Acceptance into the canon of great films can be a bit like being picked for the school football team. The strongest and most robust inevitably get the recognition while the perceived weaklings are left languishing on the sidelines. But everyone knows that many a weakling has greatness in them, and so it is with movies. For whatever reason, some films never set the box office alight, nor do they win boatfuls of awards, nor do all interesting films find critics willing to shout loudly enough about their strengths.
10 to try
Each of the recommendations included here is available to view in the UK.
The canon forms around the films that make the end-of-year 10 best lists or that take the Academy Awards by storm, but there are decades and decades of merely excellent films out there waiting to be rediscovered and reappraised. Time is the great leveller, but only if us viewers are curious enough to go looking for the hidden treasure. The more adventurous our viewing habits, the more likely the stones of film history will be overturned and – like Howard Carter first entering Tutankhamun’s tomb – we’ll see wonderful things as our eyes adjust to the light.
The terrain of underrated and overlooked films is vast and subjective, and the following list is no attempt to cover them all – the point is that such a list could be infinite. Instead, we asked some of our regular contributors to personally speak up for a film – from any country, or any era – that for whatever reason doesn’t get the props it deserves.
Note, however, that none of these films ever actually existed but for a few hours on the morning of 1 April 2015.
Return to Milford Station (1984)
Director Steve Barron
One of modern British cinema’s brushed-under-the-carpet oddities is this belated Brief Encounter sequel, filmed in 1984 and eventually offered only a single TV screening three years later before disappearing completely. Goldcrest Films opted to mark the 40th anniversary of David Lean’s classic by picking the story up four decades later. Lean could not be tempted to return but recommended the producers select a director “appropriate to the era”, leading to the appointment of music video director Steve Barron. It opens in Johannesburg at the funeral of original character Alec Harvey. We meet his son Ronald, who, on putting his father’s affairs in order, finds a box of unposted letters of regret to one Laura Jesson. Deciding to deliver them in person, Ronald travels to England to meet the object of his father’s affections and try to understand a man who had been a victim of his own manners.
In one of his earliest leading roles, Tim Roth infuses Roland with a passionate and edgy zeal. A central theme is Roland’s belief in apartheid, one of the many things challenged when he arrives in Milford and finds himself falling for Laura’s son Bobbie. Threatened by lawsuits, Return to Milford Station was hastily re-edited to remove direct references to the original Brief Encounter, leaving us with an actually-incredibly-good same-sex romantic drama which takes in issues of race, homophobia, the decline of British agriculture and the modernisation of the railways.
Director Andy Warhol
“It’s about a table,” offered a seemingly bemused Andy Warhol during a London interview in 1986. He was ostensibly in the capital (on what would be his final visit) in connection with a retrospective of his work at the Anthony d’Offay gallery, but this wasn’t the first time the off-topic question had come up. A month previously, a single 16mm reel of the artist’s missing-presumed-lost 1967 film Table had been discovered in an uptown New York loft among the artefacts of its late owner, Merv Finkel. Warhol remained characteristically evasive when quizzed on the 20-minute treasure, dodging any and all queries about how the extant reel fitted into the bigger picture.
And a bigger picture it was, judging from the sole report we have on a screening that took place at The Factory in February 1967. “I got nothing against tables, I use them all the time,” wrote Jack Kerouac in a journal entry, “but nine hours is a long time to stare at one”. Now held in the archives of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Table reel is rarely screened. Its monochrome footage is composed of a static, fixed-angle shot of a dining room table, slowed down to a tenth of its normal speed. Warhol expert Robert Tipson describes the film as an “ode to functionality”, but how Table evolves over the course of what would be Warhol’s longest single work remains a mystery, presumptions of any connection to his contemporaneous short-form work, Doily (1967), remaining just that.
Under Sundown (aka Pétanque, 1956)
Director Jules Dassin
This slinky film noir has been unduly overshadowed by Rififi (1955), the game-changing heist movie made by Jules Dassin after Hollywood’s anti-communist witch-hunts forced his exile to France. In the director’s second Gallic outing, Robert Mitchum stars as Hap Spencer, an expat American barfly whose carefree life carousing on the Côte d’Azur starts to unravel amid suspicions that the players in his adoptive pétanque team have come together for a darker purpose.
Shot in high-contrast chiaroscuro by Henri Decaë, Under Sundown anticipates by some five years The Hustler’s fusion of the sports movie and noir atmospherics. While never as gripping during its game-playing sequences as that Paul Newman classic (Mitchum rarely looks entirely at his ease alongside the native French players), Dassin’s gem makes up for it with a jazzy, proto-New Wave looseness that reflects the reportedly relaxed summertime mood during filming. Which isn’t to say that Under Sundown is lacking in thrills: give or take some wobbly back-projection, a hell-for-leather chase finale along the twists and turns of the precipitous Grande Corniche coast road still churns the stomach. Barbara Bel Geddes co-stars as the Machiavellian referee Avril Fourire.
Kádár’s Canteen (Kádar etkezde, 1986)
Director Miklós Jancsó
Miklós Jancsó died last year leaving a bewilderingly massive filmography, much of it unknown outside Hungary. His 1999-2006 sextet of foul-mouthed comedies about gravediggers Pepe and Kapa at least got English-subtitled DVD releases, but did you know that the director of The Round-up (1965) made a documentary about prog-rock band Omega in 1984? Or feature films with titles such as Jesus Christ’s Horoscope (1988), God Walks Backwards (1991) and Season of Monsters (1987) – the latter featuring a cameo from a Loch Ness-style monster?
Compared with these, his TV-commissioned portrait of Hungary’s then leader János Kádár seems almost conventional, but it was barely shown thanks partly to the subject matter: the story of one of Kádár’s Stalinist interrogators urinating into his mouth is treated as literal reconstruction, self-serving myth and overarching metaphor. There was also the domestically controversial casting of a dubbed Denholm Elliott in the title role, and the possibly ill-advised use of the name of an actual Budapest restaurant in a title that evokes the so-called “goulash communism” that Kádár brought to Hungary.
Little Used Rooms (1958)
Director Robert Hamer
Conceived by Anthony Shaffer (while still reading law at Cambridge) as a comeback comedy for Will Hay, this unsettling tale of a haunted police station was later rewritten by director Robert Hamer as a melancholy exploration of postwar attitudes to the afterlife. John Mills plays Gabriel Toole, the new policeman in Theydon Weald, where the local belief that the police station has two haunted cells accounts for the rock-bottom crime rate. Toole attributes “sightings” to Sergeant Johnson’s (Philip Stainton) post-pub naps, yet the fact remains that madness awaits anyone incarcerated overnight. After a riot at the brewery, Toole fills the cells, unwisely slamming his Dambuster friend (Eric Portman) and brother-in-law (Sidney James, excellent in a rare dramatic role) in the problem cells, angering his wife, April (Joan Greenwood).
Remembering their collaboration on Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), Hamer asked Alec Guinness to play all eight prisoners. Guinness declined, but he made one contribution: in the chilling scene where the unseen ghost mimes his crimes through hand shadows, it is Guinness’s shadow performing. Though richly atmospheric, with dank sets by Elliot Scott (of 1963’s The Haunting), Little Used Rooms was released a fortnight after the first Carry On film, Carry On Sergeant, and unfortunately audiences were unable to take police stories seriously.
Our Tomorrow (1926)
Director Michael Powell
Many film fans know that legendary British filmmaker Michael Powell got his start directing ‘quota quickies’ in the 1930s. Fewer are aware that his first job in the film business was as an assistant to Irish-born Hollywood director Rex Ingram, at his sunkissed studio in Nice – and that’s where he made his first movie. While Ingram spent weeks researching locations, Powell had the run of the lot. His short silent Our Tomorrow is a precocious masterpiece of exotica and filmic economy: Alice Terry (Ingram’s wife) and a visiting Ramon Navarro play lovers, a French soldier and a Russian exile, who meet and fall in love on the Riviera. As in Powell’s later masterpiece The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), war separates the sweethearts.
It’s a slightly stilted film, as the chemistry between the two stars fails to ignite, but in the poignant ending, when a wounded Navarro waits on the beach for Terry to return, something of Powell’s poetic genius shines through. A thrown pebble ripples the dying waves; we know that the lovers will never be reunited.
Desi Punk Girl (1981)
Director Meenah Khan
This criminally under-seen film from the 80s is a rare depiction of Asian British youth culture from a young woman’s perspective. Fifteen-year-old Ruby’s family are loving but predictably conservative, but Meenah Khan’s nuanced film is not your usual tale of immigrant culture clash. Ruby’s angst with her family life stems not from impending arranged matrimony, but more from a completely relatable shame regarding her conventional upbringing: her father, a failed actor, runs the local restaurant, and her house smells of curry.
Finding the confines of school and home a drag, Ruby is more interested in outsiders, spending most of her time at home listening to punk and reggae records while avoiding her mother’s attempts to spend some one-on-one time in the kitchen. Listening to the radio one night she hears a band called Alien Kulture (the seminal Asian punk band, who feature in a fantastic cameo) and becomes obsessed with the possibility of fronting her own. Enlisting the help of a classmate and her sister (an early role for the wonderful Archie Panjabi), she gets to grips with making her first demo to send to her hero John Peel (who also appears, in a brilliantly lo-fi dream sequence). Groundbreaking and essential.
Amare il tempo (1971)
Director Lucio Fulci
While the no-holds-barred carnage of his later work led to his nickname the ‘Godfather of Gore’, there was so much more to the work of Italian cult legend Lucio Fulci than his reputation might have you believe. Sure, his zombie films will probably always be his most enduring legacy, but he also proved himself a dab hand at a host of other genres – be it thriller, western or lusty sex comedy. But it is only the most die-hard of Fulci aficionados who have been fortunate enough to witness his sole foray into the world of the musical: the weird, wild and rather wonderful Amare il tempo.
Essentially a low-budget riff on West Side Story (but with a little less romance and a lot more violence), this tale of two rival gangs embroiled in a bitter turf war boasts some of Fulci’s most inventive set pieces, while the jazzy overtones of the unexpectedly catchy songs have resulted in its reputation as the holy grail of movie musicals.
Cherry Lives (1997)
Directors Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan
The 1990s were a high-water mark for the teen movie (as evidenced in Charlie Lyne’s recent teen-movie essay film Beyond Clueless). While this epoch was prolific in quantity more than quality, the largely forgotten Cherry Lives serves as an exception to the rule. It’s an early effort from writing and directing duo Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan, the pair behind later wedding-themed romantic comedies Made of Honor (2008) and Leap Year (2010). The film stars Fairuza Balk (post-The Craft, pre-American History X) among a cast of unknowns as Cherry, a New York City teenager who decides to start an alt-rock band in an effort to get over a bad breakup.
The film’s title is a riff on Vitamin C’s song ‘Cherry Alive’ (recorded back when she was in the band Eve’s Plum), and singer Colleen Ann Fitzpatrick herself features in a cameo. Elfont and Kaplan subsequently helmed safer and decidedly more successful teen comedies Can’t Hardly Wait (1998) and Josie and the Pussycats (2001), but this darker, artier origin story, with its moody, violet-tinged cinematography and riot grrrl soundtrack, is worth seeking out.
The Bourne Erratum (1998)
Director George Kaplan
This clever-clever spin on Robert Ludlum’s popular series of spy novels was a mere footnote by the time Matt Damon stepped into Jason Bourne’s shoes for the hugely successful The Bourne Identity only four years later. Scripted by Donald Kaufman (brother of fellow screenwriter Charlie), it stars Richard Chamberlain as Ludlum himself, the millions-selling airport novelist now living with his wife in a mansion in southern Florida. Persuaded by his agent to pen a Bourne prequel, Ludlum’s progress is thwarted after a diving accident leaves him with memory blanks and an intensifying delusion that he is in fact his own most famous character.
Premiered at Sundance in 1998, debut director George Kaplan’s low-budget effort was written off by most critics as a bungled attempt to build a meta-fictional house of cards on the unstable foundations of a pulpy espionage thriller. But for those with a head for its convoluted heights, there’s dizzying enjoyment to be had in watching Ludlum’s paranoid transformation into a man of action, slipping from one Caribbean location to another in a futile attempt to elude his own creator/past – while the plot he’s writing himself into spins out of control. It only adds to the layers of sly self-reflexivity that Chamberlain had previously played the actual Jason Bourne in the 1988 TV movie of The Bourne Identity.