At some point, I'd like to compile a list of the Best Films You've Probably Never Seen, the main impediment being that I'd like them all to be available to be seen, and too many of them just aren't out on DVD. In the meantime, here's a grab-bag of suggestions off the top of my head. All of them are films I'm either eager to watch again, or have already re-watched several times. Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments.
Junebug: (2005) I'll recap my 2005 review:
Junebug is the best film of 2005 you probably didn’t see. This “small” film chronicles George (Alessandro Nivola) visiting his parents in his hometown because he and his new, very cosmopolitan wife Madeleine (Embeth Davidtz) are in the area trying to secure a local painter’s cooperation for her gallery. While My Cousin Vinny works because it makes fun of everybody, both the small town Southerners and the city slickers, Junebug works because none of the characters is just a stereotype, and no easy answers are given. It’s a small coup that Ben McKenzie’s participation in the film as Johnny will draw in many an eager O.C. fan who will be dumbfounded both by the film and his loutish character, a young man who can only lash out at the world around him... although in one brilliant scene, writer Angus MacLachlan and director Phil Morrison change how we look at him. The heart and soul of this film, however, is the luminous, effervescent Amy Adams as a very pregnant, always optimistic chatterbox. While at first she comes off as a little annoying perhaps, she is so guileless, so sincere, and so upbeat she becomes captivating, and when she faces highs and some significant lows you will care for her deeply. Unless you know you hate this sort of small indie movie, check it out, because it really is a tiny gem.
Dirty Pretty Things: (2002) Director Stephen Frears made a very welcome return to form with his best film in years, a feature about an underclass of illegal immigrants in London who are preyed upon by cops, unscrupulous employers and most dangerously of all, a shady criminal underground. This was Chiwetel Ejiofor's breakout role as Okwe, an exhausted nightshift bellhop at a seedy hotel. One night, he discovers a human heart in one of the toilets, and his cautious investigations gradually pull him into a menacing world of... well, I won't spoil it. Okwe is extremely sharp, and it turns out, a former doctor, but he has a mysterious past and it's not clear why he fled Nigeria. His roommate is another illegal immigrant, Senay Gelik, played by Audrey Tautou in a striking break from her enchanting turn in Amélie. Featuring good performances and a intriguing plot, it's well worth a look.
The General: (1998) Based on real events, this is one of the few films where dependable character actor Brendan Gleeson gets to play the lead. Here he's Martin Cahill, a notorious but stylish and charismatic gangster and burglar in Ireland. Jon Voight plays the chief cop after Cahill, whose nickname is "The General." What makes the chase so difficult is that the cops know Cahill's guilty, but they just can't prove it. One of the funniest scenes in the film involves a clever scheme by Cahill to ditch the cops who are closely tailing him in a car. Cahill's quite likable, until he really works over one of his men who may be a snitch. In any case, Gleeson's pretty captivating. The General is all the more interesting once you know that in real life, director John Boorman's house was actually robbed by Cahill (the scene's included in the film). Oddly, The General was shown in black and white in the theater (where I first saw it), but in color on American cable.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang: (2005) While it's a more qualified recommendation, I'll quote my 2005 blurb:
…Shane Black's directorial debut (he penned the Lethal Weapon films) is nominally a comedy film noir but brims over with energy. Yes, it’s overwritten, there’s too much narration and it tries too hard to be clever, and many a film student will overreach trying to write a screenplay that apes it style. But the fact remains that for all its excesses, it is funny, clever, inventive, and constantly entertaining. It’s wonderful to see Robert Downey Jr. well cast in a good role again. Val Kilmer is funny, and Michelle Monaghan flashes memorable sass and wit in addition to the obligatory sexiness (she’ll be introduced to a wider audience with Mission Impossible: III). Part of the set-up follows Downey as a small-time hood who runs from an abortive theft when his partner is shot. Panicked, he runs right into a casting session, and winds up reading a scene where by chance, he’s accused of abandoning his friend to die. Downey’s character of course gives an accidentally emotionally riveting performance, and suddenly becomes thrust into a world of Hollywood parties and intrigue. There’s much, much more, but come on, that’s a pretty damn funny set-up, and the film is full of off-beat and engaging scenes. It’s worth a look.
City of God (Cidade de Deus): (2002) Fernando Meirelles' film has often been called "The Brazilian Goodfellas," and that's a pretty good description. It's too violent for some tastes, but it's got more personality, energy and inventiveness than most films you're likely to see. It takes joyful, elliptical digressions, leaps back and forth in time, but it's never confusing. It is, however, often startling, occasionally disturbing, sometimes funny, and always engaging. It's all the more striking to see news footage of some of the real figures the film is based on over the ending credits, and the DVD has some interesting background features. Unless you can't take the violence, if you're a student of film and you haven't caught this one yet, you really must. Meirelles also directed The Constant Gardener, and has a new film slotted for 2009.
War Photographer: (2001) Nominated for Best Documentary Feature (in a very strong year), this remarkable film follows James Natchwey, one of the all-time greats, who possesses a Zen-like approach to photography in the middle of some of the most dire situations on earth. This is really a great exploration of attitude and aesthetics for artists as well as journalists.
Ridicule: (1996) If you enjoy wit, intrigue and period films, this French film is a great pick. Shortly before the French Revolution, Le Marquis Grégoire Ponceludon de Malavoy (Charles Berling), a poor noble, seeks King Louis XVI's favor to drain the swamps on his land and better the lives of the peasants. To achieve this political process, a intricate game of social maneuvering is necessary, but Ponceludon is helped by his sharp wit (or esprit) in a courtly world where "wit is king." In the process, he risks being corrupted himself, as true love, personal advancement and selfless service war for his soul. Fanny Ardant makes a great screen villainesses, all the more so because she's not always a villain and is so smooth. Jean Rochefort always classes a film up, and Judith Godrèche is memorable as the scientifically-minded (and gorgeous) Mathilde, who stirs Ponceludon conscience and coeur.
Conspiracy: (2001) I've mentioned this film before in my Holocaust posts, but I never get tired of watching it. An HBO feature, it's the third film I know of to recreate the Wannsee Conference in 1942, when a number of key Nazis met to hammer out the practical details of "the Final Solution." Kenneth Branagh is superb and often chilling as conference leader SS Chief of Security Reinhard Heydrich, with Colin Firth another standout as Dr. Wilhelm Stuckart. Stanley Tucci, David Threlfall and Ian McNeice are also particularly memorable. Recreated from the brief conference's only surviving notes, the film's mostly in real time. A short film at 96 minutes, director Frank Pierson keeps things moving briskly, and while it's essentially talking heads, like 12 Angry Men, it's pretty riveting stuff. The inter-party dynamics and jockeying for position are fascinating, all the more so because these mundane, familiar politics juxtapose with a truly horrific agenda.
The Path to War: (2002) Another HBO feature, directed by John Frankenheimer, this one stars Michael Gambon as Lyndon Baines Johnson, Alec Baldwin as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Donald Sutherland as Clark Clifford, plus Felicity Huffman, Bruce McGill and many other superb supporting players. Not having been alive at the time, I particularly appreciate this glimpse into history and how we became increasingly bogged down in Vietnam (more so under Nixon). LBJ wrestles with politics and his conscience, and I can't help but wonder what he could have accomplished with his Great Society had he not had to deal with Vietnam. I think this would make for part of an interesting viewing series with Thirteen Days, The Fog of War and Nixon. In fact, I wish the current administration would hold exactly such a series.
A Very British Coup: (1988) This miniseries for British television was broadcast on Masterpiece Theater in the States back in the 80s. When a Socialist Prime Minister is elected, the true powers that be do everything they can do undermine him. One of the best political intrigue films out there, with some very sharp, memorable dialogue and penetrating insight into how the game is played. Tim McInnerny is chilling as an intelligence official, but of all the fine cast, the standout is Ray McAnally as PM Harry Perkins, who sadly died the next year.
The Descent: (2006) We'll see how writer-director Neil Marshall's latest feature Doomsday is, opening this weekend, but Dog Soldiers (2002) and The Descent are easily two of the more original and interesting horror films of recent memory, all the more impressive given the comparatively low budgets and tight shooting schedules. The Descent is distinct in that the leads are all women, six very capable outdoor adventurers, who go on a spelunking trip in the Appalachians (the actresses referred to themselves as "Chicks with Picks"). It's hard to get more claustrophobic than a cave, and this film's terror level must have been seriously ratcheted up in a dark theater. The atmosphere is helped by some stark, shadowy visuals, an eerie score and some great sound effects work. It starts with a bang, then has a slow build of growing tension up to a furious, relentless finale. I won't spoil it by saying anything more.
Classic Japanese Cinema: If you're a fan of samurai flicks (chanbara), in addition to Kurosawa's classics, I'd recommend Kobayashi's Samurai Rebellion (Joi-uchi, 1967) and Hara-Kiri (Seppuku, 1962). Both are dramatically gripping and politically edgy, and feature a few great fights as well. For Kurosawa, it's hard to go wrong, but you haven't seen Ikiru (1952), about a bureaucrat who discovers he's dying of cancer, check it out. It starts slowly, but it's unforgettable, moving and one of my all-time favorites. Similarly, Kurosawa's Oscar-winning Dersu Uzala (1975) uses the landscape beautifully, and is a wistful appreciation of friendship you're not likely to forget.
Sullivan's Travels: (1941) To end with a comedy, let me recommend one of my all-time favorites, a screwball comedy about a Hollywood director (played my Joel McCrea) renowned for making comedies who aspires to make a socially conscious film titled O Brother Where Art Thou? Hey, if the Oscar-winning Coens liked this film, surely they can't be wrong! Plus, our hero runs into Veronica Lake along the way. Sullivan's Travels is one of those rare films such as Dr. Strangelove or Network that becomes more relevant with each passing year. It's great fun just on the basic level, but for me it also holds a crucial insight about the power of comedy, not as escapism, as some watchers of the film believe, but how it can both intersect with and transcend tragedy.
I also have an old Film Viewing List from 2001 here, which is by no means definitive, nor does it list all my personal favorites, but if you're dying for suggestions, it's worth a look!