While trying to cope with being a single mother, Samantha (Laura Linney) now has to deal with the resurfacing of her well meaning, but sketchy and broke brother Terry (Mark Ruffalo). The dynamic between Linney and Ruffalo is one of the best depictions of siblings in the history of cinema, and Lonergan’s screenplay and director are constantly spot on. It garnered a ton of buzz upon its initial limited release, but now it has kind of quieted despite its obvious strengths. If ever there was a film worthy of being reclaimed as an all time classic, it’s this one.

Good films to pair it with: Lonergan’s only other directorial effort, Margaret, showcases more typically strong writing and more great performances from an ensemble cast, but it also sat unfinished from 2007 to 2011 while the filmmaker fought with the studio (Fox Searchlight) over the film’s final cut. It’s a shame because despite that film’s rough edges (and the fact that we might never know even with an available “director’s cut” what the real version of the film should have been) it remains an equally important and viable work. He’s probably unhirable now in the same way Michael Cimino was after coming off of The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate, but watching both films back to back will show that Lonergan’s depictions of family dynamics are unparalleled and original.


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