6. Hardly Working (Jerry Lewis, 1981)
With the exception of The Nutty Professor (which was subsequently bastardised by Eddie Murphy in 1996), almost all of the films actually directed by Jerry Lewis seem to have slipped under the radar and been forgotten about, quite unfairly considering that he has an incredibly consistent output and is bold enough to really stray from the films he only acted in.
Whether it’s playing seven different characters in The Family Jewels, trying to make a film about a clown finding himself in a concentration camp or just being outright ridiculous, Lewis was known as a risk taker, and Hardly Working is one of his later films where he really stuck to taking those risks as much as possible, producing a film that is equal parts side-splitting funny and ruthlessly depressing due to the situations the main character finds himself in.
A jobless clown desperate to find another job, but simply cursed with being inept at most anything, Hardly Working is one of the strongest (and most bizarre) comedies of the 1980s, maybe only topped later on by another Jerry Lewis film, Smorgasbord (AKA Cracking Up).
7. Polyester (John Waters, 1981)
Strangely, when looking back over the work of John Waters, it seems that ironically it is his underground films that are now more notorious and more recognised than his films with budgets, leaving his wonderfully silly and zany efforts working within the studio system (barely, but still) in the dust, undeservedly.
With other excellent films like Cecil B Demented and Cry Baby, it was actually difficult to choose just one Waters film to run with, however, Polyester recently released on Criterion so it feels more relevant and is easiest to access currently, so here we are. Polyester is John Waters trying his hand at a melodrama in the style of films like All That Heaven Allows and Mildred Pierce, detailing the woes of the life of a mother in the 1950s surrounded by her ungrateful family.
One more thing important to mention – Waters also brings in Odorama, which is probably exactly what you’re thinking – you can smell the film during pivotal moments, and as you can also probably guess quite easily, the smells really aren’t too nice… this is a John Waters film, after all!
Despite the lingering smells, this is a wonderful film that is also both very funny and depressing because, whilst it is consistently so silly and exaggerated, there is also a root to the film that is real, and painful. It’s an easy film to enjoy just because it operates on so many different levels, and the short runtime helps too. It could even be the best film Waters has made.
8. Devil In A Blue Dress (Carl Franklin, 1995)
Starring Denzel Washington as Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins, a down on his luck, unemployed man growing desperate who stumbles into, and is forced to try to navigate through, the seedy underbelly of post-war Los Angeles whilst searching far and wide for Daphne Monet. Taking the typical formula of film noir and adding racial issues into the mix, as well as more directly involving the government in the seediness, Devil in a Blue Dress is an enthralling and simply splendid modern noir that isn’t celebrated nearly as much as it deserves to be.
Carl Franklin directs brilliantly, Don Cheadle joins in as a disjointed loose cannon and all hell soon breaks loose as Denzel continues to descend into the belly of the beast. It’s a very impressive film all around, and one that deserves more recognition for bringing something new to the table of modern film noir whilst remaining a strong film without the additional focus on race.
9. The Lovers Of Montparnasse (Also known as Montparnasse ’19) (Max Ophuls and Jacques Becker, 1958)
Originally set to be another Max Ophuls project, until his unfortunate death placed the remainder of the film in the hands of his long time friend Jacques Becker, The Lovers of Montparnasse chronicles the downward spiral of painter and sculptor Amadeo Modigliani due to alcoholism and self doubt (stemming from his talent remaining unrecognised).
It is a haunting beautiful film, sharing the traits of any other Ophuls film with the creeping camera and austere melodrama. This may even be Ophuls’ most savagely depressing film, watching as the now-famous Modigliani continues to fall into self doubt and alcoholism until the effects of both become irreversible. The ending is also an unexpected kick to the gut, and even more depressingly, this film fell into obscurity after release, only recently becoming more recognised due to a release by Arrow Academy. An incredibly harsh watch, but one of a story so touching it is difficult not to be captivated.
10. Antigone (Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet, 1992)
Coming from the consistently overlooked Straub and Huillet, a duo whose work is only now starting to really capture any kind of traction in becoming more generally recognised by film fans, Antigone is one of the strongest films of the 1990s.
An adaptation of the classic Greek play detailing the debate between a harsh King and the sister of a man not granted a decent burial upon death, Straub and Huillet stay with the source material in a way that few other directors ever have, allowing their deceptively simple style of cinematography and editing to envelop the audience before jabbing them in the chest with the incredible script (often spoken so quickly and with such fierce emotion behind it that it can be difficult to really keep up).
It’s a shocking, moving film that manages to brew up so much emotional power seemingly out of nowhere, as with a lot of the work of Straub and Huillet. A testing watch, maybe, but a rewarding one without a doubt.