Bored at home?
Looking for something to watch, but tired of cycling through the same Netflix options?
For those of you who have already burned through your queue, it's time to start looking for rentals, a nearly extinct concept in 2020.
Fear not, because there are plenty of exceptional films out there that are not on popular streaming services. This article is meant to dig into a few good choices that you might not have already thought of.
Explore these overlooked gems today, then go visit your local video rental store (once they reopen, of course)!
Directed by Spike Lee (1992)
When the end credits begin to roll, viewers will be shocked at the conciseness of this almost 3-1/2 hour movie. So much is left out in the open when Malcolm X (played spot-on by Denzel Washington) gets assassinated, you feel ready for more details to be filled in. Lee aims to keep us laser-focused on Malcolm X, balancing a film that feels full but not overstuffed, brief but not insignificant, and informative but not dry.
This is not from ineffective writing, mind you; Spike Lee’s co-written script efficiently details the events and inner machinations of Malcolm’s life.
He develops Malcolm X’s biopic to work less as a dramatic documentary and more so as a jumping-off point towards understanding the man behind the legend. The mythos and grandiosity surrounding the events of the film boil down to the life experiences of this one man, whose vital yet imperfect messages still resonated strongly in the 90s, as they do today.
Rather than focusing on a particular period of its subject’s life, Malcolm X covers each significant passage in his upbringing and rise to fame in the American Islamic community. Though the equal representation of his youth and conversion makes for a long running-time, each segment builds a full picture of Malcolm Little, not afraid to shy away from the violence he experienced as a young man or the threatening presence of the Nation of Islam towards his family.
Shifting from a young man to a criminal, and from criminal to activist, we can see why his martyr image lives on, and, more uniquely, why he would hold to his ideals in the face of corruption from his former teachers.
Through this depiction, we do not fully understand this moment in history without diving into the further context or his autobiography; instead, Spike Lee seizes the opportunity to probe the mind of his subject.
Lee connects the events of past to present, mirroring the contrasting qualities to display the man’s complexities – the blindness of his criminal life with the clarity of his conversion, the escape from his African roots with his staunch stance against white “devils,” and the violence towards his morally righteous father with the violence toward himself. Lee explores how someone in his position could support his radical beliefs, and why he would become disillusioned when his beloved teacher, Elijah Muhammed, became more hypocritical.
Ultimately, Malcolm X does not contain everything necessary to absorb the importance of Malcolm X. But Lee’s intent to stay as holistic and accurate as possible makes for one of the best biographical films ever made. Many filmmakers have since tried to claim one moment as the defining element in a famous figure’s life, while Spike Lee says that Malcolm X is all of his life’s moments and more.
Directed by Atom Egoyan (1997)
The one shining star of Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, this drama film is one for those who need a good cry. For those who were around to remember the famous 1989 Alton, Texas bus crash, this film tells a similar story of a tragedy that shakes an entire small town.
While the whole town grieves, a city lawyer fuels the fire for a class-action lawsuit, convincing some parents that it will give them closure while others find his outside presence damaging to the small community’s healing.
More than anything, this proves the art found in adaptation, as Egoyan lays out a non-linear narrative to capture the character of each individual. Rather than using the accident to control the viewer’s emotions, we see the heartbreaking weight of tragedy on the parents and community that have to live on despite losing the only things that mattered to them. The parents act with an exceptional range of emotion – Bruce Greenwood’s character notably demonstrates the need to move on with what you have, even after witnessing losing his two kids in the crash.
Egoyan adds many twists to the real-life event and the Russell Banks novel of the same name. The first and most notable change is setting the film in rural British Columbia, taking away the upstate New York setting of the novel to something more akin to the southern Texas desert. The barren landscape of this location is as central to the film as any character, showing the physical and metaphorical hurdles overcome to hold together after the devastation.
Without spoiling anything, the “sweet hereafter” represents the atmosphere left by the disaster – coping, moving on, or breaking off that each individual does to relieve themselves from grief-stricken lives. Pain that lives on ever-present in each person’s life comes across to the characters and the viewers alike. For the lawyer Mitchell Stephens (played expertly by Ian Holm), that pain comes from his delinquent drug-abusing daughter, who haunts his time dealing with the small town and motivates his relationship with tragedy and the desperate need to blame its cause.
Both subtle and thought-provoking in its approach, The Sweet Hereafter is a uniquely nuanced look at grief and tragedy. Every character and situation is intricately woven together by Egoyan’s masterful script and direction, like a complex puzzle that falls perfectly into place. The film remains one of few tearjerkers of the last 30 years that truly earns every tear it inspires.
Directed by Wes Anderson (1998)
After revisiting the filmography of writer/director Wes Anderson, his second feature Rushmore still stands out after over two decades of cult fandom. Defining “quirky” film for every following indie filmmaker, Rushmore marked the full encapsulation of Anderson’s now-signature style, one that he would continue to perfect and streamline despite never topping his original masterpiece.
The film validates a universal interpretation of adolescent life while simultaneously existing in a world all its own, succeed on many artistic levels and appealing to every kind of viewer.
No one thing makes Rushmore great – its most admirable feature is combining many notable facets into a seamless, cohesive final product. The cast is the first of these noticeable aspects, headed by a film debut from Jason Schwartzman (now a respectable actor, then just known as “Talia Shire’s son”). Billy Murray also makes his first Anderson film impression of many, apparently attracted by the impressive script even though it was far under his usual budget for appearances.
Schwartzman’s performance of Max Fischer defines the word “eccentric,” but his character lusts after an older woman in a manner that every pubescent boy has experienced. His love never feels inappropriate or even realistic, striking a balance in the happy medium between fantasy and reality. His sweet affection subtly hints at what would be extremely problematic in real life, barely giving the film an “R” rating despite its universal charms.
As typical for Anderson, the script (co-written by Owen Wilson) is delivered straight but with earnest emotion, allowing many playful yet heartfelt allusions to film history. His characters and settings are pulled straight from the 60s and 70s as Fischer carefully stages Serpico and Apocalypse Now-esque plays for his school. To this atmosphere, Anderson adds borrowed film techniques like widescreen staging, quick-timed edits, and camera panning, all combined in such a sincere fashion it’s like he invented them.
Rushmore has stood the test of time as one of the most extraordinary cult favorites of the last 30 years. Many super-fans of Anderson include his first film, Bottle Rocket, and The Darjeeling Limited on the list as well, but it's hard to deny the influence of this triumphant film. With another Wes Anderson film hopefully releasing later this year, his legacy continues to build off of this first success as he toys with modern stories that only he can tell.
Happy watching! Stay safe and well, everyone!