Saturday 9 October 2010

50 Un(der)seen Gems (ST FilmLife 10/10/10)

50. The Gigolos (2006, below)

It took two years to reach UK cinemas, two more to reach DVD, but Richard Bracewell’s comedy-drama has slowly emerged as among the most assured recent British debuts. An unexpectedly funny and touching tale of a Mayfair escort and his clueless pimp, it boasts a superlative cast of veteran actresses (Susannah York, Sian Phillips, Anna Massey), and an inspired deployment of Ian Dury’s “Clever Trever”.

49. Resurrected (1989)

Where it all began for Bourne supremo Paul Greengrass: a punchy Film on Four drama marking traumatised soldier David Thewlis’s less-than-triumphant return from the Falklands.

48. Meet the Applegates (1990)

Bugs fleeing the destruction of their rainforest habitat seek sanctuary in suburbia in this witty, green-tinged satire from writer-director Michael Lehmann, a specialist in zippy cult items (Heathers, Hudson Hawk).

47. Adam and Paul (2004)

Few films could live up to the billing “Trainspotting meets Beckett”, but this deadpan gem from promising Irish director Lenny Abrahamson – about two addicts shambling towards their next fix – does exactly that.

46. Innocent Moves (1993)

Producer Scott Rudin (There Will Be Blood, No Country for Old Men) has named this taut, unsentimental drama about a chess prodigy as the one film of his he wished had found a wider audience.

45. The Dead Girl (2006)

This clever moodpiece links the experiences of several women leading up to a murder – a tough sell, and accordingly direct-to-DVD in the UK, but writer-director Karen Moncrieff is developing as a sharp dramatist of female trouble.

44. P.S. (2004)

Laura Linney has been terrific in almost everything up to new TV drama The Big C, but she’s never been more radiant than as the admissions officer enjoying a fling with a student in Dylan Kidd’s commendably mature romance.

43. Signs and Wonders (2000)

Director Jonathan Nossiter is best known for 2004’s wine doc Mondovino, yet this earlier globalisation fable – with Stellan Skarsgard as a paranoid commodities trader – is as much a “modern” film as Antonioni’s must have seemed in the mid-Sixties.

42. The Passion of Darkly Noon (1995)

Even Philip Ridley’s better films – see this year’s Heartless – tend to slip through the cracks; Darkly Noon’s typically atmospheric American Gothic, featuring a pre-Mummy Brendan Fraser, underlines the talents of this gifted fabulist.

41. Osmosis Jones (2001)

Zookeeper Bill Murray scoffs a germ-covered egg; Chris Rock cracks wise as the white blood cell keeping infection at bay. A rare animation to both entertain and educate: young viewers may even start washing their hands.

40. Les Revenants/They Came Back (2004)

A zombie movie that prioritises conscience over carnage. The undead here suffer not from bloodlust, but homesickness; Robin Campillo’s unsettling debut wonders what we’d do faced with the sudden population increase.

39. Max (2002)

Menno Meyjes’ admirably chancy and provocative portrait of Hitler as a young artist has John Cusack as the Jewish dealer giving Noah Taylor’s Führer his first break. Sample dialogue: “You’re an awfully hard man to like, Hitler.”

38. Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003)

Taiwanese maestro Tsai Ming-Liang’s mosaic drama charts the final hours of a faded picture palace in what feels like real (or reel) time: it’s an engrossing evocation of the cinema as living, breathing organism.

37. Alferd Packer: The Musical [sic]/Cannibal! The Musical (1993)

Most first-time filmmakers with ideas above their budgets make generic horror movies (heavy on the ketchup), so give South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone credit for electing to make a musical Western about cannibalism. With some interpretative dance in the middle. Part-Troma, part-Python, entirely good-hearted, Alferd Packer sustains its momentum and invention past the point at which most micro-budgeted pastiches give out.

36. The Mighty (1998)

Brit director Peter Chelsom has multiple cult faves on his CV (Hear My Song, Funny Bones), but this stirring family film boasts the unlikeliest ensemble, including Meat Loaf and Gillian Anderson – together at last.

35. Judge Priest (1934)

Much of John Ford’s prolific early output has gone unheralded: this lyrical adaptation of Irvin S. Cobb’s short stories about a good-natured lawman (played on screen by Will Rogers) urgently needs rediscovering.

34. Wet Hot American Summer (2001)

Riotous spoof of 1980s summer-camp movies showcases several key Apatow players, Janeane Garofalo flirting ineptly with astrophysicist David Hyde Pierce, plus the cancellation of a potentially redemptive last-reel softball game upon the grounds of triteness.

33. Haze (2005)

Tetsuo creator Shinya Tsukamoto’s abstract nightmare tops The Vanishing for claustrophobia by sealing its hero within a concrete chamber for its entire length. It runs to 47 minutes – breathtaking as it is, few viewers can endure much more.

32. Better Off Dead... (1985)

One of Hollywood’s darkest, funniest teenpics: John Cusack’s troubled high-schooler is distracted from thoughts of self-sacrifice by demonic paperboys and obsessive Howard Cosell impersonators, to cite but two of cartoonist-turned-director “Savage” Steve Holland’s myriad comic doodlings.

31. Comfort and Joy (1984)

Everybody recalls Gregory’s Girl and Local Hero, but Bill Forsyth’s no-less-wonderful follow-up - with Bill Paterson’s DJ embroiled in Glasgow’s ice-cream wars – has apparently vanished with little trace from our collective cinematic memory.

30. Brain Dead (1990)

Neurological researcher Bill Pullman is hired by corporate bigwig Bill Paxton to extract crucial data from the mind of a sectioned accountant in a sparky, unpredictable B-movie that predates Inception by two decades.

29. waydowntown (2000)

Gary Burns’ wry take on modern hermitism finds young professionals on Day 28 of a bet to see if they can survive one month without setting foot outside their combination apartment-office-shopping block. Who needs Big Brother?

28. Session 9 (2001)

Director Brad Anderson is widest known for 2005’s The Machinist; far better is this creepy latter-day haunted-house movie, in which David Caruso’s clean-up crew finds the asbestos in an old mental institution easier to process than the lingering psychic detritus.

27. Perfect Blue (1998)

The socially attuned Japanese animator Satoshi Kon died in August: among his legacies was this affecting, Hitchcock-influenced psychodrama that probed the entertainment industry’s darker recesses and foresaw the crash-and-burn fate of certain contemporary starlets.

26. Handsworth Songs (1986)

The Black Audio Film Collective’s rarely-screened documentary stitches together exceptionally evocative images from the previous year’s Handsworth riots. Police scuttle past Visionhire under cover of night in both a warning from history and genuine film noir.

25. L'Effrontée/An Impudent Girl (1985)

A sulky Charlotte Gainsbourg steals the show in loose adaptation of Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding; Ricchi e Poveri’s happy-making Euro hit “Sara Perche Ti Amo” provides the icing on the cake.

24. Kafka (1991)

This loopy literary homage almost killed Steven Soderbergh’s career stone dead: Jeremy Irons’ grim-faced insurance man Franz K. stalks the streets of Prague, wondering who - or what - is making his colleagues vanish.

23. Stir of Echoes (1999)

Buried as another post-Sixth Sense chiller, this is the richer film, writer-director David Koepp delineating a blue-collar community in which the apparitions everyman Kevin Bacon sees are as much projections of frustrated ambition.

22. River's Edge (1986)

A young girl lies dead on a riverbed, and her mixed-up contemporaries can’t quite comprehend the sight. Tim Hunter’s anti-Stand By Me offered a compellingly grungy portrait of screwed-up Americana; Dennis Hopper provides the enfeebled voice of parental wisdom.

21. Fearless (1993)

Jeff Bridges only won the Oscar this year, but he was equally rock-solid as the plane crash survivor who believes himself immortal in Peter Weir’s haunting metaphysical drama.

20. Heartlands (2002)

This adorably modest latter-day folktale – in which Michael Sheen’s natural born doormat Colin ventures to Blackpool in pursuit of his true love – opened to a sniffy reception; it’s certainly a parochial film, but in the best possible sense, and Sheen envisions his ordinary-bloke-in-the-pub with the same keen eye he would later bring to more public figures. The best film ever made about darts, right down to its surprise last-reel cameo.

19. The City of Lost Children (1995)

Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s post-Amélie output suggests he’s badly missing the creative rigour of Marc Caro, his co-director on Delicatessen and this genuine one-of-a-kind about a mad, Santa-impersonating scientist kidnapping youngsters to harvest their dreams.

18. Suddenly (1954)

Not so much unseen as long-suppressed: following events in Dallas nine years later, Frank Sinatra attempted to buy up all extant prints of this gripping B-movie in which he plays an assassin plotting to kill the President.

17. Lagaan (2001)

If you only watch one three-hour Bollywood extravaganza, make it this one, dotted with many of composer A.R. Rahman’s finest songs: peasant farmers challenge their British governors to a nail-biting cricket match over a controversial land tax.

16. Body Snatchers (1993)

For a third screen adaptation of Jack Finney’s science-fiction touchstone, skip the Nicole Kidman plod The Invasion and pick up Abel Ferrara’s pulsating variant, located on a military base where the conformism Finney was critiquing is the norm.

15. Ace in the Hole (1951)

Even admirers of The Apartment and Some Like It Hot bow before Billy Wilder’s still-savage satire of modern media mores – yet rights issues have kept it from wider UK circulation.

14. Kagaaz Ke Phool (1959)

The mercurial, pipe-smoking Guru Dutt was the Hindi cinema’s Orson Welles, and this strikingly expressionist drama was his Citizen Kane, charting the downfall of a prominent director – played by Dutt himself, natch.

13. Last Night (1998)

What if the last night on earth was the same as any other? Just reissued on DVD, this droll pre-millennial supposition finds criss-crossing Canadians – including David Cronenberg – tying up loose ends ahead of the final countdown.

12. The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb (1993)

Not for the very young, this weirdly devastating stopmotion rendition of a familiar tale – creeping out of Bristol’s bolexbrothers studio during the region’s animation boom – stands as Wallace and Gromit’s begrimed secret sibling.

11. What's Up Doc? (1972)

Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal bicker in another act of cinematic homage from The Last Picture Show’s Peter Bogdanovich; one of the few screwball comedies made outside the studio era to fully deserve the term.

10. Cube (1997)

Astounding sci-fi, plotting six characters’ attempts to escape from a killer Rubik’s Cube. Writer-director Vincenzo Natali continued with 2002’s similarly underrated Cypher and this year’s enjoyable Splice.

9. Simple Men (1992)

Few directors’ stocks have fallen faster than Hal Hartley, once a frontrunner in the American independent movement: time to reassess this wryly funny account of two brothers searching for their missing anarchist father.

8. Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974)

Taxi Driver and Raging Bull are re-released every other year; we need a new print of Scorsese’s heartrending road movie, in which the director proves as attentive to Ellen Burstyn’s heroine as he usually is to bad fellas.

7. Xala (1975)

Too much African cinema has been allowed to pass British audiences by; this ripsnorting comedy from Senegalese master Ousmane Sembene, concerning a bureaucrat struck down by impotence, is the best place to start catching up.

6. Grave of the Fireflies (1988)

Isao Takahari’s exceptionally moving anti-War fable remains one of the few Studio Ghibli animations to tackle historical, rather than fantastical, forces: the collapse of Japanese society towards the end of World War II, observed through the eyes of a young brother and sister. A spiritual sibling to Raymond Briggs’s When the Wind Blows, it’s a deeply committed work of art – tender, humane and distressing in exactly the right way.

5. Clean, Shaven (1994)

Indie director Lodge Kerrigan specialises in studies of the mentally troubled: his astonishingly accomplished debut does more than any other film to put us inside the head of a paranoid schizophrenic.

4. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007)

Granted a nervy theatrical release in anticipation of awards that never followed, octogenarian Sidney Lumet’s perfectly realised, magnificently acted thriller gave the heist movie a contemporary white-collar twist.

3. Satantango (1994)

There’s a reason this has largely gone unseen: Hungarian miserablist Béla Tarr’s eight-hour mystical-agricultural drama might qualify as the least commercial film ever made. It’s also one of the most immersive narrative experiences you’ll have outside of a great novel.

2. Open Your Eyes (1997)

The template for the botched Vanilla Sky, Alejandro Amenábar’s dreamy futurescape remains one for head and heart alike; and the Spanish Penélope Cruz remains approximately a dozen times cuter than the American Penelope Cruz.

1. The Fountainhead (1949)

Ayn Rand’s doorstopping tract on architecture and morality was a fairly rum proposition already; the movie - with Gary Cooper as master builder Howard Roark and Patricia Neal in her finest role as a whipcracking heiress - is a masterpiece of modernist design, and its eccentricity feels entirely right: oddly true to Rand’s no-compromise ethos in its rejection of studio-era conformity, it’s a film hellbent on going its own way.

An edited version of this list can be found here, and in the FilmLife supplement, free with tomorrow's Sunday Telegraph.

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