Underrated, overlooked, and misunderstood movies

Holy Smoke (coming 2/1)

★★★★☆

After a huge hit with The Piano (1993), as well as several other critical successes, New Zealand filmmaker Jane Campion hit a snag and couldn’t seem to please anyone anymore. Her 1999 sexual psychodrama Holy Smoke (1999) seemed to be both funny and serious, and was very frank about sex and sexuality. It was probably too hard to define and left too many viewers uncomfortable. Kate Winslet plays a young woman who jumps feet-first into a new religion, causing her mother to hire a special de-programmer (Harvey Keitel) to bring her back to normal. After several days in the desert—with some dazzlingly colorful, fuzzy, dreamy, cinematography—the balance of power shifts. Campion masterfully uses this elusive tone to more firmly capture the movie’s themes.

In the Cut (coming 2/1)

★★★★☆

If Holy Smoke had any fans at all, they all jumped ship when it came time for Campion’s follow-up film, In the Cut (2003). On the surface, it’s a murder mystery that brings together a lost, dissatisfied schoolteacher (Meg Ryan, in an atypical and brilliant performance), and a New York City police detective (Mark Ruffalo). Campion uses the murder story only as a way to underline the dark, sexual tension in the story, rather than for suspense; viewers were probably disappointed that the mystery is not wrapped up in a neat bow. As usual, Campion conjures up dreamy, poetic images to make the characters’ worlds less concrete and more emotional. Nicole Kidman was originally set to play the lead role, and remained on board as a producer.

eXistenZ (coming 2/1)

★★★★☆

Canadian director David Cronenberg had been slowly and successfully shifting his career from drive-in horror to more ambitious, artistic endeavors when he had a sudden flashback, the pure sci-fi exercise called eXistenZ (1999). Brilliant as it is, it left old fans and new fans alike fairly baffled. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays a famous video game designer who coaxes a hapless Jude Law into helping her test her new game after it’s damaged in an attack. The catch: it plus directly into your spine. Regardless of whether he’s being serious or gory, Cronenberg has always had a fascinating predilection with the human body and the ways in which we, as humans, relate to it.

The Hunted (coming 2/1)

★★★★☆

In the early 1970s, William Friedkin was one of the biggest film directors anyone had ever seen, with the Oscar-winning The French Connection (1971) and the box office smash The Exorcist (1973). Having failed to sustain that track record—how could anyone?—Friedkin’s career became a great deal more low-key, and even an intelligent, pulsing thriller like The Hunted (2003) tended to pass by mostly unnoticed. Benicio Del Toro plays a Special Forces killer gone on a rampage, and Tommy Lee Jones is his former trainer, brought in to find him. Friedkin clearly grasps this material on both a technical level and an emotional one and, similarities to The Fugitive aside, delivers a solid entertainment.

Stardust Memories (coming 2/1)

★★★☆☆

After his groundbreaking films Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979), Woody Allen continued to explore and deepen his repertoire with Stardust Memories (1980), though, judging by the film’s reception, it’s clear that viewers weren’t ready for this kind of exploration. Taking a cue from Fellini’s 8 ½, the striking, black-and-white movie features Allen as a successful filmmaker. At a film festival, he must navigate an onslaught of negative reactions to his latest work (his “earlier, funnier” movies were better), as well as a series of complex relationships with the women in his life. Sharon Stone makes her movie debut as a “fantasy girl,” who blows Allen a kiss from a train window.

The Gift (coming 2/1)

★★★☆☆

Kinetic goofball director Sam Raimi seemed to be trying to figure out which way to go after his amazing cult classic Evil Dead trilogy; he tried a Western, a serious psychological thriller, and a baseball movie, in addition to this supernatural murder mystery. Co-written by actor Billy Bob Thornton, The Gift (2000) isn’t among Raimi’s best, but it has many striking, spooky moments and a great cast: Cate Blanchett, Katie Holmes, Giovanni Ribisi, Greg Kinnear, Hilary Swank, and especially Keanu Reeves at his frightening best as a sinister, swamp-dwelling redneck. Cast members Rosemary Harris and J.K. Simmons stayed on with Raimi for his next movie, the blockbuster Spider-Man.

Hamlet (coming 2/1)

★★★★☆

Though the work of William Shakespeare certainly invites open interpretation, many resisted Michael Almereyda’s modern-day movie adaptation of Hamlet (2000), with Ethan Hawke as the brooding Dane in New York. (Denmark is now the name of a corporation, and “kings” are now “CEOs.”) It makes brilliant use of steel and glass, lights and monitors, to bring the play’s emotions to the forefront. Hawke—who was reportedly the first under-30 Hamlet ever filmed—is terrific, and so is Diane Venora as Hamlet’s mom. Be on the lookout for humorous standouts Bill Murray as Polonius and Steve Zahn as Rosencrantz.

Love’s Labour’s Lost (coming 2/1)

★★★★☆

Kenneth Branagh brought renewed vigor to Shakespeare in his muscular, passionate film versions of Henry V (1989) and Hamlet (1996), but baffled viewers with Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000), a musical edition of one of the Bard’s lesser-known plays. In the story, three scholars vow not to let women interfere with their studies, but it’s not long before three beauties come along to upset these simple plans. Branagh chooses classic showtunes by Gershwin, Porter, Kern, and Berlin to flesh out the singing and dancing numbers, and the film blossoms with unbridled joy, even if it’s old-fashioned to a fault. Stanley Donen and Martin Scorsese were “presenters.”

Committed (coming 2/1)

★★★☆☆

Heather Graham (top) stars in the highly unusual, offbeat, smart romantic comedy Committed (2000). She plays Joline, a New Yorker with ratty hair and red leather pants who works in a nightclub and is about to marry the man of her dreams, Carl (Luke Wilson). Unfortunately, Carl—a food photographer that dreams of taking pictures of real news—decides to run off to Texas to find some space. The highly spiritual Joline follows him there to “protect” him, and meets a band of quirky people that help set things right again. Casey Affleck, Goran Visnjic, Patricia Velasquez, Alfonso Arau, and Mark Ruffalo co-star. Oddly, writer/director Lisa Krueger seemed to simply disappear from moviemaking after this one.

Next Stop Wonderland (coming 2/1)

★★★★☆

Though director Brad Anderson went on to make several good genre films (Session 9, The Machinist, Transsiberian, and so on), he made his first splash with Next Stop Wonderland (1998), another refreshing alternative romantic comedy that makes mainstream efforts look lazy. Erin (Hope Davis) and Alan (Alan Gelfant) are two Bostonians destined to meet, but are kept tantalizingly apart. Meanwhile, they are tempted by new lovers, both of whom are appealing in their own way, but just not quite right. Anderson makes terrific, down-to-earth use of Boston locations like the Blueline and the aquarium. Philip Seymour Hoffman appears in an early, potent role as Erin’s ex.

What’s new

  • Bad Boys (2/1)
  • The Best of Youth (2/1)
  • Breakdown (2/1)
  • Dr. Suess’ The Lorax
  • Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (2/1)
  • Gentleman’s Agreement (2/1)
  • Get Bruce! (2/1)
  • The Glass Shield (2/1)
  • God Said, ’Ha!’ (2/1)
  • Guinevere (2/1)
  • Happy Gilmore (2/1)
  • Kissing Jessica Stein (2/1)
  • Liar Liar (2/1)
  • Love Story (2/1)
  • Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol
  • Nacho Libre (2/1)
  • The Naked Gun (2/1)
  • Naked Gun 2 ½: The Smell of Fear (2/1)
  • Naked Gun 33 ⅓: The Final Insult (2/1)
  • Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2/1)
  • Ordinary People (2/1)
  • Quills (2/1)
  • Scrooged (2/1)
  • The Sea Inside (2/1)
  • Shaolin Soccer (2/1)
  • Species (2/1)
  • Terms of Endearment (2/1)
  • Top Gun (2/1)
  • Trading Places (2/1)
  • Tremors (2/1)

Expiring soon

  • A/k/a Tommy Chong (1/25)
  • Anton Chekhov’s The Duel (1/20)
  • Enter the Void (1/25)
  • Son of Frankenstein (2/1)
  • Winter’s Bone (1/26)

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