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List: Counting Down Ten Sadly Underseen Films

By Aaron Hillis Lists are breezy reads, but there can be an unfortunate disposability to...

By Aaron Hillis

Lists are breezy reads, but there can be an unfortunate disposability to the data because arbitrarily numbered “Ten Best” somethings or “Five Things You Should Know About” whatevers literally demonstrate quantity’s domination over quality. And now that I’ve sucked all the fun out of the room, here’s a practical but otherwise unranked list of ten auteurist gems — nine of which are already on DVD — that deserve their layers of dust blown off. (Sorry, “Zero Effect” and “11 Harrowhouse,” but the list dictates the rules!)

07252008_onefromtheheart.jpg“One From the Heart” (1982)
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

The fires of over-ambition still smoldering in his belly after “Apocalypse Now,” Francis Ford Coppola’s follow-up was a decadent fiasco that bankrupted him, and might have seemed at the time as if the director had returned half-mad from the Filipino jungles. Epically staged on the Zoetrope studio lot, Coppola’s hypertheatrical Vegas romance-cum-musical fantasy stars Frederic Forrest and a frequently nude Teri Garr as a working class couple who still can’t get it right by their fifth anniversary. Garr runs off to the Strip and into the arms of singing waiter Raul Julia, Forrest romps off with sultry acrobat Nastassja Kinski (whose dance inside a jumbo cocktail glass must’ve inspired Dita Von Teese’s renowned burlesque act), but the live-ins still pine for one another — often behind lit scrims that cleverly open “walls” into their disparate scenes within the same shot. It’s obvious why the film sunk upon release — its leads are a bit milquetoast and the clunky drama old fashioned even by 1980s standards. But between its extravagant set pieces popping out our eyes with every neon hue in legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro’s crayon box, and the smoky-bluesy score — crooned by its Oscar-nominated songwriter Tom Waits (!) in duet with Crystal Gayle (!!) — the film now invokes warm nostalgia for both vintage musicals and an era in which Coppola still shot for the rafters.

“Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight” (a.k.a. “Moment to Moment,” 1975)
Directed by Robert Downey Sr.

Except for 1969′s “Putney Swope” — his irreverent cult send-up of Madison Avenue ad lizards — director Robert Downey Sr.’s anarchic, fun-loving oeuvre remains largely unavailable to the masses today. That hopefully changes in September, when New York’s Anthology Archives presents some of his early, “Putney”-era satires, including “Babo 73,” “Chafed Elbows,” “No More Excuses” and this odd bird from 1975 that took him years to finish, perhaps the most obscure and personal of the lot. An absurdist, 16mm sketch comedy with jazzy digressions and countercultural wordplay (a random handball player riffs, “I paid my dues, so why should I pay my debts?” cut to: a hipster in a baby crib, voiced over by a child, giving a stranger directions to “Jive”), “Moment to Moment” taps the same welcomed vein of indulgent weirdo gags found in Soderbergh’s “Schizopolis” or Rafelson’s “Head” (there’s a Nicholson connection, too, but let’s not oversell it). A full-manned baseball game is played entirely on horseback, senior citizens pick fights over chicks, yet at some point, a voice in the cacophony sighs, “Today’s surrealism is tomorrow’s soap opera.” Downey the junior turns up as his Dadaist self in quasi-home movie snippets, but the whole show is stolen by Iron Boy’s mother, Elsie “L.C.” Downey. In nearly every scene, seemingly in a new costume and persona each time, she’s flippant and flirty while deadpanning boho non-sequiturs.

07252008_threebusinessmen.jpg“Three Businessmen” (1998)
Directed by Alex Cox

Two traveling art dealers check into the same Liverpool hotel — one a stocky, crass American who specializes in southwestern topaz (Miguel Sandoval, with Gervais-ian cringe power), the other a sniffy Brit into African artifacts (“Repo Man” and “Sid and Nancy” writer/director Alex Cox). Scripted by Cox’s wife and longtime collaborator Tod Davies with not just a nod but a headbang to Buñuel (their production company is called “Exterminating Angel”), the biz-attired odd couple meet and are eerily abandoned in the hotel dining room, thus beginning their cerebrally funny, otherworldly, obstacle-filled quest for a sit-down meal. Bickering and bonding over capitalism, religion and global unity, the two wander like the leads in “Naked” through spacious long takes, getting on public transportation that somehow deposits them in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Rotterdam, even the real Spanish desert town where Leone shot spaghetti westerns (a genre Cox gave the punk-rock treatment to in the equally undervalued “Straight to Hell”). The discreet charm of the third businessman, Robert Wisdom, only pops up in the last reel to complete the title and a clever Three Kings motif: the trio gifts a newborn with gold, frankincense and a model of the space station Mir.

07252008_fourtimesthatnight.jpg“Four Times That Night” (1969)
Directed by Mario Bava

Mario Bava’s legacy may have cemented him as the godfather of golden age Italian horror and giallos, but no one should discount his pop-groovy genre dalliances like “Danger: Diabolik” and this intelligently chic take on the trashedelic sex farce. While out walking her poodle, mini-skirted hottie Tina (Daniela Giordano) attracts the wolfhound nose of sports-car hunk Gianni (Brett Halsey), who woos a date out of her. After facing down Tina’s overprotective mother at home, Gianni takes the young lady out to the discotheque, then back to his swinging bachelor pad, but what happened next? How did Tina tear her beautiful dress and Gianni’s face get scratched? Like “Rashomon” in go-go boots, the night’s events are replayed by Tina to her mama (the guy was a predator!), Gianni to the fellas (the chick was a panther!), the hilariously perverted doorman to the milkman (the guy was a homosexual and his friends are debauched freaks!), and then a fourth time as the events actually, and quite naïvely, happened. The film’s proto-softcore provocations may be tame compared to our era of half-naked A-listers on the covers of glossies, but certain sensibilities will be titillated by its mod fashions and interior design porn.

07252008_fivededicatedtooze.jpg“Five: Dedicated to Ozu” (2003)
Directed by Abbas Kiarostami

Beyond their static cameras and love for humanity, even a discerning cinephile might not make obvious comparisons between the late filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu (“Late Spring,” “Tokyo Story”) and Iranian new-waver Abbas Kiarostami (“A Taste of Cherry,” “Crimson Gold”). Yet it’s to the 100th anniversary of the Japanese master’s birth that Kiarostami devotes this film: five Caspian Sea shoreline tableaux without plot, dialogue or much action, each in the low-angled, minimalistic, contemplative style of Ozu. Patience is mandatory, as this experiment isn’t just some gallery installation to be slowly walked past, its soothing anti-dramas rewarding to anyone whose attention span hasn’t been plundered by the onslaught of technology. The first sequence concentrates on a mere piece of driftwood, which suspensefully — spoiler alert! — splits in two. Another sees wild dogs napping and stretching, and yet another unveils a harmonious symphony of frogs and insects. One man’s acclimation to Zen-like tranquility may just be another man’s screen saver, but perhaps we all need to shut off our interwebs and take in the mind-expanding quiet.

07252008_sixoclocknews.jpg“Six O’Clock News” (1996)
Directed by Ross McElwee

Self-reflexive documentarian Ross McElwee (“Sherman’s March,” “Bright Leaves”) is used to turning the camera on his family and friends, but in this profound and wryly funny feature — conceived as an episode of “Frontline” — it’s the images presented by news media and the idea of God Himself that ultimately become his fatalistic subject. It begins with the anxieties of parenthood, as the new father McElwee wonders if the mirror in his newborn son’s crib will fuel his future autobiographical tendencies; just thinking about his kid stirs up mortality issues that he sees reflected on TV in natural disaster stories. Narrated in McElwee’s hangdog whisper, the film gives off a gloomy Gus inevitability as he free-formally pursues news subjects who had been reduced to sound bytes, becomes a storm-chaser (great found moment: a hurricane survivor ranting while ignoring the bee circling his face) and chronicles his TV-obsessive landlord and a Korean businessman whose wife was killed for less than 50 bucks. McElwee’s poignant and witty fortune cookie riddles about the universe, what fate might be, and if anything exists if it hasn’t been recorded.

07252008_sevenchances.jpg“Seven Chances” (1925)
Directed by Buster Keaton

“One beautiful summer day, when flagrant flowers were in bloom, Jimmie Shannon met Mary Jones, and he wanted to tell her he loved her,” reads the opening title card of this silent Buster Keaton rom-com, a minor snowball that rolls into a must-see avalanche. Keaton’s Jimmie is a junior partner at a nearly bankrupt brokerage firm who still can’t manage to tell Ms. Jones (Ruth Dwyer) that he loves her by the fall, winter, or even the following spring. Complicating matters, a seven million dollar inheritance comes his way, with the stipulation that he must marry by seven o’clock on his 27th birthday… and that’s today! Misunderstandings push the lovebirds away to make room for epic mayhem, as a newspaper article printing the predicament unleashes a bridal-garbed flood of gold diggers after Jimmie, spilling down wide streets, trampling football games and on down the countryside. (If this sounds at all familiar, shame on you for remembering its puerile remake, the Chris O’Donnell vehicle “The Bachelor.”) I can’t imagine Jackie Chan or parkour without there first being Keaton’s awe-inspiring skips through rockslides and cliff-jumpin’ daredevilry, traits that hopefully help counterbalance what doesn’t hold up so well: a handful of casually bigoted gags against Jews and blacks.

07252008_8women.jpg“8 Women” (2002)
Directed by François Ozon

On an artificially Technicolored winter night out of some retro Douglas Sirk melodrama, the rich patriarch of an unbelievably glamorous chateau is found dead with a knife in his back, and the murderer will be made to sing, for this mystery is a musical comedy! Art- and set-directed within an inch of its confectionery life, writer/director François Ozon’s mischievous precursor to “Swimming Pool” thinks pink pastels, parlor tricks and pastiche (hello, George Cukor; bonjour, Jacques Demy). It’s barely art-house nourishment, but who cares if candy spoils your dinner when the haute couture is worn by the dreamiest possible cast of top-tier French femmes? Catherine Deneuve is the victim’s wife, Virginie Ledoyen and Ludivine Sagnier are the troubled daughters, plus there’s a cocktail dress boom-booming Fanny Ardant, frigid neurotic-cum-sex bomb Isabelle Huppert and Emmanuelle Béart as the oh-so-luscious maid. Suspicions turn to rivalries and interrogations, and out seep the overwrought family secrets of affairs and pregnancies, lesbianism and even incest — which are then abruptly interrupted every few minutes with forlorn ballads and bouncy pop interludes, choreographed for maximum flair. Speaking from the standpoint of either today or the ’50s, you could call this one a gay delight.

07252008_ninesouls.jpg“9 Souls” (2003)
Directed by Toshiaki Toyoda

Nine Japanese prisoners who’ve escaped through a passage in their shared cell to the outside world find additional release — from their cosmic shackles. Still barely known on these shores, scriptwriter-turned-filmmaker Toshiaki Toyoda (“Hanging Garden,” “Blue Spring”) sets up his makeshift gang of downtrodden delinquents (including a pornographer, a biker, an epileptic “mad bomber” and a pint-sized doctor) for a compassionate, inventive and somewhat heartbreaking dramedy about redemption and trying to re-acclimate to a society that has left its old friends behind. The first half of their journey plays like an eccentric Coen brothers farce, as the misfits wear giant mustaches or hijack a conspicuously bright red van to hunt for a treasure at Mt. Fuji’s base that may or may not exist. But the clouds soon thicken in a fog of existential crisis, as each character is knocked sober and worse by the realities of cleaning up unfinished business. Lyrically whacked-out when it isn’t philosophically tragic, Toyoda’s delicate juggle of tone and multiple realized characters isn’t always seamless, but it’s what most films today can’t claim to be: unpredictable.

07252008_tencanoes.jpg“Ten Canoes” (2006)
Directed by Rolf de Heer

There are deeper curiosities than just anthropological in Rolf de Heer (“Bad Boy Bubby”) and co-director Peter Djigirr’s impressive Cannes prizewinner, the first feature ever made in an Australian Aboriginal dialect. As the camera gusts majestically across the swampy waterways of central Arnhern Land, a bawdy-humored storyteller’s voice (famous aboriginal actor David Gulpilil of “The Last Wave,” “Rabbit-Proof Fence,” and yes, “Crocodile Dundee”) begins hypnotizing us with a jolly, two-tiered flashback rooted in both the Ramingining people’s cultural history and his own puckish desires to catch listeners off-guard. In his mirthful myth, an elder teaches an ancient cautionary fable about fidelity to young Dayindi (Gulpilil’s son, Jamie), who is horny for one of his older brother’s wives. Toggling between black-and-white and color panoramas to diverge between the elder’s story within that story (itself a parenthetical inside the film), “Ten Canoes” is a slyly charming ode to the sorcery of spinning yarns that shares the humane otherworldliness, off-kilter drollness and dangerous shooting locations of a Werner Herzog picture.

[Photos: "One From The Heart," Columbia Pictures, 1982; "Three Businessmen," VPRO Television, 1998; "Four Times That Night," Cinevision Films, 1972; "Five Dedicated to Ozu," MK2 Diffusion, 2003; "Six O'Clock News," Homemade Movies, 1996; "Seven Chances," Metro-Goldwyn Pictures Corporation, 1925; "8 Women," Focus Features, 2002; "9 Souls," Tohokushinsha Film, 2003; "10 Canoes," Palm Pictures, 2006]

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