The Best Forgotten Films Of The 20th Century

We’re reaching critical mass. The Oscar nominations just came out and, as usual, a lot of people are upset about plenty of films and people not getting proper adulation. One reason for so many omissions: there are a lot of movies out there.

Box Office Mojo has the number of movies released this year at just fewer than 700, some 11 films short of 2014’s mark of 701. That’s a ton, and that’s only two years; the mark is about 9,000 since 2000. And really, even if half of them ­– or even 75% ­– are offbeat or strange or not worth watching, that’s still over 2,000 movies that are worth seeing.

Not only are there more and more films coming out, but television too has exploded, and now Netflix et al are consuming our time. Chances are, at least once a week someone is telling you about some show or movie you should be watching. Right now it’s probably How to Make a Murderer, and you’re either wildly promoting it or telling everyone that, yes, you know you have to watch it and it’s in your queue.

So how are we really supposed to take in, take note, and remember all the greatness that cinema has to offer?

What follows is an earnest (yet inevitably incomplete) attempt to refresh your memory of past wonder and intrigue. Some 9,000-plus movies ago, the 20th century was coming to a close.  Here is but a minor selection of some oft-forgotten films of that era that are worth remembering and revisiting.

After Hours (1985)


Martin Scorsese directs this offbeat story that follows a nebbish office worker out for a night with a beautiful but wildly unhinged woman. It’s sort of a comedy, but also disturbing. You sort of know where it’s going until you don’t. The main character is disoriented and so are you. An absurd and surreal exploration, it’s not a film often remembered as part of Scorsese’s canon, but one that strangely finds poignancy in its comedy, challenging the viewer to deal with subject matter that is unsettling and messy.

Ace in the Hole (1951)

Ace in the Hole

I suppose it’s easy for any film from the 1950’s to be nowadays forgotten, but this fantastic offering from director Billy Wilder and actor Kirk Douglas is especially so, in part because they’re so much better known for other great work. Wilder (Some Like It Hot, The Apartment) co-writes and directs this tale about a hard-luck reporter (Douglas) in New Mexico who, upon discovering a man trapped in a cave, uses the scoop to revitalize his floundering career in this film that is equal parts blistering satire and gripping saga.

Gattaca (1997)


Science fiction fare has legacy potential, depending on the subject matter and how well it is executed. These films can live timelessly as indelible experiences, or they can be lost to technological advancements that make a movie utterly silly and outdated. Gattaca is somehow something else: an unnerving, smart drama/horror about genetics that may have been ahead of its time. It also boasts a fantastic cast of Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Jude Law, and Alan Arkin.

The Faculty (1998)


In the back catalog of Robert Rodriguez – well behind Sin City, Planet Terror, and even Spy Kids – is a juicy, guilty pleasure from the 90’s. The Faculty¸ a teenage creature feature, got lost among the prominence and power of the Scream franchise, but still managed to be scary, funny, and relatable while containing gore and nudity. It’s like The Breakfast Club meets The Thing, starring Josh Hartnett, Elijah Wood, Jordana Brewster, Clea DuVall, and Usher – Usher! And how can you resist a story that posits your high school teachers (Jon Stewart, Robert Patrick, Salma Hayek, Famke Janssen) have been taken over by aliens?

Suddenly (1954)


Suddenly is a curious entry in that it’s frequently forgotten because the lead star wanted it to be forgotten. Frank Sinatra plays an assassin in the movie who, along with some cohorts, plots to kill the President. Perhaps it’s easy to see why he didn’t want this image, though it’s strange to think about why he made it at all. It’s a B-movie from the 50’s, but what a B-movie! Questionable morality, slick directing, and solid acting make the film memorable; Sinatra, I suppose, would atone years later when he tried to stop an assassination in The Manchurian Candidate.

Kicking and Screaming (1995)


Before Noah Baumbach and his comedic, awkward stories about well-off Brooklynites such as Frances Ha and While We’re Young became so wildly popular, he wrote and directed another dramatic comedy about some well-off kids living in their own bubble. Kicking and Screaming explores the night of a college graduation and the months that follow as a bunch of wealthy white kids face self-imposed and societal expectations for their sudden jolt into adulthood. It’s a fascinating – if not frustrating – watch, and features some questionable wardrobes and young familiar faces, including Eric Stoltz and Parker Posey.

To Live and Die in LA (1985)


A film by master storyteller William Friedkin and starring Willem Dafoe, an actor adept at playing villainy and horror, To Live and Die in L.A. got lost in a sea of other films about cops and robbers. That’s perhaps because it was a little more serious and grittier than most from its decade. Featuring one of the greatest chase scenes in film (the whole film is really a chase), this story, which features William Peterson as the lead detective on the hunt, is a smart and wild ride definitely worth taking again.

Cop Land (1997)


Among those aforementioned Oscar nominations is a Best Actor nod for Sylvester Stallone, which may surprise some, but certainly no one who saw Cop Land. The cinematic landscape is littered with this type of story; an earnest police officer navigates crime and corruption in a line of work and city that may be over his head. It’s a manly movie, starring Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, and Robert Patrick, among others, but Stallone’s understated, genuine Freddy Heflin is the emotional center and true star of this simple, effective, and superbly-acted film.

Anthony Marcusa
Anthony Marcusa is a Toronto-based freelance journalist whose writing dabbles in film, TV, music, sports, and relationships – though not necessarily in that order. He’s simultaneously youthfully idealistic and curmudgeonly cynical. But he’s always curious.

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