It’s a simple book concept, but one I liked right away.
Robert K. Elder asked 35 movie directors, some prominent and some relatively obscure, to name their picks for the most forgotten or critically savaged movie they love — and then to defend their choices.
The result is “The Best Film You’ve Never Seen,” from Chicago Review Press. It’s a fascinating read, and the directors shed at least as much light on their own movie-making as they do on their forgotten-film choices.
Elder, an editor at the Chicago Sun-Times who teaches journalism at Northwestern University, uses a Q-and-A format for each chapter. You can read it in easy chunks or, as I did, devour it because you can’t stop checking out what one more director had to say.
I learned a lot. For example, it’s an eye-opener to have director Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Hellboy”) reveal that his grandmother performed exorcisms on him twice, hoping to guard his soul from the monster movies and fantasy stories he loved.
Nice try, Grandma.
Del Toro’s choice for forgotten movie is “Arcane Sorcerer,” directed by an Italian, Pupi Avati. It’s about a priest accused of seducing a young girl. He flees, taking refuge with an excommunicated priest who dabbles in the black arts, a move he soon regrets. It’s a movie about forbidden knowledge.
Though you’ll be hard-pressed to find a good copy of “Arcane Sorcerer,” del Toro calls it the “Barry Lyndon” of horror films, well-researched, pastoral and spiritual. Also horrifying. It informed his own work in shooting “The Devil’s Backbone.”
Neil LaBute, known for directing savage stories of infidelity, male desire and moral uncertainty (“In the Company of Men,” “Your Friends & Neighbors”), chose “Blume in Love,” a Paul Mazursky film. In it, George Segal plays an unfaithful husband who finds out he’s in love with his wife but only after they’ve divorced. He spends the whole movie trying to get her back. It also stars Susan Anspach and Kris Kristofferson.
I’m a Mazursky fan, but this is one I haven’t seen. LaBute says he can’t believe it was made by a studio, even in the wide-open early 1970s, with its fractured storytelling and dark subject. LaBute admits the movie’s ending is unsatisfying for him, but he picked it anyway because of Mazursky’s “constant interest in relationships and the mechanics of the heart, rather than things on grander scales.”
John Waters (“Polyester,” “Hairspray”) chose “Boom,” a movie so awful that when he gushed about it to its star, Elizabeth Taylor, she got mad because she thought he was mocking her. The movie is based on Tennessee Williams’ play “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.” The richest woman in the world (Taylor) feels empty, and a penniless poet (Richard Burton) knows the cure.
I saw that smirk when you read that.
It was the only movie starring Burton and Taylor that lost money. Waters says it’s not good, but it is a great movie — a failed art film. I remain skeptical.
I don’t think of Peter Yates’ “Breaking Away” as a forgotten film, I loved it so much. But director Richard Curtis (“Love Actually,” “Pirate Radio”) chose it, and maybe it is forgotten now. Curtis calls it the perfect small autobiographical comedy-friendship movie, beautifully written. He especially appreciates the low-key jokes and the realism about friends hanging out. Agreed, Richard.
I had also forgotten that this was Dennis Quaid’s first movie. He’s a pal of the central character, who’s obsessed with bicycle racing and all things Italian. The movie also is about the haves versus the have-nots.
The director of best-picture Oscar winner “Slumdog Millionaire,” Danny Boyle, picked Nicolas Roeg’s “Eureka.” Gene Hackman plays a man who discovers gold in the Yukon, becomes the richest guy in the world — and his life is incredibly dissatisfying. Boyle goes into detail about how Roeg uses the camera to disorient his audience, keep it off balance.
“Jeff Who Lives at Home” is my favorite Jay Duplass film. His choice for underappreciated movie is “Joe Versus the Volcano,” starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan before they made “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail.” Hanks plays a hypochondriac who escapes his crushing job under fluorescent lights to sacrifice himself into a volcano and be reborn. It’s stylized. It’s quirky. It was advertised as a comedy but really wasn’t. It bombed. But not with Duplass. And the director, John Patrick Shanley, won an Oscar for writing the screenplay of “Moonstruck.”
Kevin Smith (“Clerks,” “Dogma”) chose “A Man for All Seasons.” A best-picture Oscar winner? Well, read the book and find out why.
Or check out Elder’s previous book, “The Film That Changed My Life,” in which directors talk about their cinematic influences.