In spring of 1999, while the masses were jacking into The Matrix, braver souls were leaping into the alternate gaming universe of David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ. Ostensibly, über game designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is on a promotional tour with her newest game and game pod, which is an electrical organism that creates its virtual reality by plugging directly into the gamer’s nervous system via spinal cord bioport. She and her marketing man, Ted Pikul (Jude Law), come under attack and flee from realists who object to extreme gaming’s impact on humanity and its reliance on endangered mutant amphibians for gaming pods (!).
Released before home video could be counted on to save a studio’s bottom line on just about any flop, 1980’s Heaven’s Gate is one of the all-time box-office bombs. Back then, disasters like this took down careers, and few falls were faster or farther than director Michael Cimino’s, who made this notoriously expensive Western as his follow-up to the Oscar-winning juggernaut The Deer Hunter. His career never recovered, and Heaven’s Gate almost single-handedly ended the reign of the director within the Hollywood studio system that produced so many great auteur films in the 1970s.
Moonrise Kingdom is another witty charmer from writer/director Wes Anderson, this time with a bittersweet tinge of youth’s passing in 1965 New England. The protagonists are two troubled 12-year-olds who run away to marry in the wilderness of insular New Penzance Island. Suzy’s parents are miserable, insufferable lawyers (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray). Suzy sees a lot (often through binoculars) and has discovered her mother is having an affair with the island policeman, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis). Sam is an orphan with outstanding wilderness skills, who resigns from his Khaki Scout troop (in writing!) and is not invited back to his foster family if found. His only family is the troop of Khaki Scouts led by the well-meaning but overmatched Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton).
When your breakout movie, Seven, ends with Gwyneth Paltrow’s severed head in a box, what do you do for an encore? 1997’s psycho thriller The Game is director David Fincher’s emphatic answer. Nobody plays a cold, callous one-percenter better than Michael Douglas. His Nicholas Van Orton here is clearly intended as a through-the-looking-glass play off of his iconic, late-’80s portrayal of Gordon Gekko in Wall Street.
It’s more than a little ironic that Tim Burton’s best film as a director, from top to bottom, is about one of the most notorious bad filmmakers who ever lived. Actually, Edward D. Wood Jr. (Johnny Depp) is known for two things: spectacularly bad sci-fi/horror movies that are ridiculously fun to watch, and being a cross-dresser before it was cool. Both traits are given full attention in Burton’s 1994 love letter to offbeat movies and their makers, Ed Wood.
What a swift kick in the ass! Co-written and produced by Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly on TV, The Avengers), The Cabin in the Woods is the most self-aware and gleefully gory comedy-horror flick since the Scream series devolved into a parody of a parody. As I write this, there are probably forums of fanboys aflame, identifying and exchanging the horror movie references throughout. Its plot practically defies description, but the elevator pitch would be Evil Dead meets The Truman Show.
Directed by noir great Robert Aldrich, 1962’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was a shocker in its day, from the lurid subject matter to the monumental uniting of two of the silver screen’s greatest actresses (and fiercest rivals), Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, each in her mid-fifties then. It’s a twisted tale of two once-famous, now codependent sisters: Davis’ Jane was famous in childhood as Baby Jane Hudson, while Crawford’s Blanche went on to greater stardom in Hollywood before being hit by a car, presumably driven by jealous Jane, and crippled.
Everything worth knowing about teenagers in the 1980s is found in John Hughes’ 1984 directorial debut, Sixteen Candles. This is a perfect movie, capturing it all in just two days in the life of 16-year-old Samantha Baker (Molly Ringwald). Sam’s 16th birthday is the day before her older sister’s wedding, and it starts out anything but sweet. Her entire family is so consumed with the wedding details, they forget. Sam heads to the back-to-school dance saddled with her grandparents’ Asian exchange student Long Duk Dong, in love with impossibly sweet campus hunk Jake Ryan (Michael Schoeffling), and chased by relentless freshman geek, Farmer Ted (Anthony Michael Hall). Hilarity, revelations, and romance ensue.
Writer/director Wes Anderson’s artsy comedies are so distinct, you’d never mistake a single frame of his movies for anyone else’s. 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums showcases many of his hallmarks and themes: a mixed family of blood and adopted relatives separating and then banding together to overcome collective dysfunction, oddly brilliant characters whose clothes are identity uniforms, a simultaneous embracing and lampooning of academia, a labyrinthine set that functions like a cross between a playhouse and a fort, and a nice role for the great character actor Seymour Cassel. It’s Anderson’s most polarizing film in terms of accessibility, but it’s also his funniest.
For those who found Revolutionary Road too upbeat comes its British postwar counterpart in the soul-crushing slog that is The Deep Blue Sea (for those hoping to read a review of Renny Harlin’s guilty pleasure of a shark movie, the title of that is simply Deep Blue Sea, so sorry to disappoint you!). Set in 1950 post-war London, The Deep Blue Sea gives us Hester (Rachel Weisz), a smart, cultured, and ardent woman at a time when none of those traits was apparently valued in British society. Hester leaves her staid marriage to a wealthy judge old enough to be her father (and who looks old enough to be her grandfather), falling in for a fiery affair with a handsome pilot nearer her age named Freddie (Tom Hiddleston, or Loki to Avengers fans out there). The drag is, Freddie’s rather a creep and has issues with both commitment and finding gainful employment.