Earlier this year, the largest video store in the United States, Scarecrow Video had a Kickstarter to help fund its survival and conversion to a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of video. Of course, being a film-loving Seattlite, I was just about contractually bound to contribute to the Kickstarter — and one of the perks was being allowed to curate a top 10 list that’d be available for folks to browse in the store. That list is here — though it’s not really a top 10 list, but more of 10 movies that may be a little obscure that are worth checking out. (And I believe a fair number of these I first saw from Scarecrow!) In no particular order, those films are…
Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession – A fascinating documentary by Xan Cassavetes (daughter of the filmmaker John Cassavetes) about Z Channel, a very early pay cable channel in the Los Angeles area that’s at least partially responsible for the rise of modern film appreciation and the critical reappraisal of films like Heaven’s Gate. It’s a must-see for anyone interested in both film history and television history.
Funeral Parade of Roses – This has been long one of my favorites, and I’ve even written about it before here, but the short version: Funeral Parade of Roses is a retelling of Oedipus Rex placed in Tokyo’s gay and trans bar scene of the 1960s. Director Toshio Matsumoto was one of the members of the Art Theatre Group, a collective that made a lot of experimental films. Funeral Parade of Roses combines narrative film, documentary, collage, psychedelia, fumetti and, well, just about anything else you can think of. I’d especially recommend it to fans of FLCL, even though the only connection is a similar feel.
The Dark Backward – Adam Rifkin’s surreal and nightmarish comedy about a terrible comedian who gains fame via his new third arm. In a review for the now-defunct DVD in my Pants site, John H. Felix said “The Dark Backward defies you to enjoy it, from the amazingly unleashed performances to the cinematography to the set design, to the clothing, to the sound, to the hair – I could go on and on and on and on andonandon. And yet there’s a certain cracked genius behind it all – how does a film as antisocial as this one ever get made?” I’ve shown this film to friends with similar tastes to me — and it’s kind of a crapshoot as to whether or not they’ll like it. Either way, though, it’s a film that must be seen. Especially for the way the omnipresent “Blump’s” logo gradually becomes more and more disturbing without actually changing in the slightest. I highly recommend it — but I also know it’s not for most people. But if you think this might be for you, definitely watch it.
Love & Pop – This is Hideaki Anno’s (Neon Genesis Evangelion; His & Hers Circumstances) first live-action film, an adaptation of Topaz II by Ryu Murakami, a book I’ve not read. Fans of Anno’s anime work will see many of his trademarks (power lines; train tracks), and it’s clear Anno’s eye extends to photography. The thing I always found amusing is that the box art for the DVD makes it look like softcore pornography — which, I’m sure, has resulted in many severely disappointed horndogs. The film is about teenage girls who go into “compensated dating”, but it’s not tawdry or erotic at all. To date, Anno has only made three live-action films (the others: Ritual, unreleased in the US, but available on import from Studio Ghibli’s live-action arm, and an adaptation of the anime series Cutie Honey), and this is my favorite, but all three are worth checking out.
Save the Green Planet! – Another of my favorite films and one I’ve written about here before, but again, an outstanding film by Joon-Hwan Jang, and it’s a genre film — of just about every genre at once. It’s sci-fi, it’s a police prodcedural, it’s a comedy, it’s a tragedy, it’s a horror. Any synopsis is going to be severely lacking, but here goes: It’s about a man who is convinced that the CEO of a large corporation is an alien sent to destroy Earth. This film does have some graphic violence, but generally of a telegraphed sort that lets you know when to look away for those so inclined. Jang has only done one other feature-length film, Hwayi: A Monster Boy — which will hopefully be released in the US soonish. I’ve not seen that one yet but Save the Green Planet! makes it clear that anything Jang makes must be seen.
Real Life – Albert Brooks’ first feature film is bizarrely prescient. A parody of An American Family, a PBS documentary series that’s considered the very first instance of Reality TV, Real Life follows an average family, but in an illustration of the Heisenberg principle, the making of the film ends up destroying their lives… not to mention the career and sanity of Albert Brooks, playing himself. Real Life is a dark, hilarious film… but more hilarious than dark.
The American Astronaut – This film is probably the one I’ve seen the most times on this list (Funeral Parade of Roses is a close contender though), and it’s one I don’t really get sick of. The first feature from Cory McAbee (from the band the Billy Nayer Show and his new project, Captain Ahab’s Motorcycle Club), The American Astronaut is a musical space-western. It’s a simple chain-of-trades plot, but when the trades include such things as the remains of the only man on Venus, an Actual, Real-Life Girl (actually a fetus in a box) and the Boy Who Actually Saw A Woman’s Breast, it’s a bit more interesting that than one episode of M*A*S*H where Hawkeye wants some longjohns. The music is outstanding as is the art design (also by McAbee, a phenomenal artist) — it’s a fun film from start to finish. And you haven’t even wished me a happy birthday.
Mister Freedom – Thankfully, this film is much less obscure now than when I first saw it, having since been released by Criterion’s Eclipse imprint in a box set with William Klein’s other fiction films, Who Are You, Polly Maggoo and The Model Couple. Mister Freedom is an over-the-top satire of Vietnam-era American foreign policy that, oddly enough, hasn’t really become outdated. The titular role is a huge, football-player-type of American superhero who is sent to lumber around France to protect it from evil Communist influence (and ends up causing more trouble along the way). Klein was originally a fashion photographer before he became a filmmaker, and like all his work, the film is absolutely beautiful to watch. It’s a mess, but intentionally so. That’s… kinda the point.
World’s Greatest Dad – I’ve seen most of Bobcat Goldthwait’s films (I still need to see Willow Creek and Shakes the Clown), and Goldthwait is one of the most underrated writers and directors working today. (Honestly: Could anyone else make a film like Sleeping Dogs Lie which is both about a woman who has had sex with a dog AND about how people can act destructively in relationships AND have it be such an outstanding, tasteful film?) World’s Greatest Dad, however, might be Goldthwait’s best film so far, starring Robin Williams in one of his best acting roles as a father who discovers his terrible son’s body after a failed attempt at auto-erotic asphyxiation and, to cover the shame, poses as the son to write a suicide note that ends up being published in the newspaper. A tragic, beautiful film that finds the humor in the horrible, but treats all its characters with the respect they deserve. This is a film I cannot recommend enough.
Four Lions – The list closes out with Chris Morris’ only feature film to date (but hopefully not his last one). Like World’s Greatest Dad, it has a shocking log-line — It’s a comedy about terrorists! — that fulfills the promise that it’s not going to be pointless “so edgy” posturing. (Of course, if you’re already familiar with Chris Morris’ work — the brilliant Brass Eye and Blue Jam in particular, you know that Morris isn’t interested in taboo topics if he doesn’t have anything intelligent to say about them.) Four Lions is a delicate balancing act, but ultimately a film that humanises terrorists while, at the same time, mocking the decisions they’ve made. It’s a hilarious movie that also ends up being moving. It’s the only piece of Chris Morris’ oeuvre that’s available domestically in the US — but thanks to places like Scarecrow Video, it’s pretty easy to see the rest of his (brilliant, brilliant) work.