29 August 2020

Once Again in the Bargain Bin

Since I've been in pandemic mode like everyone else, I'm doing a lot of reading, writing, and movie watching. (As if I wouldn't be doing that in non-pandemic mode.) So, in preparing for today's post, I thought it'd be fun to list a few movies that might've flown underneath your radar. We all know there are plenty of good movies that are well known (and should be) and plenty of bad movies that aren't (and shouldn't be)--but in my experience there aren't many good movies that almost no one has heard of.

I did a SleuthSayers column on this subject several years ago, based on my fondness for browsing those big four-foot-wide tubs in Walmart that contain bargain DVDs. I haven't been rummaging around in there for a while--WallyWorld isn't one of the essentials on my COVID list--but I do remember finding some real jewels in those bins in the past, and have mentioned some at this blog. Consider this an update.

A note of caution. These recommendations are my opinion only. A lot of folks, including my wife, don't agree with me about what's worth watching and what's not, in the cinematic universe.

Another note. These are not just obscure movies that I watched and enjoyed. They're obscure movies that I watched believing I wouldn't enjoy them. So they were all pleasant surprises. I'm hoping they might be to you too.

So . . . here are some outstanding lesser-known movies, with a quick note about each:

Wind River (2017) -- A local tracker joins a female FBI agent to investigate a murder on a Native American reservation. Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Graham Greene.

- From Noon to Three (1976) -- A delightful and unusual western about a bank robber and a mysterious widow. Charles Bronson, Jill Ireland.

- Idiocracy (2006) -- An average guy gets beamed into a dumbed-down future and discovers that he's now the smartest person on Earth. The more I watch the news, the more I'm convinced this could really happen. Luke Wilson, Maya Rudolph, Terry Crews.

- Suburbicon (2017) -- A George-Clooney-directed tale of regular folks involved in quirky crime. Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Oscar Isaac.

- Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007) -- A simple jewelry-store heist takes a wrong turn. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei, Albert Finney.

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018) -- Murder and mayhem at a motel on the California/Nevada border. Jeff Bridges, John Hamm, Dakota Johnson.

The Gypsy Moths (1969) -- A skydiving team puts on a show in a midwestern town. Burt Lancaster, Gene Hackman, Deborah Kerr, Scott Wilson.

- The Spanish Prisoner (1997) -- A mystery with Steve Martin in a serious role. And it works. Campbell Scott, Rebecca Pidgeon, Steve Martin, Ben Gazzara.

- An Unfinished Life (2005) -- Love and drama in present-day Wyoming. Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman, Jennifer Lopez, Josh Lucas.

A History of Violence (2005) -- An entertaining (and yes, violent) look at current and retired/relocated gangsters. Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ed Harris, William Hurt.

- Lockout (2012) -- One of only a few science-fiction movies in this list. Sort of an Escape from New York in outer space. Guy Pearce, Maggie Grace, Peter Stormare.

- Magic (1978) -- A chilling adaptation of the William Goldman novel. I bet I've watched this a dozen times. Anthony Hopkins, Ann-Margret, Burgess Meredith, Ed Lauter.

- Motherless Brooklyn (2019) -- A complicated police drama featuring a detective with Tourette's syndrome. Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe.

- Bubba Ho-Tep (2002) -- Not only is Elvis alive, he's a resident of a haunted nursing home. Bruce Campbell, Ossie Davis.

In Bruges (2008) -- One of the quirkiest movies ever made, involving disillusioned Irish hitmen. Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Ralph Fiennes.

No Escape (2015) -- An American family is caught in the middle of a third-world coup. Pierce Brosnan, Lake Bell, and (in a dramatic role) Owen Wilson.

The Last Sunset (1961) -- An old western with a lot of heart, and several good plot twists. Rock Hudson, Kirk Douglas, Carol Lynley, Joseph Cotten.

- A Family Thing (1996) -- A southern bigot discovers that he has an African American brother. Robert Duvall, James Earl Jones.

- Leap of Faith (1992) -- The adventures of a traveling evangelist in Kansas during a drought. Steve Martin, Debra Winger, Liam Neeson.

And my absolute favorites:

- The Dish (2000) -- An Australian satellite-tracking station takes center stage during the Apollo 11 mission. Sam Neill, Patrick Warburton, Roy Billing.

- Galaxy Quest (1999) -- A science-fiction comedy that is (trust me) endlessly re-watchable. Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Sam Rockwell, Alan Rickman.

- Rustler's Rhapsody (1985) -- The updated adventures of a 1940s TV-western hero and his sidekick. Tom Courtenay, G.W. Bailey, Andy Griffith, Sela Ward.

Medicine Man (1992) -- A doctor searches for a cancer cure in the Amazonian rainforest. Sean Connery and a pre-Sopranos Lorraine Bracco.

Again, your mileage will vary--but if you find yourself desperate for something to stream or put in your Netflix queue, consider giving one of these a try.

Do you have any barely-known, hiding-in-plain-sight favorites? Let me know what you think.

I'll be back next Saturday with a post about (of all things) writing.


  1. I love-to-like 7 of your movies: Galaxy Quest, In Bruges, Spanish Prisoner, Wind River, History of Violence, Before the Devil, and The Dish, approximately in that order of preference. I can't tell you how many times I have urged someone to watch Galaxy Quest, and had them roll up their eyes at a description of the plot, only to thank me after they watched it.

    Some other obscurities I love: Lucky Number Slevin, That Sinking Feeling, Crossing Delancey, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Sexy Beast, Frozen River, and The Lookout.

  2. I'm with you on some of your choices, but would probably agree with your wife on others, John. But one that you mention in particular strikes a chord: From Until Three. When I met my wife we'd both seen it independently but liking it was one of the things we had in common to start with. I'll add some other choices that I've probably mentioned before: Reuben Reuben, After Hours, They Might Be Giants, Americana. Ah, I could go on forever.

  3. Oh, and one more I have to mention, Matinee with John Goodman.

  4. IN BRUGES, oh, yes. GALAXY QUEST and MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN. Can watch them again and again.

  5. Yes, MATINEE definitely. (It especially resonates during current times.)

    Let me add RAT RACE, which some (not I) think an undistinguished film, but the scene in the Barbie Museum is worth it.

  6. Rob, I probably need to stop referring to Galaxy Quest as a "lesser-known movie," because (as you said), I've heard SO many people say they were told to watch it, by fans like you and me, and loved it. When I can see a movie that many times and still laugh every time . . . enough said.

    The only one of your other obscurities that I haven't seen is That Sinking Feeling . . . but I promise I will.

  7. Paul, From Noon to Three is a gem, for sure. How could anyone not love that movie? I especially like the ending, but I'm crazy about the whole story, start to finish. Of the extras you mentioned, I have not seen Americana.

    O'Neil, Motherless Brooklyn took me completely by surprise. What a fantastic movie, and I'd never heard a word of publicity about it at the time I watched it.

    Jerry (and Paul), I have not yet seen Matinee (!!). Another one that's now in my queue. These recommendations mentioned in the comments are one reason I love posting about movies. Thanks!

  8. John, do see That Sinking Feeling. It was the first movie directed by Bill Forsyth, who was known as "the Scottish film industry" for awhile, because he was it. Stars a bunch of unknown and pretty amateurish actors (one of whom keeps sneaking peeks at the camera). But it is hilarious. A bunch of unemployed young Glasgow men decide to commit one big crime and get rich. The crime? Rob a warehouse full of kitchen sinks.

  9. Rob, it appears TSF isn't available via Netflix (either streaming or by mail) or Amazon Prime at the moment, but that sometimes changes. One way or another, I'll find a way to watch it. Thanks!

  10. MAGIC is a long-time favorite of mine, John, although I did like the book better than the movie (because it keeps secret a big reveal that the movie has to let its audience in on much sooner) and the movie better than the book (because Ann-Margret and a young Anthony Hopkins).

    Other lesser-known favorites of mine: MINDWALK (brilliant conversation about quantum physics against the spectacular backdrop of Mont Ste. Michel), MEETINGS WITH REMARKABLE MEN (gorgeous cinematography and two stunning scenes involving music), QUINTET (Robert Altman and Paul Newman make an intellectual science-fiction film set in a post-apocalyptic ice age), ZARDOZ (campy, but Sean Connery in a thoughtful John Boorman science-fictional future), ALEGRIA (Cirque du Soleil's one and only *story* film), YES NURSE NO NURSE (a subtitled Dutch-language take on a Hollywood musical that's absolutely delightful), THE DINNER GAME (the French original is screamingly funny; poorly remade as DINNER FOR SCHMUCKS). So many great films, so little time....

    1. Hey Josh! I too loved Magic as a novel. I liked almost all Goldman's books (fic and nonfic), but Magic is my favorite. (By the way, it's a wonderful example of how a prologue can be used to great effect--funny the things you remember, about novels.) Every time I watch Magic I have to remind myself who Corky is--was Anthony Hopkins ever really that young? And I love the setting of the last half of that movie.

      Thanks for the many suggestions! The ONLY ones of those I've seen is Zardoz (which I've heard described as James Bond in a diaper). And I'm pleased to find out about The Dinner Game because I did NOT like its remake (D F Schmucks). I now plan to watch that one and all five of the other discoveries you listed. Many thanks!

  11. I love Bubba-Ho-Tep, An Unfinished Life, Leap of Faith, and Galaxy Quest.
    I highly recommend Faded Gigolo (John Turturro, Vanessa Paradis, & Woody Allen (acting, not writing or directing), The Secret of Roan Inish, Running on Empty (River Phoenix), The Mosquito Coast (Harrison Ford, Helen Mirren & River Phoenix).

  12. Bubba Ho-Tep is one of a kind, isn't it, Eve? I've met Joe Lansdale several times, and he said writing that was great fun. And I liked all the other movies you mentioned as well, especially Roan Inish (another one-of-a-kinder) and The Mosquito Coast.

    Thanks for the comment!

  13. My favorite of the movies you listed, even above Galaxy Quest, is Idiocracy. Another of the funniest movies I've ever seen is The Road to Wellville, starring Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Kellogg. I doubt you'd spot that one in the bargain bin at Wally World, or another favorite, the original Gone in 60 Seconds. The remake is just O.K. I wonder why people bother to remake movies that were already great the first time. ?

  14. Elizabeth, I guess all those remakes are efforts to cash in on the success of the originals, but most of them fail in every way. Some remakes that I thought were better were True Grit, The Last of the Mohicans, and The Thing, but I guess that's a whole different discussion.

    I liked Gone in 60 Seconds a lot, but I'm not sure it's obscure. The Road to Wellville sure is, though, and I loved that one too! And I have indeed seen it in Walmart's big bargain tubs. As for Idiocracy, it--like Galaxy Quest--is one I love to tell friends about because it's so obscure and yet so hilarious. Just the premise of that movie is funny, and almost spooky, when you think of it, because I think it's possible that Americans in the not-too-distant future might actually resemble those shown in the movie (!).

  15. I remember when "Magic" came out. Remember those tv commercials? ("Abracadabra, I sit on his knee...") They scared the bejabbers out of my best friend's younger sisters! Nice to hear you met Joe Landsdale and what he said about "Bubba Ho Tep." I'll recommend "American Flyers," which got played all over cable in the 80s after Kevin Costner became a big star. (Oh, and contrary to its IMDB entry, "Robert Townsend" is not the famous comedian/actor but a talented kid who did a few other things, then became a school principal!

  16. Jeff, I remember reading the novel Magic and then seeing the movie, and I loved both. The movie's often billed as "horror," though it's not supernatural--I think some of the scariest movies are those that feature insane people rather than monsters.

    As for Joe Lansdale, he told me his favorite of his own novels is Paradise Sky. I liked that one, but I think my favorites are The Thicket, The Bottoms, and Edge of Dark Water. I've heard The Thicket will soon be a movie with Peter Dinklage.

    Thanks for the recommendations! I've seen Am. Flyer but not Robert Townsend.


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