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The best movies you've never seen

By by robert zavala/rzavala@vicad.com
April 20, 2011 at 4 p.m.
Updated April 19, 2011 at 11:20 p.m.


Did you know "The Shawshank Redemption" was a box-office dud?

That's right, that TNT regular, that is on just about everybody's favorite list, couldn't make enough money the first week of release to pay for the film stock it was shot on. People stayed away in droves.

Doesn't sound right does it? Seems like everybody and his brother has seen this movie twice. Recently, BBC listeners voted it as their favorite film of all time.

So, how did this lowly prison flick with the clunky title rise to such great heights? Word of mouth. People loved it and told their friends.

With that in mind, we got some local movie nuts to make their suggestions for the next big word-of-mouth hit. The criteria was simple - it had to be a box office dud, it had to be 20 years old or newer.

So, the next time you are looking for something to watch, try one of these.

'Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia'

This shocking and, at times, disturbing account gives a very genuine look at impoverished America and the White family of West Virginia. Battling the bizarre fame and dysfunction bestowed upon them by their father, D. Ray White, this eccentric bunch are criminals, comedians and dissidents, who, upon closer examination, might actually be incredibly smart despite their rough exteriors.

The ingenious documentary follows the notorious mining family for a year, chronicling the wacky and often sad adventures of D. Ray's surviving children and grandchildren, complete with a murder trial, a bout with Child Protective Services, prison release, a boatload of drugs, and, of course, mountain tap dancing by the more famous White, Jesco (or Jesse or Elvis depending on his personality that day) - known for the PBS cult classic, "The Dancing Outlaw."

Once you think you've seen it all with these Boone County natives, their antics in the next scene will take you over the edge once again. And don't miss out on the deleted scenes - that's when the real hilarity ensues.

Trysta Eakin

Former Advocate reporter

'The Life of David Gale'

Despite a performance by Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey, "The Life of David Gale" was a flop that brought in just under $20 million, so you must have missed this one. The production cost was $38 million.

The movie centers on the debate of capital punishment in Texas. Critics slammed the story line despite its quality acting. One reviewer called it offensive, but regardless of your viewpoint about the death penalty, the movie has a lesson. The plot is plausible but extremely difficult to accept. You won't soon forget it. The movie will stun you for certain, and to get past the shock, you will need to talk to someone - whether a friend or a co-worker - about what you have just witnessed.

Tony Balandran

Delivery desk chief

'The Ghost Writer'

"The Ghost Writer" is, quite simply, the best film you've never seen. This nail-biting political thriller stars Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan, who gives the best performance of his career. The film's conclusion - a dark secret, which I won't divulge here - reveals a worldwide conspiracy that's as frightening as it is plausible.

At a meager $15 million, "The Ghost Writer" did half the box office business of "Shawshank Redemption." Its inspired screenplay and masterful direction were ignored by the Academy Awards, failing to earn a single nomination, despite winning praise from most critics. What happened?

Two words: Roman Polanski.

As the film neared release in late 2009, the director was arrested by Swiss police on a sexual assault charge that has kept him in exile for more than three decades. The studio promotion machine dropped the film as the Polanski name became box office poison.

Whatever you may think of Polanski personally, don't let that stop you from seeing this unheralded classic of its genre. His crime shouldn't be our loss.

Todd Krainin

Advocate photo/video editor

'The Room'

What do you get when you take the set from a soap opera, fill it with a handful of the worst actors on the planet, and throw in a director and star who is a cross between Borat, Christopher Walken and a cave man? You get "The Room," a train wreck extravaganza that's often been called "the Citizen Kane of Bad Movies."

Everything about "The Room," down to the most minute details, is hysterically horrid. Left-field dialogue ("I can't answer that question. Anyway, how's your sex life?"), the obvious lack of a story, and laughably misguided plot twists (one of the main characters shaving his beard is presented as a central plot turn) make "The Room" something so organically flawed that the end product is fascinating. In fact, the film is so oddly endearing that it's started a cult phenomenon, selling out midnight screenings across the country where fans will laugh, cheer, and throw spoons at the screen (you'll have to see the movie).

Although it took years for the film to catch on, "The Room" shows no signs of letting up. As a movie, it's a continuous series of flubs that add up to a horrid, fascinating and wildly entertaining whole.

And as for the Citizen Kane connection, I've only seen that film once. How many times have I seen "The Room? About 12. Now, that's what I call the sign of a great movie.

Drew Stewart

Former Advocate intern and director of the documentary film "Breadth of Hope"

'Let Me In'

Director Matt Reeves ("Cloverfield") gave us this gem that only made $5 million at the box office opening weekend and went on to gross just $12 million total.

That same weekend, "The Social Network" made $22 million. Was it bad timing? First week of October, it's a horror film, .probably not.

Was there too much competition? "Case 39," "Devil," "Resident Evil: Afterlife," . maybe.

Or was it because fans of the original 2008 Swedish film, ("Let The Right One In"), refused to see it?

Whatever the case, "Let Me In" is a wonderful film that deserves a wider audience.

Being a fan of the original 2008 Swedish film, I was at first skeptical about a remake for U.S. audiences.

Blasphemy, I thought. But after my first viewing, I was stunned. Wow. Not only did Reeves capture the beauty and essence of the story, he made a better film than it's predecessor.

The story takes place in the 80s with Chloe Grace Moretz ("Kick-Ass") playing the role of Abby, the girl vampire who will always be 12 years old.

Her guardian is played by Richard Jenkins, a great actor who has been in so many good movies, "The Visitor," "Eat, Pray, Love" and "Burn After Reading."

His character kills the victims and drains their blood into a jug for Abby. The two of them move into an apartment complex where we meet Owen, a boy plagued by problems with school bullies. The role is played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, star of the 2009 film "The Road."

Throw in one of my favorite character actors, Elias Koteas, as the policeman on the case, and you've got a great cast.

The movie goes from bloody horror to tender moments between Abby and Owen. It's moving, it's cinematic and it's creepy.

Joe Friar

Program director and morning show host at 95 KVIC

'Altered'

I wasn't expecting much. I chose the movie "Altered" off Netfilx on a whim.

I'm a fan of extraterrestrial movies and this one, happily, was a good one.

The story takes place 15 years after five men were abducted by aliens. One of their friends didn't make it back. The four former abductees spend the rest of their lives trying to get revenge against the aliens. One night, after checking their traps in the woods, they catch one. The rest of the movie is a roller-coaster ride with the four men trying to decide what to do with their alien captive and their captive planning what to do to them. It only gets worse (in a good, suspenseful way), and I won't ruin the ending for you. The movie was directed by Eduardo Sanchez, who I've never heard of until I saw the movie. After checking on the Internet I found out that he was also the director of "The Blair Witch Project" (1999).

"Altered" is not perfect, but it has enough tense moments to keep you on the edge of your seat, and if you like aliens like I like aliens, you'll enjoy this movie.

Julie Zavala

Advocate graphic artist

'The Illusionist'

"The Illusionist" is probably the best movie you've never seen.

The film, released in 2006, is a sepia toned, fairy tale of a magician named Eisenheim, played by Edward Norton, and the high born lady he loves, personified by Jessica Biel.

Directed by Neil Burger and featuring strong performances from Norton, Paul Giamatti, and, yes, even Biel. It also features a hauntingly beautiful score by famed composer Philip Glass.

However, at the box office, the movie got ignored, overshadowed by "The Prestige," a Christopher Nolan directed flick, that came out about a month later and raked in the dollars. That film was also about magicians.

The two films sounded a lot alike, and to this day, if I mention "The Illusionist," most people haven't seen it. They just talk about "The Prestige."

But trust me, and put aside your prejudices - "The Illusionist" is worth your time and a little individual consideration.

Magic is what you make of it. Watch Eisenheim grow an orange tree onstage, trap a soul in a mirror and summon ghosts. "The Prestige" is fine, but "The Illusionist" makes you want to believe in magic.

Dianna Wray

Advocate reporter

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