Monday, April 18, 2005

Underrated Movies

I am fortunate to have a lot of friends and family who are big film fans and to have intelligent discussions about movies on a relatively frequent basis. But even so, there are a surprising number of films that I think are priceless who virtually nobody I know have seen. This is a list that slowly gets smaller. 10 years ago, one might have put Once Upon A Time in the West on there and maybe The Wild Bunch. Today, these movies get the attention they deserve. Even 5 years ago, Tokyo Story or the Decalogue might have had a place. But there's still a lot of movies that deserve more attention. Here's a short list off the top of my head.

1. Dr. Mabuse the Gambler. I am a partisan for silent movies so Dr. Mabuse the Gambler stands for a lot of silents. By itself, it's great. It has drugs, sex, violence, car chases, even hypnotism. All of this within Fritz Lang's critique of the moral decadence of Weimar Germany. Absolutely classic. It plays amazingly fast for a silent. It's totally engaging, funny, and just freaking nuts. More generally, silent films are wonderful, even if their bad. They are documents of a time long, long ago. Because they were pre-code, they often go into elements of American society that movies stopped talking about in the 1930s. I've seen silents on anarchists. I've seen Lon Chaney play a Chinaman. I've seen movies represent the change from agrarian to industrial America. Of course there are many horrible silent movies. But the best are truly wonderful and deserve a lot more attention than they get.

2. Sansho the Baliff. Mizoguchi is the third great Japanese director who came to international attention in the 1950s, along with Kurosawa and Ozu. He sort of splits the difference between the latter two, taking on themes prevalent in Kurosawa movies with the humanism so prevalent in both, and with the attention to interpersonal relationships prominent in Ozu's work. Some of Mizoguchi's movies are difficult to comprehend without a good knowledge of Japanese culture. Many consider Ugetsu to be his masterpiece, but there's a lot of Japanese mythology about ghosts in there that I just didn't understand. Sansho the Baliff though embodies Mizoguchi's style with a great topic--a family connected to nobility torn apart by kidnapping, prostitution, and slavery and the story of Sansho who becomes free again and tries to reunite his family. Absolutely wonderful.

3. George Washington. The first film by David Gordon Green. This is a great portrait of a small southern town and the kind of interracial relationships that are so common without real racist overtones. A great character study with a feeling that is often compared to Malick, though I'm not sure this is fair. Solid acting, good directing. One of the only "independent" films of the decade worth giving a damn about. Green followed this with the equally excellent "All The Real Girls" and his latest, "Undertow", which I haven't yet seen.

4. Man of Marble. One of Andrej Wajda's best works. Few people watch any of Wajda's work these days and it's too bad. Man of Marble is a great pseudo-documentary about a woman at the beginning of Solidarity trying to uncover the history of a Polish working-class communist hero who was used and spit out by the Party during the early postwar years. A great film looking at the kind of damage to persons committed by the Stalinists and how people overcame it. Also a great peak into Polish life circa 1980. See also the sequel, Man of Iron, which includes the acting debut of Lech Walesa and brings the story of Man of Marble up to the present of the Solidarity movement. Also, Wajda's early films are worth watching as well, especially his trilogy on Poland during World War II, A Generation, Kanal, and Ashes and Diamonds. The Siberian Lady MacBeth is also quite good. One of film's most underrated directors.

5. The collected films of Eric Rohmer. I know of almost no one who has even seen a Rohmer film. Perhaps the last member of the French New Wave still making relevant film. I would pick a particular one, but he's one of those directors like a far more consistent Woody Allen or Ozu whose films have a sameness to them--they're pretty much all about French people talking about love and relationships. And I mean talking. If you don't like movies that are basically excuses for interesting conversations, Rohmer is not for you. But he does this so well. A few examples--"Claire's Knee"--about a man who is about to get married and who sees a 16 year old girl's knee and obsesses on what he is going to miss when he is married. Or "Autumn Tale", a film about a middle-age widow who refuses to see a man again despite what all her friends think and how her close friend takes care of the problem for her. Or "Chloe in the Afternoon", about a man in a stable relationship who is seduced by a woman and the moral problems this causes. Very French and very great.