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South Park, A League of Their Own, and three other unlikely Independence Day movies

South Park - Bigger, Longer & Uncut
South Park - Bigger, Longer & Uncut
Paramount Pictures
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Independence Day weekend has always been an important one for big movie releases. In recent decades, the weekend has become synonymous with giant action films. Some (Independence Day, Spider-Man 2) have been pretty good. Some (anything with a Transformers in its name) have been pretty bad. But they've all made boatloads of money, which is all Hollywood cares about. As such, giant action movies continue to get released as June rolls over into July. Why, look! There's a new Transformers movie to greet us right over there.

But it wasn't always this way. Before Independence Day (the watershed moment for action movies on the holiday) in 1996, the weekend was home to a wide variety of releases, some well-known and some ultra-obscure. What they have in common is that they're all over the map in terms of genre and tone. And even since the release of Independence Day, studios have tried to counterprogram the onslaught of action with middling success. (Really, only The Devil Wears Prada in 2006 managed to hold its own against things blowing up.) This year's attempt at counterprogramming? The Melissa McCarthy vehicle Tammy, which isn't exactly overwhelming critics with glee.

So this 4th of July, instead of heading out to the multiplex to see Michael Bay destroy yet another metropolis, consider staying home to watch one of the following movies, all of them worth your time in one way or another, all of them unlikely Independence Day releases. None of them was a box office sensation, but they're all worth a look removed from the summer movie hype machine. And all of them are just a little bit like this great nation of ours. Yes, even the one about a British mouse. (All box office data is courtesy of Box Office Mojo.)

South Park - Bigger, Longer and Uncut (1999): When released into the summer movie season of 1999, South Park – Bigger, Longer and Uncut couldn’t get enough box office juice to overtake the famously awful Will Smith vehicle Wild Wild West. Time has been much kinder to the cinematic adaptation of the ill-behaved television show. Upon its release, the movie already had a number of critical champions who were taken with its die-hard defense of the freedom to swear as much as you want, particularly if you're able to in song. Directors Trey Parker and Matt Stone were inspired to make the film by the furor that greeted the TV series when it first debuted, but any controversy that greeted the film version quickly dissipated. After all, it got a shout out from the Academy with an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song.

But it took hitting home video for the movie’s many other qualities, like the fact that it’s one of the best movie musicals ever made, or the idea that it’s endlessly quotable (particularly in the profanity department), to catch on with the larger audience it always deserved. The show that inspired the film isn’t what it once was, but rewatching the movie makes it easy to remember what made so many people crazy about it in the first place.

How it’s like America: A bunch of foul-mouthed kids just want to swear as often as they want? Isn’t that exactly why we fought the American Revolution? USA! USA! USA! USA!

— Todd VanDerWerff

A League of Their Own (1992): Long before 4th of July movies became about blowing up the White House and Michael Bay destruction porn, audiences were gifted the classic that is A League of Their Own. At the time, critics didn't appreciate the film's aim-for-the-fences attempt at making you both cry and laugh, its lack of Madonna moments, and its allegedly uneven pace. Twenty years later, with the mystique of Madonna falling away from the movie and a new generation's appreciation for the terrific ensemble cast, the question isn't why the Library of Congress would select League for preservation in the United States National Film Registry, but rather, why did it take so long?

Tom Hanks (as Jimmy "No Crying in Baseball" Dugan) and Geena Davis (as phenom Dottie Hinson) were perfect. Lori Petty as the petulant Kit Keller, was one great villain. And the rest of the team, like second basewoman Marla Hooch (Megan Cavanagh), pitcher Ellen Sue (Freddie Simpson), and left fielder Betty "Spaghetti" Horn (Tracy Reiner), were all relatable and memorable in their own ways. Thanks to director Penny Marshall, the film also made baseball watchable, a feat not seen again until 2011's Moneyball.

How it’s like America: America probably thinks it's a lot like steady, reliable Dottie. But in reality, it, like all of us, is really more like impetuous, quick-tempered Kit.

— Alex Abad-Santos

Katy Perry: Part of Me (2012): Unlike her endlessly addicting teenage anthems, Katy Perry's autobiographical documentary, Katy Perry: Part of Me, didn't get close to the number one spot upon its summer 2012 release. Sadly, Perry's animated dresses and hours of concert drama fell $55 million dollars short of upstaging The Amazing Spider-Man, despite the fact that the concert film was shown in 3-D. (Hell, the DVD release came with cotton-candy-scented 3-D glasses, which is even more impressive.)  Part of Me didn't come close to touching Justin Bieber's 2011 documentary, Never Say Never, which is a true American tragedy.

Most autobiographical documentaries are two hours of straight PR nonsense with some epic concert shots, but Part of Me offers a surprising window into the trials and heartbreak of becoming America's sweetheart. The movie was released right on the heels of the wild success of Perry's album Teenage Dream, which had five number one singles. It was also released right after Perry's brutal divorce from comedian Russell Brand. By tracing a year that both made Perry into an international pop star and destroyed her personal life, Part of Me became one of the most honest depictions of the life of a modern day pop star available.

How it's like America: Not only is Katy Perry an American hero who rose from middle-class roots to glorious pop-star royalty, but the film also depicts her attempts end her relationship with a British man. Sounds familiar.

— Kelsey McKinney

The Great Mouse Detective (1986): This one wasn’t really the box office hit that Buena Vista was hoping for. Its opening weekend ran into the third weekend of Karate Kid: Part II and the eighth weekend of Top Gun, among others. Even if you count only new releases, it was unable to overcome that all-time classic Psycho III. But the movie wasn’t a total flop. Its total eventually outgrossed the continuing adventures of Norman Bates, which is good.

The movie was ultimately more important to film history, because  — and let's not oversell this — the movie literally saved Disney. As Disney historian Jim Korkis notes, at a time when the studio was still recovering from the 1985 failure of The Black Cauldron, Detective revitalized Disney’s animation process. In fact, just three short years after Detective, Disney rebounded in a big way with The Little Mermaid, a movie that made us all proud to be American (and/or a little jealous we weren’t merpeople). Even if you didn’t see this in theaters and you’re one of the reasons why it ranks only eighth in box office revenue for Mouse/Rat Movies, you owe it to yourself — no, to this country, by golly! — to watch the bloody movie that kept Disney kicking long enough to give us Splash Mountain.

How it’s like America: OK, yes, this is a movie about a mouse (who is British) based on Sherlock Holmes (who is British.) And no, Being British is not technically an American Thing. But what is an American Thing is our intense, almost compulsive desire to be British. Obviously, there’s the explicit stuff of our Anglophilia, like Downton Abbey, Earl Grey Tea, and forgetting to floss. So it's not too much of a stretch to say that if you’re feeling patriotic, you should watch The Great Mouse Detective. You’re out of BBC Sherlock episodes, anyway. And what? You're going to reject the movie that saved Disney? What's more American than Disney?!

— Brandon Ambrosino

Public Enemies (2009): Director Michael Mann's chronicle of the life and times of John Dillinger actually had a respectable run at the box office, falling just short of $100 million. But it still opened in third (behind the first Transformers sequel and an Ice Age movie), and when's the last time you heard someone say, "Boy, that Public Enemies is a really good movie!"?

But here's the thing: Public Enemies actually is a really good movie, filled with strong performances (from the likes of Johnny Depp, Christian Bale and Marion Cotillard) and that thing Mann does where he makes every single vehicle, weapon or old-fashioned location gleam like it's fresh off the factory floor. In true Mann fashion, this is an exploration of masculinity and the trappings of "heroism," and if it doesn't stick every single landing, it still gets points for being one of the last films aimed at adults to come out at Independence Day and manage to be somewhat successful. If you're looking for something slightly more sophisticated than your average 4th of July fare, this is your best bet.

How it's like America: Cocksure and certain of its place in the universe in public? Yep. Deeply uncertain and brooding in private? Definitely. Not entirely sure how to feel about Marion Cotillard but usually coming down on the side of liking her? That's our country all right!

— Todd VanDerWerff