Hidden Gems are those films that have a very small, but passionate following. A variety of reasons cause this: style of filmmaking, lack of distribution, discrimination against the country/gender/race of the director, etc.
This list is devoted to bringing some of those films as well as providing ways to access them. Without further ado, here is the list of the Top 15 Hidden Gems.
1. Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl (Dir. Manoel de Oliveira, 2009)
The cinematic community faced a great loss this past March when Manoel de Oliveira passed away at the age of 106. He was the only filmmaker whose career began in the Silent Era and ended in the 21st Century with the rise of digital and 3D filmmaking. Throughout his career, he was never a household name, despite being reliable for quality thoughtful films. One of de Oliveira’s last films is a masterpiece called Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl.
At a brief 64 minutes, Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl tells the story of a man who falls in love with a mysterious blonde-haired girl. His family objects to their relationship and he must sacrifice everything in order to remain with her. But throughout the film, de Oliveira demands his audience question whether or not the sacrifice is really worth it.
Despite its short runtime, Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl is one of the deepest films of the new millennium, posing questions about what love truly is. It also represents a fascinating use of time, as everything seems to be drifting by quickly until the ending, in which everything comes full circle and suddenly all scenes prior become more significant. It is intelligent storytelling at its finest.
Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl is in wide DVD distribution through the adventurous film distribution company Cinema Guild, who have released other films by Manoel de Oliveira worth watching.
2. Bitter Rice (Dir. Giuseppe De Santis, 1949)
In Italy, as with the rest of the world, World War II was one of the most painful and horrifying experiences the country ever faced. After the death of fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, the country was left for dead. A collective group of filmmakers started making films that depicted the raw life for Italians during WWII and their movement became known as Italian Neorealism. Among the more famous members of the movement were Luchino Visconti, Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica, and Giuseppe De Santis.
All, but Giuseppe DeSantis are immediately recognized by cinephiles as being amongst the greatest directors of all time. It is strange that De Santis never had a career breakthrough like his contemporaries did, as his neorealist films were just as significant to the movement as a film like Bicycle Thieves or La Terra Trema. The closest he came was in 1949 with the release of Bitter Rice, which was nominated in the 1951 Academy Awards for Best Screenplay.
Bitter Rice is about Walter and Francesca, a pair of two-bit criminals played by Vittorio Gassman and Doris Dowling, who are on the run from the police. In an effort to hide from the police, Francesca decides to pretend to be a peasant rice worker. There she becomes involved with one of her fellow workers (Silvana Mangano) and a soon to be discharged soldier (Raf Vallone), resulting in a complex four way relationship that involves love, robbery, and murder.
The film is a great example of what Italian Neorealism stood for, examining poverty and struggle after World War II in a raw, brutal fashion. De Santis uses his camera to get up close with the workers in the rice fields and the struggle the characters face feels very real and personal. This results in a very intimate film that feels honest. De Santis treats his characters like real people and therefore they feel that way and the tragedy in the film becomes that much more affecting.
For those interested, Bitter Rice is currently streaming on Hulu Plus through the Criterion Collection, despite not being released on DVD or Blu Ray, yet.
3. Shirin (Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, 2008)
Abbas Kiarostami has made a career out of observing life and its ambiguous nature. His films have achieved a simplicity that is seemingly unachievable by any other filmmaker. Which is why Shirin stands out, while at the same time, not being unexpected. It is, by all means, one of the most experimental films of the new millennia so far.
The story of the film is simple- a group of women are in attendance at a movie theatre where they are to see a film version of the medieval Iranian poem, Khorsow and Shirin, which has the themes of female self-sacrifice.
The movie within the movie is never seen, only heard. Kiarostami instead uses a static camera to cut to close-ups of the women in the audience, including noted Iranian actresses Leila Hatami and Taraneh Alidoosti, and international star, Juliette Binoche. There are men in the theater, but they are in the background and usually out of focus, because this is not about them.
In Iran, as in all theocratic societies, women’s rights are barely existent, as are the rights of the artists, especially when dealing with taboo topics, one of which is women’s rights. In his experiment, Abbas Kiarostami gives a voice to the women of Iran by showing them silently react to a piece of art about the struggle they have faced for centuries. It’s feminist filmmaking at its most subtle. Kiarostami is simultaneously asking what the artwork really is, the physical property, or the audience reaction to it?
Shirin is available on DVD in wide distribution through Cinema Guild.
4. Four Nights of a Dreamer (Dir. Robert Bresson, 1971)
Jean-Luc Godard once said, “Robert Bresson is French cinema, as Dostoyevsky is the Russian novel and Mozart is German music.” Strangely enough, Bresson turned two of Dostoyevsky’s short stories into feature length films. The better of which was Four Nights of a Dreamer, an adaptation of White Nights. The film follows the story closely, telling the story of a lonely man who saves a woman from killing herself. After doing such, she tells him her story of lost love and he begins to fall for her.
Four Nights of a Dreamer was not the first or last time the story was adapted to the big screen, having been adapted (as 2015) seven different times to the big screen. Usually the story is used as a vehicle for actors and the films are sentimental. The most notable being Luchino Visconti’s Le Notti Bianche starring Marcello Mastroianni and Maria Schell, and James Gray’s Two Lovers, starring Joaquin Phoenix and Gwyneth Paltrow.
Four Nights of a Dreamer goes along with Bresson’s oeuvre, and therefore against what made the other adaptations successful. Neither of the leads were actors at the time of making this film, and it was only after making this movie that the female lead decided to become an actress, albeit primarily in films directed by her ex-husband, Wim Wenders.
The film is also a stripped down look at the story that emphasizes the distance between characters and the depression that they face. Making for a haunting and unforgettable look at what it means to be in love and thus a stronger film then any of the other adaptations of the work.
The film is somewhat hard to find, due primarily to it never getting a formal release in the United States. But is available in bootlegged form online, but is definitely worth seeking out.
5. Jacquot de Nantes (Dir. Agnes Varda, 1991)
Agnes Varda is both one of the greatest and most undervalued filmmakers of all time. Her films are noted for their feminist ideas, often having a female character in the lead, and are influenced by still photography and commonly contrast between still and moving images. In recent years however, she turned her focus entirely to documentaries. Her penultimate narrative feature, Jacquot de Nantes, is perhaps the most personal film in her filmography.
To discuss Jacquot de Nantes, is to discuss Agnes Varda’s marriage to Jacques Demy, a French filmmaker who achieved worldwide success in 1964 with The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Their marriage began in 1962 and ended when Demy died from the AIDS virus in 1990.
As he was dying, Agnes Varda filmed Jacquot de Nantes, which was co-written by Demy and was based on his memoirs. The film depicts his childhood; beginning around the time he became interested in cinema and ending when he left for college to become a filmmaker.
The film starts out like a typical Agnes Varda film, jumping back and forth between documentary and narrative, showing the real life Jacques Demy towards the end of his life at a beach (a motif in Varda’s films). Eventually the film focuses almost entirely on young Jacques Demy and slowly, the style becomes less Varda and more Demy. Despite the fact that Agnes Varda and Jacques Demy were married for almost 30 years, their styles couldn’t be more radically different.
Unlike Varda, Demy was interested in nostalgia and melodrama. His films were often bright and colorful and, occasionally, musicals. While Jacquot de Nantes is not a musical, it is a perfect example of what Demy’s non-musicals were like. It is a loving melodrama about youth, passion, and a love for cinema. It is also an embodiment of an artist who Varda was and still is in love with.
Jacquot de Nantes is currently available on Hulu Plus through the Criterion Collection, despite not being released on DVD or Blu Ray, yet.