25 obscure films that local film historian Gordon Inman recommends!
Shoes (Lois Weber, 1916) - After years of only being canonized for the use of split-screen effects in 1913’s Suspense, Lois Weber has finally entered the film lexicon as Griffith’s pioneering equal. Her now-consentaneous masterwork, Shoes, is unsettling for its portrait of puritanical hypocrisy and scathing critique on unregulated capitalism’s effects on working-class families (particularly its young women), both of which ring just as true over a century later.
Help! (Abel Gance, 1924) - Gance only made one film between his 1923 7.5 hour career-defining masterpiece La Roue and his 1927 9 hour career-defining masterpiece Napoleon, and of all things, it was this haunted house two-reeler starring his friend Max Linder. I’m not going to lie: although it’s a nearly centenarian slapstick comedy, there are a number of truly frightening moments in this brief 24 minutes.
The House on Trubnaya Square (Boris Barnet, 1928) - An absolutely glorious soviet slapstick comedy, taking place entirely in and around a tenement building and focusing mainly on a new and adorable couple. Barnet all but invented the technique of playing a stretch of film backward to ‘turn back time,’ which he utilizes to great effect after the main couple meets cute.
Me and My Gal (Raoul Walsh, 1932) - Walsh exists oddly in the background of most Film Histories. While he had his canonized winners (The Roaring Twenties, White Heat, High Sierra, The Thief of Bagdad) there are a number of deep cuts throughout his oeuvre which are waiting to be unboxed. This early entry, which can make a lifelong fan of Spencer Tracy or Joan Bennett fall in love all over again, is held up by a paper-thin plot and crackling dialogue (as well as quite a few wordless stretches).
The Plow That Broke the Plains (Pare Lorentz, 1936) - An oddly optimistic dust bowl documentary so defined by its film score (the first by Virgil Thomson) that its only DVD release to date came from the classical music label Naxos of America, employer of most of my musicologist friends from college.
Keep Your Mouth Shut (Norman McLaren, 1944) - After the war, McLaren would effectively become the patron saint of the National Film Board of Canada, but late in the game his talents were used to spook Canadian soldiers out of casually discussing battle plans within earshot of potential spies. What spookier representation could there be than a Nazi skull thanking them for their help?
Distant Journey (Alfred Radok, 1949) - There’s something of a misunderstanding about films which deal with the holocaust, specifically that the ultimate “feel good” stories from Schindler’s List onward (with the notable exception of Nemes’s Son of Saul) aren’t ultimately disingenuous in their presentation. Radok’s film, shot and released four years after the liberation of Czechoslovakia, wears the raw turmoil which had yet to be forgotten by anyone on either side of the camera in every single shot. It should be noted that Radok employed the use of floating split- and small- screens to organize many ideas at once to great effect, and the technique was still considered cutting edge (and even gimmicky) as late as Ang Lee’s Hulk and many post 9/11 American spy thrillers.
Anatahan (Josef von Sternberg, 1953) - Sternberg’s last great film, and certainly his oddest despite being based on a true story: the population of a Japanese island has spent the last six years unaware that they’ve lost the war, and the viewer leaves with a clearer understanding of the lasting effects of a population’s warlike mentality.
The Lady with the Dog (Iosif Kheiffits, 1960) - I have only Susan Sontag to thank for knowing about this one’s existence. In her essay about literary adaptation for the screen (which is almost entirely about Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz), she suggests that a short story better fits a feature film for adaptation and champions this brilliant little Chekhov piece, which serves as something of a precursor to the substance of Sokurov’s 1990s work.
Chickamauga (Robert Enrico, 1962) - One of Enrico’s three adaptations of Ambrose Bierce’s stories (which also includes the appropriated Twilight Zone series finale, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge), in which an affluent deaf-mute toddler perceives the eponymous battle as something of a circus until his tragic realization that the circus has come to his own house. #CHATTABUNGA
The Debussy Film (Ken Russell, 1965) - Before his many bigger budget biopics of famous composers Ken Russell cut his directorial teeth on microbudget biopics of famous composers for British television. The best of these was also the most bizarre: a film about the filming of a Debussy biopic which takes a psychological toll on its leading man (a very young Oliver Reed). Likely the only Russell film that could ever be described as ‘new wave,’ and released the same year as Richard Lester’s The Knack...and How to Get It and Help!
Mandabi (Ousmane Sembene, 1968) - A man receives a money order from his nephew in Paris and finds it nearly impossible to redeem in his remote Senegalese village. I saw Sembene’s second feature in college and during the last recession when its plot felt especially potent.
The Lickerish Quartet (Radley Metzger, 1970) - Another time capsule: an affluent American couple and their adult son live inexplicably in a European castle, watching adult films on their home projector and screen before going out to dinner. At the restaurant, they meet and are all individually entranced by the, ahem, ‘star’ of the film they’d just finished.
Such Good Friends (Otto Preminger, 1971) - The fallout of Preminger’s LSD-laced maudit Skidoo extends to a collective shunning of the rest of his career. This drama, with an incredibly witty (but only partially comedic) Elaine May script, deserves to be lionized with Preminger’s more celebrated work.
Lullaby of the Earth (Yasuzo Masumura, 1976) - A decade before she would play one of the screen’s greatest villains as Lady Kaede in Kurosawa’s Ran, Mieko Harada made a huge splash as the pathetic protagonist of Masumura’s most poignant work.
Don Giovanni (Joseph Losey, 1979) - A testament to the magic of modern sound restoration: Losey’s filmed version of Mozart’s opera was recorded on location within a wide range of acoustical spaces (many of them dismal) and was considered a failed experiment as a result, until its 2006 sound remaster. Ruggero Raimondi made something of a second career out of playing his wheelhouse roles in film versions of opera (he was also in Rosi's Carmen and Zulawski’s Boris Godunov), and this was his most exciting screen performance.
Kagero-za (Seijun Suzuki, 1981) - With the exception of Jonathan Rosenbaum, who champions his penultimate confuse-fest Pistol Opera, the critical world at large still hesitates to exalt Suzuki’s later work, choosing instead to focus on the late period of his time at Nikkatsu. The second film in his unofficial “Taisho” trilogy, which apparently loosely adapts Kyoka Izumi’s currently untranslated novella of the same name, towers above his other work from any period in my mind. The opening five minutes, which jump through minutes and seconds like a caffeinated dream (or Resnais’s Muriel), set the stage for the death-obsessed confusion we the audience are about to experience.
L'amour Braque (Andrzej Żuławski, 1985) - Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot filmed with the same through-composed kinetic energy as Evil Dead II, and two years earlier than Raimi’s experiment. It is the most exhausting of Żuławski’s films, and I mean that as a high compliment.
Tough Guys Don’t Dance (Norman Mailer, 1987) - It’s my belief that everyone who knows the history of the Cannon Group has a legitimate favorite and a ‘camp’ favorite of their films. My camp favorite, by quite a bit, is Mailer’s first commercial effort. Clips of Ryan O’Neal’s line readings (“OH GOD, OH MAN”) have experienced something of a viral following in the last decade.
The Asthenic Syndrome (Kira Muratova, 1989) - Muratova’s greatest work, in which mid-century Soviet cinema “wakes up” from its ethereal stylistics about 45 minutes in, to shocking effect.
Warsaw Bridge (Pere Portabella, 1989) - Arguably the most accessible work by Portabella (who became a Spanish countercultural icon overnight as a producer of Buñuel’s Viridiana in 1961), which of course means it’s still completely opaque. A conductor, a writer, and a professor attend a cocktail party after the success of an experimental orchestra concert, in which the writer is pressed about his new novel (named Warsaw Bridge) and unable to explain its meaning.
From the East (Chantal Akerman, 1993) - Akerman’s second true masterwork after Jeanne Dielman, a wordless travelogue through the recently de-sovereigned former U.S.S.R. nations.
Whispering Pages (Aleksandr Sokurov, 1994) - Sokurov’s most ethereally photographed work (which is saying a great deal), the ultra-loose adaptation of Crime and Punishment contains a dispassionate suicide-themed dream sequence which will stick with each viewer forever.
As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (Jonas Mekas, 2000) - Avant-Garde “godfather” Mekas’s magnum opus, in which over four hours of home movie footage are edited into a riveting self-portrait in which the subject never appears.
Trigger Man (Ti West, 2007) -Ti West did what so many other young aspiring filmmakers have done at one time or another: used wooded areas and warehouses near their childhood homes as locations for vague stories about shootouts or running from shooters. The differences are humbling, though: West had an impeccable sense of timing for horror even at a young age, and the end product is just as gripping as any other thriller from the time.