Mr. Lars Nilsen is one of my favorite film programmers. His Alamo Drafthouse Weird Wednesday series is an institution of transcendent oddball obscurities. If you know anything of Lars' taste in films, you already know he knows his shit. I look forward to his list every year an am very pleased he's become a regular contributor.
(Also have a look at Lars' list from 2010 & 2011)
THE MISSION (1999): I freaked the shit out when I saw this abstract bodyguard movie from Johnnie To. It's one of the most formally advanced, smart, and experimental crime movies ever. It's as if the Melville of LE SAMOURAI and the Hawks of HATARI made a movie together from a script by Robbe-Grillet and Charles Willeford. Perhaps a little confusing on first viewing, the second viewing ties all the pieces together and the third provokes intense admiration. Anthony Wong plays the tough gangster turned hairdresser (!) hired by Simon Yam (who seems to be riffing on Chris Tucker) to assemble a team of bodyguards to protect a mob capo. There are the expected double and triple-crosses but what makes THE MISSION unique is the shape of the narrative. It moves from extremely loose, improvised scenes of tough men drinking beer and bullshitting to video-game inspired shootouts, which are in fact scored like video game levels, you even hear the missed beats when the music loops. Some people find the music annoying. Those people are not your friends. Anyone who discourages you from watching this immediately is your enemy.
FAT CITY(1972): I saw this at the memorial service for Susan Tyrrell, held at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar. This was the film that got her an Academy Award nomination, and, while she had some dark feelings about the movie and director John Huston, it shows her acting in a key that no one else could achieve. Every frame of film she appeared in was precious, but FAT CITY couldn't be what it is without her. As it is, FAT CITY is one of the great underdog, outlaw, loser movies of the decade that excelled in underdog, outlaw, loser movies. It's loaded with beautiful grace notes. I wish John Huston had made more movies like this.
NAVAJO JOE(1966): This is a decidedly minor, one-dimensional movie, but it is made by a great master at a time when his lance was its sharpest. The story is mechanical. There's not much going on beneath the surface. But Sergio Corbucci seems intoxicated by the light and faces and horses and landscapes and the film is a runaway effusion of joy about all the things that make movies magic and special. Burt Reynolds looks a little confused but Nicoletta Machiavelli glows like a muse in the light of an artist's studio window.
TODAY WE KILL, TOMORROW WE DIE(1968): This is a much better than average spaghetti western all around. It's very inexpensive, without any big stars, and it's intelligent and well constructed. The reason it makes the list is the fact that the bad guy, who seems to be called El Fago, is played by one of the greatest actors in the world, Tatsuya Nakadai (RAN, THE FACE OF ANOTHER, BANDITS VS. SAMURAI SQUADRON, plus roughly 25% of the best postwar Japanese films). It's an underwritten part, but Nakadi is frighteningly intense. He has so much screen presence that he makes the whole movie buoyant.
THE ENTITY(1982): I had never actually seen this until this year though I was well acquainted with it's reputation as the demon rape movie. It's pretty damn good. And really strange. I could totally see De Palma making this. It has the same kind of off-beat tense dementia you find in THE FURY and DRESSED TO KILL. The final sequence, in which Barbara Hershey, who has been stalked by an unseen presence throughout, is isolated on what is in effect a movie set in an attempt to capture the entity, is just nuts. And while psychological horror a la Val Lewton is conventionally regarded as superior to shocks, I secretly kind of like shocks too, and this movie has some great ones.
HACK-O-LANTERN(1988): This could have been completely forgettable, a transparent plastic candy wrapper on the floor of memory, if it were not for the heroic efforts of Hy Pike, a bit player who never loses sight of the fact that this is a Hy Pike jam through and through. The people paid their money to see Hy Pike, he seems to be saying to himself, and I'm going to give them so much Hy Pike that they'll need a doggy bag it's over. Sure enough, every second of Hy Pike is like fine Tiffany glass, and every moment spent without Hy Pike is pure despair, only tempered by the promise of more Hy Pike to come.
EXECUTIVE ACTION(1973): I am a nut for conspiracy stuff and this is one of the most plausible scenarios I have seen. It's not pure cinema - it's a little musty and dusty in fact. That's OK by me.
SHAKMA(1990): This is a body count movie where the killer is some kind of feral baboon who has been engineered to be more aggressive or something. Pretty shitty execution here from pretty much everyone except the baboon and its trainer, who should have won an animal-cruelty Oscar. In order to make the baboon go INSANE, a female baboon in heat was placed just out of camera range. If you watch this in hopes of seeing a baboon losing his shit again and again, you will be a satisfied customer. Top-billed Christopher Atkins is so bad that he adds an additional layer of interest and humor to the film.
NEVER TOO YOUNG TO DIE(1986): A deliberately stupid movie. John Stamos (who is awful) plays the son of James Bond, who becomes entangled in a James Bond-sized international intrigue and must grow to be the man his father wants him to be. Gene Simmons (who is phenomenal) plays the hermaphroditic supervillain. If you could bottle Simmons' malevolence in this movie you would have a bottle of malevolence alright.
SVENGALI(1931): A smelly old melodrama from a very popular novel. John Barrymore, with a beard and giant fake nose, is literally fascinating as a scheming, stage-Jewish Shylock who controls a lovely young girl and makes her do his bidding. It's an old movie but the penny-dreadful origins and stereotypes make it seem even more ancient, like the record of an opium nightmare from the 1800s. Barrymore plays broadly with as much humor as the material can hold. As Trilby, his victim, the now-unknown Marian Marsh is heartbreakingly lovely, with one of the best wigs in all of wigdom.