8. Abigail’s Party (1977, Mike Leigh)
Before Mike Leigh became known for his work in the ‘90s with Secrets and Lies and Topsy-Turvy, he was cutting his teeth working on stagey TV-movies for the BBC. He made a couple for the station’s show Play for Today, Nuts in May (1976) and Abigail’s Party (1977). The main linking aspect of both of these films is their reasonably misanthropic view of the horribly awkward interactions between these characters, even if they’re close friends or family or lovers.
If you’re in the mood for nerve-wrecking awkwardness, both TV-movies would be suitable for your viewing pleasure, though Abigail’s Party manages to rank highest in the socially uncomfortable/painful scale.
The seething hostility in the air that stinks of the characters’ contempt for each other is strongly present thanks to the marvellous and painful performances between each of these actors and actresses that give a sense of these people having known each other for a long time (and for far too long a time).
Even this early on in his career, Leigh had a knack for creating conversations and arguments among a variety of dynamic characters, with the acting all perfectly pitched and timed to ooze this strong underlying discomfort.
Given these theatre adaptations were TV-movies, both Abigail’s Party and Nuts in May haven’t had much critical response at all, let alone any contemporary discussions of them, which is a shame since they’re truly some of the strongest works to come from Leigh and co, putting a focus on acting and writing to deliver to the viewers a crushingly cringey piece of masochistic entertainment.
9. Where the Green Ants Dream (1984, Werner Herzog)
After nearly dying on a few of his own film sets, the memorably audacious risk-taking German director made the decision to make his first English-language film in Australia.
Concerning itself with the land rights of the Aboriginals versus the capitalist nature of the miners, Werner Herzog presents a film no less grimly majestical and awe-inspiring than his other masterpieces, yet is simultaneously more accessible than his other equally as grand ventures because of this film’s inclusion of plenty of small-scale and large-scale dry humour (most of which coming from the Aboriginals interaction with the latest technology).
Australia was an inspired choice for Herzog to film in, along with his casting of the peculiarly gangly Aussie actor, Bruce Spence, who actually fits comfortably in the lead role of a typical Herzog character who boasts a mild degree of thoughtlessness due to overconfidence, despite his earnest intentions.
Nowadays, Herzog is regarded somewhat more as a documentary filmmaker than a narrative one, though his early films from his native country including Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, and Stroszek are keenly regarded as some cinematic greats, but his side-tracked roam into Australia and its landscape and human inhabitants is just as mystical, just as tremendous, and just as wondrous as his well-acclaimed works, plus Where the Green Ants Dream can even be called more mainstream-friendly without sacrificing any Herzogian goodiness and strangeness.
10. Crimes of Passion (1984, Ken Russell)
Ken Russell had a hard time winning over British audiences – though they warmed to Women in Love (his only film on the BFI’s Top 100 British Films list), his other work may’ve been a bit too risqué and rock ‘n’ roll for them. Anarchic work like Tommy and Lisztomania (both rock musicals starring Roger Daltrey) appealed more to the younger crowd than the older generation, but his film The Devils introduced some undeserved controversy for his magnificent critique of the intersection between state and church.
By the time the ‘80s arrived, Ken Russell was wrongly considered old-hat, despite releasing a real gem in the decade called Crimes of Passion.
Starring John Laughlin as the perfectly caricatured ‘80s man, along with a daring performance from Kathleen Turner as a prostitute who takes her job perhaps more seriously than any other cinema hooker, and there’s Anthony Perkins, giving a far less subtle, yet more effective performance than even his one in Psycho as the demented and hypocritical bishop who preachingly antagonises everyone whilst being an antagonist himself.
Like Russell’s best and most memorable work, Crimes of Passion is an exhaustingly exuberant film, sometimes serving as a slap in the face, sometimes as a heart-felt look at the disintegration of romance in the world of marital disappointments. A film very much of its time, embracing its ‘80s-isms, it hasn’t become outdated, but has firmly dated itself as a culturally insightful film of the decade that’s vividly and wildly entertaining in Russell’s rock ‘n’ roll style.
11. Husbands and Wives (1992, Woody Allen)
At the rate of making a film a year (which he’s impressively kept up for decades), Woody Allen had covered the relationships of married friends both in comedy, drama, and a mix of both. But the difference with Husbands and Wives that really differentiates it from Allen’s immense filmography is the dramatically jarring documentary-style.
Uneven handheld camerawork, occasional doco-esque narration, talking heads, and a voyeuristic sense in the cinematography only goes to embellish the immediate drama Allen has concocted for one of his best, most singular, and most underrated films.
The acting that realises these very realistic characters is superb, with Allen himself seemingly on top of his game throughout the late-80s and early-90s with his now expertly practised character-acting arguably at its height. He’s supported by Sydney Pollack, Judy Davis, Mia Farrow, and Juliette Lewis, and he gets some strong and appropriately naturalistic performances out of all of them.
Despite being one of Allen’s most raw and direct films (as well as one of his favourites of his own), it’s often excluded as one of his classics in favour of Annie Hall, Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanours, Hannah and her Sisters, and the like.
As good as these favourites are, their cemented stance as Allen’s best films end up excluding so many of his other greats like Zelig, Radio Days, Manhattan Murder Mystery, and Deconstructing Harry – Husbands and Wives seems to be on the top of this lengthy list of his most underrated efforts.
12. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1994, David Lynch)
Despite a dip in quality and popularity during season 2 of the unique TV show that was Twin Peaks, the film adaptation that was helmed by David Lynch himself was met with jeers and boos at the Cannes Film Festival (apparently, a sign of a good film).
It was the prequel to the hit drama show that apparently no-one even wanted, with the likes of Quentin Tarantino claiming he’d given up on Lynch after seeing it, Times critic Vincent Canby said it was “not the worst movie ever made; it just seems to be”, Roger Ebert called it a “shockingly bad film, simpleminded and scornful of its audience”, and just about every critic and his dog slammed the film, or were at the least very questionable about it.
All this resulted in what seems like a rather disappointing and fizzling end for the Twin Peaks saga, yet an appreciation has snowballed over the years and hopefully the film will be enthusiastically re-evaluated as a masterful piece of work (perhaps after the show’s upcoming revival).
Although seen mostly in a body bag wrapped in plastic, the centrepiece of this whole story, Laura Palmer, is brought to life (temporarily) by Sheryl Lee.
It’s surprising to think anyone thought this was a disappointing prequel as it perfectly captures the downward lifestyle of this distressed and badly motivated teenage girl, whose own existential desires reveal a susceptible and vulnerable character, powerfully performed by Lee whose extraordinary work adds to the film’s heightened manner – there were some particularly strong and daring female performances that fell under most folks’ radars in the early to mid ‘90s, and Lee’s Laura Palmer was one of them.
Fire Walk With Me is a master-work from Lynch, yet is often more disregarded than his other films of the ‘90s, despite being just as strong a piece of compelling story-telling and individualistic directorial expertise as Wild at Heart or Lost Highway.
Its positive reappraisal has already begun, with critics like Mark Kermode and filmmakers like James Gray recently gushing about it, and Slant even listed it in their 100 Essential Films List, putting it there in favour of any other film by Lynch. It is stellar work that ought to be reviewed on its own unique terms as a surrealist highlight of the ‘90s.
13. Forgotten Silver (1995, Peter Jackson)
Peter Jackson has had a widely varied career, covering gory zombie horror-comedies, adult puppet films, serious crime dramas, mammoth blockbusters, and in this med-length doco film, a satirical examination of cinema’s history and the legacy of its creators.
Film restoration has improved over the decades, and many a classic films dating back to cinema’s birth have been cleaned up pristinely or revived entirely by the wonderful film restoration teams around the world, and Forgotten Silver is a mischievous ode to film and the discover of long lost art.
Given Jackson’s huge surge in popularity following the Lord of the Rings trilogy and all his other blockbusters, it’s terrific that many folks have gone back to his terrific early works like Bad Taste, Dead Alive, and Heavenly Creatures, but it’s also essential they check out this little special kind of documentary.
Some viewers weren’t too happy about Forgotten Silver when it was first released, but over time this doco’s clever rediscovery of a lost piece of art and the way this tale is ingeniously executed is an exciting, yet thoroughly humorously cheeky love-letter to a film-related subject matter rarely discussed in themselves; the lost films, mainly from the silent era, that we can only imagine what they were like back when they existed. Jackson, at the height of his creativity, is a modern filmmaker who did imagine that and it is certainly worth seeing.
14. Millions (2004, Danny Boyle)
This British director’s kinetic style is often the same in all his films, but he has had a varied career in a number of genres, from junkie dramedy to “zombie” horror to an award-winning love story to a trashy exploitation weirdo sci-fi thriller to recently a very talkative minimally plotted biopic of a troubled genius – amidst all this, he managed to fit time to put out a family film (about the advent of the Euro, of course).
When a bag full of seven million pounds goes missing after a train robbery, it ends up in the hands of eight year old Damian, played by Alex Etel in an excellent child role that makes you wonder what the actor is up to nowadays.
Something that Boyle really excels at is not just his rich stylistic energy, but how he applies it to reveal the full emotional potential of each and every scene. Utilising style along with substance (rather than one over the other), Boyle’s chaotic directorial manner makes the most of this children-based family film that makes it exciting for the kids to watch, though its moral stances are never dumbed down for them.
Despite critical acclaim, no awards ceremonies touched the film and it has since slipped into relative obscurity, but anyone looking for a true quality film to watch for the whole family that provides laughs, thoughtfulness, suspense, tenderness, and plenty of heart-tugging resonance, Millions is worth as much as its title suggests.
15. Bringing Out the Dead (1999, Martin Scorsese)
The final year of the previous millennium offered us an assortment of different films, some very modern and up-to-date with a sort of pre-millennium anxiety.
The celebrated ones, American Beauty, Fight Club, Magnolia, Three Kings, and Being John Malkovich mostly come from rather new and young directors, but the certified American master at the time was Martin Scorsese, who had at that point recently made more than one film regarded as one of the best ever made. Yet his collaboration with none other than Nicolas Cage, who had recently won an Oscar, underperformed at the box-office and gained not a large amount of critical momentum.
But a film by Scorsese and starring Cage sounds appetising for many fans of either (or both) and the film is as good as it promises (or better) with this sort of collaboration. Cage is inspired casting, his wide-eyed antics are perfectly suited to Scorsese’s own wild and frenetic directorial sensibility, bringing life to this nocturnal character like he’s being defibrillated once every ten seconds.
Supported by the immeasurable talents of John Goodman, Tom Sizemore, Ving Rhames, Patricia Arquette, Marc Anthony, and a memorably little role as a hospital security guard by Afemo Omilami (don’t make him take off his glasses), it’s surprising this didn’t attract much attention then or now, and is still yet to revitalised by fans and critics alike. Let’s start that now.
Author Bio: David Morgan-Brown is an Australian lover of movies, films, flicks, and kino pictures. He does written reviews for Colosoul, video reviews for Flim Reviews, and does comedic skits with his mates for Carpool — go laugh with (or at) him.