This list was originally written for Taste of Cinema – http://www.tasteofcinema.com/2019/10-great-film-classics-youve-probably-never-seen-2/
Whilst the slightly oxymoronic title may have a minority of you convinced that this list couldn’t be worth reading, just hold on! This week, this title will be slightly morphed to fit some new intentions. This will be ten films that would likely be considered classics if only more people saw them, mainly just because of how good they really are. There’s an exciting mix in here too, so hopefully there is at least one film for most anyone to be able to pick up and enjoy. Anyway, let’s not waste any more time and just get started on talking about the films themselves!
1. Le Plaisir (Max Ophuls, 1952)
Starting off with what is likely the most well known film featured, Max Ophuls’ touching anthology film Le Plaisir tells three stories focused on the titular pleasure, all of which are inspired by stories from French writer Guy de Maupassant.
Anyone familiar of the work of Max Ophuls will already know of his incredible ability with the camera, and will know that his shot movement is not only legendary but massively influential to the likes of Martin Scorsese and Paul Thomas Anderson today, and whilst the competition does make it quite tough to say this with any clarity, Le Plaisir might just be his most effective and most beautiful showcase of cinematography throughout his entire career.
Whilst the film does (very slightly) lack consistency – the main story, Le Maison Tellier, does admittedly falter at times, and isn’t as interesting as the other two manage to be – it falls to the marginally less impressive moments to bolster later moments of brilliance, such as the astounding perspective shot of one character jumping out of a window that would be ridiculously impressive if seen now (even with the assistance of CGI!) or the brilliantly humorous opening story, Le Masque. The entire filmography of Max Ophuls is well worth a look, and this could be his greatest achievement.
2. Viva L’Italia! (Roberto Rossellini, 1961)
Perhaps the single most overlooked work of the great Roberto Rossellini is Viva L’Italia, a film described by Rossellini himself as “a documentary made after the event, trying to figure out what happened.” that follows the true story of Giuseppe Garibaldi as he leads his military campaign, known as Expedition of the Thousand, in attempts to conquer various parts of Italy and unite the country, which was split into six parts at the time.
With breathtakingly gorgeous wide landscape shots detailing the battlegrounds of Garibaldi’s thousand as they navigate their way around their enemy and take over each battle. It’s an incredibly well handled, insanely well shot film that deserves to be recognised as another one of Rossellini’s great films.
3. L’Enfant Secret (Philippe Garrel, 1979)
Leave it to the likes of Philippe Garrel to make a “very” strange romance/anti-romance at the tender age of 31. Recounting a romance between Jean-Baptiste – a director – and Elie – an actress – as it starts to fall apart at the seams, L’Enfant Secret is a gut punch of a romantic drama if ever there was, and it remains surprisingly off kilter considering just how easy to connect to it is at the core. More interestingly, it is worth knowing that this film is semi-autobiographical surrounding Nico’s affair with Alain Delon, which makes the pain felt all the more resonant.
Another film that seems quite simple on the surface, but is secretly nursing a whole host of different ideas, L’Enfant Secret is at first quite difficult to access, but a film that gradually reveals more of itself to the audience as the runtime continues. It won’t be a film that everybody will enjoy, but it is one that is worth viewing to see whether you do happen to fall for it or not. If not, there are plenty of other Philippe Garrel films that are very different. Regular Lovers is also brilliant.
4. Eureka (Shinji Aoyama, 2000)
One of the many cases where an intimidatingly long running time is seriously worthwhile in the end, Shinji Aoyoma’s towering masterpiece Eureka narrates the heartbreaking story of three character – traumatised bus driver Makoto and two siblings, Kozue and Naoki – as they try to build their lives back together after a horrific bus hijacking.
With surprisingly little dialogue, the characters are immaculately built up from the start of the film, and the tender direction gradually becomes completely overwhelming, touching on the effects of trauma and the effects of guilt in ways that take risks in alienating the audience completely but always pay off because of Aoyama’s seriously perfect approach to both the characters and the subjects at hand.
It is an incredibly impressive film, one that strikes at the heart rather than anywhere else. This is definitely a film for any fans of slow cinema, and a must see for just about anyone who really enjoys movies. This one really slipped under the radar, but is thankfully now becoming a bit of a cult hit to help compensate for the lacking widespread appreciation for such a marvellous film. It is unbelievably great, and 100 percent worth the lengthy time investment.
5. Carmen Jones (Otto Preminger, 1954)
Surprisingly sporting an all black cast, Otto Preminger’s 1954 romantic military musical focuses on the titular Carmen Jones as she leads Joe (played by Harry Belafonte, who is for some reason dubbed over) down a dark road he will likely never come back from.
Playing into a wide range of different genres, from femme fatale melodrama to military adventure to musical, whilst remaining under Preminger’s very strong direction and the characteristically gorgeous 50s technicolour cinematography, Carmen Jones’ only real slip up is some of the ideological ones when it goes too far in stereotyping gender and race and embarrasses itself.
Other than those moments, it’s a brilliant film, one with excellent songs, absolutely beautiful colour and camera movement and great performances that is generally considered around the middle of the road, which is a great shame considering how progressive this is in having not only an all black cast but also in having a black (and strong!) female protagonist who is both intelligent and bold enough to look after herself in the rough situations she unsurprisingly and consistently lands herself into. It’s well worth watching, especially considering the short runtime.
6. Hardly Working (Jerry Lewis, 1981)
With the exception of The Nutty Professor (which was subsequently bastardised by Eddie Murphy in 1996), almost all of the films actually directed by Jerry Lewis seem to have slipped under the radar and been forgotten about, quite unfairly considering that he has an incredibly consistent output and is bold enough to really stray from the films he only acted in.
Whether it’s playing seven different characters in The Family Jewels, trying to make a film about a clown finding himself in a concentration camp or just being outright ridiculous, Lewis was known as a risk taker, and Hardly Working is one of his later films where he really stuck to taking those risks as much as possible, producing a film that is equal parts side-splitting funny and ruthlessly depressing due to the situations the main character finds himself in.
A jobless clown desperate to find another job, but simply cursed with being inept at most anything, Hardly Working is one of the strongest (and most bizarre) comedies of the 1980s, maybe only topped later on by another Jerry Lewis film, Smorgasbord (AKA Cracking Up).
7. Polyester (John Waters, 1981)
Strangely, when looking back over the work of John Waters, it seems that ironically it is his underground films that are now more notorious and more recognised than his films with budgets, leaving his wonderfully silly and zany efforts working within the studio system (barely, but still) in the dust, undeservedly.
With other excellent films like Cecil B Demented and Cry Baby, it was actually difficult to choose just one Waters film to run with, however, Polyester recently released on Criterion so it feels more relevant and is easiest to access currently, so here we are. Polyester is John Waters trying his hand at a melodrama in the style of films like All That Heaven Allows and Mildred Pierce, detailing the woes of the life of a mother in the 1950s surrounded by her ungrateful family.
One more thing important to mention – Waters also brings in Odorama, which is probably exactly what you’re thinking – you can smell the film during pivotal moments, and as you can also probably guess quite easily, the smells really aren’t too nice… this is a John Waters film, after all!
Despite the lingering smells, this is a wonderful film that is also both very funny and depressing because, whilst it is consistently so silly and exaggerated, there is also a root to the film that is real, and painful. It’s an easy film to enjoy just because it operates on so many different levels, and the short runtime helps too. It could even be the best film Waters has made.
8. Devil In A Blue Dress (Carl Franklin, 1995)
Starring Denzel Washington as Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins, a down on his luck, unemployed man growing desperate who stumbles into, and is forced to try to navigate through, the seedy underbelly of post-war Los Angeles whilst searching far and wide for Daphne Monet. Taking the typical formula of film noir and adding racial issues into the mix, as well as more directly involving the government in the seediness, Devil in a Blue Dress is an enthralling and simply splendid modern noir that isn’t celebrated nearly as much as it deserves to be.
Carl Franklin directs brilliantly, Don Cheadle joins in as a disjointed loose cannon and all hell soon breaks loose as Denzel continues to descend into the belly of the beast. It’s a very impressive film all around, and one that deserves more recognition for bringing something new to the table of modern film noir whilst remaining a strong film without the additional focus on race.
9. The Lovers Of Montparnasse (Also known as Montparnasse ’19) (Max Ophuls and Jacques Becker, 1958)
Originally set to be another Max Ophuls project, until his unfortunate death placed the remainder of the film in the hands of his long time friend Jacques Becker, The Lovers of Montparnasse chronicles the downward spiral of painter and sculptor Amadeo Modigliani due to alcoholism and self doubt (stemming from his talent remaining unrecognised).
It is a haunting beautiful film, sharing the traits of any other Ophuls film with the creeping camera and austere melodrama. This may even be Ophuls’ most savagely depressing film, watching as the now-famous Modigliani continues to fall into self doubt and alcoholism until the effects of both become irreversible. The ending is also an unexpected kick to the gut, and even more depressingly, this film fell into obscurity after release, only recently becoming more recognised due to a release by Arrow Academy. An incredibly harsh watch, but one of a story so touching it is difficult not to be captivated.
10. Antigone (Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet, 1992)
Coming from the consistently overlooked Straub and Huillet, a duo whose work is only now starting to really capture any kind of traction in becoming more generally recognised by film fans, Antigone is one of the strongest films of the 1990s.
An adaptation of the classic Greek play detailing the debate between a harsh King and the sister of a man not granted a decent burial upon death, Straub and Huillet stay with the source material in a way that few other directors ever have, allowing their deceptively simple style of cinematography and editing to envelop the audience before jabbing them in the chest with the incredible script (often spoken so quickly and with such fierce emotion behind it that it can be difficult to really keep up).
It’s a shocking, moving film that manages to brew up so much emotional power seemingly out of nowhere, as with a lot of the work of Straub and Huillet. A testing watch, maybe, but a rewarding one without a doubt.