The Greatest Films You’ve Never Heard Of
Art and Experience:
Cinema has a funny way of showing love to some of its greatest films.
We have all read lists of the greatest films of all time to see if we have appreciated the best filmmaking cinema has to offer. On those lists are classics like Citizen Kane, 8 ½, and Vertigo, as well as modern classics such as In the Mood for Love and Moonlight. These greatest films of all time make up what we consider cinema, and our fundamental knowledge about filmmaking comes from these movies.
Unfortunately, these “greatest films” lists tend to be very exclusive. There are films that exist outside of what we are trained to know as the best that influence the art of filmmaking. Some of these films that have been excluded from the conversation of great art are fantastic pieces that highlight the beauty and madness of humanity.
Thanks to The Cinema Cartography’s attempts to showcase films that have been excluded from the conversation of cinema’s greatest films for one reason or another, we have a list of the greatest films you’ve probably never watched.
Check out some of them below! And let us know if you’ve seen any of them already.
‘The Fifth Seal’CREDIT: Zoltán Fábri
The Fifth Seal – Zoltán Fábri
Philosophical cinema can be found in the earliest days of cinema. Filmmakers such as Lewis Manuel attempted to create a narrative through abstraction, blending the moving image with the art of thought. Not only did Manuel make an impact on the surrealist community, but he also made the approach of philosophy embedded in cinema a more comprehensible experience for filmmakers and viewers.
In making The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, Ingmar Bergman made arthouse, philosophical cinema a focal point within the world of cinema. The idea of literal discussion for pre-existing philosophies through cinema was an idea that expanded until the 1981 film, My Dinner with Andre, a film about two friends having dinner and discussing the entirety of human existence.
While My Dinner with Andre is all tell and no show, Zoltán Fábri’s The Fifth Seal finds the perfect blend within the cinematic art and philosophy. The Fifth Seal is primarily focused on a philosophical discussion a group of men in a bar have until one man asks a single question. Would you rather be born a tyrant that punishes and tortures his subjects yet never feel remorse or be born as a slave who undergoes subjugation each day but can take solace in the fact that they have no evil within them?
This question tilts the entire axis of the film, controlling the thought that the film has made the primary subject. The film is this question and takes this philosophizing to its highest level by watching the extremity of human behavior under extreme circumstances.
The film plays out like a stage play, creating still moments whenever the question is asked to hammer in the viewer’s mind the responsibilities we have in precarious times by showing us the suffering that we or others will endure.
‘The House is Black’CREDIT: Ebrahim Golestan
The House Is Black – Forough Farrokhzad
It is rare that a documentary becomes a cultural phenomenon equal to a narrative, fictional film. Few documentaries are able to find success with an audience because of their medium. Many people want to escape the world rather than watch real-life terrors.
The Iranian poet, Forough Farrokhzard, takes audiences to a leper colony. Farrokhzad goes directly into the world of those in isolation, capturing them with a sublime, poetic quality that captures the tragedy in the world while treating and humanizing those suffering from the illness with respect.
Farrokhzad immortalizes the pain of those with leprosy through the beauty of human creation. The documentary balances the realism of the human condition with the magic of cinema, creating a veil between our worlds and asking us to watch without judgment. It puts the audience in a predicament: fight for the justice of the ones who were outcast by society, or stay silent, and forget them in shame.
‘Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks’CREDIT: Wang Bing
Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks – Wang Bing
Wang Bing’s documentaries ask us to pay closer attention to what is happening right in front of us. Bing’s filmography is embedded in the politics of his homeland, honoring the legacy of the Chinese people. Focused on the political fallout of China in the 20th century, his work ventures into the dismal effects on the world’s largest population by focusing on the smallest of gestures.
Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks is a nine-hour piece that examines China’s economic shift from complete state control to a free market society, and the effects this had on the forgotten workers. This documentary covers the course of two-and-a-half years, capturing a silent death of one world as a new one begins to flourish. Bing captures the mood and paradoxical focus through extreme long takes, observing the circumstances while honing on how a geopolitical shift affects families in their day-to-day life.
A common thematic motif of Bing in his work is exposing the remnants of the once-dominant society and its attempt to integrate into a modern world while trying to lead it as well. Acting as an observer, Bing invites audiences to watch as the culture shifts, changing slightly each day, affecting the life of a humble individual.
‘As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty’CREDIT: Canyon Cinema
As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty – Jonas Mekas
Looking at the self will always be a cornerstone of artistic exploration. The self is what generates interactions with people, altering how the world was once perceived and how it changes through interaction. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that artists turn inwards for an introspective exploration of the self. The most famous introspection film would be Fellini’s 8 ½, but a more cathartic exploration would be found in Jonas Mekas’s As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty.
This compilation piece consists of Mekas’ filming life around him and using snippets from old home movies as he attempted to reconstruct his life. Every insignificant moment finds life again in this new context. In moments of deep reflection, Mekas does not have regret, but appreciation for the moments of mundane beauty that make up so much of life.
As we watch the film, Mekas is watching with us, guiding us through the beautiful moments in his life with his narration.
‘The Enclosed Valley’CREDIT: Jean-Claude Rousseau
The Enclosed Valley – Jean-Claude Rousseau
Similar to Makas’ diary-like works, Jean-Claude Rousseau cuts together images from Super 8’s and allows the images next to one another to denote their meaning without intrusion. It is pure experimentation, an exercise in how to edit. What comes together if we allow the images to construct the story itself.
The Enclosed Valley is a more daring experiment with the moving image, and it is the serendipity of what is captured by accident that evokes a deep-rooted emotion from the viewers. There is no dialogue, no movement, just pure sensations.
‘Pastoral: To Die in the Country’CREDIT: Shūji Terayama
Pastoral: To Die in the Country – Shūji Terayama
It is one thing to birth an idea into a viewer’s mind, and another to translate the meaning of an image to the viewers. This is often the predicament artists can face when trying to figure out how to express their ideas.
What appears to be Japanese surrealist work transforms into a deep metaphor within the film’s layers of symbology. It is only at the halfway point of the film that the world between us and the film is shattered, allowing us to see what the adventure ahead has in store.
Pastoral: To Die in the Country is Terayama’s take on subconscious filmmaking. The incredible compositions, over-the-top costumes and sets, and filmmaking techniques that are intentionally misplaced create a level of dynamic storytelling that would be dismissed if it were regarded as surrealism with a unique aesthetic. It is a reminder of what was once there, a memory. Pastoral: To Die in the Country is composed in the only rational way these memories could be expressed.
‘Punishment Park’CREDIT: Project X Distribution
Punishment Park – Peter Watkins
A film can be forgotten because of how closely it resembles the uncomfortable truths of the current state of the world. A film like Salό, or the 120 Days of Sodom was so provocative in its depiction of European fascism that it is forever etched into cinematic history. However, a film that predates Salό and is uncomfortably so true to life that it becomes disturbing in Punishment Park.
Filmed as a mockumentary, the performances and structure may have you believing that this film is true. This is a film about the manner in which the real world operates on the regimes of control. The result of the authenticity of the film pokes at the audience, telling us to pay attention to the world around us and see that the things labeled as fiction may be true after all. The very thin barrier between the real world and the film is one that is often questioned.
No matter what the protagonists do, they are not in control of the rules of their circumstances. Any power they have to win the game is taken away, rigging the game to make sure the protagonists will always lose.
Due to Punishment Park’s controversial content, the film was denied distribution by all major studios in the U.S.
‘The Cremator’CREDIT: Central Office of Film Distribution
The Cremator – Juraj Herz
Juraj Herz’s The Cremator is an unresting experience that approaches a maddening behavior through a single individual. This prominent Czech New Wave film was filmed primarily in wide lenses to give tight and confined spaces an overwhelming feeling. The constant manipulation from behind the camera unnerves and unsettles the viewer to a point that they can no longer stomach the ugliness of the film’s main character.
The Cremator follows a worker in a crematorium who becomes a mass murderer complicit in the genocide of extermination camps during the second world war. It is a fascinating story about a man’s plunge into darkness and is cleverly crafted to make the audience feel disgust.
‘O Pagador de Promessas’CREDIT: Cinedistri
O Pagador de Promessas – Anselmo Duarte
O Pagador de Promessas is a masterpiece of Brazilian cinema that was awarded the 1962 Palme d’Or. The film tells a story of a man’s donkey approaching death, but the man promises that he will carry a cross on his back across the country and deliver it to a priest if the donkey survives.
The magic realism that is expected in Brazilian cinema is brought to life in the film, but it always brings symbolic and allegorical elements to the film as well to help navigate the issues of faith and sacrifice. It was a celebrated work of genius upon its release that has faded into history.
It is our duty as filmmakers and movie watchers to remember the films that influenced our knowledge of cinema. If we don’t choose what defines our culture, then someone else will decide for us. There are films that have not had enough time to gain the recognition they deserve, but you have the power to highlight why those films and its specific elements are influential to cinema.