If all the summer glop has turned your brain to mush these past months, check out this intellectually stimulating sci-fi thriller. In the not-too-distant future, a man with genetic flaws fights against the system that deems him unsuitable for space flight. Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke) assumes the identity of Jerome Morrow (Jude Law), a perfect genetic specimen who has become a paraplegic as a result of a car accident. Vincent and Jerome buck the system that discriminates against the ‘have-nots’ but when the space program’s director is killed, police start questioning every cadet, jeopardizing Vincent’s secret. It is a marvelously taut piece that says a lot about our current world just as all great science fiction does. Writer/director Andrew Niccol’s film plays like a two-hour TWILIGHT ZONE episode with smart performances (including a sly Uma Thurman), sumptuous production values and an exquisitely haunting score by Michael Nyman.
Q & A (1990)
The great director Sidney Lumet was lauded for so many films, but sadly, this suspenseful crime story was one of those egregiously overlooked. A young DA (Timothy Hutton) tries to nail a corrupt detective (Nick Nolte) but ends up opening a can of worms that brings his former lover and her new boyfriend, a crime boss (Armand Assante) into the investigation. This film was filmed on location in Lumet’s beloved New York and it has twice as much grit as any LAW & ORDER episode. As always, Lumet fills out his cast with great character actors including veteran performers Patrick O’Neal, Luis Guzman, Lee Richardson and the invaluable Fyvush Finkel. It’s a tragedy that this film was ignored upon its initial release. And tell me that both Nolte and Assante didn’t deserve Oscar nominations. (Believe me, they did.)
LOVELY & AMAZING (2001)
Looking for a movie starring women that isn’t some bubble-headed rom-com romp? Check out this character-driven comedy about family and women’s self-esteem. A mother (Brenda Blethyn) and her three confused daughters (Catherine Keener, Emily Mortimer, and Raven Goodwin) struggle to understand each other and their own image issues. It’s a challenging movie about being self-aware and learning to love your flaws as well as those in others. It also has one of the most daring and uproarious scenes ever committed to celluloid where Mortimer asks her boyfriend (Dermot Mulroney) to critique her nude body, no holds barred. Writer/director Nicole Holofcener should be given money every year to make movies as clever and gutsy as this one.
EXECUTIVE SUITE (1954)
Angry at the Wall Street bailouts? Boy, do I have a movie for you. EXECUTIVE SUITE was penned by the brilliant Ernest Lehmann and directed starkly by Robert Wise. In this taut boardroom thriller, a president of a furniture company has died and his various underlings jockey, coerce, scheme and kvetch as they plot to become his successor. There are great debates here over art vs. commerce, the elite vs. the working class, and loyalty vs. expediency. And this dissertation on the American dream stars William Holden, Frederic March, Barbara Stanwyck, Louis Calhern, June Allyson, Walter Pidgeon, William Bendix, Shelly Winters, and the deliciously wry Nina Foch. She plays the executive secretary with an arched eyebrow that says more than most actors do with pages of dialogue. See it, laugh at it, and then cry yourself to sleep as this film proves precious little has changed in the business world these past fifty years.
THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD (2007)
I thought this film was the best of that calendar year. Critics loved it too. Audiences? Not so much. They stayed away in droves. Perhaps the western is really dead. Maybe the title was just too damn long. It also kind of gives away the ending, I suppose. But there’s so much more to the movie after James’ death. This fascinating true story is also an incredibly timely dissertation on celebrity. We love to build up our heroes and then delight in tearing them down even more. Casey Affleck has the same eerie weirdness of a young Tony Perkins here as the teenage Ford who joins the gang of his idol James (a superb Brad Pitt) yet gradually grows to resent his boss’ fame and status.
One of the great, underrated comedies, SNEAKERS sneaks up on you. It’s very low-key, and breezy, and yet still really funny. The story concerns a group of quirky surveillance experts led by Robert Redford, who take on an assignment to steal a computer decoder for the government. Once that mission is accomplished, Redford ends up being taken hostage, colleagues are murdered, and the team must hide underground to solve the mystery of the government’s ‘too many secrets.’ With a supporting team of Sidney Poitier, Ben Kingsley, Dan Aykroyd, Mary McDonnell, River Phoenix and David Strathairn, how is it that this film remained a secret to anyone?
THE NOTORIOUS BETTIE PAGE (2005)
Gretchen Mol currently stars in BOARDWALK EMPIRE on HBO. She’s often naked there, both physically and emotionally. She’s the same here, and her performance as Bettie Page is both titillating and moving. This is a sweet-hearted character study charting Bettie’s life in a small town all the way to the pages of Playboy and beyond. Beyond being some of the strangest underground bondage films ever produced during the conservative Eisenhower era of the 50’s. Because of her va-va-va-voom bod and those famous black bangs, she became the most photographed woman of the time period. Watch this affecting biopic and you’ll see that all the attention showered on this sweet and alluring woman was well worth it then and now.
TALK TO HER (2002)
This is the most original movie I have ever seen. Written and directed by my favorite filmmaker Pedro Almodovar of Spain, it’s a love story concerning two men and the women they love. What makes it so unique is that both women are in comas. And as they encounter each other at the hospital, the two men (Javier Camara and Dario Grandinetti) strike up a friendship that is at times funny and poignant and ends in tragedy. It is a three-way love story between three challenged couplings and it has more to say about love than any other movie in the last 30 years. Almodovar won the Oscar that year for his screenwriting and you’ll see why.
GALAXY QUEST (1999)
I’m going to Wizard World next week. (That’s Chicago’s version of the San Diego ComicCon.) And every time I go I am reminded of this outstanding farce about fan boys and the sci-fi TV shows they adore. The plot here concerns the alumni cast of a cult space TV show being forced into playing their roles as the real thing when an alien race needs their help. It pimps STAR TREK, comic books, celebrity and teen angst. See it and you will be laughing from the first moment to the last. It stars Tim Allen as the Shatner-esque lead, Sigourney Weaver as the dishy babe, and the ever-droll Alan Rickman as the Spock-inspired second-in-command. As you can see in the poster, he wears an alien skullcap and one of the great conceits of the movie is that we never see Rickman without it. He just is the character here, looking forever like his role - just like all the fan boys would want him to be!
THE LIVES OF OTHERS (2006)
I remember during the 2007 Oscars being mad that this film beat out PAN’S LABYRINTH for Best Foreign Language Film. Then I went and saw it. The Academy got it right. This is easily one of the best foreign films of all time. It takes place in a 1984 East Berlin, and an agent of the secret police (a heartbreaking performance by the late Ulrich Muhe) conducts surveillance on a left-leaning writer and his lover. But as he burrows deeper into their lives, he finds himself becoming increasingly absorbed by these two and their political leanings. If you’ve overdosed on frenetic thrillers like BOURNE and anything starring Jason Statham, you owe yourself a night’s rental of this superior suspense tale.
A good friend of mine, and a fan of this blog, finds so much of what's coming out of Hollywood these days to be utterly depressing. Too many explosions, too many endless car chases, too many paper thin characters. But now I’ve given her and you 10 unknown gems to rent or stream. I truly believe you'll find them well worth your while. And there's not a robot in any of 'em!
Oh, and before I go, tell me what unknown gems you'd recommend to followers here. Share your endorsements and we’ll all be better for it.