25 obscure films that local film historian Gordon Inman recommends!
After Death (Yevgeni Bauer, 1915) - My personal favorite of one of film history’s first great masters. To my knowledge, all of Bauer’s films were literary adaptations, but this one recreates Turgenev’s sense of loss in a way that puts most modern literary adaptations to shame. This film also likely contains the first example of what could be described as a virtuosic tracking shot.
The Wildcat (Ernst Lubitsch, 1921) - One of only two comedies Pola Negri made (the other being Andrew L. Stone’s 1943 Tarantino-championed Hi Diddle Diddle). The film, which is one of only two or three remaining examples of D.W. Griffith parodies, plays around with iris shots and other frame moderations to hilarious effect. Likely the apotheosis of Lubitsch’s Berlin period (although 1919’s The Doll comes close).
Mockery (Benjamin Christensen, 1927) - One of at least three masterfully heartbreaking performances from the great Lon Chaney, Sr., and almost certainly one of the only films in which Chaney survives to the end.
Nail in the Boot (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1931) - Audiences are more likely to know Kalatozov for his string of late-career triumphs (Cannes winner The Cranes Are Flying, Revenant template Letter Never Sent, propaganda milestone I Am Cuba, and Soviet/Italian co-production The Red Tent [starring the late great Sean Connery]), but in fact, he was first a contemporary of the montage hounds from the ‘20s, and 1931’s Nail in the Boot proves to be as rousing an exercise in propaganda fiction as the best of Eisenstein and Pudovkin.
The Fourth Dimension (Jean Painleve, 1936) - Without hyperbole, this is the most thrilling educational film I’ve ever seen. The concept of “time” as the functional fourth dimension is explained using basic language and visual aids, and the viewer emerges from the ten-minute lesson feeling measurably more intelligent, even if they may not be able to describe its contents to others.
Tomorrow We Live (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1942) - Whenever anyone refers to Ulmer as “King of the Bs,” they’re specifically referring to Detour (mostly due to the bigger budget of his earlier masterwork The Black Cat). However, a number of his other 1940s work deserves similar recognition, including this nasty little thriller.
The Eagle With Two Heads (Jean Cocteau, 1948) - Easily the most exciting Cocteau film that doesn’t involve a character walking into a mirror. Fun fact: this film, a near word perfect adaptation of Cocteau’s play, contains the longest single woman’s monologue in the narrative film to date.
Bird of Paradise (Delmer Daves, 1951) - The understated humanist master Delmer Daves’s update of King Vidor’s 1932 exotic island thriller (which is known for being the first Hollywood film with a through-composed score) uses actual songs and customs of the islands on which it was filmed. Although Daves kept the ending of the original, the emotional wallop was magnified considerably.
The Testament of Dr. Cordelier (Jean Renoir, 1959) - Likely the first great feature film produced for television. Renoir delivers a late-career knockout in his Nosferatu-esque unofficial adaptation of Jekyll & Hyde.
The Exiles (Kent McKenzie, 1961) - It’s notable for being the first major film about Native American characters, but Mackenzie’s triumph comes from sheer freedom expressed in its characters, a handful of twentysomethings who have left the reservation and wander through LA’s Bunker Hill with absolutely no inhibitions. It’s a truly inspiring experience.
Point of Order (Emile de Antonio, 1964) - One of the first examples of the now popular “documentary as thriller” editing style, in which Josephs Welch and McCarthy face off in real-time. It’s truly surreal to watch a politician’s career come to a screeching halt in real-time, an event that will likely never occur in modern times.
A Man Vanishes (Shohei Imamura, 1967) - Something of a recreated documentary (much like Kiarostami would later famously create in Close-Up) which initially follows the story of a man who has disappeared before devolving into a philosophical argument for the benefits of intentionally vanishing from society.
Fruit of Paradise (Vera Chytilova, 1970) - Chytilova’s follow-up to the zany classic Daisies is mostly a modern retelling of the Adam and Eve story but begins with a melange of floral patterns, Edenic couples moving slowly, and earthy choral music that is indescribably mesmerizing.
Spend it All (Les Blank, 1971) - Since most people’s standard of truth in the anthropological documentary is no more bona fide than Robert Flaherty, it can be shocking to experience the true cultural legitimacy of Blank’s short subjects. This one, about Acadian culture in general, has the power to permanently diminish any viewer’s preoccupation with money.
The Messiah (Roberto Rossellini, 1975) - Pasolini’s masterpiece The Gospel According to Matthew is often inaccurately described as a documentary-style take on the original text, but in reality, the film is highly stylized and full of ‘60s arthouse flourishes. Roberto Rossellini’s final film, on the other hand, deserves the label. Like his other late-career historical films, Rossellini’s brilliance comes directly from his intentional artlessness.
Ieoh Island (Kim Ki-Young, 1977) - During last year’s awards season press tour for Parasite Bong Joon-Ho made a point to champion Kim’s most popular work The Housemaid, which is relatively accessible to Western audiences and representative of his earlier, more Hitchcockian period. His later work, on the other hand, embraces a more fractured approach to storytelling as well as a casual fluidity between life and death. Before his weirdness reached its peak in 1978’s Woman Chasing the Butterfly of Death, Kim made this quietly unsettling work involving the inhabitants of a small island (not Ieoh) who are terrified of being visited by a water ghost and dragged to an island representation of hades (yes Ieoh).
God’s Angry Man (Werner Herzog, 1981) - Herzog made a short subject documentary about televangelist Gene Scott. That’s all the recommendation anyone should need.
Nothing Lasts Forever (Tom Schiller, 1984) - Many feature films have starred former Saturday Night Live cast members and a few have even been feature-length renditions of famous SNL sketches, but only this singular work from original writer Tom Schiller actually possesses the dreamy counterculture experience that the earliest days of SNL provide. Small but substantial roles went to Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Futurama’s Lauren Tom.
Candy Mountain (Robert Frank/Rudy Wurlitzer, 1987) - My favorite living American novelist Rudy Wurlitzer co-directed only this feature, in which a drifter slowly makes his pilgrimage to meet a legendary luthier. Worth watching for Leon Redbone’s cameo appearance alone.
A Tale of the Wind (Joris Ivens, 1988) - The great Dutch documentarian Ivens finishes his career (which began in the silent era) with this essay in which he travels all over the world and to the moon with the intention of capturing naturally occurring wind on the film.
Street of No Return (Samuel Fuller, 1989) - Sam Fuller, who had previously contributed his singular voice to the western and noir subgenres and perfected the “needle drop” expositions war film (which would then be emulated by Nathaniel Hendricks and Christopher Nolan in the 21st century), ended his career with this synth-scored revenge thriller. The opening street fight is extremely well-choreographed, and any instance of Keith Carradine singing on film is a reason to watch alone.
The Bed You Sleep In (Jon Jost, 1993) - Jost’s career when viewed in quick succession betrays his identity as a “tofu maker,” a term Ozu once used to downplay his own directing style as somewhat journeyman but ended up exalting his tendency to direct increasingly similar stories as his career evolved. Jost is the closest thing American cinema has to a folk artist, and this film represents his most tragic ballad.
Casa de Lava (Pedro Costa, 1994) - The first of Costa’s six-film Capa Verde/Fontainhas cycle, which ended last year with Vitalina Varela. A home nurse travels with a comatose Cape Verdean and becomes caught in the foreign land’s lure.
Inside/Out (Rob Tregenza, 1997) - An extremely slow-burning examination of a psychiatric hospital in which time doesn’t seem to function properly (not to be confused with Wojciech Has’s superlative Schulz adaptation The Hourglass Sanatorium, which has too much of a cult following to make this list). The centerpiece is a hypnotic “party” scene that seems to take place in an ancient school auditorium. After this film’s release, Tregenza traveled from the U.S. to Hungary to assist the great Bela Tarr as one of six (!) credited cinematographers for Werckmeister Harmonies.
Star Spangled to Death (Ken Jacobs, 2004) - This listicle’s second-longest inclusion, at 6 hours and 42 minutes. Ken Jacobs began filming his friends in downtown New York in 1957 and released the finished product, which included altered classic Hollywood footage and an entire thesis of text against the U.S.A.’s recent return to Iraq, in 2004.