Five Quirky Little Films From Five Different Decades You Probably Haven’t Seen…but Should Watch ASAP

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.

Here’s the original trailer for They Might Be Giants

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.

John Turturro stars as psychotic parolee Heinz in 1987’s Five Corners

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.

Danny Aiello and Anthony LaPaglia star in 1991’s 29th Street

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.

2000s State and Main is one of writer/director David Mamet’s best films

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.

In a World where Lake Bell plays a voiceover actress she will make you laugh out loud

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. 😉

Film Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Dud

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) Directed by Tomas Alfredson

Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of the John le Carré novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has been on my IMDB Watch List for close to seven years, but for whatever reason I never clicked “buy” on Google Play Movies or recorded it off HBO. One reason this Watch List challenge is so interesting to me is because it will force me to finally watch some films that have been languishing in my “get around to it” file. And while I’m not a reader of John le Carré novels, this film appealed to me because I love a good international spy film and the cast of this adaptation is remarkable.

The film stars Gary Oldman, John Hurt, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, and even a young Tom Hardy. That’s a lot of star power. Alas, it wasn’t enough to restart my heart after I nearly fell asleep from boredom after about 20 minutes. I mean, usually I’ll give a film a half hour or so before giving up, but life is too short to waste 30 minutes let alone two hours plus. My wife didn’t protest at all when I hit the stop button on the remote. 20 minutes might be a record for me in terms of giving up on a film.

I know this film has an 85/100 metacritic score, a 7.1 out of 10 on IMDB, and was nominated for three Oscars including a Best Actor nod for Gary Oldman (who finally did win an Oscar recently for Darkest Hour which I still haven’t seen). But boring is boring. Hell, I’ve enjoyed the first two episodes of Killing Eve way more and it’s basically the same plot.

Next Up on the Watch List: Margin Call

Film Review: ‘Skin’ a Disturbing, Macabre Mess

The Skin I Live In (2011) Directed by Pedro Almodovar

Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar has been behind the camera for 50 years and is considered one of the great European directors. I’ve been a huge fan since seeing Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) back in college, a film that I credit for helping opening my eyes to the wonders of foreign films. Almodovar’s filmography includes several favorites of mine, most especially Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down (1989), Kika (1993), and Matador (1986). All About My Mother (1999) is a bloody revelation. He has compiled a spectacular list of awards over the years and has introduced the world to a host of Spanish actors who have stayed loyal to him even as they found American success (see Antonio Banderas and Penélope Cruz).

Almodovar is one of those directors who, when he releases a new film, I immediately, without question, add it to my list to see. Which is why The Skin I Live In has been on my Watchlist since its release in 2011. I wish it hadn’t been.

One of the reasons I love Almodovar’s work is because his stories are at the far edge of mainstream. I mean, Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down is about a guy who is so obsessed with a porn star that he kidnaps her in an attempt to make her fall in love with him. Talk to Her (2002) is about the friendship between two men who are both caring for women who happen to be in comas. Matador is about a man who is wounded by a bull and has lost his appetite for killing and it opens with a graphic close up of him whacking off. This is not the stuff of typical Hollywood boy meets girl tropes.

Almodovar can always be counted on for shedding light on the dark side of human nature, but methinks he went too far in The Skin I Live In. It was deeply disturbing. And frankly, it’s hard to discuss without giving away the big reveal, so I’ll dance around it.

The film centers around a successful plastic surgeon, Dr. Robert Ledgard (played by Banderas), who has lost his wife to a tragic accident. The loss haunts him so he holes up in his rural mansion to work on a breakthrough synthetic skin that in its development casts aside medical ethics. As part of the project, he is keeping a beautiful woman hostage in his home/laboratory to use as a guinea pig for his breakthrough skin treatment.

The plot thickens as his daughter is sexually assaulted at a party, which leads to her suicide, and Dr. Ledgard decides to take the law into his own hands. The result is a psycho-sexual, disconcerting chain of events that takes even Almodovar down a strange and unsettling rabbit hole. I mean, the film is categorized as Drama/Horror/Thriller and let’s just say Dr. Ledgard received a bit of inspiration from Dr. Frankenstein.

The Skin I Live In is hard to watch and while the acting is wonderful (Banderas is great as Dr. Ledgard and Almodovar regular Marisa Paredes is brilliant as the doctor’s assistant/mother) I was left uncomfortable with the taboos that highlight the film. And I am not easily disturbed by uncomfortable subject matter.

You really can’t have too many hangups if you’re going to enjoy Almodovar films. I found a list of his themes/motifs on the web, and they include: homosexuality; sexual perversion; female heroines; sacrilegious Catholicism; excessive kitsch and camp, stalking, prostitution, rape, incest, transexuality, and women urinating on film. These topics have not kept him from scores of awards, including two Academy Awards, five British Academy Film Awards, six European Film Awards, two Golden Globe Awards, nine Goya Awards and four prizes at the Cannes Film Festival.

Say what you will about Almodovar, but you can’t say he’s not a bold and brave filmmaker. His stories tend to be centered around woman, which in an of itself is interesting for a gay director, but some find his female representations to be misogynistic. I think his female characters tend to be powerful, either by their strength and beauty or by their deep matriarchal traits.

So, I didn’t like The Skin I Live In, but I’m still going to watch the other Almodovar films I haven’t seen yet, including the soon-to-be released Pain & Glory which is a drama featuring both Banderas and Cruz.

I give The Skin I Live In four stars out of 10.

Next on my IMDB Watchlist:  Steven Spielberg’s War Horse (2011)

New Movie Review Project Underway

A few years back I decided, for no apparent reason, to watch all of the American Film Institute’s Top 100 American Films in order and blog about each. It took me about 18 months to get through the list, and at the end I felt a sense of accomplishment and at the same time I felt a little sad that it was over. In the years since that challenge ended I have given some thought to doing another list, but I couldn’t quite decide which list to watch.

Over the weekend I was flipping around the Interwebs and found myself going down a rabbit hole on the Internet Movie Database and that led me to notice that my IMDB Watchlist had grown to 136 films going back to around 2011. I’m the kind of guy who keeps track of the films I watch and the books I read, and so over the years I’ve used IMDB to flag films I haven’t seen but wanted to see.

That’s when it dawned on me — I should watch all 136 films and blog about them. It’s a totally random list, but each film made my Watchlist because at some point I wanted to see it. Having a project like this will encourage me to watch more than 100 films I want to see and give me a reason to blog about them.

The list is really diverse. It has mainstream films I just never got around to seeing, as well as indie films and foreign films I’ve read about but have not gotten around to. Streaming services mean it should be simple to get access to these films. The only question is in what order will I watch them? I thought about this and ruled out alphabetical and IMDB ratings. I decided I’ll start with the film that has been on my Watchlist the longest and count up from there. So, watch this space soon for a review of the first film on the list — 2010s Amigo from one of my favorite directors, John Sayles.

Why am I doing this? That’s a good question. Mostly because I love movies and I also love to blog and this project enables me to do both. Also, frankly, I have a lot of spare time at night on on weekends and it’ll give me something more productive to do than watch reruns of The Big Bang Theory.