Mailbag: The best films from 1992-2020
Casting a Pick Six Podcast movie, underappreciated and overrated films, and more in the first ever Long Shot mailbag.
The first rule of running a mailbag is that you need to get enough questions so that you actually have questions that require answering; otherwise you’re just a writer with an empty bag. The second rule of running a mailbag is that you need to have enough questions from real people; otherwise you’re just answering questions for people who don’t exist or your friends that you begged to ask you questions, which kinda goes against the entire point of a mailbag. The third rule of running a mailbag is that … okay no, those are really the only two rules. Fulfilling those two rules, though, is harder than it sounds. Take it from me.
I’ve been wanting to do a mailbag for a while now. When I decided to launch The Long Shot back in February — without the preexisting knowledge that a global pandemic would place the entire movie industry on pause indefinitely — I made a list of eventual topics I wanted to hit. A mailbag was one of the first things I wrote down. So then, why did it take me five months and 24 editions of the newsletter to finally get around to it? Because the first rule of running a mailbag is that you need to have enough questions to answer and the second rule of running a mailbag is that you need those questions to be sent in by real people.
Until today, I hadn’t sufficiently fulfilled either of those requirements. But my prayers have finally been answered.
I’ve now received six (6!) questions in the three months since I first announced on (as my former colleague Ryan Wilson likes to call it) The Twitter Machine that I intended to run a mailbag. Let this be a lesson to all of you: Don’t give up on your dreams. If you keep begging people for questions, they will eventually ask you questions to get you to shut the hell up on Twitter — but who am I kidding, we know that’ll never happen.
Luckily, the questions that were sent in are the kinds of questions that aren’t easy to answer concisely — these are my readers, after all. In short, six is enough.
Moving forward, if you do have a movie question, send me a tweet or an email (wagnermcgoughs at gmail). Once I get enough questions (hopefully more than six), I’ll fire up another mailbag — let’s be honest, the movie shortage is going to endure for the foreseeable future, which means I will undoubtedly run out of movies to write about, which means this probably won’t be the last mailbag.
In the meantime, let’s get to the six.
What are some movies that you love considerably more than critics (RT score could be the measuring stick) and movies you like a lot less than the critical consensus?
I’ll admit to being one of those people, the kind of moviegoer who rushes to Rotten Tomatoes whenever the review embargo for a movie that I’ve been wanting to see is finally lifted. I think Rotten Tomatoes is a useful tool, but not the end-all, be-all. It’s kinda like DVOA. It’s a great indicator if a movie is quality. But it’s entirely possible for a movie to be good even if its Rotten Tomatoes score is unflattering — kinda like how the Texans won 10 games a year ago despite ranking 19th in DVOA. Sometimes, all it takes is one Deshaun Watson-esque performance to elevate a movie from bad to good.
I rely on Rotten Tomatoes, but I no longer let it dictate whether or not I see a movie. Thanks to MoviePass (RIP) and AMC’s more expensive, but far more reliable version of MoviePass, taking a chance on a movie with a terrible Rotten Tomatoes score has become that much more viable — assuming you have enough free time to waste two hours on a despicable film like Midway (one of those instances where Rotten Tomatoes got it completely right).
Anyway, on that note, here are six movies that I like far better than Rotten Tomatoes …
I don’t think I’m at all alone in thinking this. I can understand, on some level, why critics didn’t give Michael Bay’s magnum opus favorable reviews. On Rotten Tomatoes, it has a 38 percent approval rating. I understand what they were thinking. The movie is dumb beyond belief. Why anyone would think NASA would decide to train oil drillers to be astronauts instead of training astronauts to be oil drillers is beyond belief. The problem is, critics decided to think about the movie instead of just sitting back and enjoying the pure absurdity of it. It’s a turn-off-your-brain-and-enjoy-the-spectacle-of-it-all kind of movie. It might be the best of that specific genre. It’s the only worthwhile movie Bay has made — eighth-grade me would disagree and say Transformers was good, but I was dumb(er than I am now) back then.
Blood Diamond was decently received with a 63 on Rotten Tomatoes. I don’t know if anyone thinks it’s a bad movie. But to me, Blood Diamond is a top-five Leo movie and Danny Archer is a top-five Leo role. Supporting Leo as Archer are great performances by both Djimon Hounsou and the perpetually underrated Jennifer Connelly. The entire movie is an adrenaline rush. And you’ve got Leo doing a legitimately great South African accent saying shit like “Sometimes I wonder, will God ever forgive us for what we've done to each other? Then I look around and I realize, God left this place a long time ago,” and “In America, it's bling bling. But out here it's bling bang,” and “I like to get kissed before I get fucked” and finally, “T.I.A. This is Africa.”
I love this movie.
Body of Lies
Turns out, I’m just a sucker for Leonardo DiCaprio. I’m basic like that. Add in Russell Crowe and what you get is a solid CIA thriller. It’s not at all exceptional. It probably should’ve been better given its cast. But it deserved better than its 55 on Rotten Tomatoes. If you’re looking for an entertaining thriller with two of the top moviestars of the past 20 years, look no further than Body of Lies.
Lucy in the Sky
I just wrote about this one at length. Lucy in the Sky is loosely based on the true story of astronaut Lisa Nowak, AKA the astronaut diaper. It features an excellent performance by Natalie Portman. It does not, however, feature diapers. While the movie doesn’t delve into the whole diaper situation, it does present a compelling and careful character study of an astronaut losing her shit upon returning to Earth. Portman deserved an Oscar nom. The movie deserved better than a 21 on Rotten Tomatoes. Rewatching it recently for the newsletter, I couldn’t fathom how it garnered that low of a score. Maybe it’s just me. But I consider Lucy in the Sky to be one of the best movies of 2019.
The Rise of Skywalker
There will come a point when I write a big TROS piece — much like I did with Rogue One, The Last Jedi, and Solo. This is not the time for that. I will say, though, for as many faults and shortcomings that TROS has — and make no mistake about it, it has a ton of them — it’s a beautifully shot movie with some stunning sequences and great performance from both Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver. It’s not perfect. It’s flawed as hell. But I like it. Attack of the Clones received a 65 on Rotten Tomatoes. The Rise of Skywalker got a 51.
I read the book. The book is much better. But I think because I read and liked the book, I’m more forgiving of the movie, which also got a 51 on Rotten Tomatoes. If you have no idea what Savages is, I don’t blame you. It passed by mostly unnoticed, like one of those asteroids the New York Post is always writing about. The quick pitch is that it’s a drug/crime/romance movie directed by Oliver Stone, in which Blake Lively, Taylor Kitsch, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson are in a three-way long-term romantic relationship while they run a weed empire that a cartel, led by Salma Hayek, eyes as a potential partner. To get them to cooperate with the cartel, Hayek’s character deploys her enforcer, played by the brilliant Benicio del Toro. Somewhere there, John Travolta plays a corrupt DEA agent.
It’s a mess. But it’s a fun mess.
Most of the time, when I like a movie a whole lot less than critics, it’s because reading the reviews ahead of time and tracking the Rotten Tomatoes score messes with my expectations. It has more to do with expectations than the actual movie itself. I readily acknowledge this.
With that in mind, here are six movies that I like far less than Rotten Tomatoes …
The performances were great. The single-shot style was captivating. But by the end, after reading weeks and weeks of hype, I left the theater thinking that’s it? I honestly don’t remember much more besides Edward Norton’s character being a dick, Michael Keaton running around the streets of New York in his underwear, and the final scene with Emma Stone. I don’t think it was a bad movie. It just wasn’t for me. I have no desire to ever revisit it.
I liked Booksmart. I thought it was good. I laughed a lot, but mostly thought the serious dramatic parts were especially well done. The swimming pool sequence with Kaitlyn Dever was Olivia Wilde flexing her talent as a filmmaker. I can’t wait to see what she does next. I’m beyond happy it resonated as much as it did audiences. I think the problem here was expectations. Like Birdman, I heard so many great things about Booksmart ahead of time — that it was the next Superbad — that I left the theater thinking it was overhyped. A good movie that I didn’t like nearly as much as everyone else.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
I have tried on three separate occasions, each spaced multiple years apart, to understand why so many people love this movie. I can’t for the life of me understand it. A lot of it is probably my dislike for Jim Carrey. Otherwise, I just don’t see what everyone else sees. I always try to stick with it. I’ve never turned it off in the middle. But it always loses me at the exact same moment: When a fully grown up Jim Carrey is underneath the table in that kitchen. I just can’t. Maybe I’m the idiot here, but this isn’t a case of me thinking Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind isn’t as good as its reputation. This is a case of me thinking that it isn’t very good.
La La Land
I don’t like musicals. I only saw this movie in theaters because my friend, Ian, who rarely sees movies, actually saw it in theaters, loved it, and wanted to discuss it with someone, so he offered to buy me Rogue One on Blu-ray if I went to see La La Land in theaters. So, I saw it. I didn’t like it. Not because of anything Damien Chazelle did as the writer/director. Not because of Ryan Gosling or Emma Stone’s singing, which was fine. But because I don’t like musicals.
At least I got a free copy of Rogue One.
It’s not even a top-10 Leo movie or performance. But the opening battle and the bear scenes were cool. And I’m glad Leo finally got his Oscar, even if it was for a performance that doesn’t come close to measuring up to his bests.
Once again, I’ll blame the hype. A beautifully shot, well-acted film that I thought was good, but not as great as everyone said it was before I got a chance to see it. This’ll probably make me seem basic, but I’ll say it anyways: I was kinda bored.
What are your favorite movies that are criminally underviewed by mass audiences?
A stunning portrait of a lady on fire, Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer tells the story of a broken down LAPD detective, played by Nicole Kidman, who must confront the demons of her past when a former acquaintance reappears. It’s dark, grueling, and an incredible slow-burn. I wrote about it at length here. Go watch it on Hulu.
A movie that very well could’ve been titled Transatlanticism, Felicity Jones and the late Anton Yelchin star as long-distance lovers. Jennifer Lawrence co-stars (this was pre Hunger Games). It’s a heartbreaking portrayal of what happens when distance becomes simply much too far for two partners to row.
Lucy in the Sky
A repeat, but I don’t care. Nobody saw this movie. The ones who did see it did not like it. I saw it. I loved it. You can decide for yourself by streaming it on HBO.
Only the Brave
One of my favorite movies of 2017, Only the Brave is based on the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots — it’s a firefighting movie. If you don’t already know the real story, don’t read about it ahead of time. Just watch the movie first. It’ll be better that way. A movie hadn’t wrecked me like that in years and it remained my most intense moviegoing experience until I saw Just Mercy just before the pandemic erupted.
A slow-burn horror flick about an Irish fishing vessel that is stalked by … something in the middle of the sea. Hermione Corfield is fantastic as the lead, a socially awkward scientist. It’s the perfect movie for the COVID-19 pandemic. You can read my spoiler-free review here.
My Vox Lux take is that it’s a better version of A Star Is Born — oh, and that it’s one of the best performances of Natalie Portman’s career. But really, between Lucy in the Sky and Vox Lux, I think I’m just a sucker for Natalie Portman movies that nobody sees. For what it’s worth, Vox Lux fared far better with critics than Lucy in the Sky, earning a respectable 61 percent.
But nobody bothered to see it.
Not That John Williams @johnwilliamsnytJust off an airplane, and I feel like people don’t talk enough about how Vox Lux is one of the absolute worst movies ever made.
Would love to see your list of favorite movies from the following actors: Tom Hanks, Kevin Costner, Morgan Freeman, and Sean Connery.
Tom Hanks: Castaway
So many to choose from. But this is the movie I think of first when I hear Hanks’ name. I also think it’s his best performance. He’s forced to carry the movie entirely on his own. He makes spending two hours alone on an island entertaining. He makes a relationship with a volleyball seem both believable and worth investing in. But I always come back to his speech at the end about tides and breathing.
It gets me every time.
Kevin Costner: Robin Hood
I’m ready to be mocked. The truth is, Costner’s prime came well before my time. But Robin Hood was a movie that my sister and I watched on VHS all the time growing up, before I paid attention to critics or spent time on the internet. It’s almost assuredly not his best movie. But it’s the one I like the most for purely nostalgic reasons.
Related: I haven’t seen it in probably 15 years. I don’t intend on changing that because I know that watching it at this age will force me to come to the unfortunate conclusion that the movie, in fact, sucks. Because when I think about some of the plot points that I still remember, I can’t help but think: That movie probably sucks.
Morgan Freeman: The Shawshank Redemption
A ton of choices here — the aforementioned Robin Hood (just kidding), Seven, Gone Baby Gone, The Dark Knight, etc. — but it’s tough to beat Shawshank. Freeman’s narration of the escape scene is forever embedded in my mind.
Sean Connery: The Hunt for Red October
As is also the case with Costner, I missed Connery’s peak (Daniel Craig is my James Bond). But I love underwater movies. I love submarines. I love naval warfare. So this is the perfect movie for me. It’s a brilliant thriller. I just wish Alec Baldwin was a bit better as Jack Ryan. It’s not necessarily Baldwin’s fault, but after seeing Harrison Ford as Jack Ryan, it’s impossible for anyone else to measure up — yes, including Jim Halpert.
Jeffrey (who has a movie blog you can check out here):
What is your favorite movie from every year since you've been born?
Okay, so there’s admittedly a Texas-sized chance that by tomorrow, I’ll have different answers for half of these years. I took a flawed approach to this question that included googling “IMDB movies [insert year]” and scrolling through the first 100 or so movies of each given year. That’s how I came up with this list. I’ll probably think of one or two or eight movies that IMDB didn’t include sometime next week. Whatever.
Here it is …
1992: A Few Good Men
1993: Jurassic Park
1994: Pulp Fiction
1995: Before Sunrise
1996: Independence Day
1997: Good Will Hunting
1999: Fight Club
2000: Cast Away
2001: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
2002: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
2003: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
2004: Before Sunset
2005: Cinderella Man
2006: The Departed
2007: No Country For Old Men
2008: The Dark Knight
2009: Inglourious Basterds
2010: The Social Network
2012: Zero Dark Thirty
2013: The Wolf of Wall Street
2015: Ex Machina
2016: Rogue One
So, I actually did this once already on the final day of the decade. At the time, it went like this …
I’ve since changed my mind. After rewatching Dunkirk (and writing about it here), I decided that it needed to be in the top 10. But it’s not as simple as removing Snowpiercer and replacing it with Dunkirk. The entire list needed reworking.
My new list:
The Wolf of Wall Street
The Social Network
I still love Zero Dark Thirty, particularly the final 45 minutes, but I decided to remove it for Dunkirk for the simple reason that its historical accuracy has been called into question. I still think it’s a great movie. But the inaccuracies can’t be entirely ignored. Ask me again tomorrow and I might replace Snowpiercer with Zero Dark Thirty. It’s close.
Every time I come up with the list, I desperately want to include 50/50. But I can never find a spot for it.
I’m assuming nearly everyone who subscribes to this newsletter and has made it this far in the mailbag already knows this, but in case you don’t: On July 3, I quit CBS Sports after five-plus years. Next month, I’ll be moving to Boulder, where I’ll be attending Colorado Law. Meaning, of course, my time with the Pick Six Podcast is over. As for what will happen to this newsletter, I still plan to continue it. Moving forward, I might drop the weekly format so that I can actually learn how to be a lawyer. But that’s a decision for another day. For now, don’t expect any real changes.
I might’ve left my post, but Will Brinson is still the host of that daily NFL podcast, which sometimes publishes eight episodes a week. In past years, he’s survived the offseason by devoting episodes to Game of Thrones recaps, talking about beer, and going on vacation three times per summer. This year, times are tough for obvious reasons. Brinson might only be able to take one more vacation this summer assuming the NFL season begins as scheduled.
But I digress. This movie would be a comedy because there’s only so much drama that can happen to a daily NFL podcast — except when we’re arguing about Patrick Mahomes vs. Tom Brady.
With that in mind, here’s who I’m casting as each Super Friend …
John Breech: Diego Luna
Let’s be honest: Whoever plays Breech needs to be capable of getting weird. I think Luna could be up to the task. Over the past few years, he’s played a murderous spy (Rogue One) and a drug trafficker (Narcos). No, I’m not saying Breech could be either of those things. I’m just saying that Luna has some great range as an actor. Really, that’s all I’m saying. Seriously.
Will Brinson: Charlie Day
Brinson on the podcast is basically that scene in Horrible Bosses where Charlie Day accidentally inhales a bag of cocaine and won’t stop talking. The thing is, Charlie Day is also funny and as much as I hate to admit it, Brinson is also sometimes funny — at the very least, funny enough to host a popular daily NFL podcast for the past two years.
Ryan Wilson: Forest Whitaker
Forest Whitaker is in my two favorite movies of all time, Rogue One and Arrival, so Wilson should take this as a compliment. Instead, he’ll probably send me a text complaining that I picked an older actor even though Wilson is old.
Old people, man. They’ll complain about anything.
As for my five favorite comedies, first I need to say that for the purposes of this exercise, I’m not including dramas that also happen to be funny. Otherwise, my list would be dominated by movies like Good Will Hunting, 50/50, Juno, Silver Linings Playbook, 500 Days of Summer, and The Big Sick. They’re all very funny movies. But I’m only including movies that prioritize comedy over drama. Those aforementioned movies care as much about the story as making people laugh. Admittedly, a fuzzy line separates the two genres. But above all else, I’m trying to pick five movies that are more comedy than drama.
Anyone who follows me on Twitter or knows me in real life already knows that I don’t really like comedies. So, most of the movies that you’ll see listed below are movies that I initially saw when I was younger, back when I actually had a sense of humor.
My list …
It came out at the perfect time in my life.
2. Knocked Up
I like Seth Rogen.
I don’t think I’ve ever laughed harder the first time I’ve seen a movie.
4. The Hangover
If I did ever laugh harder, it was watching The Hangover for the first time.
5. Along Came Polly
Philip Seymour Hoffman elevates this otherwise mediocre movie.
Other comedies I considered: Funny People, Music and Lyrics, Notting Hill, This Is the End, Tropic Thunder, Wedding Crashers, What If.