To the Movies
I Love Movies, I Really Really Love Them*
I can’t help it. I find something to appreciate in most of the films I’ve seen. Maybe a particular film’s plot has holes, and the acting is barely competent, and the theme is trite, and the soundtrack doesn’t stand out, but in spite of all those failings the photography is brilliant. That one thing, if it’s done well enough, can make a film worth watching for me. A film which has several such great qualities is that much more satisfying, and the best films are those few which have no weaknesses at all.
I don’t mean to say that quality writing, directing and acting aren’t to be valued and demanded, but if a film’s creators clearly produced what they intended to, I try to appreciate it on its own terms. No film is perfect.
The appeal of many big-budget mainstream films is fairly obvious, and I enjoy them for what they are. I like epics with action and special effects. I also have a soft spot for romantic comedies. I’ll even watch made-for-TV holiday movies. On the other hand, I relish discovering an obscure independent film with an unusual take on a particular theme or production style.
So here’s to the movies!
If you have an adventurous spirit, I’d like to recommend a few films for your viewing pleasure. They present their themes especially well, and their weaknesses are easy to overlook. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing each one multiple times. That, for me, is the ultimate test of a great film.
A Partial List of Truly Great, Fairly Obscure Films
This list includes films of many genres, from a variety of countries. Some are black and white, some have subtitles, some are animated, some are action-packed, some are more deliberately paced. I encourage you to not allow such differences in presentation dictate your decision about whether to watch them.
FAIR WARNING: Most of these films have adult themes. Some of them might be suitable for younger audiences, but that depends on your definitions of “suitable” and “younger.”
11:14 (2003) is a dark, dark, dark black comedy. Did I mention it’s dark? And a comedy? It tracks the events in a small town over the course of an hour, from the separate perspectives of five hapless main characters (and a variety of secondary characters) who make a series of ill-advised decisions. The threads of their stories converge in a climax at 11:14 pm.
3-Iron (2004) is a mystical love story set in modern day Korea. It’s difficult to describe; the premise is wholly original, the main characters are practically mute, and the ending is open to interpretation. Yet it’s quite satisfyingly romantic. Directed by Ki-Duk Kim, who also directed the mysterious Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003).
Angel-A (2005) has André, a short, scruffy low-life hustler, in hock to Parisian gangsters and ready to end it all. He unexpectedly finds himself saving the life of a beautiful woman who says that in return, she’ll help him solve his problems. Angela looks like a high-end prostitute, but she has a higher purpose, namely to browbeat him into discovering his own self-worth. Perhaps the film is an excuse to showcase the world’s longest legs (Rie Rasmussen’s), but the interactions between the pair are amusing and engaging. Directed by Luc Besson, who also directed La Femme Nikita (1990), The Professional (1994) and The Fifth Element (1997).
Blood Simple (1984)** is the first commercial motion picture from Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, produced on a relative shoestring. It’s a twisted version of film noir in which the characters miscommunicate, jump to conclusions and overreact to events, contributing to a series of misdeeds that escalate their confusion and peril. The film’s twists and turns are saturated with an irony that sidles up to the threshold of comedy without stepping over that line. The plot is convoluted but consistent, the camera work is brilliant, and the excellent cast includes Frances McDormand and a sinister M. Emmet Walsh. One of my all-time favorites. The Coen brothers also directed Fargo (1996), No Country for Old Men (2007), and a slew of other extraordinary films.
Born Yesterday (1950) is an odd combination (especially at the time it was made) of screwball comedy and serious social commentary, which are brought into perfect balance by an Oscar-winning performance from Judy Holliday. She plays the moll of a shady businessman who’s in Washington D.C. to buy himself a few legislators. She slowly becomes awakened to the idea that she’s not as stupid as her bully boyfriend wants her to believe. The plot is predictable, but Holliday’s performance alone makes this film worth seeing. Directed by George Cukor, who also directed The Philadelphia Story (1940), A Star Is Born (1954), My Fair Lady (1964) and many others.
Brick (2005) is classic film noir, transplanted to a contemporary high school setting. Adults are mostly absent in this film, which nonetheless revolves around real and dangerous criminal behavior. It incorporates the standard noir conventions, including smart talk, fast dames, vicious thugs, missing persons, red herrings and double-crosses, all presented believably without a jot of irony. As the gumshoe, Joseph Gordon-Levitt convincingly continues his trajectory away from lightweight and comedic roles.
The Dancer Upstairs (2002) is about a brutal anarchist movement (based loosely on Peru’s Shining Path) whose unseen leader is treated as a messiah. His followers randomly commit disturbingly creative acts of terrorism and he’s pursued by a dedicated detective (Javier Bardem). Contemplative in tone, the film has an underlying tension that escalates as the police close in on the rebel leader. It’s not so much a thriller as it is a social drama about the effect of the terrorism on the lives of the citizens, and on the detective’s mindset.
Days of Heaven (1978)** follows a couple of migrant farm workers (Richard Gere and Brooke Adams) who scheme to get ahead during the early 20th century. The story is recounted (well, remarked upon) in world-weary voiceover by a younger sister whose naive perspective is at the core of the film. If you haven’t seen this, you’re missing one of the most beautiful works of cinema ever made. It’s ruminative, windswept, atmospheric and gorgeous to look at. Directed by Terrence Malick, who also directed the equally stunning Badlands (1973) and The Thin Red Line (1998).
Dear Doctor (2009) is a gentle, character-driven comic mystery about a quirky rural Japanese town and its beloved doctor. The doc disappears, prompting big city police to come and investigate. Through flashbacks the facts emerge, but they’re viewed differently by the cops, the doctor, his young intern, his nurse (a talented Kimiko Yo), his patients, and their relatives. Although the story has life and death ethical implications, all of the viewpoints seem valid, which is the film’s major (and surprising) achievement.
Diva (1981)** is a crime thriller involving a young Parisian courier, an opera singer, some gangsters, recording industry executives, a Vietnamese orphan, and a wealthy recluse. And the cops. The courier’s covertly recorded tape of the diva’s performance gets mixed up with an identical cassette containing evidence of official corruption, and everyone comes after him for one tape or the other. Meticulously plotted and beautifully photographed, with some truly original characters and settings, this is a riveting classic.
The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) is about Eddie (Robert Mitchum), an aging small-time Boston hood and hustler who continues to sell illicit weaponry even as his sentencing date approaches (for transporting black market cigarettes). Contrary to his loyalties, he tries to avoid the slammer by turning in some of his colleagues, but things don’t go as he’d hoped. Gritty, seedy and authentic ‘70s crime drama. Directed by Peter Yates, who also directed Bullitt (1968), Breaking Away (1979), The Dresser (1983) and many others.
Frozen River (2008) examines what people will do when their childrens’ welfare is at stake. Two single mothers, one white (Melissa Leo) and one Mohawk Indian (Misty Upham), live desperately poor lives near the New York/Quebec border. The Mohawk reservation straddles the border, and the women find themselves in the business of smuggling illegal aliens into the U.S. through the reservation. We become immersed in their reality, the compromises they make to support their families, and the dangers they face.
George Washington (2000) is not about the president. It’s about a multiracial group of adolescent kids living in the poor part of a North Carolina town. When a tragic accident occurs, the children struggle to understand it and respond appropriately. Their reactions are quirky and varied, as are their personalities. Using a device similar to Days of Heaven (1978), one of the girls provides perspective with a matter-of-fact voiceover. Everything moves at a languorous pace in the hot summer. The cinematography makes this rusting, worn out place look incongruously lush and beautiful.
Gone Baby Gone (2007) concerns the kidnapping of a toddler in Boston. Her aunt and uncle hire two young and inexperienced private detectives (an extraordinary Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan) to investigate, because they know the tight-knit working class neighborhoods where the crime occurred. There’s a maze of suspects, motives and secrets, and the truth is hard to discern until the very end, when they’re confronted with a moral dilemma. This film boasts topnotch acting (especially from Affleck, Ed Harris and wow! Amy Ryan), gritty realism and believable scenarios.
The Host (2006) is a creature feature from Korea. Hey, wait, don’t go! The story balances horror with humor and social commentary. The huge monster is beautifully realized; it’s ungainly on land, but elsewhere it’s a cross between a trapeze artist and a shark. A comically dysfunctional family must pull together to recover one of their own who’s been trapped in the monster’s lair for future snacking. The unexpected ending contains both sorrow and redemption.
I Love Sarah Jane (2008) is a short film that asks the question: what would it really be like in a middle class neighborhood after all the adults have succumbed to a zombie plague? There’s no school, no laws, no supervision. A boy is infatuated with a much older neighbor girl, and attempts to woo her as chaos, ruin and zombie-teasing continue their course around him. This film and its characters are strangely believable in spite of the post-apocalyptic premise.
Intermission (2003) is a huge, sprawling black comedy set in suburban Dublin, populated by the likes of Colin Farrell, Kelly Macdonald and Colm Meaney. There are good, quirky, and very bad characters, and their stories intertwine throughout the film. Each character has a personal issue to address; a relationship to begin, end or fix; a crime to commit or solve; comeuppance to give or receive. In spite of the film’s complexity, the events all flow naturally, plots resolve themselves satisfyingly, and the characters are fully fleshed out. And the presence of a mustache is in the eye of the beholder.
The Jacket (2005) is an evocative parable involving time travel, one of my favorite themes. The film has a consistent internal logic, except for the fact of the time travel itself, and for the plot mechanism that makes it happen. It focuses on a quiet man (Adrien Brody) whose inexplicable leaps through time give him hope that he can change history in a very localized, personal way. His fleeting opportunity to do this comes as a result of his mistreatment by authorities, making him both angry and grateful. Suspending disbelief gets you a satisfying tale of sacrifice, second chances, and a touching romance across time.
Lone Star (1996)** is nominally a murder mystery in a Texas border town. But it’s also about history; it’s about relations between ethnicities, generations, and the sexes; it’s about true love, police brutality, politics, taboos, progress, ethics and immigration. The plot intermixes the present day with seamlessly integrated flashbacks to a more bigoted and violent world of the 1950s. As the sheriff investigates an old murder from that time, a large cast of characters (portrayed by some talented actors) contributes depth and meaning to the story, and provides social, historical and personal context to the current state of the town. The truth of the murder gradually comes to light, and in the telling of its story, additional revelations occur, some easier to accept than others. This film masterfully weaves together its plot lines, and provides food for thought in almost every scene. It’s subtle and complex, and it rewards repeated viewings. The stellar cast includes the likes of Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Peña, Kris Kristofferson, Matthew McConaughey, Joe Morton, and many others. At the moment I can’t think of a film that I’ve enjoyed more than Lone Star. Directed by John Sayles, who also directed great films like The Brother from Another Planet (1984) and Eight Men Out (1988), among others.
Man of the Century (1999), a lightweight farce, is about a man who lives in the present day, but behaves as if he’s in a 1930s screwball comedy. Played to perfection by Gibson Frazier, Johnny the newsman occupies today’s big city with wisecracks, gray flannel suits, chain smoking and a cuppa joe, his best girl, sexual naiveté, and ad hoc musical numbers. The modern world looks on askance, but mostly plays along, because it doesn’t know what else to do. Great fun.
Mars (2010) is about a space mission in the not too distant, financially strapped future. The journey is used as a deadpan backdrop for some odd hijinks. Like the earlier Waking Life (2001), the film employs rotoscoping – animation based on live action. With the freedom and the inclination to add visual twists to each scene, it slyly pokes fun at stereotypes of slackers, nerdy geniuses, has-been heroes, TV personalities, tycoons and bureaucrats. A surprising story that sneaks up on you with serendipity, fantasy and blossoming relationships.
The Matador (2005) introduces Danny the businessman (Greg Kinnear) to Julian the hitman (an astonishing, scary-but-hilarious Pierce Brosnan). Julian is a highly skilled, foulmouthed, lonely lush. He befriends and reveals his profession to Danny, who’s at once disturbed and fascinated by him. Julian enters the lives of Danny and his wife Bean (Hope Davis), and they can’t seem to extricate themselves from his orbit. We come away from this film wondering if such a person could really exist, and kinda wishing it were so, just for the madcap menace of it all.
Once (2006)** is a simple but captivating romance between a Dublin street busker and a Czech immigrant. As they become more and more attracted to each other, they perform songs together that reflect their relationship. Conveniently, this also describes the two actors (well, musicians) who play these characters. They actually wrote and performed the songs, and became a couple (and a band, The Swell Season) during filming. Their music is wonderful, and the movie (made for peanuts) is a sweet pleasure. I bought the soundtrack.
Paprika (2006) takes you on an hallucinogenic anime trip through the fractured dreams of a therapist’s patients, which she explores in the guise of her avatar, Paprika. A device invented for that purpose has been stolen by persons unknown, who are invading people’s dreams and assembling a bizarre collective dream world in which to trap humanity. Paprika must jack into this increasingly nightmarish funhouse to find the culprits and repair the damage. Directed by Satoshi Kon, who also directed the psyche-out Perfect Blue (1998) and the lustrous Tokyo Godfathers (2003).
Princess Mononoke (1997)** is one of a growing library of luminous Japanese anime epics by Hayao Miyazaki. The theme in this case is environmentalism, pitting the Spirit of the Forest against encroaching civilization, using two young human proxies. The creatures, including gods, demons and sprites, are impossible to describe adequately. With astonishing imagery and endless inventiveness, this film succeeds on every level. Miyazaki also directed the trippy Spirited Away (2001) and the steampunk Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), among others.
Punch-Drunk Love (2002) oppresses a shy, serious, outburst-prone distributor of novelty toiletries (Adam Sandler, putting an introverted twist on his personality) with loneliness, various neuroses, seven domineering sisters, and an extortionist phone-sex operator. For his efforts in dealing with these difficulties he’s rewarded with a discarded harmonium, an airline miles loophole, and a wide-eyed Emily Watson. This is a delightfully awkward, strange romance between two outsiders. Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, who also directed the scandalous Boogie Nights (1997), the sprawling Magnolia (1999) and the spiraling There Will Be Blood (2007).
Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) is the true story of three half-caste aboriginal girls in 1930s Australia. Government policy (into the 1970s!) was to remove mixed-race children from their parents and place them in distant “resettlement” camps. These girls escaped from their camp, and walked for nine weeks along 1,500 miles of the Western Australian rabbit-proof fence to get home. They eluded capture by covering their tracks, planting false trails, and receiving occasional help from some of the citizens they encountered. Two of the actual girls appear in the film’s epilogue as elderly women. Directed by Phillip Noyce, who directed many other great films including The Quiet American (2002).
Raising Victor Vargas (2002) presents a working class Dominican family in a Manhattan tenement: Grandma, 16-year old Victor, and his younger brother and sister. Brashly trying to romance lovely Judy from the neighborhood, Victor unwittingly serves as her beard against crude come-ons. Meanwhile, Grandma’s at wit’s end about the bad influence that she thinks he exerts over his brother. Victor has to learn how to reassure Grandma and win over Judy with a slowly developed maturity, honesty and thoughtfulness. A comedy of manners that eschews urban dangers and embraces youthful foibles.
Repo Man (1984) can be described as punk slapstick science fiction social commentary. It skewers all of these genres, taking its host of quirky characters on a Keystone Kops chase to recover a mysterious car on which a huge bounty is offered. The cast includes the gloriously irradiated mad scientist driving the car, several femme fatales, a “dragon lady” with a prosthetic hand, scuzzy middle class punks who say things like “let’s go do some crimes,” a bunch of even scuzzier repossession pros (led by Harry Dean Stanton in his best gruff know-it-all mode), an existentialist mechanic (the now-ubiquitous “that weird guy” Tracey Walter), and disaffected young Otto (Emilio Estevez, setting the high bar for his career). One running gag is the willful absence of product placement, exemplified by cans in Otto’s fridge labeled only as “FOOD.” All of this to the frantic strains of a Dick Dale-style surf guitar. What’s not to like?
Run Lola Run (1998) is an exercise (pun intended) in adrenaline. Lola’s boyfriend owes the mob a pile of cash, and she has 20 desperate minutes to get across town and bail him out. The film follows her hyperkinetic efforts, then rewinds twice to see what would happen if she made different choices along the way. We see occasional side trips into other peoples’ possible futures, then back to the chase! In the process, Lola (Franka Potente) encounters troubles with traffic, fundraising, her family and the law, and struggles to find a formula that will bring everything to a satisfactory conclusion.
Runaway Train (1985)** traps two escaped convicts. . .guess where. They discover a female maintenance worker who’s stuck on the train as well. This train is a character in its own right, a juggernaut hurtling headlong through the frozen Alaskan wilderness as if possessed. These four, plus the crazed warden chasing them, are gripped in a round-robin battle of wills. John Voight, Eric Roberts, Rebecca De Mornay and John P. Ryan give career-topping performances. In this adaptation of a Kurosawa screenplay, the tension is unrelenting, the action authentic, the emotion visceral, yet it’s intellectually and philosophically hefty, fleshing out a compelling narrative. This film is riveting, haunting, apocalyptic, literally chilling and windswept, with a magnificent, breathtaking ending.
The Secret in Their Eyes (2009)** is a crime/romance/political thriller set in Argentina; it’s also a meditation on memory, love and justice. Staged as flashbacks from 1999 to the 1970s, the plot unfolds at a measured pace, but it’s not quite as predictable as it seems. The entire cast build their characters by revealing deeper truths in a way that’s natural and riveting. The lead star-crossed lovers are realized perfectly at points in their lives that are 25 years apart. This is a film of assured substance and intelligence, in which every element is exactly where and how it needs to be. One technical highlight is an astonishing scene at a football stadium, filmed with what appears to be (but couldn’t possibly be) a single four-minute-long take. That’s just par for the course alongside the film’s mastery of plot, pacing, acting and suspense.
Secrets & Lies (1996)** showcases the best of director Mike Leigh and his acting regulars. The Purley family of London has drifted apart due to long-simmering resentments and the secrets each harbors. Into this morass steps a long lost daughter – the black daughter of white Cynthia Purley, who’s certain she’d remember having a child by a black man! Then a suppressed memory comes rushing back. Poor skittish Cynthia (a brillliant Brenda Blethyn) now has to introduce her daughter to the family, provoking a flood of revelations from everyone else. Leigh affectionately presents his believably flawed characters, whose decency eventually emerges along with the truth. A beautifully constructed film. Mike Leigh directed a number of other evocative films, including Vera Drake (2004) and Happy-Go-Lucky (2008).
The Station Agent (2003) is a quiet little film about, well, personal demons. Throw together three completely different people; say, a reclusive, train-obsessed dwarf (Peter Dinklage); an outgoing, business-challenged food vendor (Bobby Cannavale); and a grieving, distracted artist (Patricia Clarkson). Somehow, in a rundown country town, each of these three finds kindred spirits in the other two, though there’s no apparent common ground, and none of them end up changing each other very much. It’s enough that they learn to trust and accept each other, and that’s worth watching. Directed by Thomas McCarthy, who also directed The Visitor (2007) and Win Win (2011).
Stranger Than Fiction (2006) is a truly original story, about a story. As IRS auditor Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) goes about his humdrum day, he suddenly hears a female voice (Emma Thompson) coming from nowhere, relating his every move! “Little did Harold know what would happen next.” So is this infuriating commentary narrating, or controlling his life? Is he going crazy? The implications prompt him to make changes. He starts, gently, to shake up his ordered life, to break his professional rules for the sake of romance (with the wonderful Maggie Gyllenhaal), and to discover the source of the voice — which he does find, with the help of eccentric professor Dustin Hoffman. This film is filled with lovely moments along the way, and the actors bring a marvelously dry wit to the question of how much one should sacrifice for the sake of art. Directed by Marc Forster, whose impressive ouevre includes the revelatory Monster’s Ball (2001), the fractured Stay (2005), and the moving The Kite Runner (2007).
The Triplets of Belleville (2003)** is a stunningly inventive, utterly original, dialogue-free animated tale about an elderly Frenchwoman who packs up her old dog and goes in search of her grandson, a champion cyclist who has been kidnapped for an uncertain nefarious purpose. Along the way she’s assisted by three strange, aging vaudeville singers, the “triplets.” This hardly serves to convey the absurd, creepy, eccentric, eerie, funky, grotesque, inscrutable, kinky, manic, spooky, uncouth nature of the film (to borrow from Roger Ebert’s thesaurus). The director, Sylvain Chomet, has imbued every scene with dark moods, fantastical scenarios, expressive caricatures, idiosyncratic detail, realistic lighting, tangible texture and organic color. Chomet also directed the rather less odd but equally gorgeous The Illusionist (2010).
Trucker (2008) is about a young woman (Michelle Monaghan) who values her independence so much that she cuts all personal ties and becomes a long-haul big-rig truck owner/operator. Regular driving gigs, heavy boozing and meaningless sex define her life for years, until the son she abandoned to her ex shows up on her doorstep because dad has cancer. She has to figure out how to make room for him in her life, and decide if she’s capable of motherhood. She’s tough on the 11 year-old, but he gives as good as he gets. This is an unsentimental look at people forced by circumstance to grudgingly form a family.
Trust (1990)** is an absurdist love story between two lost souls: Maria (Adrienne Shelly) is a high school hottie who has to deal with the sober reality of being kicked out of the house after her offhand announcement of pregnancy prompts her father to keel over dead; Matthew (Martin Donovan) is an electronics genius who is ready to explode at the unethical behavior of his bosses and the beatings from his OCD father when he doesn’t leave the bathroom sufficiently spotless. He also carries a live grenade with him, and lashes out at jerks who might well deserve it. This sounds like a tragedy, but somehow director Hal Hartley makes it seem both comic and ordinary. Stereotypical characters do unexpected things, and the cast gives deadpan renderings of suburban angst. Maria and Matthew meet and slowly learn to trust each other. Unfortunate events unfold around them, but they soldier on as if it’s normal. They’re quietly united against slings and arrows, each determined to become a better person to deserve the other’s love. It’s romantic and I love that sort of thing. Hartley’s other quirky films include Simple Men (1992), Amateur (1994) and Henry Fool (1997).
Waking Life (2001) takes us on an animated excursion into the dreams of one young man, who floats from place to place, encountering a large number of characters who tell stories, present theories and explain philosophies. The young man occasionally wakes up, only to find he’s still dreaming. The film uses rotoscoping, in which live action is filmed, then the film is painted over to produce an animated version of the same thing. While it presents gloriously surreal depictions of real situations, the dialogue – surprisingly – is the main attraction, discussing life, death, and dreams in thought-provoking ways. Directed by Richard Linklater, whose broad range of films includes Dazed and Confused (1993), Before Sunrise (1995), The School of Rock (2003), and A Scanner Darkly (2006).
A film might not appear on this list because
- it’s already quite well known, or
- I forgot about it, or
- I haven’t seen it, or
- it’s a great film that’s nevertheless too intense or troubling to watch more than once.
One example of the latter is Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), a wildly imaginative but devastating tale of a child’s struggles in dealing with the horrors of war. Another example is Eraserhead (1976), David Lynch’s first full length feature, which is a grotesque, nightmarish foray into an oppressive industrial alternate reality. I’m glad I saw them once. Watch at your own risk.
* Apologies to Sally Field, of whom I’m quite fond (as long as she’s not talking about her bones). Her original remark has been exaggerated and parodied, notably by Jim Carrey. On receiving her second Oscar for Places in the Heart, she actually said “. . .I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me.”
** These films are on my personal all-time favorites list:
- Blood Simple (1984)
- Days of Heaven (1978)
- Diva (1981)
- Lone Star (1996)
- Once (2006)
- Princess Mononoke (1997)
- Runaway Train (1985)
- The Secret in Their Eyes (2009)
- Secrets & Lies (1996)
- The Triplets of Belleville (2003)
- Trust (1990)
Tell Us About Your Favorite Obscure Film
I’ll bet that if you’re a film buff, you have a favorite film (or five) that I’ve egregiously omitted from this list. Whether you call them Movies, Films, Talkies, Motion Pictures, or Cinema, here’s your chance to set the record straight. Use the comment form to tell us what works of celluloid art you love and why you love them. (Just don’t diss my choices, ‘kay? This is my list.)
To keep things under control, try to limit your suggestions to
- films that you’ve seen and enjoyed, or hope to see, more than twice; and
- films that are not well known to mainstream moviegoers.