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Lesser-Known Films

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:

I. Underground/Offbeat/Unusual

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.

I. Underground/Offbeat/Unusual

Liquid Sky
Totally bizarre. Flying saucer from outer space -- literally the size of a saucer! -- lands in NYC. Invisible alien gets sustenance when humans have sex.

Dark Star
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 cosmic finale.

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.

The Rapture
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 scrutiny.

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 nightmare.

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 "performance."

The Emerald Forest
Another "primitive people are beautiful" film, but this one works.

Baghdad Cafe
Stage magic first transforms a place, then transforms relationships.

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

Babbette's Feast
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

Ju Dou

Jesus of Montreal
Best treatment of postmodern, demystified Jesus in film I know of.

Dersu Uzala
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.

Il Postino

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'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 construction.

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.

Intellectual Analysis
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. Compelling.

The Sea Wolf

M Street
Sex, art, repression, desire, and deception. An unlikely mix results in a unique plot.

Manhattan Tales
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.

Now, Voyager

The Letter
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.

The Trial
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 civilization.

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.