Monday, March 7, 2016

Fifteen Underrated Films

We all have a mental list of overrated movies (mine includes Raging Bull, the Star Wars franchise, Eisenstein's October, all Biblical films (even Pasolini's and Nicholas Ray's), and pretty much everything Steven Spielberg has ever done; your list surely differs). Such lists are harmless exercises in healthy contrarianism--no big deal, and rarely of interest to others, who have their own lists. More interesting are those films that didn't get the recognition they deserved from audiences and critics, great films in danger of slipping into oblivion, movies that got no respect. Here's my list of 15 that deserve to be lifted out of the Dangerfield zone.

1. Theatre of Blood (1973). One of the most literate horror films ever made, this bit of macabre, gruesome, campy fun stars Vincent Price as a Shakespearean actor who avenges himself on his critics by murdering them in elaborate scenarios inspired by the murder scenes in Shakespeare's plays. The Richard III episode is a delightful Pricean lampoon of Larry Olivier.

2. Lost Highway (1997). David Lynch lost most viewers about halfway down this weirdly twisting highway, a film that stands alongside Dune and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me as one of Lynch's most underrated works. A film more interested in opening mysteries than closing them, this is Lynch's very modern, very American rewriting of Kafka's Metamorphosis.

3. The Trial (1962). Speaking of Kafka, Orson Welles's adaptation of The Trial is, along with F For Fake, one of the Whoreson Round Man's unknown masterpieces. Starring a perfectly-cast Anthony Perkins as Joseph K, this is a visually stunning work of high cinematic art.

4. Marnie (1964). Long derided for its transparent artifice, Marnie deserves instead to be celebrated both as an early landmark of postmodern self-conscious cinema (aligning the Old Master with the contemporaneous works of his French sons, Godard and Truffaut) and as Hitchcock's most psychologically complex portrait of a female character.

5. Secret Honor (1984). Philip Baker Hall's amazing performance as Richard Nixon in Robert Altman's film is, in my opinion, the best performance by an American actor in the entire decade of the 1980s. This film is proof that cinematic greatness has nothing to do with budget size.

6. Bulworth (1998). Even I underrated Bulworth the first time I saw it. I noticed its warts but none of its worth, and I  thought its proponents were reviewing the message instead of the movie. When I watched it a decade later, I thought it was the most fearless political film ever made by an American director. Beatty takes more chances here than Oliver Stone has taken in his entire career, and most of the risks pay off.

7. Silent Bob and Jay Strike Back (2001). I never expected Kevin Smith to produce a film replete with Brechtian alienation devices and Godardian self-conscious irony, but in 2001 he did just that. Viewers who saw a stupid stoner exploitation comedy failed to realize that they were watching a David Foster Wallace-like ironic deconstruction of stupid stoner exploitation comedies. Judd Apatow's entire subsequent career seems to have been born out of this movie's butt.

8. Disgrace (2008). John Malkovich delivered the performance of his career in this near-perfect adaptation of J. M. Coetzee's great and haunting novel of life in the post-Apartheid South African countryside. This is one of those rare cases in which a great novel has become a great film.

9. The Grey Zone (2001). Barely noticed upon its release in 2001, this is one of the greatest films ever made about the Holocaust. The Grey Zone is the searing, unforgettable, unsentimental, almost unwatchably brutal film that Schindler's List should have been. I doubt if any fictional treatment of this subject has ever come closer to the daily reality of the death camps.

10. A Serious Man (2009). Between No Country for Old Men and their remake of True Grit, the Coen Brothers turned in this modern retelling of the Book of Job in the guise of an entirely enjoyable 1960s social comedy set in the suburbs of the American Midwest. Unlikely as it may seem, this Minnesotan Job is also the Coens' Call It Sleep melded with their version of Updike's Couples. And, unlikeliest of all, it works.

11. Daniel (1983). Sidney Lumet's almost forgotten adaptation of E. L. Doctorow's Rosenberg-inspired novel deserves to be rediscovered both for its recreation of a lost world of American radicalism and for its status as a first-rate primer on book-to-film adaptation.

12. The American (2010). Seemingly dismissed by most audiences as yet another George Clooney vehicle, Anton Corbijn's taut thriller owes more to Louis Malle and the Truffaut of Shoot the Piano Player than Robert Ludlum. It's a European art film into which Clooney seamlessly inserts his starpower. It should've been huge.

13. Julia (2008). If you want to know just how good an actor Tilda Swinton can be, check out her performance in this twisty crime drama cum psychological portrait. This is the job that should've won her the Oscar.

14. Margaret (2011). Notoriously stalled for years in post-production hell while everyone involved sued everyone else, Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret is the unknown masterpiece of contemporary American cinema. A novelistically rich slice of New York life, Margaret goes miles beyond the usual NYC fare and dives directly into the biggest topics: life, death, art, sex, family, and the meanings of it all in post-Sept.11 America.

15. Bloom (2003). Not so much underrated as unknown, Sean Walsh's valiant attempt at an adaptation of Joyce's Ulysses is, overall, superior to Joseph Strick's earlier effort at this foredoomed endeavor. Wisely forgoing the impossible task of filming the entire novel, Walsh makes huge cuts to extract the book's spinal 1904 narrative and brings it to film with the great Stephen Rea as Leopold Bloom. The ''Nighttown" sequence of the movie is almost as outrageous as the book.

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