Run the title King of the Hill by most people, and you’ll get a big smile for Mike Judge’s long-running animated series, and maybe a Boomhauer impression. But it’s also the title of one of the lesser-known entries in the Steven Soderbergh filmography — his excellent 1993 adaptation of A.E. Hotchner’s memoir, a film so widely ignored that it never even saw a DVD release. Until now, that is; Criterion has released King in an excellent new DVD/Blu-ray edition, with the customary complement of outstanding bonus features, including (no kidding) a whole other Soderbergh movie that’s even less celebrated. Some thoughts on that film, and a few more unjustly ignored movies by our favorite filmmakers:
The Underneath (Steven Soderbergh)
In the lengthy and candid interview that precedes this 1995 film’s inclusion as a bonus feature on the King of the Hill disc, Soderbergh dismisses his so-called “bottoming out” movie thus: “It’s just totally sleepy.” He recalls being on set, the very first day, and feeling “already absent… It’s a very unpleasant feeling to know that, not be able to discuss that with anybody, and see everybody working so hard… and you know that thing’s just dead on arrival.” But the more he talks, the more interesting and personal it gets, as he explains that the picture was made during a “weird time” of professional doubt and personal collapse. All of which seems to imply that those outside elements, which Soderbergh claims are inextricably linked to the picture, may only have those connotations for him; for the outside observer, this is a sleek, elegantly made, moody little neo-noir thriller with some genuinely exciting experiments in cinematography and storytelling. But the filmmaker stands firm: “I can’t say that I would recommend it to anyone — other than to look at it in the context of a career.” Yet that’s exactly why it’s so valuable; in many ways, it feels like a dry run for his brilliant Out of Sight three years later, and later films that would similarly use the extreme color saturation (Traffic), narrative circularity (The Limey), and heist elements (the Ocean’s trilogy) that he takes for spin here.
The Sugarland Express (Steven Spielberg)
After his 1971 TV movie Duel became an unexpected critical favorite (and was expanded for a European theatrical release), Spielberg made his proper feature theatrical debut with another tale of the open road: this fast-paced and well-made 1974 drama, based on a true story, about a young mother (Goldie Hawn) and her escaped con husband (William Atherton) attempting to get their child back. Critics praised the picture (Pauline Kael presciently wrote that Spielberg “could be that rarity among directors — a born entertainer — perhaps a new generation’s Howard Hawks” and called it “one of the most phenomenal debut films in the history of movies”), but an oddly ineffective ad campaign kept audiences away, and the low grosses almost prevented Spielberg from getting his next gig, at the helm of Jaws.
American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince (Martin Scorsese)
Throughout his career, Scorsese has kept himself busy between projects by making documentaries — often complementing the fiction films he makes before or after them (making The Last Waltz while working on his big musical New York, New York; following his Little Italy masterpiece with the family doc Italianamerican). The fascinating American Boy came out two years after Taxi Driver, but plays like a companion piece; its subject, Steven Prince, plays a small role in the film (as the hotel room gun dealer), and is himself the kind of twisted character that could easily turn up in the back of Travis’ cab. Prince is a former heroin addict and road manager for Neil Diamond, but he’s mostly just a great storyteller, and Scorsese’s hour-long profile mostly just lets him talk. His most memorable tale is that of reviving an overdosing addict with a shot of adrenaline to the heart, indicating that American Boy apparently made its way into Quentin Tarantino’s VCR during his video store days.
Passing Strange (Spike Lee)
Like Scorsese, Lee frequently uses his downtime to make documentaries (4 Little Girls, Bad 25, When the Levees Broke) and performance films (Freak, The Original Kings of Comedy, A Huey P. Newton Story). This 2009 effort may be the best of the latter bunch, finding Lee and his brilliant cinematographer Matthew Libatique capturing the final performances of the tragically short-lived Broadway rock musical. It’s a powerful and wonderful show, in which the emotions are raw and the music is fierce, tenacious, and moving. And Lee’s film is remarkably effective; while musicals are an oft-exploding land mine for filmmakers, he seems to have found the best approach, embracing the stage roots rather than running from them. The result is a breathtaking theatrical and cinematic experience.
The Loveless (Kathryn Bigelow)
Bigelow was just a few short years out of her MFA program at Columbia when she co-directed this 1982 film, her first full-length feature, with Monty Montgomery. A revisionist biker movie, featuring a leather-clad Willem Dafoe in his first credited role, it was widely dismissed by critics at the time — the New York Times’ Janet Maslin called it “a pathetic homage to the 1950s,” filled with “silly, lifeless posturing” — and Bigelow didn’t direct another film until 1987’s Near Dark. But contemporary cinephiles (and Bigelow fans) have grown to appreciate the film’s moody atmosphere and subversive skewering of traditional masculinity.
Lust, Caution (Ang Lee)
There’s not a reason in the world you shouldn’t have heard of this 2007 drama — it was, after all, Lee’s first film after winning his first Best Director Oscar for Brokeback Mountain. But it was also rated NC-17 for its graphic sexuality, which irritatingly kept it out of many markets, though it’s a compelling argument for wider use of that rating’s freedom; in its best moments, it recalls Last Tango in Paris, insofar as the sexuality is neither gratuitous nor intended (solely, anyway) for titillation, but is a vital component in understanding its leading characters and their relationship with each other. Things are said in their sex scenes that can’t be stated in dialogue; they enrich the story, instead of taking us outside of it. The film’s other bum rap, from its early festival screenings, was that it was long and slow and dull, and while it does have a flabby first act and occasionally slacking pace, it’s an immensely satisfying picture, thoughtful and intelligent, gorgeously photographed and beautifully acted by Tony Leung, Joan Chen, and Wei Tang.
The Dumb Waiter (Robert Altman)
After the box-office and critical disappointment of 1980’s Popeye, Altman spent the bulk of the ‘80s in a kind of cinematic wilderness, turning out mostly low-budget, independent adaptations of plays (like Streamers, Secret Honor, and Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean) for art houses and television. In what must have been his greatest sell job (and that’s saying something), Altman somehow convinced ABC to air Basements, a film adaptation of two Harold Pinter one-acts, as a TV movie; the better of the two is The Dumb Waiter, starring John Travolta and Tom Conti. Each film was released separately on VHS in the 1980s, so again, it’s hard not to imagine this one influencing Tarantino; it features Travolta as one half of a hit-man team, making idle conversation while waiting to do a job. It’s a little jarring to hear a Cockney accent coming out of the actor (and the accent itself is pretty dodgy), but he and Conti are quite good, and Altman — famous for his improvisational tendencies — sticks closely to Pinter’s text, coming up with one of the few adaptations that seems to capture the mood of his works.
Gerry (Gus Van Sant)
Hey, did you hear about the Van Sant/Damon/Affleck movie? No, the other one. When the iconoclastic filmmaker helmed the Oscar-friendly Good Will Hunting, some cried sellout, an accusation that Van Sant seemed to tackle head-on when he re-teamed with Hunting co-stars Matt Damon and Casey Affleck five years later to make this wildly experimental and occasionally impenetrable drama. Long sequences unfold with little or no dialogue, and no action more riveting than two guys walking (or, later, staggering). The dialogue, when it occurs, is pointedly absurd. The storytelling is sparse; we never find out what its heroes are seeking, or much of anything about them. But it’s a potent, riveting, and beautiful film, and an utterly uncompromising experiment.
Great Expectations (Alfonso Cuarón)
When Cuarón’s film was released in 1998 (in January, never a good sign) it was marketed — perhaps wisely — as a modernized take on an old classic in the style of the recent hit Romeo + Juliet. And then critics and audiences widely dismissed it as such. But this is more than a flashy, empty, Luhrmann-style update; working from a script co-written by David Mamet and Scrooged’s Mitch Glazer, Cuarón takes Dickens’s narrative and spins out an inventive, heartfelt, and achingly sexy portrait of young love. The cinematography, by his frequent collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki, is stunning, and the picture only improves on repeat visits; from this vantage point, it’s an invaluable bridge between the children’s film (A Little Princess) that preceded it, and the erotic drama (Y Tu Mama Tambien) that followed it.
New York Stories (Sofia Coppola)
Everyone knows that Sofia Coppola’s masterful directorial efforts followed a notably less successful stint in front of the camera, in Papa Francis’ The Godfather Part III. What is lesser known is that, even before that film, she co-wrote his entry in the 1989 anthology film New York Stories — and maybe that’s for the best, since it’s far and away the weakest entry in the film, a too-cute tale of a little rich girl in some kind of fantasy version of New York City (one that certainly bore no resemblance to the city at the time of the film’s 1989 release). So why is it on this list? Honestly, because I’ll take any excuse to point you towards “Life Lessons,” Martin Scorsese’s entry in the film, one of his richest and least appreciated films. And if that means I cheated a little, well, I’ll just have to live with that.