Ten hidden gems in the vast world of movies that you should see before something tragic happens to you. Hey, I’m just saying.
Read the intro from the TV edition, then come back here. Are you back? Okay, good. This is Part 1 because there’s a lot of text and shoving it all into one post would be excessive. So here’s five movies now. You can have the rest later!
For many people, Nicolas Winding Refn is a pretentious director who tries too hard to make artsy films with “meh” results. One of his most mainstream films, 2011’s Drive, featured one of the best openings and title sequences in recent memory before devolving into a Ryan Gosling/Carey Mulligan music video for College’s “A Real Hero.”
Most of his other films, like Only God Forgives and Valhalla Rising, are beautiful in the most boring and painful ways. Sure, symbolism in art is important, but does it have to be such a grind?
Aside from Drive and his Lincoln commercials with Matthew McConaughey, Bronson is probably his best project (sorry, haven’t seen his Pusher trilogy yet) and if not that, it IS definitely one of the easiest to get through.
With a smashing, growling performance from Tom Hardy that undoubtedly played a role in his casting as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises and a wicked soundtrack, this film based on Charles Bronson the prisoner (not the Death Wish actor) is artistic madness and disturbing in all the right ways.
Hustle & Flow (2005)
Someone once said, “Three 6 Mafia won an Oscar before Martin Scorsese” and that quip has become something of a favorite for people who like to look at the Academy Awards with heavy skepticism. Like me.
If you think about it though, it’s kind of a stupid statement because the success of “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” – a legitimately catchy song – doesn’t correlate at all with the failures of the Academy voters in getting Marty a statue before his consolation prize in 2006 for The Departed.
Still, it’s a funny saying, and I just want people to make sure I personally don’t take anything away from Three 6 Mafia’s great work in Hustle & Flow.
Aside from the soundtrack, the acting of Terrence Howard has to be noted. Although he didn’t win an Oscar for his work, he was nominated, and his initial fears of being typecast in future work were dissolved when he realized the full complexity of his character, DJay.
There have been some quibbles as to whether the movie divulges in too many black stereotypes, and I think all that noise is mostly unfounded. But going further into that would be playing with fire, so for the love of God, watch Hustle & Flow and just appreciate the goddamn chemistry and energy during the makeshift recording sequences – that’s where the magic happens.
It’s one of the best movies to come out of MTV Films, along with classics like Napoleon Dynamite and
Justin Bieber: Never Say Never.
Kiss of the Dragon (2001)
In his prime, Jet Li was probably the most impressive martial artist/actor in a post-Bruce Lee world. And sure, guys like Jackie Chan were certainly no slouches themselves, but if you were looking for someone to inflict the most damage with the least amount of props and very little comedic relief, Jet Li (and you can certainly make a case for Donnie Yen) was the man to see for years and years.
Americans probably recognize Li from Lethal Weapon 4 and Hero, while younger audience members probably associate him with The Expendables franchise, but one of his best Hollywood films came out in 2001 and featured action choreography that was much grittier and more “realistic” than the usual Jet Li film.
It’s the type of movie with fight scenes that were acted out so aggressively, the director had to slow them down so the audience could actually see what was going on. Highlights include a fight against a bunch of jerks in a dojo, some badass twins who almost get the best of Li, and a generally cool European vibe that sets this film apart from the rest of Jet Li’s work.
Really, the only knock against Kiss of the Dragon is that Li basically beats up a bunch of French dudes… not exactly something to brag about. All joking aside, this is a great action film to watch, and I want to emphasize the action part. To be completely honest, this is something you could probably give the YouTube treatment – watch the best parts on YouTube, I mean.
But still, it’s a hidden gem I tell you.
The Thin Red Line (1998)
No list desperately begging people to see specific movies would be complete without a Terrence Malick film. While he’s not anywhere close to being the hipster Nicolas Winding Refn is, it’s undeniable that both express their focused fascination on the big picture in some, um, interesting ways. Take 2011’s The Tree of Life for example, a film so divisive it nearly sparked a world war (just kidding).
I would have put that movie on the list because it’s one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen, with exceptional cinematography. It’s also confusing as all hell, which is why The Thin Red Line gets the obligated Malick slot – the movies I pick have to be at least a little watchable, right?
It was released in 1998, the same year as another noteworthy WWII film. While the Tom Hanks vehicle was lauded for its realistic battle scenes and emotional appeal via patriotism, Malick went a different route (literally: the Pacific versus the Atlantic) and, like I said, focused on bigger questions than “What does it look like when a soldier miscalculates a fuse and gets blown to bits?”
The Pacific also provided Malick with a lot of natural, vibrant colors that end up in a gorgeous relationship with the cinematography and production design. Hans Zimmer – in a world before he became a close collaborator with Christopher Nolan – provides distinct music that you’d be wise to experience, especially if you only know Zimmer from his post-2005 work.
Since it’s a Malick film, there are the usual tangents and digressions that can be distracting. The massive ensemble cast is also something that can be a little annoying at times – many big names show up for about two minutes before disappearing forever.
Having said that, the distractions are completely worth it and depending on what you prioritize, an argument could be made that The Thin Red Line is better than Saving Private Ryan. I personally don’t believe it, but you won’t get laughed out of the building if you’re talking to people who are serious about movies.
Under the Skin (2013)
This polarizing film directed by Jonathan Glazer is easily one of the most unsettling things you will see and I’m still not sure whether it’s a blessing or a curse that Scarlett Johansson was cast in the leading role of an alien who is under the skin, so to speak, of a female human body.
The alien prowls the gloomy streets of Scotland for men and seduces them back to a decrepit wooden apartment. The apartment holds a black void where the men are enveloped in an amniotic fluid. As they helplessly drift, their internal organs are violently sucked out, leaving just the skin to aimlessly float about.
It’s disturbing, to be sure, but Under the Skin is more than just a superficial horror flick. As the alien continues to masquerade as a human being, it starts to explore what it means to be human. Through its eyes, we observe love and death and even a slice of chocolate cake.
Not-so-quick note: Scarlett Johansson’s role here is more noteworthy than you think and her casting extends beyond just getting a star to help raise funds to actually make the movie happen. You see, 2013 was something of a landmark year for her.
She starred in three different movies that all used her beauty in a different way. In Don Jon, her beauty was used superficially – basically she was playing a New Jersey babe who was so hot, she could rub her ass on Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s crotch and make him, um, stain his pants. In Her, director Spike Jonze chose to neglect her physical body completely and have her voice an operating system that verbally bangs Joaquin Phoenix’s character.
Then we have Under the Skin, which asserts Johansson is so freaking beautiful, she really is basically an alien who can pick up any guy she wants under any circumstances, even on a shitty day in Scotland. And they’re all right, to a certain extent.
Of those three films, this is – by far – the most provocative and if you watch it, I think it will be pretty clear why. But again, I have to warn you: this is a slow film with little dialogue.
If you can’t get into it, there’s no shame in that. But if you can, even better!