With so much time on our hands these days because of the pandemic many of us have been catching up on our movie watch lists. In the past few weeks I’ve ripped through quite a few films I’d been sitting on for a while, some of which were great (1917) and some…well, not so much (Mad Max: Fury Road). Sometimes it’s funny what ends up in your watch list and when you finally do get around to them it can be a great surprise. I currently have 137 films in my IMDB watch list, and I never quite know how to choose what to watch when I scroll through it looking for a two-hour escape. I’m never really sure how some of the films ended up in my watch list to begin with! (By the way, I recommend choosing one overarching site to keep your watch list otherwise you’ll end up with films and TV show suggestions all over the place. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Google. If they all synced that’d be one thing, but they don’t.)
This morning I got to thinking about some of the more indie or lesser-known films I’ve loved over the years and decided to share one to represent each of the past five decades. You probably didn’t see these films, but they all rate among my all-time favorites.
1970s. They Might Be Giants. If quirky is your thing I highly recommend this 1971 film from director Anthony Harvey (The Lion in Winter) starring George C. Scott as a mental patient who believes he’s Sherlock Holmes and escapes into the streets of New York looking for clues to find his archrival Moriarty. He enlists the help of his doctor, whose name is, of course, Dr. Watson (played wonderfully by Joanne Woodward). You can’t help but love this odd love story that’s really about taking life by the horns and living fully. Oh, and in case you were wondering, the film did indeed inspire the name of the band They Might Be Giants. This film will inspire you to tilt at windmills. The film is available to rent on Amazon Prime Video, Google Play and others.
1980s. Five Corners. In 1987 John Patrick Shanley won an Oscar for his screenplay for Moonstruck, but in the same year the little-known film Five Corners was released and it is without a doubt one of my favorite films ever. Truthfully, I’m not sure how this film slipped past most viewers because it’s amazing. It was directed by Tony Bill, who is well known for his work in television but not for directing films. Five Corners stars Jodie Foster, Tim Robbins, and in what is certainly a preview of things to come, a remarkable performance by a young John Turturro two years before his breakout role of Pino in Do The right Thing. The story of a few odd and dangerous days in the Bronx neighborhood of Five Corners will never leave you. This film is currently available to watch for free on Amazon Prime for members and for rent on Fandango.
1990s. 29th Street. These days it’s all too common for film stars from other countries to play Americans, but this wasn’t always the case. When I first saw Anthony LaPaglia in 1990s Betsy’s Wedding, I couldn’t have imagined he wasn’t really an Italian American from New York. Then a year later he popped up again in 29th Street, a critical favorite that year that did not do very well at the box office, again playing an Italian New Yorker. The thing is, no matter what you see on your screen, the fact remains that LaPaglia is Australian. I know, how can that be? Based on a true story, 29th Street is the story of Frank Pesce, a man from a tough New York neighborhood who wins the lottery. You’d think this would make his life easier, but alas what kind of story would that be. Danny Aiello and Lainie Kazan also star in this very funny film. It doesn’t appear to be available to stream anywhere right now so add it to your watch list for later.
2000s. State and Main. I know David Mamet is not for everyone, but I love snappy dialogue as much as anyone. Mamet is a genius when it comes to dialogue, right up there with Aaron Sorkin, Tarantino, and the Coen brothers. Mamet has written some gems, including Glengarry Glen Ross, Wag the Dog, and The Untouchables, but State and Main is nonstop beginning to end poetry delivered by a host of the world’s best actors. It’s the story of what happens when a film crew invades a small town because it’s the perfect location for their movie. The town is at first a little star struck, but soon it becomes clear that these Hollywood big shots have no concern for the town and its residents. State and Main stars William H. Macy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Alec Baldwin (he plays a famous actor with a proclivity for very young women, something a local teen restaurant worker played by Julia Stiles soon finds out), Sarah Jessica Parker, Patti LuPone, and a host of character actors you know and love. Do your best to keep up with the frantic dialogue and enjoy this smart and funny film. Currently available to rent on Amazon Prime, YouTube and others.
2010s. In a World… Allow me to just for a moment rave about a very underappreciated Hollywood triple threat. I never saw Boston Legal, so I didn’t know Lake Bell before seeing In a World… when it first came out. But this little film made my top 10 of the year in 2013 and my top 10 of the decade. Lake is the writer, director and star of In a World…, a funny little film in which she plays a voice coach who decides to take on Hollywood’s big boys when the industry decides to reintroduce the campy “in a world” film trailer trope and she looks to become the first female voice to utter those dramatic words in a major Hollywood film trailer. You know the trope, right? In a world where apes are in charge and men are kept in zoos… It’s ubiquitous in the film trailer world, made famous by the late voiceover actor Don LaFontaine. Nobody thinks Lake’s character can break through the glass ceiling, including her famous father (played by the always funny Fred Melamed) who is also in line for the part. This film is a Lake Bell tour de force. She is so funny in it, and as director she brought in some incredible talent to play alongside her including Melamed, the underappreciated Demetri Martin, Nick Offerman, Tig Notaro (who apropos of nothing met her future wife Stephanie Allynne on set), Ken Marino, Eva Longoria, and Rob Corddry. I have written many times about this film and have insisted ever since that Lake Bell is an American treasure. It’s currently available to rent on Amazon Prime, YouTube and others.
I’m not going to lie, it was hard to pick just one quirky little film from each decade so you can bet that these are among the best in my opinion. And yes, these are opinions. As with most art, one person’s endorsement isn’t necessarily an indication of whether or not you’re going to feel the same way. But if you don’t LOVE these five films there’s something wrong with you. 😉