I realize it’s a little presumptuous to say you’ve never seen these movies. Some of you out there may have seen a few, but some are so rare I’m almost certain they have only been seen by like one dude other than myself. And some, I’m sorry to say, are virtually unavailable. So you may have to do some digging. But it’s more than worth it.
10. Audience of One (2007) | Dir. Mike Jacobs | 88 min.
I had the pleasure of seeing this little-known documentary at a bar in Brooklyn a few years ago. Rather than wax on about how great it is, I’ll just tell you what it’s about, because you’ll immediately want to see it.
It’s about a priest who has literally never seen a movie in his life until the age of 35. The first movie he sees is The Lion King, and he’s so moved by the experience that he is determined to make his own movie—”the best movie ever made!” Audience of One is a vérité delight following the priest on his journey to make a biblical sci-fi epic.
9. Slasher (2004) | Dir. John Landis | 85 min.
Here’s an odd but completely true sentence: John Landis’s best movie is a documentary about a traveling used car salesman.
Backed by a killer soundtrack of songs from the Stax-Volt collection, Slasher is a fun, energetic vérité doc helmed by John Landis, yes, the John Landis. He is perhaps the only filmmaker in history to make great narrative and documentary films—and I’m not talking about when Scorsese wants to interview Bob Dylan for six hours. I’m talking about a real deal run-and-gun documentary. A story constructed out of hours and hours of raw material that simply follows the actions of a dude or a group or what have you.
Check it out. You will not be disappointed.
8. Miracle Mile (1988) | Dir. Steve De Jarnatt | 87 min.
In the 80s, in the wake of Top Gun, Anthony Edwards was given a starring vehicle. It’s called Miracle Mile and it’s awesome. It’s an end of the world thriller with a ticking clock and a great love story to boot.
I was fortunate to see this movie at a small screening in New York with the director (Steve De Jarnatt) and Edwards in the audience. Good guys. The director was very well spoken and seemed to enjoy looking back on the movie. When asked if he was bothered that it slipped under the radar, he basically said (I’m paraphrasing) ‘this is the movie that I wanted to make, I had written the script years previous but couldn’t get it made, finally when Top Gun hit and I got Anthony we could make the movie, still on a modest budget but the way I wanted to, what you see on screen is very close to my vision, and it made its money back.’ What more could you ever ask for?
He also told a funny story about Tangerine Dream (their score is of course fucking amazing) but I can’t remember it.
My favorite bit of score of theirs in the movie is a little tranquil blanket that highlights the movies’ poetic opening. It’s truly one of the most beautiful opening sequences in movie history. Scripted by De Jarnatt, and narrated softly and wistfully by Edwards, it encapsulates all of life in about three minutes and truly soaks over you and perfectly sets the stage for a compelling and thoughtful movie.
7. Threesome (1994) | Dir. Andrew Fleming | 93 min.
This is the one I’m most proud to include because it’s just such an unknown gem. On the surface it looks like just another 90s nothing. But Threesome is advanced beyond its superficial trappings and proof positive that Stephen Baldwin is in fact a great actor.
The movie itself is basically just Stephen Baldwin, Lara Flynn Boyle, and Josh Charles (Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, Wainy Days: Episode 2) in a hip, entangled dramatic comedy. It’s smart, clever and fun.
6. The Target Shoots First (2000) | Dir. Christopher Wilcha | 70 min.
Okay, this one I fucking guarantee you’ve never seen. Not only is it only available on VHS, it’s not even really available at all due to copyright stuff.
The Target Shoots First is one of the most watchable and interesting documentaries ever made. At the height of the grunge era, Chris Wilcha (This American Life) is hired at Columbia House (the catalog you used to get that you could buy CDs from back when people bought CDs) because he’s a 22 year old college graduate punker and corporate is looking to live out its Animal Farm destiny. Chris had a camcorder at the time and videotaped much of his experiences at work.
The movie is literally just 70 minutes of Chris’s footage (edited down from several hours of course) with him narrating. Nothing more. However, it’s one of the most deeply intoxicating movies of all time. Wilcha’s chaperoning through the footage is insightful, reflective, easily digestible, and an education in consumerism.
5. The Postman (1997) | Dir. Kevin Costner | 177 min.
For some reason, some people like Waterworld. I don’t get why, because it sucks. But there’s always that brand of salt-of-the-earth dude (or wannabe one) that likes ‘guy movies’ like Mad Max and Steven Seagal. Something about Waterworld taps into that shit.
Nobody likes The Postman though, for some reason. The Postman is Kevin Costner’s directorial follow up, and it was universally panned, bombed at the box office, and was the butt of jokes for a few months and then was almost completely forgotten in an era before things were forgotten so quickly—ya know, pre-internet takeover.
Anyway, the truth is, The Postman is fucking awesome. It’s the best really long movie ever made. It’s basically the coolest idea for a sweeping epic ever. A hero who accidentally falls into being a hero and then begrudgingly leads everyone to victory against a diabolical, evil villain. The past/future landscape is cool and the movie is littered with really funny and interesting characters. Like all the best movies ever made it has an unpredictable and organic sense of humor that sneaks up on you from nowhere, and a great sense of tone as it builds tension.
The end battle is fucking awesome too. No spoilers though.
4. Tremors II: Aftershocks (1996) | Dir. S.S. Wilson | 100 min.
Tremors is one of the best movies ever made, and it’s a tight, complete, singular story. Sure we’d all love to see if Val and Rhonda make it together and have little six degrees babies, but the credits scrolling over their first kiss tells us they probably will. A sequel just seems like such a bad idea.
My point here is that Tremors 2 has no fucking business being good. This is also sans Kevin Bacon. It really makes no sense. Especially since he’s replaced by a no-name comic relief type character, who ends up being brilliant. His name is Christopher Gartin and despite a prolific list of TV credits his career is less than distinguished. However, in Tremors 2 he not only shines but is a breath of fresh air and the glue that holds the movie together. His performance is just grounded enough to allow us to buy into his goofball attitude. And his ability to play off Fred Ward is amazing.
I think the ultimate strength of Tremors 2 is that it’s very similar to the first one, but adds a few tricks along the way. The plot devices in this one are almost as equally clever as the first (okay so having weird two-legged things break out of the graboids makes no fucking sense, but other stuff is good) and giving Burt (Michael Gross) more to do is always a good idea since he’s one of the best characters in movie history.
It’s not quite as good as the first one but beyond a pleasant surprise. Everything after it in the franchise sucks hard though.
3. Last Night (1998) | Dir. Don McKellar | 95 min.
Maybe the reason nobody knows about this one is because it’s Canadian and not directed by David Cronenberg. He’s in it though, and very good to boot. Apart from that I can’t explain the underseenness of Last Night. There’s nothing about it not to love so I’m a little surprised it didn’t catch on in the ‘indie darling’ sense—ya know, like The Station Agent did.
Don McKellar wrote, directed, and starred in this movie, and he’s really one of the greatest filmmakers of all time that you’ve assuredly never heard of. (Again, I think it’s the Canadianness.)
It’s about the last day of life on earth, and takes a ‘less is more’ approach (like Signs). Scope is provided by some wonderful establishing shots that are beautifully designed and illustrate the mania that has presumably been percolating for some time. Mania caused by an announcement that the world will end at midnight at a certain presumed date. The movie takes place over the course of that day.
Exposition is so tricky in movies, especially ones with a high concept. Not only is the devil in the details, but you have to allow your audience to read between the lines. And Last Night triumphs here. We’re never told why the world is ending, but we’re given certain atmospheric clues, like the day getting brighter as it gets later in the day.
McKellar lets his characters do the talking and what unfolds is one of the most masterful comedy-dramas ever put on screen. Last Night is not just the third most underseen movie ever made, but perhaps the thirteenth best movie ever.
2. The Backyard (2002) | Dir. Paul Hough | 80 min.
The Backyard is extremely similar to the next movie in my list, Small Town Ecstasy. They’re both vérité documentaries with the goal of exploring a social and cultural phenomenon. Small Town Ecstasy is an incredibly intimate story about a single family that speaks on the larger issue of drug use in America, ya know, thematically. The Backyard juggles a few narrative threads, effortlessly, and tackles (literally) the crazy world of backyard wrestling.
I suspect this movie isn’t very popular because wrestling (WWE) is thought of as pedestrian, sophomoric art by the mainstream media and hipster left alike. That bias, mixed with almost zero visibility in the marketplace, leave The Backyard toiling in documentary oblivion.
Paul Hough’s ability to create an organically flowing narrative is astonishing, especially since the narratives here are way more loose than the narratives in Small Town Ecstasy. Hough’s movie is an all-encompassing portrait of the backyard universe, and it does an excellent job of exploring the inner workings of this sometimes twisted subculture.
Hough is generally objective in his dissection, and often allows his points to be made by the subjects themselves. When Hough does speak (by way of an American voice over artist, because Hough is British and didn’t want to use his own voice for some reason) it is generally expository. However, when he does cross the line and offer his two cents, it not only arrives organically by way of his material but also comes as a welcome punctuation to the drama we have just witnessed.
Much of the material is extremely shocking, and it’s meant to be. Any earnest depiction of a bizarre, esoteric, sub culture should be handled with a warts-and-all approach. Especially if it supports your thesis. However, as shocking as it is, the movie is tempered by addictive and endlessly quotable humor that only a great documentary can provide.
The real statements of documentary subjects are always infinitely funnier than the written word because their stupidity is in earnest. It’s from that vulnerability and openness that The Backyard draws it’s real strength.
1. Small Town Ecstasy (2002) | Dir. Jay Blumenfield | 85 min.
Okay, some people have seen this, but I’m putting it at number one because it’s not only almost completely unavailable and never talked about but also one of the best movies ever made.
Small Town Ecstasy is an HBO documentary from 2002 that chronicles a California family as they struggle with drug addiction. Like many great documentaries, it was meant as one thing and evolved into another.
A camera crew goes to a rave to begin a documentary about drug use in America. They stumble upon some captivating characters and start following them. What unravels is completely beyond expectation. If this movie were more well known it would be a touchstone in vérité filmmaking. Its story is amongst the greatest of all time, constructed brilliantly by a very caring band of filmmakers.
Movies like this are so good they look effortless. Of course, the more effortless-seeming the end result, the more craftsmanship in the construction. Remember, as fluid as this movie may seem, it was all unwieldy raw footage to begin with. Its emerging, building, and naturally flowing narrative was created by a wonderful synthesis of expert camera work and meticulous, painstaking editing.
Small Town Ecstasy is truly one of the greatest achievements in all of movies. It’s a hilarious, touching, shocking and profound human story that deserves a much wider audience.
Operation Filmmaker (2007) | Dir. Nina Davenport | 92 min.
This is an interesting one. It’s a documentary about Liev Schrieber hearing about an unfortunate kid in Baghdad on True Life who wants to be a filmmaker so he hires him to be a PA on Everything is Illuminated but the kid turns out to be a lazy dickhead. I think I’ve said enough. Go watch it.
Stolen Summer (2002) | Dir. Pete Jones | 91 min.
This was the first movie from Project Greenlight, the charitable experiment put on by Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and Chris Moore, where budding filmmakers pitch their movies for the chance to direct them for a one million dollar budget.
The winner was Pete Jones and what resulted was a fairly nice movie. It’s not great, but Kevin Pollack and Bonnie Hunt shine, and it’s a nice little story. Negative points though for literally using comic sans for the opening titles, retard.
Heavy Metal Picnic (2010) | Dir. Jeff Krulik | 66 min.
Okay, so I’m kind of tooting my own horn on this one because I did have the honor of editing this movie. I figure since I didn’t direct it though, I can still throw it a bone. Heavy Metal Picnic is the feature-length follow up to Jeff Krulik and John Heyn’s legendary cult documentary Heavy Metal Parking Lot. Picnic never found an audience but it’s actually really fun, interesting, and touching.
It chronicles the goings-on at a 1985 heavy metal field party in Potomac, Maryland, attended by some 1,500 shirtless stoners. The documentary is anchored by a 45 minute tape made by some of the party goers who were interviewing people, ineptly, with a primitive VHS camera and stolen CBS microphone clip.
Jeff Krulik, the director, showcases the original footage and tracks down some of the folks on the tape, offering them a chance to reflect on their former selves. What unravels is a lighthearted and sometimes hilarious time capsule piece.