NETFLIX HIDDEN GEMS: Issue #5

Apologies for missing December but we had our hands full with both our Top 25 of the Decade post and our 2009 Hammer to Nail Awards. And though not everyone could make the deadline this month, there are more than enough titles to keep you preoccupied:

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***ISSUE #5: JANUARY ‘10***

12:08 East of Bucharest (2006) — Corneliu Porumboiu’s fantastic film is set in the city of Vaslui, a very fractured city, indeed, and centers on a group of characters who revisit/revise the event that brought an end to the communist regime, the Romanian Revolution of 1989. Dictator Nicolae Ceausescu fled following the Revolution at 12:08 p.m. on December 22. The title in Romanian translates as “Was There or Wasn’t There?,” describing the central issue of whether the city protested before he fled—there are disparate views. Intriguing, surprising, with a dark absurdist twist to offset the dour ambience, this brilliant satire won the Camera d’Or at Cannes upon its release in 2006. (Pamela Cohn)

Spread (2009) — Ashton Kutcher’s “dude, where’s my bong?” persona has always been at odds with his alarmingly beautiful face. Not the case in Spread, a tonally confused but surprisingly effecting sex romp/Hollywood warning story which Kutcher produced and also stars in as Nikki, a grifter with the skills to make a rich lady pay his bills. Spread will no doubt be dismissed by many as a toolish vanity project, but Kutcher turns in a surprisingly mature performance under the thoughtful, sexy direction of David Mackenzie, whose bleak (and excellent) Young Adam explored similar Cougar themes, only on a filthy barge in Scotland in the early 1950s. Look out for smart cinematography from Donnie Darko lensman Steven Poster, specifically during a comically mercenary banging montage between Kutcher and Anne Heche. In an interview for the DVD’s special features, Heche informs us that this is a film about “people who are not making loving choices.” (Lena Dunham)

Phantasm (1979) – This horror classic is also a landmark of independent filmmaking. Don Coscarelli served as Director, Producer, Writer, Cinematographer, and Editor, an ambitious undertaking that is all the more impressive when one considers how expert he is in all these capacities, and on a shoe-string budget. In Phantasm, The Tall Man has taken over the local funeral home and is unleashing an army of shrunken corpse-mignons to do his bidding… and it is up to the unlikely trio of teenage Mike, his wannabe-rocker brother Jody, and ice-cream man Reggie to take down The Tall Man. Highly inventive with the perfect balance of horror and humor—don’t wait for Halloween to check this out. (Cullen Gallagher)

A Good Day to Be Black And Sexy (2008) — A groundbreaking film, Dennis Dortch’s A Good Day To Be Black and Sexy is a frank, joyous, aesthetically alive comedy of manners. Over the course of six vignettes, Mr. Dortch’s film is as earnest and consistently amusing about the sexual behavior of post millennial Los Angelenos, black or not, as any filmmaker’s has been in a long time. Full of jump cuts, naturalistic camera work, and situations never before glimpsed in narrative films, A Good Day To Be Black and Sexy is a fun and stylish rumination on the battle of the sexes. (Brandon Harris)

To Sleep with Anger (1990) — Charles Burnett’s other great movie—never released here on DVD—is available for instant viewing on Netflix? Who knew? A black middle-class family in Los Angeles is visited by an old acquaintance from down South, a ramblin’ man with a roving eye and a shady past, who goes by the name of Harry Mention (Danny Glover in the role of his career). Harry’s wicked ways bring the family’s simmering internal tensions to the boiling point. Under the surface of gentle, low-key comedy lies a richly suggestive parable about cultural memory, blood ties, and Old vs. New. Now that Burnett’s debut Killer of Sheep has taken its place in the canon of modern American classics following its triumphant 2007 restoration and re-release, it’s time for To Sleep with Anger to join it there. (Nelson Kim)

Going All the Way (1997) — It only seemed appropriate for January to pick Mark Pellington’s first feature as it does perfectly follows the archetypes that we’ve coming to expect of a coming-of-age movie that premieres at Sundance. And, yet, the filmmaking is undercut with a perfectly sinister and unique tone, one that led Pellington to jobs directing thrillers (Arlington Road), horror films (The Mothman Prophecies) and music docs (U2 3D). Inspired performances by both Jeremy Davies and Ben Affleck make this an above average sex drama worth taking a look at. (Michael Lerman)

The Secret of NIMH (1982) — Returning to this masterpiece recently—first viewed when I was four and my parents sprung for a VCR—may have redeemed my winter before it even began. It kept me warm on a chilly night with no heat in my apt: Loosely adapted from a Robert O’Brien children’s book and sporting the rich and textured voices of Derek Jacobi, Sandy Dennis, Don Ameche, and John Carradine, this picture is animation at its darkest, most cryptic, and stands the test of time and intrigue better than any other. A mother field mouse who is faced with the impossible challenge of moving her family after her hero-mouse-husband passes away trying to drug the farmer’s cat, seeks wisdom and aid in the arms of an army of escaped lab-rats, gifted with intelligence, and with the conflict of greed and compassion deep in their ranks. The imagery and score alone will leave you filled with a well of emotions normally saved for things other than cartoons. (Evan Louison)

Something In the Wind (1947) — Deanna Durbin. What charm, what poise, and what pipes! Universal’s top star made twenty-six films in twelve years before retiring, and this is one of the strangest, a risque comedy revolving around mistaken identities and a fake out-of-wedlock pregnancy that was part of a late-career effort to eschew her good girl image. And though she’s extremely carnal in one of her numbers (you’ll know which one), it’s Donald O’Connor at his Donald O’Connorist who really steals the show. (Tom Russell)

Magic (1978) — This 1978 gem was written by William Goldman from his novel, directed by Richard Attenbourough, and stars Anthony Hopkins as an unhinged ventriloquist. It’s a simple story but really well paced and all of the performances are stellar. Ann-Margret plays the love interest that Hopkins escapes to and Burgess Meredith plays the slimy Rolls Royce driving William Morris agent who pursues him in his ’success panic’. The whole package is topped off with a classic ’70s-era Jerry Goldsmith score. Top of the line talent operating at their best to create a simple film thriller that grabs you without talking down to you and without the reliance on cheap tricks. Watching this you can t help but wonder if Goldman could have continued to make quality original screenplays like this if he hadn’t sold out to take top dollar to polish the schlock of others. (Mike S. Ryan)

Hangin’ With The Homeboys (1991) — Truth be told, I haven’t watched this film since it was first released on video, so I’m anxious to see if, nearly twenty years later, its charms still outweigh its flaws. At the time, I found Joseph B. Vasquez’s night-in-the-life comedy/drama to be a minor, yet worthy, contribution to that sub-genre, featuring sharp writing and some very funny performances (to this day I still quote Nestor Serrano’s Vinny/Fernando preaching the power of prophylactic enhancer Nanoxel 9—”Knock that shit right out”). Vasquez’s subsequent descent into manic-depression and 1995 death by AIDS adds a bittersweet element to the story, but for this brief moment in time, he knocked it out the box. (Michael Tully)

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