Introduction: Welcome to the overlooked hotel
In April 2011 the Criterion Collection, purveyor of special edition DVDs and Blu-rays, offered a sneak preview of a forthcoming title to be afforded its bells-and-whistles, no-outtake-left-unseen treatment. Unexpectedly, this turned out to be a scarcely remembered 1984 horror cheapie called C.H.U.D. (that’s “Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dweller” to all you vegetarian overground types).
What the film’s admirers could not have foreseen was that their passion would be shared by such esteemed fans: Criterion seemed to have commissioned a commentary track by the Portuguese auteur and closet C.H.U.D. buff Pedro Costa, as well as essays by noted critics J. Hoberman and Dennis Lim. It sounded too good to be true.
It was. Genuinely amusing April Fools’ Day jokes are as uncommon as instances of humility from the Weinstein brothers. Nevertheless, Criterion had managed a corker in its detailed, self-deprecating spoof (“Optional soundtrack dubbed in the guttural language of C.H.U.D.…”). At the heart of it all was a fantasy that any cinephile will have entertained: that those films for which we harbour an enduring passion, but which have not been insulated against obscurity by widespread approbation or commercial success, might yet enjoy their day in the sun.
We’re not talking here about the pastoral Kazakh drama that took all the prizes at a far-flung festival held at high altitude. Nor are we concerned with the guilty pleasure or the arthouse endeavour that didn’t get its due (the L’Humanité, the Pola X). More exotic and endangered than any of these species is the movie that went on release, backed in many cases by the studio dollar, and even enjoyed an outing at the multiplex, only to fade undeservedly from view thereafter.
It may have been a hit (like The Devil Wears Prada or Footloose from our list ), or it might have become a critical punchbag (Hudson Hawk, The Godfather Part III). In some cases it is a commercially appealing entity that never quite connected with the public (The Sure Thing, The Runaways). And at least one of the films named has been disowned by its own director (Static). For whatever reason, these titles are now discarded or rarely mentioned. They have checked in for an indefinite stay at the Overlooked Hotel.
There are typically two routes to movie longevity. One is financial success and permeation of popular culture beyond the reaches of the multiplex or the movie magazines. The other is via the safety net of auteurism, which ensures a future playing at a retrospective somewhere in the world, and maybe as a contender for a new print, a BFI monograph or a ‘making of’ documentary. It will never have to fend for itself.
Meanwhile, the only hope for the movie that benefits from neither of these lies in the sort of critical reappraisal that S&S is now proposing with its survey of those films that have fallen from view over the past three decades. This 30-year timeline restricts the quantity of nominations, which might otherwise verge on the infinite, but also coincides approximately with the arrival of the first UK multiplex in 1985, back when a multiplicity of screens demanded a high turnover of product. (Whereas now a Harry Potter or a Pirates of the Caribbean will hog six or seven screens for months at a time, severely restricting the chances that any latter-day undiscovered commercial treasures will make it as far as the multiplex.)
By starting the survey in 1981, the emphasis is placed on recent commercial cinema – movies that may not yet fall within that protective enclosure of coolness in which work from the 1970s and earlier can commonly be found. Much easier to pound the drum for Russ Meyer and Roger Corman, or for the modern counterpart of the now defunct B-movie, than to seek out the unhip 1980s or 90s equivalents.
There is an obvious precedent to this project. If our back issues of Cahiers du Cinéma have taught us anything, it must be that a democracy of taste lies at the heart of film appreciation – art will always find its way into the marketplace. Look at Jerry Lewis, raised shoulder-high by Cahiers and proclaimed a god. Or Sam Fuller, whose critical standing can be traced back to the Cahiers critic and filmmaker Luc Moullet, who wrote in 1956 that “Fuller is to Welles as Marlowe is to Shakespeare”. (Thirteen years later, the Edinburgh Film Festival mounted a full Fuller retrospective.)
In the act of rescuing the movies that culture forgot, the cinephile is also challenging the canon, or rather presenting an idiosyncratic one of his or her own. Many daydreams have been devoted to musing on the great films that never were (Kubrick’s Napoleon, say, or Malick’s Q), but it is equally valid to consider a parallel universe where the praise or prestige were doled out to different works – precisely what made the Criterion gag so bitingly authentic.
When the Cahiers writers and their fellow aficionados and enthusiasts crammed into Henri Langlois’s Cinémathèque, the prevailing ideal was not to admire any orthodoxy ratified in advance. “Films would be flung into the programme without any thought,” recalled Gilbert Adair in 2001, “but that was the theory – that all films deserved to be seen and your judgements should not be shaped for you in advance by hierarchies imposed on the programme.”
That openness persists in the heart of anyone who goes to the cinema prepared to be ambushed. And it underpins the notion that any film can be saved from falling through the cracks of history if somebody loves it. Think of the following titles as a distant relative to the architectural sites of Restoration, the BBC programme that invites viewers to vote for the listed buildings they want to save.
There’s no vote here though, only an exhortation to cast off the deterrent of negative reviews or the stink of box-office failure and to see these pictures afresh. The full-stop imposed on a film’s life by critics or the public can always be transformed into a semi-colon or an ellipsis if the advocacy is passionate and persuasive enough.
Sometimes on this magazine we follow our instincts, even if we can’t always be precise about what they’re leading us towards. Our cover headline for the June 2011 issue, ‘Forgotten Pleasures of the Multiplex’, seems a clearly defined subject (and, of course, we’re talking strictly about cinematic pleasures here) but the phrase doesn’t quite contain what our survey corralled. We suspect that no short, cover-friendly phrase could. Even the request sent to our contributors brought queries from the more exacting among them asking for greater clarity.
Here’s what we asked:
“We’re curious to find out what films from the last 30 years (1981 to the end of 2010) might be regarded… as underrated. We’re looking for advocacy for films from the mainstream – for teen movies, rom-coms, horror flicks and other genre films that made a particular impact on you. We see this as not so much a ‘hidden gems’ or ‘guilty pleasures’ idea but rather a moment for reassessment of the critically overlooked or condescended to.”
The choice of films is, we feel, great eclectic fun to read but it is unruly. Not all of the titles chosen are forgotten, neither are they all necessarily associated with the multiplex. Not all can claim to be overlooked, nor is every one underrated – though many are or have been.
Partly this is because some of our writers like to champion things against the grain. We’re not even sure that reading Ryan Gilbey’s excellent background-setting argument in the magazine leaves one entirely cognisant of what we’re getting at. So here are our aims:
- To undermine critical snobbery towards the mainstream by creating a snapshot ‘loose canon’ of good underrated mainstream films from the last 30 years.
- To see if there was some consensus about certain genres neglected by critics.
- To illustrate by default what’s missing from the shrinking middle market in recent Hollywood production.
- To explore the possibility that this creatively conservative age we’re living through produces fewer ‘happy anomalies’ than did, say, the decades leading up to the Millennium.
Taking these points in order, the first has easily been achieved. I never thought I’d see advocacy for Footloose in these pages and I was convinced that all the apologists for M. Night Shyamalan lived in Paris. So there goes my prejudices.
On the second point we can see a lot more support for the maligned teen-comedy genre here than might have been anticipated.
The third and fourth points can be dealt with together by looking at which seem to be the best years for this kind of cinema. There are significant peaks in 1984-85 (12 chosen films altogether) and 2009 (7). The first peak exactly coincides with the rapid expansion of the multiplex circuit in the UK but it may also represent a moment when a significant number of our contributors were of an impressionable age. The second might represent short-term-memory favouritism, or else 2009 was the last gasp of the middle-market American film before it became unprofitable.
As you can see, these factors are hard to demonstrate. It would seem from 2009 that the ‘happy anomalies’ keep on coming. Let us hope so.
— Nick James
James Foley, US, 1990
Pulp novelist Jim Thompson has been adapted for the screen several times with the transition never entirely successful (The Grifters comes closest). And yet, from the controversy that dogged Michael Winterbottom’s The Killer Inside Me through to Maggie Greenwald’s feminist tilt at The Kill-Off and Bertrand Tavernier’s relocation of Pop. 1280 to a French African colony in Coup de Torchon, Thompson on screen has always caused a ripple. But James Foley’s 1990 adaptation of After Dark, My Sweet, set in the simmering heat of a rundown suburb of Palm Springs, seems to have evaded the radar.
Given that this is the tale of an apparently dim-witted ex-boxer (Jason Patric) on the run from a mental institution who falls into the clutches of the vampish Fay (Rachel Ward), the staple Thompson themes of paranoia, treachery, violence, mental instability and sexual tension are all accounted for. Foley charts an intimate and at times poetic journey towards failure and misery following the incompetent kidnapping of a child. Replicating the moral ambiguity inherent in the novel, this is a taut, intelligent work, powered by a suitably venal turn from Bruce Dern as the unscrupulous Uncle Bud.
— Jason Wood
Steven Spielberg, US, 2001
I’m not alone in considering A.I. Artificial Intelligence a very great and deeply misunderstood film. Others as disparate as Andrew Sarris and the late Stan Brakhage have more or less agreed with me, as well as my friend and favourite academic critic, James Naremore.
But it’s also clear to me that any ordinary auteurist way of processing cinema can’t begin to handle this masterwork adequately. Reading it simply as a Spielberg film, as most detractors do, or even trying to read it simply as a Kubrick film, is a futile exercise with limited rewards, even though the fingerprints of both directors are all over it. (I tend to see it as I believe Kubrick sometimes envisioned it – as a film of his, informed by Spielberg’s sensibility.)
Seeing A.I. as a perpetually unresolved dialectic between these filmmakers yields a complicated logic, an ambiguity where the bleakest pessimism and the most ecstatic feelgood enchantment swiftly alternate and even occasionally merge – viewed this way, it becomes a far more enriching experience, however troubling and unresolved. As a profound meditation on the difference between human and mechanical, it also constitutes one of the best allegories about cinema.
— Jonathan Rosenbaum
David Fincher, US, 1992
The most reviled entry in the Alien series and a relative box-office failure, Alien 3 was Fincher’s feature debut. Concocted by a small army of writers, Walter Hill and Vincent Ward among them, the film is oppressive enough to feel like Kafka in space.
Sigourney Weaver returns as Ellen Ripley and finds herself on a desolate penal colony populated by rapists. If Ripley’s gender were not enough to cause disharmony, her parasitic stowaway really puts the fiend among the felons. Since the film was shot in the UK, this dissolute bunch are portrayed by such British stalwarts as Pete Postlethwaite, Paul McGann and Ralph Brown.
None of this sounds promising, but Fincher’s film has much in common with Ridley Scott’s original: the build-up is slow, accruing tension by increments, and there’s a palpable sense of dread. Not until some way in does a prisoner yell, “It’s starting’”as the special effects are wheeled out and the film spins off the rails. But until then it is gloom all the way and all the better for it.
— Jason Wood
Robert Aldrich, US, 1981
This story of a female wrestling duo and their hustling trainer (Peter Falk!) is forgotten even by Aldrich fans, who tend to tune out after Hustle (1975), but as the trio tool around the grapplers’ circuit in a Detroit clunker – set against fading Rust Belt landscapes – their grit and hope come through. Performers playing at a seemingly fake sport but with very real stakes of bruises and cash, the ‘Dolls’ (Vicki Frederick and Laurene Landon) cling to their showbiz dignity even while covered in mud.
Aldrich’s nose for the pleasures of violence (specifically, catfights) remains keen in the terrifically entertaining bouts, some starring professional wrestlers. Aldrich died two years later, but nailing the climactic fight in front of a sing-along audience at the MGM Grand, he went out with a bang.
— Nicolas Rapold
David N. Twohy, US, 1996
This back-of-the-truck paranoiac sci-fi B movie – in which Charlie Sheen’s rogue ex-NASA scientist discovers hot-planet-loving aliens in human guise ramping up CO2 production from covert jungle power stations across Latin America – is not only the most entertaining screen treatment of global warming I’ve seen, but the most compelling allegory for the perverse bind in which our climate change politics are now stuck.
A sequel today would have to feature an alien takeover of the US Republican party – which brings to mind The Arrival’s spiritual antecedent and the original biomorphic takeover fable, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1955). Like Don Siegel’s cult classic (and unlike Roland Emmerich’s impatient planet-buster The Day After Tomorrow, 2004), The Arrival puts its hysteria on slow burn: it has its showy special effects, but its most severe implications are delivered in some wonderfully reticent dialogue by a smooth Ron Silver.
I can’t say the film has Body Snatchers’s pulp poetry, but it does feature attempted murder by bathtub and a goateed Sheen at the nadir of his popularity taking every opportunity to expose a pumped and oiled torso.
— Nick Bradshaw
Oshii Mamoru, Japan, 2000
Overshadowed by Oshii’s anime pair Ghost in the Shell (1995) and Innocence (2004), this Tarkovsky-inspired foray into live action possesses a similar pessimistic regard for technology. Filmed in Poland, with Polish actors performing in their own language, the film depicts a group of virtual-war-game addicts and their quest for their in-game Holy Grail.
Oshii’s idiosyncratic use of CGI follows a different tack from other titles of its ilk, its dystopian ‘reality’ scenes digitally leached of colour, which only returns to the frame to varying degrees the further its characters are from the coldly inhuman technology of Avalon’s false paradise. The rendition of the immersive game world is stunning: tanks roll across open plains as the players hide out in ruined buildings, assailed by helicopters and heavy-duty artillery fire; when hit, bodies flatten into two-dimensional projections before shattering into a myriad of triangular shards.
In the end, our protagonist’s elevation into the final ‘Class Real’ phase of the game, accompanied by Kawai Kenji’s characteristically majestic operatic score, really does take the film to another level entirely.
— Jasper Sharp
Craig Hamann, US, 1997
Ex-con Jesse (Mark Dacascos) tries to make it as a rock drummer while under constant threat of being sucked back into a life of drug-fuelled crime. It’s hardly an original premise, and writer-director Hamann’s previous claim to fame as one of Quentin Tarantino’s buddies back in his Video Archives period (mutual friend Roger Avary is executive producer here) didn’t set pulses racing in anticipation. But the director turned out to have a real feel for scuzzy low-life dialogue, fleshed out here by a surprisingly upmarket cast that includes Frederic Forrest and Emily Lloyd as the weirdest motel habitués since Norman Bates.
There’s a barnstorming turn from Unforgiven’s Jaimz Woolvett as Jesse’s heroin-addicted former cellmate, and cameos by the super-culty likes of Joan Jett, Traci Lords and Linnea Quigley. As the troubled Jesse himself, Mark Dacascos reveals a wider thespian range than his martial-arts past might have indicated, though a bone is tossed to his fanbase in the form of a furious fight at the climax. Despite this promising start, Hamann’s filmography has since run dry.
— Michael Brooke
Lana Wachowski & Lilly Wachowski (as The Wachowski Brothers), US, 1996
Amid the many dark-witted, bloody capers that surfaced in the 1990s, the [then] Wachowski brothers’ pre-The Matrix mob thriller stands out for its simplicity, discipline and style. At once contained (it barely leaves one apartment) and baroque (crazed camera angles, a vividly dramatic score), it balances brilliantly excess and control. Then there’s the innovation that almost prevented it from getting made and that remains startlingly unusual today: a central couple who happen to be gay and whose gayness neither defines nor destroys them. (Persuading two mainstream actresses to take the roles was a challenge for the directors, yet Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon have never been better or better cast.)
Bound is far from innocent of the ironic, referential sensibility so prevalent at the time of its making: the gruff mobsters, Tilly’s hyper-feminine moll and Gershon’s swaggering tomboy all come from the big box of movie archetypes, and the film’s moral blackness and relentless pacing pay tribute to Hitchcock.
Still, Bound feels fresh and sincere, rather than film-school smug, its confidence prefiguring the familiar/original shot in the arm that was The Matrix. Its very straightforwardness is rewarding, coming as it does within a genre that so often births tangled plots and silly twists; its performances and presentation never falter.
— Hannah McGill
Roger Donaldson, UK/US, 1984
In the late 1970s, David Lean and Robert Bolt toiled on scripts for a two-film epic about the Bounty mutiny, which (as per Richard Hough’s source book) blamed Fletcher Christian for troublemaking while casting Captain Bligh as hero. Though budgets sank that project, Bolt later rewrote the first script for this, Donaldson’s first Hollywood film, charting the Bounty’s voyage as flashbacks from Bligh’s court martial – thus the film itself puts Bligh on trial (and restores his honour).
Mel Gibson proves suitably English and turbulent as Christian, but Anthony Hopkins is magnificent as Bligh, every inch Bolt’s description, “the soul of a hawk in the body of a pigeon”. His navigating from memory across 4,000 miles of ocean provides a stirring climax.
Vangelis’s score has dated, but the film has Lean’s fingerprints all over it: beautiful locations, a raft of fine actors (Day-Lewis, Neeson, Olivier etc), Bolt’s signature law-versus-nature theme and a realistic maritime feel, captured by cameraman Arthur Ibbetson (twice Lean’s focus puller, and hired here at Stanley Kubrick’s recommendation when the original DP jumped ship days before shooting).
— Patrick Fahy
Richard Kelly, US, 2009
The Box is based on Richard Matheson’s 1970 short story Button, Button, later adapted into an episode of the revived The Twilight Zone in 1986.
A well-dressed stranger, Mr Steward (a magisterially disquieting Frank Langella), arrives at a family’s home carrying a box with a button on top of it. If they press the button, Steward informs them, they will receive a million dollars; however, someone that they don’t know will die. This metaphysical-moral dilemma becomes the basis of a film that occupies the space between true horror and science fiction and the realm of the weird.
Kelly uses elements from both Matheson’s story and the The Twilight Zone, adding references to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Sartre’s existentialism, conspiracy theories and his own childhood experiences. Sometimes this syncresis can seem unwieldy, but ultimately The Box has the (in)consistency of a dream and the quality of an infernal labyrinth.
In part, The Box is disturbing because the nightmare geography it opens up – in which actions in one part of the world result in suffering and death elsewhere – is disconcertingly in tune with the geopolitical predicament that globalised capitalism and eco-catastrophe impose on us.
— Mark Fisher
Jonathan Mostow, US, 1997
Jonathan Mostow has done mid-level studio blockbusters (U-571, Surrogates) and one perfectly solid franchise instalment (Terminator 3), but he’s never improved on Breakdown, a resiliently simple idea pushed into ever sweatier places. It begins with a road trip, an apparent breakdown and a lift from a stranger (J.T. Walsh, at his matter-of-fact best). The reveal is an organised kidnapping ring, which demands far more money than Kurt Russell is able to cough up for his captured wife (Kathleen Quinlan).
Mostow’s tight hold on the script’s thumbscrew logic is matched by his skill with the cast: Russell is so good at registering the steps from smug, flustered city rat turning heads in a diner to bewildered terror that you wonder why more Hitchcockian everymen haven’t come his way.
There’s a dash of Duel (1971), a hint of The Hitcher (1986) and, like John Dahl’s Joy Ride (2001), it’s a redneck roadkill suspenser that knows exactly how to use the rear-view mirror.
— Tim Robey
J. Mackye Gruber & Eric Bress, US 2003
“Change one thing, change everything,” goes the tagline from The Butterfly Effect. The well-known concept derived from chaos theory maintains that small causes can produce massive effects – the famous example being the flutter of a butterfly’s wings in one part of the world causing a storm somewhere else. But while The Butterfly Effect retains the idea that small changes can result in unpredictable consequences, the film – made all the more disturbing because it stars Ashton Kutcher, familiar from such froth as That ’70s Show and Dude, Where’s My Car? – has a more bleakly pessimistic message: you can’t change anything important; misery is inevitable; all you can change is who suffers and what afflicts them, and even that won’t be the result of deliberation.
Kutcher plays the multiply traumatised Evan Treborn, who discovers that he has the ability to go back into crucial moments of his past and alter them, as if he is the digital editor of his own life. But he finds that averting one trauma always produces another in its place.
In the end, The Butterfly Effect owes more to theologian Alvin Plantinga’s concept of ‘transworld depravity’ – the idea that evil and suffering are inevitable in any conceivable world in which human beings have free will – than to the open-ended ecosystems of chaos theory. Plantinga developed the idea because he wanted to prove that God and suffering were compatible, but The Butterfly Effect gives us the transworld depravity without any possibility of redemption.
Here, it is as if the fatalism that simmers not far beneath consumer culture’s obligatory optimism suddenly comes to the fore. And, in the mid-2000s, the film’s notion that sometimes catastrophe is not amenable to intervention could not help but play as – a perhaps appropriately unintentional – comment on misadventures in Iraq.
— Mark Fisher
Jacques Demy, France, 1982
Maybe it was because the score was by Michel Colombier rather than Demy regular Michel Legrand; maybe it was because Deneuve’s insistence on singing the lead role herself led the director to cast Dominique Sanda (who agreed to be dubbed); maybe it was because of the background – a violent 1950s dockers’ strike – to the tale of a doomed adulterous amour fou. Whatever the reason, this dark, deliriously intense liebestod never attained the success of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), and has therefore barely travelled beyond France. More’s the pity, since as with the earlier film, once one accepts the formal artifice of an all-sung narrative, the mix of poignant music, a rich libretto, exquisite expressionist design and vivid characterisation steadily builds to a denouement of truly operatic power.
Though Sanda and Richard Berry are excellent as the ill-starr’d lovers, they are perhaps upstaged by Danielle Darrieux as the former’s rueful mother and by Michel Piccoli – bilious green suit and red beard evoking psychotic jealousy – as her impotent cuckold husband. A mid-song throat-slitting is merely the most shocking moment in a virtually unknown masterpiece.
— Geoff Andrew
Robert Zemeckis, US, 1997
At the time of Contact, Robert Zemeckis said what really excited him about CGI was that it allowed him to change the colour of a sky. Before his increasingly ugly experiments with motion capture (Polar Express etc), Zemeckis was exploring the more delicate possibilities of the new special-effects palette.
This drama about the search for extra-terrestrial life ostensibly promises a cosmic blockbuster but proves rather more adult and introspective. Certainly, there’s a New Age/therapeutic streak to this inner-space odyssey, in which Jodie Foster’s scientist ventures into the Great Beyond, only to find… herself. But Zemeckis’s elegant visual imagination makes her voyage remarkably affecting, even when Foster’s Ellie arrives at her destination, which resembles a hippy-era velvet painting.
The film has an inspired opening sequence: as we pull back further and further from earth, generations of radio broadcasts hover around the planet. Another image that has stayed with me is a close-up of Foster’s face in transit, its contours uncannily shifting and warping as she hurtles into the unknown (like the missing reverse-angle shot of 2001’s stargate sequence).
Few have followed, but Contact suggested a path for CGI genre cinema that was subtly expressionistic, even anti-spectacular.
— Jonathan Romney
Michael Glawogger, Austria, 2009
This wondrous comedy cocktail combines inspirations from such divergent sources as stoner psychedelia, Louis de Funès farces and literary influences from Lewis Carroll to Vonnegut to create a hallucinatory hippy-Buddhist mandala.
It’s one of Glawogger’s richest and most personal films, but it’s conceived as the kind of universal popular entertainment that doesn’t care for target-audience tailoring and thus doesn’t fit the marketplace. Hence Contact High failed to make contact with a large audience in Austria and remains unseen almost everywhere else – and ironically now waits to be resurrected as one of the magical maudit masterpieces of the past decade.
— the Ferroni Brigade
Andrew Fleming, US, 1996
The far edge of grunge and the pinnacle of The X-Files marked out 1996. Dark magic as a metaphor for teenage disaffection was in fashion: the next year would see the emergence of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Harry Potter, a series of books in no way reminiscent of Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch, made into a television movie starring Fairuza Balk in 1986.
In The Craft Balk plays the worst witch again, but here giggling potions and Grand Wizard crushes are replaced by homoerotic rituals and the crushing of romantic rivals to death.
Sarah (Robin Tunney) inherits supernatural powers from her mother; her arrival in town prompts Nancy (Balk), the dark rebel, to call together a coven of disaffected girls. Empowerment is fun at first, punishing jocks and creating beauty to a perfect mid-90s soundtrack of Elastica, Juliana Hatfield and Portishead, plus Siouxsie and The Smiths.
Dumb and jumpy enough for a Halloween drinking game, The Craft is – until its disappointingly hysterical conclusion – a smart satire on adolescent fears.
— So Mayer
Bill Duke, US, 1992
Bill Duke’s bleak thriller has had its champions, but still hasn’t the reputation it deserves and it’s far too often lumped in with more routine exploitation movies. Here the drug barons aren’t charismatic Scarfaces we secretly root for, they’re ugly and nasty – the repellent Felix Barbosa was never going to inspire a gangsta rap tune as Tony Montana did.
It’s a film with a genuinely dangerous edge, in which violence is used to tighten the narrative tension, not to offer show-stopping release. But neither does Deep Cover deploy a contrived ‘grittiness’. It sits in its own distinct place, fascinating in the tension it forges in the marriage of Michael Tolkin and Henry Bean’s superb script – rooted in realism and issues of race, political hypocrisies and personal motivations – and the film’s stylised, visual artifice, poetic narration and brilliantly used hip-hop score. That tension also sparks between Laurence Fishburne and Jeff Goldblum; neither has ever been better, Fishburne coiled with incredible intensity as the conflicted undercover cop, and Goldblum, as the increasingly corrupted attorney, giving the film unpredictable, eccentric dimensions.
You can return again and again to Deep Cover and find new notes. It’s one of the most distinctive thrillers of the 1990s.
— James Bell
Pascale Pouzadoux, France, 2008
Despite recent assertions in the British press that “France is a romcom-free zone” there has been a remarkable rise in French romantic comedies in the last ten to 15 years. The phenomenon is clearly related to the popularity of the Hollywood genre, but equally its French credentials go back to the New Wave, and more recently Amélie (2001). It is also connected to an equally remarkable rise in women directors. This combination of popular genre, American aura and feminine focus means that – quelle surprise! – such films are non grata for auteur critics. Yet if the 100 or so films in the category are uneven, there is much to treasure.
De l’autre côté du lit is one of my favourites. A youngish couple with two children going through a bad patch decide to swap roles – Monsieur will stay home and look after the children, Madame will take his manager’s post in the office. He guffaws that at last he’ll have a rest, but ends up exhausted while she blossoms.
It’s funny, stylish, has two of France’s top stars (Sophie Marceau and Dany Boon) and makes a feminist point – which is more than one can say of many French films of higher repute.
— Ginette Vincendeau
David Frankel, US, 2006
I was the lone male at a screening clearly set up for alumni of women’s magazines when I first saw The Devil Wears Prada. Despite feeling about as welcome as a hairball in a freshly painted room, I had a good time, without feeling I needed to engage too heavily (I didn’t have to write about it). Only now have I noticed, for instance, that David Frankel directed television series like Entourage, Sex in the City and Band of Brothers. Yet the film, adapted brilliantly for the screen by Aline Brosh McKenna from Lauren Weisberger’s novel, stayed with me.
Initially, I parked it as a good genre piece that comes pretty close to a classical Hollywood comedy of the Lubitsch-Wilder type without quite getting there. On second viewing, I conceded that it was much sharper than I gave it credit for, particularly about vanity.
Of course, I love it partly because it’s about a magazine editor; my fantasy scene is where dragon editor Meryl Streep has lovely assistant Anne Hathaway poised at her shoulder to tell her who every guest is at a party (I could use one of those). And, of course, Hathaway’s stance mirrors my own semi-fascinated, half-hearted, love-disdain for fashion. I have a feeling that this film will get better and better with age.
— Nick James
Sidney J. Furie, US, 1981
There may not be, outside of David Cronenberg’s wonder cabinet, a more nitro-powered horror-movie metaphor hell than that fuelling this post-Exorcist remnant, in which Barbara Hershey plays an ordinary working-class woman (supposedly based on a real person) who is repeatedly attacked and raped by a huge, invisible being.
Aurally and visually calibrated like a taser, Sidney J. Furie’s movie doubles down on the genre grittiness, then wallops you with unrelenting trauma; the bizarre prosthetic effects, of Hershey’s body being manhandled and screwed by unseen hands and body parts, would be merely one of the most lashingly surrealist visions in American film if it weren’t also deeply upsetting on so many levels that it’s like the movie is writing its own library of fiery feminist theory.
The anxiety the film produces was too hot to handle, and after years of delays it was dumped, only to be semi-rediscovered by Austrian experimentalist Peter Tscherkassky in 1999 and re-edited as his short Outer Space.
It remains unnerving and savage, arguably the most eloquent movie ever made in Hollywood about the struggle of the sexual underclass.
— Michael Atkinson
Jean Becker, France, 1983
Released at a time when many were dazzled by the then fashionable cinéma du look (The Moon in the Gutter was made the same year), this subtle yet seemingly more conventional crime movie by the son of Jacques Becker has endured rather better than much of the output of Beineix, Besson et al.
The film depends primarily on its sturdy script, which shifts with surprisingly smooth ease from what at first looks like a perky comedy of sexual mores (newly arrived coquette Isabelle Adjani ignites male lust and female gossip in a Provençal village) to an altogether darker, more complex study of treachery, falsehood, obsession and revenge.
As events are related from different perspectives, expectations are confounded, stereotypes stripped away to reveal credibly conflicted individuals, and motivations properly muddied rather than simply explained away.
Like the Georges Delerue score, the cast – which includes such stalwarts as François Cluzet, Edith Scob, Michel Galabru and Suzanne Flon – is an index of the overall classy craftsmanship, but in Adjani’s remarkable performance, at once forcefully raw yet technically refined, the film explores depths as unsettling as they are revealing.
— Geoff Andrew
John Boorman, US, 1981
A student ghetto in Leeds, the early 1980s. A dedicated economy of pleasure prevails, its currencies being bodily fluids, copious alcohol and drugs, and recently discovered VHS tapes. Films are viewed communally, in the stygian gloom of dimly lit front rooms in various heightened states. There was a much simpler accounting of a film’s worth back then: in the words of one of my long-lost compadres, either “fackin’ superb” or “fackin’ shit”. In the former category was Boorman’s Excalibur.
I can’t remember much about the film itself, more the sensation of stupefied surrender, an almost mystical communion not dissimilar, perhaps, to the film’s own rapturous immersion in a mythical, pre-rational universe. I’ve an abiding impression of thunderous Wagnerian overload, interspersed with quieter moments; an emerald-green world charged with potent poetry and primitive magic; the conviction and intensity of Nicol Williamson as Merlin.
It registered as profoundly erotic too. Has Helen Mirren ever been hotter than she is here, playing the evil Morgana? And there’s a sex scene where Arthur shags his wife on a table while still wearing his armour (you won’t find that in Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac).
I never saw Excalibur on the big screen, but still, at times it felt like you were actually in the film, as if the distance between viewer and film had been obliterated, so you became, as Jeff Koons once said, “a little lost in the fantasy”.
Today, I still couldn’t tell you whether Excalibur is any good or not. It’s possibly kitsch, portentous 1980s nonsense, but I prefer not to watch it again, particularly now I’m permanently sober, and sully the few memories that remain of it.
— Kieron Corless
John Schlesinger, US, 1985
Whenever I see the phrase “adapted from a true story” in the opening credits for a film, I expect a worthy, earnest product boasting ‘fidelity’ to its source material. Here Schlesinger opts for something different.
There’s a murkiness of both mood and character motives, as Steven Zaillian’s screenplay melds espionage thriller with slacker movie, all drawn from Robert Lindsey’s investigative study of two homegrown all-American spies nurtured in the bosom of respectable, bourgeois society. These childhood friends, who conspire to sell CIA secrets to the Russians, function as a portrait of the dismembered American psyche in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
Timothy Hutton is the ‘good’ Catholic boy disillusioned by the culture of underhand surveillance to which he is privy; Sean Penn is his loose-lipped, fallacious co-conspirator. The latter is superb as the jerky dealer-cum-addict spiralling out of all control as the pressures pile up. Volatile and vulnerable, his characterisation of the hapless Lee announces the manic energy and technical precision that has marked all his subsequent performances, from the shady lawyer in Carlito’s Way to the crusading activist in Milk.
— Maria Delgado
Brian De Palma, France, 2002
After a devastating performance at the US box office, Femme Fatale limped its way into the UK marketplace as a straight-to-DVD title with little fanfare and barely a murmur from critics. It was followed by the longest period of inactivity in De Palma’s career, a four-year silence only broken when The Black Dahlia and Redacted were offered up in surprisingly quick succession.
Packed with all of the classic themes and concerns that made such earlier works as Sisters, Obsession and Blow Out so great (mistaken identity, artifice, doubling, voyeurism etc), Femme Fatale is both a kind of greatest hits package, delivered in bravura style, and a truly entertaining and stylish experience that goes as far as any of De Palma’s most celebrated films in deconstructing the nature of cinema and exploring the relationship between truth and representation.
To call this manipulative picture puzzle the last great film of De Palma’s extraordinary career is a no-brainer, but to say that it’s among his finest works is probably closer to the truth.
— Sam Dunn
James Wong, US, 2006
Part three was my point of entry to this very original horror franchise, but any of the other instalments would do. Bringing ankle-high expectations to the multiplex, I saw Final Destination 3 with a loud crowd in downtown Brooklyn and was smitten with the concept’s ingenuity. Not taking kindly to feeling cheated, Death picks off the survivors of freak accidents one by one.
In this episode, the carnage occurs on a derailed, no-brakes rollercoaster – the other films concern escapees from an airliner explosion, a freeway pile-up and a speedway disaster, each graphically hallucinated before a (temporary) precognitive deliverance.
Death, as it happens, has a terrific sense of humour, and goes about evening the score by setting in motion intricate chains of everyday happenstance that end in spectacularly violent kills – mousetraps built better with each passing sequel. “Fuck death!” shouts a defiant jock here, moments before a weight machine pulps his head. This may seem puerile, but it’s a flicker of originality in a genre increasingly dedicated to cannibalising its past, and it disquiets the spectator in a new way, for more of us honestly suspect that we’ll die in some ridiculous, left-field and embarrassing Act of God rather than at the hands of a nutter with a mask.
— Nick Pinkerton
Herbert Ross, US, 1984
Kevin Bacon plays Ren MacCormack, a city teen who relocates from Chicago to the Midwest sticks, where he finds that rock music and dancing have been banned by John Lithgow’s Bible-thumper. Lori Singer (who beat Madonna to the role) struts her stuff as Lithgow’s daughter Ariel, a sassy missy so keen to kick the small-town dust off her red cowboy boots that, as her friend Rusty (Sarah Jessica Parker) says, she “probably memorises bus schedules”.
A battle to stage a prom ensues, and for once the Hollywood diktat – that down-home values always vanquish city-slicking ways – is turned on its head.
It has you from the get-go: the opening sequence is a toe-tapping montage of variously attired pairs of feet dancing to Kenny Loggins’s title track.
Nearly three decades on, Bacon’s vest-clad set-piece dance in a flour mill looks cheesily 1980s, but the rest of Ross’s drama wears its age well, real song-and-dance joy for the pre-Glee generation.
Watch it now, before the remake (with Dennis Quaid in the Lithgow role) hits your screens.
— Jane Lamacraft
Dean Parisot, US, 1999
It’s no easy feat for a film to simultaneously spoof a genre and deliver the goods on its own terms. The Scream franchise, inaugurated in 1996, stands out on this front, but Galaxy Quest deserves as much praise.
Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Tony Shalhoub and Alan Rickman play veterans of a Star Trek-style television show, nursing their variously bruised egos on the fanboy circuit before being sucked into space by credulous aliens who mistake them for their last, best hope. The joke is that they turn out to be just that.
The cast is superb, deftly negotiating the turn from has-been testiness to self-surprising heroism, and the script, by David Howard and Robert Gordon, is clever and knowing but also copper-bottomed and heartfelt.
The real achievement is the film’s treatment of fandom, clear-eyed about its absurdities but unrepentant in celebrating the passion and even romanticism beneath the nerdiness.
— Ben Walters
Francis Ford Coppola, US, 1990
It is a great injustice that critics deny The Godfather Part III (1990) any of the effusive acclaim given The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974) – this mistake overlooks the great power of Part III as Coppola complicated and fulfilled his project. Coppola elevated the gangster movie by importing art-movie strategies into the time-folding structure of Part II, then in Part III he added self-referential details and casting that certifies the autobiographical ethnic immigrant legacy.
The object of Part III is to personalise a Hollywood genre that had become the folly of superficial movie-brat appreciation. Michael becomes American cinema’s greatest character since Scarlett O’Hara by embodying the 20th-century dilemma of upholding American identity while being conscious of the country’s contradictory, sometimes immoral acts; his punishment and long-delayed confession reunites the Godfather saga with a Catholic sense of sin and provides the series (and Al Pacino’s stages-of-man performance) with well-proportioned unity.
Despite a few flawed sequences and performances (though not Sofia Coppola’s cosseted Mary, an uncannily contemporary product of the depravity Don Vito began) violence is shown to exact its cost. The narrative thrust of the first two films require this – they are incomplete without it. Part III matters because Michael, the corrupted American scion, finally repents. Unfortunately, repentance – the emotion that gave Greek tragedy its power – is what The Sopranos era has eliminated.
— Armond White
Ishii Sogo, Japan, 2000
Gojoe might formally resemble a chanbara (period swashbuckler), but it deviates from generic convention no less than its main characters – repentant warrior monk Benkei (Ryu Daisuke) and Genji clan heir Yoshitsune (Asano Tadanobu) – abandon worldly affairs. Disguised as a demon, Yoshitsune slices through armies of Heike samurai with preternatural calm, while Benkei hopes to expiate his own bloody past by ending the slaughter.
Both men are on a quest for enlightenment, the one trying to overcome personal demons, the other to become a god, and their ultimate, pre-destined confrontation on Kyoto’s Gojoe Bridge spans the divide between history and fiction, politics and metaphysics, chaos and cosmos.
Ishii presents a revisionist version of this legendary clash, before finally reattaching his idiosyncratic re-imagining to the inherited tradition – but by then his characters have transcended their own myth, even their own humanity, and evaporated into a plane of pure spirit.
The combination of deadly serious performances, unnervingly eerie locations, restlessly fluid camerawork and the ominous rumblings of an industrial score ensures that Gojoe bristles with unrelenting intensity.
— Anton Bitel
Artus de Penguern, France, 2001
Artus de Penguern is best known as an actor – he played the blocked writer Hipolito in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie (2001) – but he also directs, and his first and only feature could be conceived as the anti-Amélie. Both films share a heightened, stylised vision of Paris but where in Jeunet’s saccharine whimsy everybody can be redeemed by the power of sweetness and innocence, de Penguern’s city of dreadful night is peopled by crazed monomaniacs whose vindictive fury can be stilled only by violent death.
The film’s view of humanity is relentlessly and hilariously bleak. Relations between the sexes are a disaster area; almost everyone has been maltreated, cheated on or dumped, and the nearest to a harmonious couple are a pair of predatory sex maniacs.
Almost everybody teeters on the edge of homicidal violence; the only sane people Grégoire (de Penguern himself) encounters in his nightmare odyssey are some mild-mannered porters from the Rungis meat market, and inevitably it’s them he attacks when he finally snaps.
Grégoire Moulin mines a vein of gleefully misanthropic comedy rarely seen on screen since the heyday of W.C. Fields.
— Philip Kemp
Joseph B. Vasquez, US, 1991
This smart, funny, wordly-wise portrait of four young men of assorted ethnic heritage opened too close to the hype-magnet Boyz N the Hood to have a chance of striking out on its own. Despite good reviews it was deemed too similar and tanked at the box office. But, as Karen Alexander pointed out in S&S (December 1991), it’s an almost vanishingly rare example of early 90s New Black Cinema that offers an intelligently critical study of its protagonists’ masculinity instead of excusing and/or celebrating its excesses.
Johnny has academic ambitions, Vinny – aka ‘Fernando’ – mimics Dennis Christopher in the similarly charming Breaking Away (1979) by pretending to be Italian, Tom has dreams of acting stardom, while Willie’s favourite catchphrase anticipates (and may have been ripped off by) Ali G a decade later as he responds to every self-inflicted setback with a knee-jerk: “It’s because I’m black, right?”
Some of the plotting is clunky (Johnny’s romantic dreams are shattered by a wildly implausible coincidence) and the female characters needed far more rounding for the underlying message to hit home, but it’s an infinitely better and indeed more genuinely charming film than its title suggests.
— Michael Brooke
Kenneth Branagh, UK, 1989
I first saw Kenneth Branagh’s sombre directorial debut in the Cannes market, where presumably it was shunted because of the French Revolution bicentenary. Despite the allegations of hubris then levelled at its maker, the film seemed revelatory as a post-Falklands War denunciation of imperialist warmongering.
Many viewings since have reinforced my opinion that it’s one of the finest of all Shakespeare movies, up there with Dieterle and Reinhardt’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Welles’s Othello and Chimes at Midnight, Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, Kozintsev’s King Lear and Olivier’s own Henry.
Branagh’s bold imports from the Henry IV plays, showing the significance of Falstaff for Prince Hal and the Boar’s Head crew, mesh perfectly with Henry’s monarchical isolation on the night before Agincourt, as does Bardolph’s hanging, which Olivier, minding British wartime morale, omitted along with the Scroop conspiracy. In keeping the latter episode, Branagh laid bare the exigencies of medieval realpolitik.
Stylistically, the film constantly astonishes – the subtle tracking shot that follows Branagh’s spine-tingling Saint Crispin’s Day speech and the bravura 500-foot track across the Agincourt carnage betokened similar sequences in The Lord of the Rings and Atonement.
— Graham Fuller
Michael Lehmann, US, 1991
This box-office turkey ($65 million budget, $17 million takings), universally reviled by critics and shunned by audiences, deserves a re-evaluation. Upon repeat viewing, it is difficult to see why the film was so disliked.
Bruce Willis, the charismatic lead, was at the height of his popularity having just come off Die Hard 2. The plot, by Willis and Robert Kraft, about a brother-sister pair attempting world domination by controlling Da Vinci’s gold-making machine, is enjoyably hokey but certainly no more outlandish than, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The dialogue (Steven E. de Souza and Daniel Waters) bristles with anarchic one-liners. Marx Brothers purists will shudder, but the film is so full of wisecracks that it requires a second viewing to appreciate them all, like Duck Soup. And the sharply edited sight gags are evocative of Buster Keaton in his pomp. Plus, as the Mayflower siblings, Sandra Bernhard and Richard E. Grant are among the best comic villains ever.
And any film containing the immortal line: “If Da Vinci was alive today, he’d be eating microwave sushi, naked, in the back of a Cadillac with the both of us,” can’t be bad, as the legions who have made the film a DVD hit will testify.
— Naman Ramachandran
Tony Scott, UK, 1983
The Hunger brilliantly marries the classic vampire genre with the fashion-savvy energy of a then-new MTV age. It opens with a live nightclub performance of ‘Bela Lugosi’s Dead’ from seminal goth rock band Bauhaus, the singer posturing bat-like behind an iron grid in shadow and blue light as a coldly glamorous Catherine Deneuve smokes and looks on from behind her sunglasses. Critics disparaged the film on its release as all slick, flashy style – but therein lies its very charm.
David Bowie channels his lean, androgynous elegance and otherworldly stage image into the role of John Blaylock. Picked up in 18th-century Europe by Deneuve’s Miriam, a vampire from ancient Egypt, he’s one of a line of her lovers who last 200 years before degenerating into sentient dust – and his time’s agonisingly up. Why Miriam is exempt from this fate is never explained, but plot details seem insignificant amid the dream vampire-couple pairing of Bowie and Deneuve and their sumptuous Manhattan townhouse of antiques and endlessly billowing curtains.
Deneuve’s scorching chemistry with Susan Sarandon (as a doctor tempted into vampirism) is also key, with much controversy surrounding the film centred on their sex scene. But The Hunger’s unabashed eroticism sits naturally with a genre always closely tied to the sensual, turning as it does on the paradox of creatures voraciously parasitic and fatally addicted to perpetuating life.
— Carmen Gray
Craig Brewer, US, 2005
The story of a Memphis pimp who fancies himself as a hip-hop artist seems made for the ersatz redemption Hollywood thrusts upon us on a regular basis. Not in the hands of writer-director Craig Brewer, however, who treats his film’s characters and circumstances with unfailing respect, who clearly knows the terrain (Memphis is his home town) and who gets a magnificent performance from stalwart supporting actor Terrence Howard, who absolutely nails the central role.
His Djay is a canny operator, adept at keeping his working girls in line, but then discovers another side of himself while putting together a demo tape to press into the palm of Ludacris’s local-boy-made-good when the rap star passes through his old stomping ground on the Fourth of July.
While that make-or-break confrontation is taut as cheese wire, the landmark sequence here is when Howard and cohorts lay down their tracks in a jerry-rigged home studio, the act of conjuring music from silence proving so unexpectedly primal it gives them a life-changing sense of self-worth. In this inspirational yet far from saccharine moment, Brewer reveals his true agenda, a potent statement of the human potential going to waste in divided America’s forgotten inner-city streets.
— Trevor Johnston
Maurizio Nichetti, Italy, 1989
This is a film that should appear in every anthology of postmodernist cinema. It marks the peak of Maurizio Nichetti’s film genius: he co-wrote the script, directed the film and played two different characters.
It tells the story of a film director who shoots a remake of De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves, then watches as its television screening is totally messed up by a Berlusconian-type commercial channel that continuously interrupts the black-and-white film with colourful adverts. The director tries to intervene but, in the process, causes a surreal fusion of three different levels of reality – the neorealist remake, the adverts and the director’s life – with the funniest of consequences.
But The Icicle Thief is not just a successful comedy of errors; it contains a heartfelt homage to neorealist cinema and conveys a serious point about the damage to film culture and to Italian society inflicted by the increasing power of commercial television.
— Guido Bonsaver
Mike Hodges, UK/USA, 2003
Unlike its predecessor Croupier, there was to be no reprieve for Mike Hodges’ richly atmospheric I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, no second life courtesy of US critical support.
A former London gangster out to avenge the death of his brother, this ambiguous character study was inevitably dismissed as a rehash of Hodges’ 1971 debut Get Carter. But Clive Owen’s inscrutable hardman Will Graham couldn’t be more different from Michael Caine’s Jack Carter, having spent the last three years living off the grid, running from his old self. “It’s grief,” he says, “for a life wasted.”
That the “non-consensual buggery” of Graham’s younger sibling Davey, an act that causes him to take his own life, is so central is a fabulous face-slap to the macho posturing of a genre that had, post Guy Ritchie, lapsed into self-parody. Even in the wake of Tony Soprano’s therapy sessions, the scene in which Graham listens to a counsellor explain the psychological implications behind Davey’s rape is wonderfully unexpected. Epitomised by Ken Stott’s kingpin, the male characters all feel threatened, their sexuality, status and even sanity all under attack.
In a world that stinks of new money, Hodges’ nocturnal noir is a lament for a bygone era, one that Jack Carter knew so well.
— James Mottram
Graham Baker, US, 1984
The specialty of British-born director Graham Baker (Omen III: The Final Conflict, Alien Nation) is the subtle exaggeration of disquieting incongruities in the daily world. The storyline of Impulse gives him the perfect premise. One day, for no apparent reason, ordinary people start acting out of impulse, shedding all forms of civilised restraint. In most movies this would lead to grand dramatic gestures: utopia or apocalypse. Impulse refuses these options. Neither divine nor evil, Baker’s characters stay close to the banal everyday.
Although a little sexual licence flowers in dark doorways around town, the impulse these ordinary folk indulge in is acting out peeved, spiteful fantasies – the kind of aggression that arises from life’s 1001 daily, niggling irritations.
After the revolution, what happens in Impulse is that a typically harried bank customer is now willing to shoot the people in front of him to get ahead in the teller’s queue; or a little old granny, sick of waiting for the traffic light to change, will gleefully ram her car into it.
— Adrian Martin
Andrew Bergman, US, 2000
One scene embodies the unsung sassiness of this razzle-dazzle, no-warts-at-all biopic of Jacqueline Susann, author of high-trash bestseller Valley of the Dolls. Before she hits the big time, Susann is moping in the street after another rejection. When, she wonders, will her luck change? “I’m 29 years old,” she sighs. “Yeah, right,” scoffs a passing businessman. “Fuck you!” she responds – the joke being that Bette Midler, who plays Susann, was 52 at the time.
In other words, this is a biopic that knows it’s a biopic. Even the elisions (the near-exclusion of Susann’s autistic son, the prettified account of her death from cancer) comment on the whole genre’s compromised nature.
The movie is infectiously upbeat but never twee: the garish colours tickle our eyeballs and Paul Rudnick’s script has champagne bubbles in every other line.
The showbizzy cast is a knockout: Midler, Stockard Channing, David Hyde Pierce, John Cleese, Amanda Peet and the incomparable Nathan Lane, an icon of the overlooked if ever there was one.
— Ryan Gilbey
Karyn Kusama, US, 2009
The simultaneous hype and opprobrium dealt out to star Megan Fox and writer Diablo Cody – as geek-combusting megababe and hipster queen respectively – rather swamped this film upon release. And with Hollywood groaning with come-of-age kids whose lives were changed by Heathers or Election or Mean Girls, a degree of fatigue now attends every perky parody of carnivorous high-school mores.
So, why favour this one? Because throw out all the packaging it came in, and it’s surprisingly eloquent about the pain of adolescence and the contradictions associated with female power. The near-erotic intensity of teenage female friendships; the death cult that reliably possesses sensitive boys and girls at a particular age; the can’t-win teen-girl conundrum of being equally derided for innocence and experience… Jennifer’s Body captures all of this with an eloquence that almost feels misplaced within its trashy trappings.
Sure, it’s got its silly bits and its horror effects and school slang will date as rapidly as these things do, but unlike Cody’s far more celebrated Juno – from which feelings were brutally excised to make way for witticisms – it’s frank, funny and empathetic about female identity-forming and the ravages of hormonal change.
— Hannah McGill
Adriano Celentano, Italy, 1985
Who would make a film like this today? It’s a monumental, monstrously expensive, madly inventive experimental musical about the Second Coming of a Christ who arrives into a world of violence, corruption and hypocrisy that looks strikingly like modern Italy, whose apostles are left-wingers of all kinds, and who’ll sing ’n’ dance it out with evil incarnate to save mankind from a fate it likely deserves. Only during the 1980s, that decade of decent mass enlightainment, could you pull one like this – and only if you were the last real European star, a pop-cultural axiom, a one-man industry/genre.
Joan Lui was a financial fiasco of singular proportions and critics were always too bland-brained to appreciate Celentano’s flamboyant genius. Today, one watches the film and weeps for all that lost greatness and kindness.
— the Ferroni Brigade
Niall Johnson, UK/US, 2005
Beautifully twisted and dark, not to mention utterly English, Niall Johnson’s understated comedy tells of a murderous old housekeeper (Maggie Smith) – a sort of inverted Mary Poppins – who pops up one day to take care of the dysfunctional family of a good-natured village vicar (Rowan Atkinson) who’s lost touch with his job, his wife (Kristin Scott Thomas) and his teenage daughter (Emilia Fox).
Blessed with a crisp, perfectly pitched script, much of the pleasure of Keeping Mum derives from watching an outstanding cast relishing a golden opportunity – including the late Patrick Swayze as a seedy American golf trainer. Atkinson and Thomas underplay and syncopate brilliantly around the overwhelming wit and charisma of Maggie Smith, who unsurprisingly steals the film.
There’s more than a nod to Ealing productions of yore, such as The Ladykillers, as the film plays skilfully with our expectations by delivering its shocking elements offhandedly and within a polite, decidedly English suburban milieu, while still managing to feel new and contemporary.
With sharp, ingenious comments on marriage, sex, old age and religion, the quiet affability of Keeping Mum’s surface subtly conceals a critical take on the small-village mentality, portrayed here as the true menace lurking within the disturbingly oppressive charm of a certain traditional Englishness. It definitely deserves cult status.
— Mar Diestro-Dópido
James Marsh, US/UK, 2005
Back in 2006 I was the only person to select James Marsh’s debut feature in my contribution to S&S’s films of the year poll and assumed my critical faculties had failed me. Others were not kind to The King; indeed Variety’s Todd McCarthy expressed particular distaste, condemning the film as “noxious” and “aggravating”, before taking Marsh to task for the film’s uneasy occupation of a middle ground between atmospheric emphasis and docudrama intensity.
Yet as 2008’s much-lauded Man on Wire has borne out, it’s precisely this quality that gives Marsh’s films their discomforting hold over us. Revisiting The King today, it’s remarkable how much Marsh’s Southern gothic prefigures another pair of critical hits from that year, namely No Country for Old Men and There Will be Blood. It was Marsh, not P.T. Anderson, who first connected the angular, earnest severity of Paul Dano with religious zealotry, casting him alongside Gael García Bernal as the Abel and Cain sons of a Texan preacher played by William Hurt (an underrated classic himself). It was his film, before the Coens’, that squeezed out an ophidian narrative that went nowhere we expected it to but that was constantly infused with the faint, nauseating stench of unfathomable evil.
The King is worth seeing for these reasons and many more, but especially for one indelible tracking shot that features towards the film’s end. It’s dreadful and gorgeous, and lingers with me even – perhaps especially – on the brightest of days.
— Catherine Wheatley
Alex Proyas, US, 2009
Critic Roger Ebert was – I think – the first person to review Knowing, and not long after his rave write-up appeared on the internet, a wave of vicious pans dismissing it as sub-Shyamalan hooey followed. This prompted Ebert to write a follow-up blog in which he restated his admiration. He admits that the plot of the film is preposterous (it’s wilfully distasteful too!), but to insist on its inconsistencies and pretentions is to ignore what makes the film so pleasurable and distinctive.
For one, there’s a neat dovetailing of theme and form, as it’s a film about hysteria that plays out at hysterical pitch. This is bolstered by the involvement of Nicolas Cage, who scurries about sweating, shouting, locked in his own private universe – the Kinski comparisons were there for the taking long before Bad Lieutenant. Cage plays a renegade astrophysicist sporting gravity-defying hair who discovers a series of numbers that prophesy an Old Testament-style day of reckoning.
In between National Treasure-style codebreaking waffle there are extraordinarily vivid and disturbing scenes of catastrophe: one in which Cage surveys the appalling wreckage of a recently crashed passenger plane evokes Andrei Rublev observing the brutality of the Tartar invasion of Vladimir. How many popcorn movies can you say that about?
— David Jenkins
Nick Castle, US, 1984
Deemed in its day a mere Star Wars clone, Castle’s charming and uplifting wish-fulfilment adventure for teenage boys has all the panache of the Lucas/Spielberg adventure that inspired it but with an added freshness of tone.
Put-upon trailer-park teen Alex is whisked off into space to fight an alien armada, after proving his skills on an arcade game that he didn’t know was the intergalactic equivalent of a job interview. Jonathan Betuel’s witty script boasts robust cameos for Robert Preston and Dan O’Herlihy as unlikely aliens, romantic comedy (Alex’s robot replacement on earth twitching amusingly at girlfriend Maggie’s attentions) and a twist that brings good out of our hero’s initial reluctance to fight (“Save the whales but not the universe?”).
Grounded in credible atmosphere, with amiable leads, imaginative visual effects and Craig Safan’s beautiful score, the film (one of the first to be entirely computer generated) soars above the sum of its parts.
— Patrick Fahy
Marco Schnabel, US, 2008
Describing a “new low” for Hollywood comedy, S&S reviewer Michael Atkinson was mystified by The Love Guru’s flat jokes, declaring it “a thumbscrew experience”. I get the feeling he may not have liked it. I like it.
Mike Myers reminds me of Jerry Lewis. Like his misunderstood predecessor, Myers follows his comedy wherever it takes him, however bewildering it may be; regardless of the critics, he dares to be silly. Undaunted by the seeming permanence of a Hollywood movie, he showcases slight material others might think twice about for a late-night sketch show.
Undeniably, The Love Guru is hit-and-miss stuff. Yes, it includes a bizarre restaging of the pop video for Extreme’s ‘More Than Words’, but it is precisely this kind of mind-boggling non-sequitur that makes this a genuinely surprising film.
Buried deep within this dangerous shambles is Myers’s self-centred comedic one-man show; writing, starring, powering the film with his ego, he ensures that somewhere, amid the mass of material that doesn’t come off, erupts the occasional brilliant joke.
— Vic Pratt
Robert Mulligan, US, 1991
On its release, veteran director Robert Mulligan’s final film bypassed audiences, while critics largely derided it as sentimental. At a time when teen movies meant classroom hierarchies, prom woes and a script full of catchy one-liners, Mulligan’s gentle coming-of-age melodrama must have seemed the kind of film your dad would make. And yet the anguish of unrequited love was just as tenderly sketched by Mulligan in 1950s rural Louisiana as it was by Hughes and co in the corridors of an urban high school.
Reese Witherspoon – in her debut role – carries the film as Dani, a 14-year-old tomboy who ditches Elvis to pine over the boy next door, 17-year-old Court. The languorous summer setting (lyrically shot by Freddie Francis) makes it all feel like a memory, while Dani’s tentative flirtation with Court is just the right mixture of goofy and adorable. But then, just after their first kiss, what you’ve feared all along will happen does happen. Bewitched by her older sister, Court doesn’t even look at Dani and heartbreak is administered in the most casual of phrases: “Goodbye kid.”
— Isabel Stevens
Allen Hughes, Albert Hughes, US, 1993
This film divided critics, not least in the UK, where its depiction of violence among amoral Watts teenagers was regarded as offensively one note.
Boyz N the Hood (1991) was the crowning glory of a new cycle of urban gangster movies and, to some, Menace II Society marked a downturn in the genre towards mindless glorified violence. And yes, it is brutal, episodic and one note, but then the lifestyle the film depicts is vicious, directionless and emotionally stunted.
Without the moral guidance of Boyz’s father figures, the Menace teens have no sense of right or wrong. Ruthlessly blasting away innocent strangers but tongue-tied in the presence of grandparents, these gangsters aren’t striving to reach the top of the world, they just want to survive it.
— Dylan Cave
Martin Brest, US, 1988
No buddy movie ever got as close to poetry as Martin Brest’s Midnight Run. Smarter than 48 Hours, jazzier than Lethal Weapon and more profane than Stakeout, the film – about a bounty hunter (Robert De Niro) charged with bringing in an accountant (Charles Grodin) on the run from the Mob – ticked all the high-concept boxes required by 1980s cocaine-fuelled Hollywood executives.
Car chases, exploding helicopters and equally inept Mafia hitmen and FBI officers punctuate a relentlessly simple story elevated to near perfection by George Gallo’s eminently quotable screenplay.
Featuring career-best work from Brest – just watch the director’s later Meet Joe Black as evidence – and featuring a supporting cast having so much fun they almost let Yaphet Kotto’s sunglasses run away with the film, Midnight Run ultimately belongs to Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin. Their exchanges as the chain-smoking, ulcer-suffering Jack Walsh and the deceptively whiny Jonathan ‘The Duke’ Mardukas resemble a bullfight on ice. “I suffer from aviaphobia… I also suffer from acrophobia and claustrophobia,” Mardukas informs Walsh at one point. “If you don’t cooperate, you’re gonna suffer from fistophobia,” comes the inevitable reply.
— Ali Jaafar
Oguri Kôhei, 1981, Japan
Despite him winning the Jury prize at Cannes for The Sting of Death(1990) Oguri is a relatively unknown director in the West. Rarely seen in recent years, his debut is one of the finest Japanese releases of its decade, and was nominated for an Oscar following its North American release in 1982.
Set in Osaka in the mid-1950s, following the departure of the Allied Occupation troops, this independent low-budget gem depicts the unconditional friendship between the young son of a noodle bar owner and the similarly-aged son of a common prostitute who plies her trade from a barge moored on the riverside next to his parent’s restaurant.
Beautifully shot in monochrome, it portrays the complex world of adult human relations through the purity of a child’s eye perspective in a series of subtly realised and touching scenes that recalls Ozu – or, to be more accurate, the outsider milieux of Ozu’s contemporary Shimizu Hiroshi.
— Jasper Sharp
Robert Altman, US, 1985
How is it possible that a film whose entire narrative is framed as a prolonged crank call to Gabon’s then-president Omar Bongo is not a mainstay of the retro/cult screening circuit? Altman’s pungent, unloved satire – about two aberrant hipster high-schoolers and the summer they spend terrorising the right-wing, nouveau-riche suburbanite Schwab family – not only repays repeated viewing but almost demands it with its ultra-scathing humour and typical ‘controlled chaos’ structure.
Leisurewear’d patriarch Randall Schwab (Paul Dooley), head of Arizona’s Schwab Insurance, makes a hell of a hate figure, citing “drinking” and “the continent of Africa” as personal bugbears on his hilariously shonky, western-inspired television infomercial.
Though one might view the film as a more sophisticated, less winsome retooling of John Hughes’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), it’s more in the anarchic spirit of Nashville or Brewster McCloud, and Altman clearly has no time for learning, trusting, bonding, growing or symbolically taking a boot to daddy’s Ferrari: O.C. and Stiggs celebrates teenagers as wild, impulsive, obstructive, obnoxious and politically astute, thereby making a complete mockery of the so-called teen movie.
— David Jenkins
Carl Franklin, US, 1998
Nothing is harder to do and given less critical respect than films that successfully offer honest emotions in a mainstream way. Maybe it’s because failed attempts at these kinds of pictures can be marred by contrived and mechanical sentimentality, maybe it’s because it is too easy to denigrate them as ‘women’s pictures’ in the rush to celebrate, say, the latest horror auteur. But viewers who revisit films like One True Thing will find that this family drama starring Meryl Streep, Renée Zellweger and William Hurt is above all a human story, honest and compassionate about its characters and accessible to anyone willing to feel.
Though his background was in darker films such as One False Move and Devil in a Blue Dress, Franklin and screenwriter Karen Croner (working from the Anna Quindlen novel) understood that the complexity of personal relationships is the most compelling of subjects. Their belief in the power of simple things, the transcendent nature of the ordinary, is riveting. By exercising restraint, One True Thing creates the space necessary for audiences to react fully, allowing us the freedom to step forward and embrace the emotion, making it completely our own.
— Kenneth Turan
Volker Schlöndorff, US/Germany, 1998
Volker Schlöndorff’s foray into film noir, loosely based on a James Hadley Chase novel, is on the self-conscious side. Schlöndorff’s admiration for Billy Wilder is well chronicled and at times in Palmetto he tries a little too hard to emulate Wilder’s Double Indemnity.
The critics excoriated the film, with Variety calling it a “routine exercise” in “noir-by-numbers”. Nonetheless, the film delivers exactly what it promises – namely sex, murder and mayhem.
Woody Harrelson is enjoyably venal, confused and easily swayed as the reporter just released from jail after trying to expose wrongdoing.
The stickiness of the overheated Florida setting accentuates the lust and corruption of the characters, while Schlöndorff throws in all the elements you’d expect – the garish femme fatale (Elisabeth Shue), the precocious stepdaughter (Chloë Sevigny) and a wildly overdetermined plot. What makes the film effective and enjoyable is the skilful way it balances irony and self-mocking humour with hardboiled genre elements.
— Geoffrey Macnab
David N. Twohy, US, 2009
A Perfect Getaway’s set-up is as simple as its resolution is devious (and the title is dull). Two young couples team up while they are hiking perilous trails through the Hawaiian wilderness towards a remote beach, paranoid with rumours of a recent thrill-killing in Honolulu.
Narrative information is filtered through the yuppie couple, Cydney and Cliff (Milla Jovovich and Steve Zahn), and the viewer shares their suspicions, which first land on a roughneck couple of hitchhikers, and then on their new travelling companions, Gina and Nick (Kiele Sanchez and Timothy Olyphant). Everything about macho Nick is dodgy; he seems a compulsive liar who spins yarns about his exploits as a “goddamn American Jedi” in Special Ops and imagines himself played by Nicolas Cage in a biopic (complete with impersonation). Perfectly tuned performances sustain the movie. Olyphant excels at amiable intimidation, while Zahn, his shapeshifting physique revealed strategically by writer-director Twohy, more than fulfils his half of their territory-marking contest.
A Perfect Getaway also entertains a quiet subtext of class anxiety. Just tumble with the final rug-pull and appreciate the pleasures of its well-turned sleight of hand.
— Nick Pinkerton
David Gordon Green, US, 2008
In 2008, a mainstream wind blew through the American independent scene. Even director Peter Sollett, who had shone with Raising Victor Vargas (2000), began filming New York from a West Coast viewpoint, having swapped Victor Vargas’s unknown teenagers from the Lower East Side for rising star Michael Cera in Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist.
That same year, Pineapple Express mixed several genres in a cocktail unfairly dismissed as facile when the film actually radicalises every genre it touches. In the hands of the Superbad writing team of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg the buddy-movie aspect, for instance, plays up the blatant homosexual subtext to a declaration of friendship from weed dealer James Franco to unwitting murder witness Seth Rogen in the woods: “You know how they say, ‘Don’t dip your pen in company ink?’ Well, I’m totally glad I dipped my pen in your ink.”
The stoner-movie aspect is also subverted; joint smoking would generally justify the characters’ delirious state but here they are constantly drawn back to reality.
Pineapple Express finally becomes an action film in a climactic assault on a vast marijuana plantation by “the Asians”. It’s the most mainstream aspect of the film, but is followed by an epilogue in which Red, a common ally of the heroes who received a stomach injury yet came back to save them, shares a diner breakfast with them and pledges his friendship as a “BFFF” (Best Fucking Friend Forever). He is still bleeding profusely but, like the effects of the “pineapple express” [a powerful marijuana strain], those of genre quickly dissipate, leaving these immature teenagers stuck between childhood and a golden age.
— Charlotte Garson
John Byrum, US, 1984
Unpredictable and freakishly sad, this all-but-unseen Somerset Maugham adaptation, a vanity project for Bill Murray (his reward for the Ghostbusters franchise), remains one of the most disquieting, off-kilter movies of the Reagan administration, a portrait of spiritual craving lit up by an irrational warmth but also spiked by money-zombie class-war satire not too far from Fassbinder’s Whity, and by Murray’s irrepressible lapses into hyper-irony, arriving in flashes and making Margaret Dumonts out of the rest of the cast.
This might be the best Larry Darrell we’ll ever have, equal parts deadpan clown, genuinely befuddled nowhere man and utter mystery; in other words, he is a complete person, running with his very private devils. Murray’s sense of lostness gives the film extra dimensions – is it Murray, Darrell or both running so awkwardly for the foxhole in the war scenes? Is that persistent throat-lump signal representative of the actor’s unease or the character’s?
Director John Byrum, perhaps inadvertently, imbues the movie with the buzz of an elegiac fever-dream, but it’s the disarming details, from Murray/Darrell’s mocking seal impersonation to his cheek-press against his murdered lover’s lips in a Paris morgue, that stick in the memory like little heartbreaks.
— Michael Atkinson
Walter Murch, US, 1985
I was the target demographic when Return to Oz was released: bored on holiday at the seaside (outside the cinema there was a promotional tour bus with a wind-up Tik-Tok) and far too young to get the alternately camp and tragic associations attached to the original The Wizard of Oz (1939).
Murch’s adaptation of two later books in the Oz series was as brilliant a nightmare as you’d expect from the editor of Apocalypse Now and The Conversation. Not that I knew that then; I was simply deliciously scared of Princess Mombi’s gallery of heads, of the shrieking Wheelers (Murch’s sound design coming up trumps) and of the implacable Nome King. There’s no kindly wizard here, only a resourceful, wide-eyed, firmly non-singing Dorothy and her talking chicken Billina.
Handed a $25 million budget by Disney, Murch made some odd decisions, chicken and electroshock therapy included. The film tanked in the US, but – proof of a true cult classic – it’s the subject of fan documentary, Return to Oz: The Joy That Got Away (2007), and it launched the wild career of its young star Fairuza Balk, Hollywood’s first goth outsider chick.
— So Mayer
John Frankenheimer, US, 1998
When I first saw Ronin, it answered a deep need. When the Ronin archetype was later fed wholesale into The Bourne Identity, it seemed that this need was widespread.
My appetite for this kind of thriller comes partly from Melville – his compelling worlds of bleak, wordless, professional machismo – and partly from all those cool television series I grew up with like Danger Man, The Saint and The Avengers.
Ronin, though, is nothing like as self-aware. It’s a simple rogue-heist-gang set-up, with an IRA cell hiring mercenaries to steal a macguffin before the Russians get it.
Frankenheimer favoured conspiracy thrillers set in colour-bled historic European backgrounds (see Year of the Gun, 1991) but Ronin feels like the happiest of accidents.
De Niro, as the former CIA man, was supposed to be coasting his latter-day career, but being paired with twinkly Jean Reno seemed to wake him up and showed what a responsive team player he could be when surrounded by the flavourful likes of Stellan Skarsgård, Jonathan Pryce, Sean Bean, Michael Lonsdale and the coltish Natascha McElhone.
And there’s that outstanding car chase through Nice with De Niro and Reno flying in a bronze Mercedes 450 SEL 6.9. Something about Ronin makes you watch it with your foot rammed into an imaginary accelerator. “Draw it again. It’s a simple diagram, draw it again.”
— Nick James
Floria Sigismondi, US, 2010
The Runaways is that rare bird, a female coming-of-age movie. This fact, plus its 15 certificate, the box-office curse of being a biopic and some sniffy reviews (cinematographer Thomas Townend described first-time writer-director Sigismondi as having “the structural sensibilities of a spider on LSD”) resulted in a film that was overlooked by nearly everyone.
Real-life fragile dreamer Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) is plucked from the dance floor of Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco in mid-1970s LA by impresario Kim Fowley (Michael Shannon) to join the phenomenal Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) in a barely legal, attitude-heavy all-girl rock band. The Runaways hit the road to play support in a string of dive bars, but with Fowley forever at the twisted end of a telephone wire they’re soon signed to Mercury and making it big in Japan. Unable to walk the line between entertainment, experimentation and exploitation, Cherie cracks and everything falls apart – while Jett goes on to record the anthem that sold ten million copies, ‘I Love Rock ’n’ Roll’.
George Hickenlooper’s documentary Mayor of the Sunset Strip (2003) shows how close The Runaways is to the real-life spirit and look of its subject. Sigismondi was influenced by such true-life music/drug features as Christiane F. (1981) and Sid and Nancy (1986), and was stylistically inspired by characteristic 1970s filmmaking. It’s also easy to see connections with the work of John Waters, as well as with similarly overlooked cult movies such as Rock ’n’ Roll High School (1979). With all this, plus a killer soundtrack (Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Suzi Quatro, the Sex Pistols – and a sensitive moment with Don McLean), I’m just so glad that The Runaways is out there waiting to find its audience. It’s a real blast.
— Jane Giles
Brad Anderson, US, 2001
American genre-whizz Anderson is the definition of underappreciated. With the sole exception of The Machinist (2004), his films have all struggled to achieve a release in cinemas outside the US. For Session 9, a single-location psych-horror creep-out that has since achieved cult status, this fate seems especially undeserved.
Peter Mullan does tremendous, nuanced work as the harassed foreman of an asbestos cleaning crew who take a cut-rate job clearing out an abandoned mental asylum and find the history and decrepit emptiness of the place affecting them more then they’d like to admit.
Anderson, who co-scripted with cast member Stephen Gevedon, makes the mounting dread of their discoveries – including hokey but unnerving tape recordings of a former patient with multiple personality disorder – interestingly oblique motors for suspense, while the fraying work ethic gives David Caruso, Josh Lucas and Brendan Sexton some good, panicked moments.
The movie’s inspiration and real star is the location itself – the actual, abandoned Danvers State Hospital, a winged red-brick bat of a building, gutted and dank, which squats on a hill outside Boston. Like the Saltair amusement park in Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962), it’s a place that summons its own ghosts the second we’re inside.
— Tim Robey
Linda Feferman, US, 1985
On the production side of this film, only Fred Roos and Zoetrope will ring a bell with cinephiles; from the cast, only Jennifer Connelly has fulfilled the promise she showed as a teenager. But Seven Minutes in Heaven is one of many modest 1980s gems that reminds us of a brief flowering in genre-driven creativity that was neither mainstream nor indie and that gave opportunities to many women to make what turned out to be their only feature films.
Natalie (Connelly), Jeff (Byron Thames) and Polly (Maddie Corman) are ordinary teens, not much past puberty. They argue with their parents, struggle with school assignments and wonder about love and sex. Director and co-writer Feferman lightly disrupts the patterns of their lives in order to engineer ambiguous, exploratory, liminal moments: Jeff sleeps over at Natalie’s place after running away from home, while Polly heads off to a big city to pursue a rock star she reveres.
Nothing more momentous than a bit of kissing happens, and the film delivers nothing more cathartic than a smile and a group-skate. But Seven Minutes in Heaven is at every moment charming, witty and playful.
— Adrian Martin
Dave Bruckner, Jacob Gentry & Dan Bush, US, 2007
On New Year’s Eve in a city called Terminus, society descends into chaos as televisions, radios and cellphones emit a signal that unfetters people’s ids, leading to madness and murder. Yet such pandemonium merely forms the apocalyptic background to this low-budget indie, where the tempestuous psychodynamics of a love triangle are presented in three linked episodes (or ‘transmissions’), each made by a different writer-director, each told from a different character’s point of view, and each boasting a radically different style and tone, from slasher thriller to black farce to mind-melting pathos.
With its split-personality approach to narrative and its disorienting presentation of unreliable perspectives, The Signal draws viewers right into its delirium, messing with our mood response and manipulating our fears and desires. This reflexive confusion of medium and message offers a bludgeoning interrogation of the impact that the video image can have on humanity’s fragile psyche.
Updating George A. Romero’s The Crazies (1973) for the digital age far more imaginatively than Breck Eisner’s 2010 remake, this terrifying, funny and haunting film merits several viewings.
— Anton Bitel
David Mamet, US, 2003
There was a time when David Mamet’s scripts for The Untouchables and Glengarry Glen Ross – hell, even Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin’s outward-bound shouting match The Edge – were filling out the multiplexes, while as a director he was also holding the arthouse crowd rapt with such spare, formalist, precision-tooled gems as House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner.
Then people just didn’t seem so interested any more. It’s a shame because arguably his best work came after those glory days: in Heist’s long-con machismo, in the genre-expanding fight club of Redbelt, and in overlooked secret service drama Spartan.
An outwardly simple political thriller in which Val Kilmer’s Delta Force-type goes rogue to rescue the president’s daughter, Spartan is so aware of it’s own boiled-down purity and flinty meticulousness that it ought to buckle under its own weight.
Thanks to Mamet’s seasoned deceit, the weights and measures of genre expectation are balanced into so delicate an equilibrium that any unexpected shift in plot or character swings the film into arcs of geometric unpredictability and on towards a shattering conclusion.
— Adam Lee Davies
Mark Romanek, US, 1985
When Mark Romanek directed One Hour Photo (2002), it tended to be seen as the music video maven’s first feature, an impression the director himself tried to foster, though when I interviewed him about Static in 1985, he seemed justifiably pleased with how it had turned out.
Co-scripted by star Keith Gordon, who was about to embark on his own undervalued but fascinating career as a director (The Chocolate War, A Midnight Clear, Mother Night and Waking the Dead also fit this list), it’s a strange story about an inventor who develops a machine to “make people happy, not sad”, which turns out to be a television set that shows Heaven.
It has a Lynch-like feel for the small-town bizarre, as represented by the protagonist’s odd day job (weeding defective crucifixes out of a production line for religious artefacts) and the sunstruck desert Christmas backdrop.
The film is bewildering, sometimes close to whimsical, but its wit, humanity and unique outlook stay in the mind. You can tell how skewed from normality the picture is because Amanda Plummer, usually typecast as a loon, plays the anchor of sanity in this world.
— Kim Newman
Walter Hill, US, 1984
Hill is justly celebrated for The Driver (1978) and The Warriors (1979), but Streets of Fire has fallen through the cracks.
The picture is like a rock ’n’ roll song played out in comic-strip panels; it shares key DNA with Alphaville and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, Dick Tracy and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.
Set in a nocturnal, neon-singed and studio-bound 1950s city that resembles a giant Americana gift shop (diners, leather jackets, elevated subways, motorcycles), it’s rendered with a 1980s style and saltiness, much as Far from Heaven would later bring 21st-century explicitness to Sirkian melodrama.
The characters here are mere stereotypes: the lone warrior, the chanteuse, the biker. Acting is manifestly not required, though Willem Dafoe, as the cadaverous villain, does some anyway.
The movie’s pulpy joy lies in its loving distillation of decades of US pop-culture myth-making into 90 rhapsodic minutes.
— Ryan Gilbey
Rob Reiner, US, 1985
Released at the high point of the 1980s teen-movie boom, this warm, well-crafted and unexpectedly winning film has been overshadowed in the collective memory by the John Hughes/Cameron Crowe monopoly on high-quality youth dramas.
Buried beneath the kind of leering title obligatory in that era and the Porky’s-style marketing is a classical Hollywood three-act romantic comedy. It adroitly reworks Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) as a college road trip, replete with crisp battle-of-the-sexes banter, beer-shotgunning and, unusually for then and now, a couple punching at the same weight.
John Cusack’s Gib, hitching cross-country to a fabled trophy girl at UCLA while bickering his way into love with Daphne Zuniga’s uptight classmate Alison, is the first and one of the best portrayals of the wisecracking, insecure outsider he incarnated in the 1980s.
Reiner’s character-based humour makes The Sure Thing the smartly comic counterpart to the adolescent angst of Crowe’s Say Anything (1989), the frolicking script giving off an authentic tang of freshman confusion over first moves and first love.
It’s a movie that’s funny, insightful and rueful about youth’s conflicts between sex and love, a trifecta eluding its crasser contemporaries that were hell-bent on frisky business.
— Kate Stables
Josh Gordon & Will Speck, US, 2010
The Switch was buried on release by films on the same theme: the critically acclaimed The Kids Are All Right and forgettable Jennifer Lopez vehicle The Back-up Plan. And what could be more insulting than the premise that star Jennifer Aniston, being too plain to get a date, has recourse to a sperm donor? Yet this turkey-baster romcom deserves critical respect.
As the lovelorn best friend who drunkenly switches his sperm with that of the dumb hunk employed by Aniston’s character, Jason Bateman is as smart and funny as he was on television’s Arrested Development. Bateman, for once allowed leading-man status, reinvents the New York neurotic as a troubled but sexy update of Woody Allen.
Playing the requisite sidekicks with more skill than the roles require are a dignified Jeff Goldblum and a riotous Juliette Lewis. Aniston lends surprising dignity to a role that could have played into her tabloid image as she-who-gets-dumped.
A sharp script and deft direction lead to an unconvincing happy ending. But The Switch is proof that the dumbest premise, if treated with wit and style, can produce a sharp and moving experience.
— Paul Julian Smith
Tom Hanks, US, 1996
Sweetness has never been a highly prized celluloid quality. We want bleak, we crave conflict. In that respect, it’s not easy to make a case for Tom Hanks’s sole feature credit as writer-director, a rites of passage tale involving a one-hit pop band circa 1964, which remains defiantly cheery even as the boys blow their chance at the big time.
While Hanks himself is sometimes avuncular, sometimes shark-like as the Play-Tone Records exec who spots potential pay dirt in youthful beat combo The Wonders, and Johnathon Schaech’s ego-driven frontman supplies the plot reversals, the movie’s most invested in Tom Everett Scott’s drummer, who amiably learns that the journey is about more than the destination. He’s gangly and likeable in the John Gordon Sinclair mould, and there’s something Forsythian about the film too, always alive to the telling diversion (including Bill Cobbs as a passing jazz legend and Rita Wilson’s warm-hearted waitress).
No, it’s not exactly a cliché-free zone, but the period feel is bright and breezy, the charm factor not inconsiderable and the whole thing just puts a smile on your face even after numerous viewings. Maybe not one to admire: it’s one to love.
— Trevor Johnston
Danny Devito, US, 1987
With this film, The War of the Roses (1989) and Death to Smoochy (2002), Danny Devito carved out a niche as a director of the cinematic equivalents of 98 per cent chocolate: bitter as hell but delicious all the same.
In this riff on Strangers on a Train, he casts Billy Crystal as Larry, an also-ran writer whose ex-wife is the latest literary hot potato, and himself as Owen, put-upon son to a monstrous mother and Larry’s least promising writing student. Grabbing the wrong end of the stick, Owen sets in motion a criss-cross murder plot that has Larry aghast then intrigued.
There’s plenty of enjoyment to be mined from the deliriously accelerating plot and miscommunications but the film is also painfully alive to the frustrations of the creative process and family obligation, frustrations that dovetail with exquisite intolerability in Anne Ramsey’s Momma, nonchalantly dripping mots justes from one corner of her mouth and guilt trips from the other.
— Ben Walters
Ron Shelton, US, 1996
Tin Cup is no more about golf than Raging Bull is about boxing. And if we accept that Robert De Niro’s Jake LaMotta is a portrait of male anger, impotence and self-loathing, then how about Kevin Costner’s Roy ‘Tin Cup’ McAvoy as the half-celebratory, half-appalled apotheosis of the middle-aged, Middle American man-child in all his narcissistic vainglory?
Writer-director Shelton is pigeonholed as ‘the sports-movie guy’, but he looks to Peckinpah as his benchmark, and he’s as close as we’ve come to a latter-day Howard Hawks. Another analogue is Michael Mann, if you substitute bats and balls for guns and sports cars, self-mocking humour for earnest self-importance, and the sexual cut-and-thrust of screwball banter for moody silences.
All Shelton’s films (they include White Men Can’t Jump, Cobb and Dark Blue) are worth seeing and, with the exception of Bull Durham, they have all been underrated.
The poky, lopsided Tin Cup may not be his masterpiece, but as a paean to the poetry of bullshit and the romance of failure it stands way out on its own.
— Tom Charity
George P. Cosmatos, US, 1993
Kevin Jarre wrote a superlative script about the 1881 Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and the ensuing Cochise County War, wherein Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday revenged themselves on the cowboy faction that had killed Morgan Earp and wounded Virgil Earp. Jarre started to direct the film too, but was quickly fired, allegedly for not thinking visually. Cosmatos replaced him, occasioning walkouts and more dismissals, and Kurt Russell, cast as Wyatt, supervised the slashing of Jarre’s opus by 29 pages.
A structural mess focusing on an oddly directionless protagonist, the film has neither the noirish claustrophobia or psychological complexity of My Darling Clementine (John Ford’s mythical Earp classic), nor the dreariness of Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp (which was planned as a Tombstone spoiler). But if Cosmatos went overboard in the gothic sequence that culminates in Wyatt’s hysteria at Morgan’s assassination, he also brought buckets of panache to the saga, which plays as a seething frontier Godfather and surely helped to seed Deadwood.
Val Kilmer is mesmerising as the ice-cool, tubercular Doc, especially brilliant when mocking with a silver whisky cup the flashy pistol-twirling of Johnny Ringo (Michael Biehn).
— Graham Fuller
Walter Hill, US, 1992
Hill came to the forefront of Hollywood directors in the 1970s with a succession of laconic, stylised action movies in the tradition of Walsh, Hawks and Siegel, though his work is also indebted to Melville and Peckinpah. His later films failed to find popular or critical favour, though his television work, most notably the defining first episode of Deadwood (2004) and the mini-series Broken Trails (2006), are highly regarded.
However, in the early 1990s he made three movies, the thriller Trespass and the westerns Geronimo (1993) and Wild Bill (1995): all remarkable, yet little remarked on. Trespass was initially withheld from distribution after the 1992 LA riots, and while the script is credited to Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis, it’s unmistakably a Hill movie and ranks with his best.
Bill Paxton and William Sadler play Arkansas firemen drawn to run-down post-industrial East St Louis by a map recording a precious cache of loot long hidden in an abandoned factory. The building is unfortunately the secret HQ of drug dealers, and a violent running battle ensues. It’s a clever conflation of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Treasure Island in a modern urban setting, and the tension never lets up. Ry Cooder’s score is outstanding.
— Philip French
Two Idiots in Hollywood
Stephen Tobolowsky, US, 1988
The VHS years produced such an immense raft of slipshod, speculative awfulness that it’s tempting to consign the whole lot to the dump. However, buried within this decade-long barge of bilge were such odd and fiery nuggets as this cracked comedy.
The story revolves around the relocation of a couple of fortysomething defectives from Dayton, Ohio to the ashy tract housing of east LA.
Tobolowsky (best known as the terminally annoying insurance salesman Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day and for writing True Stories with David Byrne) nudges the misaligned satellites of unchecked idiocy and cinematic daring towards an event horizon of structural audacity and breakneck cutting that glimmers impressively with dark shards of self-reflexive wit and curves along a mean bend of narrative pliancy. So the film transmutes its back-alley production values and ragged conception into a magnetic aria that will astound those attuned to such funky stuff.
The ghosts of William Castle, Godard and Woody Allen are all honoured in a film that manages to be both shockingly amusing and amusingly shocking.
— Adam Lee Davies
Jonathan Kaplan, US, 1992
Unlawful Entry was one of a number of yuppie-in-peril films that came out in the early 1990s. Its director Jonathan Kaplan, best known for The Accused, was a graduate of the Roger Corman school of exploitation fare (he made The Student Teachers and Night Call Nurses for Corman). He has gone on to work extensively in television drama. Kaplan has made some duds along the way (for example, Bad Girls) but he is a prime example of a director who brings intensity and artistry to genre work.
Unlawful Entry stars Kurt Russell and Madeleine Stowe as the yuppie couple and Ray Liotta (fresh from his triumph in Goodfellas) as the deranged cop who terrorises them. Kaplan skilfully ratchets up the tension and the film plays like a companion piece to Scorsese’s version of Cape Fear, with a larger-than-life villain preying on clean-cut protagonists.
However, alongside the predictable genre elements, the film touches on deeper issues: the corruption of the LAPD (the film was made around the time of the Rodney King case) and the creeping uncertainty and anxiety of white, middle-class America in the face of the big, bad world beyond its heavily protected homes.
— Geoffrey Macnab
Blake Edwards, UK, 1982
Blake Edwards rarely had his just desserts. When he died last year, obituaries were scarcely better than respectful, and David Thomson in his The Biographical Dictionary of Film is downright dismissive. Though Edwards was highly rated by Movie magazine in the mid-1960s, the consensus is that his later career was a huge disappointment. But there are gems, always with strong performances (Edwards was originally an actor): Peter Sellers in The Party (1968), Dudley Moore in 10 (1979) and Kim Basinger in Blind Date (1987), all genuinely funny films.
And then there is Victor Victoria, starring Edwards’s wife Julie Andrews. The film is a dazzling exploration of gender-bending, with Andrews never better in the title role as a woman passing as a man who is a female impersonator.
Edwards’s movie is a remake of a remake, having been first a German release of 1933 (Vicktor und Viktoria), then a British musical of 1935 starring Jessie Matthews (First a Girl). The director sets his film in Paris in the 1930s, with Robert Preston (quite wonderful) playing the gay lover of ‘Victor’ and James Garner as the gangster who falls for her (or is it him?). At times one can get quite dizzy trying to find solid ground as Andrews slips in and out of the sexes (and occasionally in and out of her clothes).
— Edward Buscombe
M. Night Shyamalan, US, 2004
It’s hard now to imagine a time when Shyamalan wasn’t a synonym for vainglorious myth-making buffoonery – and yet the genuinely surprising understatement of his quasi-debut The Sixth Sense had some critics invoking Henry James. His fourth film as a genre specialist, The Village,was the last convincing thing he has made, and its exoticism and perversity mark it out as an audacious anomaly among Hollywood genre films.
On its release, viewers – watching for the signature Shyamalan Twist – prided themselves on having out-guessed the premise from the start, but that’s not the point. Packing a double twist that addressed the nature of deception and our willingness to be deceived (by filmmakers and politicians alike), Shyamalan’s parable of hysterical insularity offers a baroque representation of the American national psyche and its roots.
The film’s neo-Lovecraftian fancies – its pop evocation of a Nathaniel Hawthorne past, its bizarre woodland creatures, its hugely eccentric recasting of Little Red Riding Hood as a Waif in Yellow – make The Village as powerfully visual a piece of storytelling as has been produced in Hollywood in recent years, its parable-like simplicity a bewitching anomaly in an age of crowd-pleasing false complexity.
— Jonathan Romney
Po-Chih Leong, UK, 1998
A deceptively quiet British vampire movie, directed by Po-Chih Leong, which deconstructs the odd relationship between vampire and victim that has become fetishised in the subsequent ‘vampire romance’ craze.
Bulgarian immigrant Steven Grlscz (Jude Law), apparently a wealthy medical researcher, is a one-of-a-kind mutant (“a mistake… a crocodile who needs a job”) who feeds on crystalline substances (akin to kidney stones) created in his lover-victims’ blood by their emotional reactions to him. Law (always best cast as non-humans) underplays effectively as the unusual monster, trapped in a cycle of love and betrayal that forces him to share (literally) the feelings of the women (Kerry Fox, Elina Löwensohn) he kills. Timothy Spall is the policeman who thinks having no vowels in a name ought to be illegal, and gets close to seeing what the monster is.
British-born Leong, who made Hong Kong movies before this and has subsequently been a direct-to-DVD hired hand for Steven Seagal and Wesley Snipes, seems a little influenced by Peter Greenaway in the use of throwaway art direction to characterise the protagonist, with Löwensohn shocked in the vampire’s lair not by a coffin or a corpse but by a wall of pencil sketches of his previous victims.
— Kim Newman
Women of the Night
Zalman King, US, 1999
King is generally regarded (perhaps by individuals who haven’t actually seen his films) as a purveyor of cheap sleaze for the softcore porn market. But for me, the five features he directed during the 1990s comprise an unbroken series of masterpieces: Blue Movie Blue (1991), Delta of Venus (1995), Shame, Shame, Shame (1998), In God’s Hands(1998) and Women of the Night.
The last of these is an insanely ambitious work that tells its complex story – about a blind female disc jockey who narrates three interconnected tales, and is herself part of a tale being narrated by another DJ – in an elliptical manner that’s strikingly Godardian, with voiceovers and editing that reduce the various narrative components to their most basic elements (“fire, sirens, cops, jail”).
Wildly mixing arthouse abstractions, music video stylistics, ironic gangster action and unironic romance, while advertising itself as a piece of commercial erotica, this is a film so totally hidden from our cultural guardians that it feels free to be virtually anything, including a traditional melodrama whose aesthetic fragmentation reflects the fragmentation of those long-lost communal audiences that once flocked to see the melodramas of Sirk, Minnelli, Vidor and Preminger.
— Brad Stevens
Mike Nichols, US, 1988
In an era of big schemes and bigger hair, this 1988 romantic comedy was a high point for actress Melanie Griffith. As baby-voiced, ambitiously scheming knockout Tess McGill she has echoes of Marilyn Monroe in her best comedies. But far from the gold-digger of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Tess – a Manhattan corporate secretary – uses canny smarts not vampishness to get ahead. Wonderfully, the film doesn’t see this as a reason to repress her sex appeal.
In a mischievous affirmation of all forms of female power, she says: “I have a head for business and a bod for sin. Is there anything wrong with that?” The recipient of this famous line is investment big-wig Jack Trainer (Harrison Ford) in a hilarious meet-cute scene at a merger party, where she’s accidentally sozzled through mixing valium and tequila. The film’s buoyant with such screwball situations and witty dialogue, as she steals the identity of conniving boss Katharine (Sigourney Weaver), who’s attempting to pass off Tess’s deal idea as her own.
The film came out just a year after Wall Street, and is similar in not condemning ballsy capitalist ambition itself, just unscrupulousness as opposed to honest graft. When Tess finally gets her own office – and secretary – she makes it clear she hasn’t forgotten her Staten Island working-class roots, and in camaraderie with her assistant won’t be expecting her to fetch her coffee. It’s a simple Hollywood fairytale, but in its irreverent, sassy take on gender politics, a bracing one.
— Carmen Gray
Harold Ramis, US, 2009
If Jack Black is in a movie, I’ll gladly part with $10 to see it with an audience. Make that $30, because my sons are always eager to join me.
At this point, he seems to be suffering from a backlash. I find this mysterious, because as far as I’m concerned he doesn’t make enough movies. Zach Galifianakis is the one who needs a break.
Come to think of it, I would gladly trade the collected works of Will Ferrell for one raised eyebrow from Jack, before which the collective pomposity of Hollywood filmmaking crumbles into dust. By the way, I sort of like Will Ferrell.
What makes Year One, no doubt proudly inspired by Mel Brooks’s glorious History of the World Part I, so special? Is it Harold Ramis’s way with a sight gag, like the hilarious ox-cart chase? Wrong. Is it Michael Cera’s overgrown winsome child act? Not quite. Is it Hank Azaria’s lisping, circumcision-crazed Abraham (“I’ll be right back to cut your penises”) or David Cross’s paranoid Cain (“I didn’t kill my brother, okay?”) or Oliver Platt’s ridiculously hirsute high priest? Wrong again.
If I’m feeling down, all I have to do is think of Jack Black munching on an apple from the Tree of Knowledge, pausing for an insight and announcing that he feels “intelligenter”, and the sun shines once more.
— Kent Jones
Originally published: 28 August 2020