101 Unsung Films and How I Picked Them

From an early Del Toro to the not-American version of “Dinner for Schmucks” to some stick-out-my-neck choices

Last Updated: February 9, 2010 @ 10:47 AM

People are forever asking me, “What should I watch this weekend?” I don’t mind; in fact, it’s one of the most satisfying aspects of being a film critic — leading people to movies I like that they don’t already know.

For years, my stock answer to that question was David Mamet’s "House of Games." It wasn’t a hit, but everyone I touted on it later thanked me for the tip. When a startup network called ReelzChannel approached me about hosting a show, I told them that this was what I wanted to do on a regular basis. I’m now in my fourth season of "Secret’s Out," where every week I recommend “hidden gems” playing in theaters or recently released on DVD.
Now I’ve been able to expand on that idea in book form with "The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen," just published by HarperStudio. But it still took a lot of thinking to create a roster of films that would be varied and interesting.
I’ve tried to strike a balance between artsy fare and more popular entertainment, micro-budget movies and forgotten studio releases. And yes, I’ve also included some exceptional documentaries. Most of my choices are contemporary, but I couldn’t resist including a handful of films from the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s.
Some choices were easy, like "House of Games" or other perennial recommendations of mine: the benign Australian comedy "The Dish" and Scott Frank’s smart thriller "The Lookout," starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Others are longtime personal favorites, including two films by writer-director Maggie Greenwald, one of the most underappreciated filmmakers in America. Her exquisite "Songcatcher" was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2000, and won a Special Jury Prize for its acting ensemble (which includes Janet McTeer, Aidan Quinn, Jane Adams, Emmy Rossum, and Pat Carroll). But its distributor was swallowed up by a new owner toward the end of that year and the film never got the buildup it deserved.
And there was no groundswell for her compelling 1993 drama "The Ballad of Little Jo," which stars Suzy Amis as a woman who made her way in the Old West masquerading as a man. (I came to learn that "Little Jo" was a particular favorite of its star, now Mrs. James Cameron. Although she retired from show business to raise a family, she agreed to be a guest on my show when I featured the film.)
Sometimes I’ve been lucky enough to hear a filmmaker speak after a screening of a film, or I’ve interviewed her or him myself. I’ve drawn on this material to provide background stories about many of my selections, like "The Dinner Game," written and directed by that master of French farce, Francis Veber (the man who created "La Cage aux Folles"). He says his films are short because as he’s grown older he’s become impatient with subplots; what’s more, he’s acutely afraid of boring his audience. Running less than an hour-and-a-half, "The Dinner Game" is one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen, and while Hollywood has chosen to remake it (as "Dinner for Schmucks," with Steve Carell and Paul Rudd), it will have a long way to go to top the original — which few Americans have seen.  
Even a title with a “brand name” attached can be overlooked. Alexander Payne and his writing partner Jim Taylor are celebrated for such films as "Election," "About Schmidt" and "Sideways," but I’m constantly surprised to learn how many people have never seen their debut feature "Citizen Ruth," which features a bristling performance by Laura Dern.
Discerning moviegoers embraced Guillermo Del Toro’s "Pan’s Labyrinth," but his earlier, equally eerie (and personal) journey into the other-worldly realm, "The Devil’s Backbone," should be better known. Even films with stars like Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, and Diane Keaton have fallen by the wayside over the years.
In some cases I’ve been able to test my opinions in a “living laboratory,” my class at USC.
Every week we screen a new movie and have one or more of the filmmakers present for a question-and-answer session afterward. It’s a big class, with 360 students from all parts of the university (not just the film department), and I’ve had heartening experiences screening pictures that weren’t certified by critics or embraced by mass audiences. Sometimes all a movie needs is a fair chance. (One example: Roger Donaldson’s "The World’s Fastest Indian," a good-hearted film with a lovely performance by Anthony Hopkins. My students said they were turned off by its advertising campaign, and wouldn’t have chosen to watch it — but they wound up liking it very much.)
I suppose the trickiest selections in the book are those that were met by indifference, or hostility, by most reviewers. I realize I’m sticking my neck out, but I stand by my opinions on "Fifteen Minutes," "Crush," "The Dead Girl," "King of California" and "Phoebe in Wonderland," to name just a few. In my essays I try to explain why I feel the way I do about them.
It all boils down to this: A good movie is a rare and precious thing. It shouldn’t be squandered, and it certainly shouldn’t be ignored. With "The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen," I hope I lead at least a few people to some films they appreciate, and enjoy.