Thursday, August 4, 2011


Tired of this summer’s movie fare? Desperately seeking something that isn’t chock full of robots? Needing something more stimulating than another fart joke in a Jason Bateman comedy? Well, grab the DVD’s of these films you probably never heard of (or stream them on Netflix if you're willing to pay that extra fee) and I promise you’ll be thoroughly entertained. You might also be a little shocked that somehow you've gone this long without catching these worthy cinematic gems.

GATTACA (1997)
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.)
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. 
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.

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?

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.

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!
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.


  1. SO funny, Jeff.

    You lead with one of my five "Movies Every Human Should See". ;)
    Have been an immediate and long time fan of Gattaca.

    And while I won't rally behind Sneakers (blame my previous experience in the field?), I also love The Lives of Others and just picked it up on Blu Ray.

    Bravo for a great list.

    PS: My old pal Bill Chott has a cameo in Galaxy Quest, as if there weren't already many good reasons to love that film.

  2. Galaxy Quest is one of the best movie lover's movies ever. Great story and amazing, amazing cast.

    Betty Page simply makes me drool. There will never be a sexier woman ever.

    Two I'd add for your fans:

    The best film about a Japanese cellist turned undertaker ever.

    And Bob Giraldi's very personal film about the restaurant business. The man knows film, cooking and a good story: Dinner Rush

  3. Bart,

    I love that you are such a GATTACA fan. What are the other four on your "Movies Every Human Should See" list? I'm very curious!

    And yes, there are so many great things to recommend in GALAXY QUEST. Even Justin Long rocks in it!

  4. Michael,

    I am a fan of DEPARTURES and DINNER RUSH too. Very good choices, sir! And I feel similarly about Bettie Page. She is simply one of the most stunning and compelling of beauties.

  5. I’ve always thought there are few better gifts than the tip-off to a great film. Two of my very favorite films from your stellar list that were thankfully recommended to me are TALK TO HER and THE LIVES OF OTHERS.

    Here’s one more gem that was luckily gifted to me by a friend: THE CONVERSATION, the brilliant 1974 study of paranoia from Francis Ford Coppola. Gene Hackman portrays a well-respected surveillance expert who starts to lose his professional distance when he becomes obsessed with the subjects of his latest bugging job. I particularly love the fact that this movie coincidentally came out at the height of the Watergate scandal. While certainly this film was not unknown in it’s day, it’s a wonderful discovery for those of us who were too young to have seen it then.

    Three much more recent films I really liked from last year that came and went from the theaters all too quickly were:

    SOLITARY MAN: Michael Douglas in a most un-Gordon Gekko-like performance, struggling to keep his dignity while beginning to fail in every area of his life. A poignant commentary on aging, made all the more ironic by the fact that Douglas himself was likely already suffering from cancer during filming.

    I LOVE YOU PHILLIP MORRIS: Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor are gay lovers with surprising chemistry in this true story of a con artist who leaves a more traditional life to become who he really is. As flawed as it may be in terms of the criminal life he slips into, this life is funny, endearing, heart-breaking and brilliant in terms of the extent to which he would go to escape prison.

    THE ILLUSIONIST: A lovingly animated French tale of a 1959 Parisian magician with a cranky white rabbit struggling to maintain relevancy in a changing world. He meets a young girl who is an admirer and firm believer that his magic is real. Not only is his trade “old school”, so is the style of this animation, lovingly painted in the old-fashioned way as was done in the mid-twentieth century.

  6. Fan With No Name, those are great choices. And most are probably not even aware of them. It's funny how THE CONVERSATION gets overlooked. Francis Ford Coppola had quite a run in the early 70's what with his two GODFATHER movies and THE CONVERSATION. And both THE GODFATHER PART II and THE CONVERSATION were up for Best Picture at the Oscars in 1974. (With THE GODFATHER PART II winning.) His smaller film tends to get eclipsed because of the stature of those epics, but it is a film all fans of the medium should see. Thanks for sharing your terrific thoughts and choices, Fan. Always great to hear from you!

  7. Like Bart, I'm so glad you had Gattaca on this list, Jeff! I own this DVD and have probably watched it no less than 10 times over the past 15 years. The story is so incredibly smart, thought provoking, well told and could easily be a part of our not-too-distant future. Whenever I reference something from the movie, I'm always shocked that people don't know what I'm talking about. This movie serves as a warning for the consequences of genetic profiling, along with showing our raw, human desire to persevere despite all obstacles (regardless of genetics). Thanks for putting this in your list!

  8. Thanks, Adam!

    Indeed GATTACA is such a special film. I wonder if it were released now if it would get noticed more. Hard to believe something so clever and heartfelt as that film wasn't given a slew of awards and lots of audience dollars. But I'm glad you recognized it then and still love it as much today. I try to watch it every year myself, Adam. And I listen that score all the time! Thanks for following and for posting. I always enjoy your thoughtful commentary here.

  9. BTW...for all you GATTACA fans following this blog, Andrew Niccol, the writer and director of that titular film, returns to big budget sci-fi with the new thriller IN TIME starring Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, Cillian Murphy, Olivia Wilde and MAD MEN's Vincent Cartheizer. It looks terrific. The trailer can be found at as well as other places online. The movie is set to open October 29 and the buzz so far has been very good.

  10. Because of all the GATTACA fans here, I had to see this one. What a smart and chilling film! And beautiful visuals. I can’t believe it didn’t have better box office than it did. Such a touching statement about the risks of stereotyping people. And stereotyping the possibilities. Assuming “these” will be better than “those”. It really, really made me think about how I perceive people in everyday life.

    Reminds me some of the imbalance of females in some parts of the world today, due to human tampering with the natural order of things. Natural selection, not artificial selection, exists in nature for a reason. The existence of life itself is enough of a delicate balance. We don’t want to know “what if”.

  11. Good points as usual, Fan! Your thoughts always add so much food for thought to the blog and I appreciate your faithful following. I'm so glad you enjoyed GATTACA too. It really is a superb but overlooked film.

  12. I would add "Lord of War" and "Blow" to this list - as well as "Machine Gun Preacher" I say add them, not because they are missed especially but that they all do something very unique: They are all based heavily on truth, avoid clichés and take a huge risk in doing so. (the last was all about dethroning "Kony" before it was cool to do so, at very real cost to Gerard Butler - a portrayal of utter honestly)

  13. oh, and "I love you Phillip Morris" for all the above reasons

  14. Hey Conrad! Thanks for posting. And your suggestions are excellent ones. And Butler was very good in that movie, and is a bit of an underrated talent, isn't he? I don't think 300 would have been half the movie without his authority and grit at the center of it all. Keep following, Conrad. And we'll all hope to hear more from you here!

  15. In My Furthers Den?