As the nights draw in with their howling winds, freezing rains and bitter temperatures, outdoor adventures soon become a bone-chilling prospect. Thus arrives the season to turn on the lamps, turn up the radiators, and tune in to some uninterrupted nocturnal viewing. This winter, as you settle into the settee, consider taking it outside the box with a foray into the world of eclectic film. More accessible than arthouse, bigger on the budget than your average Indie, these are the improbable gems that have somehow defied the formulae and pale imaginings of Hollywood and yet remain accessible and highly entertaining.
Though anything but an exhaustive list, what follows is a smattering of titles, all of which are available at Amazon.com, either for purchase or via streaming, that deserve a couple of distraction-free hours, not to mention an open mind.
The Last Wave (1977) — Arguably his most enthralling film, this supernatural mystery from Peter Weir seamlessly blends authentic Aboriginal myth and belief with Weir’s languidly beautiful visions of the otherworldly. When an unassuming tax attorney (Richard Chamberlain, at his most elegant and understated) finds himself defending a group of Aboriginal men from a murder charge, he discovers there is more to the death than a barroom brawl. As his investigation deepens, the certainties and assumptions of his modern urban life begin to waver as ancient forces take hold. The darkly wonderful film transcends the genre as a unique contemplation on the ephemeral nature of our realities.
Kung Fu Hustle (2004) — A semi-satirical take on martial arts movies, Stephen Chow’s film is anything but your typical Kung Fu film. Polished, seriously funny and magically sweet at heart, Hustle is still packed with enough intense and creative fighting to please an aficionado. The grumpy and listless Sing (played by the super-fit Chow) thinks his troubles will be solved by becoming a member of the ruthless and deadly Axe Gang. When Sing thoughtlessly brings a downtrodden local neighborhood into conflict with the gang, he finds there is more to the neighborhood — and himself — than he realized. Chow has the skill-set of a Hollywood director, but the sensibility of an irreverent spirit.
Night of the Demon (1957) — Also known as Curse of the Demon, this vintage horror flick from director Jacques Tourneur is touted as one of the first of its genre to emphasize atmosphere as much as action. Set in an old-fashioned England of ivy-covered houses and night mists, a visiting American professor (Dana Andrews) is drawn into a dead colleague’s investigation of a mysterious cult. Though the Demon in question will be amusing to the CGI generation (and was added later against the wishes of Tourneur), the film as a whole unfolds with the supreme coziness of a spooky fireside story.
Europa Report (2013) — Don’t expect Hollywood heroics, but if you strap in for this off-beat space film, you’ll be rewarded with a uniquely absorbing experience. Beautifully choreographed, Sebastián Cordero’s subtle but increasingly intense piecing together of this account of a troubled deep-space mission, this is far superior to other “found footage” narratives. With extraordinary acuity — and an exceptional cast — Cordero captures the non-negotiable physical and spiritual control required of the scientist-explorers, but finally also, their irrepressible and unbounded humanity. A cathartic and memorable film.
The Secret of Roan Inish (1994) — A small and sweetly mysterious film from John Sayles, this tale of coastal living and myth unfolds with a tone that is both pensive and slightly sinister (though fine for most children). Capturing the gorgeous moods of the sea and the people who live near it, this piece delicately touches upon the ties that bind in all their innocence and ambivalence.
The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) — Though Roman Polanski isn’t known for comedy, he’s terribly good at it. A hilarious vampire film, rich in East European sensibility and Jewish humor, this oft-overlooked entertainment is a perfect diversion for grownups. Remarkable is Polanski himself, who carries much of the film barely uttering a word. Perfect viewing for a snowy night over a bottle of Schnapps.
The Last Waltz (1978) — Considered by many to be one of the greatest concert films ever made, Martin Scorsese documents the final concert of The Band, Bob Dylan’s one-time backup group who enjoyed much success in their own right. Interspersed with interviews, the film savors the night’s performances of The Band and their guests, including Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters and even Dylan, to name a few. With multiple cameras, it’s all about the editing, and Scorsese rigorously and brilliantly balances the intimacy with the energy. For those raised on today’s music, much of which is the artistic equivalent of Spam, the musicianship, originality and idiosyncratic faces of these retro talents will be mind-blowing. For those who were there, it potently captures an era.
Fellini’s Casanova (1978) — This sensuous, dream-like take on the life and times of the 18th century womanizer, is by turns silly, wistful and remarkably magical. As the conquests arrive like bonbons from an ornate box of confections, Casanova (Donald Sutherland, extraordinary in prosthetic nose) delights in their unique flavors. Full of boisterous (if simulated and essentially clothed) sex, this is thoroughly grown-up stuff. But, like much of Fellini’s work, it is also ripe with a childlike imagination. Fireworks light a Venetian lagoon as an enormous decorative head rises from the dark waters; later, Casanova escapes a cuckolded nobleman over a sea made of floating silks. For another less-touted (and similarly narrative-driven) Fellini film, try the absorbing Nights of Cabiria.
The Cell (2000) — Absolutely not for the faint of heart or the easily offended, Tarsem Singh’s exploration into the mind of a serial killer as he is hunted by the authorities, is a profoundly unsettling — but most fascinating and sometimes beautiful — film. An Indian-American, Singh infuses his vision with the extraordinary flavors of his heritage; some are steeped in Americana, others evoke the ornate colors and themes of Indian art. Despite unlikely leads Jennifer Lopez and Vince Vaughn (both appearing before settling into their current, and much less adventurous, brands), this thriller breaks the mold. If you respond to Singh’s unorthodox storytelling, see also The Fall.
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