Everyone likes at least a few movies that aren't considered popular by the world at large. Lots of people, like myself, like many many movies that aren't popular. But this list is going to cover those movies which may have eventually found some popularity with some audience. The criteria here is simply based on the film's initial success (or lack thereof) at the box office. Just like tons of awful movies are big hits in theatres due to factors such as their marketing campaign or expectations based on the subject matter or cast or whatever. And it works the other way with good movies that bombed initially. While I don't think any of these movies were necessarily overwhelming financial disasters, I know that they were far from hits when they first were released.
Note* Blade Runner is technically my favourite flop of all time but while it was definitely a disappointment at the box office, it actually enjoyed at least a moderately successful opening weekend most likely due to Harrison Ford's star power at the time. When I wrote this list I felt this was enough to keep Blade Runner off it although it was technically a theatrical flop.
5. The Frighteners (1996)
Peter Jackson co-wrote this one with his wife and Robert Zemeckis was slated to direct. But I guess as the project evolved, Zemeckis decided Jackson would be better suited to direct and fell back into the role of producer. With Jackson, then a complete no-name in the North American film industry at the helm, it's no surprise the movie didn't generate much hype. And the marketing campaign wasn't well done at all - this was partially due to the film's tone which was difficult to market in the first place as it was a comedy starring Michael J. Fox but also a legitimate horror/thriller film. Jackson would later complain that the poster, which didn't really let people know what the movie was about, and the release date, the opening day of the Summer Olympics in Atlanta definitely hurt its chances at the box office.
But it's a great movie if you actually watch it. I don't know how to not enjoy any performance by Fox and the plot and characters are unique and entertaining. It's darkly funny with some pretty intense sequences. The tone can be difficult to figure out at first as the plot progresses from quirky to almost disturbing at points but I really feel like it flows well and isn't all over the place. A special treat is actor Jeffrey Combs as eccentric (and I'm putting it lightly) FBI agent Milton Dammers - he steals every scene he's in.
4. Empire of The Sun (1987)
The first real box office disappointment for director Steven Spielberg, I'm not entirely sure what sunk this movie. The performances are good, the plot, pacing and settings are all good. I can only figure that when audiences saw Spielberg's name, they were expecting another epic movie full of action. He pretty much exploded onto the film scene with Jaws in 1975 and followed it up nicely with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The eighties gave way to more hits with the first two Indiana Jones films and E.T. However, right before this movie he did direct The Color Purple which was a somber drama, so I don't know what people were expecting.
In any case, Empire of The Sun was far from a success and twenty years later, it seems largely forgotten. Which is a shame because you've got thirteen year old Christian Bale proving he had great acting talent right from the start and when is John Malcovich ever not good?
The story follows a British boy who'd been living in Shanghai, sufficiently sheltered from all hardships as well as the local culture when World War Two sees the Japanese invade. He becomes separated from his family and has to learn to survive on his own, eventually landing in an internment camp. It's a long movie and the pace is kinda slow but I think the performances should keep people interested. It also features some really emotionally powerful moments like the kid saluting a team of Japanese kamikaze pilots. The score is quite fitting and I really believe the movie tells an important story. It's too bad more people didn't take notice of it.
3. Dark City (1998)
The best example of noir sci-fi since Blade Runner and no one seems to be aware of it. I don't even remember it being released in theatres so it couldn't have had too much marketing behind it. A year later, The Matrix would come out and enjoy all sorts of commercial success using a lot of the same elements present in Dark City. And it starred KEANU REEVES for christ's sake.
Anyway, I think Dark City is a lot slicker and more well-done. There are no huge action scenes but that wouldn't fit into its tone, which is....well, dark. What begins as a story of a man's search for his identity over the background of a series of grisly murders evolves into an intriguing sci-fi film with steam-punk influences.
I really like the look of this film and the director's cut does correct a few small editing problems while the performances all fit the tone quite nicely. It's also interesting to see Keifer Sutherland in a role that's such a departure from how we're used to seeing him. The plot reminds me of an anime in lots of ways and I ask you, how can that be a bad thing?
2. Princess Mononoke (1997)
I suppose it shouldn't be all that shocking that the first major theatrical release of a Japanese anime in North America wasn't a blockbuster. But they tried, they really did. The cast was a pretty all-star affair with the likes of Minnie Driver, Billy Bob Thornton, Claire Danes (fresh off Romeo + Juliet) and Gillian Anderson (riding the crest of her "X Files" fame). Also there was Billy Crudup but I could include that guy in a list of unappreciated and unrecognized actors.
Although for whatever reason, this movie never had the feel of other Miyazaki films to me, it was certainly right up there with the others as far as quality goes. Beautiful animation, beautiful music, a sweeping, epic story with environmental and spiritual themes AND a voice cast that North Americans could all recognize. And it still flopped. I can only figure that the majority of the movie-going public just couldn't wrap their brains around the idea of seeing an animated movie that wasn't a happy Disney creation with singing animals. But there were TALKING animals - so come on, what do you want? By the next decade, anime was much more universally accepted and appreciated but I guess Mononoke just had to take the hit for being among the first.
1. Mallrats (1995)
After the critical success of indie film, Clerks, many considered Kevin Smith's next offering to be a step backward. And it didn't fare so well commercially either. I can devise why though. I actually remember the previews for this movie when it came out and they just made it look like a romantic comedy. And, in a sense, it is a romantic comedy. But it was also a Kevin Smith movie and people just didn't know what that meant back then. A few years later, American Pie would revive the pretty much dead wacky sex comedy genre but in 1995, people just didn't know what to think of this movie.
It's not even a sex comedy - it's just...well, a Kevin Smith movie. And it's hilarious. It's about two recently dumped slacker types trying to forget their troubles at the local mall when a bunch of crazy events ensue. But after Clerks, critics wanted something more clever and audiences looking for a romantic comedy didn't know what to make of Jay and Silent Bob and the excessive use of the word "fuck". Years later, this movie would be appreciated for what it is now that Smith has a series of "Jersey" films in his repertoire, and it found its audience on video. Just like all the movies on this list, Mallrats proves a great film doesn't necessarily require box office success to be great. It just would have helped a lot.