15 Most Underrated Films
Jun 17, 2004 (Updated Jun 21, 2004)
The Bottom Line 15 (and then some) films that deserved more recognition than they received, whether from audiences, critics, or both, or were simply misunderstood.
Some of the films on this list are going to be ones Ive probably written about before, and some are fairly well-known (though not necessarily for the right reasons), but I really wanted to do this list so I could write about some great films Ive not read too much about on the Net- so that you too might enjoy them as much as I do, when you try and track them down. Hopefully Ill be able to keep my ranting and raving to a more manageable size than my previous list, but if youve read any of my work before, well the likelihood isnt all that great.
1. The Misfits - Several lonely and disillusioned people for whom life has moved too quickly or left them unfulfilled (or with an uncertain future) come together in desert Nevada for some mustanging, rounding up horses to be turned into dog food. It was a given that this film would head my list when one considers that its currently my favourite film of all-time, narrowly ahead of Forrest Gump . But the film still hasnt really received its dues, often merely referred to as flawed but watchable or as simply the last film that Marilyn Monroe (a terribly underrated actress) and Clark Gable (whom, depending on who you believe, Marilyn wanted to be her father) ever made. But there is much more to this film than temperamental actors colliding (You cant see any animosity on the screen, thats for sure) and soon leaving us forever. The film, written by Arthur Miller as a valentine to his then-wife Marilyn (who sadly, didnt see the brilliance), is nothing short of superlative in its marriage of cast and material and also fascinating as a deconstruction of the Old West. Its true that not everyone finds these sorts of unhappy characters appealing (nor do I, usually), but Marilyn has never been more heartbreaking (her tender scene with another actor on his way out, Montgomery Clift, being nursed by her, brings me to tears every single time), and the others are all perfectly cast. Gable the cowboy who is beginning to realise that he is an anachronism, Monty Clift as a rather troubled rodeo cowboy with problems at home, Eli Wallach in a sadly identifiable (for me) role as a bitter pilot who wants Marilyn so he can feel better about himself, and Thelma Ritter as Marilyns wise landlord- shes the only truly content person in the film, happy to keep on truckin no matter what garbage life deals her. Theres more to this film than just a final credit for two of its stars (with another star not far behind), the use of stars in roles in some way similar to themselves actually enhances the film as a whole. Marilyn is so natural and vulnerable here that I really wished she took to following that star and being led right home (if youve seen the film, youll know what Im talking about) before it was too late for her (or Monty for that matter, hes one of the three or so best method actors of all-time). You feel like reaching out into the screen, grabbing her and never letting her go. Or perhaps thats just my sick fantasies
2. The Omen - Gregory Peck, in one of his most underrated and forceful turns plays an American ambassador in England who discovers his son might actually be the Son of the Devil. I guess youre either an Exorcist fan or an Omen fan, and although I respect the former for its many fine attributes, I find it a tad too slow for my liking. The Omen might run a tad long for some, but as a Hammer horror fan Ive got to say that this, whilst not actually a Hammer film, did remind me of some of them. And although I tend to prefer atmospheric horror films over simple Boo! moments, Ive got to say that The Omen does feature some great examples of the latter (one as Peck attempts to check the back of his sleeping sons head is a classic) whilst practically covered in examples of the former (Has there ever been a more effective horror movie score than Jerry Goldsmiths for this film? Its certainly my favourite, and indeed this is my favourite horror film). Its also got something that The Exorcist doesnt- a sense of fun. Oh, sure, Mr. Peck might be taking things very seriously, but that doesnt mean you necessarily have to- the film wouldnt work if Peck joined scenery-chewers Leo McKern and Patrick Troughton (as Priests, they have some of my favourite lines like It is not a Human Child! and Drink the Blood of Christ Eat His Flesh Every Day!) in camping it up, but it sure is a terrific piece of entertainment (albeit dark, and not for staunch religious-types). And that kid is damn creepy, arousing suspicion long before he probably should, but Damien is definitely one of the more memorable horror movie characters. Also, special mention must be made of the frightening turn by Billie Whitelaw as the childs nanny, another classic character who would give Frau Blucher a run for her money in the ability to send chills down ones spine (and make horses go completely nuts, but thats enough Mel Brooks, hes not even relevant here).
3. Big Trouble in Little China - If you were a child of the 80s and didnt like this film, well, I pity you (the same goes for The Goonies , which is just a little too popular to make this list, though it has its detractors). Swaggering, All-American trucker Jack Burton gets in over his head in ancient mysticism in the subterranean levels of Chinatown when a centuries-old sorcerer named Lo Pan (James Hong, the wonderful Chinese-American character veteran in a brilliantly nefarious-yet-hilarious performance) masterminds the kidnapping of Burtons (more successfully heroic) buddy Wangs girlfriend, seen as a rare species due to her Asian heritage and green eyes. Or something like that. If youve ever read any of my reviews (whether here or on other websites I write for) you probably arent surprised to see this film here. Its one of those films that whilst it has always definitely had a cult following, it was not nearly as well regarded on initial release as it is now. And even now, you still wont see it on many peoples favourite films lists (and major critics still wont admit they got it wrong. Not that they ever would admit that, itd be nice though). Its not the greatest film ever made- that would be Citizen Kane in my view. Its not even my absolute favourite, which would be The Misfits or a few years earlier, Forrest Gump which certainly gets more emotional response out of me than any other. But John Carpenters ahead-of-its-time homage to Asian Martial-Arts action films is one of those films like Star Wars (Episodes 1, 4, 5, and 6 especially) that I probably watch more often than any other film, and never get tired of it. In fact, I often pick up things I hadnt picked up on earlier. Fast-paced, tongue-in-cheek and just plain cool, it brilliantly plays with the ideas of machismo, and the roles of the hero and the sidekick in ways that had probably not been seen before and wouldnt be done even close to as effectively until perhaps Pirates of the Caribbean (Johnny Depps slightly effeminate, wonderfully useless Capt. Jack Sparrow must be modeled at least in part on Kurt Russells Jack Burton, a man so inept- yet, sure of himself- that he knocks himself out during the big action finale. Sparrow, meanwhile makes his grand entrance aboard a sinking dinghy. Both films also deal with the supernatural, but hey, Im not here to discuss the quite entertaining Pirates ). Some terrific set-pieces (The Three Storms providing some of the best, especially Carter Wongs amusingly expanding Thunder. Theres also a great Talking Killer moment where all the characters are wheelchair bound, and the unforgettable gangland street-fight/funeral scene), brilliant performances (including Victor Wong as Chinese folklore expert and sorcerer Egg Shen, a Yoda-meets-Merlin-meets-Dr. Lao type), and some terrific dialogue (Burtons President speech, as well as one-liners like Son of a B*tch must pay! and the immortal Now This Really P**ses me off to no End! among the many Ive sadly committed to memory) and a rattling good pace help make this one of the best of the 1980s, an underrated era overall.
4. Battle Beyond the Stars - One for the 15 year-old boys, and those who wish they still were that age. The struggling, peaceful planet of Akir (Get it?) sends plucky young Shad (Richard Thomas, enormous mole in tow) to hire mercenaries (each given their own quirk) to save the planet from would-be conqueror Sador (John Saxon, the only person in the film not having fun, aside from Robert Vaughn whose character demands glibness). Among the colourful characters are glib gun-for-hire Robert Vaughn (who is too infamous to spend his wealth, having to live as a recluse and simply stare at his riches), George Peppard as a whisky-drinking cowboy from Earth (Hes a good sport, and has one brilliant but brief moment where he pokes fun at the usual Western showdown finale), and Sybil Danning as the impossibly well-endowed Valkyrie named St. Exmin, who lives for battle, and similarly dies for the fight (She has enormous breasts which would make fitting into her tiny ship near impossible, but the biggest breasts actually belong to Thomas ship- seriously, it even has a girly computer voice). Another 80s favourite, if youve ever wanted to see a mixture of Battlestar Galactica and The Seven Samurai , in the spirit of Russ Meyer but in PG-land and scripted by John Sayles (with Gale Ann Hurd, James Horner, and James Cameron all being part of the crew I might add), then this goofy B-movie, every 14 year old heterosexual males idea of the perfect film, is for you. And no, you dont have to be 14 (or even straight, I guess) to enjoy it. Its a childhood film that actually holds up very well, so long as youre expecting a derivative, cheesy-yet-not-dumb B-movie to begin with. The FX are B-grade, but that doesnt make them awful- theyre deliberate, and a great deal of fun, for once playing like a computer game proves successful for a film (Each ship is distinct and has its own distinctive laser beam and accompanying sound, most of which are really cool). Not everyone will understand the appeal of this film, but it is what it is, and is a lot better than most (including some solid Sci-fi content, with a definite precursor to The Borg here with a collective species known as Nestor, one of whom is played by Earl Boen of the Terminator films- interesting given Camerons involvement), including several knock-offs producer (and admirably rich man) Roger Corman made after this using left-over sets and FX (the man is a low-budget genius, and if that statement has you scratching your head, this film is certainly not for you).
5. Barbarella - Jane Fonda is the 41st century space adventurer on a mission to find the mysterious Duran Duran (yes, you read that correctly). Along the way she gets into all manner of kinky situations, albeit a 1968, rather tame selection of kinky situations (But boy do they push that PG rating to the limit!). I absolutely love every intentionally silly moment of this flick, and Im sure you well know that intentional camp is very hard to do well. This film is one of the few to do it, even if the films star is still seemingly ashamed of the film (She may not have been in on the joke, but she sure as hell looks like it, and everyone else certainly is, including director Roger Vadim). Its not just because Jane Fonda gets naked (albeit very briefly, and dependent upon which version you watch), but it sure as hell helps make this trippy, campy, and highly enjoyable space saga memorable. The production design and special FX may seem bad to certain people, but like the trippy FX in Fantastic Voyage (another film a little too popular to make the list, but go see it anyway) Im sure that there was a reason the film looks the way it does. Sure the film would look great with more expensive and believable FX, but that doesnt mean that what is used here is actually bad per se (think the films of Ed Wood or something like King Kong vs. Godzilla which even a fan of Godzilla films like me cant defend, the monkey suit looked horrid), and would the film be as enjoyable with more believable FX and sets? I doubt it. Camp doesnt mean bad, unless it is completely botched, and Barbarella most certainly achieves what it sets out to, therefore is not at all botched.
6. Hush Hush, Sweet Charlotte - In perhaps what is an unloved adopted sister to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? , Bette Davis (one of those actresses who manages to make going over-the-top work brilliantly, not always easy- just look at Jessica Lange in practically anything or someone like Anne Heche) stars as the title character, a cantankerous and reclusive old lady who refuses to leave her condemned Louisiana property and may in fact be going mad due to the resurfacing of some skeletons deep in her familys closet. But of course, nothing is as it seems. I actually prefer this Robert Aldrich film to Baby Jane probably because of its wonderful Southern Gothic atmosphere (the superb Joseph Biroc B&W cinematography earned an Oscar nomination), and it is a much darker, more brutal (Bruce Dern in particular meets a surprisingly grisly end for the mid 1960s, in a brief role) film. It also features some top-class melodramatic performances, with Ms. Davis acting up a storm but also making you alternately pity, worry for, and loathe her character. Agnes Moorehead, one of the all-time great character actresses has a plum role as Charlottes nosy, practically incoherent, long-suffering employee and she earned an Oscar nomination for her side-splittingly funny work. Much more surprising though, are Joseph Cotten at his charming (yet slightly off-kilter) best as a doctor and family friend (his rendition of the title tune still sends chills down my spine today), and one of my favourites, Olivia De Havilland in the role of Charlottes sweet-natured cousin, a role originally intended for Joan Crawford, but De Havilland does much more with it than Crawford ever could (I cant really elaborate without giving important plot twists away, so youll just have to see it). Creepy atmosphere, offbeat humour, a top director, great cast (look out for Victor Buono, Cecil Kellaway, Wesley Addy, Mary Astor, George Kennedy, and briefly Percy Helton) and a fascinating story- why this film has largely been overlooked is one for the ages, I guess.
7. Revenge of the Nerds - Ostracised college freshmen join a predominantly African-American fraternity and set their sights on getting revenge on the Beautiful People of Addams College who continually pick on them. Admittedly Ive never really felt like I was a nerd, but my friends were certainly lumped in that category in high school, and out of all the raunchy teen comedies of the late 70s and early 80s, this is definitely the one I identify with most (I never did get Animal House and Porkys was similarly uneven). Not only that, but its also one of the raunchiest and most frequently amusing of the lot. Best of all, even though we all have a laugh at the nerds on display here- theyre pretty much stereotypes, right down to the stitched-up glasses- by the end of the film, were 100% with these guys, we actually like and care about them. Best bits; the immortal panty raid, any scene involving Timothy Busfields myopic Poindexter, every scene involving Curtis Armstrongs horny and uncouth Booger, the Alpha Betas chant of Fireball, Fireball, Oooohhh s*it! as their frat house burns down, the way John Goodman as the mean coach pronounces the word whipped- it just sounds funny in the film, and the so-outdated-its-fun music contest among many others. Closing the film with Queens We Are the Champions is just the icing on the cake. Everyone has their favourite teen comedy, and this is definitely mine. Did I mention the panty raid? Look out for early roles for Anthony Edwards as good-natured and only slightly awkward Gilbert, and James Cromwell as the geeky father of Robert Carradines Lewis. Still not sure what Bernie Caseys doing here, though.
8. Commando/Running Man - Yeah, OK a cheat, but both deserve to be on the list, with the former more fun than the latter, and the latter more intellectually stimulating than the former (dont laugh). Commando stars The Governator as John Matrix (Is he The One, by chance?), a top soldier who retired to look after his daughter Jenny (a pre-lesbian vampire and VERY pre-Charmed Alyssa Milano, cute as a button), but called back into action when one of his former buddies Bennett (Aussie Vernon Wells, whose wardrobe inspires laughter Im still unable to understand, he gives a great, albeit overbaked performance) kidnaps Jenny so that Matrix will kill a South American dictator for him. Of course, being an Arnie movie, Matrix decides to come after Bennett and get his daughter back. In The Running Man , set in a blood-thirsty future society, Arnie plays Ben Richards a wrongly-convicted murderer and ex-military man who is invited (read: forced) to participate in the #1 game show on TV, of the films title. Its a much more brutal version of Gladiators, in which apparently no contestant has ever survived the wrath of the shows Stalkers (including the great Jim Brown, and wrestler-turned-commentator-turned-governor-turned-TV-personality Jesse Ventura). But we all know Arnies gonna kick a*se, right? Theres absolutely no reason why I should like Commando , its hardly a groundbreaking cinematic treasure, but the fact remains that it is simple and effective entertainment, an action film for those like me who hate the John Woo style so commonplace now. It also has a good cast (one of Bill Dukes best, David Patrick Kelly is wonderfully slimy as well, and Wells is great fun. Look out for Bill Paxton towards the end, staring at a monitor and picking up a pay-check early in his career), slick direction, a pulsating music score, and an underrated, tongue-in-cheek Steven E. de Souza screenplay that puts it way ahead of the many other films of its type ( Missing in Action , Rambo: First Blood Part 2 , Avenging Force etc). The Running Man also has a de Souza script that whilst featuring the requisite Schwarzenegger one-liners (He Had to Split, and like Commando , we get another dose of Ill Be Back. My favourite line, pretty much unprintable, comes from Erland van Lidth as the diaper-wearing, opera-singing Dynamo) is surprisingly intelligent in its depiction of a future society that revels in the violent combative sports and eventual deaths of contestants for a form of sick pleasure. Thats right, the film is a forerunner to the reality TV craze, but for the sports entertainment and game show era (all thats missing is Janet Jackson making a cameo and having a wardrobe malfunction during the half-time entertainment on the show. But hey, Paula Abdul was choreographer on the film, and shes sorta kinda similar, right?), the 1980s. Heck, we even have Richard Dawson, a real-life TV host, doing a great job as a smarmy, vile host of the Running Man show. Doing his usual schtick we also have Jesse Ventura as a former stalker turned commentator named Captain Freedom. True, we also have the inexplicably popular (in the 80s anyway) Maria Conchita Alonso stinking up the joint, but cmon, appearances by Yaphet Kotto and Mick Fleetwood make up for that largely. Its glossier than Commando and certainly brainier, in fact, I think its more relevant today than it was in 1987. Both films deserve far more recognition than they have over the years.
9. Demolition Man - In order to apprehend the recently thawed (released from a cryogenic prison) mass murderer Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes), the police in the now non-violent, and ill-equipped future city of San Angeles (dont ask) are forced to thaw wrongly-convicted but brutal 20th century cop John Spartan (Sly Stallone) to apprehend his old foe with some ancient methods. A lot of people do like this film, but whether its due to Cliffhanger (a much more formulaic but more financially successful film) overshadowing it or not, this Marco Brambilla film seems to have been forgotten. Thats a shame, because its one of Stallones best films, and a peroxide-enhanced Wesley Snipes has never been looser, livelier, and more hilarious. His off-the-wall villain is possibly even one of the best of the decade. And as for Sly, this and the underrated Oscar prove that hes actually not bad at comedy, despite blemishes like Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot , Paradise Alley , and the truly abominable Rhinestone (Dolly Parton teaching Sly to sing Country and Western sure, great idea there, guys geez, who was passing around the brown acid there ). Add to that an array of quirky and rather effete futuristic cops and dignitaries, led by super-perky Sandra Bullock (one of the only times her irritatingly perky persona has really worked, though I wouldve rather seen Annabeth Gish in the role well, OK, Id just rather see Annabeth in ANYTHING), the uber-bland Bob Gunton (as the humourless police chief, its an ineffectual performance in a sense, as are all of Guntons performances, but for the character, its oddly the right choice), and the hilarious Siegfried and Roy teaming of Nigel Hawthorne as the supposedly benevolent Dr. Cocteau (kind of the savior of society, responsible for cleaning up all the filth) and Tim Burton regular Glenn Shadix as his hilariously effete lackey Associate Bob (I crack up every time Hawthorne utters the line Enhance your calm!). Motor-mouth comic Denis Leary is also well-cast as Edgar Friendly, a leader of a band of uncouth underground rebels, the bane of Dr. Cocteaus Be-welled existence. The production design is terrific, with vehicles having a design that I couldnt help but feel was similar to the PCs we see today, iMacs and so forth. And speaking of PC, the use of strangely-structure pleasantries, greetings, and euphemisms, whilst irritating well, its supposed to annoy you, its a criticism of political correctness, and sadly (or not, depending on your position) isnt too exaggerated. Its true that the film is probably highly unlikely in terms of its science, but it does bring up interesting issues in much the same way that Van Dammes underrated Replicant and Arnies The Sixth Day did. None of these films deal with the scientific elements entirely successfully, but they arent meant to. They are meant to entertain, and perhaps engage your brain once every twenty minutes or so. How many other Stallone films even bother with that? You could even forget about the science and just see it as perhaps the last good example of the old-style action-comedy ( Lethal Weapon , Beverly Hills Cop , Commando etc) before Hollywood forgot how to make action flicks, or at the very least, stole all of their ideas from Asian nations. Its good, old-fashioned fun, with a great sense of humour to boot.
10. The Vikings - It was between this film and the wonderful El Cid , but that film has a slightly better reputation, so this 1958 classic won out. Kirk Douglas (and his Wonder Dimple) acts up a one-eyed storm as Einar, brutish Viking son of King Ragnar (Ernest Borgnine, having the time of his life essentially playing a rowdy teddy bear more than anything else, but hey, I love the guy in almost everything), who kidnaps British Princess Janet Leigh, much to the annoyance of the nefarious King Aella (Australias own Frank Thring, doing his best arched eyebrows Vincent Price schtick, and hey, hes a damn fine replacement for Price or Henry Daniell, who probably wouldve been my first choice). In what is a pretty interesting cast, we also have the underappreciated James Donald (the senior officer from The Great Escape ) as Lord Eggbert, accused of being a spy for the Vikings, and yes, a rather limp Tony Curtis, once again horribly out-of-place turns up as a slave (he really can act, though, just watch The Sweet Smell of Success or The Defiant Ones ), the product of an affair (read: rape) between Ragnar and a Northumbrian ruler long ago. There are many things that make this film a classic; Douglas fascinating anti-hero (unusual for a Hollywood epic), Borgnine gets one of cinemas coolest-ever exists, the simply gorgeous production design and colour cinematography by Jack Cardiff (the water is stunning in particular, even if it looks like Vaseline has been rubbed over the camera lens at times), and one of my favourite musical scores of all-time by Mario Nascimbene (If that horn doesnt give make you smile with joy, God help you). True, the Vikings here come off like a bunch of likeable soccer hooligans, and the brothers-who-dont-know-it-and-hate-each-other subplot is pure soap opera, but its mostly rip-roaring fun, the likes of which havent been seen before or since (Cmon, how many decent Viking flicks can you name?). And damn if that Viking funeral doesnt bring a tear to this jaded 24 year-old blokes eye every time. Only complaint (WARNING: Slight Spoiler): Others have also noted this, but I have to ask where in the hell does James Donald disappear to during the climax?
11. Robin and Marian - Film charts the final passages in the life of Robin of Locksley (Connery, Sean Connery), recently returned from The Crusades with a half-mad Richard The Not-So Lionheart (Richard Harris in all his probably inebriated glory), and looking to reunite with his love, Maid Marian (Audrey Hepburn). But boys will be boys er middle-aged men, and Robin must go off to fight the evil Sheriff (Robert Shaw). Of all the screen versions of Robin Hood, this and the Disney cartoon version are probably my favourites, and neither gets a mention when others talk about the best screen versions. Errol Flynns version had a great supporting cast and some OK moments but has dated, and Flynn seemed underwhelming to me (and talked way too fast). This Richard Lester (surpassing his somewhat overrated Three Musketeers , which had too many characters and not enough depth) re-imagining of the classic legend annoyed many people with its serious, downbeat, and far more realistic interpretation, but for me, the supposed negatives are positives (Many called it a Senior Citizens Romeo and Juliet- I guess thats supposed to be an insult, but I think its a great compliment. Leonard Maltin rather foolishly accused it of stripping beloved characters of their magic. Meanwhile he goes and gives 3 ½ stars to Titanic , a film which adds nothing new to its story- another tragic romantic epic- aside from expensive FX and perhaps even less 3-D characters and more hollow performances than youd expect. Yeah, I know, Ive gotta give up on the Titanic bashing ) This version of the Robin Hood story moved me like no other, it may in fact be one of my favourite tragic romance tales, along with the Zeffirelli version of Romeo and Juliet , but this one also works as an adventure and even occasionally as a comedy (In this version, the boys are all past their prime, Robin, Little John, The Sheriff etc., all struggle during the various action scenes). The performances are all terrific, even if Denholm Elliotts Will Scarlett and Ronnie Barkers Friar Tuck are wasted a bit. Connery gives, along with The Hill his finest-ever performance as Robin, realising perhaps a little too slowly, that he is no longer the young, virile hero he once was. Audrey Hepburn, not my favourite actress, is quite fine as Marian, who has now become a Nun (albeit not the mostly saintly of nuns). My favourite performance, though, comes from Nicol Williamson, often dismissed as miscast here, but I thought he was terrific as Little John, Robins faithful, rather laidback right-hand man, who can probably see that Robin needs to settle down, but doesnt feel it his place to tell him. His scenes with Marian are also very interesting. Robert Shaw is pitch-perfect as the Sheriff of Nottingham, who seems to see his sole purpose in life to be Robins nemesis, and vice versa, simply because they seem to know little else. The steely-eyed actor doesnt portray the character in the usual hambone way (and we all love Alan Rickman for his contribution, dont get me wrong), but the Sheriff is getting on in years, too. Meanwhile, Ian Holm, a long way from the Shire, is suitably slimy as the rather horny Prince John. A tragic take on the much-loved legend, this film is different and it works, with a particularly haunting finale that will hopefully have you in tears as I was (I dont want to be the only girly man alive, thank you). The music score by John Barry might well be the greatest romantic theme of all-time, its certainly unforgettable once heard.
12. The Hill - An earlier attempt by Sean Connery to move away from his 007 image, this little-seen but powerful British war/prison flick was oddly enough, directed by the versatile Sidney Lumet. Connery is a non-conformist military prisoner who, along with an assortment of misfits (including the requisite Roy Kinnear) are basically harassed, yelled at and driven mad for 100 minutes or so by Senior Officers Harry Andrews and the vile Ian Hendry, who makes the men climb the title mound in the blistering sun for punishment. The terrific Ian Bannen appears as the antithesis of Hendry and Andrews, a more compassionate man, but perhaps a weak-willed one. Of the prisoners, the most interesting are played by Roy Kinnear and highly respected American actor Ossie Davis. Kinnear is in peak form as the whiny, overweight, sniveling jerk that no one likes very much (but the audience has some sympathy for him because he clearly has no business even being in the army, and cant stand much punishment). Meanwhile, even though Davis Jamaican accent is a bit tough to take, he provides some of the best moments as the frustrated black soldier who is picked on by basically everyone for his skin colour, and in a highly amusing scene, strips out of his uniform and takes his grievances out on Norman Bird, as the thoroughly useless Commandant. Look out, too for Michael Redgrave as the clueless medical officer, in a too-small role. At first, with all of these thick predominantly British/Scottish accents its hard to accept that Sidney Lumet directed the film, but when one considers that like his "12 Angry Men" , this is often a shouting match between some terrific actors, it starts to fit. The performances are all excellent, with Connery giving one of his strongest, Kinnear pitch-perfect, and Harry Andrews in particular, is absolutely astonishing, giving R. Lee Ermey a run for his money in the angry drill sergeant-type role, an unforgettable performance in a very strong film. One of the unsung films of the 60s, with some of the best black and white photography not out of a 1940s noir.
13. The Kind Lady - Misery meets The Ladykillers in one of John Sturges ( The Great Escape , Gunfight at the OK Corral and several other favourite films of mine) smaller and lesser-known films. Ethel Barrymore is terrific as the title elderly (but not entirely stupid) art collector who takes in Maurice Evans (Dr. Zaius himself in a brilliant performance that has a bit of Tom Ripley about it by way of Ray Milland and John Gielgud), a struggling artist with a frail wife (Betsy Blair, remember her from Marty ?). But slowly, the charming young man starts to take over the poor ladys life, with a little help from Keenan Wynn (as a surly, burly Australian thug) and Angela Lansbury (as his sinister wife), in a performance you are unlikely to forget (and Wynn is nearly as good, with a phony-sounding accent, but he pronounces Melbourne more correctly than most Americans doing Aussie accents would). Hitchcock favourite John Williams turns up perhaps in a too-small role as a worried acquaintance of Barrymores. Terrific performances (Evans in particular seems so unassuming that he is all the more frightening, but Barrymore gives a sympathetic performance adrift in a sea of absolute rotters) in a film that was probably a little shocking at the time, you sure as hell are going to think twice before being kind to strangers after seeing this flick. You might guess whats going to happen in the film, but its unlikely that youll guess HOW it will happen. And theres more references to having tea here, than in The Ladykillers . Its little more than a B-movie, but its a damn good one, with an A-list director, and an opportunity to see the underappreciated Maurice Evans in a rare lead role (he was also fine opposite the wonderful Robert Morley in The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan ). Only in the end does it disappoint slightly, with a bit of confusion in the latter stages (Watching it a second time tends to clear any confusion up). A remake of a 1936 film (Doris Lloyd appears in both versions), the remake is generally regarded as the definitive version, in a reversal of the norm.
14. The Body Snatcher - Not surprisingly based on a Robert Louis Stevenson short story (top hats, fog everywhere, its like Jack the Ripper meets Charles Dickens meets Stevensons Dr. Jekyll, but set in Scotland), this is one of the Val Lewton chillers that came out in the 40s, and in my view is far and away the best. The always unpleasant Henry Daniell (one of the best players of villains and snobs, but exceptional in gentler parts like the role of Franz Liszt in Song of Love , a terrific film) is in top form as humourless Dr. Toddy MacFarlane, who in order to keep a steady supply of bodies for his medical school experiments, associates with an unpleasant, insinuating (I just love the way he quietly goads MacFarlane by insisting on calling him Toddy) ghoul named John Gray, who acts as a grave-robber for the doctor and his new assistant Fettes (Russell Wade). MacFarlane would very much like to rid himself of Grays stench, but suitable corpses are hard pressed these days, and Gray would not take to unemployment all too well. Poor Master Fettes is caught in the middle. A fourth party in this tale is an oddball caretaker named Joseph, a foolish, somewhat simple-minded opportunist who tries to blackmail Gray. Joseph is portrayed very well by the uneven Bela Lugosi, perhaps in his finest film, and its a special treat to see Karloff and Lugosi share a scene or two, and when they do, its hard to turn away (the use of shadows in their most memorable scene is particularly effective). Its Daniell and particularly Karloff who steal this, Robert Wises second best film ( The Haunting is better, The Day the Earth Stood Still in close third). Karloff gives the best, most complex performance of his career, much more horrifying than his infamous, effective but two-dimensional Monster. His Gray isnt a monster, merely a greedy, cancerous, murdering human being. And yet, in some ways, hes more likeable than the character played by Daniell (whom Ill always remember for this film and his cold-hearted Brocklehurst in Jane Eyre ), who treats his child patients rather coldly, whilst Karloff is seen chatting harmlessly to the poor, disabled (as a disabled person myself, I hate the C word) girl and lets her pat his horse (his horse, people, its just a horse, you perverts!). He also has one of those mellifluous, seemingly soothing and harmless voices (as opposed to Daniells uptight, upper-class British voice and overall demeanor) like Vincent Price that masks a truly vile person within. This isnt a horror film for fans of gore and ghouls, but its still definitely a horror film, and perhaps the perfect horror film for those who dont actually like horror films. Its not scary, its not mindless exploitation, its entertaining, atmospheric, visually striking, and thanks to Boris Karloff and his quietly creepy voice, its a little unnerving.
15. The Magic Box - It stars Robert Donat, Lord Laurence Olivier, Sir Peter Ustinov, Margaret Rutherford, Maria Schell, and pretty much the majority of the British film industry of the late 40s early 50s (though, oddly Robert Morley and Sir Alec Guinness are both missing), and chances are, youve not only never seen it, you might not have even heard of it. Nor its subject, the forgotten film pioneer William Friese-Greene. But this all-star effort stands head and shoulders above almost all others of its type due to a thoroughly gripping story (this isnt just some mindless Oh, look, thats Buster Keaton! And Frank Sinatra! bloated all-star affair), and primarily due to the supreme talents of Robert Donat, perhaps the greatest actor to ever live. He creates a believable, passionate, and entirely empathetic character in the struggling, obsessed but well-meaning inventor, whose contribution to making the motion picture camera had been (and probably still is) overlooked in favour of the likes of Thomas Edison. No matter how often he overlooks his family (including two wives, one played rather touchingly by Maria Schell) or neglects them in order to complete his work, Donat makes you understand, sympathise with, and care for his character. Perhaps its in that wonderfully soothing, slightly tubercular voice of his. He would be taken from this world far too early, and in some respects has received the same fate as Mr. Friese-Greene, but Im here to tell you that they dont come much better than Robert Donat, and this is a wonderful story about movie magic, and a man who deserved more recognition for his services to creating it, than he received in his lifetime. Of the cameo players, Oliviers superlative scene gets the most attention, but for me it was more of a joy seeing the likes of Joyce Grenfell (as a member of a choir), Margaret Rutherford (in a role that can really only be described as THE Margaret Rutherford role), and a particularly young Richard Attenborough (appearing with Glynis Johns, no less) and Peter Ustinov.
Also Highly Recommended:
- Tombstone- Brilliant performances (notably Kurt Russell, Sam Elliott, Val Kilmer, and Powers Boothe wonderfully imitating Lee Marvins Liberty Valance) in perhaps the only modern western to adequately capture the essence and style of some of my favourite westerns of previous eras such as Gunfight at the OK Corral and The Magnificent Seven. Deserved much more attention than it initially received.
- Enchantment- A charming, moving story told oddly from the point of view of a house, telling the story of its inhabitants, which are played as adults by the likes of David Niven and the marvelous Teresa Wright (a ray of sunshine if ever there was), in brilliant performances. World War back drop and secondary romance including Farley Granger and Evelyn Keyes, might put some off, but romantics will adore it.
- History of the World Pt. 1- Geez, this one sure doesnt get much respect. Ill admit that The Spanish Inquisition is awful, and nowhere near as funny as Monty Python, but theres some classic Mel Brooks stuff here. Madeline Kahn has never been funnier (My Tits are Falling Off!), Harvey Korman is hilarious (as Count De Monet), and who could ever forget such classics lines and moments as wacky weed!, Hump or death!, Its Good to be the King, and my personal favourites Remember Thou Art Mortal and They Shove a living Snake Up your . Its easily Brooks most underrated film and definitely vastly superior to The Producers and Silent Movie.
- Higher Learning- OK, so theres way too much going on all at once for this to be a real campus and real goings on, but John Singleton realises something that Spike Lee never seems to- Its only a movie, dude. An entertaining, sometimes insightful film with good performances (especially the underrated Michael Rapaport) and one helluva great love scene between Jennifer Connelly and Kristy Swanson (And some other dude, but dont even ask about that).
- A Patch of Blue- Often brushed aside when people talk about Sidney Poitiers best films, but this early interracial romance (with one participant being a poor, blind white girl, the other a fairly affluent young black man) film is beautiful to look at, wonderfully acted (Shelley Winters acts up a storm earning an Oscar as the repugnant mother, and just what the hell happened to Elizabeth Hartman? Apparently she ended her own life years later, but she didnt make too many other memorable films after this fine performance). Soap opera stuff, but a great example of it.
- Foul Play- Often dismissed as a Hitchcock rip-off, which is ridiculous considering its intended as a spoof of Hitchcock spy/wrong man films. Sure, its not Chevy Chases finest hour, but Goldie Hawn is pitch-perfect as the Innocent Woman with something the villains want to get hold of, and the supporting cast is terrific- a kung-fu fighting Burgess Meredith as Goldies weird but harmless landlord, ill-fated bible salesman Billy Barty (the most infamous of dwarf actors in his funniest role), and Dudley Moore in the funniest role in the film and of his overrated career as the likeably sleazy guy Goldie keeps running into. Any scenes with this trio of actors is pure gold and makes you forget that Chevy Chase and Brian Dennehy, as cops, are given nothing funny to say or do at all. And heck, even the opening Barry Manilow song is one of his least irritating.
- Mystic Pizza- Cmon Annabeth, we can still be together, theres plenty of time to get a divorce! er if youve read my review of this hidden treasure of a romantic comedy, youll know how I feel about the much underappreciated Annabeth Gish, who is often overlooked when this film is advertised on TV in favour of the more showy, but less talented Julia Roberts, both playing sisters with differing personalities, but both having man problems. Title refers to the pizzeria their Portuguese-American family runs, with their soon-to-be married pal Lili Taylor another employee. Its a light, entertaining film lifted somewhat by the talents and sheer lovability Gish radiates on screen. When her heart breaks in this film, so does mine, over and over.
- Mars Attacks!- Deliberately cheesy Tim Burton homage to 50s sci-fi was destined to only appeal to certain segments, but despite featuring too many characters, I love it. The Martians are visually stunning and hilariously malicious little buggers who steal the show. And look, any film concerning a possible catastrophic event that manages to include the worst song ever recorded on its soundtrack (Rupert Holmes Escape- The Pina Colada Song) deserves a medal in my view. Its nothing profound, but neither were the films it is inspired by/spoofing. Annette Bening, Rod Steiger, Lukas Haas, Pam Grier, and Jim Brown are standouts in a large cast (the less said about Glenn Close the better). Off-kilter Burton humour is very much in evidence (a cute-yet-ugly Chihuahua figures in at least one of the films best and most bizarre visual gags, the Martians themselves being the best gags), making me ignorant to this very day as to why few people like it. It also gives more realistic view as to how America, always the Defender of the Earth (the last best hope if you will, or as I prefer to see it, the best of the rest of whats left) in straight-laced alien invasion films, would truly react and how they would fare if such an invasion really were to occur.
- The Devils Nightmare- A group of travelers (seemingly driving the Mystery Van- hey, wanna see Daphne and Velma reveal their true feelings for one another?) staying at a supposedly cursed familys castle (the owner is a descendant of a former Nazi general who sold his soul to the Devil) are dispatched one by one by sexy succubus Erika Blanc (from Mario Bavas best film, Kill, Baby Kill) who uses the 7 deadly sins as a motif. Of all the European horror films of the 70s, this Belgian-Italian co-production may not be the most stylish, profound, gory, or disturbing, but its certainly one of the cheesiest, coolest, sexiest, and most entertaining Ive seen. Its like Mario Bava meets Roger Corman (as opposed to Jesus Franco who would be Mario Bava meets Russ Meyer meets Edward D. Wood Jr., meets The Marquis De Sade) Scooby-Doo but with decapitations and lesbians. Theres decapitations, snakes, lesbians (woo-hoo!, and theyre absolutely stunning too, they dont make em like this any more), bizarre vocal stylings, facial morphing, adultery, and the worst wallpaper youre ever likely to see. Did I mention the lesbians? A brilliant example of drive-in Eurotrash, and unlike what many may suggest, the Seven Deadly Sins motif actually does apply to all the characters if you really think about it. Stunning cinematography with a nice use of soft-focus, and the film features arguably the weirdest representation of Beelzebub of all-time, in actor Daniel Emilfork, who would later co-star in City of Lost Children.
- Truck Turner- Its a lesser film to Shaft in many ways, cheaper-looking, but still enjoyable, tongue-in-cheek film with one helluva cast, and a fine soundtrack by The Man himself. Hayes is terrific in the lead, his bail bondsman Mack Truck Turner is a very different blaxploitation hero, a former ball player who is a bit of a slob but still a fine lover man, but a tough hombre with a bad temper (but with a soft-spot for his cat Francis). His treatment of his recently paroled girlfriend (Anzanette Chase) is particularly funny. Some standouts include Hayes big Cape Fear moment as he walks into the camera (the camerawork is unusually inventive for this sort of thing), a bloody hospital shoot-out, a great car chase that sees a pimpmobile slowly disintegrate as it progresses, the mother of all pimp funerals (youve just gotta see it) and a great cast- terrific work by the cool-as-ice Yaphet Kotto as the head villain named Harvard Blue, Nichelle Nichols (Uhura!) in a startlingly foul-mouthed and enjoyably ridiculous turn as a high-strung madam (who likes to say p*ssy a lot), fun turns by several Black Belt Jones co-stars (the film was made by essentially the same crew, but Scatman Crothers is always a welcome presence as a retired pimp and Alan Weeks gets a larger role here as Trucks buddy and partner), a terrific final shot involving the villain (its a little like the hand-held work in Black Caesar), a short but very funny scene of Truck throwing a guy out the window (plays funnier than it is), Hayes uttering the hilarious line Now lets stop all this nonsense and go shopping!, and even a role for top character actor Dick Miller as a sleazy lawyer (in a pale pink suit, no less!)
I really have no idea whether this list really is shorter than my previous one, but if youve made it this far, Im not about to apologise because it clearly doesnt bother you. Mind you, some of you are probably too busy collecting your dropped jaws over some of the choices made here. But hey, weve all got different opinions, right? Even if you dont like all of these films, I feel my job is done so long as you give a few of them a go, whether you end up disappointed or not. At least theyre being seen.