Does anyone have some tape?
Per Scott M’s request, I am temporarily resurrecting the weekend Top Five (but don’t expect it to become a habit, y’hear?). Here are the top five excellent movies you’ve (probably) never seen:
1. Owning Mahowny (2003)
The late great Phillip Seymour Hoffman gives one of his very best performances playing Brian Mahowny, an assistant bank manager with a gambling problem who stole hundreds of thousands of dollars to feed his addiction via frequent trips to Atlantic City, where an amoral casino owner (a great John Hurt) is more than happy to accommodate him without asking too many questions about where the money is coming from. Based on a true story, the film watches Mahowny’s inevitable downfall with utter fascination, and Hoffman carries the film as a man who lives for nothing other than the rush he gets as the dice bounce; as his co-workers and the police get wind of his scheme and the net closes around him, he remains hyper-focused on keeping the game going for as long as possible, a true addict to the end.
2. Santa Sangre (1989)
Alejandro Jodorowsky’s bizarre, surreal masterpiece of horror is utterly unlike any film I’ve ever seen before or since. His blood-soaked tale of a mute, damaged young man manipulated by his deformed mother into becoming a serial killer is like Hitchcock’s “Psycho” on acid. Jodorowsky fills the film with grotesque and haunting imagery: murders and dismemberments, circus freaks, weird religious cults, and just about anything else you can think of. One scene in particular, involving circus members holding a funeral for an elephant, is truly unforgettable. If you have a taste for bloody and off-kilter cinema, “Santa Sangre” makes for oddly compelling and hypnotic viewing.
3. Genghis Blues (1999)
A blind blues singer from San Francisco travels to Tuva to compete in a Mongolian throat-singing contest. A story so strange it must be a documentary, because Hollywood would never attempt to tell it in fiction. Famous bluesman Paul Pena hears Tuvan throat-singers (men who perform traditional Mongolian songs while manipulating their vocal cords so that they are singing two notes at the same time) over the radio one day and is instantly struck with an inspiration. He figures out how to perform the throat-singing himself, fuses it with his own home-grown blues chords, and then decides to travel halfway around the world to Tuva to compete in their annual singing contest. We follow his journey and become immersed in the Tuvan culture, a land of desert nomads mostly unchanged for the last few hundred years, still riding horseback and living simple agrarian lives. And in the process, we get to know Pena himself, a man who loves his art but is constantly driven to frustration and depression by his handicap. This is not a movie that whitewashes being blind. It is a difficult and sometimes maddening condition to live with on a day-to-day basis, and the film celebrates Pena’s ability to live with that struggle as much as his fearless musical talent.
4. Tokyo Story (1953)
Most of the time, when a movie is (a) in black and white, (b) in a foreign language, and (c) on many critics’ best-of lists but most regular moviegoers have never heard of it, that’s usually a sign that it’s an overrated, pretentious bore. Yasujiro Ozu’s “Tokyo Story” is a rare exception, a masterpiece from one of Japan’s finest filmmakers that really should get more attention. It tells a simple story – about an elderly couple visiting their now-grown children and discovering that the next two generations have drifted away from them – but it is told with such beauty, and such underlying universal truth, that it never fails to engage audiences. Ozu’s often-static camera observes the action quietly, letting the story’s emotional truths unfold without fireworks, with simply gorgeous cinematography. It’s a sad but lovely reminder that at the end of the day, family is everything, even if sometimes, in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, we lose sight of that.
5. The Dish (2000)
A heartwarming, delightful Australian comedy-drama based on the little-known true story of a small town (with a big satellite dish) that in 1969 is unexpectedly asked to play a crucial role in broadcasting the Apollo 11 moon landing to the world. The film focuses on the engineers operating the dish (led by Sam Neill, in a great performance as the kind of rock-solid team leader that anyone would be happy to work under) and the small town residents, who suddenly have to deal with hosting politicians and NASA officials. Naturally, there is one disaster after another, and the characters handle them in ways that generate some thrills, but mostly laughs. Thankfully, there are no contrived subplots or artificial villains to pump up the drama; the characters are all basically decent, good-natured small-town people who have suddenly been faced with the biggest responsibility of their lives, and do their best to meet the challenge.
Feel free to add your own list of obscure gems below.
Elmo and Patsy
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