There’s no shortage of lists of the greatest movies of all time. Long before the AFI began cataloging every great movie, scene, performance, villains, heroes, and comic reliefs almost annually, The National Film Board was entering films of cultural, aesthetic, or historical significance into the Library of Congress. Every year since 1988, 25 such films are selected.
There are, however, some films that get overlooked. A friend of mine points out every year that John Carpenter‘s They Live – a biting satire of Reaganite America – has yet to be even nominated. It’s unlikely it ever will, as much of Carpenter’s oeuvre tends to get written off – outside of Halloween, of course.
Until DVD and the age of the Internet, films could fall of the map easily. Re-releasing a movie on VHS wasn’t a common occurrence, particularly if the film had little to no market value. Scouring the racks of the local Blockbuster might lead to you a dust-covered copy that hadn’t been rented since it was a new release, but you’d have better luck finding such films in local, more offbeat chains. Small towns and cities were unlikely to have such locations.
Now that cult status and niche films have found a place outside of isolated nerd subcultures, films once thought lost or ignored are becoming easier to get a hold of. Scream Factory, a division of Shout!, specializes in forgotten horror films, chock full of the kind of special features once only reserved for high profile releases.
Still, there are a few that have yet to get such treatment. Here are a few nominees.
Forget the unfortunate remake starring Brendan Fraser and Elizabeth Hurley. It was an unfortunate misstep in Harold Ramis‘ otherwise successful career. The original 1967 film, however, remains one of the funniest films ever made. Peter Cook and Dudley Moore star in this retelling of the Faust, in which Moore, an unhappy cook, agrees to sell his soul to the devil in exchange for seven wishes – which of course Satan twists into comic nightmares.
It may not be to everyone’s taste – Cook and Moore play off each other amazingly well, but it’s a dry wit. The comic duo worked together for years, much like Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. Cook is not as well known as Moore in the states, which is tragic. He’s probably best remembered for his cameo in The Princess Bride on this side of the pond, but in the U.K. he’s considered the father of modern satire.
14. Being There
Jerry Kosinski’s novel and Hal Ashby’s film adaptation has never fallen out of relevance. Just the other day, a pundit referred to Donald Trump as “Chauncey Gardener’s evil twin.”
The film finds Peter Sellers’ Chauncey, a gardener for a rich man, on his own for the first time after his boss’ passing. Though he’s emotionally distant, unfamiliar with the world outside the estate where he grew up, he’s taken in by a wealthy business mogul who assumes he is of the upper class due to his old fashioned manners and name (his actual name, Chance, the gardener, is misunderstood to be “Chauncey” – which reeks of pretension and money). All Chauncey knows is gardening, which his new friends mistake for a euphemism about the national economy, including – eventually – the President of the United States.
Sellers’ fought hard for the role, certain he would win the acclaim and awards he felt he’d earned. And it’s certainly a wonderful performance, and while he was nominated, he lost to Dustin Hoffman for Kramer vs. Kramer.
13. Quatermass and The Pit
Originally created by sci-fi writer Nigel Kneale, Dr. Bernard Quatermass was a morally sound scientist and head of the British science programme. He was first introduced in three BBC serials from the 50s, all of which found Quatermass fighting various extraterrestrial threats.
The serials were purchased by Hammer Films in the 60s and were adapted into feature length productions. The third of which, entitled Five Million Years to Earth in the U.S., was by far the best. Quatermass is called to investigate when a downed Martian spacecraft is exhumed by workers constructing a new subway station. He soon discovers that the ghosts of the dead Martians, who were unable to survive on earth, gave rise to ape-men and, ultimately, the human race. Amid debate and controversy both political and spiritual in nature, it becomes clear that the vestiges of the creatures intend to cause a racial purge of lesser beings. i.e. Us.
It’s a solid science fiction film that greatly inspired John Carpenter. He edited his own films under the psuedonym John Quatermass, and the town in In the Mouth of Madness is called Hobb’s End, the name of the train station being constructed.
12. Stolen Kisses
There’s been plenty of adoration for Francois Truffaut’s first film in the Antoine Doinel series, The 400 Blows. Truffaut followed the character, and the actor, through five different films. The most delightful of which is the second, Stolen Kisses. It tracks the freewheeling Doinel in his years after being kicked out of the army for insubordination. What follows is a delightful, funny, breezy romp through France as he tries to romance the girl he left to join the army.
This is another film that suffered greatly due to a lousy remake. The second version of the film, released in 1988 and starring Dennis Quaid, Meg Ryan, and Daniel Stern, is terrible. However, the original 1950 film starring character actor Edmond O’Brien is one of the best film noirs of its era.
Both open the same way, with the lead character entering a police station to report a murder. When asked who was murdered, he replies that he was.
O’Brien is an accountant on a business trip to San Francisco. After a night on the town (and implied womanizing), he wakes up feeling unwell. The doctor he visits gives him the grim diagnosis: he was poisoned. He is forced to spend his last few hours trying to figure out who killed him.
10. Judgment Night
The film Judgment Night, directed by Predator 2‘s Stephen Hopkins, is better known for its hip hop soundtrack than anything else. The film follows a group of yuppies who rent an RV to head to a boxing match. Facing a traffic jam, their more impetuous friend (Jeremy Piven) decides to take a detour through the south side of Chicago. After hitting a man, they realize he had earlier been shot. They quickly become targets of crime heavy Denis Leary and his crew, pursuing them through the tenements and sewers of the city.
It’s to the film’s credit that it sidestepped what could have easily been seen as racist by making the antagonists Caucasian. In the early 90s, Chicago’s crime rate was skyrocketing, and cinema had taken notice. Candyman, a film focused on the racial divide of the city, had been released just a few years previous. As a result, it’s simply a fun chase film, with a particularly dynamic performance from Denis Leary.
9. The Hidden
An alternative to the light, charming Reaganite satire of They Live (and slightly less blatant), The Hidden plays with the buddy-cop dynamic. As a cop (Michael Nouri) and an FBI agent (Kyle MacLachlan, who is totally an alien) track a series of crimes committed by different people with the same M.O., they realize another alien is body jumping from yuppie to coke addict to stripper, all in the name of taking the pleasure. It parallels the kind of greed that permeated the 1980s in the same way American Psycho lambastes it.
To paraphrase MacLachlan, it sees something it wants, it takes it. Someone gets in his way, it kills them. This eventually leads to alien leaping into the body of a U.S. Senator running for president, whose alien campaign slogan becomes something downright Trumpian in its bold simplicity: “I want to be President.” Cue applause from supporters.
William Friedkin’s follow up to The Exorcist is a pulse-pounding thriller that was panned upon release, but has been reappraised as a modern classic. A remake of Wages of Fear and told in vignettes and parts like a novel, it follows Roy Scheider as he is tasked with driving a truck full of unstable nitroglycerin through dangerous South American terrain – pursued by the Irish mob. It’s a tense, if slightly uneven, trek with a heavy undercurrent of dread and fate permeating every scene.
To say that it was panned is an understatement. It was downright hated. In recent years, however, critics such as Roger Ebert consider it an overlooked classic.
7. The Long Goodbye
The name Robert Altman is forever associated with overlapping dialogue and perhaps most significantly, Nashville. But he was at his cynical best in 1973 when he adapted Raymond Chandler’s gumshoe detective novel The Long Goodbye. Altman and screenwriter Leigh Brackett (who had originally written the script for the Humphrey Bogart adaptation of The Big Sleep) update the setting to present day, transforming Phillip Marlowe from a hardened smart-alec to a laid back, California archetype.
He’s so laid back, as played by 70s icon Elliot Gould, that he spends the opening minutes of the film searching for the proper food for his cat before the mystery even begins. But it ends on one hell of a sour note, with the laid back “Okay by me” Marlowe actually giving a crap.
6. The Devil’s Advocate
Okay, The Devil’s Advocate is not a great film, by any means. I will say that it is the most bat$#!@ crazy, overblown, lunatic-inspired mess of a film that deserves your attention because, my good lord, it’s fun. It makes two and a half hours feel like 20 minutes due to Al Pacino‘s nutty performance.
Reportedly, Pacino only took the role on the condition that he be allowed to write chunks of his own dialogue. So all of those exquisitely rambling monologues in which he waxes pseudo-philosophical about the nature of humankind were self-penned.
5. The Parallax View
Most of the praise of the Alan J. Pakula’s work is reserved for his excellent All The President’s Men, however the whole decade of the 70s was infused with paranoia, inspiring some of the best thrillers ever made. The Stepford Wives, The Omen, and finally The Parallax View – Pakula’s other great film – were all a part of that trend.
View opens with a political assassination atop the Seattle Space Needle, in a dazzling scene. A few years later, Warren Beatty‘s grizzled reporter character starts learning witnesses to the killing are turning up dead. What follows is a mystery that barely spells itself out. Rather than spell out the specifics, you are just as embroiled as Beatty, learning as you go along just how far and how high the conspiracy goes. This leads to a chilling brainwash scene right out of A Clockwork Orange.
4. Bunny Lake Is Missing
Otto Preminger was a strange, difficult jerk. He once told character actor Austin Pendleton (the stuttering lawyer in My Cousin Vinny, for those not in the know) that he regretted he never had a gay experience. He was also a tyrant on set who longed to be a hippie. He’s a fascinating guy, who is praised for his cynical representation of law and order in the fantastic Anatomy of a Murder, but no one talks about Bunny Lake. In the film, Anne Lake (Carol Lyndley) drops her daughter off at school, yet when she comes to collect her, the school says such a girl was never there.
And we are introduced to a series of suspects – some intimidating, others eccentric – as a Scotland Yard inspector tries to discover if Lynley is simply mad or if her daughter has truly vanished. The film also features extended musical interludes by British Invasion group The Zombies.
There was talk of a remake. Director Joe Carnhahan was five weeks into pre-production when lead Reese Witherspoon bowed out of the project in 2007.
3. Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia
Sam Peckinpah was an iconic director of revisionist Westerns – notable for their violence and uniquely staged gun battles. He was also a notorious alcoholic who, toward the end of his life and career, developed a cocaine addiction. His condition initially labelled him a renegade filmmaker; when there were rumours it was interfering with his work on Straw Dogs, the cast and crew sent a tongue-in-cheek photo of Peckinpah receiving whisky intravenously.
By the 80s, however, the joke was over, and his output bordered on incoherent. Alfredo Garcia is considered the last true Peckinpah film. It follows a boozy pianist in a Mexican saloon (Warren Oates) trying to track down the titular head. Garcia, it seems, ran afoul of a powerful criminal by impregnating his daughter.
The head is easy to get. Garcia was killed in a drunk driving accident. Keeping the head, and his sanity, as he transports it for the bounty proves much more difficult.
Hated upon release, Roger Ebert later became a staunch defender upon re-appraisal. Oates’ performance is said to modelled after Peckinpah.
2. Charley Varrick
The words “action star” are probably the last thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Walter Mathau, but there was a time when it wasn’t so far fetched. Mathau had a string of leading roles in 70s action pictures, such as The Taking of Pelham 123, The Laughing Policeman and, finally, Charley Varrick. And Mathau’s deadpan comic style blends with the material perfectly.
Don Siegel’s Varrick finds Mathau on the run after a bank heist gone wrong. Close on the heels of Mathau and his partner is another actor rarely uncharacteristic of the genre (yet also perfect for it), Joe Don Baker.
1. Memoirs of An Invisible Man
John Carpenter has rarely done work-for-hire. His films are uniquely his own, so much so that his name comes before the title. One of the few exceptions is the 1992 Chevy Chase vehicle Memoirs of an Invisible Man. Carpenter forewent his standard “John Carpenter’s…” above the title because Warner Bros. did not allow him full creative control.
The film follows Chase, turned invisible after passing out hungover at a science lab, as he’s pursued by ruthless black ops agent Sam Neill. There’s nothing about the film that even suggests it’s a Carpenter film, however its an entertaining cat-and-mouse thriller, with what then were top of the line special effects.