At the movies: underappreciated gems

Underwatched and unjustly unseen. Some of these are available only on video (meaning VHS), but you should seek them out anyway. All of them.

Next Stop Wonderland
The best romances have a thin undercurrent of sadness threaded through them (see also: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Girl in the Cafe). This very independent film stars Hope Davis and (of course) Philip Seymour Hoffman in a minor role, and has a careful mood and setting all its own. It's about a sad woman going through a series of unfortunate blind dates, and a man who steals a priceless fish from the aquarium where he works. Naturally they are meant for each other, although you are never quite sure whether or not the movie will figure this out. (Extra credit for a small, lovely Holland Taylor cameo.)

Frankie and Johnny
Come on: Michelle Pfeiffer and Al Pacino not snorting coke or waving machine guns? Quite a comedown, as they turn into lonely sad sacks working the counter of a dingy (but quirky!) diner. Of course they're beautiful people playing characters who aren't supposed to be beautiful, but I suspect beautiful people aren't happy all the time, either. Right? I mean, they can't possibly be. This is adapted from a stage play by Terrence McNally, so it's, you know, extremely talky.

Looking for Richard
I just now remembered how much I love Al (it takes a little remembering), and especially Real-Life Al as an ersatz Shakespeare professor on a labor of love, roaming city streets in search of an audience. Plus it will remind you of a time, not so long ago, when Winona Ryder was a seriously in-demand actress. Part documentary, part fool's errand, with Al as director and fan, taking Richard III and splitting it wide open, just to find a new way in. You get the feeling it would have killed him not to make it. (Filmed partly at The Cloisters.) Come to think of it, this is pretty talky, too. Al Pacino: what a yakker!

The Man in the Moon
Tentative and true and truly heartbreaking, in such a simple way. One of those southern coming-of-age tales with a bare bones, short story feel that could have gone very wrong, but nothing goes wrong: young girls grow up and fall in love, then fall back down to earth very hard. Reese Witherspoon, Sam Waterston, and Tess Harper are note perfect.

Enchanted April
Four women rent a house on the coast in Italy: that's it. Men come and go and they all learn tidy little magical lessons about who they are and what they want and why they love the people they love. I can't figure out why this isn't on DVD, because it fits that Merchant/Ivory mold fairly well, only without any of the pretense (but don't mistake me—I love the Merchant/Ivory pretense). It is, without a doubt, the prettiest movie I have ever seen. It might be the prettiest movie ever made.

Smilla's Sense of Snow
Julia Ormond got cheated out of a bigger career, I think, and so did Gabriel Byrne. The book was a huge hit, and the film is a fairly faithful adaptation, succeeding and failing in the same areas: they go in some prehistoric worm directions you wish they wouldn't and don't quite come together at the end. But both create such a strange, compelling, thoroughly singular universe (I don't read many books or see many movies set in Denmark and Iceland). Snow is the only constant companion—haunting and bleak and endlessly blank, so much light giving off so much darkness.

Beautiful Girls
More snow, this time at a high school reunion in upstate New York, with Timothy Hutton, Uma Thurman, Matt Dillon, Rosie O'Donnell, and Natalie Portman. It's sweet and unexpected and very quiet, and one of the few films I've seen that actually gets the small town look and feeling exactly right. I grew up in a place like this; I know people who lead these lives. Everybody has something to regret, and everybody has something to look forward to.

Miami Rhapsody
Woody Allen-lite, with Sarah Jessica Parker in her pre-fame and fashion plate days, sporting one of my favorite film wardrobes ever, lots of starched white shirts and cool neutral suits. And they let Mia Farrow play her mother, which has its own kind of poetry to it. Antonio Banderas is a prospective suitor/nurse who's also having an affair with a very-married Mia, while the divine Kelly Bishop shows up as a giggling, tennis-playing tart—a far, far cry from Gilmore country. And just look at that Miami sunshine.

Flirting with Disaster
I think this is what those Focker movies should have been: funny. Ben Stiller funny. Tea Leoni funny. Mary Tyler Moore, Lily Tomlin, George Segal, Alan Alda funny. There's not really a way to describe the plot—okay, there is, and it involves a cross-country search for Ben Stiller's birth parents, madcap miscues, mistaken identities, the curse of the white Ford Taurus, a shelf of broken knick-knacks, and armpit licking. Best line: "Without spontaneity, the world of B&Bs is fairly meaningless." It's kind of a '90s version of the screwball comedy, and watching it is like being drunk and overcaffeinated at the same time.

Grosse Pointe Blank
I'm oddly lukewarm on Say Anything, so this is the one John Cusack movie I can never flip away from. Dan Aykroyd and Jeremy Piven: ditto. Minnie Driver, too, although she does that British-actress-impersonating-an-American thing where it's hard to take your eyes off her mouth when she speaks. You know? Where it looks like they're saying every sentence phonetically? Emma Thompson does it, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Kristin Scott Thomas. It's a little distracting. Anyway: hit men at a class reunion in a very posh suburb of Detroit? Nothing but bliss.

What am I forgetting? Ruby in Paradise, Wonder Boys, Running on Empty, Laurel Canyon, True Romance. Etc.