This article was originally written for Taste of Cinema – http://www.tasteofcinema.com/2020/10-forgotten-movie-masterpieces-of-world-cinema-2/
American cinema gives more than enough films to fill a lifetime, and it is almost certain that most anyone has missed a few incredible films from America alone, however when opening the stage to films from all around the world, all of a sudden being a film fan becomes a battle against existential intimidation… Anyway, to try to aid this fear of not being able to see all of the best films out there, here is a small but handy guide to ten films from around the world that you may have missed but still should definitely seek out and watch.
1. Montparnasse 19 (Max Ophuls and Jacques Becker, 1958)
To start off with a bang, let’s talk about Max Ophuls final film (a project that was taken over by his longtime friend and collaborator Jacques Becker, a director more than deserving of his own recognition for the films he directed, including the quite well known Touchez Pas Au Grisbi!) which is based on the true story of Italian painter and sculptor Amadeo Modigliani and the final year or so of his life as he succumbs to cancer.
With Ophuls’ typically gorgeous and free-flowing cinematography taking centre stage along with the actors, who give great performances across the board but none quite as good as Gerard Philipe in the leading role who gives one of the best performances as a conflicted and self destructive artist, Montparnasse 19 (also known as The Lovers of Montparnasse) is one hell of a swan song if ever there was.
An absolutely beautiful film about art and the sacrifices made for it, and how sometimes art doesn’t earn its place in history until after its time has passed. The film is as visually stunning as it is upsetting, but the balance between the two creates this haunting bittersweet feeling that makes this one of the most memorably emotional films of the 1950s, as well as one of the most frequently forgotten.
2. The Moment of Truth (Francesco Rosi, 1965)
Maybe the single most overlooked film on this list, Francesco Rosi’s 1965 masterpiece The Moment of Truth looks at the life of Miguel (often called Miguelin in the film, something of a stage name) as he leaves his life of poverty and heads to the city to become a bullfighter in a desperate attempt to escape poverty and likely starvation.
A favourite of the Safdie Brothers, who show the influence of the incredibly innovative mixing of CinemaScope and neo-realism in all of their work to date, The Moment of Truth is a perfect example of the ending of the neo-realist movement and how it started to fuse with more modern approaches to cinema after the start of the French New Wave.
It is a total gut punch of a film, not a subtle film but a damn striking one as it focuses on realism so intently that it is often hard to tell if some scenes are real or not, especially the bullfighting scenes which are shot in wide shots and play out in real time for the most part, with minimal editing used to make them so much more intense and immersive, with the bright Hollywood red blood marking the end of each frightening battle.
3. Salvatore Giuliano (Francesco Rosi, 1962)
One of Martin Scorsese’s top ten films of all time, Francesco Rosi’s second appearance on this list is an excellent neo-realist murder mystery surrounding the death of the titular Sicilian, looking at how both local and international media approach the case and try to find the truth in Giuliano’s story. The film is shot on exact locations, with Rosi channelling through the truths and the myths surrounding Giuliano’s death and trying to find the truth whilst also focusing on the corrupt authorities that may have played a part in Salvatore’s fate.
Working largely as a set-up to the style that Rosi would explore further when he made The Moment of Truth three years later, using the same neo-realist and cinema verite styles in cinematography and performance to ground the film and create a hyper-reality (by mixing the real with the unreal so seamlessly) as well as a similar focus on how the everyman can be targeted by powers above him without even realising it. It really is an excellent film, and one that is so brushed under the dust despite having a great reputation among those who have unearthed it.
4. Fortini/Cani (Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet, 1976)
The incredible work of Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet seems to know no bounds and yet almost all of it seems to slide under the radar, however, Fortini/Cani, the pair’s 1976 masterpiece, seems to fall through the cracks more than most.
Maybe this shouldn’t be so surprising, given the very literary and extremely precise approach that this pair have towards filmmaking, and their consistent approach of highly intellectual topics that can be frankly hard to keep up with most of the time also alienates a lot of viewers (or makes them hesitant to delve in to their work, too!), but it has to be said it’s still quite depressing to know that a film this good can exist and struggle to find an active audience beyond a small cult following who adore most of the work of Straub and Huillet. It’s a hard film to find, but one that is really essential viewing for those who can get their hands on it. Highly recommended!
5. Picnic On The Grass (Jean Renoir, 1959)
Renoir tried his hands at many different genres and styles, however, it always seemed that comedy was maybe his forte above all else, and so it makes sense that at least one of his comedies would fall between the cracks and be left behind, lost in the shadow of The Rules of the Game forever, waiting to be unearthed and rediscovered. Picnic in the Grass is that film, an incredibly funny Chaplin-esque comedy about the young Nenette, who wants to have a baby but is generally unimpressed by her male company to the point that she can’t find a father.
With one of the greatest comic sequences of all time in the scene where a windstorm occurs, Renoir seemed to really master a more laid-back approach to comedy that he found earlier on in his career but never really put to use in the way that he does here. This is one of Renoir’s finest films, which is really saying something considering the sheer amount of masterpieces the man made. One of the best films from one of the all time great directors… and still, unfortunately, this film has failed to catch on anywhere near as much as it deserves to.
6. Massacre Gun (Yasuharu Hasebe, 1967)
Stripping back the exclusively high brow content for a minute, let’s take a look at this overlooked Yakuza thrill-ride, Massacre Gun. Thankfully brought back to life by Arrow Video a few years ago, Hasebe’s thrilling crime film makes for a real stand-out from the gangster genre, mimicking the best traits of crime cinema from all around the world, from the incredibly smooth and slick film noir that had become huge in America a couple of decades before to the Italian neo-realism that grounded the crime in reality, Massacre Gun is a film of many influences and yet it proudly wears each and every one of those influences on its sleeve, creating a simple but nevertheless engaging Yakuza film that really deserves a lot more recognition for its beautiful, almost orchestral cinematic harmony.
7. Your Face (Tsai Ming-Liang, 2018)
Tsai Ming-Liang has already made his mark on the 2020s with his latest film, Days, which is surprisingly tender considering that it comes from the often quite deranged Tsai, however, those with a keen eye will recognise Your Face as perhaps his most tender film. A talking heads documentary that is largely without talking, the film is simply a collection of close-ups of faces of interviewees, who can choose to talk if they like, sit silently and look into the camera or even sleep peacefully in one case.
With such a gentle approach to the documentary style, intelligently cobbled together from Tsai’s humanist interests as well as his always fascinating approach to slow cinema, Your Face is a striking and memorable film thanks to its complete departure from expectations. It becomes a beautiful and truly meditative (a word that seems to be thrown at too many films lately) piece that takes a little adjusting to but lingers in the memory in a way that few other films do.
8. Secret Things (Jean-Claude Brisseau, 2002)
Jean-Claude Brisseau’s work seems to be quite overlooked and forgotten generally, but in the case of both Secret Things and The Exterminating Angels especially it can be painful to see just how left behind the two films are considering their quality. Secret Things is a really quite disturbing and menacing film about two women who decide to leave their lower paying jobs and use sex to their advantage in an office setting to manipulate their way to the top leagues, whilst having plenty of erotic fun in the process.
Channelling inspiration from so many different cinematic greats, from Bunuel to Hitchcock just to name a couple, Brisseau creates something quite unlike most any other film and really drives home the ideas about power and manipulation present in sex. It’s a perfect blend of sleazy and incredibly intelligent, meaning that you can essentially watch what is at times really quite pornographic without feeling any real guilt about it, and beyond that simple pleasure, it’s just an incredibly good film with important points to make about sex in the modern world. I’m sure it’s no surprise to find out that such a film is also from France!
9. Melancholia (Lav Diaz, 2008)
Lav Diaz is definitely a director who needs little introduction by now, but for those unfamiliar, his style revolves around extremely long films, slower pacing and long takes focused on Filipino life… and Melancholia might be his crowning cinematic achievement. Clocking in at around eight hours (yep – you’re reading that right – eight hours!) and focusing in on the lives of three characters who try to dispel their angst that comes from living in the Philippines in an… unorthodox way.
Funnily enough, the fact that this film is eight hours makes it no easier to talk about in terms of both plot and form, with both being in a world of their own and the plot especially being hard to really define in any meaningful way without ruining the greatness of the film. Diaz masterfully juggles the narrative with his technical approach to it, managing to make the form act as a key player within the narrative itself that becomes the guideline for much of the important emotion of the story.
The performances are just incredibly lifelike and down to earth, Diaz’s cinematography as always is a brilliant mix of both gorgeous and urban which creates this distinct mood that really makes his films feel all the more real as well as all the more cinematic simultaneously and, as has been said before, the ambition and audacity of this narrative and the way in which the form is used to tell it is simply mind-blowing.
Diaz is an endlessly impressive director, and thankfully one who is starting to get more and more credit overseas as time progresses, but even so, he is in need of much more credit for his major work and importance to the slow cinema movement that is also slowly becoming increasingly recognised by film fans as something exciting and even seeing it as a potential game changer for the general approach to cinematic storytelling.
Melancholia is one hell of a film, and it deserves to be seen by so many people – try not to let the runtime put you off, or start with Diaz’s Norte, The End of History (2013) instead, which clocks in at a more reasonable four hours and is a great introduction to his style.
10. L’Enfant Secret (Philippe Garrel, 1979)
One of the first features from the highly regarded French director Philippe Garrel, L’Enfant Secret (The Secret Child), is a semi-autobiographical film looking at Garrel’s reaction to Nico cheating on him with Alain Delon and them having a child together. More than that, however, it is an absolute blinder of a film about the struggles of a couple and the more private effects that actions can have on a family structure as a whole.
Utilising more varied cinematic techniques than most other directors (showing the lasting influence of the French New Wave as well as Garrel’s own style) to help the audience to find the emotions of the characters and then consistently twisting the narrative to also twist those set-up emotions, Garrel has a masterful hold over the way that the narrative moves as well as a strong hold on his almost helpless audience. It’s genuinely quite thrilling to see a director hold such a control and be able to put his audience in such a trance – it doesn’t happen very often, and yet Garrel manages to do it with some consistency.