I’ve always had a taste for obscure and idiosyncratic movies; at worst, this manifests in a love for terrible sci-fi films like Robot Monster or Phantom of the Paradise, but it also shows up in a fondness for gems like My Favorite Year or The Year of Living Dangerously. A long time ago, when enormous shoulder pads were in fashion, there was a video store in Pasadena that was unlike any I’d ever seen before. Videodeon specialized in films for movie lovers. Sure, they stocked the big hits too, but unlike Blockbuster, they didn’t have entire walls dedicated to multiple copies of a few popcorn-munchers. They had a large art film section, an even larger foreign film section, a healthy collection of little indie films, and a bunch of “drive-in classics.” As might be expected, the store only lasted a few years, but while it was there, we found ourselves exposed to a lot of interesting films, many of which don’t involve CGI monsters blowing things up.
Here are a few of our favorite films that you may not have seen or may have forgotten about:
Reuben, Reuben This little gem came out in 1983, was nominated for two Oscars (Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay), then disappeared in the mists of time. Today it’s largely notable for being the first film role for Kelly McGillis. Tom Conti plays a drunken poet who hasn’t written anything in a decade, who now ekes out a living speaking to “friends of the library” groups throughout New England, seducing society matrons and contemplating suicide. Then he meets beautiful college student Geneva Spofford and his world turns upside down.
Garbo Talks! Anne Bancroft, one of the finest actresses America ever produced, stars as Estelle Rolfe, a 67-year-old divorcee who has never kept silent in the face of injustice. Apart from fighting for her many causes, Estelle’s two greatest joys in life are her son Gilbert (named for John Gilbert) and the films of Greta Garbo. When she is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor and given only a few months to live, her wish (“it’s not a last wish! I got a lot of wishes; I’m short on time!”) is to meet the reclusive Garbo, and dutiful-but-wimpy son Gilbert (Ron Silver) goes to insane lengths to try to fulfill this request. A parade of great actors show up in supporting roles, including Howard Da Silva, Dorothy Loudon, Harvey Fierstein, Hermione Gingold, Carrie Fisher and Catherine Hicks. The beautiful opening animation by Tissa David gives us a lyrical ballet retelling of Estelle’s life story to set the stage for this tour de force performance. Playwright Betty Comden plays Garbo.
People Like Us A recent film, it had the misfortune of opening on the same day as Seth MacFarlane’s lowbrow Ted in 2012; the masses went to see the foul-mouthed teddy bear, leaving People Like Us to play to empty theaters. Adding insult to injury, Dreamworks decided not to submit the film or any of its cast for consideration in any awards in order to increase the chances of a sweep for Lincoln. Elizabeth Banks and Michelle Pfeiffer both deserved nominations. The story is about a wheeler-dealer (Chris Pine) who has to go home after his father’s death, only to discover a sister he didn’t know he had. He gets to know her and her troubled son while deciding whether or not to give her the inheritance their father left for her.
An Everlasting Piece Set in Belfast during “The Troubles,” Barry Levinson’s 2000 film tells the story of two barbers, one Catholic, the other Protestant, who work together cutting hair in an insane asylum; when they learn that one of the patients (Billy Connolly) was formerly the owner of the only wig shop in Northern Ireland, they conspire to get his customer list and go into the wig biz. This is another film that Dreamworks threw under the bus; it was due to be released in 800 theaters nationwide, but when it was announced that Steven Spielberg was to receive the OBE from Queen Elizabeth the same week, the film’s release was suddenly reduced to only eight theaters, after which it disappeared.
84 Charing Cross Road Anne Bancroft is at the top of her form here as New York-based writer Helene Hanff in an autobiographical portrait of her decades-long penpal relationship with the staff of a London bookstore from the late 1940s into the ’60s. Anthony Hopkins as the ever-proper proprietor answers her humorously conversational letters with dry British reserve. The recreation of mid-century New York and London is beautiful, and the two leads fully inhabit these interesting and very opposite people. A quiet film that rewards those who pay attention to dialog, this film is proof that not every love story has to be a romance.
Mona Lisa Bob Hoskins plays George, a small-time crook recently released from prison, who reluctantly accepts a job as driver and bodyguard to Simone (Cathy Tyson), a high-priced callgirl, and even more reluctantly begins to fall in love with her. Michael Caine plays the most menacing and ruthless crime lord you ever saw, who has given George this job so that he can dig up information on one of Simone’s clients. Simone wants George to help her locate a friend from her past. The plot threads intertwine into a violent resolution in London’s seedy underbelly. Written and directed by Neil Jordan (The Crying Game), the film depends greatly on the performers to make it the memorable film that it is.
Miracles Long before he wrote National Treasure or TV’s Grimm, Jim Kouf wrote and directed this little film that never saw a nationwide release before moving to video in 1986. Tom Conti plays a recently-divorced surgeon, with Teri Garr as his ex-wife. When a drunken Medicine Man in Central America cries out to the Gods to save the life of the Chief’s ailing daughter, a long string of remarkable coincidences are set in motion, beginning with a bungled jewelry store robbery by dim-witted criminals Christopher Lloyd and Paul Rodriguez, which causes a car accident involving the battling ex-spouses, who are promptly taken hostage. The “coincidences” continue to pile up, throwing the couple together and dragging them into the jungle. As far as I can tell, Miracles has never been officially released on DVD; it’s currently owned by MGM since they acquired Orion Pictures, but MGM doesn’t have a print-on-demand DVD service like the one Warner Bros has. The ones offered for sale are most likely bootleg copies. The film does occasionally show up on Netflix and Amazon’s streaming services.
Local Hero Peter Reigert plays an American executive who, because his name is MacIntyre, is sent to Scotland to try to convince the locals to sell their village to his employer so it can build an oil refinery on its pristine shore. Burt Lancaster is his eccentric and curmudgeonly boss, who is more interested in hearing about the Aurora Borealis than the oil refinery. The village is only too happy to sell the whole town, except for an attractive marine researcher (Jenny Seagrove) and the contented hermit who owns the beach (Fulton MacKay). As MacIntyre gets used to the leisurely pace of village life and tries to woo the biologist, he comes to doubt the wisdom of his mission.
Check back soon as we continue our look at more under-appreciated films you should see.