Tom Jolliffe on forgotten films…
Time is a cruel mistress. It’s the one constant and something no one can alter (except Marty McFly and Doc Brown). Looks go, memories fade and in cinematic terms a film can be forgotten over time. Now sometimes it’s probably a good thing. Take for example the turn of the century and the release of Battlefield Earth. One of the undisputed turkeys of modern cinema. An unmitigated disaster on every level. However it’s not one that always springs directly to mind nowadays when people thing of cinematic disasters. In part there’s been even worse since, and on even more bloated budgets. In that respect, time has been a little kind.
However there are a lot of films which were good, great, maybe on occasion cinematically important which have become hazy memories over time. Perhaps they never quite got the recognition or audience warranted in the first place, and the memory has faded further since. Maybe they were a good part of a master film-makers CV, somewhat pushed to the back by their more iconic works. Which brings me in. Here’s a little (barely tip of an iceberg) reminder of some excellent films which have become distant afterthoughts.
Christopher Nolan is currently scoring his atypically strong reviews and box office takings on the big screen with the historical epic, Dunkirk. When you look back over his career there are defining points. Memento was the breakout film. Batman Begins and beyond made him mainstream and arguably the most successful director of the modern era. However there’s a film in his CV that’s a great piece of work. It bought together a couple of exceptional actors on the wane and brought the best out of them. The film was Insomnia, the actors, Al Pacino and the late Robin Williams. Lithe by Nolan’s more recent standards (Dunkirk excluded) and more introspective (as opposed to dialogue heavy exposition), Insomnia was a quiet, contemplative and taut thriller. Pacino hadn’t been this good since last working with Michael Mann, and Robin Williams was immense.
Keeping with the theme of forgotten greats on legendary CVs, how about The Conversation? Francis Ford Coppola’s often overlooked master work had the misfortune of being sandwiched between two of the greatest films ever made (the first two Godfather films). It shouldn’t lessen what is an exceptional film. Very minimalist, restrained, but tension throughout and a career best performance from Gene Hackman. The Conversation has often been referenced or spoofed by more mainstream film and TV, and audiences probably have caught the references, having not seen this film. It remains however, an important film in a prolific period for Coppola. It showed he didn’t need to spend enormous amounts of money on grandiose epics, but could be just as effective on a smaller, more intimate scale.
Likewise when you consider Quentin Tarantino. He’s had a lot of success in a relatively short resume. His first two films were classics, loaded with (would what become) iconic imagery and moments. Kill Bill likewise was culturally huge, even if critically it wasn’t as strongly received as Pulp Fiction. His last three were unrestrained and indulgent. A mixed bag of the masterful and filler. There’s something missing though…and that’s Jackie Brown. In retrospect, whilst it underwhelmed given the insurmountable task of upstaging (or even matching) Pulp Fiction, it’s one of the few QT films that plays out with an unbroken structure, but also consistency. There’s a bar in Jackie Brown. One way or the other, it is never strayed from. It’s a high bar. It’s not Pulp high, nor does it match for example, Christopher Waltz’s introduction in Inglourious Basterds. That said, Inglorious and his last two have all suffered dips. Moments of indulgence taken a bit too far. Jackie Brown is very good, start to finish. It’s influences more confined and consistent and as per normal in a Tarantino film, the performances are all on point. It may seem all too “conventional” for Tarantino, but it’s that simplicity, expertly handled, that marks it as criminally overlooked. It’s one that grows on me with every revisit.
The Coen Brothers have had one or two films that have become a little lost in time. Up until becoming cult directors with The Big Lebowski, or surprisingly mainstream with No Country For Old Men, they’d always quietly slipped under the radar outside of cinephiles. They’ve been prolifically good on the whole, aside from the odd misfire like The Hudsucker Proxy (more understandably forgotten, even though it has its charms). Their first film, Blood Simple is normally now discovered by those who watch one of their newer films and then go retrospectively back to discover their older works. However the one film they did that hardly anyone gets round to seeing is the odd and magnificent, Barton Fink. There’s nothing quite like Barton Fink, an odd tale of an odd writer set up in a hotel with the task of writing a wrestling screenplay. In his struggles to find inspiration and cope with the insanity of Hollywood he becomes entangled with the people he meets, most notably an unbalanced insurance salesman played by John Goodman. John Turturro is superb as Barton, but it’s John Goodman who steals the film as insurance salesman, Charlie Meadows. It’s a film which forcibly demands repeat viewings and offers much when you relent.
You can look at other directors who have had forgotten works. A Simple Plan is probably Sam Raimi’s best film. Subtle, restrained and thoroughly un-Raimi (not that I don’t love unrestrained Raimi at his best), it’s one film that no one ever seems to remember or has seen. It has not got the iconic status of the Evil Dead series, the cult appeal of Darkman or the mainstream appeal of Spider-Man. It is fantastic though and it plays out like a lost Coen film.
James Cameron bridged Terminator 2 and Titanic with True Lies. It’s a spectacular action comedy with astonishing set pieces. Arnold Schwarzenegger has rarely been better and it even manages to make Tom Arnold amusing. Time hasn’t been kind to the portrayals of the villains in the film, which border on Naked Gun levels of goofiness, but the film is far from taking itself seriously anyway. It is a fantastic action film that is just weirdly buried in a repressed corner of Hollywood cinematic memories.
Michael Mann’s Thief, which was his first feature, was a great pre-cursor to Heat and features James Caan on absolutely top form. Film buffs hold it in high regard, though Manhunter has stayed longer in the memory, and Heat is more iconic.
Elsewhere, David Cronenberg’s insightful, intelligent and enigmatic thriller, Videodrome is one (of a few of his earlier films) that gets a little forgotten. It’s a shame too as the film is dazzling, unique and quite visionary. You could say similar about John Carpenter’s They Live. The film is fairly iconic for several reasons. There are memorable lines and the iconic fist fight, and some iconic imagery but the trouble is, many of these viewers who appreciate the references and may actually recognise where they’re from, haven’t actually seen the film. It’s like the Chuck Norris facts. They’ve become pop culture, without most of the meme spreaders having even seen a single Norris film. They Live hasn’t become as mainstream as Escape From New York, The Thing or Big Trouble In Little China for example. That being said, of all films mentioned, this one is the inclusion I’m most pushing my luck with. Partly due to internet meme, cultural references and repetition, I suppose it hasn’t been as repressed as others mentioned.
One forgotten film by a forgotten director is 1998’s stylish and inventive science fiction film, Dark City (from Alex Proyas). Proyas has gone off grid lately. He’s still been working, but he’s been lost in dreadful films. The early promise of The Crow, and Dark City, full to the brim of dark and wondrous visuals gave way to generic mainstream fare like I-Robot (passable for dull and forgettable in the more understandable sense), Knowing and the recent (And thoroughly dreadful) Gods Of Egypt. Okay maybe given his birth place was Egypt, there’s a kind of reasoning why he wanted to do the film but it was a huge misfire (and forgotten almost as soon as it was released). Dark City was one of the best sci-fi films of that decade. It fell under the radar initially (bombing in its theatrical run). It’s one of those films people discovered on DVD. It’s visually resplendent though. It should be held in higher regard. Sadly since, Proyas has been unable to deliver a visually interesting film (and the less said about the thematic content of the following films, the better) even in genres absolutely primed for an expansive visual palette.
Frailty, directed by the late Bill Paxton was a great thriller. It didn’t pick up an audience and rather than gathering viewers in the intervening years, it has sort of drifted to a lower and lower shelf in the video store (metaphorically speaking). A great psychological thriller. Indeed also relating to some modern releases, long before Birdman and his recent villainous turn in Spider-Man: Homecoming, the Michael Keaton starrer, Pacific Heights showed him in great form as a psychopathic lodger tormenting blissful newly-weds Matthew Modine and Melanie Griffith. Kathryn Bigelow has just released Detroit, to her now atypical critical acclaim, but going pre-Hurt Locker her career is more than just the iconic Point Break. Near Dark was the movie Twilight (made over 25 years later) wishes it could have been and Strange Days was an intriguing and visceral sci-fi film that people just don’t remember.
I could go on but at this point but there’s not enough space on the internet for all my suggestions and try as I might, I won’t convince anyone that Don “The Dragon” Wilson’s entire CV is filled with unfairly forgotten masterpieces (not even the man himself). I will leave the good readers at Flickering Myth to offer us your suggestions in the comments below. Which films have been unfairly forgotten in time?