To avoid painful snubbing, this list will be in boring alphabetical order rather than from best to worst. It was difficult to narrow it down to ten but I managed. And as is unsurprising to any who know me, the lion’s share are costume dramas – of the contemporary settings, three out of four take place in very skewed locations and the other was made at the end of the Cold War.
Around half of these films are also extremely (and I would advocate unfairly) obscure. All of them I strongly recommend you to watch but you expected that.
Affinity, 2008. (Tim Fywell)
Based on a Sarah Waters novel, this vastly underrated slice of Victorian Gothic takes place mostly within the walls of a women’s prison and is a haunting and delicate portrait of desire and also a chilling mystery based around the spirit medium circuit. It opens a window upon the isolation and hurt felt by lesbians in the 19th Century without getting in your face about it and is superbly paced and acted. The last five minutes sound a sentimental note that doesn’t fit with the rest of the film but there are no other problems.
The Counterfeiters, 2007. (Stefan Ruzowitzky)
The Holocaust tends to bring out the most manipulative tendencies in filmmakers. The Counterfeiters almost never manipulates, right down to the use of tango music for the score. Riveting portrayals with Karl Markovics at the head of a stellar cast and an extremely intelligent script. Deservedly won Best Foreign Film at the Oscars that year.
Das Boot, 1981 (Wolfgang Petersen)
Four hours in the Director’s Cut and I swear I couldn’t figure out which were the added scenes. Nothing felt extraneous; everything was engrossing. A very bleak movie with an earthy, uber-realistic script. You don’t have “fun” watching Das Boot but I for one never felt the time drag. The final scene is just as vivid in my mind’s eye now as when I saw it. Truly indelible stuff.
Elizabeth, 1998. (Shekhar Kapur)
A lesson in how to make a great costume drama: Style it like Orff and fill it with Machiavellian intrigue! With a full cast of vivid personalities and fine performances, it is a whole lot of fun. The sequel sucked but in no way tarnishes the accomplishment of the original. You get Christopher Eccleston as a scheming courtier, Daniel Craig as an assassin and Geoffrey Rush as England’s spymaster! Seriously, what more can you want?
Melancholia, 2011. (Lars von Trier)
Far from being a nihilistic film siding with Kirsten Dunst in saying “the earth is evil,” Melancholia actually functions as an elegy with lingering shots of how beautiful life on earth actually is. Therefore it is one of the most genuinely cathartic films I’ve ever seen, the sort you can’t bring yourself to talk about after finishing. Dunst’s portrait of depression was searing and resonant and the whole film was beautifully stylized. On the face of it an apocalyptic film but actually a character study of two sisters (and I can’t even choose whose performance was better, Dunst’s or Charlotte Gainsbourg’s).
Noi, 2003. (Dagur Kari)
Icelandic films are about as rare as hen’s teeth and this one is really weird. Noi is the town misfit in a town which appears to house about 12 people. He skips school, courts the new girl, hangs with his loser dad, gets a job digging graves and dreams of running away (but lacks the required motivation). The film is a deadpan comedy with a deadpan tragic ending. Deeply strange.
The Return, 2006. (Asif Kapadia)
Doomed by a jackass marketing committee that advertised it as a horror film when it is in fact more a supernatural murder mystery based upon theories of eternal return. It got no publicity or premiere and got mostly negative reviews thanks to misguided expectations. I expect time will correct this if it doesn’t disappear altogether. It is dark, thoughtful, romantic and the cinematography turns a rural industrialized Texan hellhole into a landscape of unsettling beauty. Sam Shepard’s in it and Sarah Michelle Gellar plays upon her vulnerable side as a brunette plagued all her life by terrifying visions. It was a bit shorter than it should have been, and could have used longer character-establishing scenes but this problem isn’t enough to keep it off my top ten.
The Russia House, 1990. (Fred Schepisi)
Now for a happy film (you see I do like them). Based on Le Carré and adapted by Tom Stoppard, the script is thus a dream come true for me. A love story between the very lovable Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer (who surprisingly convinces as a Russian woman). Beautiful score and cinematography. Non-Hollywood espionage. Sharp wit. And a happy ending that actually had me tearing up! A really wonderful experience.
The Serpent’s Kiss, 1997. (Philippe Rousselot)
Almost entirely forgotten, this particular costume drama makes a fine use of subtext. On the surface there’s madness, poison, false identity and subterfuge with Richard E. Grant as the villain. Underlying it all are contemplative riffs on civilization’s attempt to suppress nature and memorable use of the poems of Andrew Marvell. It behaves more like an art-film than a typical costumer: cerebral, melancholy, verbally erotic and wry. No reason it should be as obscure as it is.
The Whole Wide World, 1996. (Dan Ireland)
The life of Robert E. Howard is the focus of this film, played by Vincent D’Onofrio opposite Renée Zellweger. They are wonderful together in a sequence of scenes where nothing much “happens” in the conventional Hollywood sense. It’s a character study through and through. A warm and charming film that made me like Howard so well I picked up some Conan the Barbarian stories to read and enjoyed them immensely, for which I am indebted to Dan Ireland’s film.
Now for some quick honorable mentions:
If you want a romantic comedy that brings life back to the oldest clichés, get a copy of Wimbledon (seriously).
If you want a French comedy that brings life back to the oldest clichés, get a copy of The Valet.
If you want a thoughtful horror film reliant on chills rather than gore (or just want to see if Richard Gere can really act), get a copy of The Mothman Prophecies.
Looking for an old film noir that bucks the clichés but still offers a good hard-bitten script? Check out Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets (you’ll get first-rate Jack Palance too).
Want a foreign art-film that doesn’t take itself too seriously? I recommend Run Lola Run.
Yeah, me and action movies don’t really work well together. So enjoy my recommendations if they happen to work for you.