I have arbitrarily EXCLUDED many great films like "Mean Streets" and "True Romance," on the grounds that they don't seem quite "obscure enough."
Still, I've included several recent movies that many folks seem to have 'heard of' but missed--films that already seem to be on their unfortunate journey toward obscurity, like "Leatherheads" and "Bringing Down the House."
Some--like "Miracle on 34th Street"--are here either because the new edition (say, a colorized version) is so incredible, or the 'commentary layer' (as with '61', and 'Comedian') is a great movie, all on its own (both being the case, for 'Miracle'! ). 12/26/09: I have also added capsule reviews for each film--just a few words about why each movie here is so great, in my humble opinion. So now...in no particular order....here are...
My Quirky (Sometimes Obscure) Faves!
By Peter Rodman
Marriage of a Young Stockbroker--Richard Benjamin*
More or less the prequel to Diary of a Mad Housewife, this one is in some ways the better film.
Benjamin is the most annoying husband in history, hands down, and yet in this one, his inner turmoil is better explained. Plus he's not struggling with the relentlessly glommy Carrie Snodgrass.
Time After Time--Malcolm MacDowell, Mary Steenburgen
Lots of movies claim to combine romance, action, intrigue, and suspense. This one delivers on all counts. Several classic scenes come to mind--most notably Jack the Ripper pointing to the violence on 20th century television, and saying to his fellow time traveler, "I belong here, completely and utterly."
It's a very strong parable about the decline of civility, because most of what makes McDowell's 19th century 'fish-out-of-water' so novel, is his unfailing, out-of-place politeness.
Buffalo Bill and the Indians--Paul Newman
This Altman obscurity may well be the best explanation of how America invented the whole concept of "celebrity." Famous just for being famous, Newman's Buffalo Bill knows he's a farce...and the movie does, too!
Partners (1982 version)--Ryan O'Neal, John Hurt
Ryan O'Neal is underrated as a comedic actor, and nowhere is that more evident than in this compassionate, hilarious send-up of a stud having to pretend he's gay, in order to solve a murder.
It's Hurt's best role too, and small parts by Louis Nye and Kenneth McMillan shine.
Would I Lie To You?--Treat Williams*
Treat Williams more or less reprised this role for 'The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper,' but here, he was the perfect 'What, who...me?' schemer. Too bad this one's been wrongly panned, and relegated to obscurity.
NOTE: This movie is so rare, there's no poster image available!
After Hours--Griffin Dunn, Teri Garr
Scorcese's what-can-go-wrong-will epic is a love letter to the misbegotten who find themselves lost in the big, bad city. Dunn is so sympathetic that you almost get sick for him, hoping things will turn out okay...and hilariously enough, they never do.
Far Away, So Close--Nastassia Kinski
Everyone tells me I'm supposed to like 'Wings of Desire' better, and yes, it has the better plot. But this, the second in Wim Wenders's trilogy on angels, is where he mastered the art of portraying omniscience. Here, the angels listen in every language, to the peoples' thoughts below. The first forty minutes of this film are among the best in all of cinema. It's the introduction of plot points that almost kills it. Still, the imagery is cinema's all-time best portrayal of what it might be like, to be an angel...
Ironweed--Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep
The poster shows how great the acting is; two giants, playing absolute bums, holding each other up against the world. Dark, yes. But you will love these people. "There, but for fortune, go you or I..."
Bringing Down the House--Steve Martin, Queen Latifah
This is a worlds-collide piece that perfectly fits its lead actors. Wacky, sometimes profane...but fun!
The First U.S. Visit--The Beatles (Maysles Bros. Documentary)
Containing probably the most important historic footage of the Fabs ever shot (it inspired the train scene in A Hard Day's Night), this documentary is a Maysles Bros. classic.
And...it's got Meeeaazurray the K-eeeuuzzaayy! Need I say more?
Elephant--Gus Van Sant
This is brilliant. It's also the film nobody wants to watch, because it essentially dissects 'Columbine' in a methodical, fictionalized, P.O.V. way--both from the victims and the shooters' points of view. What shocks here isn't so much the ending--we already know about that--but it's the utter averageness of a mundane day in any high school, circa 1999, and the sheer boredom and teenaged angst that begets such a weird chain of events. It's the fact that it isn't chilling at all, that's so chilling. Highly recommemded.
A Walk on the Moon--Diane Lane
A terrific movie about what it was really like in New York State, on the weekend in '69, when Woodstock happened. Straight housewife meets tye-dye t-shirt salesman, and the soundtrack alone--beautifully remastered--is worth the price of admission!
Racing with the Moon--Sean Penn, Elizabeth McGovern
This is a soap opera you can't stop watching, a coming of age tale with every cliche in the book--but the cast keeps you glued to the screen.
Cassavette's verite style gets a true workout in the bar scenes, which signaled the greatness of Ben Gazzara, for one thing...and gave us a raw glimpse of male chauvinists in their true '60s element.
The In-Laws (1979 version)--Peter Falk, Alan Arkin
I'm shocked to find Peter Falk in three or four of these films. Coincidence? I dunno. I do know he and the brilliant Alan Arkin are perhaps the greatest buddy-film farcemeisters in film history. This is brilliant from start to finish. A comedy classic, not to be mistaken for its miserable re-make, 25 years later.
Certain things are universal. But I would maintain that it's actually more instructive to see how much a stolen bicycle means to a kid in Beijing, than it does to a kid in Peoria--because the meaning of his dreams and hopes, not to mention his livelihood, is completely at stake. For this reason, sometimes foreign films are just plain better. They show us places we don't know, while showing us characters we do know...and there's something great about finding that out, over and over again. We've all seen the heartbreak bullies can cause. This film has the heart to match the heartbreak. See it, if you can find it!
Nothing to Lose--Tim Robbins, Martin Lawrence
Another 'Odd Couple' buddy pic, and this one expertly matches these guys. It perhaps too neatly ties up the racial lessons in a nice little bow at the end, but it provides mucho laughter from the talented Lawrence, along the way. Great stuff.
In Bruges--Colin Powell
I love films that fight their own message on purpose! This one features Powell ("I hate fucking Bruges!") bitching his way through a stint in one of Europe's most lovely settings. It's an allegorical tale about not knowing how wonderful the thing you hate might be. Very well done.
A Simple Plan--Bridget Fonda, Billy Bob Thornton
Another everything-goes-wrong-that-can flick...but they play it straight (sort of) until you, the viewer, finally realize the joke's on you. These people are simply going to screw everything up, and it's serious stuff. First, it's "Oh, no"...and then you're laughing, because you cannot help yourself. A fab farce, in the 'Fargo' mode.
Diary of a Mad Housewife--Richard Benjamin, Carrie Snodgrass
The absolute best example of the absolute worst husband in history. If your name was "Tina," and your husband whined "Teeeeeen!" all day long, you'd go mad too. She does. We do, too.
But it's like the Hokey Pokey: "That's what it's all about."
Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of SMiLE (Documentary)
This comes with the "SMiLE" video as the first disc, and its intimate look at the reluctant genius shows, better than most other documentaries, exactly how he ticks--when he ticks at all...
New York (14 hour documentary)--(Ken Burns Documentary)
I've been watching this all year, and it's so good, I always go back an hour or so, just so I won't miss a word. Unfortunately, using this approach I have yet to reach the 20th century! But man...this IS the true history of America, coming alive before your eyes and ears. Unbelievable. I wish history classes were all this interesting!!!
Leon The Professional--Jean Reno
Natalie Portman's debut with the master Jean Reno, is a reverse 'Harold & Maude' December/May story, plus cops and robbers...and Paris!
Sweet and Lowdown--Sean Penn, Samantha Morton
Sean Penn has rarely been more unlikable, a role which is brought into fine relief by his utterly adorable wife/victim Samantha Morton, whose mute vulnerability makes me want to leap through the screen and save her forever. (This, I now realize, is silly...since I've broken several flat screen TVs, trying.)
Stardust Memories--Woody Allen
Ever wanted a real glimpse at tabloid celebrity, from the point of view of a guy who's been there? This is truly "it."
Lovesick--Elizabeth McGovern, Dudley Moore
I didn't realize Elizabeth McGovern would pop up in so many of these favorites. I'd all but forgotten her, and yet...she gives good love story, doesn't she?
Q & A--Armand Assante, Nick Nolte
Likewise for Armand Assante, who's in several of these flicks, and always as second banana...
Man On Wire--Phillippe Petite (Documentary)
One of the more beautiful filmed documentaries you'll ever see...and its release was carefully delayed until eight years after 9/11, just so that event--in the same towers--wouldn't color this story, or vice versa. Impossible task, but one which only enhances the beauty of these lovable sneaks, duping security guards at the World Trade Center simply for the cause of art and beauty. This truly is the story of "love terrorists." Would that it were ever thus, you keep thinking.
Unfaithfully Yours--Armand Assante, Nastassja Kinski, Dudley Moore
Here they are again--a great '80s pairing, especially if you're short like me, and it gives you more hope than real life ever will.
Sherry Baby--Maggie Gyllennthal
She's sexy, she's not afraid to 'have a go', and she's unapologetic about any of it. Not since Jill whats-her-name in the '70s, has an actress more carefully explored feminism and all its implications, in a world that still chooses to categorize any female desires as trampy, while men still get a pass.
Trial & Error--Michael Richards, Jeff Daniels
Pre-Kramer Kramer, with the wonderful Jeff Daniels to boot...a slapstick piece of low-brow hilarity, and well worth the giggly ride!!
Comedian (especially commentary layer)--Jerry Seinfeld (Documentary)
This is must-see TV, for any aspiring comedians--Jay Leno has (rightly) called it the best inside look at stand-up comedy ever put to film, as we watch Jerry develop (from scratch, line by line) a whole new act, post-'Seinfeld.' The film isn't meant to be funny, but is. The ad-libbed commentary layer, between Seinfeld and Colin Quinn, isn't meant to be hilarious, but is!!!
61 (especially director's commentary)--Thomas Jane, Billy Crystal
A great and meticulous recreation of the 1961 "M & M connection," Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris.
In addition to the terrific acting--this is probably baseball's greatest bio-pic ever--Billy Crystal provides a rich director's commentary, which--if you were looking for laughs and insights--is utterly indispensable.
Just terrific. Thomas Jane should have gotten an Oscar, for his turn as Mickey Mantle.
Ragtime (1981 version--not the musical)--James Cagney, Randy Newman score
The score alone would make this film worth it, but its soap opera story arc stretches over a lazy three hours, like a miniseries almost, and eventually you care enough about each of these people, and their time, that you simply do not want it (the movie OR their time) to end. NOT to be confused with the hideous musical of the same name, which has none of this wonderful music, and took its name from this film. That's a crime.
Leatherheads--George Clooney, Renee Zelwegger
Clooney's never been better, and he's never going to be, either! This is the role of a lifetime, for both he and the impressive Zelwegger, and again, Randy Newman's score is a timeless masterpiece--one of his best serious works, in a delightful screwball comedy.
The Hitcher--Sophia Bush
This came on the cable channel, and I hate bloody films, but it eventually hooked me in, with some great action, great acting, over-the-top creepiness, and just enough story to keep you hangin' on til the end.
Oh, okay...Sophia Bush isn't hard to look at, either.
Miracle on 34th Street (DELUXE EDITION)
It's the original classic but with Maureen O'Hara's amazing personal commentary
and the very best example of "colorization" in movie history, it becomes even moreso.
An essential addition to any film collection.
Layer Cake--Daniel Craig
Just before he became James Bond, he made his ultimate James Bond flick...and this is it. A British thriller which shows you how much more intellegent their thrillers are, than ours. It's nice not to have everything 'dumbed down'. Don't miss it.
Again, a cable TV staple that totally sucked me in. This kid is a star, and expertly plays an everyman--the classic nosy/horny neighbor---who gets drawn into a horror movie, unfolding in the house next door...and finally finds its scary way into his own!!!
The Bad Seed (1956 version)--Patty McCormick
Speaking of creepy/scary...this is the original--and still the best.
Prince of the City--Treat Williams
There have been lots of cop films about corruption and the city. None better than this, and most copied it, outright. Strangely hard to find, these days...
This French film (subtitled in English) features eerily empty Paris streets and landmarks, as the internal dialogue between an Amazon-like angel/superhero (does she exist?) and a despondent man about to end it all becomes a beautiful treatise on life, love, and self-esteem. In effect, this picks up right where directors Wim Wenders (Far Away, So Close) and Frank Capra (It's A Beautiful Life) left off, angel-wise! Highly recommended.
Body Double--Melanie Griffith
Back before trout-lip implants, Melanie was one sexy babe...and Brian DePalma was at his Hitchcockian zenith, when this one surfaced.
A Little Romance--Diane Lane
She's been a grown-up sex symbol for years and years now, but Diane Lane always had that special something. This was her first 'romantic' lead...and it's about as good as any coming-of-age, tender romance as you'll ever see. Puppy love never had it so good.
Dressed to Kill--Nancy Allen, Michael Caine
Another Hitchcock-like masterpiece from DePalma, this one featuring Michael Caine, in the Tony Perkins role...and a fetching Nancy Allen (DePalma's then-wife) as the irresistable ingenue.
Five Came Back(1939 version)--Christopher Morris, Lucille Ball*
I grew up watching this movie, on New York City's "Million Dollar Movie." (I doubt it cost anywhere near a million to make this one, though.) The entire thing takes place in a thirty-foot square jungle (movie set), exploring the survival dilemnas of several small plane crash victims. (By this I mean the plane was small; not the victims.) Anyway, five did come back...but it transfixed me then, and entrances me still. Would they kill each other? Heck...would they eat each other!? Turns out Lucy was a damn good serious actress, pre-Desi...
Inherit the Wind (1960 version)--Spencer Tracy, Dick York
One of the classic morality plays, from back when America wasn't afraid to be persuaded they were wrong. Were it released today, the far right would talk of nothing but "the Hollywood agenda" and such, and nobody would see it. As it was, this powerful movie held up a mirror to bigotry, and we were all better for it. My Mom adored this flick, and we kids came to know almost every line of it. Very good choice, for teaching... Spencer Tracy's was never better than he is here, as the haggard, 'Northern' defense lawyer, and everyone from Gene Kelly (the vapid reporter) to Harry Morgan (the perfect judge) to Dick York (the defendant) turns in top-notch performances...but nobody tops Frederic March's cartoonish, flustered, Bible-toting 'bigot-with-a-good-heart.'
Easily one of the Top Ten Greatest Movies of All-Time.
Lady Beware--Diane Lane
I would have gone steady with this movie, had I owned it back then...here we have a very grown up Diane Lane, teasing the camera, the culprit, and pretty much all of Pittsburgh. "Lady Beware" says it all...but if you wear glasses, beware of them steaming up, too!!!
SiCKO( documentary)--Michael Moore
This is quite simply the best film--of any kind--of the past five years.
America didn't even see it for the most part, primarily because hundreds of millions of dollars went into demonizing Moore, and scaring you out of seeing it. Fox News went into overdrive before it was even released, setting out to discredit that which cannot be discredited. Plus, a lot of people were simply not going to go see anything named "SiCKO." In that, the title did this masterpiece a disservice.
Trust me: There's nothing 'sick' about it!
In actual fact, it's one of the funniest, most entertaining, enlightening, enraging, and touching movies you'll ever see. One of my Top Ten Films of All Time. Not to be missed, a wonderful entertainment on any level, love him or hate him.
Going In Style--George Burns, Lee Strasberg, Art Carney
If you've ever wondered how Lee Strasberg ended up being as well known for his acting teaching as for his acting itself, here's a pretty good answer. This one has all the earmarks of the late George Burns's endearing senior-citizen flicks--which were second to none--and it lets us laugh with and at their dotage, as these three masters actually cook up (and pull off) a bank heist, from their Central Park bench. Let the hijinks commence!
The Oscar(1966 version)--Stephen Boyd, Tony Bennett*
The ultimate Hollywood soap opera, panned at the time (and still), but a well-deserved cult favorite, featuring a surprisingly worthy supporting dramatic performance by none other than Tony Bennett, and the classic Citizen-Kane-meets-Clark-Gable role, embodied by Stephen Boyd.
If you've ever found yourself wondering, "Why do Hollywood stars end up in such terrible marriages? How come they're all getting arrested, all the time? What's up with these unhappy rich people, and all their infamous domestic disputes?" This is like a window into their mansions, and YOU are the voyeur!!!
Delicious, irresistable fun.
NOTE: If you see an asterisk next to a given title, that means it's currently either entirely unavailable, or only available as either an expensive collectors' item, or in laborious, overpriced compilations.
ALL of the above movies are UNLIKELY to be available at your local video store, no matter how big it may be...but...www.amazon.com is a great resource, as is Netflix (at times), and in my humble estimation, NONE of the movies on this list--should you find them--will ever let you down.
This list and its commentary are Copyright 2009 by Peter Rodman.
All Rights Reserved. Nor portion herein may be copied, reproduced, or transmitted in whole or in part, without express written permission.