(An old article, reprinted--call this a reminder that there's still stuff to find out there, somewhere.
Some updates: Akumulator 1 available on PAL; Bakit Bughaw ang Langit is online but unsubtitled here; Chimes at Midnight is on PAL; Killer of Sheep is available (yes!) on DVD; King and the Bird is on French DVD; The Orphan Brother is available in Region 2 DVD; Salo is available on DVD; good luck trying to get the rest)
Sometimes you don't want what's easily available by the dozens at your local video chain, or in the nearest multiplex; sometimes you want something rare, difficult, even impossible to find.
Here are ten excellent-to-great films in alphabetical order that are either little-known or are not commercially available on video (sometimes both).
A nicely ominous title. The film, the most expensive Czech production ever at the time, tells the story of Olda, who learns that he's a human battery, an 'accumulator,' able to draw energy from nature, wood, art, sex and other people, with only one Achilles' heel--the television set. Filmmaker Jan Sverak combines striking visuals with a wildly original, deftly applied sense of humor; his film is full of images inspired, as he put it, by Tim Burton and Federico Fellini (nice combination), not to mention dizzyingly sudden shifts of perspective--at one point, he cuts to a high-angle shot of Olda looking at a lightbulb, photographed from inside the bulb looking down; at another Olda hurtles over Prague's gorgeous cityscape like a concentrated bolt of the film's delirious high spirits.
Mario O'Hara's small-scale drama, about Nora Aunor as a put-upon young woman forming a bond with Dennis Roldan as a mentally damaged young man, is O'Hara at his most neo-realist--in my opinion as good as if not actually better than anything the better-known Lino Brocka has ever done. The film features finely wrought performances by both Aunor and Roldan, set against the background of a large apartment complex. Occasionally, a scandal will bring the apartment dwellers out in a kind of impromptu "people's trial," where the people involved air their dirty laundry in public; O'Hara's staging of these "trials," his quiet condemnation of them, and his precisely observed portrayal of a teeming community life is just about peerless.
Batang West Side (West Side Avenue, 2001)
Lav Diaz's five-hour film follows two narrative threads: a Filipino youth's arrival in America and his subsequent shooting, and a Filipino-American detective's investigation of the youth's death. Along the way we are given a sweeping yet intimately detailed view of an entire community, from the poorest working stiff to the wealthiest housewife, from an elderly grandfather to a group of young "shabu" (crystal meth) addicts. Diaz asks hard questions about the Filipino Diaspora and the children that have been born out of that outward movement of individuals and entire families; the picture--comprehensive, comic, surreal and tragic--is in my opinion Diaz's masterpiece (better even than his more ambitious, ten-hour "Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (2004)), and one of the best recent Filipino films ever made.
(No DVD or even commercial theatrical run has been done, though there have been occasional screenings)
Campanadas a medianoche (Chimes of Midnight, 1965)
Orson Welles' adaptation of Henry IV parts 1 and 2, with scenes from Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor thrown in--sixteen or more hours of Shakespeare, boiled down into a hundred and twenty minutes by years of staging and rewriting (Welles had been working on this material since the late 1930s). The film, marred by poor sound synchronization, contains what may be Welles' finest performance, playing Falstaff as a tragicomic figure; includes what may be the single greatest battle sequence ever filmed (the Battle of Shrewsbury); is perhaps one of the finest (if not THE finest) film adaptation of Shakespeare ever; and is considered by a small but growing number of people (including myself) as one of the greatest films ever made.
Fred Kelemen's film moves slowly, for an impossible two hundred minutes. The story is simple enough to follow, even without subtitles: a woman (Anna Schmidt) is beaten by her husband; she leaves him, taking her son with her, and walks through vast wintry landscapes, ending up in a city where she takes up prostitution to support herself and her child. Kelemen shows a stubborn, freakish discipline in drawing out his narrative; at one point the camera following mother and son pans ahead, taking in the hugely empty horizon little by little until it comes back to them--only then do you realize just how much more frozen land they have to walk through, just how much more emptiness they have to endure. Kelemen seems determined to record the minutest details of a human soul that has felt so much pain it's beyond feeling the pain, only an immense, enveloping numbness.
(The director had fought with the producer, so for years there had been only one existing print of the director's cut; they have since reconciled, and a subtitled print is available from the German TV channel ZDF)
Killer of Sheep (1977)
Charles' Burnett's film arguably did for African-Americans in early '70s Los Angeles what Mean Streets did for the Italian Americans in New York: introduce an ethnic community in memorably cinematic terms. Beautifully shot in black and white, I prefer Burnett's debut film to Scorsese's better-known one for at least two reasons: Burnett seems to have a better understanding of the women in his films than Scorsese does, and Burnett is able to tell his story without resorting to the kind of overtly dramatic elements Scorsese does (gang violence, shootings). Burnett's visual style isn't flashy, but he does include the odd surreal image: a shot of clear sky with rooftops at either end, and kids leaping across the empty stretch; shots of a slaughterhouse, where sheep carcasses hang like corpses in a concentration camp.
Paul Grimault and Jacques Prevert--better known for his legendary collaborations with Marcel Carne (in particular "Les enfants du paradis" (Children of Paradise, 1945))--collaborated on what was supposed to be the first-ever full-length French animated film. The production fell through; a mangled version was released without permission. Grimault would spend the next thirty years of his life trying to finish the film, with Prevert helping, until his death in 1977. The result, finished in 1979, is perhaps one of the loveliest animated films ever made, about a malevolent king (Charles V + 3 = 8 +8 = 16) who chases a shepherdess he loves and a chimney sweep who loves her up and down and in and out of the vast reaches of his kingdom. The film is as influential as it is beautiful, having inspired images in Hayao Miyazaki's Kariosutoro no shiro (Castle of Cagliostro, 1979) and Tenku no shiro Rapyuta (Laputa, Castle in the Sky, 1986) as well as Brad Bird's Iron Giant (1999).
Anju to zushio-maru (The Orphan Brother, 1961)
Taiji Yabushita's animated adaptation of Ogai Mori's novel Sansho Dayu, about a young woman and her brother taken from their parents and oppressed by a heartlessly powerful government official (the novel is also the basis of Kenji Mizoguchi's 1954 film). Yabushita's images have a distinct Japanese flavor to them--think of Disney animation as drawn by Hiroshige--and he manages to tell the story in fairy-tale terms, at one point implying a character's fate through a magic transformation so sad and enchanting the tragic implications are clear.
(No US release; a Japanese DVD can be found here: http://www.cdjapan.co.jp/detailview.html?KEY=DSTD-2123. No English subtitles)
Pier Paolo Pasolini's final completed film, based on the Marquise de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom, is "final" in many other ways. It's possibly the final word in shock cinema--highlights of a hundred and twenty days of sexual perversion, torture, and death, set against a luscious background designed by Dante Ferretti, photographed in voluptuous colors by Tonino Delli Colli, and scored to the music of Fredric Chopin, Carl Orff, and Ennio Morricone. It's an unflinching examination of final consequences, of what happens when you allow sexual ennui caused by bourgeoisie oppression to reach unnatural extremes. And it is perhaps a final, fatal work for Pasolini himself, who, despite official word on the subject, was possibly killed for making this film (authorities have only recently re-opened the case on his murder). But even if he wasn't killed for this it's difficult to imagine what else Pasolini can possibly say; in many ways the picture is Pasolini's final word on everything.
Nonoy Marcelo directed himself and sixty other Filipino artists for three months to create this, arguably the first Filipino animated feature ever, based on a multi-volume history of the Philippines officially written by former president Ferdinand Marcos (unofficially written by a team of historians). While the effort hardly sounds impressive (Disney employs hundreds of animators working for years to produce a feature), it's unheard of in Philippine cinema, and the results are ingenious and passing strange, to say the least. Marcelo takes the production's many limitations--small manpower, limited time, miniscule budget--and turns them into a distinct style, an idiosyncratic interpretation and unabashed satire of official Philippine history. A real head trip.
(As far as I know and as of this time of writing, there is only one VHS copy of the film in all of existence, taped off the original TV broadcast)
(First published in High Life Magazine, August 2005)