Call us "Raiders of the Lost Art," perhaps, instead of pirates. And call the flicks "buried treasures," "sleepers," or "killer" B movies. No matter how you label them, the definition remains the same: excellent features that never found their proper audience; wonderful films one feels compelled to share with friends; second-run -- but not second-rate -- movies which deserve a second chance, and which get it on video and DVD.
We've returned from Davy Jones' video locker with eight such titles (six, if you don't like le cinema francais) released in 2001. Keep in mind that just as you wouldn't want to sit through every movie playing at the mega-multiplex, not all of these titles will appeal to everyone. But chances are if you overlooked or never heard of these films, but find one that sounds appealing, it will prove worth your time to seek it out and rent it.
There's a wide range of genres in this list, or (in pirate vernacular) "avast" selection from which to choose -- enough to make any Tom, Dick or Roger jolly. So drop anchor at your local video store, plunder the shelves for titles that sound like cinematic gold, and watch up, me hearties, yo ho!
The top buried treasures on video for 2001, in no particular order, include:
"The Dish" (2000; 101 minutes; rated PG-13). Houston, we had a problem: In July, 1969, the only way to transmit live television images of Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon was to relay them through the Southern Hemisphere's largest satellite dish, located in a sheep field near Parkes, Australia. But is the laid-back four-man crew (including Sam Neill and "Seinfeld's" Patrick Warburton as their arrogant NASA handler) ready to handle this awesome responsibility? Well...
It's a matter of historical record that those TV images did indeed light up the world. But this (mostly) true tale of what it took to deliver the goods to more than half a billion viewers worldwide makes for a delightfully comical flick, brimming with eccentric characters and offbeat action. "The Dish" is more than just laugh-out-loud funny, however -- it's a comedy with an affectionate heart for its characters and a surprisingly uplifting ending. Despite our earlier caveat, this one is for everyone, and walks away with the title "Buried Treasure of the Year."
"Memento" (2000; 113 mins.; R). Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) is a man with problems. One is that an accident has destroyed his ability to form long-term memories, rendering him unable to recall anything earlier than 15 minutes ago. The only way he can "remember" vital information is to write notes on Polaroids -- or tattoo himself with clues. Another is that he's determined to track down his wife's killer, despite his handicap. Leonard's biggest problem, however, is who to trust. Are his alleged friends (including Joe Pantoliano and Carrie-Anne Moss) actually attempting to help him? Or are they taking advantage of his condition to manipulate him into their own sinister agendas?
The single most provocative and critically-acclaimed indie film of 2001, writer-director Christopher Nolan's twisty thriller is well on its way to attaining cult status -- but it deserves a much wider audience. The story unfolds backwards, the scenes cartwheeling to ever-earlier events, providing the viewer with a sense of Leonard's disorientation and confusion while challenging our own memories. "Memento" almost requires repeated viewing, as the attention-demanding experiment in style and structure occasionally obscures the superb acting, subliminal clues and philosophical questions about memory, perception and truth. Hint for DVD viewers: The bonus materials answer many lingering questions about what was intended to be true.
"The Gospel According to Philip K. Dick" (2001; 80 mins.; unrated). For those living on Mars during the past couple decades, Philip K. Dick (aka "PKD") was a prolific science fiction writer, best known for the film versions of his novels, including "Blade Runner," "Total Recall," and next summer's Steven Spielberg-Tom Cruise blockbuster lock, "Minority Report." But beneath the write-to-survive veneer of a sleazy sci-fi scribe was a philosopher who addressed profound questions like "What is reality?" using futuristic metaphors. And beneath that, there was a man possessed of, and by, multiple demons -- not the least of which was a series of mysterious religious visions late in his short life.
"Gospel," a shoestring-budget labor-of-love directed by Mark Steensland, interviews a number of people close to PKD (including fellow cult sci-fi author/philosopher, Robert Anton Wilson) about the origin of his visions, his attempts to analyze them, and their effect on his career and final writings. While the effort is heartfelt and the information fascinating, the this one can only be recommended to fans of PKD. But for them, this documentary will prove a gem -- a true philosopher's stone.
"Circus" (2000; 95 mins.; R). Leo the con artist (John Hannah) is prepping for the proverbial "one last score" so he and his gorgeous wife Lily (Famke Janssen) can blow London and retire to tropical climes. But Lily has her own scam underway -- one which doesn't include Leo. And, unbeknownst to Lily, Leo has been blackmailed into yet another scheme, which jeopardizes their plan and their lives... and so on in this convoluted three-ring circus of double- and triple-crosses.
Writer David Logan and director Robert Walker have crafted a tight little modern noir thriller in which nothing is what is seems, and everyone has secrets, lies and a hidden agenda up every sleeve. The fun is in watching the multiple plots breed, complicate, collide and mutate, all while trying to second-guess the true meaning among the multiple possible motives behind every action. "Circus" is a giddy high-wire act, always two steps ahead of what you think you know, yet surprisingly easy to follow.
"Poor White Trash" (2000; 89 mins.; R). Double-wide denizen Linda (Sean Young) has great aspirations for her son, Mike, which start with busting him out of their jerkwater southern Illinois town and shipping him off to college. But where's the money gonna come from, hon? Mike and his friends -- all a few clowns short of a circus -- take matters into their own misguided hands, botching a robbery and forcing a determined and hard as press-on nails Linda to take charge of the situation, no matter what the cost.
It takes talent to create brilliant stupidity -- think "Raising Arizona" -- but writer-director Michael Addis gets it precisely right in this underrated, over-the-top comedy. Every member of the ensemble cast (including Jaime Pressly, M. Emmet Walsh, and William Devane as a sadistic, foul-mouthed lawyer) hits just the right eccentric note, and the script is a veritable quirk-fest. All this and sex, guns, fire, a trailer chase and an exploding Vega, too!
"Snatch" <(2000; 104 mins.; R). All right, I'll be blunt: There is simply no way to digest the complex plot of this black comedy crime caper into a sentence or two. See? It took four words just to identify its genre! To hint at the complex plot, imagine an enormous, 86 carat diamond as a hot potato, passing rapidly among -- and sometimes through -- a small-time fight promoter, a sadistic crime lord who feeds his enemies to pigs, a band of gypsies (including a brilliant and incomprehensible Brat Pitt), incompetent robbers, a passel of Jewish jewelers (including Dennis Farina, more severely funny than he's been since "Midnight Run," a Russian hit man, and Benicio Del Toro. Oh, and a dog.
While writer-director Guy Ritchie's flick was lambasted critically, many viewers (including yours truly) found its dark humor, comic violence, oddball characters and convoluted action the most exhilarating entry of its kind since "Pulp Fiction."
"The Closet" (aka Le Placard; 2001; 84 mins.; R). When bland accountant Pignon discovers he's about to be sacked, he hits on a brilliant plan to save his job: He spreads the rumor that he's gay, so his management will keep him on in fear of being sued for sexual discrimination. To his chagrin, he discovers that everyone -- including his ex-wife, his sullen teenage son, his sexy boss and his gay-bashing adversary -- treats him very differently after his faux outing. In order to deal with their changed perceptions, he's forced to reassess himself and become more of a man than he ever was.
There are two types of people in America today: The Politically Correct, who won't laugh at this (or anything, for that matter), even though it is inoffensive, hilarious, and ultimately redemptive, and the rest of us, who love a good-natured, insightful mocking of PC absurdity. In addition, there are two types of video viewers: Those who aren't deterred by subtitles, and most people. If you fall into the second category, take a chance that this time the extra effort will be well rewarded.
"Vatel" (2000; 117 mins.; PG-13). Yes, it does have a plot; something to do with a bankrupt prince throwing an extravagant bash for King Louis XIV to gain a commission and some desperately needed cash. Commanding every detail of the three-day soiree is the prince's steward, Vatel (Gerard Depardieu), a man smarter, more talented and more honorable than any of the shallow, foppish aristocrats, but one who is low-born -- and who, tragically, has fallen in love with one of the King's mistresses (Uma Thurman).
But this movie is not about plot (even though it was based on an historical incident, and was co-written by Tom Stoppard). It's all about the food. Mountains of luscious, mouth watering gourmet cuisine; enough to make a bountiful Thanksgiving dinner seem like a plate of stale crackers and moldy cheese in comparison. And it's all about the sets: Lavish, vivid, vibrant, breathtaking images, worthy of an exclamation point! Is it in French? Who cares? "Vatel" would be an awe-inspiring tableau -- a literal feast for the eyes -- even with the sound turned off. Warning: Do not watch this while hungry!
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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December 15, 2001