8 Films in Desperate Need of Your Attention
There are about 303,000 feature-length entries in the IMDb database. This is a conservative figure regarding the total number of films out there in the world. Surely you cannot watch them all, and neither can I. However, that’s the beauty of it all — those of us in the film community depend on each other to highlight those worth watching.
Beyond being worth the watch, the following 8 films have something in common: they all need your attention, desperately. One reason for this is relative obscurity. These films are under the figurative radar and most people pay them no mind for a variety of reasons. But it doesn’t end there. The second reason is depth. These films are not for the faint of heart (and by heart, I mean attention span); they all demand high levels of focus and thought based on their respective cinematographic natures. Hence, this list outlines what I consider to be the best films exhibiting a substantial confluence of these two factors.
8. Brick (2006)
The Film: Rian Johnson, director of 2012’s Looper and three Breaking Bad episodes (including the widely-coveted “Ozymandias”) had his feature debut with the neo-noir Brick, which also marked one of the first significant lead roles for acting wizard Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The film plays out as a modern high school mystery with an impressive propensity for 1940s mob vernacular.
The Obscurity: It had a limited theatrical release, on top of being a directorial debut with no considerable cast draw. There may be some semblance of a cult following these days, primarily due to the recent ascensions of Johnson and Gordon-Levitt.
The Depth: The dialogue engages you immediately and does not let up, with the jargon acting as a puzzle all its own for the uninitiated. As the language becomes intertwined with the actual mystery at hand, Brick wraps itself in an esoteric but compelling veil that requires concentration to pierce.
7. Mindwalk (1990)
The Film: Mindwalk is an archetypal trialogue between a scientist, an artist, and a politician, in which the characters propagate a far-reaching discussion in the vein of My Dinner with Andre.
The Obscurity: It has a grand total of 8 critic reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. This film never stood a chance for widespread appeal, and I don’t think it was meant to.
The Depth: Mindwalk‘s official tagline is: “A film for passionate thinkers.” It proceeds as one sprawling conversation generating copious amounts of philosophy, nuance, and profundity. The insights appear early and often, ultimately serving as an exploration of systems theory’s applicability to various methodologies of thought and disposition. In other words, watching this film is a decidedly intellectual endeavor.
6. Holy Motors (2012)
The Film: Promising French director Leos Carax ended his cinematic drought with Holy Motors — an unconventional fantasy portraying a piece of one day in the bizarre life of a man known as Mr. Oscar.
The Obscurity: Being a French film with a distinctly European style, it never got a strong foothold in the United States outside of a few strong regional festival appearances and some high critical praise.
The Depth: Holy Motors is the most opaque of the films on this list; it has no remorse for its eccentricity and nonconformity. Its concise and striking visual language is offset by the enigmatic narrative — a reality that can block one’s comprehension. The unrelenting ambiguity calls for an equally unrelenting level of focus and contemplation.
5. Synecdoche, New York (2008)
The Film: In honor of Philip Seymour Hoffman, I give you what is potentially his most intriguing film. Synecdoche, New York is acclaimed writer Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut about an ailing man (played by Hoffman) who seeks refuge in constructing a capacious play of epic scale.
The Obscurity: It’s extremely polarizing. For every brave soul who sings the Synecdoche praises, someone else derides it. You’ll find this film among highlighted lists in both directions — best and worst — and many potential viewers are not willing to give it a chance. Not many films could be named the best of the decade by Roger Ebert and remain so widely unseen.
The Depth: The set of the main character’s play is a portion of New York in microcosm, but Synecdoche may also be all of human life and the universe in microcosm (the significance of the title comes into play here). This film builds itself on visceral truth waiting to be unearthed, but the layers of depth and meaning almost defy one’s ability to define them. The undeniable human resonance proves both elusive and palpable at the same time, which means only those who are fully engaged can come away with it.
4. Primer (2004)
The Film: Shane Carruth entered the world of film with Primer — part science fiction musing, part thriller, and part drama. It follows a group of entrepreneurs who unexpectedly develop a key time travel innovation.
The Obscurity: With a budget of just $7,000 and one man writing, directing, producing, casting, shooting, editing, starring, and composing the score, this film was never destined to make it big. Primer rode a successful Sundance showing and sheer ambition to borderline-cult-hit status, but will be forever inaccessible to many.
The Depth: To say there’s “depth” may be the understatement of the century. Primer is intentionally challenging by nature, and it’s perhaps the most complex film ever created in terms of plot development and content. If you understand the general dynamics after your second viewing, you are ahead of the curve; but don’t expect to nail down the specifics without an exorbitant amount of dedication.
3. Mr. Nobody (2009)
The Film: Combining science fiction epic with philosophical reflection and romantic drama, Mr. Nobody tells the story of Nemo Nobody (Jared Leto) as he wallows in the possibilities of life.
The Obscurity: This is a European film with a vaguely American flare (and a significant budget), but it only reached the United States as an afterthought and did not make the same impact across the Atlantic that it made in Belgium.
The Depth: The ambition of this film is remarkable, but its significance is only communicated when you immerse yourself completely — Mr. Nobody needs your attention perhaps more than the others on this list. Without it, the film devolves into the inconsequential. But with it, your thoughts are provoked on a subtly orchestrated journey into the vast realms of choice, fate, imagination, and the meaning of life.
2. Triangle (2009)
The Film: Triangle is a mystery film and a psychological thriller about a group of yaht-goers on a trip that spirals into an episode wrought with human and supernatural dangers.
The Obscurity: It was made in the UK and worked its way around Europe, but never made it to United States theaters. This makes Triangle remote by default.
The Depth: If any film rivals Primer on the grounds of sophistication, that film is Triangle. Its metaconceptual merit is unmatched by anything that I’m aware of — the title itself has countless correlations to various elements within the film, for example. Where Primer exceeds in content complexity, Triangle exceeds in self-referential significance and structural elaboration (on top of some complex plot developments). Overall, this may be the preeminent benchmark for cinematic depth from a holistic perspective.
1. Upstream Color (2013)
The Film: The man responsible for Primer finally released his next project nearly a decade later. Upstream Color is a mystifying sci-fi drama concerning a man and a woman whose lives become interwoven with something larger than them.
The Obscurity: Like Primer, Shane Carruth handled nearly every aspect of the film by himself, including the distribution. It created a significant social media buzz during the 2013 Sundance festival and went on to have a limited theatrical release, but the nature of the project lends itself to relative obscurity.
The Depth: Carruth is the closest thing we have to cinema’s prodigal son. Upstream Color manages to surpass his first film with a barrage of meaningful elegance, nuanced abstraction, and intricate depth. Needless to say, its artistry demands your undivided attention throughout.
It is important to consider the potential correlation between obscurity and depth, and what this might mean for today’s film industry. Certain films (e.g. Mindwalk ) base themselves on incredibly particular content, and others (e.g. Holy Motors ) can be rather alienating in their narrative aesthetics, offering valid reasons for any lack of broad exposure. However, there is also something to be said for films that otherwise feature significant depth or aesthetic sophistication; can we imagine a major studio releasing and promoting Upstream Color as a flagship project? There are perhaps a few noteworthy releases we can point to for support here, but the appropriate answer appears to be firmly negative. The pertinent question, then, concerns an explanation for why this is. It’s a sort of chicken-and-egg question: When the largest studios avoid such projects, are they responding to a lack of demand or are they creating it?
As the most widely viewed contemporary films become more and more formulaic and hollow, that question becomes more and more compelling. Surely, film studios produce content that we want to see. But just as surely, we do not truly want films to deteriorate into meaningless and mediocre imitations of one another. Ultimately, this is a paradox of a complex symbiotic relationship mixed with some cultural inertia, and I do not know when we’ll genuinely uncover the answer. In the meantime, though, I hope the true fans of cinema continue to direct attention toward the films that need it.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
I would also submit “The Quiet Earth” to the list. A quiet movie, with one of the best ending sequences ever. And “Children Of Men” should be here, too.
I’m a huge fan of both of those films, and I considered putting The Quiet Earth here. But I would say Children of Men is not quite obscure enough.
Add: Hear My Song
Actually I have seen a bunch of these, I seek out unusual movies.
Good list! I’ve seen four of these; I’m going to have to really up my indie consumption! But the attention should be on Cube! My friends and I watched Cube ALL. THE. TIME. in high school after I introduced them to it. We even watched the awful sequels and prequels. My one friend even got hooked on them…SO Kafkaesque.
Total guilty pleasure.
Cube is definitely a candidate for this list, and it’s something I should probably go re-watch.
Great list. I couldnt agree more on so many of them and now have a few new ones to see. Thanks.
Nice list. I recommend Hachi: A Dog’s Tale. I watched it one Sunday afternoon when my wife and children were out and about and I was crying so hard by the end of the film that I had to hide in the bathroom when they came home (I didn’t want my daughters to be alarmed). Utterly devastating, in the best way. Watch it, cry like hell, and enjoy yourself.
Hachi should in no way ever be recommended, simply because of it’s abject and shameless whitewashing of the story. Oh, it’s based on a true story about a Japanese guy? Better hire Richard goddamned Gere for the role!
Synecdoche, New York is such a phenomenal film…Kaufman is so great. I also just love the movie poster for the film – I think Ebert said it was the best poster of the decade…
It really is phenomenal. It’s so unique also, there’s really nothing else like it that I’m aware of.
Love Primer! Recently I watched a good one titled The Changeling, with George C. Scott. Classic suspense-verging-on-horror movie, so well done and yet uncomplicated, feels very ‘real’ which is why it is scary. But it also has a story, not just entertaining to watch. It’s the kind of movie where if you mention one or two key images to a person who saw it (even years ago) they shudder. Seriously good movie.
I love Brick and Triangle. I am looking forward to checking out the other films on the list.
Well, I have only seen half of these, but Mindwalk seems really interesting to me. I’m surprised I haven’t heard of it. Thanks for the recommendations!
Mindwalk is fascinating if you’re into things like sociology, physics, or systems theory. Highly recommended
Hint to tapping into the emotional trigger point of many of these movies: watch them while drinking a bottle (or two) of wine, by yourself. It gets you tuned right in to the tortured-artist/poet-spirit they are all aiming for. The incredible depth and beauty of these will shock you and break your heart at the same time.
It’s a shame you didn’t include any French (or other european, none-English speaking) films, for example “The Rules of the Game” or “Playtime” or “Pierrot le Fou”…
Holy Motors is a French film. But I have to admit I’m not overly familiar with the French scene
Did you miss Holy Motors…? 🙂
I’ve only seen Brick, but it was a great movie! One of Joseph Gordon Levitt’s best and most underrated roles. I’ll definitely try to check out a few more on this list.
I think you may have sold me Upstream Colour…
Hopefully so. It just deserves to be seen
How about adding anything by Alejandro Jodorowsky. El Topo comes to mind.
Idiocracy and Smiley Face FTW. Two modern movies I was obsessed with for a couple years. Idiocracy has the smartest humor about how dumb our world is, and Smiley Face, despite being a stoner comedy, is Anna Faris at her best.
Sometimes Brick seemed a little heavy-handed but once you accept the world it’s in it becomes a fantastic film.
I would tend to agree with you there. There will be points where you have to just go with it.
Wow. What are the chances that every single one of these recommendations would be available to stream on Netflix? Please let this coincidence be true!
I was so excited to see “Mr. Nobody” on the list. That is one of my favorite movies of all time. Another favorite of mine is “Truly, Madly, Deeply” (1990) Not only is it a great film, but Alan Rickman stars in it, and sports a magnificent ‘stache.
Mr. Nobody is absolutely one of my all-time favorites as well, and that’s really a significant thing for me considering the number of films I’ve seen
I’ve only seen part of one of these films, but I suppose anyone reading this article could come up with their own just as viable and deserving list. Books, movies, songs–the advent of the internet has had the side effect of providing a glut of artistic endeavors all vying for the attention of the masses, only to wind up gaining tiny niche audiences, if that. As someone who has published 14 books, one of my pet phrases has been “all publishing is self publishing.” Meaning, even if your handsome book is put out by a nationally known publisher, it can just as easily get buried under the avalanche of product released at any given moment. By my informal tally, 1% of all artistic endeavors get 99% of the attention. For the rest of us there’s no mid-list, it’s either the jackpot or oblivion…or the presence in an article like this, and the tantalizing notion of a second chance.
You make some good points. The subject of note for me is not necessarily that 1% of the art gets 99% of the attention, as you say. This is definitely something to consider, but my concern lies mostly in the fact that this 1% is progressively becoming more and more formulaic, shallow, and meaningless (at least when it comes to film).
I can gladly say I have Never heard of any of these films and will happily live the rest of my life still never seeing them
This is a surprisingly inspiring list. Have you watched the Korean film “Mother”, Hitchcockian at its best… unlike the movies on this list but an attention grabber nonetheless.
Not one of the films listed was familiar, which, in itself, could be a reason to bring them to light. Another is the way each was described, using a brief definition, an overview of why it’s obscure and a thorough rationale for why the film’s depth makes it noteworthy.
Pretty interesting, well written, good job!
Thanks for the recommendations – Mr Nobody is currently on my watchlist and now I can’t wait to see it!
You’ve considerably added to my watchlist, but I can’t say that’s a bad thing. The plot synopsis/timeline/layout for Primer is daunting, but I suspect that will be what sells my roommate on wanting to see it. One day, when we have time, because again, watchlist. It is already very long. But thank you for this list, they all look fascinating and I can’t wait to get to them!
The thing about Primer is you have to have an interest in attempting to delineate it. If you’re that sort of person, the value of the film will grow with each viewing, so it can become a very time-consuming endeavor.
If you’re that kind of “thinking and solving” person, though, you will get a tremendous amount of satisfaction from finally saying you have a comprehensive view of the film’s dynamics. And the more you consider the fact that one man is essentially responsible for every aspect of the entire thing (with minuscule budget), the more amazing and awe-inspiring it becomes.
Mr. Nobody is targeted towards the more intellectual crowd by postulating a more than generous helping of butterfly effect story lines combined with time jumping forwards and backwards all wrapped loosely into a sci-go wrapper delving into entropy an the end of time space. There were way too many story lines to allow the viewer to emotionally bond with any of the characters. Hence a resulting ambivalence to the deep emotional objective that the film makers were trying to impart. Ever talk to someone about an intriguing intellectual topic where you get it, but they unceasingly keep repeating themselves by constantly giving example after example of the same thing, because they can’t fathom that you got the mind fornication on the first go around? This could have been a good film but fell short. If you target the intellectual, then trust that they’ll get the premise and then devote more time to more deeply developing fewer story lines thereby painting a character set to which we may connect with. This movie can best be described as a sexual act of self pleasure with no climatic payoff at the end. A frustrating waste of time that leaves you feeling that the film makers got their cookies but you didn’t get yours. Even Jared Leto’s tremendous talent couldn’t save this film.
A late addition. I recommend Airdoll (2009), directed by Hirokazu Koreeda. Starring Bae Doo-na (known in the west as Doona Bae). A life sized blow-up sex doll develops a soul and eventually falls in love with a video store clerk. Her journey of awakening and self-discovery also explores the theme that in this modern world many of us have essentially become empty, disposable commodities.
Heard of some, but haven’t watched any, I think. And if I did, don’t remember.