Just before the coronavirus outbreak shut down almost every social and economic aspect of our lives, I was constantly reminded of what was coming by a special group of people who would constantly recommend watching or playing things in which the main theme is the outbreak of a deadly global virus.
"Let's watch Contagion!" shouted one of these people with a shit-eating grin so wide, you could land Mark Cuban's private plane on it.
"Who wants to play Plague Inc.?" another person asked. These people are still out there and of course, they are on social media making the same, tired movie recommendation because Facebook is their mating grounds and they aren't even picking good, viral pandemic ones any more than to make cracks about this dire situation. They are still posting sentences no one has ever said in the history of the world like "Wouldn't it be a hoot if we all watched Outbreak right now?" or "I think we should voluntarily all watch The Happening."
That's when I decided to go through my non-digital movie collection and pick some great, almost forgotten movies we could all watch that have nothing to do with any kind of great-yet-microscopic threat to humanity. If you're one of "those people" (and if you don't know one, then THAT'S YOU), replace one of these in any future Tweets or Instagram posts with The Omega Man, The Seventh Seal or 12 Monkeys before you open your big virtual yap so someone with less patience than me can shove their high speed fist in it.
1. 2 Days in the Valley
Ensemble movies offer more stories and give great performers the chance to play some really crazy characters to support each of them. This dramatic, action, mystery and comedy from 1996 may be a little harder to find than most, but it's worth hunting down now and not just because there is no mention of the word "virus" or "quarantine" in the script.
The story takes place over a period of two days in California's San Fernando Valley, and involves a pair of hitmen played by Danny Aiello and James Spader; a patient but exasperated egomaniac's assistant played by Glenne Headly; a pair of cops stuck on a shit vice assignment played by Eric Stoltz and Jeff Daniels and a depressed, out-of-work TV writer played by Paul Mazursky. The actors seem to be having fun with their roles — Spader's cold and stylish psychopath, Daniels' perpetually angry persona and Headly's mousy pushover assistant capture your attention even as you're trying to predict how all of these seemingly different story lines will somehow come together.
Long before Hollywood realized they could turn comic book movies into a never-ending ATM machine, comic book heroes were actually a novel cinematic concept. Some of them were even (GASP!) original ideas that were created solely for the purpose of making (DOUBLE GASP!) an original film!
Director Sam Raimi's career reached the mainstream success it deserved thanks to hits like the first two iconic Evil Dead films and his hyperactive cinematic style. Then a multimillion-dollar studio gave him the kind of resources to really make his mark, and he scored with live-action graphic novel Darkman.
This staple of '90s action-comedy stars Liam Neeson as a scientist who is almost killed and permanently disfigured in a mob hit and uses his almost perfected synthetic skin formula to pose as identical twins of his enemies. It has a great mix of hardened action sprinkled with cartoony signatures, especially during an epic helicopter battle. And just when you think it can't get any more epic, Bruce Campbell makes a cameo.
3. We're No Angels
I'm not ashamed to say that I am still a huge fan of old-school, buddy comedy slapstick. I grew up watching The Three Stooges every Sunday morning, learned how to tell stories from countless viewings of Laurel & Hardy films and almost put myself in a coma trying to imitate Jim Carrey's legendary backward pratfall. (Seriously. Here's a hint: Don't literally land on your ass first.)
This 1955 classic doesn't technically fall under the category of a good, old-fashioned slap and fall fest, but it's just as funny in some very clever ways and it's a comedy starring three of classic cinema's greatest stars.
Humphrey Bogart, Aldo Ray and Peter Ustinov play three convicts who escape from Devil's Island prison and plan to rob a family running a struggling store. As they watch these sweet and caring people who offer them part-time work even though they are on the verge of bankruptcy, they decide to use their wits, talent for fraud and thievery (and a venomous pet snake) to help them instead. The three fit so well into the well-defined buddy comedy trio of hapless schmucks who are accepted by no one but each other but smarter. They're like The 3 Stooges if they could pass a reading comprehension test and can be just as sweet and endearing as they strive to help their fellow man simply because they have more than enough heart to dedicate themselves to the task.
Your instincts might tell you not to watch a straight horror film right now because some days feel like we're living in a C-list script penned by someone who isn't talented enough to write the next Sharknado movie.
Cube, however, helped pioneer the survival-horror genre that subsequent horror films would later drive into the ground — along with all the dead bodies they buried in it. Six strangers wake up to an elaborate death trap in the shape of a (wait for it) cube where certain rooms have been booby trapped in various ingenious ways like an acid spraying room, sharp spikes that are voice-activated a swinging razor wire grater that turns people into bloody cubes of ham salad.
This Canadian classic uses more mathematical concepts than a calculus textbook to drive the story and has characters who are more than just cannon fodder for your deepest need to see blood and gore. You'll hope for some characters to live and root for others to die for reasons other than just wanting to see someone perish without being brought up on charges.
There's nothing wrong with watching a horror movie to fulfill the very human instinct to laugh in the face of death by going, "Man, sucks to be them."
Severance can be edgy, unnerving and hilarious all at the same time. The movie starred the great Danny Dyer as the employee of a weapons company on a corporate mountain retreat when the staff gets stuck in the woods and has to fight off a band of mercilessly marauders. Dyer turns in one of the funniest performances of his career as a drugged-up underling who has to do more than the bare minimum in order to survive.
The film spoofs the "killer in the woods" genre without playing down to it or resorting to cheap gags; it sticks to the story and plays with the subject matter in so many inventive ways that make it scary and hilarious from one beat to the next.
6. The Frighteners
Ghostbusters has been one of my favorites for the most amount of time in my life. It seemed almost unthinkable that any movie daring to even attempt a similar concept could be close to enjoyable. Then in 1996, this horror comedy from director Peter Jackson came out.
Michael J. Fox plays a fraudulent ghost catcher who can see actual spirits and employs them to help concoct a phony business. A vengeful spirit starts marking his future victims with a spectral forehead tattoo, and Fox realizes he can use his powers for something besides extorting money from the easily frightened.
The Frighteners employs all of Jackson's visual movie tricks to create something scary and playful as Fox has to jump across the ethereal planes to stop the spirit from continuing its killing spree. It's also got one of the most epic R. Lee Emery cameos in cinema history.
7. Real Life
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There was a more innocent time when television cameras didn't try to spend every waking minute capturing the realness of "reality" for our sordid pleasure. In fact, you could actually make fun of it in a way without just repeating the tired genre's cliches and mechanics of fake drama, forced situations and rampant alcoholism.
Director Albert Brooks' first film Real Life imagines what would happen if an overly ambitious filmmaker was given a multimillion-dollar budget to film an actual family to capture the drama of human life, which is impossible even now without violating privacy standards.
Real Life plays like a faux-documentary, except everyone is playing into it to show how ridiculous such a concept would be if some studio executive was ever stupid enough to attempt such an idea. Brooks cast Charles Grodin as the patriarch of the Yeager family, who signed up to be the subject of Brooks' insane cinematic experiment because he worked on the hidden camera show Candid Camera, and both offer brilliant performances that feel genuine and outlandish in their execution. Brooks even takes it a step further by giving it a slight sci-fi twist as he invents ridiculous new filming technology that may have been designed to serve as unbiased witnessing to the real world but ends up becoming just as cumbersome and clumsy as a full camera crew.