Friday, October 3, 2008

Ten Terrific Films You've Never Heard Of

A Walk Into The Sea
About the uncle of the filmmaker, a brilliant young man who got entangled in Andy Warhol's factory. Briefly was Andy's boyfriend. Mysteriously died. Nobody knows why or how. We've seen a zillion exhumations of The Factory, with all its eccentric, bitchy denizens trotted before the camera ad infinitum. This is different. Soulful and surprising.

All In This Tea
The latest from Les Blank (director of foodie classic "
Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers" and the acclaimed Burden of Dreams - the only making-of film that's as good as the film it's this case, Herzog's Fitzcarraldo). This one is about tea trader/expert David Hoffman (who I wrote about here). Hoffman singlehandedly, and against horrendous odds, stimulated a market for artisanal, organic tea in China, which was well on its way to expunging that sort of thing in favor of mass-produced drek. He did it via sheer hubris and perspicacity. Incidentally, this is a fantastic behind-scenes look at how business is done in modern China. Which sounds awfully dry...but Les Blank's never dry.

Unflinching Triumph: The Philip Rockhammer Story
Seems like a standard indie doc about an offbeat crowd....this time, professional "Stare Off" competitors. But as you watch, you increasingly notice that something's kind of off, and also kind of great. I won't give away the secret. Revolutionary, in that it was produced entirely for the Web. And it's hilarious.

How To Draw A Bunny
Ray Johnson was the Andy Kaufman of art. Like Kaufman, he was a deep prankster way too slippery to ever be pinned down. And like Kaufman (whose spot-on Elvis impersonation dropped jaws), he invested vast continents of skill, care, and preparation in even his most flippant-seeming work. Whether Johnson was painting a canvas, chopping up a collage to send fragments to strangers as "mail art" (a genre he invented), or simply typing up a quick letter, everything his hands produced was profoundly, dizzyingly beautiful. And while he knew and was known by a vast number of people, nobody in the film shows the slightest idea who he really was or why he chose to die such a singularly mysterious death.

Refusing to Be Enemies
Palestinian women and Jewish women gather to chat. Not debate, just friendship and a sympathetic airing of feelings in an atmosphere of empathy. A humble little movie about a tectonic breakthrough.

Starting Out In the Evening
If you're a fan of great acting, don't miss Frank Lagnella's role of a lifetime as Leonard Schiller, an aging intellectual who walled off the world ages ago, but is reluctantly coaxed into opening up one final time. When it comes to capturing truth on celluloid, it doesn't get richer than this.

King of Masks
An old Sichuan master of quick-change masks needs an apprentice. It's got to be a boy, but there's this real persistent and sweet little girl who just won't give up....yeah, it's predictable and corny. But totally affecting, and offers a very transportive trip through rural China.

My Kid Could Paint That
Adorable little toddler is a fantastic art prodigy, selling her abstract canvases for thousands of dollars. But....wait....what's
really going on here?

Opera Jawa
Ravishingly beautiful, highly stylized musical portrayal of part of the Ramayana (a Hindu epic), done Indonesian-style. Not for viewers with even the slightest tinge of ADD, but if you can lose yourself in the beauty and not fight the exoticism of sight and sound, you'll find this a ravishing aesthetic experience. (Warning: this DVD doesn't play on American region DVD players...but here's a workaround.)

Memorable and intricate German/Turkish tale from Turkish/German director Fatih Akin. Akin's previous films are worth a look, as well: Head On (an uber-twisted love story between two troubled Turks adrift in Germany), and Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul (a hyper-transportive look at the multifarious music scene in Istanbul).

And one bonus: Sherman's March
I'm always shocked by how few people know about this classic film. A magnum opus wherein filmmaker Ross McElwee retraces General Sherman's march, but it's more about tracing the ruination of McElwee's love life, as he looks up old flames enroute. Amazon page lists "Burt Reynolds" as a cast member, but that's just a shaggy dog joke within a shaggy dog joke.


Peter Hoh said...

I loved "King of Masks," so I'll have to check out some of these other films you mentioned. I'll give you one of my favorite obscure movies in return: "Strangers in Good Company," a film about a group of old ladies who get stuck far off the beaten path when their bus breaks down. Sounds like a blockbuster, eh?

James Leff said...

Thanks! I see it's available for $17 on Amazon!

I just added a link to my weirdo DVD collection. FYI it's

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