This month marks the 30th anniversary of “Howard the Duck” hitting theaters in 1986. That film was a large commercial and critical failure, offering up bad puns and a convoluted plot that audiences simply weren’t interested in seeing. However, sometimes the box office doesn’t tell the whole story, and those films deemed as flops are actually worth taking a second look at to discover an enjoyable, if weird, movie. Here are 15 films, in chronological order, that deserve to be rediscovered despite their terrible performance with ticket buyers.
“Pennies from Heaven” (1981)
Audiences weren’t ready for Steve Martin in anything but wacky comedies in the ’80s and probably weren’t exactly primed for a subversive musical drama that is caked in cynical darkness, either. But Herbert Ross’ Pennies from Heaven” (based on the UK miniseries of the same name by Dennis Potter) is an astounding achievement that juxtaposes the lively musical numbers of the day with the bleak existence many faced in the 1920s. It has incredible performances from Martin, Bernadette Peters and Christopher Walken, features some impressive song and dance sequences, and really hits the emotional core of broken dreams.
“Return to Oz” (1985)
While a cult status has begun to form around it, “Return to Oz” was not initially greeted with much success. Obviously, the bar was raised to return to the well-trodden world of Oz, but this film meets it with nightmarish imagery, a dark subplot involving Dorothy’s psychological status, and some truly memorable characters that rival the 1939 film’s roster of characters. For those that always liked their children’s entertainment a bit more twisted than usual, this is the preferred Oz film to seek out.
“The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” (1988)
Terry Gilliam has had all sorts of problems with studios and finding audiences when making his films, and “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” was no exception. While people love to talk about “Brazil” and “Time Bandits” (and rightfully so), this other early effort is worth a second look, as it features some fantastic shots, unbridled imagination from the former animator, and a pretty powerful meditation on mortality as well as the power of imagination. It will transport viewers to another time and place in the most magical way possible, and there’s not a lot more one can ask from a film.
“Joe Versus the Volcano” (1990)
It’s hard to get the rom-com right without it being too saccharine or clichéd. John Patrick Shanley’s “Joe Versus the Volcano” doesn’t just avoid clichés, it exploits and explodes them through this magical realistic telling of a man’s journey to find himself (and true love) in the world. It is filled with hilarious characters, great exchanges (like the one below that opens the film), and some moments that feel majestic and almost too perfect. It may have been too odd when it opened in 1990, but the world has only gotten weirder since then, and viewers should definitely check this one out.
“The Hudsucker Proxy” (1994)
It’s weird to think of the Coen brothers being on a list of bombs, but here they are for their 1994 film “The Hudsucker Proxy,” co-written with “Evil Dead’s” Sam Raimi. Again, audiences weren’t interested in a blast from the past, and this send-up of films like “Bringing Up Baby” and “The Desk Set” left many people cold. But it’s just so quirky and sincere with its tribute to old films, rapid fire dialogue, and excellently rendered characters played by Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Paul Newman. It may be regarded as a “lesser Coen,” but it’s definitely a funny film with heart that should be sought out and will open up a door to a whole host of other films to check out.
“Kids in the Hall: Brain Candy” (1996)
Studio meddling and infighting amongst the comedy troupe may have delivered a product that the Kids in the Hall aren’t too proud of, but they should be, as “Brain Candy” is a hilarious movie chockful of quotable lines, memorable scenes, and outrageous characters that are delivered in the signature weird style of the group. A strong takedown of Prozac nation is the backdrop for several zany exchanges, the best Lorne Michaels impression (done before Dr. Evil), and proof that this sketch group should stand proudly alongside the other greats in the history of comedy.
“The Man Who Knew Too Little” (1997)
Bill Murray has churned out some dreck in his time, occasionally just going for the paycheck, or as a favor, or whatever his excuse for “Garfield” is, but this film shouldn’t be lumped in with those other misfires. It’s a fun romp that sends up spy caper films while allowing Murray to alternate between nebbish everyman, inflamed egotist, and excited kid in a candy store in this tale of mistaken identity. Getting wrapped up in international intrigue, all while thinking it’s a hoax of some kind, allows Murray to really emote and have fun on the screen in a way he hadn’t since the ’80s (and wouldn’t again until his involvement with Wes Anderson).
A remake of a pillar of modern Russian filmmaking is probably a hard sell to U.S. audiences, but that’s no reason to skip Steven Soderbergh’s brilliant “Solaris.” An emotionally pure meditation on loss, love, life and death, the film boasts excellent performances from George Clooney, Natasha McElhone, Viola Davis and Jeremy Davies and a tremendous score by Cliff Martinez. It’s an entirely engrossing movie that dwells with the ghosts of memory and ponders some big questions but never buckles underneath the strain of its own existential musings.
“The Ice Harvest” (2005)
Harold Ramis’ dark comedy “The Ice Harvest” is a wickedly good time at the movies, with John Cusack, Billy Bob Thornton and Oliver Platt turning in fun and morally compromised performances. A comedic take on film noir, the flick was probably a bit too dark and morally confused for most major audiences, but it’s a rewarding time spent with fully fleshed out characters trying to navigate the holidays while also doing some very bad things. It’s fun, biting and excellent counterprogramming for the holiday season.
“Southland Tales” (2006)
Richard Kelly’s follow-up to “Donnie Darko” isn’t a good film, so why is “Southland Tales” on this list? It’s worth checking out because it is an impossibly weird film, from the casting, to the plot, to pretty much every aspect of the movie. It leaves audiences scratching their heads and muttering “WTF” on multiple occasions but is always on the cusp of coalescing into an entertaining comedy. Unfortunately, Kelly’s reach far exceeds his grasp here in trying to take on America’s foreign policy, energy issues, the war on drugs, love of celebrity culture and a whole host of other issues. But it is a singular event that is unlike any other film before or since and should be witnessed to be believed.
“The Fountain” (2006)
The failure of “The Fountain” at the box office may be due to a weird narrative told in an unusual fashion, or maybe because it’s so painfully earnest in exploring the devastating effects of love and death. The film is an emotional triumph that perfectly captures one man’s dogged pursuit to cure death and deals with that burning desire across three different time periods. There’s a lot to digest in Darren Aronofsky’s film, and a lot to process in terms of what is happening when and why, but it’s an astoundingly rewarding film that doesn’t look like any other film, delivers incredible performances by Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz, and features one of the best scores of Clint Mansell’s career. It’s an emotionally raw, cosmic roller coaster that deserves to be recognized for its truthfulness and its originality.
“Hot Rod” (2007)
A fun film that is eminently quotable and full of memorable scenes, “Hot Rod” deserves better than to be an afterthought of “SNL” movies that people didn’t see. Akiva Schaffer’s movie is full of absurd and weird bits that make this a cartoon universe, but all of the actors play it straight. And there’s a murderer’s row of talent in this film, including Andy Samberg, Isla Fisher, Jorma Taccone, Danny McBride, Bill Hader, Sissy Spacek, Chris Parnell and Ian McShane, who all get moments to shine. Backed by an excellent ’80s soundtrack and full of hilarious sight gags, as well as those springing from the characters themselves, “Hot Rod” should be on its way to cult classic status.
“Hamlet 2” (2008)
Another comedy that people didn’t turn out for (outside of those “Night at the Museum” films, Steve Coogan can’t catch a break in the U.S.), “Hamlet 2” (like “Hot Rod”) was penned by “South Park” alum Pam Brady and has a great, wicked sense of humor about it. There’s plenty of politically incorrect moments that play up the parody of the white savior teacher coming to help the downtrodden kids, but there’s also great maniacal energy from Coogan in the lead role as he tries to get his production off the ground. Full of quotable lines, songs and performances that fully commit to the bit (especially Elisabeth Shue as herself), it’s a comedy that will definitely have audiences laughing.
“Speed Racer” (2008)
The Wachowskis’ “Speed Racer” feels like a film from the future, which is perfect given its subject. A hyperkinetic, cartoon realistic film that molds its own version of reality, “Speed Racer” was seen as too silly at the time. But it’s actually an excellent representation of its cartoon origins that delivers some incredible visuals. True, it’s a simplistic story that’s mildly convoluted, but once you buy in to the central premise, it’s a pretty straight-forward story. Most importantly, it’s a rocket-propelled, fun ride to be on that is utterly unique in its vibrant colors and imagery and should be consumed by the eyeballs of many people just looking to escape into something exciting.
Why don’t people turn out for films made by The Lonely Island? “MacGruber” has recently begun to gain cult status, with many people recognizing it for the genius piece of art that it is. There are so many great moments that the film produces in its takedown of crappy action movies while just being a batshit crazy film in its own right. There’s so much weird and wrong in this film that it works beautifully with Will Forte’s brilliant lead performance as the manic, revenge-driven, locked-in-the-’80s MacGruber. While it may have been a hard sell – the original skits just lasted a couple of minutes on “SNL” – it’s one that more audiences should’ve bought, finding an original and creative voice that is unlike any other out there in comedy.