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The best films you've never seen

Critic Kenneth Turan highlights little-seen films in book

By Todd Leopold

Jean Reno in 1998's "Ronin," one of the films in "Never Coming to a Theater Near You."
Kenneth Turan

(CNN) -- Kenneth Turan couldn't help but be impressed -- and a little unsettled.

The Los Angeles Times film critic was in an L.A.-area bookstore and stopped by the DVD section. There, prominently featured, was a display devoted to the films in his new book, "Never Coming to a Theater Near You" (PublicAffairs).

"It was like they'd made a movie out of my book," he says, still in wonderment, in a phone interview from his southern California home.

Turan doesn't expect bookstores and video stores to routinely build shrines to his recommendations. He does hope, however, that "Never Coming to a Theater Near You" serves as a handbook for curious film lovers who, in looking for a good film, need a way to tunnel through heaps of dreck in order to find worthy films that just didn't get much attention the first time around.

"I envision this book to be a guide for the perplexed -- to be like a video store in your mind," he says. "People are so hungry for the kind of films this book represents, entertaining works that don't talk down to them."

Refreshing memories

The 150-plus movies Turan writes about in "Never Coming" -- an edited collection of his reviews of the past decade or so -- are ones he describes as "indelible ... I would see any of these again in a moment."

The book is organized for easy browsing at a video store, divided into sections on English-language films, foreign-language films, documentaries, classics and retrospectives.

Turan isn't necessarily biased against studio films, or in favor of obscure independent works, complex foreign-language films or good-for-you documentaries.

Indeed, many of the films he highlights had top-notch casts and earned good reviews at the time. However, for whatever reason, they simply slipped through the cracks at the multiplex -- and, even when they emerged at the video store six months later, were buried under a sea of blockbuster effluvia.

Spirited Away
"Spirited Away" (2001) is one of the all-time box office successes in Japan, but was only a cult hit in the U.S.

Among the better-known films reviewed in the book are "Ronin," a crackling thriller starring Robert De Niro and directed by John Frankenheimer (with some "impressive car chases," Turan writes with understatement); "High Fidelity," the John Cusack film based on the Nick Hornby novel about music and relationships; "Spirited Away," the already-classic work of Japanese animation; "Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey," a documentary about the inventor of the strange electronic instrument; and "The Third Man," director Carol Reed's classic work, from a script by Graham Greene, set -- and filmed -- in the bombed-out rubble of postwar Vienna (and featuring Orson Welles' great "cuckoo clock" speech).

Turan also singles out lesser-known works such as "Pipe Dream" (with Martin Donovan and Mary-Louise Parker), the French film "Dry Cleaning" and the documentary "East Side Story" -- the latter a particular favorite.

"It sounds like parody," says Turan of this film, which is about the socialist musicals of the USSR and Iron Curtain countries: films with titles such as "Tractor Drivers" and "No Cheating Darling," made under the supervision of allegedly humorless apparatchiks. Stalin was actually a fan of the musicals.

"There is stuff at which your jaw just drops, and yet they were hugely popular," says Turan. "It's an interesting corner of film history."

Life saving

Though the book doesn't have any particular theme, one striking thread is the names that seem to appear over and over, such as writer and director David Mamet, or now-famous people who were unknown at the time they made these small films, such as "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson (represented by "Heavenly Creatures") and Oscar winner Russell Crowe (who was in the 1992 Australian film "Proof").


"It's great to see talented people have success," says Turan. Moreover, their films are accessible even to people who don't live near a well-stocked video store, thanks to Netflix, and other Web-based services, he says.

Turan, who's been the L.A. Times film critic for more than a decade, knows his picks are subjective. ("God doesn't talk to me," he says.) If ticket buyers want to enjoy car-exploding action films, that's their prerogative.

"I never try to change anyone's mind," he says. "It can't be done. Even critics don't want to acknowledge how personal their taste is."

But he can't help being frustrated at most of the fare he's had to watch over the years. Yes, he gets paid to do it, but the work can be soul deadening after awhile.

"It's not just that we see bad films, but bad films of a type we've seen so many times before," says Turan.

The films in "Never Coming to a Theater Near You," he says, make his profession worthwhile.

"These movies fulfill what films can do," he says. "The films in the book are ones that saved my life."

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