n May, 2003 (some five months before I was hired on at Stylus), we ran an article spotlighting fifteen scarcely seen English-language films that staffers felt compelled to champion. The original piece touched both on underappreciated efforts by key figures like Samuel Fuller and Robert Altman and smaller gems like the British romantic comedy Gregory’s Girl, making space in between for Peter Greenaway and Bill Pullman.
In other words, it was good stuff—and, frankly, what critical responsibility is all about. Three and half years later, we’ve decided to give it another shot, borrowing the same guiding concept, while tweaking the rules and upping the film count to twenty. Most notably, we’ve allowed foreign language films to receive their due, as well: Hong Kong, Cuba, Sweden, and Japan are each represented in the space below.
This isn’t to say that we’ve turned our backs to overlooked domestic fare. Sidney Lumet made the cut. As did Charles Burnett. And Stanley Donen. The possibility that John Frankenheimer’s Seconds may have more in common with Roy Andersson’s Songs from the Second Floor than we’d previously considered seems as good a reason as any to broaden the playing field.
We’re not suggesting an alternative canon here. It’s ultimately fruitless arguing whether Chimes at Midnight is a better film than Citizen Kane, but it’s not hard to guess which of those two you probably haven’t seen. What we are suggesting is that you give these films a chance, that you jot them down on a Post It next time you head to the video store or add them to your NetFlix queue—or, in some cases, make a little extra effort in tracking them down. You can thank us later.
Josh Timmermann, Movie Editor
(Stanley Kwan, 1992)
For whatever reason, contemporary East Asian cinema at its best (see: Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Puppetmaster, Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day, and Jia Zhang-ke’s Platform, for starters), manages to thoughtfully eschew this strategy of denial. Stanley Kwan’s Actress (also known as Center Stage and The New China Woman) is a prime, woefully under-seen alternative to the Hollywood “histories” of Braveheart and Titanic.
The film tells the tragic story of the Chinese silent movie actress Ruan Ling-yu (Maggie Cheung, in a career-best turn), effectively merging archival footage with a dramatized narrative. Actress never remotely approaches standard-issue biopic territory. Throughout, Kwan shuffles chronology with a grace and sense of meaning that couldn’t be more alien from Tarantino-style gimmickry. He doesn’t shy away from historical mythologization either—he actively dissects the process, clearly enamored with Ruan’s movie star aura while searching for clues in this gorgeous collage of ephemera.
(Elia Kazan, 1956)
The film, like a Lolita for Dummies, takes place in a large manor where the residents are leering, repulsive middle-aged man Archie (Karl Malden, in his least harmless role) and his childlike wife of 19, who goes by Baby Doll (Carroll Baker) and sleeps in a bed fashioned to resemble a crib. Things are a little on edge, though, because tomorrow is Baby Doll’s 20th birthday—the day she’s promised to (finally) consummate her marriage to Archie. What subsequently unfolds in this painfully overlooked, would-be classic is a heady mixture of extended signature Williams monologues, wild shifts between comedy and tragedy, lurid suggestions, a slew of metaphors, and even some all-out slapstick humor—in short, one of the strangest studio (albeit banned from some theaters) films of the ��50’s.
Baker is fantastic as the smugly uneducated belle, who seems both terrified at the thought of Archie de-virginizing her, and empowered by the fact that he hasn’t been able to yet. The most enticing aspect, though, is the unflinching treatment of its unsavory themes displayed throughout. Hearing accounts of how the then-active Legion of Decency protested the film (calling it “vile, dirty, and promoting of infantile sexuality”) may sound like typical retro, Reefer Madness-style overreactions. But, interestingly enough, Baby Doll really is that naughty. Something you wouldn’t want to watch around your parents, even today.
(Derek Jarman, 1986)
Lest the film strike you as a Baz Luhrmann project gone horribly awry, know that Caravaggio is ironic, tough and perceptive. Sweaty old men chase flirtatious pre-pubescent boys, and leering Popes cackle about their grip on society. An exploited mentally retarded character displays the sole ounce of human decency, a quality otherwise ascribed only to the homely before they are flattered or the young before they are raped. The film only removes its head from its own sordid ass when the detestable Caravaggio begins to paint images of religious intensity and sexual fervor, all drowned in a chiaroscuro lighting that can only be described as unsubtle. Transforming grotesque surroundings into works of art, Jarman knows exactly when to shift into Art Appreciation 101, intruding only with a guitar melody. In a delightfully modern balancing act, Caravaggio is, at once, derivative and fresh, cynical and compassionate. Its many charms shall, alas, be soon forgotten.
[L. Michael Foote]
Chimes at Midnight
(Orson Welles, 1965)
Welles is without a doubt the most celebrated name included in this space. Anyone who’s watched one of those dubious AFI specials knows all about Citizen Kane (its Greatest Movie Ever Made stature is practically trademarked, at this point), certainly The Third Man, probably The Magnificent Ambersons (notorious for its studio butchery), and even perhaps The Lady from Shanghai (an Old Hollywood footnote for Welles’ relationship with Rita Hayworth). Unavailable on DVD (save for a shabby Spanish edition) and rarely mentioned outside small circles of devoted cinephiles and Welles aficionados, Chimes at Midnight (sometimes listed simply as Falstaff) remains Welles’s most overlooked masterpiece; even as its critical reputation continues to grow, it isn’t getting any easier to actually see.
Playing in stark contrast to Kane’s lavish visual design (fully supported, for the first and only time in Welles’s career, by a Hollywood studio), Chimes feels like a bona fide labor of love, endearingly intimate and rough around the edges. Shakespeare was a life-long obsession for Welles, from early, groundbreaking experiments in the theatre to his underappreciated screen adaptation of MacBeth. Here, Welles crafts an amalgam of plays into arguably the finest of all Shakespeare movies. When Peter Bogdanovich pressed Welles regarding his auteurist tendencies (in the indispensable collection of interviews This Is Orson Welles), the latter responded, “The fact that it’s an amusing line of critical speculation doesn’t change the fact that I don’t enjoy having it applied to me!” Nevertheless, Chimes proves as affectingly personal, in its poignant look back at forever-lost Merrie England, as Ambersons’s wary take on the industrial age. Which is to say, there’s a melancholy about it.
(Hideaki Anno, 2004)
Model Eriko Sato plays Honey Kisaragi, an android girl who has been re-constructed by her “father” after a car accident. Honey runs on rice balls and maintains the ability to instantly take on any disguise, hence her double entendre catchphrase “Kawaru wa yo!” (“I’m changing!”). In foiling a plot to capture her scientist uncle, Honey garners the attention of precocious police detective Natsuko (Mikako Ichikawa) and reporter Seiji (Jun Murakami), as well as the criminal group Panther Claw. Honey attempts to happily bounce about the world as a modern Tokyo girl, playing Office Lady and Shibuya Gal with ease. This however is often undermined by her vast powers, loneliness, and startling and sometimes uncontrollable use of force in her ultimate Cutie Honey form. Anno makes it clear that she (like many Japanese youth) is constantly struggling with her sense of humanity.
Of course, the film isn’t so dark as to dwell on this struggle. Honey strikes up friendships with Natsuko and Seiji, providing the elixir of human interaction that has become a standard in adventure anime (see Evangelion, Naruto, etc.). Anno delicately satirizes the magical girl anime, subverting the genre while staying faithful enough to keep the studio happy. Sato doesn’t so much act as barge her ass into the shot; Anno remains faithful to the anime by giving her (more specifically, her ass) a number of suggestive blocking assignments. But since only three fight scenes made it in, Anno is able to stretch his tight budget over Honey’s search for companionship and the reclamation of her humanity, and spend less time on taunting the badly-costumed bad guys. Touched with gentle criticism and understated humor, Cutie Honey is lighthearted yet far from lightweight.
Daughters of the Dust
(Julie Dash, 1992)
Isolated on Georgia’s Sea Islands, the Gullah preserved their West African cuisine, Geechee tongue, legends, and blend of Islam alongside African deities. The legend of Ibo Landing, in which one shipload of new slaves turned around and in their chains walked en masse back into the Atlantic, particularly pervades Dash’s film.
Set at Ibo Landing on St. Helena, Daughters unwraps the Peazant family through the eyes, memories, and visions of its women. In August 1902, the family gathers once more before most migrate north via the mainland—another monumental crossing by boat. A “modern” photographer records their last seaside feast and matriarch Nana’s blessing. Nana and her unborn great-great-granddaughter recall this in voice-overs, as family members squabble over loyalties, secrets, prosperity’s lure in a new century, whether old ways are a “hoodoo mess,” and Yellow Mary, who’s come home with her pretty lover Trula. Dash sums up entire debates about what faced that linchpin generation in these squabbles. “All that yellow wasted,” spits one Baptist cousin, seeing no chance of light-skinned children from wayward Yellow Mary. And, materializing as a ten-year-old with an indigo hair ribbon amidst young folks pouring through a fancy mail-order catalog, the unborn child wryly observes in hindsight, “I was on a spiritual mission but I got distracted.”
[Nancy Keefe Rhodes]
(Boaz Yakin, 1994)
You’d be wrong, though. There’s something…different about this kid. While the rest of the kids his age talk, he listens; when his fellow gangstas act without hesitation, he watches; when he witnesses one random, stupid act of violence too many, he decides to change his situation through the only means at his disposal.
Like I said, he’s not a typical kid, and this isn’t a typical ghetto melodrama. The pat moralizing of a John Singleton is absent in writer/director Boaz Yakin’s devastatingly clear-eyed portrait of a society in breakdown; the sloppy expressionism of the Hughes brothers is set aside for a naturalistic style that resembles the most lyrical documentary you’ve never seen. There isn’t even a note of hip hop on the soundtrack.
Did I mention that the story is so intricately, delicately structured that it’s like a social tragedian like Dreiser tried his hand at a Dashiell Hammett-style thriller? Or that Yakin’s finely-etched characterizations meet their match in a slew of great performances? (Sean Nelson carries the film like no child actor before or since; Samuel L. Jackson reminds the audience that he used to play characters and not caricatures.) Or that Adam Holender’s brilliant cinematography is a perfect example of visuals enhancing a story without ever overwhelming it?
No, I didn’t mention it, because this is the kind of movie you should walk into as blindly as possible—that’s the best way to learn how real bad boys and real great films move in silence, surprising you at every turn and, in the end, taking your breath away.
Killer of Sheep
(Charles Burnett, 1977)
Burnett’s masterful documentarian approach, stark and minimalist, provides the film with its implicitly alarming and bleak tone, capturing “hood as art,” and in the process forcing his audience to sympathize that much more with his resigned and desperate characters. Burnett delivers such authority and profundity seemingly by simply pointing his camera and pressing “record,” letting the “reality” of his imagery do the work for him: Children playing in the dirt, sheep lead to their slaughter, a silent uncomfortable slow dance between a husband and his wife. Desperate times, desperate measures, inevitable mistakes, but no alternatives.
Still, as Du Bois wrote, “Through all the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope.” Killer of Sheep’s ultimate triumph lies in its ability to find a sense of hope for Stan: To continue to struggle for his family, to refuse to submit to his circumstances, to sleep, perchance to dream.
(Brian Yuzna, Christophe Gans, and Shusuke Kaneko, 1994)
Here, however, Yuzna, with ambition in tact, teams up with Christophe Gans (who went on to make Brotherhood of the Wolf and Silent Hill) and gore addict Shusuke Kaneko to forge a decidedly old school horror fest. The premise is that Lovecraft himself visits an old library to read from the book of the dead. We are then treated to the rich, incredible tales that he passionately relays. Each story beautifully illustrates the human defect which runs through so much traditional horror: any man, if caught in a moment of vanity, is capable of destroying himself completely. All three stories, ��The Drowned,” ��The Cold,” and “Whispers,” are handled with meticulous care. In particular, the first installment, directed by Gans, is the kind of murky creep-show that you just don’t get to see anymore. This collection represents a whole philosophy of economical, nasty little tales that exist solely to make you feel bad.
The most refreshing thing about Necronomicon, besides the well-scripted, hokey episodes, is the inventive and defiant use of prosthetics. This film was made just when CGI was starting to take hold. The industry could have gone two different ways: down the route of computer graphics, which still don’t look that good despite the cash thrown at them (see: Terminator 3, Van Helsing, and Constantine), or to trudge on with the disturbing and visceral rips and gashes of prosthetic ingenuity. Obviously, the real world lost out and the kind of design that Necronomicon so brilliantly displays is largely no longer visible within Hollywood.
Night Falls on Manhattan
(Sidney Lumet, 1997)
But you can dismiss Garcia because every other actor in Night Falls on Manhattan is in peak form. This rather musty film marks the third time that Lumet’s tackled police graft, and while it’s no Serpico, it’s thankfully no Prince of the City. Raw, pungent, and snappily edited, the movie is a terrarium in which cold-blooded actors hiss with reptilian menace, notably Ron Lieberman’s district attorney, a clever windbag who rubs his Jewry in the faces of horrified young recruits; and Lena Olin as Garcia’s lover, who can add the successful recitation of the line, “I knew I was seeing the start of a great career and I knew I couldn't wait until I got you into bed” to Enemies, A Love Story and her list of other credits. But it’s Holm’s work as a career cop for whom payoffs are as routine as night patrols that elevates this melodrama beyond the serviceable. There’s a purity in the way Holm shapes Lumet’s coarse dialogue; his concentration is such that, ultimately, we accept the pathos of Garcia’s dilemma because Holm’s character so loves his son.
(Peter Watkins, 1971)
Watkins went further with Punishment Park, the sole film of his to be completely shot in America. It’s not hard to see why: the film presupposes that President Nixon had declared a state of emergency in the United States—and subsequently invokes the McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950 to allow federal authorities to detain those deemed a danger to national security. These “risks” are then taken to the desert for civilian tribunals, in which the guilty-before-not-given-a-chance-to-be-proven-innocent are allowed a choice: Punishment Park or jail. The choice of the titular park allows the mostly college-aged detainees to trek over three days towards an American flag 53 miles away. Watkins film intercuts between a group on said trek and a group arguing their case before the tribunal.
Punishment Park is woefully underseen not least due to the fact that’s it been nearly impossible to find. But unlike a few of his now more widely available films (Gladiators chiefly among them), it’s one that deserves to be seen. Watkins brutal and paranoid take on the possibilities of an American government overreaching in its executive privilege during a time of war seem more prescient than ever. What’s more, Watkins used amateur actors for the film, asking them to reveal exactly how they felt about the political events that were going on around them at the time during filming, while basing their performances around the loose plot. To say that Watkins elides complexity in his arguments is to miss the point: these are the arguments, presented clearly, impassioned, and unfiltered.
(John Frankenheimer, 1966)
This final and most sinister of Frankenheimer’s paranoia trilogy (Seven Days in May and The Manchurian Candidate having preceded it) opens with a disturbing credit sequence by the great Saul Bass. Images of Hamilton’s face are stretched and contorted to the appropriately nerve-jangling score by Jerry Goldsmith. This technique was adopted by Rod Serling for his gothic TV series Night Gallery, for which David Ely, author of the novel on which Seconds is based, would become a key writer. The film offers hope to those who look back on their life with nothing but regret, as one of the characters in the film testifies: “I had to find out where I went wrong. The years I’ve spent trying to get all the things I was told were important, that I was told to want.” It will change your life, if that’s what you want. But be careful what you wish for.
(Monte Hellman, 1967)
Brilliantly written by Adrien Joyce (who also scripted Five Easy Pieces) and boasting stellar performance by Warren Oates and a young Jack Nicholson (who also co-produced the film with Hellman), The Shooting surprisingly remains a little-known masterpiece of American independent cinema that illuminates the criminally overlooked genius of its director. If nothing else, those unfamiliar with the film should check it out merely to witness the way Hellman builds tension only to bewilder his audience with a finale of such profound brilliance that it alters our perception of everything that preceded it. Arguably, Hellman’s mystifying closing shots should have gone down as one of the most gripping sequences ever constructed. But for now, this gem will have to live out its existence as a brilliant cult classic.
Something Wicked This Way Comes
(Jack Clayton, 1983)
This is a Disney movie, the studio's awkward attempt at "branching out,” and is stitched through with simplified caricatures, PG censorship, and terrible special effects, but Bradbury's dark romantic heart still beats beneath it all. If fiction is the condensation of vast swaths of emotion and time into manageable chunks, there's nary a better example than the gradual confiscation of Robards' potentially restored youth. A man ages twenty cruel years in two minutes—no effects, just Pryce's careful count: "Thirty-nine? A fine year, still young... thirty-nine? Gone," and then "Forty! Forty! And here you're old!"
Songs from the Second Floor
(Roy Andersson, 2000)
Perhaps, that explains Songs’ almost immediate slump into obscurity. With its stark imagery and virulent approach to what Andersson interprets as the natural culmination of capitalist society, the film plays like a Max Ernst collage come to life. Those put off by its lack of an overarching storyline and its nearly motionless camera work missed the utter brilliance of Andersson’s compositions. He directs with the eye of a painter, constructing a complex ballet of misery, atheism, and consumerism gone mad set to the backdrop of social armageddon.
Did I mention that it’s a comedy—and a surprisingly funny one, at that? But its humor remains bitter, like the work of a mad genius willing to accept the failures of modern society with biting, sardonic wit. Compare it to the peculiar optimism of Jacques Tati, who always positioned the viewer outside the absurdities of modern society. Andersson conversely steeps us entirely within his dejected worldview while drawing upon sources ranging from Buñuel to Bergman, and even an homage to Romero in the film’s closing moments. Songs from the Second Floor remains noteworthy not only for what it borrows from cinema’s history, but also for what it adds to it.
Strawberry and Chocolate
(Tomás Gutiérrez Alea and Juan Carlos Tabío, 1994)
For the first time in Cuban cinema the central character was a gay man, a milestone for a country still enjoying a moderate political hangover. The liberal wildcat of the movie, Diego rebels against the redneck politics that prevent him from setting up an art exhibition the way he wants to. In a cloud of political hostility and corruption, moral support comes from the most unlikely of people—the Marxist straight friend. Conventional stereotypes blend with ballsy moral aspirations, and what emerges is a movie of rare cultural significance.
Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One
(William Greaves, 1968)
Set and shot in New York’s Central Park in the tumultuous year of 1968, Take One’s premise is essentially that of a film-within-a-film-within-a-film experiment in the absolute language of the filmmaking process—as “film school” as it sounds. Feeding on his own—and our—instinctive voyeuristic inclinations, Greaves somehow blends cinema verite with reformist experimentation. The result is an intricate and accessible genre hybrid, a powerful meditation on filmmaking, art, sexuality, and relationships, a milestone for both Greaves and the film canon in general.
The drama—if you can call it that—involves a married couple enacting a bitter break up over and over before Greaves and his crew documenting the filming of the scene, the behind-the-filming-of-the-scene and, to further becloud the line between fiction and reality, the behind-the-behind-the-filming-of-the-scene. If that sounds overly simplistic and even dull, well, it’s far from it. The eventual uprising of the crew against Greaves is another reminder that you’re perhaps not watching just a movie after all. As a deconstructive analysis on the power of film theory, Take One could well rank alongside formal experiments by Godard and Duras in terms of sheer fearlessness.
(Richard Linklater, 2001)
Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard star as two high school friends staging their annual reunion of sorts in Lansing, Michigan, where John’s (Leonard) first film is debuting. Both play the exemplar jackass representing opposite ends of the spectrum. Leonard’s John is the pretentious, artistic type with a knack for spewing overly PC bullshit without even realizing it, while Hawke’s Vince is a belligerent “every-man” who makes his money dealing pot and volunteer firefighting. They commence with their verbal and mental fisticuffs post haste as we naturally learn the workings of their oddly confrontational relationship, as well as their past. When talk of an old girlfriend (Uma Thurman’s Amy) bubbles to the surface the film finally takes direction in a most unexpected way, and we begin to see a method to Vince’s supposed madness. With Amy actually introduced in a third act ripe with melodrama, we get a remarkably subdued conclusion that serves as the perfect closing of a window to this oddly unrealistic reality.
Set entirely in real time, in one hotel room, with a total of three characters, Tape gets extra mileage out of its limited setting (sometimes acting as a comfort, sometimes as a confine). The room takes on a persona all its own, perfectly encapsulating the sordid dealings transpiring at its core. Linklater’s film is many things, the most surprising of which being an honest to goodness exercise in suspense—a remarkably believable echo chamber of paranoia and regret.
Two for the Road
(Stanley Donen, 1967)
The film documents the marriage through several car trips around France, marking the couple’s progress at their varying stages of wealth and happiness. A striking highlight is their vacation with yuppie perfectionists and so-called friends Cathy and Howard Manchester (Eleanor Bron and William Daniels,) whose sinister, crisp ��50s parenting foreshadows trouble for the radiant newlyweds and results in a series of disturbingly funny scenes—moments that are distinctly of their era but universal in their resonance.
The cinematography by Christopher Challis is breathtaking, owing to its aura a memorable, one-track Mancini score and to its palette Hepburn’s magnificent costume design by the likes of Mary Quant, Foale and Tuffin, and Paco Rabanne. It’s one of Hepburn’s most expertly concocted wardrobes, more exacting and beautiful than 1963’s Charade or, for that matter, the oft-discussed Tiffany’s. Pucci dresses flit in and out of lighthearted, amusing scenes and moments of despair. Two for the Road is timeless in its championing of so-called true love and the social institution behind it.
(Shinya Tsukamoto, 2004)
It’s by no means conventional or, for that matter, any less bizarre, yet it nevertheless signaled a sort of gear shift—and maybe even maturation. Bathed (or, more fittingly, submerged) in cold blues and grays, set partly within a dingy medical school autopsy room, and partly within amnesiac student Hiroshi’s mind, Vital confronts lost love and the mourning process in a wholly inventive manner. You see, Hiroshi is meeting with his lover (who, we come to realize, was killed in the same car wreck that left our hero memory-less) periodically in some singular time-space. In his head? His dreams? Flashbacks of things past? It all gets clearer—or maybe more confusing—when he recognizes her tattoo on the corpse his group is dissecting in class. As he pulls her apart, piece by piece, over the following days, he regains memories of their life together. They were intense, young, bemused, the murkiest opposite of idealistic—and, oh, really into autoerotic asphyxiation.
Tsukamoto presents his ghoulish romance in a manner, at once, clinical and swooning; while we never come to know much about the couple’s inner workings (unless you’d count seeing the literal guts of one of them), their vice-like bond to each other is palpable throughout. The man-in-love-with-a-dead-girl tale is nothing new. But when the man in question knew and loved the dead girl during life and was separated from both her and his memories of her in one fell swoop, it’s really pretty heartbreaking. And that’s Vital, in a nutshell. The film is remarkable because of this, and also because “this” came from the same dude who once showed us what a man’s penis would become if his entire flesh morphed into metal.
By: Stylus Staff
Published on: 2006-11-20