he Hurt Locker opens this week, and one of the most remarkable things about this remarkable war movie is that it plays more like a gut-busting Sam Fuller/Don Siegel WWII action film than it does one of today's somber, navel-gazing, message-driven war films. Perhaps even more remarkable -- though it's sad that it has to be so remarkable -- is that director Kathryn Bigelow is a woman, out-shooting most of today's male directors. But thankfully she's not the only one to give men a run for their money in guy-oriented genres.
1. Near Dark (1987, Kathryn Bigelow)
Bigelow has already racked up an impressive career of male-bonding films of all genres. Most of them are underrated gems or cult films, and I like all of them, but this vampire film is my favorite (though, technically, the word "vampire" is never used in the film). It was one of the first films to remove the classic gothic setting and place the bloodsuckers in the modern-day American west, among the denim-clad rednecks, neon bars and pickup trucks. It's relentlessly violent and sometimes disturbing but at the same time it knows how to pause for moments of glorious beauty and even a touching love story.
2. Mikey and Nicky (1977, Elaine May)
The shadowy crime drama Mikey and Nicky works so well that most people assume star John Cassavetes did most of the directing. But it's all the work of Elaine May, a genius with one of the most fascinating and bitterly squandered careers in cinema. Telling the story of two old friends-turned-criminals (Cassavetes and Peter Falk), one of whom has now been entrusted with the job of wiping out the other, the dialogue sounds messy and improvised, but was apparently very carefully scripted. It's possible to read into the film details about May's painful breakup with her far more successful and far less talented former partner Mike Nichols, and stories from the set indicate that May was totally immersed in her art. She shot an enormous amount of film, and according to one story, she watched as an actor left the frame, and continued to roll the camera. One of her crew asked if she wanted to cut, since the actor was out of the shot. She said no, because "he might come back."
3. Wayne's World (1992, Penelope Spheeris)
The concept of any "Saturday Night Live" working as a feature film was a thin one, but at least this once it came together, and came together brilliantly. Much of the credit goes to Spheeris, who started out with a documentary and then feature films about misanthropes and music-loving punks. She probably understood the Wayne (Mike Myers) and Garth (Dana Carvey) characters better than they understood themselves. She also realized that a scene of the characters driving around aimlessly and listening to Queen spoke more directly to audiences than a plot about a corporate takeover of a beloved basement cable access TV show.
4. The Hitch-Hiker (1953, Ida Lupino)
Ida Lupino was a major pioneer in the 1950s for women directors, but she has rarely received her due, chiefly because of the types of films she was stuck with. She worked mostly in television and sometimes lucked her way into a screenwriting credit or taking over for other directors unable to finish the job. But she wound up directing seven feature films, usually lurid potboilers, many of which are AWOL on home video and others of which have fallen into public domain. But there's no denying she was tough, smart and economic. The Hitch-hiker is arguably her most accessible film, and a gripping example of film noir, with a startling, psychotic performance by William Talman, who hitches a ride with two ordinary-Joe fishermen and promises to kill them when they reach their destination.
5. Ravenous (1999, Antonia Bird)
English director Antonia Bird received a lot of attention for her controversial film Priest (1995), but hardly any attention for this clever horror film, set in 1847 during the Mexican-American War. A half-frozen man (Robert Carlyle) arrives at a remote California fortress and U.S. Army Capt. John Boyd (Guy Pearce) helps him, but the man soon regales everyone with tales of cannibalism. And it may be catching. Ravenous is very gory and comes with a clever, Italian-influenced score by Michael Nyman, but Bird manages a deft balancing act and brings an appealing dark humor to the package.
6. Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982, Amy Heckerling)
Anyone could be excused for thinking this would be another Porky's or Last American Virgin, and it does have its share of dumb teen humor, sex talk and nudity, but it's far more emotionally potent than all that. Cameron Crowe wrote the script based on his time spent undercover at an American high school, but it's Heckerling that brings weight to the proceedings. (If Crowe had directed it, it would have been 135 minutes long and filled with music videos.) Some of the movie's most winning moments are reactions, when Rat (Brian Backer) finds out that his pal Damone (Robert Romanus) has slept with the girl he likes, or when Brad (Judge Reinhold) realizes a cute female motorist is not flirting with him, but actually making fun of his fast-food uniform. Of course, the movie is more justly famous for Phoebe Cates climbing out of a swimming pool and for Sean Penn, brilliant in his one and only purely comic role. (Heckerling went on to make an even better high school movie, Clueless.)
Here I considered American Psycho (2000, Mary Harron), but I decided to go with the lesser-known Jesus' Son, even though I liked it slightly less than I liked American Psycho (horror films were already well-represented on this list). Based on Denis Johnson's masterful short story collection, it's a dreamily disconnected series of misadventures featuring a junkie called FH (short for f--khead) played by Billy Crudup. Directed by Alison MacLean, it's surprisingly emotionally assured and not as gory or preachy our outrageous as you might expect a drug movie to be. Its only flaw is the semi-circular structure that keeps going past its sell-by date and into a dreary, less fun rehab sequence. Despite this, the film is filled with fine performances (including Samantha Morton and Jack Black), a sure touch and many memorable moments.