In an era in which digital media is ever-present and streaming services like Netflix and Hulu are more popular than ever, we as consumers have greater access to movies than ever before. Yet, there are still many excellent pieces of work that have yet to have been given their due by the masses. In this ongoing series we here at the BMB will look to shine a spotlight on some of those great, overlooked films from all over the world.
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie:
As the godfather of American independent cinema, John Cassavetes built a directorial career on blunt character studies dripping with visceral realism. His 1976 masterpiece The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is no different. Ben Gazzara is Cosmo Vitelli, a strip club owner forced to deal, not only with the mobsters on his tail, but also with his own manhood. At a base level, one could argue that this was Cassavetes’ first (and only) foray into the crime and action genres yet, even during the brief scenes of violence, the focus is solely on Cosmo and his reactions to said violence. Like the rest of Cassavetes’ oeuvre, Chinese Bookie is a subtle and methodical affair with much of Cosmo’s emotional development displayed in facial movement and body language. Exposition is kept to a minimum; everything we need to know unfolds before our eyes. Lighting is almost entirely natural, special effects non-existent. Cosmo and the dirty, sleazy 1970’s Los Angeles that he inhabits are the stars here. A West Coast Taxi Driver if there ever was one.
Under the Volcano:
Another emotionally devastating character piece, John Huston’s forgotten 1984 classic Under the Volcano is a seminal look at the destructive effects of alcohol abuse. Adapted from the once-thought unfilmable 1947 Malcolm Lowery novel, Under the Volcano follows British consul Geoffrey Firmin (Albert Finney) for approximately 24 hours as he wreaks havoc not only on his own life but that of his estranged wife Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset) and his high-minded half-brother Hugh (Anthony Andrews) during the Mexican Day of the Dead in the small town of Quauhnahuac. Drunkenness may be one of the most difficult things to accurately portray on screen. Even good actors tend to hyperbolize their speech and actions, ultimately coming off as silly. Here, Finney delivers a nuanced and heartbreaking performance that calls to mind so many well-intentioned alcoholics we know in our own lives. One minute, Geoffrey is able to appear completely lucid while speaking with his wife, the next he’s sprawled out in the street mid-bender. It is truly a performance of the highest order.
Festen (The Celebration):
There are a select few subjects that, for whatever reason, are exceedingly difficult to effectively translate to film. Without giving anything away (the initial shock that goes along with the revelation at the heart of the film cannot be understated), I can say with a great deal of confidence that Thomas Vinterberg’s 1998 film Festen (The Celebration) handles perhaps the most touchy of those subjects with great aplomb. The first movie filmed under the naturalistic rules of Vinterberg and, fellow Dane Lars, Von Trier’s Dogme 95 movement, Festen is equal parts soul-crushing drama and biting satire. In the film, beloved family patriarch Helge (Henning Moritzen) is hosting his entire extended family for his 60th birthday party. Things quickly go sideways when eldest son Christian (Ulrich Thomsen in one of the most heart wrenching performances in the last 20 years) airs the family’s dirty laundry during dinner. This is one of the rare cases where “ugly” or “dull” cinematic techniques by conventional standards actually plays to a film’s strengths. The shaky camera places the viewer smack dab in the middle of the unruly proceedings and the complete lack of non-diegetic music keeps us completely focused on the wide range of emotions captured on screen.
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul:
By 1974, cinema already had a storied history of films dealing with relationships between older women and younger men. Thus, prolific German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul was not breaking new ground in that regard. However, what was notable in 1974 and is still poignant today is the brutal societal commentary offered up. Emmi (Brigitte Mira) is a 60-year-old widowed cleaning woman who wanders into a bar on her way home from work. There, she meets Ali, a Moroccan day laborer 20-plus years her junior. In lesser films, what would ensue would be a whirlwind romance in which our heroes forget their worries and live happily-ever-after. Nothing is so simple in Fassbinder’s world. Emmi and Ali’s love is instead greeted with sneering indignation from their friends and anger and resentment from Emmi’s children. Fassbinder doesn’t even begin to shy away from the discomfort his characters are feeling, instead presenting as pragmatic of a view of interracial relationships as any seen on film. Never meandering into falsity, Fassbinder’s magnum opus rings just as true today as it did 40 years ago.
In recent years, holiday movies have come to be considered as little more than a seasonal cash-in on the part of lazy major studios. However, there are still smaller outfits like IFC Films putting out smart, unassuming holiday fare like Zach Clark’s jet black comedy White Reindeer. When a sudden tragedy turns Suzanne’s (Anna Margaret Hollyman) mundane life upside down it begins a soul-searching Christmas season replete with coke, strippers, and one decidedly Kubrickian holiday party that defies explanation in both context and what actually takes place on screen. Such is the theme of White Reindeer. Clark avoids all of the cliches that typically prove to be the undoing of Christmas-themed films by consistently subverting expectations. It’s rare to see a holiday movie that not only deals with difficult subject matter but revels in it. That’s exactly what we get here; a film that embraces sticky situations and takes a few darkly playful jabs for good measure.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives:
There are some films that sort of defy the typical “this happened, then that happened” style of plot that we’re used to. Sure, there is a general identifiable narrative to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s 2010 movie Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, but I find that going into this film knowing as little as possible is the way to do it. After several viewings I still have nearly as many questions as I did after my first time seeing it; and that’s just fine. While there are some strong undertones dealing with mortality, family, spirituality, and reincarnation, Weerasethakul’s film is best experienced on a purely visceral level. The rich visuals of the Thai jungle and the mysterious creatures that inhabit it are simply astounding. Various dream sequences and surreal, seemingly non-linear flashbacks have an ethereal quality that matches up nicely with the narrative’s deeply philosophical roots. The narrative is obtuse, the editing unconventional, but I’ll be damned if there’s been a more satisfying “difficult” film released in the last decade.
As the third and final film of John Frankenheimer’s paranoia trilogy, Seconds had the misfortune of following such films as The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, and Frankenheimer’s own stellar Birdman of Alcatraz. That, coupled with the it’s ahead-of-its-time subject matter doomed it to obscurity. After hearing some positive things about it over the years I was finally exposed to the film by way of the Criterion Collection’s gorgeous restoration last summer. In a story that was surely shocking for it’s time, Rock Hudson’s Antiochus Wilson becomes involved with a secret organization that offers people a second chance at life – for a price. Like Festen, Seconds is a film with a bevy of twists and turns that are best experienced for oneself so I’ll abstain from much further detail. On a cinematic level, James Wong Howe’s black and white cinematography is a real standout. His use of odd camera angles and surreal set design pulls the viewer into Hudson’s web of paranoia that doesn’t subside until the final breathtaking sequence.
Sweet Smell of Success:
Aside from perhaps Uncle Boonmee and Marketa Lazarova, Alexander Mackendrick’s 1957 noir about the dirty world showbiz publicity is the only singular cinematic experience on this list. Never before or since has a filmmaker painted such a brutally honest portrait of hustling show business publicists and their relationship with the writers that can singlehandedly kill the careers of their clients. Burt Lancaster is simply impeccable as J.J. Hunsecker, the all-powerful media magnate who conducts his grimy business in a private booth in a glitzy New York City night club. Tony Curtis is equally formidable as Hunsecker’s foil, publicist Sidney Falco, a highly intelligent man whose every sly word, every movement, speaks to his inner lamentation that he’s too damn nice for this business. As phenomenal as Lancaster and Curtis are, writers Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman might be the real stars here. Their script is filled with endlessly quotable dialogue that makes every confrontation between Falco and Hunsecker as delightful as they are compelling. Another James Wong Howe effort (he and Mackendrick made the economical and highly effective choice to shoot on location in the streets of NYC), Sweet Smell of Success is as authentic a New York cinematic experience as you will find.
“See it, be amazed at it, but…be quiet about it!!!”
That was the original tagline for Henri-Georges Clouzot’s French horror classic Diabolique when it first shocked audiences in 1955. In one of the rare cases where I’m glad that a great film has been largely forgotten by mainstream audiences, I was completely blindsided by this film’s final act. In an era where even moderately compelling movie twists become part of popular culture I was able to avoid such spoilers for this thrilling film. That a film by the same director of The Wages of Fear is thrilling isn’t exactly noteworthy. What is noteworthy however, is just how damn well Diabolique holds up. The main reason for this is that Clouzot doesn’t rely on many visual cliches to frighten us; old tricks that would appear hokey to modern audiences. What is truly scary here is what is just offscreen, what is lurking in the shadows; and because the majority of the film takes place in dark, towering orphanage there are plenty of shadows. In Diabolique there is an ongoing feeling of unease that is not unlike what Polanski managed to achieve in Rosemary’s Baby; that sneaking suspicion that something sinister is lurking just below the surface.
That this is the final entry on this list is not an accident. I’ve been dreading writing about Frantisek Vlacil’s 1967 Czech epic because I’m still not quite sure what the hell it’s about. I know it takes place in the Middle Ages and it involves two warring clams, one led by the tyrannical Kozlik, the other by the more docile Lazar. Also, the title character is somehow caught in the middle of the dispute. Oh, and the whole thing might be an allegory about the shift from Paganism to Christianity in the Middle Ages. This is all inconsequential. Why? Because Marketa Lazarova possesses some of the most mesmerizing imagery ever seen in film. If someone were to ask me what movie out there best encapsulates the medium as a piece of visual art, this would be it. Throughout the nearly 3-hour run time, not a single shot is wasted. Every inch of the frame is packed with elegant, lush detail that had me consistently pausing my blu-ray disc to marvel at it. As much as the non-linear narrative defies simple explanation, the pristine cinematography does just that as well. Words truly do not do it justice.
Dustin is currently studying journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He loves movies, music, basketball, and beer. Follow him on Twitter @Dustin_W317.