A List in Progress Compiled by T. Birch
Last Edited: 2/21/02
The following is a brief list of some eminently enjoyable
films that are generally not on the standard lists of
"all-time great" films. Some are relatively low-budget
specials that really had no chance to be popular because of their
subject matter or style. Others are Hollywood or foreign films
that, with a couple of exceptions, did not receive wide release.
I have chosen some of my personal favorites, but I have also
attempted to include films that would appeal to anyone who is
looking for something unusual or offbeat -- or for a message that
may escape the Hollywood formula.
I have omitted details about production facts for two reasons:
(1) current resources make it easy to find directors, dates,
stars, etc., and (2) my interests are in the narrative form,
visual style, and moral content of these films.
The categories are:
II. Foreign Films
III. Lesser-Known Classics from Hollywood's Golden Era
Some of these films are available on video. You may also be
able to catch them by setting up an e-mail "film alarm"
on your local cable service (station or network notifies you when
a certain film will be shown). However, if you have difficulty
finding these films, or you would like additional information
about them (or, perhaps, even a brief explanation about why some
particular film is included in this list), feel free to contact me.
Totally bizarre. Flying saucer from outer space -- literally the
size of a saucer! -- lands in NYC. Invisible alien gets
sustenance when humans have sex.
Low budget masterpiece. Don't see this unless you know the 2001
and love science fiction. Features cinema's first and only
existential computer, mind/body in deep freeze, beach-ball shaped
alien (that obviously really is just a beach ball). Awesome
The River's Edge
Based on a true story of a clique of amoral high school students.
When one of them kills a fellow student during sex, the rest
hatch plans to help him cover up his crime. Scenes of the dead
girl's body are among the few in cinema that give a sense of what
death really looks like. Does not paint a pretty picture of life
in the U.S. if these types are our future leaders.
Looking for Richard
Postmodern, hip, funny, and still an ingenious treatment of
Shakespeare's story. Al Pacino does a masterful job. More
important, the work demonstrates how films about film-making,
stories within stories, and audience alienation (Brechtian
theater) can all be used as still deliver an emotional,
insightful, and sensitive performance.
Stunning. Disturbing. What if the world really came to an end --
as in the Last Judgment? Very much under rated -- probably
because the thesis is hard to swallow and because contains a
shocking scene of the most inexplicable of all human crimes. Not
for the faint of heart. Has an interesting message for
fundamentalists. A reflection on the nature of obsession and how
it can lead to consummate evil, as defined in theology.
Wild at Heart
David Lynch directs allegory of the Wizard of Oz. Again, a film
that depends on another film for best enjoyment. You should know
the Wizard before you see this. Perhaps too much has been made of
David Lynch, but this is one of his films that bears repeated
Red Rock West
One has to like this film. A man thrown into a vortex of bad
luck, keeps returning to the same town, like a recurrent
Some would call it mindless nostalgia about a time that never
was. Others would call it a quite, reflective, essay on why
American family life has disintegrated and how we have
degenerated into a nation of self-absorbed morons. A chilling
statement of depersonalized, mindless, commercialism brought by
television and the collapse of the family.
Night on Earth
Must see for all New Yorkers. Or even New York want-a-be's. Trip
Tisch frame story: one night one earth, three cities, there
stories. Very well done except for Winona Rider's
The Emerald Forest
Another "primitive people are beautiful" film, but this
Stage magic first transforms a place, then transforms
Documentary about Crumb, of ZAP comics fame. Mercilessly frank
about Crumb's own psycho-sexual problems and the mental
instability that plagues his entire family. Shortly after the
film was released, Crumb's brother, a genius recluse, committed
suicide and Crumb moved to France.
II. Foreign Films
Deceptively simple premise: French chef gets opportunity to throw
one last grand dinner party. Party becomes a reenactment of the
last supper and an eloquent meditation upon the meaning of
Christianity and the grace of God.
Pele the Conqueror
Jesus of Montreal
Best treatment of postmodern, demystified Jesus in film I know
Who can say enough about Kurosawa? Everyone knows RAN and THE
SEVEN SAMURAI. This one is not as action-packed. It is sublime
visual poetry. Quiet, slow, with magnificent scenes of the
Siberian wasteland. A rare Soviet/Japanese co-production, won
Academy Award for best foreign film in 1974.. Do not see unless
in wide screen version.
The Shop on Main Street
Nazi sympathizer "inherits" shop previously owned by
elderly Jewish Grandma, but Grandma turns the tables. Plenty of
"wages of the Holocaust" films out there, but this one
is among the best. Many awards. Wrenching ending.
Wings of Desire
III. Lesser-Known Classics from Hollywood's Golden Era
Color vs. B & W
The films included in this category make me wonder why films
continue to be made in color. Well, O.K....I know why...it's
just that it's too bad this is what has happened to the industry.
As the quality of color films have continued to improve, the
situation has gotten somewhat better. (It all relates to reality
vs. suspension of disbelief, and the visual intensity
accomplished by greater latitude in film...etc. These
considerations are balanced against the philistine sentiment that
color is "more real." It's a simple point, really, and
it is one covered in most introductory film courses I should
think, so I won't labor it here.)
Narrative Conventions in Older Films for Older People
I doubt if generation-Xer's can watch these films. The narrative
conventions of our times have, more than likely, removed the
ability of many people to engage in the proper sort of willing
suspension of disbelief to enter the story-telling realm defined
by these films. Contemporary cynicism prohibits acceptance of the
thesis of many of these films. That someone could be upset
because he discovers his wife has had an affair (The Letter),
that a Penelope-like wife could wait 20 years for her husband to
return (Cimarron), that an accountant could become a great
painter and commit a murder (M Street), that a spiritual quest to
understand God could become an all-consuming passion (The Razor's
Edge) -- these are not plot theses likely to be accepted by
today's young audiences, who often believe that current films
provide them with "realism" and an absence of false
sentimentality. This belief, needless to say, completely mistakes
the nature and purpose of the popular cinema, which invariably
promotes current idioms as "realism" while maintaining
(secretly, as it were) the very same degree of inherent
distortion and unbelievability present in films made half a
century ago. Whatever is currently popular seems more
"real" by definition. This does not change the fact
that all films are fantasy by the very nature of their
In 50 years (if people still watch films then), today's films
will seem just as preposterous to those audiences as older
Hollywood films seem to generation X today. And the criticisms
are likely to be the same too: bad acting and absurd narrative
conventions. Every phase of culture has its own narrative
conventions. By definition, other phases will find these
narrative conventions a strain on credulity.
There are many other factors involved in the shift in
narrative conventions over the last 50 years. Although, as I have
indicated above, some of it is a superficial gloss on what makes
a popular story, there is such a thing as an "absolute"
indicator of narrative durability over time. Shakespeare's works
endure because they have the necessary depth and maturity.
Similarly, the older Hollywood films were made for, and appealed
to, a much more mature audience. Since the mid-1960s the number
of movie-goers has declined significantly, as has the average age
of movie goers. Today, a movie is something you see in a mall in
the middle of the afternoon on a first date. Movie goers
generally neither expect nor get anything up front that has
profound emotional and intellectual impact. On the other hand,
many of the subliminal messages are still very much the same
(Hollywood scripts tend to reflect the nation, which remains
basically Christian and morally conservative -- despite the best
attempts of actors and actresses to subvert these values through
advertising their private, rather than their on-screen
moralities.) Furthermore, there remains a need to believe that
wisdom, justice, courage, faith, hope, charity, and love are
virtues, despite contemporary cynicism.
You will be rewarded by ana lysing these films. Most of them work
at many levels. Of the films presently included, The Letter
is my favorite lesser-known classic in this regard, while The
Trial is in a category by itself: sheer, unmitigated genius.
The Red House
Freudian psychodrama in the most unlikely of settings.
The Sea Wolf
Sex, art, repression, desire, and deception. An unlikely mix
results in a unique plot.
Very difficult to find. Not to be seen on TV -- probably blocked
by concerns for political correctness. Delivers a quintessential
Christian fable in four parts. Connecting thread: a coat that
passes from one person to another. Blessings are bestowed to the
least of God's children; simplicity and faith triumph. Extremely
rare -- may not be easily available on video.
Among the best first 60 seconds in cinema. The mysterious Orient
clashes with British imperialism leaving emotional wreckage.
Works on many levels.
The Razor's Edge
Dark, moody, treatment of Somerset Maugham's story of a preacher
who discovers sex.
Which is Orson Welles's masterpiece? Some say Citizen Kane.
Others say Magnificent Ambersons. After you see this (you have to
imagine the sound quality as being vastly improved), you might
entertain another possibility. It is hard to imagine a more
effective treatment of Kafka's tale. And, in the light of our
current legacy from communist Europe and the Bomb, this vision of
Kafka's nightmare is more frightening than it ever was.
Bend of the River
Forget High Noon. This tells us how the West was won. As in all
great Westerns (The Searchers, Cimarron), the impulse to
self-interest and lawlessness is pitted against the need for
Among the first and best of all Westerns. Half a century before
the politically correct "fair" and
"sensitive" treatment of the fate of American Indians
and African Americans became required, this film told it like it
was. No, not depicting the "White Man" as evil, but by
depicting how MANY people lived in an integrated society that (in
film, anyway) was far more successful and respectful of
"differences" than our present culture -- at the same
time showing the coexistence of careless disregard for
marginalized groups and individuals. Death of a small boy scene
ranks with death of child scene in "M" as one of the
most moving in all of cinema.