The Greatest Films You’ll Never See
We asked and our contributors responded with a list of films lost or nearly lost that deserve to be seen, saved, and remembered.
Films get lost because of physical wear, they get lost because of political turmoil, but even contemporary films get lost every year on the festival circuit or for lack of distribution, among other reasons. We reached out to our contributors for recommendations. They sent us movies that are on the brink of being lost or have been lost or that are simply nearly inaccessible for most people. Our goal is to raise awareness of movies on film in need of preservation, of indie or experimental films that don't get the attention they deserve, and even of bigger productions that were cast aside for unjust political reasons. We don’t want to be all doom and gloom, so some of the below films champion success stories of movies given a second life.
Many outlets want to tell you what the best movies are. Some may even want to tell you the worst. We at the Brooklyn Rail want to give you the worst FOMO of your lives and tell you what you won’t see, can’t see, or may never get more than one chance in your life to see no matter how many streaming services you subscribe to. With advice from our contributors, the film editors present you with our winter 2022 list of the greatest films you’ll never see.
The Blind Owl (La Chouette Aveugle, 1987, dir. Raul Ruiz)
by Ethan Spigland
Loosely inspired by Persian writer Sadegh Hedayat’s 1936 novel Boof-e koor (The Blind Owl), the film tells the story of a film projectionist who works at an Arab cinema in Paris whose life and dreams begin to merge with the exotic melodramas and B-movies he projects on screen. One can see why Ruiz was drawn to Hedayat’s haunting book, with its themes of obsessive desire, madness, and the multiplication of the self. Brimming with some of Ruiz’s most haunting images and magical special effects, it’s one of his freest and most spellbinding films, yet impossibly difficult to see. Apparently, there are only one or two prints in the world, and it’s not available on DVD, Blu-ray, or any streaming service. I saw it projected many years ago in France, and several years ago at the Raul Rúiz retrospective at Lincoln Center, where I introduced it.
The Counterfeit Coin (Η Κάλπικη Λίρα, 1955, dir. Yorgos Tzavellas)
by Harrison Blackman
A fable that follows the journey of a counterfeit coin through different levels of society, The Counterfeit Coin (Η Κάλπικη Λίρα) is a fascinating window into post-Civil War Greece. Director Yorgos Tzavellas explores the chain of events that occur after a craftsman decides to make a counterfeit lira. When the craftsman's counterfeiting operation leads to his ruin, he hands the coin to a beggar, whose own misadventures lead the coin to its next owner and her ensuing travails. All told, four stories are stitched together by the titular coin’s odyssey. Though MUBI lists the film in its library , The Counterfeit Coin is not currently available to stream on any major service; its DVD is out of print. And if you can find a DVD, it probably won’t have English subtitles. That’s a shame, because The Counterfeit Coin has often been touted as one of the best Greek films of all time.
Devdas (1935, dir. P.C. Barua)
by Farah Abdessamad
It’s the story of an impossible, true love. Devdas, a wealthy young man, returns to his home village and realizes he desperately loves the woman he can’t pursue, Parvati, his childhood friend. He’s from an affluent Brahmin caste, and she’s not. The classic film, based on a radical 1917 novel from author Sharat Chandra Chatterjee, exposes the destructive effects of social constructs and tragedy, as Devdas abandons his privileged place in society and lets himself fall into a precipice of addiction and despair. I came of age when lavish Bollywood production Devdas (2002) and megastars Aishwarya Rai and Shah Rukh Khan influenced dance routines and adolescent fantasies, and immediately became interested in the film's history as a cultural phenomenon. Unfortunately, I could never watch P.C. Barua’s first film adaptation of Devdas in Bengali (1935). It might be lost forever as a fire destroyed most of its physical studio reproductions, and Bangladesh owns the only surviving physical copy of the film which is forty percent damaged. Until possibly restored, one can watch P.C. Barua’s Hindi version (1936) online instead.
Eniaios (2004, dir. Gregory Markopoulos)
by Del O’Brien
When Gregory Markopoulos ditched the American film scene for Europe in the late sixties, he set out to make a world-historically good movie. What he left us with when he died in 1992 was something you’ll only ever see if you have a pathological devotion to cinema ... and the funds. Besides being eighty hours long and partially restored, Eniaios is only to be watched at a quasi-religious event called The Temenos, held once every four years (or so) on a mountain five hours from Athens in the heart of Peloponnesian Greece. If you decide to spend the time and money pilgrimaging, you’ll spend your days eating feta and looking towards Olympus, nights watching hours of a screen that is mostly pure black or pure white, with periodic second-fractions of images. Only a handful of people have seen the thing, but, being so long and hermetic, I’d venture that nobody has really seen it, you know? Probably no one will.
The Flower Thief (1960, dir. Ron Rice)
by Daniel LoPilato
The Flower Thief is a bona fide avant-garde blockbuster you’ll (probably) never see. It premiered in 1962 at the Charles Theatre, a short-lived Manhattan cinema sometimes credited as the birthplace of the midnight movie. The film’s pure irreverence sent a shock through the New York underground and even managed to find crossover appeal among mainstream critics. It follows Taylor Mead through the crumbling shipyards and dive bars of San Francisco, by turns celebrating and mourning the ephemeral creative encounters that inspired the Beat generation. But what makes Rice’s film a truly remarkable piece of cinema is its unusual ability to transgress the boundaries of the screen. The Flower Thief is not so much a film as it is a collective experience of the intoxicated midnight atmosphere. You can find it if you’re willing to try—I watched it on VHS in the basement of a university library—but could you really say you’ve seen it?
Georgia, Georgia (1972, dir. Stig Björkman)
by Akané Okoshi
Georgia, Georgia is an American-Swedish film written by Maya Angelou and directed by Swedish director and film critic Stig Björkman. Produced at the height of the Vietnam War, the low-budget film was featured at the 23rd Berlin International Film Festival and is considered the first known screenplay to have been produced by a Black woman. Starring Diana Sands and Dirk Benedict, the film follows a Black singer who falls in love with a white photographer and Vietnam War deserter while touring in Stockholm, Sweden. Sands’s interpretation of Maya Angelou’s meditations on Blackness, race, and the Vietnam War gives the film a sensuous quality neatly woven together by the musical score, also composed by Angelou. The Swedish Film Database has the film on 35mm.
Made in Hong Kong (1997, dir. Fruit Chan)
by Jerrine Tan
The first independent film to be released in Hong Kong after the 1997 handover, Made in Hong Kong offers a grim and unflinching representation of the city’s contemporary youth culture—a stark contrast to the eighties and nineties blockbusters during Hong Kong's golden age of cinema. Made on a shoestring budget, with a crew of five people, and completely independent from production studios, the film was a pioneer in Hong Kong’s independent film scene. Chan cobbled together funding from industry friends, including producer Andy Lau who contributed money and unused film stock. The use of expired, leftover 35mm film stock gives the film a gritty, raw, and high-contrast quality. This creative recycling of the old to create something explosively innovative is key to the "Lion Rock Spirit" that defines Hong Kong and Hong Kongers. Despite its local and regional acclaim, the film never screened in the States. For the longest time it was nearly impossible to see. The film was restored and released on DVD for its twentieth anniversary in 2017 and is currently streaming in the US on Metrograph.
One Cut of the Dead (2017, dir. Shinichirou Ueda)
by Alexander Rudenshiold
Through One Cut of the Dead, director Shinichirou Ueda manages to capture the essence of low budget horror filmmaking: its commitment to absurdity. The film farcically reimagines the familiar tropes of zombie horror and the Japanese made-for-TV-movie, depicting the production of a film-within-a-film and bucking formal norms along the way. While it’s easy to draw comparisons to horror films which satirize their own genre, like Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon (2006), One Cut sets itself apart by not acknowledging its own critique—an attitude closer to that taken by Scream (1996). Produced for only three million Yen (roughly 21,300 US dollars), One Cut is a prime example of how a unique concept and a tight script can carry films on shoestring budgets, recalling the joy of schlocky twentieth century independent B-horror. The film has not received an English dub and is a Shudder exclusive in the US, likely alienating American audiences despite finding relative success in eastern Asian markets.
Stop! (1970, dir. Bill Gunn)
by Nolan Kelly
A true creative visionary, Bill Gunn was never given his due in his lifetime. Best known today for his independently-produced Personal Problems (1980) and implacable Ganja & Hess (1973), Gunn’s first foray into filmmaking was actually with Warner Bros., where he was given a surprising level of artistic freedom before doom. Stop! was only the second film by a Black director to be made under the studio system. His hopes of making an au courant sexpot social commentary project were dashed when Stop! was slapped with an X Rating by the MPAA board and shelved. Today, the film has been viewed exactly once on its intended 35mm—at a Whitney Museum screening honoring Gunn’s death, in 1989. But the film was finished, and bootleg copies (digitizations of an execrable VHS version) float about. Reportedly, Warner Bros. still has the original prints, but says it can’t release them due to lost royalties paperwork for the actors or musicians. Watching Stop! in the bootleg format is like looking at a Van Gogh through a keyhole. It may well be a masterpiece, but it’s not like you can tell.
Times Square (1980, dir. Allan Moyle)
by Payton McCarty-Simas
I first saw Times Square at Quad Cinema in 2018. The print was grainy, torn, and discolored, and it didn't matter at all—it was truly a beautiful experience and I count the film as one of my favorites. Produced by Robert Stigwood as an immediate follow up to Grease (1978), Times Square is a lesbian coming of age story set in NYC's downtown punk scene. Due to concerns about its "marketability," the film was re-edited to eliminate explicit lesbianism and "inappropriate" songs. Likely because of this, it flopped (Roger Ebert's review bemoans structural problems and "missed opportunity-of potential"). Even given the devastating cuts, though, this is a beautiful lesbian film about young girls trying to find their place in the world. It achieves a balance between the aesthetics of Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) with Riot Grrrl politics and a scrappy rebelliousness reminiscent of Born in Flames (1983). The fact that it wasn't readily accessible for so long speaks to the historical challenges of gaining visibility for the queer community. Happily, Kino Lorber just restored it and it's available to stream.