By titles in alphabetical order.
The Asphalt Jungle (1950, USA)
dir. John Huston
starring Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Jean Hagen, Sam Jaffe, Marilyn Monroe
One of the landmark titles in John Huston’s amazing filmography, The Asphalt Jungle had a profound influence on the caper genre. For starters, it was one of the first crime films to break with conventions by telling the story from the side of the criminals. The gritty dialogue and muscular atmosphere and balanced by a naturalist approach. The stellar cast delivers iconic performances, headed by Sterling Hayden and featuring a show-stealing turn from Sam Jaffe, as well as Marilyn Monroe in one of her first significant roles in a motion picture.
Bloodsport (1988, USA)
dir. Newt Arnold
starring Jean-Claude Van Damme
Jean Claude Van Damme (in a star-making performance) competes in a mysterious and potentially lethal tournament with other fighters from different parts of the world. And that is as complicated as it gets. And it’s so beautifully entertaining that it almost brings a tear to my eye.
The Brick and the Mirror (1965, Iran)
dir. Ebrahim Golestan
starring Taji Ahmadi, Zackaria Hashemi
A bleak and modernist melodrama from the Iranian New Wave, made over a decade before the Iranian Revolution. A man finds a baby in the backseat of his cab and doesn’t quite know what to do with it. Filmmaker Ebrahim Golestan questions the burden of unwanted responsibility within a lost Iranian society in this landmark Iranian movie. Golestan also edited the movie and embraces a realist approach, allowing scenes to breathe but without disdaining a low-lit, stylistic approach recalling classic film noir.
Circle of Danger (1951, UK)
dir. Jacques Tourneur
starring Ray Milland, Patricia Roc
The cinema of Jacques Tourneur is surprisingly daring. By today’s standards, it may even seem controversial, ugly and unpolished. Circle of Danger is a brooding and disquieting exploration of several of the filmmaker’s favored themes, including the elusive nature of truth and the absurdity of masculinity. It also succeeds in transplanting familiar film noir tropes to the British countryside. An underappreciated masterpiece.
Erotikon (1920, Sweden)
dir. Mauritz Stiller
starring Anders de Wahl, Tora Teje, Lars Hansson, Karin Molander
A landmark Swedish silent film production. Mauritz Stiller’s Erotikon (not to be confused with the 1929 Czech melodrama of the same name) is a high-spirited satire fueled by the sexual frustration and erotic excitements of an all-too-settled upper class. The film is enriched by a type of “scientific” detachment, no doubt influenced by the great interest in the hugely popular discourses in psychoanalysis of the time. In retrospect, Erotikon also appears to predate the romantic intrigues of Ernst Lubitsch’s films, as well as the sophistication of Jean Renoir’s architectural narrative structures. Which is pretty remarkable!
The Golem (1915, Germany)
dir. Henrick Galeen, Paul Wegener
starring Paul Wegener
The horror genre owes a lot to the imagination of early German cinema pioneers. The Golem trilogy, produced by actor Paul Wegener, is among the most talked-about of these early efforts, despite only one of its titles (the third) surviving in its full length. Only a part of the first chapter survives to this day but it’s enough to reveal true glimpses of genius, from an intense atmospheric style reflecting its mix of Jewish mythology with sexual frustration and obsessive love to Wegener’s famed expressionist acting.
Jamaica Inn (1939, UK)
dir. Alfred Hitchcock
starring Charles Laughton, Maureen O’Hara
Possibly the worst film in Alfred Hitchcock’s (obviously) stellar career. Perhaps due to the filmmaker’s eagerness to leave Britain for Hollywood. There’s not much even the great Charles Laughton can do to save this awkward tale of 19th-century smugglers, based on a story by Daphne du Maurier. Watching it, one almost catches a glimpse of what might have happened had the Hitch ever helmed a flick on Poverty Row.
Johnny Guitar (1954, USA)
dir. Nicholas Ray
starring Joan Crawford, Mercedes McCambridge, Sterling Hayden, Ernst Borgnine, John Carradine
A strange, wild and wonderful western that unravels like a vivid dream. Johnny Guitar arguably revived the genre a fistful of years before the coming of Sergio Leone. Sterling Hayden’s gunslinger may claim the title but it’s Joan Crawford’s passionate and defiant saloon-keeper Vienna that positively steals the show!
The Lavender Hill Mob (1951, UK)
dir. Charles Crichton
starring Alec Guinness, Stanley Holloway, Sid James
The Lavender Hill Mob is a quintessential Ealing Studios concrete-and-clay dark comedy. Along with “Big Deal on Madonna Street,” it really set the tone for bank heist satires to follow. However, it’s fair to say that few could count on the chemistry shared by leading (and super-British) men Alec Guinness and Stanley Holloway.
Mr. Bachmann and His Class (2021, Germany)
dir. Maria Speth
A long-form, intimate and observational documentary about a genial sixth-grade teacher in a German city with a complex history of both excluding and integrating foreigners. A reflection on the importance of education and a plea for multiculturality. At over four hours in length, Mr. Bachmann and His Class represents naturalistic, fly-on-the-wall cinema that moves while shining a light on topics and important aspects of humanity that are often neglected without feeling didactic or condescending.
La Ronde (1950, France)
dir. Max Ophuls
starring Adolf Wohlbruck, Simone Signoret
La Ronde is possibly the ultimate Max Ophüls film for beginners. Populated by upper and lower-class people, often intermingling, it shows ten amorous encounters that together paint a jaded, satirical portrait of human desire and love’s bittersweetness. To this day, it remains one of the most compelling “adult” romantic comedies and its elegant touch, complete with a cinematic low that sparkles with wit and visual grace, remains profoundly influential.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964, USA)
dir. Nicholas Webster
starring John Call, Pia Zadora
Routinely mentioned as one of the worst films ever made. It isn’t and the fact that it has garnered so much attention over the years is a little annoying. That is the age we live in. You can get more attention by talking about shit in a boring way than by talking about legitimately interesting stuff in an entertaining way. Believe me.
Shadow (2020, Portugal)
dir. Bruno Gascon
starring Ana Moreira
Driven by a great central performance by actress Ana Moreira, Shadow feels a little too lacking in energy and even a bit too mindful to make much of a dent. Yet, it remains a noteworthy sobering and compassionate film, based on a true story of a missing child.
Sherlock Jr. (1924, USA)
dir. Buster Keaton
starring Buster Keaton
Sherlock Jr. is praised today as one of Buster Keaton’s best works. Yet, at the time of its release, it was kind of a flop and did poorly at the box office. It’s not hard to understand why. The film was simply a bit too sophisticated and ambitious to ingratiate an early mainstream audience, beginning with its “film-within-a-film” structure, which would have been unusual at the time. Yet, it was this type of surrealist vein and unwillingness to compromise the real artistic vision that made Keaton such an influential auteur, as well as a hero for avant-garde movements.
Transylvania 6-5000 (1963, USA)
dir. Chuck Jones, Maurice Noble
starring Chuck Jones
The genius of early slapstick comedies lived on for several decades in classic Looney Toons shorts, where the makers let loose their creativity via the liberating animation form. Transylvania 6-5000 is a horror-themed spoof on popular vampire and haunted castle movies, where bodies and objects, as well as words, are distorted and transformed in hilarious ways. Abraca-Pocus!
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964, France)
dir. Jacques Demy
starring Catherine Deneuve, Nino Castelnuovo
Jacques Demy is best known for bringing the musical genre to the revolutionary French New Wave movement. His spectacular collaboration with the great composer Michel Legrand birthed The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, one of the most beloved, star-studded French films of all time. The movie dazzles with its color, movement and gesture. Yet, it is also a sobering and downright haunting view on broken hearts, inspired by the erotic frustration of kitchen dramas and the tragedy of Shakespearean couples.