5. Black Moon (1975)
Black Moon exists in a strange conjunction between famed “Through the Looking-Glass” scribe Lewis Carroll and French New Wave auteur Louis Malle. As unpredictable a filmmaker as ever, Malle decided to follow-up his very well-received 1974 war drama Lacombe Lucien with this offbeat and utterly bewitching dive down the rabbit hole, the “what-the-eff-did-I-just-watch?” cult classic, Black Moon.
Starring Cathryn Harrison as lovely young Lily, a refugee fleeing what appears to be a mysterious and very menacing gender-based war being waged in an otherwise bucolic country setting. Hiding in a remote farmhouse that she quite literally stumbles upon, Lily soon finds herself entangled in the surreal and upsetting domestic life of an acutely eccentric family.
Teaming with Ingmar Bergman’s go to cinematographer Sven Nykvst (Cries and Whispers), Malle achieves a very evocative, at times quite voyeuristic and entirely Freudian yarn of adolescent desires, shifting identities, talking animals, unicorns, and haunting hoodoo. Perhaps Malle’s most experimental and chimeric work, it’s also a very underrated fantasy tour de force.
4. Electric Dreams (1984)
On the surface, this very 1980s sci-fi rom-com from director Steve Barron (a man who is single handedly responsible for some of that era’s most iconic music videos, such as A-ha’s “Take on Me” and Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing”) is just a very familiar re-working of the oft-told Cyrano de Bergerac tale. You know the one; a shy nerd impresses the local hottie with the help of a second, and on the surface much more impressive, suitor. Well, thankfully there’s a fair bit more to this iteration and despite the flimsy familiarity, in Electric Dreams it all seems to work out surprisingly well.
Awkward computer-whiz Miles (Lenny von Dohlen, perhaps best known as lovestruck Harold Smith on Twin Peaks) programs his new PC (voiced by Bud Cort) to write love songs about and for his charismatic classical musician next-door neighbor, Madeline (Virginia Madsen). There’s more than a few snags, of course, since a silly champagne spill has brought Miles’ computer, Edgar, to life.
The cast couldn’t be more charming, the infectious score from the legendary Giorgio Moroder also seems to find the perfect tone for this charming, sugar sweet confection. And while this little blurb has been careful not to be too spoilery, one has to wonder why Spike Jonze claims to have never seen it, when it so closely resembles his own 2013 AI romance movie, Her. Might we suggest they’d both make for a winning double bill? Jonze’s will make you cry, Barron’s will make you laugh.
3. The Juniper Tree (1990)
It’s very likely that if you know this black-and-white medieval fantasy film at all it’s due to its famous Icelandic star, Björk, here making her feature debut. At the time the film was shot, Björk was only 20 years old (it was filmed in 1986, but as it was self-financed and languished in post-production for some time, was not released until 1990) and still fronting the Sugarcubes, her fame was still on the rise, not yet the international superstar she would soon become in her eclectic solo musical career.
Margrit (Björk) and her elder sister Katla (Bryndis Petra Bragadottir) are fleeing from the puritanical persecutors who burnt their mother at the stake for suspected witchcraft in this twisted fairy tale based loosely off the Brothers Grimm story of the same name. In the more than capable hands of the celebrated (though not nearly enough) late American filmmaker Nietzchka Keene, what follows is a both damning and dazzling evocation of medieval life.
Keene and cinematographer Randy Sellars beautifully capture the ethereal landscapes of Iceland as they tell their troubling tale with brutality, intensity, and well-placed unease. Stunning dream sequences vie with the casual cruelty of medieval life as Margrit recoups and returns a little magic of her own in this feminist ghost story in the tradition of Andrei Tarkovsky, only in Keene’s quite singular vision. It’s a stunner.
2. I Married a Witch (1942)
The innovative and often overlooked French director René Clair (Man About Town) made this breezy comic delicacy in Hollywood with blonde bombshell Veronica Lake in the eponymous role for what would be an influential (it inspired the beloved TV series Bewitched), playful and profitable little film, the cheekily but all too accurately titled I Married a Witch.
Jennifer (Lake), charming and all kinds of enticing in her iconic hair style (all the rage at the time, Lake’s hairdo wherein her right eye is covered was all the rage and would put much later trends like “the Rachel” to absolute shame), is a vengeful yet alluring sorceress who, a few hundred years prior, in Salem, cursed a lineage of puritanical men who sent her to the stake.
But now, in present day 1940s America and through some cosmic act of karmic restitution, now finds herself smitten with one of these cursed males. Jonathan Wooley (Frederic March), a prospective governor, soon to marry the spoiled, privileged socialite Estelle Masterson (Susan Hayward), unless Jennifer and her black magic can meddle and unsettle. Minus the supernatural elements, the set up is pure screwball comedy, and many of these dated aspects, including goofy but effective special effects, give the film much of its considerable charm.
Perhaps the biggest blessing bestowed upon I Married a Witch is in the glowing and often sharp witticisms exchanged between Lake and March, made all the more pronounced and comical considering that off screen the two leads famously detested one another. They don’t make them like this anymore, and that’s some sad juju for us mere mortals!
1. Orlando (1992)
There’s something truly ethereal, otherworldly, and utterly sublime about Tilda Swinton’s titular performance in Sally Potter’s palatial fantasy film from 1992, Orlando. Adapted by Potter from Virginia Woolf’s high-spirited classic 1928 novel “Orlando: A Biography” about a seventeenth century nobleman (Swinton) who will journey through the centuries, changing gender, and colliding with prominent figures of English literature, with satire and insights to spare.
Orlando is ordered by Queen Elizabeth (Quentin Crisp) to never age, and so he agrees, spanning four hundred years of history as a man and later as a woman, on an exploration of gender roles and creative artistic expression with results both dazzling and transcendent.
Bolstered by cinematographer Aleksey Rodionov (Come and See), Potter also utilizes breathtaking and deliriously detailed sets, spectacularly ornate costumes, an inspired and wide-ranging cast (in addition to Swinton and Crisp, Toby Jones, Jimmy Somerville, Billy Zane and Simon Russell Beale all deliver memorable performances) to create this playful, thoughtful and provocative slice of pure cinema. Not to be missed.
Author Bio: Shane Scott-Travis is a film critic, screenwriter, comic book author/illustrator and cineaste. Currently residing in Vancouver, Canada, Shane can often be found at the cinema, the dog park, or off in a corner someplace, paraphrasing Groucho Marx. Follow Shane on Twitter @ShaneScottravis.