Thursday, February 19, 2009

My Unsung Movies

Since the Oscars are coming up this Sunday, and since I only got 60% of my Oscar picks correct, I am catching up on my Oscar nominated movies. So far I have seen Slumdog Millionaire, Milk, and Frost/Nixon. (In case you cared, my favorite so far is Frost/Nixon), which means I have to see The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Reader by Sunday.

The great thing about great movies is that it makes you remember all the other great movies you've ever seen. And while I could go and list my top 150 movies of all time, I won't do that. Instead, I'll give out a few of my favorite movies that few people know about. And away we go!

SPRING FORWARD, 1999. (Director: Tom Gilroy) Imagine if The Shawshank Redemption didn't take place in jail. That's kind of what this movie is like, but so much more than just that glib description. Liev Schreiber and Ned Beatty are Paul and Murph, respectively. Murph is recently out of prison, and Murph is an aging landscaper. The two of them do manual labor all day long. At first they start out as young punk and old grumpy veteran. But through every scene -- mostly while picking up trash and hauling logs and such -- their friendship grows and evolves, until they have a special kind of friendship by the end. The movie is almost all dialogue, but there is not one second of sentimentality or bathos to be found. I don't know of a single other human being who's heard of this film, but it's one of the great hidden gems I've found.

BUFFALO '66, 1998. (Director: Vincent Gallo) The fact that I am a Western New York native and a long-suffering Buffalo Bills fan probably makes me biased to loving this movie, but I still think that I would love it no matter what. It's the story of a real loser who is just getting out of jail, and his plot to kill a Scott Norwood-like retired football player, whose missed field goal in the Super Bowl made it necessary for him to go to jail. Gallo is the writer, director and star of this movie, and his Billy Brown is a unique character. He is a grown child: petulant, undeveloped, selfish. But when he kidnaps a girl named Layla (Christina Ricci), to make her pretend to be his wife for the benefit of his incredibly dysfunctional parents. The odd love affair that grows between Billy and Layla is organic, real and most refreshingly of all, doesn't culminate in some kind of earth-shaking fornication. It's one of my favorite movies, because it's funny, quirky and ultimately redeeming.

ILLTOWN, 1996. (Director: Nick Gomez) Before he directed the extremely underrated Drowning Mona, he directed this slightly supernatural dystopian story about rival street gangs. It is as if the film Kids were directed by Martin Scorsese. It is brutal and unpredictable. And the best part: it contains Tony Danza's best-ever performance as a gay drug lord. (Seriously!) I haven't seen this movie in almost a decade, so maybe it doesn't hold up the way I wanted it to, but I remember it being an intense crime drama.

THE SALTON SEA, 2002. (Director: D.J. Caruso) Proof that Val Kilmer can act, and that he has the weirdest-looking elbows I've ever seen. This fantasia about crystal meth addicts is quirky, strange and tense in spots. Vincent D'Onofrio plays a yellow-skinned thug named Pooh Bear with no nose. When you have a movie filled with "Tweakers," interesting characters are bound to show up, and other than Glenn Plumber's horrible brief performance, this one is a weird good time.

ANIMAL FACTORY, 2000. (Director: Steve Buscemi) Imagine if The Shawshank Redemption took place in a prison that looked like "Oz." And Red was constantly threatening to sodomize Andy Dufresne. Such is the compelling, surprisingly funny film directed by Buscemi. Willem Dafoe plays mentor to new fish Edward Furlong (in Furlong's only good performance), and a cast of cons who are trying to get him out of there so that he never has to come back. But Furlong's self-destructive tendencies keep hurting his chances of ever getting out. Again, like many of these movies I'm noticing, there is a natural bond between the two main characters. And when Furlong's fate is finally sealed, you are a little happy and a little sad.

MATEWAN, 1987. (Director: John Sayles) You wouldn't think that a movie about West Virginia coal miners would be a nail-biter, but this one really is. Imagine if There Will Be Blood had a plot that included unionizing, racism and an old west-style gunfight. The movie is deliberate, but never slow. And it has a multiple Oscar-nominated cast (Chris Cooper, David Strathairn, Mary McDonnell) and the guy who plays Warden Norton in Shawshank! (Shawshank comparisons all over the place!) The bad guys are baaaad, and the resolution, though a tad abrupt, is satisfying and intense.

DAYS OF HEAVEN, 1978. (Director: Terence Malick) This is the movie that allowed Malick to retain legendary status despite making self-indulgent, overrated movies like Badlands and The Thin Red Line. If a poem could be put on film, it would be this movie. There is almost no dialogue at all, and the dialogue that does exist is mostly spoken in the background and hard to hear. It's a series of snapshots, almost like a beautiful music video without the pop music. The plot -- about a love triangle between Richard Gere, Brooke Adams and Sam Shepard -- is less interesting than how the film is constructed, which is with quick scenes and little explanation. It's a moving impressionist painting, and it's incredible.

SMOKE/BLUE IN THE FACE, 1995. (Directors: Wayne Wang, Paul Auster) These two films can be considered the Thalia and Melpomene of the same storyline: Smoke is a sometimes funny drama about the owner of a smoke shop and his customers, and Blue in the Face has most of the same main characters, but is all comedy. You could easily see one without the other and garner the plot, but they are better viewed (first Smoke, then Blue in the Face) as companion pieces. Where else can you see a touching scene where Harvey Keitel pretends he's an elderly black woman's grandson, as well as Michael J. Fox going on a diatribe about taking a dump? A real landmark of 1990s indie cinema.

HEAVY, 1994. (Director: James Mangold) I have a thing about movies that take place in small towns, and in this one, an overweight cook named Victor in a diner lives a humdrum life, with a dying mother and a lot of loneliness. That is until a young Liv Tyler enters his life as a waitress at the restaurant. There isn't much "plot" here, other than the arc that Victor's infatuation takes, as well as the after-effects on the rest of his life. It's shot in a naturalistic, unassuming way, and the characters are real and three-dimensional. It's a little downbeat, but ultimately not depressing.

THE FOUNTAIN, 2006. (Director: Darren Aronofsky) Aught-six was a good year for my man Hugh Jackman, at least as far as I'm concerned, because he was in two of my favorite movies, The Prestige, and this surreal masterpiece. I would have to say this is probably the most romantic movie I've ever seen. (Granted, I saw it by myself but I was still a gentleman.) Jackman is Tom Creo a man trying to both cope with the illness of his dying wife, and simultaneously find the cure. But Tom's journey/battle takes place on three fronts: the present, the distant past (Conquistator-era) and the distant future (where his life takes place in a self-contained bubble with a dying "tree of life"). It's a sublime, wholly original work, and its beauty overflows: in the visuals, in the music, in the story. Much like Days of Heaven above, it transcends just words and ideas, and goes into an astral dimension where the ideas of love and the pursuit of eternal life are universal.

Well, if you are sick of the same old crap in theaters (and I must say, we are in a bad time period for movies right now), maybe take a flier on one of these movies for something off the beaten path. Plus, it's nice to have your own little secret coterie of movies to pontificate about every so often.

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