Bottom Line: Little-known masterpieces from the silent era to modern times.
Are you tired of searching through the same old selection of movies on TV movie channels, Netflix, Amazon, etc., then realizing when you finally find one that interests you that it’s too late to start watching a movie?
We were! To uncover some hidden gems of the movie world—films that may not have been recognized or popular when they were released but that are well worth any movie lover’s time—Bottom Line spoke to Ian Haydn Smith, editor of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. We got not only his picks for the top 13 unheralded movies—but also his advice on how you can do your own searches for “hidden gems” based on the kinds of movies you tend to like…
To find movies you may not have heard of but that could appeal to you, don’t—as many people do—rely on browsing “just released” or “popular” titles. You might find a great movie choice this way—but it’s a long shot. And by limiting yourself essentially to what the channels happen to be releasing at any given time, you’ll miss out on wonderful movies of all kinds and all eras. Much better ways to find hidden gems…
Search movies by director. Look for films by directors of movies you’ve enjoyed in the past. For instance, if you liked the popular 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate directed by John Frankenheimer, you should see Seconds, a 1966 sci-fi thriller also directed by Frankenheimer and starring Rock Hudson. Long ignored by mainstream movie critics, this bold and strange movie was ahead of its time in terms of storytelling as well as camera and audio work.
Explore movie chat rooms. In movie-themed online chat rooms, you can read user reviews of new and old movies and ask questions about any movie/director/genre you’re interested in. You can tell members about movies you’ve enjoyed and ask for suggestions based on those.
Below is a list of 13 movies that you probably never heard about but that are not to be missed. Beginning with a silent film from the late 1920s and ranging to a sweetly transgressive 2012 film from Saudi Arabia, there are choices for all tastes and interests. These movies can be found online through Netflix, Amazon, eBay and other streamers and sellers.
• A Throw of Dice (1929, directed by Frantz Osten). This grand tale of love is based on a story from the ancient Indian epic poem the “Mahabharata” and filmed in India. The locations alone make it a must-see, but this silent film also is remarkable for a naturalistic style of acting that was unusual for the time.
• The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933, directed by Frank Capra). Completed a year before It Happened One Night and a stark contrast to the social comedies that made Capra’s name throughout the 1930s, this exotic delight starring Barbara Stanwyck isn’t as well-known as the director’s larger-scale The Lost Horizon, but it is unique and one of Hollywood’s most thoroughly entertaining films.
• Peter Ibbetson (1935, directed by Henry Hathaway). The French surrealist André Breton described Hathaway’s film, which stars Gary Cooper and Ann Harding, as the greatest surreal film to come out of Hollywood. In brief, young friends grow up to be illicit lovers. Murder follows. One is incarcerated, but separated by walls, they meet each other in their dreams.
• Make Way for Tomorrow (1937, directed by Leo McCarey). McCarey is better known for his work with Laurel and Hardy and the sprightly romantic comedies and dramas of later years such as An Affair to Remember, but this Depression-era tale of an old couple struggling to make ends meet is compelling and heartbreaking.
• Detour (1945, directed by Edgar G. Ulmer). A low-budget, short film noir, this taut, 68-minute thriller by Czech émigré Ulmer is an exercise in inventiveness and fat-free storytelling.
• Ace in the Hole (1951, directed by Billy Wilder). Wilder’s previous film, Sunset Boulevard, is one of the most bitter tales ever made about Hollywood life. But he saved his sourest note for this masterpiece. Kirk Douglas excels as the down-at-the-heels journalist making a meal out of a local story just to reestablish his reputation. As Jan Sterling’s character says to Douglas, “I’ve met some hard-boiled eggs in my life, but you—you’re 20 minutes.”
• Some Came Running (1958, directed by Vincente Minnelli). Minnelli draws excellent performances from Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and the fast-rising young star Shirley MacLaine for this richly colorful portrait of small-town American life. It’s one of the finest American melodramas of the 1950s.
• The Housemaid (1960, directed by Ki-young Kim, in Korean with subtitles). It’s one of the original psycho-sexual thrillers. Wait until you see what the eponymous villain gets up to in this Korean classic—it’s The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Fatal Attraction and Psycho all rolled into one disturbing but thoroughly entertaining package.
• The Hired Hand (1971, directed by Peter Fonda). Following the phenomenal success of Easy Rider, leading man Fonda was given the green light to direct any project of his choosing. Few 1970s westerns are as elegiac as this beautifully shot film starring Fonda, Warren Oates and Verna Bloom. It’s a rhapsody to the American West and pioneering spirit.
• Wake in Fright (1971, directed by Ted Kotcheff). The story line might remind you of Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, but this was made more than a decade before. A teacher is traveling home from the Australian Outback but becomes sidetracked in a mining town. What follows is a few weeks in hell. Kotcheff went on to direct the box-office hit First Blood (the first of the Rambo movies), but this is his finest film.
• Killer of Sheep (1977, directed by Charles Burnett). As the blaxploitation (a term coined to refer to action films aimed at black audiences) trend was waning in the late 1970s, Burnett presented this honest portrait of working-class African-American life. It’s an unvarnished, heartfelt film. Unavailable for years because of legal issues over the sound track, it now is rightly recognized as a key American film of the 1970s.
• El Norte (1983, directed by Gregory Nava, in Mayan, Spanish and English with subtitles). Whatever your views on the currently raging debate over immigration and borders, this film will highlight essential issues that must be raised—and it’s a fine film, period. It tells the harrowing story of ordinary people hoping for kindness but who are mostly faced with hostility.
• Wadjda (2012, directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, in Arabic with subtitles). This is the first Saudi film to be directed by a woman and the first to be shot entirely on Saudi soil. It’s a portrait of a young girl who decides to enter a Koran-reciting competition so that she can buy the green bike she wants from a local store. Al-Mansour manages to weave an engaging and charming tale about family life in Riyadh while also presenting a subtle critique of the limitations placed on women in Saudi society.