Originally written for Taste of Cinema – http://www.tasteofcinema.com/2020/10-great-movie-classics-youve-probably-never-seen-10/
It’s always a good time to sit down to a seriously great film, right? And we all have dry spells where we seem to find anything but, too. So, why not make things a little easier, simplify them a bit, and narrow things down to ten incredible movies that you should check out in any way possible? Enough delaying, let’s just get started…
1. Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2008)
To put things simply from the very start of this list, Kiyoshi Kurosawa is a cinematic master like very few others. The control that he has over his form, and in turn over the emotions of his audience, is almost unprecedented. Maybe there’s some kind of mythical cinematic power given to the name Kurosawa, who knows? But putting cosmic coincidences to one side, lt’s look at Tokyo Sonata.
This film was a quite drastic switch up for Kiyoshi, seeing him flip his style and alter his approach from a notorious director of horror and (really) dark thrillers, such as Pulse (2001) and Cure (1997) (both of which are seriously excellent!) to taking on a more domestic approach to fit the context of the financial struggles strangling and suffocating Japan at the time of production.
Still channelling plenty of darkness and discomfort in the process, Tokyo Sonata is one of the greatest and most overlooked films of the 21st century, and maybe even of all time, with the perfect mix of fantasy and realism, the delicate juggling of horror and drama and the incredible ensemble cast who manage to portray everything so clearly despite the difficulties in expressing the shame and fear that they’re experiencing.
Starting off as unbearably real and gradually becoming increasingly surreal as it continues, Tokyo Sonata is a rarely emotional film focused on the effects of unemployment and financial insecurity. Kiyoshi directs it like a master of his craft, because he is one, and takes his formal game up a level by testing the waters of the family genre (it makes a lot of sense that he now makes a lot of films focused on relationships at the centre of a conflict).
2. The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Carl Koch and Lotte Reineger, 1926)
The very first fully animated feature length film just happened to be one of the greatest ever made. Utilising some of the most beautiful mixes of colours ever put to screen, as well as working with a gorgeous style that is gifted to the film by Lotte Reiniger’s wonderfully impressionistic use of shadows and silhouettes cut from cardboard, The Adventures of Prince Achmed is a breathtaking film that shows how early on animated films had intense visual power, something that can still be seen (in the right films, at least) even today, almost a hundred years later. There’s not too much to be said for this one, as its power is almost entirely to be seen in the beauty of the animated visuals, but do see it anyway!
3. Pauline at the Beach (Eric Rohmer, 1983)
Okay, admittedly, most of us probably know Rohmer and his films quite well, but still, Pauline at the Beach is so wonderful that it won’t hurt to talk about it a little. One of Rohmer’s funniest and lightest films, Pauline at the Beach is a brilliant cause and effect comedy that follows the dysfunctional relationships between a group of people holidaying together.
The story has such a flow to it that it’s almost impossible not to enjoy the freewheeling attitude it has towards everything that happens, and even when it does become more serious it maintains enough of the silliness to never veer completely off road and become something else entirely. The locations add an extra layer of beauty to the film, as does the cast, with the overall movie certainly having the energy of being a true comfort film.
Few feel quite like it, with the overwhelming feeling of comfort despite some of the more serious consequences of the events as they continue to get worse through the continued misunderstandings of the characters. It’s a uniquely pleasant movie, one that doesn’t feel consequential enough to be truly dramatic or distressing – it’s one of those shockingly scarce films that feels just right.
4. The Roaring Twenties (Raoul Walsh, 1939)
Raoul Walsh is a total veteran. Having made so many terrific films, with the most well known of them all likely being White Heat. The Roaring Twenties works as something of a spiritual predecessor to White Heat, also utilising James Cagney in the lead and both films following the perspective of a criminal, however, The Roaring Twenties may be the better character study. Looking deeply into the troubling context of the 1920s for Americans, the post-war poverty that crippled so many, and how this led to increases in crime and, in turn, increases in lust for power.
Surely a huge inspiration for Martin Scorsese in terms of style, with the stylistic newspaper archive edits being used to lay out the exposition and context and Cagney’s anti-hero being framed in so many contradictory ways to the point that the audience has to question his character, but also themselves and their reception of such a character. To put it simply, The Roaring Twenties is a phenomenal film that really manages to capture the troubles faced in 1920s America, whilst also serving as another excellent gangster classic for those who like those, too.
5. Punishment Park (Peter Watkins, 1971)
Peter Watkins generally has produced a good number of the most overlooked films ever made, from his absolutely astonishing La Commune, 1871 to his more mainstream films like Privilege that still somehow missed the mark (or, if they did hit the mark when they came out, have certainly been forgotten almost entirely), and Punishment Park is no exception even if it is one of his more popular works.
Taking the faux documentary style that Watkins played a huge part in popularising (along with directors like Robert Flaherty) and applying it to the heavy political contexts that were everywhere in the early 1970s (such as the civil rights movement and protests against the Vietnam war, for example), Watkins makes a really astonishing film by focusing so intently on realism whilst merging it slightly with a feeling of totalitarian dystopia, just enough so that it still feels real. It’s a real shocker of a film, something that works within its own genre that will probably never be seen again.
6. Diary of a Lost Girl (G.W. Pabst, 1929)
One of the most beautiful silent films ever made, G.W. Pabst’s Diary of a Lost Girl follows the story of Thymiane Henning (played by Louise Brooks in a spellbinding performance), a girl who becomes pregnant after being raped and therefore finds herself deserted by her family and forced to fend for herself in a world that wants very little to do with her for no reason of her own doing.
It’s a very harsh film, but God, it’s so good. If anyone is looking for a way to get into silent films, this one is bound to help as the emotion involved in the story (and especially in Louise Brooks’ mesmerising performance). It’s a real classic, but also one that deserves much more attention and acclaim for what it says and how it chooses to say it. A truly beautiful movie, even if some of it is hard to watch.
7. Oedipus Rex (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1967)
Pier Paolo Pasolini probably needs no introduction – the fearless, endlessly cheeky political mastermind has definitely made a name for himself that has given him immortality through his controversial but brilliant work, and Oedipus Rex is no exception to the rule that says that Pasolini outrages his audiences.
Working from Sophocles’ classical Greek tragedy King Oedipus, adding and extending many parts for the sake of simply spending more time with these characters, but also updating the myth with the opening and closing chapters by placing it in present day and effectively chuckling at how little has really changed since the so-called barbarian times, Pasolini creates an incredible adaptation of one of the best texts in literature whilst also still adding his trademark style as he did when he adapted The Canterbury Tales, too. Taking these texts and making them his own most definitely made him more infamous to audiences who are more prescriptivist about adapting texts, but the wonder of Pasolini is that he didn’t care about that, he just wanted to make great movies.
8. Carmen Jones (Otto Preminger, 1954)
One of the earliest mainstream films with an all black cast, Carmen Jones isn’t perfect but is damn surprisingly nonetheless. A beautiful musical focused on the story of the titular femme fatale Carmen Jones, this film is another rare product of its time that stands out so much now because of the risk it took at the time. It’s a fascinating film to see being aware of the context, and much like Watkins’ Punishment Park, there’ll probably never be anything quite like it again.
Otto Preminger always seems to go all out on his projects, and this one is no exception. As problematic as some parts of this is, a lot of it stands together surprisingly well considering this film is approaching its 70 year anniversary, and the musical numbers are great. It’s no masterpiece, but it is damn good!
9. Thieves’ Highway (Jules Dassin, 1949)
Jules Dassin generally is really quite overlooked with the exception of Rififi, and it’s a real shame as he is one of the more unique film noir directors (in that he often strayed from the typical femme fatales and drenching his films in smoke). Night and the City has a distinctly gripping grit to it throughout that makes its conman focus feel all the more real, and it makes for an electrifying thriller, but Thieves’ Highway may just be even better.
Focusing on the story of Nick Garcos, a Greek man who returns from World War II and finds that his father has been conned and almost killed by a food salesman and swears revenge, Thieves’ Highway intently stares at (maybe glaring at would be accurate) the corruption that comes alongside money, something explored in the majority of Dassin’s films, as well as this darker connection between money and classical Greek tragedy.
Multiple Dassin films are framed similarly to Greek tragedies, and so it can’t be a coincidence that so often he chooses to place Greek characters into his narratives, making a condemning connection between his characters, who always try to do their best, even if it is in vain. Night and the City bears clear resemblance to the story of Sisyphus, and Thieves’ Highway is quite similar, also acting as a clearly large influence on Henri-Georges Clouzot’s incredible The Wages of Fear, which came out just a few years after this one did in 1953 and focuses on a startlingly similar narrative (along with all of the startlingly similar ideas that come with it).
Dassin’s film is a hell of a ride, unfortunately overshadowed by those who took some of its ideas and ran in a different direction with them, making use of bigger budgets to bring in double the excitement and therefore doubling down on the impact of Dassin’s original message. Nonetheless, Thieves’ Highway shouldn’t be skipped over, as it is brilliant, it’s just a little harder to find now.
10. Rhapsody in August (Akira Kurosawa, 1991)
Legendary director Akira Kurosawa’s penultimate film, Rhapsody in August makes for one of the most beautiful dramas ever made. Taking plenty of inspiration from Yasujiro Ozu with the focus on family and connection, but maintaining Akira’s usual style with the almost constantly gliding camera and the odd casting (more of a trait of Kurosawa’s late work, but still – Richard Gere shows up in this film, and has a key part – who would’ve thought?), Rhapsody in August is about a Japanese family who has to confront their troubled past with America (left over from the impact of the grandmother having been alive during, and lost her husband to, the Hiroshima bomb) when she wishes to visit her long lost brother who is hospitalised there.
Bringing such grace and beauty to the world of Kurosawa’s films, and mixing it with such a beautiful story, too, Kurosawa saved one of his finest films (certainly his most beautiful!) for close to the end of his career. This film is impossibly beautiful, and is so frequently skipped over by Kurosawa’s fans for some reason… so, if you enjoy Kurosawa, do see it! Hell, why not see it even if you don’t like Kurosawa – it deserves the attention any way it can be received!