Much as I’d like to claim it solely and totally as my own, the genesis of this survey is actually a DVD thread I posted to over on the Home Theater Spot forums a couple years ago. Thing is, most of the folks contributing to those boards are a little more into the sizzle than the steak. Now, lest that be read as a knock on those guys, let me say this: HTS is a first-rate online resource, for newbies and old hands alike, that’s mercifully light on fan-boy flame wars. Definitely check them out if you’re at all interested in moving your home-theater experience beyond the one or two crappy speakers built into your TV. Just don’t expect to find anyone parsing David Mamet dialogue.
Anyway, I’ve had this list rattling around in my head and my hard drive for a while now and I always thought the blog might be a good way to share it with people whose appreciation of film goes a little beyond whether the soundtrack has enough LFE to cure kidney stones. The combination of filling out Dennis Cozzalio’s/Prof. Van Helsing’s latest quiz and submitting a ballot of the ten most worthy Best Picture winners to Edward Copeland (and realizing how few of my favorite films were also Oscar winners) kind of reawakened the question.
So I put it to the People of Earth thusly:
Name ten movies you consider overlooked, underrated, offbeat and [/or] in general deserving of not being forgotten.
13 people responded, proffering 115 films (give or take a few duplicate suggestions).
In posting his list, Zach Campbell over at Elusive Lucidity quite rightly pointed out that, while "overlooked" and "underappreciated" share a long and fuzzy common border, they are not the same thing. I basically had a momentary lapse in conjunction function, using an “and” where I should have “or-ed.” Sorry. He also wondered,
Should I write about a film I chanced upon that very few people may know, or should I use the space to defend some oft-maligned film maudit? Highlight relative classics from cine-realms generally overlooked by the wider film geek scene I consider myself part of?“
One thing I noticed early on was the surprising number of sequels—particularly within a genre series—that were considered unduly unsung. I think the tendency is for viewers (myself included) to write off second and (especially) third installments as shameless cash-cow milking. Something Dennis says, at least in the case of Final Destination 2 and Jurassic Park III, is our loss, calling the latter:
lean, mean, brutal and exhilarating, a Jurassic sequel for those who thought the first two...were on the bloated side.
All I can say is I’m glad Dennis is around to kiss all these frogs for us. And to remind us why some of them are worth revisiting.
Sure, it lacks the heart of the original, but it more than makes up for it with the head-spinning time-traveling permutations that keep the film moving at breakneck speed from beginning to end.
Much like Zach, Steve submitted a list that demonstrated just how relative “obscure,” “overlooked,” and “underrated” can be. I suppose I meant those in the context of relatively mainstream acknowledgement of the films. Maybe another way to put the question would have been: Name 10 movies you’d put on your personal recommendations shelf at a video store. In any case, another horizons-expanding list that, like many, championed a few titles that are almost universally dismissed (Kung Pao: Enter the Fist) or reviled (Freddy Got Fingered)—demonstrating another interesting and unexpected side effect of the survey. It got me thinking about what it means to be a true film lover (as opposed to merely a snob): The ability to recognize creative merit and, no matter how pervasive the tide of scorn or indifference, stand up and maintain the courage of your convictions.
That Little Round-Headed Boy and Ross Ruediger both submitted fun, diverse, thought-provoking lists combining films I've seen but failed to appreciate with some that are utterly unknown to me--either way, I'm eager to re/view them. While many commented that their lists were not definitive and could easily be expanded tenfold, TLRHB was the most vocal in decrying the 10-film limit. I know it’s sort of cruel to start with such an expansive, wide-open topic, then arbitrarily hold each person to ten films. But I think most everyone seemed to agree that, combined with not over-thinking what goes on the list, a cap helps to shake out the real gems—or at least the films people are genuinely passionate about. And TLRHB snuck in a coda of another 14 titles, including Men Don't Leave, so it's all good.
The Self-Styled Siren and Exiled in NJ each weighed in with some welcome feminine perspective (not to sell short the contributions of Ixtab and Tammara, regular patrons of ADS who happend by on what turned out to be film-geek night and were good sports to play along). Even though I’ve never seen (and barely know) any of the Siren’s picks, she shares my affinity for The Bridge on the River Kwai, so her list gets automatic benefit of the doubt. While The Siren represented for old-school
A couple submissions included movies that were on various iterations of my own list. My first response was slightly resentful ambivalence (“Man, he got to that one before I did.”) Because, sure, I want all the movies on my list to feel like my own personal cache of best-kept secrets. But, given the cine-literate chops of those submitting, I now take it as a validation of my own instincts about these films. (“See? Edward Copeland thinks Lone Star is the shiznit, too. Ipso facto, I’m a genius!”)
Naked Lunch and Videodrome. After that, several directors tied for perennial bridesmaid status with a pair of films each:
- John Sayles (Lone Star [EC, MM], The Secret of Roan Inish [Ixtab])
- Bruce Beresford (Black Robe [Fish, MM], Breaker Morant[MM])
- The Coen Bros. (Miller’s Crossing [EC], The Hudsucker Proxy [Patrick])
- Oliver Stone (
[Patrick], Talk Radio [RR]) Salvador
- Roman Polanski (Bitter Moon [RR]; MacBeth [ENJ])
- Albert Brooks (Lost in
[TLRHB]; Defending Your Life [MM]) America
- Michael Mann (Manhunter [MM], The Last of the Mohicans [ENJ])
- Steven Soderberg (Out of Sight; The Limey [MM])
So, other than fattening everybody’s Netflix queues, what’s the point of this?
My hope is that some of these will be complete (but pleasant) surprises, a few might elicit an “Oh, yeah, how could I have forgotten that?” and, with any luck, one or two might actually change your mind about something you’d dismissed for some reason. Ravenous, recommended by Ross Ruediger and seconded by Afraid (all the way from NZ!) fits neatly into that last category for me. I also appreciated the riffing eclecticism of Ross’ list, going from the darkness of Polanski’s Bitter Moon to the earnest buoyancy of Love Actually, which he cited as a personal benchmark:
The day I can write a screenplay that's as simultaneously light & complex as this one, I'll believe that I actually know a thing or two about filmmaking.
(Quick confession: this whole time, for some reason I was confusing Love Actually with Down with Love. Not sure how that happened. Just needed to make the adjustment in my head, replacing Rene Zellweger and Ewan MacGregor with, well, a whole raft of British ensemble players. Okay, got it. Carry on.)
In any case, here they are, in more or less the order they occurred to me: Ten films that I think ought not to be missed or forgotten.
True Stories (1986)
Written and directed by David Byrne (yes, the Talking Heads frontman, here trading his signature big suit for a comically large Stetson). It’s the amiably surreal story of a fictitious
Recently, someone asked Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman about great food movies. He responded with the usual suspects—Tampopo, Babette’s Feast, Big Night—but conspicuously omitted Mostly Martha. Which immediately qualified it officially as both Underrated and Overlooked, at least in my mind. I considered dashing off a missive to correct the oversight, but then remembered that my blog, with its readership easily double that of EW (and that’s just the people looking for drinking-song lyrics) would make a better forum.
This is a charming and bittersweet German romantic comedy (which might seem like a quadruple oxymoron, I know, but go with it) about a chef, the titular Martha, who has to learn how to live and enjoy life without always being in control. It could be said that the film plays up cultural stereotypes about Germans and Italians; I submit that it can be forgiven because it does so with such genuine affection. And because it makes such memorable and effective use of Paolo Conte's "Via con Me." (Something I’m now kicking myself for forgetting when Professor Brainerd posed a question about best use of a song in a movie.) It probably goes without saying that you'll feel like eating Italian afterward.
Breaker Morant (1980)
I have very fond memories of this as a great date flick from the early '80s (watched on VHS sometime in the late ‘80s with the future Mrs. Middlebrow). Kind of an Aussie western-cum-court-martial drama directed by Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy, Black Robe), it’s not so much overlooked or underrated (it actually generated a fair bit of acclaim as I recall); more one of those ‘Oh, yeah, that was a great flick’ sort of films. Next time you get a yen for something like Out of Africa, but with, y’know, actual drama, check this out. With Bryan Brown, Jack Thompson, and Edward (The Equalizer) Woodward.
The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975)
How's this for obscure? Because it starred Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, and Madeline Kahn, and came out shortly after Young Frankenstein, people tended to mistake it for a Mel Brooks film; in fact it was written and directed by Wilder, who also plays the title character, Sigerson. Actually, ‘plays’ is far too understated a term for the mania that undergirded Gene Wilder’s acting style in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; certainly it gave The Producers, Young Frankenstein and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory their demonic charges. Though not nearly as good as YF, TA0SHSB is arguably a more serviceable genre parody/mad-cap romp than the lesser lights in the Brooks’ canon. Among some very funny moments is one with a giant buzz-saw. And at least one insidious song. "Come on and...hop! Hop! Come and do the Kangaroo Hop! Hop! That's the dance for me and you..."
The original screen adaptation of Thomas Harris’ "Red Dragon," which was recently (and unnecessarily) remade with Edward Norton and Anthony Hopkins. Basically the first of the Hannibal Lecter movies, although he's actually a secondary character in this. Directed by the versatile and underappreciated Michael Mann (The Insider, The Last o/t Mohicans, Heat, Thief, Collateral) and starring William Peterson (of C.S.I. fame). A stylish and adroitly made thriller that offers a compelling case for violence implied over violence depicted. This is an example of a film that the cognoscenti would never consider underrated; if anything, the making of Red Dragon probably helped boost its stature and, by extension, raise or renew the audience's appreciation for the fine job done by all involved the first time around.
Run Lola Run (1998)
Another fun German flick. Directed by Thom Tykver and starring his then-girlfriend, Franke Potente (from The Bourne Identity) in the title role. Basically, it’s a lesson in what to do when your idea for a film is good for only about 25 minutes of screen time: tell the same story four different ways. The result is kind of Rashomon with a wink and a nod (and a fluorescent pink fright-wig).
Out of Sight (1998)
Not exceedingly offbeat, per se; yet, after The Right Stuff, it is (to me) the quintessential example of a film that deserves much more recognition and appreciation than it ever got. One look at the poster tells me the studio clearly didn't know how to promote it; no wonder it got lost or overlooked. I suspect, too, that timing played a part: a lot of people tended to write it off as just another TV pretty boy trying to succeed where David Caruso had fallen on his pasty, pouty kisser. And there was certainly nothing about The Peacemaker to disabuse anyone of that notion. In fact, this turned out to be not only an expectations-defying, genre-transcending piece of work, but the beginning of a period of creative collaboration I consider on par with Scrocese and Deniro. George Clooney and a pre-J.Lo Jennifer Lopez have some of the best on-screen chemistry since, well, ever. But the real testament to Steven Soderberg's direction is how the chemistry crackles among all the characters. Of course, it helps that the supporting cast is utterly free of weak links: Don Cheadle, Dennis Farina, Steve Zahn, Ving Rhames, Katherine Keener, Luis Guzman, and Albert Brooks. And it's the last--and I think the best--in a troika of great Elmore Leonard adaptations (Get Shorty; Jackie Brown), so how can you miss?
Defending Your Life (1991)
Speaking of Albert Brooks. Among his fans, this probably isn’t obscure at all; I consider it his best film. In any case, it’s absolutely required watching for anyone stuck in an existential rut or generally feeling beaten down by life. Like It’s a Wonderful Life, it truly makes you want to live every moment. It's also pee-your-pants funny. But in that really smart, sophisticated yet nebbish Albert Brooks way. Also, Meryl Streep and Rip Torn provide a sweet/tart moderating influence that makes it all the better.
The Limey (1999)
Quick synopsis: Terrence Stamp kicks nine kinds of ass. The End.
Some might consider Steven Soderberg’s use of non-linear narrative a self-indulgent stunt; I think it makes Lem Dobbs’ crackerjack script and a tour-de-force leading performance backed by a first-rate ensemble into an even more enjoyable film-lover's movie. To me it’s an example of a director asking the viewer to engage on more than a superficial level, then rewarding that participation with something truly worthwhile. (It helps considerably that I saw back-to-back screenings of this on a transatlantic AirFrance flight.) This film marks a transition for Soderberg between his experimental phase (The Underneath, Schizopolis) and his ascendancy into mainstream success and fame (Traffic, Erin Brockovich, Ocean’s 11). With Luis Guzman, Peter Fonda (?!), Lesley Ann Warren, and a deliciously snarky Nicky Katt (whom the Onion AV Club recently included on its list of Character Actors Who Should Be In Every Movie).
Hard Eight (a.k.a. Sydney) (1996)
Anyone who likes Paul Thomas Anderson's work (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love) will likely enjoy his feature debut. Of course, no serious PTA fan would be unaware of this, right? Set in the seedy all-night motels and casinos of
The Imposters (1998)
More proof that, done properly by actors and filmmakers with a modicum of talent and a soupçon of passion, even a madcap farce can be worthwhile cinema. Stanley Tucci wrote and directed this slice of trifle as an apparent homage to Laruel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, et al. But, really, it’s Tucci and all his indie-movie pals cutting up and having a ball—as if someone brought a wind-up Bolex to the Big Night wrap party and things just sort of took off. It works—unlike similar formulas (cough*OCEAN’S 12*cough)—because they never stop including the audience in the fun. (Thankfully, no one thought it would be just hysterical to mention how much the famous actor Sir Jeremy Burtom resembled the famous actor Alfred Molina. What, me, bitter?) Worth a look if only for the way
Two more examples of how great minds think alike:
It’s not really a surprise that Beresford’s stark, sometimes brutal, and always unflinching culture clash would be considered unpalatable to audiences still in throes of a Dances With Wolves contact buzz.
Even though I can honestly say I appreciated Black Robe on its merits, I didn’t really hold its lack of popular acclaim against DWW. I, like a lot of people, was taken in by Costner’s romanticism and, consequently, willfully ignored the revisionism of it. The film was a popular success because Costner gave people a view of the West as they wanted to believe it had been. I’m not sure DWW deserved the Oscar, but didn’t deserve the backlash that developed over it, either.
But that's all academic. The best film to compare with Black Robe isn’t Dances With Wolves--it’s Driving Miss Daisy. To me, the idea that they were both directed by Bruce Beresford is second most awe-inspiring thing about Black Robe. The first is, of course, everything Fish said about it, along with an establishing shot of the priest’s party setting out in canoes across an enormous lake—a visual as powerful, heartbreaking and compelling as anything John Ford ever committed to celluloid.
Edward Copeland had this on his list, along with an excellent summary. Here’s my $0.02:
Part mystery, part love story, this is my favorite John Sayles (Eight Men Out) film. Every time I watch it, I see some little nuance and appreciate just what a master storyteller this guy is. The cast, as in all Sayles' films, is outstanding, centered on Chris Cooper's (Adaptation) beautifully measured performance. One of the best-kept secrets in American cinema.
A final thought: I had hoped that more of my IRL friends and fellow-cinephiles would have weighed in. Maybe this will spark another round of submissions and suggestions (though, after trying to compile this digest, I’m not sure if this is a fear or a hope. Dennis, you have my sympathies--and a whole new level of respect.)
Okay, that's it. Show's over. Get thee to a video store and get busy.