If you want the gravy…

…You've got to get the biscuits!

Underseen/rated/appreciated

I’m a big advocate for films I consider underappreciated. A few of the films on this list I’ve discussed on this blog before, but a lot of these are underseen even by me–some I’ve only seen once, and not for some time at that. Others are actually relatively well known, but by various criteria do not have the reputation I think they deserve. I’d like to say more about all 100 of these films at another time, but until then, enjoy, and feel free to offer suggestions of your own.

  • The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension – Fuck Rocky Horror. This is the cult movie you should see.
  • America, America – Nominated for four Oscars (including Picture and Director), one of the great achievements of the great Elia Kazan, yet almost totally forgotten. A shame, because this take on his grandfather’s journey from Greece to America–a long and taxing one–is a truly beautiful film.
  • The Americanization of Emily – Really need to see this again. A great satire on the ideals of military valor. James Garner, Julie Andrews, James Coburn, and Melvyn Douglas all in top form, plus a great Paddy Chayefsky script.
  • The Angel Levine – Zero Mostel is a tailor in the Bronx whose life is a series of miseries. Harry Belafonte is a petty thief, killed in a car accident, who returns as an angel to help Mostel. A strange, flawed, yet fascinating and haunting Jewish fable.
  • The Ascent – A harrowing tale of partisans in the USSR during WW2, superbly directed by Larisa Shepitko, who dared far too soon. Agonizing, but incredible.
  • Baby Doll – Another overlooked masterpiece by Kazan, a bawdy dark comedy by Tennesse Williams, with absolutely brilliant performances by Carroll Baker, Karl Malden, and Eli Wallach. Controversial at the time, now just hugely entertaining.
  • Bad Boy Bubby – Australian cinema has produced some true overlooked gems, and this sick black comedy, about a man kept hidden from the world his whole life, who finally ventures out and can barely comprehend what he encounters, is one of the greatest and most overlooked of all.
  • The Beguiled – Clint Eastwood plays a wounded Union soldier who finds refuge at a girls’ school in the Deep South. The sexual tension spirals out of control, leading to a remarkably dark climax for a Hollywood film. It’s really something to see, and it’s extremely well made, too.
  • The Black Stallion – A story of a boy and his horse, who are initially stranded on a desert island, and are later brought back to civilization, where the mighty Black proves his worth as a racer. A truly gorgeous film for the family, not remembered as well as it should be.
  • Blast of Silence – Criterion rescued this fascinating noir from total obscurity, but it’s still not well known outside of film-buff circles. A documentary-like portrait of a contract killing, enhanced greatly by the second-person narration, which begins with one of my all-time favorite lines: “Remembering out of the black silence, you were born in pain.”
  • Breaker Morant – Another Australian classic, a courtroom drama of a group of Australian officers in South Africa during the Boer War who are scapegoated for the deaths of several Boer prisoners of war. It’s been a while since I saw it, but I remember it being highly effective, and truly tragic.
  • Bulworth – Warren Beatty’s great political satire got some praise when it came out in 1998, but since then it’s been more or less forgotten, which is a damn shame, because it’s awesome. Beatty, having taken out a hit on himself to end his dreary existence, gets a new lease on life (which includes rapping a lot, which is as incredible as it sounds)–but can his newfound happiness last?
  • Bye Bye Braverman – Sidney Lumet directed this comedy about four NYC Jewish intellectuals trying to find the funeral service for their suddenly departed friend. It’s not quite perfect–it focuses heavily on one of the four (George Segal) and doesn’t capitalize on the ensemble possibilities, but it’s very funny and very well-done all the same.
  • The Cardinal – I haven’t watched the whole thing in years, but I’ve championed it ever since. Otto Preminger adapted a best-seller about a young priest’s journey from WWI to the late 30s, as he grapples with racism, Nazis, his family, and his own crisis of faith. It’s brilliantly directed, has a fantastic ensemble cast, and has some truly memorable sequences. It’s not perfect (the second half bogs down), but I have a soft spot for it, given how little attention it really gets.
  • Carnal Knowledge – Mike Nichols and Jules Feiffer crafted this bleak, grim film about a pair of friends (Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkel) who may grow old, but whose attitudes towards women are anything but mature. Superbly done across the board, with great performances from the leads, Ann-Margret, and Rita Moreno, whose one monologue very nearly steals the film.
  • The Charge of the Light Brigade – A satirical portrait of the events leading up to Britain’s involvement in the Crimean War, a parable for the Vietnam era, but an essentially timeless exploration of how the folly of the powerful destroys those subject to that power. Richard Williams’ animated sequences are icing on the cake.
  • Colossus: The Forbin Project – Superior early 70s science fiction about a supercomputer that goes rogue and begins dominating its creator–and the course of world events. It’s exciting and serious, intelligently, and with little or no camp. If only there were a good DVD available.
  • David Holzman’s Diary – A disaffected young man records his life in film; the results are not pleasant. Fascinating, hugely influential, yet virtually unknown to most audiences. Did I mention it’s a highly entertaining comedy? It’s also 73 minutes long. Seriously, watch it.
  • The Dead – John Huston’s final film, adapting a James Joyce short story about a Christmas party in early 20th-century Dublin and the revelation of secrets afterwards. It might sound dry or slight, but trust me: it’s a beautiful, beautiful film, wonderfully written and acted.
  • Dear Wendy – Lars Von Trier wrote this allegory of gun worship, which most critics excoriated, yet which is as fascinating and bizarrely witty as any film in his canon. It’s pretty merciless, but gun lovers and opponents alike may well find it rewarding.
  • Detroit 9000 – Blaxploitation at its very finest, as two police detectives, one white and one black, investigate the robbery of a political fundraiser. Raw, gritty, hugely entertaining, with a great score. Championed by Tarantino for a good reason–it’s the real deal.
  • Dodsworth – Sinclair Lewis’ novel about a retired American tycoon on vacation in Europe, and the rift that develops between him and his socially ambitious wife. A shaky start gives way to one of the smartest and most adult Hollywood films of the 30s. Walter Huston is perfect in the lead.
  • Enemies: A Love Story – Paul Mazursky tackles Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel about a Holocaust survivor and the three women in his life–none of whom he can say “no” to. The twists and turns pile on one another, until you wonder just how the hell it’ll resolve itself. But it does, after a fashion. Great period detail, witty script, fine acting, especially from Lena Olin.
  • The Fall of the Roman Empire – Sometimes heavy and portentous, this epic about the disastrous reign of Commodus is still a fine epic, anchored by Christopher Plummer’s great portrayal of the mad emperor and production values which still dazzle (at the time it was one of the most expensive films ever made). Dimitri Tiomkin’s great, melancholy score helps too.
  • The Field – A grim, very Irish story of a hard-bitten farmer (Richard Harris) who will go to any lengths to secure the field he has rented and cultivated for years. The script falters at times, especially in regards to the supporting characters, but it’s still compelling throughout, and Harris is remarkable. Not one of Jim Sheridan’s better-remembered films, but it’s really quite strong.
  • Firecreek – A very solid little late 60’s Western about the conflict between an outlaw (Henry Fonda) and the volunteer sheriff (James Stewart) of the titular town. Essentially a B film with strong credentials, but effective nonetheless.
  • For a Good Time, Call… – One of 2012’s great underseen films. An odd-couple pair of roommates (Ari Graynor and Lauren Anne Miller) go into business running a phone-sex line, with very funny results. Just a sweet, funny little raunchy comedy.
  • Fury (1936) – Fritz Lang’s first American film, and probably his best. An innocent man (Spencer Tracy) is framed for a crime he didn’t commit, and the mob come to lynch him burns down the prison he’s being held in, killing him…or maybe not. As painfully stirring as The Ox-Bow Incident, it’s also marvelously directed; its use of freeze-frames, for example, feels quite ahead of its time. The ending is a bit weak, but no matter. It’s not forgotten by any means, but it deserves a higher profile than it has.
  • The Girl Can’t Help It – Frank Tashlin’s rock and roll satire, filled to the brim with gags and great music, inventive as hell (the prologue, a demonstration of the difference between standard-size cinematography and CinemaScope, is quite brilliant), and boasting great performances from Tom Ewell, Edmond O’Brien, and Jayne Mansfield. That it features Little Richard, Fats Domino, Julie London, and others makes all the more valuable.
  • The Great Santini – Both Robert Duvall and Michael O’Keefe got Oscar nominations for this, but lost (Duvall to DeNiro for Raging Bull; O’Keefe to Timothy Hutton for Ordinary PeopleNot unreasonable), and the film , which had not been a box-office hit, fell into obscurity. A shame, because not only were the Oscar nominations well deserved, the film probably should’ve been up for its script, adapted from Pat Conroy’s novel.  A most effective comedy-drama of a military family led by a man who has no great knack for civilian life, it’s ripe for rediscovery.
  • Half a Sixpence – Maybe I should’ve gone with one of Tommy Steele’s other two vehicles to come in the space of about a year–The Happiest Millionaire and especially Finian’s Rainbow are worth mention themselves, the latter in particular, as it was one of Francis Ford Coppola’s first features. But I’ll stick with perhaps the most obscure of the three, this musical about a clerk in a hat shop (Steele) who discovers he’s heir to a fortune, and makes a comic attempt to enter into high society, while trying to preserve his relationship with the girl (Julia Foster) he’s been kept apart from for so long. It’s not great, but it’s got some fine songs and certainly doesn’t deserve to be as forgotten as it is.
  • Hamsun – Jan Troell’s portrait of the later years of Norwegian author Knut Hamsun, particularly his controversial connection with Hitler and the post-war fallout from this, which nearly destroyed him. Max von Sydow is excellent in the lead, and it’s an unusually sharp and incisive biopic. I believe it’s still on Netflix.
  • The Heart is a Lonely Hunter – Another Oscar nominee, for Alan Arkin and Sondra Locke (the Globes nominated it for Best Picture, one of their wiser decisions). Arkin is a deaf-mute living in a small town in the South; Locke is the teenage girl whose home Arkin boards in, who forms a bond with him as she navigates the dangerous waters of coming-of-age. Both deserved the nominations, and Locke especially should’ve won (though Ruth Gordon in Rosemary’s Baby was hardly a bad choice); it’s a tender, touching film, a sensitive portrayal of its subject matter that has just enough weight to stick with you. And almost no one remembers it now. A pity.
  • Home From the Hill – A Southern family drama, centering around the conflict between a rugged patriarch (Robert Mitchum) and his refined wife (Eleanor Parker) over the raising of their teenage son (George Hamilton). Long but engaging, with probably the best performance of Hamilton’s career and fine work from Mitchum (who won the NBR Best Actor for this and another film on this list). Just a good Hollywood soap opera that deserves to better known.
  • How High – Not a great film. Just one of my favorite guilty pleasures. (“You got anything for a head wound?” “Man, ain’t nothin’ wrong with your head.” *crash* “There is now!” *passes out* “Fuckin’ crackhead.”)
  • Inside Moves – A troubled vet (John Savage) tries to kill himself, but fails; while trying to get his life back in order, he finds friendship at a local bar, especially with the bartender (David Morse), who nurses dreams of basketball success–and when he gets a chance to make them come true, he might just leave his old friends in the lurch. A hugely likable, funny, and endearing film, one of the great overlooked films of its era. Yet another Oscar nominee, for Diana Scarwid’s bright performance as Savage’s girlfriend.
  • Khartoum – An epic about General Gordon’s attempt to defend Khartoum from the forces of the Mahdi. Charlton Heston is Gordon (one of his best performances), and Laurence Olivier is the Mahdi (not one of his best performances, but not one of his worst either). It’s one of the more intelligent and character-driven epics of its era (the script was nominated for an Oscar, deservedly); it’s no Lawrence of Arabia, but history buffs and epic buffs really need to check it out.
  • Koyaanisqatsi – I’m not sure how underappreciated this really is, but it’s an incredible film that every serious film lover needs to see. Philip Glass’ score is one of the very greatest in film history. So if you haven’t seen it, see it.
  • Let’s Do It Again (Poitier/Cosby trilogy) – This is the middle film (between Uptown Saturday Night and A Piece of the Action) of a trilogy starring Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby, directed by Poitier, that came out in the mid 70s. This is the best, a most enjoyable comedy about the protagonists’ attempts to get rich by hypnotizing a scrawny boxer by the name of Bootney Farnsworth (Jimmie Walker). It’s a ton of fun. Uptown is quite enjoyable as well, and Piece has its moments (though it gets a bit messagey).
  • Little Big Man – Another film that’s probably decently well-known, but deserves to be even more highly regarded. Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) has a hell of a life; orphaned when his parents are killed by the Pawnee, he is raised by Cheyenne, gains (and loses) religion, becomes a charlatan, a sharpshooter, a shopkeeper, and joins Custer’s 7th Cavalry…and that’s just the first hour or so. A brilliant satire that packs an emotional punch when it needs to, featuring a great (Oscar-nominated) performance from Chief Dan George as Crabb’s adoptive father.
  • The Long, Hot Summer – Oh, I love this movie. It’s adapted from Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy and involves a ne’er-do-well (Paul Newman) who goes to work for the local tycoon (Orson Welles in a beautifully boisterous performance) and decides to woo his daughter (Joanne Woodward). A lighthearted, endlessly enjoyable slice of life.
  • Lust for Life – This biopic of Vincent Van Gogh may not be terribly obscure, but you don’t hear that much about it, which is too bad. Kirk Douglas is great as Van Gogh (and Anthony Quinn won an Oscar as Paul Gauguin), but the real star is Vincente Minnelli’s incredible direction; the use of color is simply remarkable. And, as far as memory serves, it’s much better than either of Minnelli’s Best Picture winners.
  • Make Way for Tomorrow – I don’t think this is quite the absolute masterpiece some have made it out to be, but it’s a deeply moving film nonetheless, and Beulah Bondi’s performance is incredible. Another film rescued by Criterion.
  • Manderlay Dogville was acclaimed, but this follow-up was mostly condemned for being grotesquely anti-American. I think it’s nearly as good as its predecessor, and more thought-provoking, as Grace (played here by Bryce Dallas Howard) tries to liberate the workers on a vestigial plantation, and realizes this is easier said than done. It’s not an easy watch, but has Von Trier ever been easy?
  • Marco – This might be the most obscure film on this list; aside from a few posters (and the means to order the DVD), there’s virtually no trace of it on the Internet. And it’s not some recondite experimental piece, either; it’s a family musical, produced by Rankin/Bass, starring Desi Arnaz Jr. as Marco Polo and Zero Mostel as Kublai Khan. And it’s a lot of fun, too–even if the second half sags and a major plot thread is resolved with dumb gag. Still, it’s a fine film for children, and one which deserves to be seen more than it is–which is to say, at all.
  • Meek’s Cutoff – Kelly Reichardt’s Western-as-chamber-drama, and quite brilliant. Based loosely on true events, about a wagon train lost in Oregon, running low on water, which captures a Native American and hopes he will lead them to safety…and that’s really about it. It’s slow, thoughtful, and always a step away from being overwhelmingly depressing. Fine performances from Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, and Ron Rondeaux.
  • Men Who Stare at Goats, The – Such a weird little film, yet fun. It’s a comedy about psychokinetic experiments by the Army, and it stars George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Kevin Spacey, and Jeff Bridges. It’s worth taking a look at.
  • Never Cry Wolf – Another Carroll Ballard masterpiece, this one based on Farley Mowat’s experiences in the Canadian Arctic observing wild wolves. Charles Martin Smith is excellent in the lead, but it’s Hiro Narita’s spellbinding cinematography–and the amazingly beautiful scenes of wolves in their element–that make it a classic. Well-received at the time (and a favorite of my parents), it’s now relatively forgotten. And that’s not okay.
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four – A superior adaptation of Orwell; John Hurt is perfectly cast as Winston Smith, and Richard Burton’s O’Brien (and Suzanna Hamilton’s Julia) is nearly as good. It captures the tone of the book so well, yet, possibly because of the graphic nudity, it never gained a foothold in academic circles, and has been relatively little seen.
  • North Dallas Forty – A great seriocomic look at pro football, with Nick Nolte as a player whose patience with the management wears thin as his body wears out.
  • Nothing Lasts Forever – Never officially released in America (it’s on YouTube, ripped from a British videotape), this is a weird, weird little film. It’s basically a 30s serial scifi homage, about an aspiring artist who finds himself recruited by some sort of underground movement that sends him on a trip to the moon (in this universe, a tacky tourist destination). Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd cameo. It’s not exactly great, but it’s very unique, and very likable. Worth checking out.
  • Nutty Professor II: The Klumps – Say what you will, but Eddie Murphy’s performance here is a goddamn tour-de-force. Not only does he play multiple characters, he makes each a fully realized and rounded character, sympathetic and funny as hell. The film itself is just okay, but Murphy delivers legitimately award-worthy work here.
  • Oedipus Rex (1957) – A filmed adaptation of the Stratford Festival production of Sophocles’ tragedy, performed in the ancient Greek style, complete with masks. Not exactly light entertainment, but a must for any student of theater. Plus, a young William Shatner is part of the chorus.
  • Oh! What a Lovely War – An allegorical musical about World War I, mixing British seaside amusement park entertainment with gritty reality. Brilliantly directed by Richard Attenborough, featuring an incredible cast. Its profile has risen since the release of the DVD, but it still merits further exposure.
  • One From the Heart – Coppola’s experimental musical got a pretty bad rap at the time, but the stylization is pretty damn dazzling, and if the story is archetypal at best, it’s quite a satisfactory framework for the technical wizardry on display.
  • Osmosis Jones – I’ve seen this movie so many times. I really love it. It was a total flop on release (possibly because of shitty marketing), but I think it’s constantly funny and, in its own way, decently educational.
  • Payday – This might be the big one. It’s such a good film, and it’s so little known–yet just about everyone who’s seen it agrees: it’s a masterpiece. This portrait of a sleazy country singer (Rip Torn) over a couple of eventful days doesn’t glorify or demonize the character, but portrays him and his world with despairing fairness. Torn’s performance should have won an Oscar, yet he didn’t even come close to a nomination. Simply a brilliant film.
  • Pennies From Heaven – If Payday is the #1 on this list, this is the #2–an amazing combination of Depression-era tragedy and glorious musical escapism. Why MGM spent over $20 million on this in 1981 is beyond me, but bless them for it. It’s fascinating, perfectly directed, very well acted (Steve Martin is very good, but Bernadette Peters–who won a Globe–is magnificent), gorgeously designed and shot, and shot through with Dennis Potter’s ingenuity. An absolute must.
  • Petulia – A strange, sad love story, starring Julie Christie and George C. Scott, directed by Richard Lester (who also did Robin and Marian). One I really need to see again, because parts of the narrative don’t come together till the very end. But I remember finding it quite effective.
  • The Phantom Tollbooth – A childhood favorite of mine, and Chuck Jones’ only feature. A young boy stuck in a malaise finds himself transported to a magical world where the princesses Rhyme and Reason must be rescued so order may be restored to the Kingdom of Reason. Fine animation, some great songs (“Don’t say there’s nothin’ to do in the dollllllllllllllrums…”), and just enough of a moral. Unfortunately, it’s really hard to find.
  • The Profound Desire of the Gods – To a remote Japanese island which seems to sit outside of time, an engineer from Tokyo comes to set up a mill. He gets caught up in the affairs of a deeply troubled family, but he is too out of his element to help. An over-the-top film in every way, and quite a fascinating one at that; at nearly three hours, it does get a bit repetitive, but it’s pretty damned impressive most of the time, and its almost total obscurity in America is unfortunate.
  • Providence – Alain Resnais’ film has its foundation in an uncommonly cleverly constructed script by David Mercer, which may falter at times (some of the dialogue is fairly stilted and awkward), but which comes together most satisfyingly in the final minutes. An old writer (John Gielgud) tries to manage the lives of his family through his writing during one sleepless night, but as it turns out, there’s more to the matter than we realize. Gielgud is fine, but Dirk Bogarde, as his smug, waspish son, is marvelous.
  • Putney Swope – Like many films of its time, Putney Swope feels arch and scattered at times, but its satire of the excesses of Madison Avenue remains potent, and most importantly, it’s often very funny. The great parody commercials and Charley Cuva’s excellent score help considerably.
  • Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx – The weird title suits this weird little tale; a manure salesman in Dublin (Gene Wilder) finds himself behind the times, and an affair with an American student (Margot Kidder) brings both happiness and heartbreak. I don’t remember it terribly well, but as I recall, it’s got its moments, and it’s the sort of quirky little film that tends to fall through the cracks–and into the hands of someone like me.
  • Quantum of Solace – I may be alone in saying so, but I think this is the best of Daniel Craig’s Bond films. Marc Forster’s vivid direction, some great action, a believable yet properly loathsome villain (Mathieu Amalric), and a surprisingly harsh view of modern geopolitics make for a gripping watch. Yes, it has issues; it had a troubled production, and the story sometimes feels sketchy, but when you’ve got moments like the opera-house confrontation between Bond and Greene, you can forgive a few lapses. And it gets better every time I see it–unlike Skyfall.
  • Red Hook Summer – Spike Lee returns to Brooklyn (he cameos as his character from Do the Right Thing) with a coming-of-age story that is equal parts bright and likable and, with a revelation that comes midway through, wrenching and horrifying. Dismissed as messy and throwaway by many, I really loved it; Clarke Peters and Thomas Jefferson Byrd give amazing performances.
  • The Red Tent – A film I liked as a child (when fascinated by shipwrecks and disasters of all kinds), and was impressed yet again by as an adult. The true story of Italian Umberto Nobile’s (Peter Finch) Arctic zeppelin expedition, which ended in disaster, with several men stranded on the ice and an international rescue effort (with Sean Connery’s Roald Amundsen pitching in) ensuing. The framing device, Nobile put on trial by the ghosts of the past, has often been mocked, yet it worked for me. And the sequences of survival are harrowingly effective. It’s a really superb adventure film, and beautifully made as well.
  • Revenge of a Kabuki Actor – aka An Actor’s Revenge. One of my cousin’s very favorite films, and I can see why. A kabuki actor who plays female roles (Kazuo Hasegawa) decides to take revenge on the nobleman who destroyed his family–but as always, revenge has its price. Kon Ichikawa’s direction is absolutely amazing, and the widescreen cinematography is nothing short of incredible. I really need to see it again (it’s been a couple of years), but it’s a remarkable film.
  • Robin and Marian – 15 years before his cameo in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Sean Connery played Robin himself in this revisionist take, which starts with a crazed King Richard (Richard Harris) ordering the massacre of a castleful of innocents, and which centers on Robin’s reunion with Marian (Audrey Hepburn), who had been a nun, and the renewal of his feud with the reluctant Sheriff of Nottingham (Robert Shaw). A truly poignant film, which boasts a great cast (I should also mention Nicol Williamson’s Little John) and a fascinating take on an old story. If you plan to see this, go in as blindly as possible; you’ll understand why afterwards.
  • Robinson Crusoe on Mars – Another Criterion laureate. This sci-fi updating of Defoe might seem, on the surface, to be merely camp, but it’s not; it’s a surprisingly intelligent and thoughtful tale of survival, very well made given what was likely a low budget, and which even makes its gimmicks–like a pet monkey–work well. Maybe it loses some steam in the last third, but it comes recommended.
  • Runaway Train – An unproduced Kurosawa screenplay becomes this great 80s action film. Jon Voight and Eric Roberts (both nominated for Oscars) are two prisoners on the run, who board a train expecting a pleasant ride to freedom–and find themselves trapped on a runaway (hence the title) in the Alaskan wilderness. From the beginning, where we learn that Voight is so hated by the warden that his cell doors have been welded shut, we’re in a raw, uncompromising world, and it’s constantly gripping, leading to a haunting finale.
  • Satantango – Another discovery via my cousin. A seven-hour long B&W black comedy from Hungary is unlikely to find a wide audience, but it’s a hell of a film regardless, a portrait of a squalid commune to which a near-legendary citizen returns, his intentions being far from clear–or honest. Bela Tarr’s direction is slow and meditative, making use of some very long takes indeed, but the craft is such that it’s rarely less than gripping. There are holes in the plot which keep from recommending it unreservedly, but if you’re at all willing to try, do so. It’s a rewarding experience.
  • Savages – Oliver Stone’s marijuana melodrama–about two California growers who face off with the cartel, which proceeds to kidnap their girlfriend–met with sharply mixed reviews, but I thought it was brilliant. It’s vintage Stone, all the way down to the cynical ending, and the performances (Salma Hayek as the cartel head, Benicio Del Toro as her enforcer, John Travolta as a sleazy DEA agent) are spot-on. A thriller of a very high order, it’s unlovely, but that’s as it should be.
  • The Shoes of the Fisherman – A Soviet priest held in a labor camp for years (Anthony Quinn) gains his freedom, and finding favor in the Vatican, soon finds himself elected Pope–just as tensions between the Soviet Union and China reach a breaking point. On a more personal level, he must deal with the struggles of his friend (Oskar Werner), a priest who advances unorthodox views and faces censure from the cardinals. When it sticks to issues of faith, it’s one of the more thought-provoking religious dramas out there. A subplot about a newsman’s (David Janssen) troubled marriage is a distraction, but there’s enough here to make it worthwhile.
  • Slaughterhouse-Five – Kurt Vonnegut loved this adaptation of his novel, and that’s reason enough for me to recommend it. Shamefully, I haven’t read the book, but the film is great: deftly edited, smartly written, perfectly cast, and constantly entertaining. It’s a shame this isn’t very well-known but, the director’s follow-up (The Sting, in my opinion not quite as good) is a beloved classic. This is Top 10 Most Underappreciated material here.
  • Smile – A satire of beauty pageants, anchored by Bruce Dern’s performance as the lovably earnest chief judge. Another one I really need to rewatch, but rest assured, it’s worth checking out. It holds up shockingly well.
  • A Soldier’s Story – A Best Picture nominee, and a reasonable one, but Adolph Caesar’s performance as the brutally self-loathing Sgt. Waters–also nominated–is the main attraction. It’s a murder mystery set on a segregated Army base in WWII, and the victim is the much hated Waters, whose resentment of his own race manifests itself in his treatment of his men. Caesar is incredible, but Haing S. Ngor’s work in The Killing Fields got the Oscar; I’m not sure how I feel about that, since both were great, but Caesar…
  • Sounder – Another Best Picture nominee, also about blacks in the South, though in this case, the protagonists are a poor sharecropping family in the Depression, thrown into turmoil when the father (Paul Winfield) is sent to jail for stealing food. The eldest son (Kevin Hooks) shows much academic promise, but there’s also his family, especially his weary mother (Cicely Tyson) to consider. A top-notch family film, superbly made, with excellent work from Hooks and Oscar-nominated work from Winfield and Tyson. Aside from one brief white-saviorish moment, it’s wonderful.
  • Splendor in the Grass – Elia Kazan yet again! (His run from 1945 to 1963 is one of the greatest ever.) Set in Southeast Kansas (which just so happens to be where I grew up) in the 20s, it’s a tale of teenage love thwarted by the sexual mores of the era. It threatens to become soap opera, but Kazan’s handling and the performances (Natalie Wood, Warren Beatty, Pat Hingle and Barbara Loden are all world-class, and Wood should’ve won the Oscar she was up for) keep it from doing so. William Inge’s strong script won an Oscar–an Oscar I’ve held before.
  • Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country – Everyone knows Wrath of Khan and The Voyage Home (fucking whales), but this entry in the series doesn’t get talked about much for some reason. It’s really, really good, though, an allegory for the end of the Cold War as the Klingons, in the face of crisis, try to forge a bond with the Federation–with Kirk assigned to escort a key diplomat. When that diplomat is murdered, and Kirk and McCoy are framed for the crime, it’s up to the rest of the crew to discover the truth and save the day. Nicholas Meyer, who directed Khan, returns, and if this is more a thriller than a sweeping adventure, it’s no less gripping. Plus, you get Christopher Plummer as a Shakespeare-loving Klingon general, which is as awesome as it sounds.
  • The Sundowners – Yet another Best Picture nominee, a cheerful epic about a family of itinerant sheep drovers in 20s Australia. More of a character piece than a plot piece, but that’s no issue, especially since Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr give such great performances (she was nominated for the Oscar, but he–in the same year as his fine work in Home From the Hill–was not.
  • Swashbuckler – A lighthearted pirate film, boasting a shockingly strong cast (Robert Shaw, James Earl Jones, Peter Boyle, Genevieve Bujold, Beau Bridges, Geoffrey Holder). It’s nothing spectacular, just a nice, fun little film that has an oddly poor reputation. At the time (1976) it would’ve seemed a pleasant throwback; now it can be a simple antidote to the excesses of the Pirates of the Caribbean films (fun as those are).
  • The Taking of Pelham One Two Three – This has actually been remade a couple of times (most recently in 2009 with Denzel Washington and John Travolta), but why did they bother? The original is so good. A team of criminals boards a subway train and holds it ransom for a million dollars, with the city having only an hour to pay up. Walter Matthau is the security officer trying to negotiate with the hijackers, and Robert Shaw is the leader of them. Both are brilliant. It’s incredibly tense and almost as funny (and the humor doesn’t deflate the tension). Perfect ending, too.
  • The Talk of the Town – Hey, it’s another forgotten Best Picture nominee! It’s a romantic comedy of sorts, with Cary Grant a suave anarchist wrongfully accused by the police, Ronald Colman a renowned legal scholar on the verge of appointment to the Supreme Court, and Jean Arthur the woman in love with both of them. It’s witty, intelligent, and constantly entertaining, smoothly directed by George Stevens. A classic-era film that doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
  • Targets – Peter Bogdanovich’s debut, wherein the stories of a horror film icon (Boris Karloff) on the verge of retirement and an Average Joe (Tim O’Kelly) who snaps and goes on a killing spree intertwine. Karloff is simply brilliant, O’Kelly is nearly as good, and the script is smart and smartly structured.
  • Thoroughly Modern Millie – George Roy Hill (of Slaughterhouse-Five) strikes again, with a Julie Andrews musical set in the Roaring Twenties, as a newly minter flapper (Julie Andrews) falls in unrequited love, befriends a manic millionairess (Carol Channing, Oscar-nominated), and has to rescue a friend (Mary Tyler Moore) from white slavery. It’s a wild circus of a film, and quite delightful–certainly, for my money, more compelling than The Sound of Music.
  • To the Wonder – Terrence Malick’s Oklahoma-set romance might not one of his best films, and the first act is a bit rough, but it’s still filled with all the beauty you’d expect from a Malick film, and once Rachel McAdams enters the scene with a dynamite performance, it soars to the end.
  • A Touch of Sin – Winner of the Best Screenplay award at Cannes, it went unreleased in its native China and was not widely seen here, but it’s one of the best films of 2013. Four tales of individuals standing against the system, superbly performed, brilliantly written, and painstakingly photographed. Not just an overlooked film, but a truly great one.
  • Trick Baby – Another blaxploitation film that deserves to be better known, a tale of two con artists who don’t realize they’ve just swindled the uncle of a gangster, and whose quick wits may not be enough to save them. A great performance by Mel Stewart is what really makes it.
  • An Unmarried Woman – One of the hardest-to-find Best Picture nominees (at least post-1970), and while it isn’t perfect (like many of Paul Mazursky’s films, it’s so perfectly of its time that it ages poorly), Jill Clayburgh’s wonderful performance as a divorcee tentatively re-entering the dating scene should have won the Oscar, hands down. The witty, sensitive script also helps.
  • Urgh! A Music War – A great concert film featuring many of the great punk artists, with Klaus Nomi, The Cramps, and Au Pairs just a few of the standouts. A few of the acts aren’t too hot (who the fuck is Athletico Spizz 80?), but the batting average is remarkably high, and the direction avoids any gimmickry, allowing us to enjoy the performances all the more fully.
  • Visions of Eight – A documentary of the 1972 Olympics, featuring episodes by eight directors (including Milos Forman, John Schlesinger, Mai Zetterling, and Arthur Penn). Quite a fascinating project, and it worked out pretty well too–Penn’s segment profiles pole vaulting, arguably my favorite Summer event. It should be noted it makes only brief mention of the terrorist attacks against the Israeli athletes, which may bother some.
  • Wake In Fright – Recently rescued and re-released by Drafthouse Films, an Australian classic of human degradation as a schoolteacher, stuck in an Outback city, falls into drunkenness and depravity over the course of a few days. The kangaroo hunt is one of the most brutal scenes ever filmed. It’s a harrowing film, but an exceptionally well-made one.
  • War and Peace (1968) – Sergei Bondarchuk’s huge film of Tolstoy, running almost seven hours (in four parts), featuring huge battle scenes, tons of extras, lavish sets and costumes–and careful adaptation, superior acting, and gripping drama. The cinematography and score are all-time greats. And for its length, it moves by quite briskly. Deservedly won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, but it deserves to be much better remembered than it is.
  • Warlock – A psychological Western from the late 50s, exceptionally complex for its time and still engaging today; the homoerotic undertones of the relationship between Clay Blaisedell (Henry Fonda) and Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn) are shockingly vivid.
  • Watchmen – I maintain this is horribly underrated. The adaptation is superb (I think the change to the ending works better in this context, honestly), the cast is largely spot-on (I’m still unsure about Malin Akerman, but Jackie Earle Haley’s Rorschach is marvelous), the production as a whole is stunningly detailed, and Zack Snyder, working with the best script of his career, directs it beautifully. Give this one a chance–or a second chance.
  • Wattstax – A documentary about a concert in Watts, hosted by Stax Records (hence the title), featuring great music (the Bar-Kays, Isaac Hays) and comic interpolations by Richard Pryor, then in his prime. One I need to really see again. Trivia fact: it shares a director with Willy Wonka.
  • Wax, or the Discovery of Television Among the Bees – I don’t even know what to say. Possibly the single strangest film I’ve ever seen. It has something to do with bees and a television that communicates with the dead…I think. It’s a weird patchwork of early computer animation, stock footage, microphotography, and original material, and it’s really quite fascinating. I’d like to live-blog this one.
  • Where Do We Go Now? – A loose adaptation of Lysistrata set in a small Lebanese village, as the conflict between local Christians and Muslims threatens to tear old friends apart. Nadine Labaki scores as director and star, and the songs (yes, it has musical numbers) are quite delightful. And yet this got largely dismissed by critics. I’m still not sure why.
  • You, the Living Songs From the Second Floor is brilliant. This spiritual sequel might be even better.
Advertisements

One thought on “Underseen/rated/appreciated

  1. Pingback: 25 Overrated Films | If you want the gravy...

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s