Gather ‘round the campfire, children, your Uncle Ryan has a story of terror to tell.
Way back in “aught 6,” Omaha didn’t have a way to watch some of the best movies in the world. It’s true! Why, before ole Film Streams came along, we were at the mercy of pirates and thieves to see some of the most acclaimed films! This is before your fancy Netflixes and new-fangled Amazon Primes and “The Hulu.” “On Demand” was basically little more than a warehouse of dirty movies!
Remembering the olden days done got me thinking about movies people may have missed. So I give to you some of my favorite movies you might have never before seen!
Kicking and Screaming (1995)
No, not the Will Ferrell one. To be fair, the title does seem more applicable to a goofy movie about soccer and not a nuanced comedy about post-college-graduation ennui. Writer/director Noah Baumbach’s film may be the single most quotable movie of all time. That’s not an exaggeration or hyperbole. To this day, the film’s dialogue is practically a language unto itself my friends and I speak. “Go away, cookie man!” or “He’d already rather be bowhunting” are phrases that will still put a smile on our faces.
The film is lithe and slight, but in the best ways. Grover (Josh Hamilton), Max (Chris Eigeman), Otis (Carlos Jacott) and Skippy (Jason Wiles) are recent college graduates asking the important questions about life: “How does work? Do we have to start paying our loans back, like, tomorrow?” The core of the movie is the relationship between Grover and Jane (Olivia D’Abo). It’s that universally heartbreaking romance, the one where the two clearly love one another but the transition into the real-world from the protected life of university threatens to destroy them.
It holds up! I know the 20 year passage of time has rendered their grungy style and floppy hairdos hilarious, but the content is timeless and the comedy absolutely brilliant. Easily one of my favorite films of all time and a movie few have ever even heard about.
There cannot, will not, be a better time travel movie ever made. Period. Writer/director Shane Carruth’s meticulously thought out indie is absolutely bulletproof in its logic. There is a single scene in this movie that may just be the best I’ve ever seen. When Abe (David Sullivan) is ready to show Aaron (Carruth) that what they’ve built in their garage isn’t just some humming mechanical curiosity but the most significant invention in human history, he does so in one of the most simple, jaw-dropping scenes. As Abe reminds his friend that he cares for him and would never manipulate or trick him, Aaron sees something that blows his mind and changes everything.
Primer is dense, sure. The first dozen times I watched it, I feel like I would unlock some new piece that not only helped the film make more linear sense but would give it more emotional heft. That’s impossibly good filmmaking. The subplots and time travel tricks require as meticulous viewing as Carruth’s meticulous writing. It is work in a sense, but only in the most blissful sense of the word. Science fiction is often disparaged and thought of only as fodder for big budget blockbusters. Carruth showed that to be a myth, as his work is as moving and artful as it is blisteringly smart. What’s amazing is, after a ridiculously painful layoff of almost a decade, Carruth would do it again.
Upstream Color (2013)
For an agonizing 9 years, it appeared as though Primer would be a singular work of genius from an artist who disappeared into a maze of his own thoughts. For a half decade, fans of Carruth were promised A Topiary. We knew nothing about it, other than that it was coming. Which it didn’t. In fact, there’s a scene in Upstream Color early on where Kris (Amy Seimetz) appears to be editing some footage on her computer; the footage is all we’ll ever see of what Carruth shot for A Topiary.
The wait for A Topiary was excruciating, but Upstream Color exploded on to the scene blisteringly fast. No sooner than I heard the film’s name for the first time, a trailer followed and the film dropped weeks later. That unexplained sound you heard in the fall of 2013 was my heart pounding. Upstream Color wasn’t just as good as Primer; I actually think it is better. Employing the same artistic science fiction approach, Carruth uses fantastic elements to tell a haunting, lyrical love story.
Kris and Jeff (Carruth) are both victims of a manipulative thief (Thiago Martins) who uses a substance to essentially hypnotize them and bend them to his will. It is mental rape. That’s not callous word choice. Upstream Color, particularly in terms of Kris’s story, is a tale of violation and redemption, asking how a person puts their life back together after having lost a part of themselves to someone’s evil. The couple are drawn together because they hurt in a way only people who have experienced the exact same kind of trauma can understand. Their union is stunningly emotional.
There’s so much more here, but you should just see it if you haven’t. Whereas Primer was a treat primarily for the brain, Upstream Color is also gorgeous to watch. Without seemingly having been practicing, the jump Carruth made on a visual level in his decade “off” is palpable. He’s one of those reclusive writer/directors whose next project may never come. If it doesn’t, his two-movie filmography stands toe to toe with the best.
Sound of My Voice (2011)
Considered to be in the same genre as Carruth’s works, let’s call it “arthouse sci-fi,” there’s actually a fairly decent chance nothing of a sci-fi nature is actually at work in Sound of My Voice. It could all be a movie about a delusional or manipulative con woman who has created a cult. That woman, Maggie, is played by Brit Marling (who also cowrote the film), one of my personal favorite human beings on this planet. The role necessitated that you find her so compelling as to willingly suspend disbelief about her story. If Brit Marling told me she was from the future, as Maggie tells her followers, I would believe her and follow her anywhere.
Maggie’s whole story is that she has come back to train a group to survive the future’s challenges. This doesn’t sit well with Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius), two documentarians who aim to expose Maggie as a liar. Except, as they descend undercover into the cult’s clutches, they find themselves confused and entrance. You will too. Writer/director Zal Batmanglij gives hints and clues about the “truth,” but the puzzle is yours to solve. In interviews, Batmanglij and Marling have suggested this is actually the first part of a series. I will forever wait for more. Oh, and the pair have a Netflix show that debuts soon. Don’t miss it.
Spring Breakers (2012)
Each year, for my birthday party, I host an event where I invite friends over to watch the best movies from the previous year and cook food for them based on the movie themes. When I told folks we’d be watching Spring Breakers, they looked at me like I had lost my mind. I didn’t blame them. Writer/director Harmony Korine’s most memorable creation to me was a scene in Gummo were someone ate spaghetti while bathing in a dirty tub. He made a movie called Trash Humpers. He was a joke to me.
Holy shit was I wrong. Spring Breakers is a stunning indictment of modern hedonism and the exploitation of women’s bodies. Slyly using former Disney tween and teen stars, Korine basically keeps asking “how far is too far,” pushing the women into ever more vile territory. But then the switch happens. The women fall in with Alien (James Franco), more on him in a minute. Alien is a grille-wearing gangsta who takes the women from bad to dangerous. Gone are the drug-fueled parties, in are machine-gun-toting, face-smashing criminal activities. There’s a scene where two of the women take a gun, point it at Alien and yell “suck my dick.” It’s a deliriously genius commentary on rape culture. Oh, and you would be hard pressed to find a more visually stunning film, with its neon colors and sense-overloading editing.
But back to Alien. A riff on Riff Raff, a notorious white rapper, Franco’s performance almost makes Franco’s existence worth it. He devours every scene, committing deeply to a character that should have been a one-note joke. It’s an all-time, hang-his-jersey-from-the-rafters performance for me. At that party I mentioned, we’d actually stop the film and talk about what it was saying while watching it. By the end, everyone agreed that it was genius, even if they didn’t necessarily enjoy the shit out of it. I did though. I do, actually, as I continue to come back to it over and over again.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013)
Writer/director David Lowery’s tragic outlaw romance is gorgeous, first and foremost. It’s hard to show rural America and fields of amber waves in a way that hasn’t been shown before, but Lowery manages. Somehow, he makes those places look both inviting and haunted, realistic and impossible. The story here is little more than “a good, bad love.” That is to say that Bob (Casey Affleck) is a no-good desperado, a rambling man and thief who gets Ruth (Rooney Mara) in bad situations. But he loves her so much, so deep, and she him. It’s true love. But it’s the kind of true love that kills.
The crux of the movie is Bob on the run after escaping prison. He was actually serving time for something Ruth did, which likely only made her love him more. The problem is, Ruth was pregnant when Bob went away. She’s now a single mother. And while she would love nothing more than to run off into the sunset with her outlaw love, that’s no way to raise a child. So begins a series of gut-wrenching decisions and exchanges, as Ruth runs away from the man she wants to run to, knowing that if he finds her, only bad things will happen.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is the type of movie that doesn’t get made often. It’s an impressionist painting of a tragedy, a western-tinted parable of bad love. Affleck’s tiny, weird presence is somehow magnificent and powerful. Mara is luminous and so, so very sad. If you haven’t picked up on it, this isn’t the most uplifting of tales. And yet, I keep returning to it because it is that damn good.
Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
Writer/director Benh Zeitlin’s movie is my favorite. That’s right. I’ve been a critic for more than 13 years now. Used to be when I was asked “what’s your favorite movie?” I’d either dance around the question or answer with the best film I’d seen recently. It’s hard for anybody to pick a favorite movie, but when you get paid to talk about movies, you absolutely will be judged for your answer. I invite any criticism or judgment on this one, because I will defend its perfection until I die.
Beasts is a story about everything: Your place in the world, losing people you love, becoming the person you will be for the rest of your life, the beauty of the earth, our responsibility to our planet, social inequality, racial equality, tolerance, gender roles, love, death and on and on. The actual plot is simple: Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) is a young girl living with her father in a shanty town called “The Bathtub,” which is clearly someplace in the swamps and woods near New Orleans. Her daddy, Wink (Dwight Henry), is sick. Her mom ran off and left them years back. Now, floods are coming that threaten to wipe out the Bathtub, just as Wink is dying.
The music by Dan Romer and Zeitlin is my all-time favorite score. I still spin it whenever I need to feel moved and motivated. Wallis gave a performance so impossibly good, she was nominated as best actress at 6. And she deserved it. Hell, she deserved to win the performance was so good! There isn’t a wasted scene or line of dialogue, not one imperfect moment the entire time. The movie feels like a miracle to me still. It kind of was, with Wallis anchoring the thing at 6 and Henry not even being a professional actor. Zeitlin found him on the street.
I love Beasts of the Southern Wild with all my stupid cinephile heart. The day may come when another film takes its crown and unseats it as my favorite. I just can’t imagine what could ever do that.