There are far too many possible choices for a top 10 of this nature. For myself, the list is ever-changing. But, if I had to nail down the lesser known films that I truly enjoy watching again and again then this would be pretty accurate.
Directed by Hal Hartley
Disturbingly still not available on Region 1 DVD (US & Canada), Trust is easily, for me, the best movie yet from director Hal Hartley. Adrienne Shelly plays high school dropout Maria Coughlin who is also pregnant. When informed of her situation her father keels over dead and her mother kicks her out of the house. To add insult in injury, her jock boyfriend breaks up with her. Left homeless, she encounters an older man named Matthew Slaughter (Martin Donovan) with whom she develops a genuine relationship. Donovan's character is also blessed with his own set of personal issues. You may have to hunt a bit to track down a dusty VHS copy or chance catching it on TV but it's well worth it. Sadly, actress Adrienne Shelly was murdered in November 2006, just prior to the release of Waitress, a film she stars in as well as directs.
Allegro Non Troppo (1977)
Directed by Bruno Bozzetto
Italian director Bruno Bozzetto made Allegro Non Troppo not as an homage to Walt Disney's Fantasia but more so as a direct challenge. The film features a similar concept as Fantasia (classical music with animated visuals) but is deliberately more adult and more tongue-in-cheek as well. The animated segments are connected via live action scenes involving an orchestra, a slave animator and an dictator-like director. For me, the live action scenes act as mere glue to house the animated segments, which are original, provocative and, in some cases, truly wonderful. My favorite animation is musically set to Valtzer Triste and begins with the overview of a faceless city. The point of view takes us to one house in the middle of the city, burned-out from a recent fire. From the charred remains of the once lively home comes a cat, totally alone and removed from its loving home, remembering happier times. The music and visuals gel to such a degree of perfection I am brought to tears every time I see it. The other animated segments are good as well, each set to perfectly chosen classical music pieces and are destined to become etched in your mind.
Joe Versus The Volcano (1990)
Directed by John Patrick Shanley
Easily the most overlooked of the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan trifecta of films (the others being You've Got Mail and Sleepless In Seattle), Joe Versus The Volcano is also easily the best of the three and ranks among both actor's best movies. Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, who has sadly only helmed this one film thus far, it has unfairly been ignored since its 1990 theatrical release. The plot is silly - Joe (Tom Hanks) is duped into believing he has six months left to live and should, therefore, jump into a southern Pacific volcano to appease the gods. But they way every detail is so lovingly brought to the screen by Shanley makes this a cinematic journey worth taking. Hanks delivers a rich performance as does Ryan who plays no one but THREE different characters. The supporting cast is excellent, including Dan Hedaya, Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack, Ossie Davis and Carol Kane along with an absolutely stellar score from soundtrack genius Georges Delerue.
Dawn Of The Dead (1978)
Directed by George Romero
No, not the 2004 remake, but the original Dawn Of The Dead from 1978 as directed by George Romero, still holds the title as the best zombie or monster movie of any type for this jaded horror film fan. The beauty of a film like this is that while it's billed as a zombie flick (it's the sequel to Romero’s own 1968 classic Night Of The Living Dead), it's not really ABOUT zombies. The story revolves around a group of four friends who borrow a television station's traffic copter to escape the encroaching flood of zombies. They eventually find a vacated shopping mall and land on the roof, taking refuge in the many stores. Once they barricade themselves inside the mall a warped new reality begins for them as they persevere in their new impromptu community. The group struggles to adapt and life in the mall brings its own problems - many of which that don't even include zombies at all. In fact the middle portion of the film sees the characters all but forget about the zombies. It's a beautifully written and executed look at late 70s consumerism and social situations - with a side plot involving zombies. Romero has yet to top himself with this one.
The Big Kahuna (1999)
Directed by John Swanbeck
Three sales reps – two seasoned vets and one newbie – join together in Wichita, Kansas for a convention at a hotel, allied to sell their line of industrial lubricants. Based on Roger Rueff’s stage play and brought to life on the screen utilizing pretty much one set – the hotel room – by John Swanbeck, The Big Kahuna is a movie that really caught me off guard. Kevin Spacey and Danny DeVito (who met on the set of L.A. Confidential) play veteran salesmen with young new hire Peter Facinelli providing the contrast to the older pair’s jaded world view. Dialogue driven like the play, I found the film fascinating. It deftly covers a lot of truths of the human condition framed over a premise of a trio of sales reps trying to land a huge contract (the big kahuna). DeVito delivers perhaps his best performance ever as he schools the Facinelli character in the realities of life.
Directed by Gus Van Sant
Gus Van Sant is not afraid to follow up a big Hollywood movie with a low budget indie production and "Gerry" is definitely unlike any movie I've ever seen before. Sure to incite anger from casual moviegoers expecting the "new Matt Damon movie", Gerry is a 103 minute long movie that has virtually no dialogue. And the only two characters on screen are played by Matt Damon and Casey Affleck - both named Gerry. The movie opens with a wordless scene featuring the two Gerrys driving in the desert until they stop at a rest area. Finally around ten minutes in we are witness to the first dialogue between the two Gerrys. They embark on foot down a trail where they anticipate finding "the thing". We never find out what that "thing" is because the pair end up getting lost before finding it. Don't watch Gerry expecting The Bourne Ultimatum or Good Will Hunting. This is not that kind of movie. The amazing acting from Damon and Affleck would be difficult for any actor to carry off but these guys did it. Damon really demonstrates his skills near the end in a wordless scene that relies solely on his face and body language. Van Sant deserves credit for even considering a project like this.
New Waterford Girl (1999)
Directed by Allan Moyle
Directed by Allan Moyle, who gave us Pump Up The Volume starring Christian Slater and Empire Records in 1995. After his brief dance with Hollywood fare Moyle returned to Canada to make New Waterford Girl. A smart yet defiantly oddball teenager (played by Liane Balaban), dreams of getting out of her small town, meets someone who challenges her stagnant life when a girl from New York (Tara Spencer-Nairn) moves to town. Though it’s set in small town Nova Scotia, New Waterford could easily be small town anywhere. Moyle takes Tricia Fish’s script and makes it live on screen. There are quirky yet not implausible characters, highlighted by Spencer-Nairn’s tough girl, who is not afraid to beat up any guy in town. You don’t have to have grown up in a small town to appreciate New Waterford Girl. In small but rich roles, the film is elevated even further by Andrew McCarthy and Cathy Moriarty.
Quick Change (1990)
Directed by Howard Franklin & Bill Murray
Along with Chevy Chase, Bill Murray is one of my favorite alumni from the cast of Saturday Night Live. In this little known dark comedy Murray not only stars but co-directs. I return to Quick Change regularly as it never fails to brighten my day. The story starts off with Murray dressed as a clown robbing a bank. Hoping to fund his retirement, he surprises himself with how easy it is to rob a bank dressed as a clown. Thinking he is home free, he soon discovers that the robbing part was easy – it’s the getting away part that’s hard. Geena Davis and Randy Quaid play Murray’s partners in crime in a series of get away attempts that never fails to get me laughing out loud. Jason Robards plays the jaded and tired police chief who is hot on the trail of the three thieves along with smaller but memorable scenes with Stanley Tucci, Phil Hartman and Tony Shalhoub.
Miami Blues (1990)
Directed by George Armitage
George Armitage, who also directed Grosse Pointe Blank (1997), showcases Alec Baldwin in one of my most favorite roles of his. Baldwin plays Frederick J. Frenger Jr., just out of prison and looking to start fresh in Miami. He hooks up with part time college student/part time hooker Susie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) while revving up his criminal efforts to new highs. Sgt. Hoke Moseley (Fred Ward) is tasked with bringing Frenger to justice but discovers that it won’t be easy. This is thoroughly entertaining from start to finish. Armitage directs with a pace that never relents. This is one of Baldwin’s best performances and I never tire rewatching Miami Blues.
Bad Taste (1987)
Directed by Peter Jackson
Long before The Lord Of The Rings trilogy Peter Jackson busied himself making low budget films with his friends in his native New Zealand. One of those early movies, Bad Taste, is so full of energy that you can’t help but be drawn in despite the budget constraints. The story involves aliens visiting Earth to harvest humans for use in their alien fast-food restaurants back in whatever galaxy they came from. The bad taste is a natural by-product of such a plot. For me, the Lord Of The Rings films and King Kong were simply too forced and too long. At a brisk 90 minutes, Bad Taste excels because Jackson was constantly pushing the envelope of what the tiny budget would allow and the results are definitely entertaining. I wish Jackson could return to this kind of movie making, where the sheer thrill of creating something exciting so fully translates to the screen.