Knowing about a good thing before other people do is almost as pleasurable as telling them about it. Everyone has “I bet you haven’t seen this” movie picks, making the effort to capture under-the-radar gems strenuous for even the most prolific viewers.
When compiling a list of excellent movies unknown to most people, I tried to span genres, decades, and countries. Stereotyping foreign fare as strictly for culture snobs may be widespread, but, sadly, films from abroad need more help being discovered. My choices are often not American, and these mostly independent, dark films are anything but mainstream.
So why now? Summer is a great time to catch up on the things that passed you by, the to-do lists of leisurely dog days. Don’t worry: Some of the content may be downbeat, but I’m recommending plenty of frisky entertainment to get the popcorn popping.
Without further ado, here are the undeservingly under-seen:
1. “Force Of Evil” (U.S., 1948)
It’s heresy to compare films with “On the Waterfront,” but “Force of Evil,” made six years earlier, forces consideration of that question. It’s a Cain and Abel tale of two brothers caught up with numbers-running gangsters. A great film noir, with hyper-poetic dialogue so visceral it becomes the action, it’s but a historical footnote in the careers of blacklisted writer-director Abraham Polonsky and star John Garfield.
2. “In A Lonely Place” (U.S., 1950)
Humphrey Bogart’s name may be synonymous with bigger titles, but “In a Lonely Place” is the most unusual of his career. The did-he-do-it murder mystery is preempted by caustic inside Hollywood satire and issues of moral complexity gray as Bogey’s ashes.
3. “Woman In The Dunes” (Japan, 1964)
Existential questions and a glistening eroticism distinguish this avant-garde masterpiece about an entomologist who meets a strange woman living in the dunes. Why she is there, why he stays, and what bugs have to do with it, are all casually shocking revelations, set to lyrical images and a screeching soundtrack.
4. “The Hill” (U.K., 1965)
In a North African army prison during World War II, a new British arrival, played by Sean Connery, battles a sadistic guard’s rules. It’s the grittier cousin of “Cool Hand Luke,” with nail-biting realism supplanting the cool, and few endings administer climaxes of titanic outrage like this one.
5. “The Ipcress File” (U.K., 1965)
James Bond by way of ‘The Third Man” meets “The Manchurian Candidate,” yet this star-making turn for Michael Caine has its own voice. It’s giddy on style, peppered with audaciously canted camera angles, and lubricated with an easy-to-hum-impossible-to-forget score.
6. “Proof” (Australia, 1991)
“Look into my eyes, but they won’t look back,” says the blind photographer, in a film that may seem like a recipe for indie metaphor purgatory, yet is a funny-sad examination of three lonely people trying to make a go at being less lonely and failing often. Russell Crowe, more limber than we know him now, has yet to make a better movie.
7. “Not One Less” (China, 1999)
A heartwarmer about a 13-year-old substitute teacher who goes in search of her student when poverty forces him to look for work in the big city. Controversially, director Zhang Yimou may have caved to Chinese government censorship in order to get funding, but there’s historical poignancy in the trail of implicit criticism he leaves behind for us to interpret.
8. “Dear Zachary: A Letter To A Son About His Father” (U.S., 2008)
A one-of-its-kind documentary that uses sleight of hand to relay a family chronicle. The less you know coming into it the more seismic the surprises.
9. “Cell 211” (Spain, 2009)
When prisoners riot, new guard Juan pretends to be an inmate to save his own skin. Things get complicated when he turns out to be good at being bad. Brutal violence, outlandishly entertaining plot shifts, and a sobering sense that this will not end happily prevail.
10. “A Perfect Getaway” (U.S., 2009)
A honeymooning couple befriends an edgier couple in Hawaii as bodies pile up and misdirection rules. Self-aware, chewy dialogue (one character warns of “red snappers” when he means herrings) pitched to the rafters elevate the B-movie genre trappings to squirm-first-laugh-later levels. Cheap thrills are priceless when done this right.
11. “The Wise Kids” (U.S., 2011)
Most of my unseen films unsettle; “The Wise Kids” touches. Three college-bound Charleston, South Carolina kids measure their feelings about sexuality, faith and friendship against the yardstick of their Christian community. Marked by a refusal to satirize religious values, an uncommonly decent response to a young man coming out, and transparently open-hearted performances from kids who never let sincerity bottom out into naïveté, this indie treasure is a glass-three-quarters-full view of life.
12. “Pariah” (U.S., 2011)
Black cinema gets a jolt in the arm with writer-director Dee Rees’s filmmaking debut, a coming-of-identity heartbreaker about a Brooklyn teenager learning to love herself as gay in the face of community and family resistance. This aching, loving film finally puts black characters into an LGBT world typically dominated by white men.
13. “Sleep Tight” (Spain, 2011)
Ghoulish story of a deranged apartment doorman whose mission it is to make his tenants miserable. This is a perversely enjoyable exercise in taboo-challenging suspense — the nerve of the thing is in never flinching from its maliciousness — and the frights are spectacularly earned.
14. “Goon” (Canada, 2012)
Want a smash-mouth hockey flick that makes “Slap Shot” look like Masterpiece Theatre? A gross-out comedy that has more laughs-per-minute than any Judd Apatow? How about a sprinkling of heart? “Goon,” with Seann William Scott in lovable doofus mode as a hockey enforcer butting knuckles with a splendid Liev Schreiber, slashes all the boxes.
Most of the above films are available via Netflix, with streaming options like Vudu and Amazon Instant Video also serving as terrific resources for the ones that slip through the cracks.
For the truly ambitious, here are some more: “The Bad Sleep Well” (Japan, 1960); “Harakiri” (Japan, 1962); “Hombre” (U.S., 1967); “Murphy’s War” (U.K., 1971); “The Parallax View” (U.S., 1974); “The Conversation” (U.S., 1974); “Thief” (U.S., 1981); “Lucas” (U.S., 1986); “Close-Up” (Iran, 1990); “The Rapture” (U.S., 1991); “Before the Rain” (Macedonia, 1994); “Memories of Murder” (South Korea, 2003); “I’m Not Scared” (Italy, 2003); “Kontroll” (Hungary, 2003); “Intimate Strangers” (France, 2004); “Mysterious Skin” (U.S., 2004); “Days of Glory” (Algeria, 2006); “Strangers” (Israel, 2007); “Tulpan” (Kazakhstan, 2008); “Wendy and Lucy” (U.S., 2008); “Revanche” (Austria, 2008); “Terribly Happy” (Denmark, 2008); “Easier with Practice” (U.S., 2009); “Of Gods and Men” (France, 2010); “Tyrannosaur” (U.K., 2011); “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” (Turkey, 2011); “The Island President” (U.S., 2011); “Shadow Dancer” (Ireland, 2013); “Stories We Tell” (Canada, 2013).
Share your off-the-radar picks in the comments section, because being in the know is second only to discovering the secret stashes of others.