Ten Great Films You May Never Have Heard Of
There has been a lot of films made over the last 100 years. Many of them have been not so good and understandably forgotten but many have slipped through the cracks for reasons that are much less clear. Some of these films I am listing may not be that readily accessible but make a note, file the title in the back of your mind because at some point you may come across them. My shortlist for this piece was much longer than 10 films so there may very well be a part two coming soon.
Seconds is John Frankenheimer's masterpiece, made during a period where he was arguably at his creative peak (The Birdman of Alcatraz, The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days In May, The Train), is one of my favorite films of all time. It's a stunningly bleak work with one of the blackest endings I have ever seen.
Seconds tells the story of a middle-aged man named Arthur Hamilton who lives a bland life. His wife is disinterested and his job is mind-numbing. After receiving an odd call from an old friend, he is introduced to an organization called, "The Company" who offer a unique 'second chance' service. 'The Company' fake Arthur's death and through extensive plastic surgery turn him into Tony Wilson (a brilliant performance by Rock Hudson). This new life comes with a new house and friends although everything comes at a cost and Arthur/Tony discovers that his problems run a lot deeper than he thought.
James Wong Howe's wide angle B&W photography was marvelously groundbreaking at the time and the film is defiantly uncompromising which maybe explains why it slipped through the cracks and remains little known. Also: Saul Bass + Helvetica credit sequence = Glory!
WHERE THE BUFFALO ROAM (1980)
Before Johnny Depp defined the Hunter S Thompson persona on film you need to know that Bill Murray nailed it almost 20 years earlier. Art Linson's ambitious effort failed on its initial release and understandably so. Linson seemed to struggle with finding a cohesive tone to the film and ultimately was unable to tie up an episodic structure into a complete whole.
Despite these shortcomings, Where The Buffalo Roam is a fascinating film especially for fans of Thompson, Murray or Gilliam's later (and much more artistically successful, Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas). Murray's rendition of Thompson is as spot on as Depps and much like Depp, he spent a great deal of time with Thompson to achieve this. Peter Boyle's turn at Oscar Acosta (named Dr Gonzo in Gilliam's film) also makes for an interesting comparison to what Del Toro did with his interpretation of the character.
A worthwhile relic of a film with much to recommend in it.
Skip Woods burst onto the scene in 1998, writing and directing his debut film. Ostensibly thrown into the bin with many mid to late 90s post-Tarantino crime films, Thursday has a dynamic level of fun and creativity that stands it apart from most the derivative dreck at appeared around the same time.
Straight off Boogie Nights and in his first starring role, Thomas Jane shows great charisma as a former drug dealer trying to start a new life with a wife who knows nothing of his past. His day begins with an old friend bringing heroin into his house and gets worse from there. Filled with super cool performances including a late appearance from Micky Rourke (years before other directors realised his skills), Thursday is a fun, fast and bloody good time.
Sadly Woods never fulfilled the promise he showed here (despite Thursday being his only directorial effort) going on to write such horrible films as X-Men Origins: Wolverine, The A Team, Hitman and Swordfish. Woods is currently scripting the next Die Hard entry for Bruce Willis and I live in hope that he reconnects with the creative energy that made his first film so much fun.
THE BED SITTING ROOM (1969)
One of the bleakest and blackest comedies to come out of the UK in the 60s, this all-star film from Richard Lester (Help!, A Hard Day's Night) is set 3 years after a nuclear holocaust and follows several characters as they wander around the detritus of a felled, post-apocalyptic London.
This truly bizarre film was co-written by Spike Milligan and contains so many relentlessly absurdist sequences that it ends up being quite difficult to watch. There is no real way to describe this film in words but when people rally on about Jodorowsky's El Topo and Holy Mountain being weird I tend to point them towards this film describing it as El Topo by way of Monty Python and a dash of mescaline.
Ralph Richardson stars as a character who is mutating into a bed-sitting room. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore float around yelling at people. Marty Feldman plays a cross-dressing nurse who delivers death certificates to people still living while Spike Milligan is tasked with digging a whole big enough to bury the 40 million casualties. I can't even begin to explain the surreality of watching this film. One must remain glad that something this weird exists.
A PURE FORMAILTY (1994)
After the sweet, quiet dramas of Everybody's Fine and Cinema Paradiso no one expected something like this to come from director Giuseppe Tornatore. A Pure Formality is a blast of a Kafka nightmare shot with blistering darkness and a final twist that satisfyingly explodes everything up to that point.
Starring Gerald Depardieu as Onoff, a hermetic writer who late one night is dragged into a rural police station upon suspicion of murder. Roman Polanski (showing fantastic acting chops) is the detective charged with interviewing Onoff.
What follows is a stunningly intense two-hander, structured thrillingly and photographed with a sense of menace that is unparalleled. Nominated for the Palme D'or in 94, this received a small amount of attention on release yet strangely slipped through the cracks in the intervening years. Many later well-regarded Hollywood films seemed to emulate the twists and turns of A Pure Formality and it to this day remains one of the most Kafkaesque films I have ever seen. Oh did I mention Ennio Morricone did the score. Yep, you need to see this film.
THE NINTH CONFIGURATION (1980)
Following the success of The Exorcist, William Peter Blatty parleyed the small amount of clout he had amassed into making The Ninth Configuration, an film adaptation of a novel he had written in the 60s. On the surface The Ninth Configuration seems rather straightforward. Colonel Kane, a psychiatrist, arrives at an isolated asylum for mentally ill soldiers. As this new doctor's strangely permissive therapy takes hold over the asylum's patients we begin to question Kane's own sanity and his scarred military past.
With The Ninth Configuration Blatty crafted a totally unique film, part surreal comedy, part philosophical thriller, part paranoid horror. Stacy Keach offers up a pitch perfect Keach performance of unhinged excellence while Blatty directs the film in such a way that you are never quite sure if he knows what he is doing. There are moments in this film where you almost feel as if the director has lost his mind. The Ninth Configuration will baffle most audiences but those who tune into its peculiar wavelength will quickly add it to their list of favorite films of all time.
Made during the early peak of James Caan's career (he sandwiched this film between appearances in the first two Godfather films) this oddball road movie is a perfect example of how open the studio system was to making strange films in the early 70s.
Caan stars as Dick Kanipsia, a recently released ex-con who stumbles across some information that promises to lead him to a secret stash of money. Along the way he gets pulled into numerous weird conspiracies while constantly being pursued by an ominous black RV (echoes of Duel, made two years prior, are prominent).
This truly unique film plays almost like a proto-Coen brothers movie as its laidback episodic structure cruises along populated with constantly strange characters and situations that have no place in mainstream films. Slither's climax take place during a game of bingo at a caravan park!! A true lost classic full of sharp tonal shifts and profoundly understated humour.
A biopic about classical composer Franz Liszt sounds like it should be elegant and restrained but not in director Ken Russell's mind. Here we get a machine gun welding Nazi Frankenstein that is actually the reincarnated body of evil villain Richard Wagner. We also are treated to giant cocks, Ringo Starr as the Pope, voodoo dolls, Roger Daltry playing Liszt in the style of 70s rock star and several scenes that rival anything Bunuel or Dali achieved in cinema.
While Lizstomania isn't a complete success in and of itself (its excesses tends to dull and fatigue the viewer after a while) it does serve as a confounding reminder of what studios were giving the green light to in the 70s. This was a big budget Warner Brothers film at the time. Regardless of its holistic success one cannot ignore one of those rare moments in time when a creative filmmaker such as Ken Russell gets given a large cheque to make something this wild, excessive and unhinged. A truly unique piece of cinema.
WINTER KILLS (1980)
Winter Kills is possibly the most fascinating film on this list, not only as its peculiar blend of absurdist comedy and conspiracy thriller has rarely been matched (the Coens' Burn After Reading comes immediately to mind but that barely prepares you for the supremely weird tone here) but also due to its truly strange production history.
Financed by two marijuana dealers (one who was murdered during production and the other was jailed for trafficking 3 years after it was released), Winter Kills took 5 years to make, suffering 3 separate halts in production as the money used to fund it was non-existent.
The film itself plays as if it's the It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World of conspiracy thrillers with Jeff Bridges starring as Nick Kegan, brother of a young president who was assassinated several years prior. He soon discovers that his brother's death was not as straight up as it had seemed and a huge conspiracy begins to unravel as he travels around finding clues from assorted strangers who each have their own crazy theory as to who killed the president. Along the way he comes across Sterling Hayden, Toshiro Mifune, Dorothy Malone, Eli Wallach, Ralph Meeker and Elizabeth Taylor while John Huston hams it up as his stern father and Anthony Perkins plays a character that seems to run the world from a cavernous compound filled with computers.
The troubled production history, relentlessly weird tone and overt similarities to the Kennedy assassination are all elements that somewhat explain why this film got lost over time but it deserves to be rediscovered. In many ways Winter Kills acts as a bizarro black comedy blueprint for Oliver Stone's JFK making Stone's film look relatively restrained by comparison. Sadly writer/director William Ricert seemed to struggle for the rest of his career, never really reaching the potential suggested by his first film.
NOTHING LASTS FOREVER (1984)
A film produced by Lorne Michaels starring Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd and Zach Galligan (straight off Gremlins at the height of his popularity) has never been released you say? I don't believe it... Well... Believe it. Nothing Lasts Forever is that film and it's damn good too.
In a noirish art-deco New York, a young man dreams of becoming an artist. One day he meets a mystical tramp who introduces him to a secret society of tramps who run the world from their glorious cavernous lair. The man is instructed to fly to the moon where he will find love.
I've given you a really bad synopsis of the plot but that is only as this film is quite difficult to summarise. It's tone most resembles elements of Michel Gondry's work suffused with a degree of art-wank humour that steadfastly refuses to dumb itself down and a dash of Wes Anderson. All signs point to a work of cinema that was well ahead of its time.
Countless explanations ensue as to why this film barely got released but suffice to say if this film came out today it would become a hipster classic instantly! It is a truly lovely, sweet, charming, creative and unique little film. Hunt it down and surprise your friends with a true lost classic.