For every movie that enjoys wild success and endless acclaim, countless others simply fade away, never delivering on the high hopes filmmakers have for their work. Many movies, maybe even most, deserve to be forgotten. But a select few deserve better. Whether because of bad timing, halfhearted marketing, or just being ahead of their time, some amazing movies go largely unnoticed. For too long have the films on this list languished in the shadows. That’s why I’m excited to shine a light on some of the best movies you’ve never seen. Before we get started, some clarification is in order. To earn a spot on the list, it’s not enough to perform poorly at the box office. Blade Runner wasn’t a commercial success, but it’s cult classic status is undeniable. The best movies you’ve never seen are the lovable losers that aren’t cult classics… yet.
In a fairly obvious allegory for race relations in 1980s America, Enemy Mine is another example of that decade’s penchant for forcing opposites to attract, particularly black and white opposites (48 Hrs., Lethal Weapon, Diff’rent Strokes, Trading Places, you get the idea). Set in a future where humans are at war with aliens called Dracs, the plot centers on a human and a Drac stranded on a desolate, inhospitable planet foreign to both. There is a surprising sweetness to this story that probably reflects strong performances by Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett, Jr., who was unrecognizable under heavy makeup, more than anything else. Even amid scenes of conflict between these sworn enemies, the absurdity of their dilemma and the depth of misunderstanding between them buoys their dark situation with humor. This movie bombed badly at the box office in 1985, but later achieved some measure of cult following, so it’s place on this list isn’t as secure as others.
I first watched Enemy Mine as a kid, so I’m not sure how well it holds up for audiences watching for the first time, but I’d argue it’s not necessarily because of the movie’s shortcomings. Depictions of race in the ’80s were shockingly simplistic by 2017 standards. Ridiculous suggestions that we’re in a post-racial era in America point to a complicated range of attitudes and a frustrating inability to find mutual understanding. Within such a complicated context, the simplicity of Enemy Mine‘s allegory is unlikely to resonate as it might have 20 or 30 years ago. Still, there’s no harm in occasionally reminding ourselves that we’re more alike than different, even if our differences at times seem intractable.
Three O’Clock High
In the hierarchy of ’80s movies about teen life in America, Three O’Clock High ranks tragically low. Comparisons against John Hughes masterpieces of teenage angst are as inevitable as they are daunting for other entries in the genre. Released in 1987, this mostly forgotten movie follows a bookish high school student as he desperately tries to avoid an after-school fist fight with a new student whose violent reputation is well established. Just picture 2017’s Fist Fight starring Charlie Day and Ice Cube, but with a more plausible premise. Three O’Clock High stars Casey Siemaszko and Richard Tyson as the nerd and tough guy, respectively. Neither went on to become household names, but not for stigma attached to this movie. Jeffrey Tambor is featured, too, lending his usual benevolent charm.
It’s a charming farce that might have shone brighter but for the long shadow cast by Hughes. Throughout the course of a decade, movies big and small come and go. It’s really only by looking back that we distill the creative efforts of a given ten-year span into a list that typifies not only how we felt at that time, but how we feel about that time with the benefit of hindsight. Three O’Clock High didn’t make the list of quintessential ’80s movies, but it’s not without charm. Technology and social media have fundamentally transformed teenage life in America, so to the extent that this movie remains relatable, it’s indirectly.
Shakes the Clown
Vulgar, weird, and hilarious, Shakes the Clown was written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, who also starred in this 1991 comedy. Far funnier than it ever got credit for, critically or financially, this movie might have been just a bit too strange for people to get behind. An alcoholic party clown gets framed for murder? Not exactly your typical comedy premise. Sure, it’s crude, but when done well and not for its own sake, as is the case here, crude can be great. Cameos by Robin Williams and Florence Henderson suggest this movie was much more than cheap gags fueled by four-letter words. Adam Sandler, Kathy Griffin, and Tom Kenny (of Mr. Show and SpongeBob Squarepants fame) all co-starred in what was an inauspicious early point in otherwise successful careers.
Clowns have always been a little creepy, but in the ’80s and ’90s, they were down-low creepy. In 2017, clowns are off-the-charts creepy, with spontaneous appearances by malevolent looking clowns enough to cause panic across the United States. I can’t say when the tipping point was for clowns becoming social pariahs, but movement in that direction didn’t do Shakes the Clown any favors. And by modern standards, using alcoholism as a comedic device might be too mean spirited (no pun intended), but it sure works. Goldthwait has a habit of making movies that provoke thought for audiences hearty enough to endure some difficult imagery or subject matter. 2011’s God Bless America and 2006’s Sleeping Dogs Lie are prime examples. For whatever reason, this twisted clown story didn’t get a fair shake (pun intended).
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story
If I’m to be perfectly honest, I might be writing this list just so I can tell people to watch Walk Hard. Seriously, watch it. It’s awesome. Starring the incomparable John C. Reilly, this movie didn’t really connect with audiences upon its release in 2008, which is surprising considering Judd Apatow’s involvement as writer and producer. Apatow was coming off an impressive string of successes that rejuvenated R-rated comedies. Walk Hard is a biopic of fictitious rock and roller Dewey Cox (Reilly), and leans heavily on inspiration from Ray and Walk the Line. Starring alongside Reilly were Kristen Wiig, Jenna Fischer, and Tim Meadows, all of whom are proven onscreen comedy talents and they don’t disappoint here. Great performances notwithstanding, it seems likely that leaning on elements borrowed from high-profile biopics strayed too far into spoofing those specific movies to capture wide audiences. The focus might have been so narrow that people got confused.
Though it’s unfortunate this wonderful combination of silliness and satire was overlooked, the real crime is that this film’s soundtrack goes unappreciated. Featuring 30 original songs that reflect musical styles appropriate to the ’50’s and each decade thereafter, this collection of songs on its own is impressive. Reilly actually sang the vocals for each track, and did so beautifully. The songs are funny, but are also earnest and well made. They’re legitimately high-quality pop records. The greatest tragedy of Walk Hard not becoming a wild success is I will never get to see Dewey Cox perform live. I’m crushed. Let’s move on.
They Came Together
Romantic comedies are ridiculous. To be fair, lots of movie genres are ridiculous, including genres I adore, but 2014’s They Came Together satirizes rom-coms brilliantly, exploiting the genre’s most absurd conventions. Written by David Wain and Michael Showalter, with Amy Poehler and Paul Rudd starring, this movie exaggerates romantic comedy tropes in general, rather than focusing on any specific example of the genre. The satire is biting and makes romantic comedies seem impossibly goofy in retrospect. Again, in all fairness, this isn’t me bashing rom-coms. Hot Shots! cut into action movies in the same way back in 1991, exposing how silly the hyper-masculine movies of the ’80s were.
Joining Poehler and Rudd are other fantastic comedic actors like Bill Hader, Ellie Kemper, and Jason Mantzoukas, all of whom are fully capable of stealing scenes. The writing is great and the performances are, too. Perhaps most refreshing is the stubborn refusal to adhere to storytelling dogma. In the interests of avoiding spoilers, I won’t go into further detail. Suffice it to say, They Came Together is funny, smart, and has incredible talent behind and in front of the camera. I have no idea why this movie isn’t a bigger deal. I stumbled upon it last year on Netflix and was intrigued by the cast. A few minutes in, I knew I found something special.
Movies succeed and fail for all kinds of reasons. Nobody knows for sure how a film will connect with audiences. I hold a special place in my heart, and often my movie collection, for these underachievers. Some people will no doubt take issue with some of my choices, and that’s perfectly fine with me. It’s fun, if pointless, to try to attach objective truth to subjective opinions. Isn’t that why sports talk radio thrives? Good movies are sometimes victims of circumstance. Donnie Darko, a cult classic not invited to this list, was released just weeks after 9/11. Bad timing, for sure. Still, give these movies a shot. Isn’t it more fun to like things than to dislike them?