Via the Siren, a challenge from one Mr. Middlebrow to name "10 movies you consider overlooked, underrated, offbeat and in general deserving of not being forgotten." That's a broad field to cover--especially as 'overlooked' and 'underrated' don't mean the same things (despite a long and fuzzy shared border). Should I write about a film I chanced upon that very few people may know, or should I use the space to defend some oft-maligned film maudit? Highlight relative classics from cine-realms generally overlooked by the wider film geek scene I consider myself part of? In the interest of breadth, I figured I'd do a little of each. No need to bloviate too much now, I'll let my words for the films do the work. In no order, selected with loose and haphazard criteria:
The Tender Trap (Charles Walters, 1955)
Walters can run hot (Please Don't Eat the Daisies) or cold (Belle of New York) or somewhere in between (Summer Stock) but he's got a distinctive way of approaching material--he's a real artisan of 'Hollywood fluff,' artifice, candy-colors; a true scholar-in-action of the worldview, and the mindset, that underlies the genre of the Hollywood musical. This musical romantic comedy (rated with the faint praise damnation of 6.1 on the IMDB) is my favorite of the generous handful of Walters films I've seen, partly because it veers into mature, subtle dramatic territory about the nature of romantic contentment. In truth I don't remember the film in its details very well (I have a sieve for a memory), but I remember clearly the weird feeling I got from watching it, deeper and deeper I went into the film--as though it were expanding its MGM pop aura ever-wider and in so doing allowed us a glimpse of empty space within: relationships and entanglement. Not the world in a coffee cup--Cassavetes' Faces in a Sinatra vehicle.
Dreamchild (Gavin Millar, 1985)
Maybe I'm just a sucker for films about life & memory, about the reflective moment wherein a person or a community looks back on lost youth, past experiences, old beauty, missed chances, irrevocable changes. It's why Ford and Ozu are probably my two favorite directors. It's why I found Brokeback Mountain so moving (the shirts!) even if I'm still not even sure if I actually liked the film. This slightly odd film is about Lewis Carroll and his relationship to the girl who informed Alice (and her family). It's from a director otherwise unknown to me and was very moving, and suggestively delved into troubling emotional and psychosexual territory. (Another fantastic, underrated film that deals with 'mistaken pedophilia'--John Duigan's Lawn Dogs. Duigan himself is an underrated filmmaker, as Sirens, Flirting, and probably a few more attest.) Jim Henson created some puppets for some fantasy scenes that recreate parts of the Looking Glass text. IMDB rating: a respectable 7.0, but I never hear anybody talking about this film.
Not Long After Leaving Shinegawa (Kawashima Yuzo, 1957)
Like Dreamchild, this film has a fine IMDB rating (8.0), but I don't see it mentioned or hear it discussed recently. Though the crowd I saw it with at MoMA last fall laughed a lot and seemed to enjoy it, it didn't emerge as a "find" from the Japanese films that swamped NYC theaters last fall. Donald Richie devotes maybe 1-2 pages to Kawashima in his most recent edition of Japanese Film. At any rate, I wish I could see this film again, and also see more by this director. It's not a great film: it is, however, wide-ranging, free-wheeling, unpredictable, sharp, pungent, and vivid. Kawashima was one of the filmmakers Shohei Imamura studied under (another was, of course, Ozu), and his influence seems pretty visible from where I stand.
Driven (Renny Harlin, 2001)
This is not a joke! It's like a Hawks movie--not like a Hawks masterpiece, but more like a worthy, minor aftershock of what we would call the Real Thing. (Along the same lines: Hal Needham's 1978 film Hooper, about stunt doubles...) Economical without being sparse, shorthand without being rushed: the trademark of the studio system, and the sad victim of the post-classical production system. Its 1952 analog would be fine if relatively unremarkable ("a good flick for a Sunday afternoon"), but the fact that this kind of film was created under such conditions in Hollywood that practically demand Event Status from a work makes it something more noteworthy. IMDB rating: 4.3.
The Night They Raided Minsky's (William Friedkin, 1968)
I have a theory that Friedkin (not as a flesh-and-blood human, but as an Authorial Construct) started out with a lot of libidinous energy, "void of form," and before long he was shackled (or shackled himself) into a repressive masculinist straitjacket that made for a lot of the filmic equivalent of sex-frustrated handwringing, if you ask me. (It may have also accounted for the propulsive dynamism of his work: sometimes he can be very good, and I could have mentioned his 2003 film The Hunted on this list, too.) I'll have to test this theory out by watching more Friedkins than I've already seen, including (most of all) Cruising. Even so, I'd take this film (modest in scale but bold in tone) over The French Connection in a heartbeat--and I'd even take it over The Exorcist. It's a somewhat complicated story, but it's basically about the arrival and promotion of an Amish girl (Britt Ekland; with large, um, "protuberances") who wants to perform "Dances from the Bible" in the titular 1920s house of burlesque. How chaste these dances are (or are advertised as) is quite open to debate! Minsky's is under pressure from the police, the Amish girl has an angry father chasing her, and there's a fantastic rapport between the great Jason Robards and Norman Wisdom. IMDB rating: 5.5.
Land of Gold (Steve Marts, 1979)
I can barely find any information on this film, which was screened in a documentary class I took with George Stoney. I recall Steve Marts worked in advertising, and made this very lyrical short film about Oregon farmlands as a labor of love (maybe?) (as far as sweeping agricultural vistas of Americana it'd make a nice double bill with Days of Heaven). It's not "avant-garde" exactly, but I felt it had the same sort of feeling for image texture and rhythm. If you ever get a chance, try to watch it again.
Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter (Yasuharu Hasebe, 1970)
Sexual and racial baggage make it hard for any of the characters in this violent youth film to "move freely" or exist independently. They're caught in a matrix. Meiko Kaji leads a girl gang against her rival-lover, a gangster who hates foreigners with nationalist fervor (and very personal venom). There's a "half-breed" looking for his sister. What I like about what I've sampled of the pop-genre-youth films from Japan at this time is that they reserved their energy for individual scenes and events, but let their "statements" or "messages" ebb up gently, with nuance. So that you get a high-energy film with subtle (or at least subtle-feeling) social and ethical commentary. IMDB rating: 6.7.
Last of the Comanches (Andre De Toth, 1952)
In postwar classical Hollywood, De Toth is a major figure. Not in terms of power or reputation, but in terms of artistic accomplishment--he deserves to be mentioned with Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, Ray, Sirk, Preminger (i.e., that whole broad 'upper tier'). This is one of his best, if not his all-out masterpiece (Day of the Outlaw) or his most famous (probably Ramrod, which I haven't seen--my video copy went kaput before I got a chance to watch it). I've seen it three times and feel that it'd be just as fresh as if I were to watch it tonight. The thing about De Toth is that he could take a perfectly leisurely moment, a peaceful image, and disrupt it more quickly than we realize (as during one conversation cut all too short in this film). He could build up great, multi-levelled tension just by rolling a bottle down a bar (as in Day of the Outlaw). He was an entertainer, a 'plot-driven' guy; he was angry as hell about the political situation that rotted Europe for him and spurred him to flee to the States (if you get a chance, see his incendiary None Shall Escape from 1944); he was a consummate visual stylist whose touches were "fast and furious," but not flashy--they were always in service of a certain vision of ethics & human nature that obsessed De Toth. IMDB rating: 6.2.
These Hands (Florence M'mbugu-Schelling, 1992)
Forty-five minutes for those who like Kiarostami--from the gut. That is, for those who feel an affinity for a certain "simple" presentational ethos that builds fascinating social and aesthetic statements from deliberate pacing and spareness (other practicioners: sometimes Wim Wenders; I suspect José Luis Guerín; though I don't think that Hou, Tsai, or Yang do what I'm trying to pinpoint...). Women refugees from Mozambique work in a rock quarry, breaking up rocks into gravel. They work; they sing; they break to eat; at the end of the day they are done. Very straightforward, but there's a 'springboard' quality to the images and the scenes, they open up discussion instead of just sitting around inert and ambiguous. I've long contemplated writing about this film, and this broad "aesthetic," but I'm still mulling over the best way to express my thoughts. IMDB rating: 7.0, but a mere 5 votes.
The End (Christopher Maclaine, 1953)
I've avoided avant-garde cinema until this final slot because (a) to a depressingly large segment of the "film enthusiast" population it's all worthless, obscure, and hence "underrated"; (b) I don't know a-g scenes throughout history and geography well enough to know a lot of truly "underrated" works; and (c) more and more writing on a-g work will appear on Elusive Lucidity anyway. Still, this filmmaker (and this, his masterpiece) should be more widely discussed. The End is an ineffably weird masterpiece within Maclaine's very small body of work. Fred Camper on Maclaine here. A post I made on a_film_by here. IMDB rating: 8.9 (!) but only 13 votes (!).