Nearly every great director has a filmography that consists of genuine classics, one or two movies they’d like people to forget about, and then everything else. Often, it’s the “everything else” that I’m drawn to, as a result of stumbling on to the filmmaker early in their career, or through searching for more to watch by a director I love. Each of these movies are rarely mentioned when the respective directors are discussed, but each are worth recommending on their own merits.
1) Christopher Nolan – Insomnia (2002)
After making a splash with the brilliant crime drama Memento in 2000, Nolan began his transition to big budget filmmaking with this remake of a 1997 Norwegian film. Starring Oscar winners Al Pacino, Hilary Swank, and the late Robin Williams (in one of his best performances), the story centers on a corrupt cop from Los Angeles brought in to investigate a murder in an Alaskan town during a period of extended daylight (exacerbating the sleeplessness Pacino’s character is suffering from). Where most Nolan films are intricately constructed puzzles, this one is a fairly straightforward murder mystery that is masterfully tense and enhanced by an incredible cast.
2) Alfred Hitchcock – Rope (1948)
Speaking of intricate construction, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (the first of three collaborations with James Stewart) is often written-off as little more than a formal experiment. Hitchcock adapted the stage play (loosely based on the Leopold and Loeb murders) in a faux single-shot format. There are only a handful of cuts in the film, each hidden by zooming in on an object then zooming out. However, beyond being a gimmick, Hitchcock uses the lack of cuts to heighten the tension we feel as we wait for the characters to discover what we already know – that the two young protagonists have murdered their best friend, hidden his body in a steamer trunk, then invited his family and friends over to dine on his de facto coffin.
3) Quentin Tarantino – Jackie Brown (1997)
It’s hard to describe any Tarantino film as “forgotten” given the filmmaker’s relatively small filmography, penchant for self-promotion, and cultish level of fandom. But one of Tarantino’s least-acclaimed films – which suffered from having to follow Pulp Fiction – is, possibly, his best. This is his only official adaptation (or, as some would argue, only admitted adaptation), and contains probably the strongest performances of any of his films. Pam Grier, Robert Forester, Samuel L. Jackson, Bridget Fonda, Michael Keaton, and Robert De Niro do some of their best work. The fact that it’s an adaptation likely tamed many of Tarantino’s quirks, and resulted in characters that feel better defined and more emotionally honest than those in the rest of his films.
4) F. Gary Gray – The Negotiator (1998)
Director F. Gary Gray has had a long and varied career. He made his debut with the cult classic comedy Friday before moving into action films like Set It Off and the remake of The Italian Job. In recent years, he’s directed the critically-acclaimed biopic Straight Outta Compton and one of the biggest films of 2017, Fate of the Furious. At the midpoint of that career he directed one of my favorite films of the 90s, The Negotiator, starring Kevin Spacey and Samuel L. Jackson. The thriller about a hostage negotiator (Spacey) trying to talk down another hostage negotiator (Jackson) who is being framed and attempting to prove his innocence, came as both actors were probably at the height of their critical and commercial success. Spacey was coming off of The Usual Suspects, Se7en, and L.A. Confidential, while Jackson had starred in Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, and (being Jackson) a billion other films (he was averaging about 4 a year post-Pulp Fiction. In addition to the two actors ACTING at each other – in the most entertaining way – the film also features strong supporting work from Ron Rifkin, J. T. Walsh, David Morse, John Spencer, and a show-stealing Paul Giamatti.
5) Robert Rodriguez – Desperado (1995)
Before the stylish Sin City and the surprisingly charming Spy Kids franchise, Robert Rodriguez made an awesomely-fun pseudo-Western called Desperado. The film about a mariachi player out for revenge against the crime-lord who had killed his wife and shot him through the hands is a sequel to his super low budget debut film El Mariachi (shot for about $7000), and stars Antonio Banderas and Salma Hayek, along with Steve Buscemi, Danny Trejo, and Cheech Marin. The highly-kinetic action sequences (which are about 90% of the film) borrow heavily from Sam Raimi, but Banderas and Hayek are ridiculously charming and attractive, and the pace rarely lets up. When I think of Rodriguez – most often to wonder what happened to his career – this is the movie I think of most often.
6) The Wachowskis – Bound (1996)
Those familiar with The Matrix probably won’t be surprised to learn that the Wachowskis are fans of film noir. That film (to a far greater extent than its sequels) owed nearly as much to that genre as it did kung fu, anime, and science fiction. What they might not know is that the siblings made their film debut with a straight-up film noir – Bound - albeit, one with a bit of a twist. Jennifer Tilly plays a mobster’s girlfriend who wants out of the relationship. She falls in love with an ex-convict (Gina Gershon), and the two conspire to steal the millions of dollars the boyfriend (Joe Pantoliano) is going to be watching over for his employers. Like Desperado the film is violent, sexy, and entertaining throughout.
In the interest of space, I cut my original list nearly in half. These four films are also well-worth checking out.
Kathryn Bigelow – Strange Days (1995)
The Coen Brothers – The Man Who Wasn't There (2001)
Spike Lee – Mo' Better Blues (1990)
Kenneth Brannagh – Dead Again (1991)