The question of what to watch while social distancing is ultimately less important than a lot of other things. But it’s also a reality that for a lot of people on self-imposed quarantine, renting or streaming movies will be a safe, significant time-filler—which is why it might be worth taking a bit of a risk in terms of what we’re watching. A case can be made that the time has never been better to rewatch old favorites or catch up with the classics, but what about some movies whose bad reputations previously made them seem like a waste of time? Here are 10 movies that are not only better than you’ve heard, but worth tracking down—and maybe talking or arguing about with your fellow shut-ins now that you’ve got the time to do so.
Exorcist II: The Heretic
For rent on Amazon Prime
After 10 Oscar nominations and record-breaking box office, The Exorcist was easily the most successful and respected horror movie of the 1970s, if not of all time—which is why handing its sequel to somebody who didn’t like it was such a strange fluke. “Millions of people had enjoyed watching a child be tortured [in the original],” said filmmaker John Boorman, no stranger to sadism onscreen after the brutal violence of Point Blank and the nightmarish rape sequences of Deliverance, two hard-edged hits that established the British-born director as a major talent. In 1974, Boorman cashed in the bulk of his industry chips with the bizarre, visionary sci-fi parable Zardoz, a cult-classic-in-waiting whose commercial flop didn’t fully destroy his reputation. That task was accomplished by the reception for his Exorcist sequel, subtitled The Heretic. Boorman’s steadfast refusal to mimic William Friedkin’s gory, mechanical shocks made him the artistic equivalent of a heretic, and Exorcist II was rejected by audiences and critics as a debacle. (A vindictive Friedkin told anyone who would listen that the movie was unwatchable; its fans included Pauline Kael and Martin Scorsese.) It’s definitely easy to laugh at the camp of Richard Burton’s check-cashing performance as Father Lamont, a priest who encounters Linda Blair’s now-late-adolescent Regan in the throes of another potential possession; it’s hard not to miss the sudden jolts and vicious excess of its predecessor. But Boorman’s conviction in making a horror movie preoccupied with goodness—which he claimed Stanley Kubrick had told him at the time was impossible—is palpable. A few sequences are astonishingly beautiful, including the 2001: A Space Odyssey–inspired shots captured from the point of view of a swarm of locusts, and there’s an image of good and evil playing tug of war with a human heart that’s more moving than anything in The Exorcist’s bag of carny tricks.
If not for 1941, Steven Spielberg’s run from Jaws in 1975 to E.T. in 1982 would be regarded as pristine. Spielberg’s overpriced World War II period piece, conceived and written by the comedy team of Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale before they hit paydirt with Back to the Future, was slotted alongside other costly missteps by the Easy Rider/Raging Bull contingent: It was to its director as Heaven’s Gate was to Michael Cimino, or New York, New York was to Martin Scorsese, or Sorcerer was to William Friedkin (or Exorcist II to Boorman). In Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg had displayed a nascent genius for crowd-pleasing, first by giving audiences more ruthless horror than anyone since Hitchcock, and then by mashing up the Bible, Woodstock, and disco in the climax—he has a gift for epic satisfaction. 1941, though, was something at once more modest and complex, a hurtling, relentless, postmodern joke machine sending up cinematic and ideological conventions a lot of viewers simply didn’t think was fit for satire—what’s the point, for example, of making fun of Pearl Harbor? In a way, though, 1941 was ahead of the curve: A year later, Airplane! borrowed its basic template (and opening Jaws joke) to pioneer the parody-comedy subgenre, and with its barrage of verbal, visual, and casting references to a century’s worth of cinema, it’s also a kind of proto-Tarantino meta-movie, teeming with more cameos than any Hollywood production of its era. Even if you don’t like the mugging SNL comedians in the foreground (Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi), look to the margins and find everybody from a young Mickey Rourke to an uncredited James Caan to a bemused Toshiro Mifune, on loan from Akira Kurosawa as a Japanese submarine commander.
Halloween III: Season of the Witch
This is the only one of the franchise to not feature Michael Myers, and it suffers from his absence. But that also happens to be its secret weapon; it’s actually sort of a relief to see a movie under the Halloween brand that doesn’t feature the Shape shuffling slowly down the street. Instead, Tommy Lee Wallace’s black-sheep sequel features a deliciously mid-’80s premise: A toy company manufactures novelty masks that will kill the children who wear them during a specific TV commercial. In other words, it’s a satire of Reagan-era consumerism to put alongside Gremlins and Larry Cohen’s The Stuff, and hints at an interesting, untaken direction for the series (making a bunch of disconnected, stand-alone genre pieces that would each occupy a corner of the “Halloween” universe, a Twilight Zone–style anthology). The metaphor of mass media that kills viewers also makes Halloween III a nice pairing with David Cronenberg’s more serious Videodrome, but the ultimate double bill would be with Room 237 director Rodney Ascher’s insane short The S From Hell (which uses footage from the film to tell a real-life story about haunted broadcasts).
For rent on Amazon Prime
Elaine May’s 1987 action-comedy is one of those movies so universally reviled that it runs the risk of being gradually overrated by critics trying to reclaim it (ditto Showgirls, not that I know anything about that). What’s fascinating in this case is how a movie produced under such abject, antagonistic circumstances—with May and stars Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman reportedly each employing their own teams of editors after a fraught shoot in Morocco—can still hum along with such a precise sense of comic purpose, at least in its early scenes. Watching Hoffman and Beatty burlesque their alpha-male stardom as struggling, borderline idiotic NYC songwriters (with Hoffman counterintuitively cast as the ladies’ man of the pair) is hilarious. May, who is always at her best prodding masculine codes and rituals, nailed the material’s buddy-comedy rhythms. Even if her control is a bit less certain once the plot mutates into Middle Eastern political intrigue, there’s something to be said for its Reagan-era allegory of idiot Americans causing havoc overseas by conflating showbiz with militarism.
Event Horizon, which was rushed into theaters by Paramount to compensate for the delayed release of Titanic, was sold in trailers as “The Shining in space,” which undermines the film’s inventive if not quite singular creepiness. Hot off of making a halfway decent movie out of Mortal Kombat, director Paul W.S. Anderson decided to go for broke in terms of epic sci-fi production design; the abandoned, decaying starship that gives the movie its title is a hulking, cavernous creation to rival anything in Alien. The idea is that the Event Horizon is ground zero for a hole in the space-time continuum, turning it into a kind of interstellar Hellmouth, and the way the movie negotiates the shifts from small-scale ominousness to full-on apocalyptic craziness is impressive. (It’s also got one of the 1990s’ best gore shots, involving Sam Neill, fresh from enduring the end of the world as we know it in In the Mouth of Madness.) Test audiences were put off by the extreme violence and the film was edited for its release against Anderson’s wishes. Not an important film by any means, but a good example of the kind of midsize, original studio thriller that doesn’t get made anymore in an era of “elevated horror.” What’s great about Event Horizon is how it doesn’t ever try to get heavy; as a result, its best scares feel weightless.
There’s no scientific way to prove that Stealth is a knowingly dumb movie, but I have my suspicions based on the screenwriting credit: The guy who wrote it, W.D. Richter, is a hall-of-fame smart aleck whose script for 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a master class in having your scares and your satire at the same time, and he’s also the mind behind Big Trouble in Little China (an all-time B-movie classic) and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (a should-be B-movie classic). If you buy the idea that Richter’s story—about an automated military aircraft named “EDI” whose nice, chill personality gets rewired after a lightning strike turns him into a rogue nuclear weapon—is ridiculous on purpose, then it’s enjoyable stuff. On those terms, it plays like a parody of ’60s Cold War hits like Dr. Strangelove and Fail Safe, filtered through the technophobia of 2001: A Space Odyssey and disguised as a straight-faced, live-action Team America (with Josh Lucas, Jamie Foxx, and Jessica Biel as the flesh-and-blood marionettes). I mean, if I’m wrong and Richter and director Rob Cohen weren’t trying to send up Hollywood high-concept excess, and if the film’s jingoistic xenophobia is on the level, then Stealth is exactly as bad as you’ve heard. Consider, though, that at one point a general played by Sam Shepard talks about the dangers of giving in to temptation while actually eating an apple and you probably have to give it up for Richter’s shtick. “Stealth” isn’t just the title, it’s a comedic strategy.
How Do You Know
For rent on Amazon Prime
One of the great mysteries of film history is how How Do You Know—a comedy-drama aligning Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, and Paul Rudd into a romantic triangle against a Washington, D.C., backdrop—cost $120 million in 2010. Unless costar Jack Nicholson was actually a CGI creation for his scenes as Rudd’s dad, the numbers simply don’t make sense. James L. Brooks’s second millennial attempt to recapture his mid-’80s mojo (after Spanglish) was perceived as a disaster, a designation that doesn’t quite capture its oddness. It’s not so much a bad movie as a massively, genuinely weird one, plunging its three leads into a phenomenally convoluted plot touching on corporate malfeasance with post-bailout undertones—evidence of Brooks’s attempt to make a movie that could be all things to all people but ended up coming apart at the seams. Instead of emanating old-fashioned charm, the stars all seem to be bristling with uncertainty and anxiety, which actually works for Rudd’s role as a put-upon good son. But overall, the tension between Brooks’s screwball ambitions and the slow, heavy, methodical tone of the overproduced movie containing them is oddly, compulsively fascinating.
Like a lot of late Michael Mann—meaning after his mid-’90s critical-commercial peaks of Heat and The Insider—Blackhat has superfans who’d say that simply calling it “better than you think” is insufficient, that its narrative about a super-hacker (Chris Hemsworth) sprung from maximum security to take down a cyberterrorist is no less than an essential allegory for our deeply digitized, dangerously technocratic age. Maybe, maybe not—but the only thing more annoying than seeing such a sleek, stylistically unique thriller elevated into art is watching it be denigrated as a flop because its studio dumped it into an early January release window. Mann has never truly transcended his instincts as a slick, fashion-conscious TV director in some ways—revamping and revitalizing the Cops + Armani aesthetics of Miami Vice across a variety of projects—but he’s got the confidence and daring of a real artist, showing no fear of confusing or alienating his audience through experimentation with formats or elliptical storytelling choices. Then there’s the film’s climax, which builds up to a brutal, one-on-one confrontation while hearkening back to the ending of Apocalypse Now—a grand homage that would be out of place in a less self-consciously ostentatious movie. Mann doesn’t do his brand of designer genre cinema halfway, and Blackhat is no exception.
A Cure for Wellness
Don’t shed any tears for Gore Verbinski, who squandered some of the biggest budgets of the 2010s with the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels and The Lone Ranger without much to show for it. But it still sucks that the epically grotesque A Cure for Wellness failed to connect with audiences. Of course a two-and-a-half-hour horror movie set in Switzerland would underperform at the box office—what’s great is how willingly Verbinski lets the whole thing go down in flames (literally). A Cure for Wellness is a modern variation on Lovecraftian narratives about characters driven mad by their surroundings—in this case an isolated alpine sanitarium whose healing waters are teeming with something mysterious and unhealthy. It luxuriates in the grim predictability of its setup, using genre conventions to its advantage; even though we know exactly what’s going on, the visual and sonic details are exquisitely realized, and the script doesn’t hold back in terms of social or cinematic taboos. In the end, the film goes hard-R, something Verbinski’s Jack Sparrow franchise could never do, and the director seems liberated—or unleashed—by his worst behavior.
For rent on Amazon Prime
I wrote about Brian De Palma’s hot mess of an anti-terrorism thriller when it (barely) came out last year; if Domino was already DOA the second it hit VOD, it’s only been pushed further into the dirt ever since. The reason I’m recommending it again out of all the underrated movies out there is that it’s exactly the kind of film that benefits being watched when there’s time to process and think about it—to look past its thrifty production, evidence of meddling, and after-the-fact editing and look at what De Palma has to say about surveillance, governmental ethics, and violence as media spectacle circa 2020. The paradox of Domino is that on some level it’s a cheap, opportunistic, and wildly contrived genre movie. But it has enough directorial excellence in its DNA to, in some moments, look like a masterpiece, the same kind of outrageous, red-blooded entertainment De Palma was engineering at the time of Carrie and Scarface. Domino was a magnet for bad buzz and bad reviews, and yet it’ll endure on the strength of its bruised, submerged artistry.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.