The original first line of this piece read, "Time, time, time," and was intended to be accompanied by a heavy sigh. But who among us has time for redundancy these days, however poetic? The electronic revolution has forced us to divide our time into nanoseconds, our information into bytes, and our wisdom into soundbites.
This ticking-clock attitude subtly affects our expectations about entertainment as well. Who has time to take a chance on some unknown movie on video? If it bites, we've wasted two valuable hours (not to mention a couple of even more valuable dollars). Who has time to watch the most minor titles on tape and separate the worthwhile wheat from the video chaff? Who's willing to invest the time to distill the bitter wine of bad films into the brandy of buried treasures on tape?
That would be me. And I'm happy to report that 1999 contained a bumper crop of wonderful but overlooked films. Apparently I'm not alone in my quest for fine little films: Many minor, independent and niche films which might have otherwise gone unseen and unsung received a tremendous amount of press in 1999: Pi, Rushmore, Election, Go and Dangerous Beauty are prime examples. But there are a handful of other titles which deserve similar recognition as excellent but overlooked entertainment. My top five choices include (in no particular order):
Permanent Midnight (1999; Artisan; rated R). Ben Stiller set aside his comic persona long enough to star in this sobering true-life tale of Jerry Stahl, who at one point in his career was a TV sitcom writer by day and a heroin addict by night. This poignant and original story, told mostly in flashback, contains numerous intriguing scenes, some great performances and a fascinating glimpse into the Hollywood-and-heroin underground which has seduced a number of young artists in recent years (think River Phoenix). Most engaging of all, however, is the film's emotional tone, a prominent and pervasive sense of wry detachment, tender empathy and sardonic acceptance of our very human weaknesses. (Keep an eye out for Stahl himself, making a cameo as a doctor in the rehab clinic.)
Underworld (1996; Trimark; R). Before there was Analyze This, before The Sopranos, there was Underworld, a stylishly shot and darkly satiric story of psychs, psyches and psychos. Denis Leary is in rare form as sarcastic ex-con Johnny Crown, who applies his jail-time studies in head-shrinking to mob boss Frank Gavilan (Joe Mantegna), as revenge for Frank's whacking Johnny's dad -- maybe. Joe Mantegna could easily have phoned in his subdued, almost silent, role as the psychologically terrorized mobster, but to his credit he imbues his every scene with a cat-like intensity; a virtually sensual suggestion that although he's quiet, he's alert, attentive and primed for action with a hair-trigger. More a story about the complicated relationships between fathers and sons than a gangster flick, this beautifully photographed film might have confused viewers seeking a straightforward suspense thriller or action entry. But as a tongue-in-cheek parody of the genre, it exhibits an intelligence and originality that should delight fans of sardonic noir.
Still Breathing (1997; PG-13). Hunky Brendan Fraser plays a San Antonio street performer who comes from a long line of men with a peculiar psychic gift: they see their soul-mate in a vision, then track her down and marry her. Fraser, too, finally receives his vision, but he's in for a rude awakening and a major challenge, as he discovers that the woman he sees is a street-savvy Los Angelino who's had one too many heart-breaking relationships and has given up on the idea of ever finding a soul-mate. We'd be hard-pressed to find a simpler story: boy meets girl, boy loses girl ... and, well, you know the rest. Several aspects of Still Breathing elevate it above others in this genre, however: the charm of the performers (including Joanna Going as the reluctant love interest), the sweet, witty and unforced quirkiness of the script, and the unpretentious execution of the simple story. While the movie is more pleasantly amusing than laugh-out-loud funny, that's because it's not a romantic comedy, it's a romance movie -- a very rare creature these days. Still Breathing is not for everyone, but in these cynical times it's a comfort to know that someone with a sweet heart (writer/director James F. Robinson) is out there keeping the faith and holding up the torch of romance. And it makes a great date movie. (Special note: The only problem with this film is that it is a "Blockbuster Exclusive," meaning it's available for rent only at Blockbuster video stores.)
20 Dates (1999; Fox; R). Speaking of romance ... When asked what one should be able to do well, Freud answered, "Work and love." Myles Berkowitz has a major problem with both. How can he make a low-budget movie to prove his talent? And how can he meet women in insular L.A. (especially when he's considered a failure in the film industry)? His solution: Go on 20 dates and film them. Even if he's unsuccessful at finding love, at least he'll have a documentary to further his career. Poor simple-minded, arrogant Myles! Did he ever really believe things could be that simple? Comic complications abound: His producer is a foul-mouthed, egomaniacal sex addict, for starters. No date acts herself when being filmed -- and in shooting women without their permission, Myles ends up shooting himself in the foot. And when he finally finds a likely love, how is she going to respond to his abandoning her to go on the rest of the dates required to finish his film? Will he be forced to abandon one success to achieve the other, or can he have his film and keep her, too? Even while this quirky flick is often reminiscent of a cut-rate Annie Hall, or of the romantic roman a clef experiments of Henry Jaglom, Myles' trials (and his solutions) twist some originality out of these well-known formulas, and eventually yield a little film that might best be described as a real-life romantic comedy.
Run Lola Run (1999; Columbia TriStar; R). Lola's boyfriend has made a terrible error: He's left $50,000 of mob money on the Berlin subway -- and if he can't replace it in 20 minutes, he's a dead man. With the clock counting down the seconds, Lola begins a frenetic quest to get the money, any way she can. She fails. She's shot. She dies. Is this the first 20-minute feature film? Not by a long shot. Borrowing a convention from video games, writer/director Tom Tykwer has given the players in this frantic flick more than one life, and more than one chance. And he has paralleled this multi-leveled approach to plot and character in the levels of depth layered into the film. On the surface, for instance, Lola is one of the most kinetic, exhilarating and action-packed films in years. On a deeper level, it's an exercise in philosophy and quantum physics, exhibiting how minute changes in perception, timing, attitude and trajectory can domino into radically different results. Peer far enough into the film and it becomes a religious parable, or an insight into the condition of our consciousness: two universes based on mechanistic, robotic behavior prove untenable ... and the only successful route out of the maze is through grace. But don't let Lola's depth (or the minuscule amount of subtitled German dialog) dissuade you from watching it: Run Lola Run is a mesmerizing, frantic masterpiece in which every frame is riveting. Bonus: It's got one of the best soundtracks in recent memory, too!
A film like Run Lola Run might rely on the science fictional implications of quantum physics for its plot, but it also suggests the Einsteinian view that time is relative ... which is, of course, the whole point of a piece like this, to advise you in advance about which unknown titles will be a worthwhile investment of your valuable time. If you found these suggestions (or this approach) helpful, my final time-saving advice is to invest in my book-length collection of buried treasures on tape, Killer B's: The 237 Best Movies On Video You've (Probably) Never Seen (available online at www.impermanentpress.com ), and give it a thorough read.
If you've got the time.
D. Scott Apel is the former video columnist for the San Jose (CA) Mercury News, and is author of the video guide Killer B's: The 237 Best Movies On Video You've (Probably) Never Seen.
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January 15, 2000