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Gordon's Precious Obscurities Part 4: 25 Underrated Films To Check Out

25 obscure films that local film historian Gordon Inman recommends!

Hearts of the World (D.W. Griffith, 1918) - After the one-two punch of Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, Griffith traveled to France to film battle scenes for this Great War yarn during the Great War. It’s an incredible feat that directors were still gaining notoriety for doing half a century later. To Griffith’s simultaneous credit and discredit, he clearly would have taken a camera to the Civil War for Birth of a Nation if he could have.

Hindle Wakes (Maurice Elvey, 1927) - The greatest work from England’s first great director, with an ending defiantly reminiscent of A Doll’s House.

That Night’s Wife (Yasujiro Ozu, 1930) - Despite his reputation as the gentle serialized filmmaker he became in his last decade, Ozu may be the most “Taisho” of Japan’s first generation of directors; that is to say, his silent works clearly reflect his love of Western cinema from the time, as he often went so far as to pay clear homage to the stylings of Chaplin (and Harold Lloyd’s glasses), Vidor, and in this case von Sternberg.

Hallelujah, I’m a Bum! (Lewis Milestone, 1933) - The Rodgers & Hart musical about the homeless during the first red scare proves to be a fascinating time capsule, in which the ‘bum’ most motivated to work (probably the only great Harry Langdon speaking role) is ridiculed by the others for his communist tendencies.

Lady Killer (Jean Gremillon, 1937) - A familiar story among those examples of “poetic realism” produced in France in the 1930s, right down to its Jean Gabin protagonist. This example could be called the outlier in its embrace of male friendship over the pursuit of women, which Renoir would explore two years later in The Rules of the Game.

Dreams That Money Can Buy (Hans Richter, 1947)- A broke, recently returned American soldier discovers he has the power to manifest his own and other people’s dreams and sets up a business out of his apartment. While ultimately solely directed by the great Hans Richter, this surrealist anthology, shot entirely in New York City on what I like to call bargain bin technicolor, represents one of the most jaw-dropping artistic collaborations of the 2oth century. Surrealist (and/or debatably Dadaist) masters Max Ernst, Man Ray, and Fernand Leger provided artistic direction for different ‘dreams’; Kenneth MacPherson (the director of Borderline) co-produced with Richter; and composers Paul Bowles, Darius Milhaud, and John Cage provided scores to various segments, although Bowles contributed the lion’s share.

Outrage (Ida Lupino, 1950) - Kino Lorber gave us a gift this year with a newly restored box set of four of Ida Lupino’s directorial efforts. Unfortunately, they left out her masterpiece: an American neorealist study of a woman’s efforts to pick up the pieces of her life after experiencing a (mercifully unseen) sexual assault.

Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys! (Leo McCarey, 1958) - McCarey’s final zany romp. While it’s ultimately just a fun cold war sex comedy in the Tashlin style, no less an expert than critic Robin Wood (who will likely always be McCarey’s biggest fan) considered this to be his best work.

The Warped Ones (Koreyoshi Kurahara, 1960) - Nothing less than Japan’s Breathless: a whiplash-inducing crime story in which the characters live up to their title.

The Enchanted Desna (Yuliya Solntseva, 1964) - The third of Solntseva’s adaptations of texts by her late husband, Aleksandr Dovzhenko. This one delves into its protagonist’s childhood memories of the idyllic land of his youth as he surveys its war-torn remains.

Yesterday Girl (Alexander Kluge, 1966) - Based on Kluge’s own short story “Anita G.” and known as something closer to “Goodbye to Yesterday” in the original German. A young girl (Alexandra Kluge, sister of the director) moves from East to West Germany in the early 1960s and practically experiences a new world. Alexander Kluge’s debut is also widely considered to be the start of what we now call the New German Cinema, which would later give us the directorial careers of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Herzog, Volker Schlöndorff, Wim Wenders, and Hans-Jürgen Syberberg.

79 Primaveras (Santiago Alvarez, 1969) - Cuban agitprop master Alvarez’s short subjects should be taught in introductory film courses alongside Eisenstein’s silents. His whirlwind biography of Ho Chi Minh is likely his ultimate masterpiece among many great works.

Blanche (Walerian Borowczyk, 1971) - Borowczyk has had an unlikely reappraisal in the last few years, but it has been focused almost entirely on his later erotic fantasies and early animation. This drama, adapted from the Slowacki poem Mazepa, has been mostly overlooked. The raw soundtrack comes from the ‘Carmina Burana’ songbook and is played on period instruments, resulting in a remarkable sense of time and place.

Morgiana (Juraj Herz, 1972) - Slovakian director Herz (best known for 1969’s The Cremator) employs a typically brilliant Lubos Fiser film score for this gothic ‘tale of two sisters’ yarn, with both twins played by Iva Janzurová.

Hitler: A Film from Germany (Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, 1977) - The longest entry in this list, at over seven hours. Syberberg, who would likely share a similar level of fame with his New German colleagues if he’d made shorter films, takes a merciless inventory of who Adolf Hitler was, how he was able to fail upwards to such a powerful position, and how the German people who allowed his rise can process their passive sin.

Personal Problems (Bill Gunn, 1980) - 2018 brought Bill Gunn’s third and final film (and second released to date) to the public eye, although it didn’t seep into the public consciousness until it appeared on the Criterion Channel last month. Something of an experimental soap opera, shot in New York with non-actors, this is the brainchild of one of Chattanooga’s native literary heroes: the brilliant novelist and poet Ishmael Reed. #CHATTABUNGA

Cracking Up (Jerry Lewis, 1983) - Against all odds, Jerry Lewis was able to overcome his late-career malaise and give audiences one more hilarious (if scattershot) directorial outing. His last film proved to be his best since 1964’s The Patsy.

The Horse Thief (Tian Zhuangzhuang, 1986) - Mainland China’s 5th Generation bad boy Tian Zhuangzhuang miraculously talked his way into filming one of the most spiritually moving fiction films entirely in Tibet. The film’s sky burial opening puts the viewer in the mood for anything.

Iguana (Monte Hellman, 1988) - Despite his limited fame, Monte Hellman can claim to have directed the most critically acclaimed film Roger Corman ever produced (The Shooting) and to have given Quentin Tarantino his start by producing Reservoir Dogs. Tarantino has said that in a just world Iguana would have launched Hellman to stardom, but I can’t imagine such a depressing pirate movie becoming that much of a hit.

Homework (Abbas Kiarostami, 1989) - Kiarostami takes a disturbing snapshot of domestic Iranian life a decade after the Revolution by interviewing several dozen young children about their study habits. For now, this is Kiarostami’s least famous masterpiece.

Hyenas (Djibril Diop Mambety, 1992) - Mambety made five short features before his untimely death in 1998. Only two of these run over an hour. The second of these, Hyenas, is a pitch-black satire about money as might and might as right. (The title of his other longer feature, 1973’s Touki Bouki, translates to “Journey of the Hyena,” although the two films are not otherwise related.)

When Pigs Fly (Sara Driver, 1993) - All three of Driver’s features are riveting and obscure, but her third outing most likely has the widest appeal. A jazz xylophonist befriends the two ghosts who came with the old chair he’s just received as a gift.

From Today Until Tomorrow (Daniele Huillet/Jean-Marie Straub, 1997) - Straub and Huillet’s second adaptation of a Schoenberg opera (after 1975’s Moses und Aron), but this one’s a comedy.

Wake Up Mate, Don’t You Sleep (Miklos Jancso, 2002) - Even Jancso earlier, more followable ventures prioritized movement over plot, and by the end of his career he dove headfirst into this medley of Hungary’s role in World War 2’s European theatre, backlot drama, and pop music.

The Other World (Richard Stanley, 2013) - The great South African mystic Richard Stanley (who recently gained a new generation of fans with his durable Lovecraft adaptation The Color Out of Space) and his wife spin a tale of their personal ghost sighting in a castle in the South of France, with some truly unsettling visual recreations. Although it’s shot in a documentary style it is assuredly a work of fiction, as there’s no evidence that ghosts exist. #HAPPYBELATEDHALLOWUNGA

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