Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Cory Volk's Top 5 Most Underrated Movies

5. Tetro (2009)

Tetro, written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now), never suffered from negative reviews. It just went largely unnoticed by audiences at large except major fans of Coppola or Vincent Gallo or people like me who pay attention to movie news. Thus, it perfectly qualifies as an underrated film.

Tetro is loosely based off of Coppola’s own experiences growing up in a large family dominated by artists, all of which were/are well known, and the problems that brings to reputation and relationships, within and outside of one’s family. Gallo brilliantly portrays the main character, Angelo, nicknamed ‘Tetro,’ living in Buenos Aires and how he deals with the arrival of his brother, Bennie, and the family issues this stirs up.

Obviously, this film is straight up drama, and much of it can be slow and ‘artsy,’ but the cinematography (filmed in black and white evoking film noir) is beautiful, the performances great, and the story poignant. The story can be a bit confusing at times and gets shifted to the background in favor of visuals, but it comes out on top in the end with real power. Fans of older films in the French New Wave, Antonioni/Felini Italian era will most appreciate this films pacing and design. For those wishing to get their feet wet in the art-house genre, new and old, this is a very accessible, modern film that will hopefully lead to more viewings of older films.

4. Valhalla Rising (2009)

Director/writer Nicolas Winding Refn got an early start with the Danish Pusher trilogy and then Bronson which showcased Tom Hardy’s exceptional, underrated acting skills which qualifies as an underrated film in its own right. With these first features, Refn started to build his reputation as a director of dark, violent, but artistic material with a fine eye for cinematography and sound. The 2011 release of Drive starring Ryan Gosling brought Refn into the American, Hollywood cinema limelight with massive popularity attributed mostly to the film’s star and soundtrack. But a few years before that, in 2009, Refn produced Valhalla Rising, a nightmarish, surreal spectacle starring Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale, Pusher trilogy, A Royale Affair) set in an unspecified location involving Vikings. That description and the trailers got me so excited for this film since I love sword & sandal epics, but I was probably one of the only ones who knew about it.

What I got from the film was something entirely different than other medieval fair. Valhalla Rising has little to no storyline except that One-Eye (Mikkelsen), a silent, vicious warrior held captive by some other warrior people is recruited to journey to ‘Jerusalem’ with some Christian-Vikings to retake the Holy Land. What you get is a brutal, visually stunning film with incredible sound and an underlying commentary on religion that even I haven’t quite figured out yet and I’ve seen the film a number of times. I am a huge fan of Terrence Malick’s (The Tree of Life, The Thin Red Line, Days of Heaven) films, and the tone of Valhalla Rising is very similar. So if you liked Drive and relish in the dark and brooding, this is just for you.

3. The Prestige (2006)

 I know you’re probably thinking “why is The Prestige on a list of ‘underrated’ films? I really liked that movie and it got good reviews!” And you would be right. Christopher Nolan’s 5th film got a 76% on rottentomatoes and earned the description “full of twists and turns, The Prestige is a dazzling period piece that never stops challenging the audience.”

So it would seem that the majority of people really enjoyed The Prestige and it is not underrated at all. However, I see it as underrated because I think it is Nolan’s best film, next to Memento which is my first favorite of his. I think many would put The Dark Knight or Inception at the top of Nolan’s achievements next to Memento, but I disagree. Like Inception and Memento, The Prestige provides a commentary on the art of storytelling. Inception focuses more on film with the obvious connections to dreams while The Prestige tackles the idea of showmanship and how to most effectively sell a performance.

I wrote a paper a few years back on both films which you can read on my old movie blog here to get a more in-depth explanation/analysis of both films’ themes. But back to the main point. The Prestige is a masterfully rendered film on every level. Gorgeous cinematography, editing, sound design/sound editing, soundtrack, you name it. Each level is carefully controlled. David Bordwell and Karen Thompson devote a whole chapter to studying sound in The Prestige in their book Film: An Introduction (7th edition I think?) that is fascinating to see how sound works to connect the film scene by scene and helps to put the puzzle together. All of these facets aside, The Prestige is most interesting in how it relates to film theory and storytelling. The beginning and ending soliloquy by Michael Caine’s character reveals Nolan’s thematic intention and leads to ideas more interesting than what Inception or The Dark Knight have to offer. So take the time to watch The Prestige a 2nd, 3rd, or 4th time (or even more), and really think about what’s being said. I think you’ll find it truly fascinating.

2. The Fountain (2006) 

While all of Darren Aronofsky’s films (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, Black Swan) have received overwhelmingly positive reviews, it was his third film The Fountain that did not do so well. Rottentomatoes calls it “visually rich but suffers from its own unfocused ambitions.” Many of the segments from reviews are equally negative and worse with the likes of Richard Roeper calling it “one of the worst movies of the year.”

I would beg to differ and say that it showcases Hugh Jackman’s best performance to date, an epic soundtrack by Clint Mansell, mind-blowing visuals, and a story that, while scattered and heavily philosophical, still delivers an emotional wallop. Aronofsky used minimal computer generated effects for this film resorting to old techniques (using mirrors, elaborate sets, and the like) to create scenes and images that are just gorgeous to behold. I will admit that the reviews are right in saying that the visual aspect comes out on top here. Still, I do not think that all parts of a film need to be equally balanced or that story must come first.

The Fountain is more about the aesthetic of sight and sound and how multiple time periods, worlds, and dimensions can be combined to form a symphony of sensory experience. Now, the Buddhist messages and ruminations on death, mortality, and immortality seem a bit bombastic, but it is Jackman’s compelling, emotional performance that lends more consideration to these themes. The surreal nature of the film also leaves room for much interpretation which is something I think most people are uncomfortable with and is one of the reasons why The Fountain is generally unpopular and little seen. So if you’re one of those who hated it at first or were too confused by it or haven’t seen it, give it another viewing. It may not end up being one of your new favorite films of all time, but I guarantee you’ll enjoy it.

1. Funny Games (2007) 

Austrian director Michael Haneke filmed an Austrian version of this film back in 1997 and later remade the film in English as an American release. Both films are almost exactly the same, shot for shot, but the Austrian version holds more of Haneke’s signature (very) long takes and other nuances. I’m choosing to look at the American 2007 version here, starring Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, and Michael Pitt. The summary review on rotten tomatoes reads “though made with great skill, Funny Games is nevertheless a sadistic exercise in chastising the audience.”

 I remember seeing trailers for this movie back in 2007 and thought the same thing. Looked like another pointless horror film that relied on gore and sadistic torture to attract an audience. The movie didn’t do very well probably because it isn’t that at all. Haneke is an incredibly focused, relentless director when it comes to targeting the audience as perpetrators in what is happening on screen, and Funny Games in particular plays with this idea in 4th-wall breaking acts.

I recently read a fascinating article online that calls Haneke’s style and themes “sadomodernism” which you can read here. While all of Haneke’s films are works of art and astonishing in their own way, Funny Games proves extremely interesting in terms of its voyeuristic themes and Haneke’s signature unbearable intensity. A graduate film studies course could easily spend weeks studying this awesome film.

Cory Volk is an English Literature Major at Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA, with a double minor in Film studies and Technical Writing. He loves a great glass of Scotch paired with an even better film, and his favorite director is Terrence Malick.

1 comment:

  1. The Fountain is terrible.
    I haven't seen Valhalla Rising, but the others are definitely underrated.