Lost and Found: Missing Movies on their mission to rescue lost films for future generations

Been Sleuthing around to find a streamer of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Oscar-nominated 1972 hit? Too bad.
Been Sleuthing around to find a streamer of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Oscar-nominated 1972 hit? Too bad.

With the launch of their 101 Missing Movies list, we talk to the founders and advisers—including Allison Anders, Mary Harron, Joe Dante and more—of a film lovers’ collective working to save lost films.


As the years went on, I replaced those recordings one-by-one as they became available on other (better) media, and my shelf of VHS cassettes got smaller and smaller. As of this moment, that shelf is still occupied by films that, as far as I can tell, are completely out of circulation, many of which are now on the Missing Movies list of films.

—⁠Ira Deutchman

You’ve just heard about the greatest movie ever. It’s thrilling, it’s got deft storytelling and fascinating characters. It will open you up to a new walk of life, grow your understanding of the world. You head to the film’s Letterboxd page and are shocked to see that very few people have marked it as watched. Even more surprising, you look to see where you can buy or stream it and it’s not available anywhere! Well, maybe at 360p on a YouTube rip, but apart from that... What to do?

The streaming age has presented the illusion of every film being available at any time, but there are thousands of works of cinematic art that have slipped through the cracks and remain impossible to see by legal means. Whether it’s having their rights lapsed, disinterest from the distributor, not even having a distributor at all or numerous other reasons, these films have seemingly just ceased to exist. The superhero we need in these times of cinephilic strife? Missing Movies.

Created in 2022 by married couple and Milestone Films co-founders Dennis Doros and Amy Heller, directors Mary Harron and Nancy Savoca, producers Ira Deutchman and Richard Guay and lawyer Sue Bodine, Missing Movies (now on Letterboxd, give them a follow) empowers filmmakers, distributors, archivists and others to locate lost materials, clear rights and advocate for policies and laws to make the full range of our cinema history available to all.

Heller tells me that it all started with a DGA panel called The Unstreamables, which she conducted alongside Harron, Bodine, Deutchman, Mira Nair, Ayoka Chenzira and Maggie Renzi. “The thing I felt was so interesting about the panel was that these incredibly brilliant filmmakers had no idea that there were other kinds of resources, which we found in many cases,” Heller says. “In other aspects, most distributors don’t have any connections to archives. Most archives don’t know anything about distribution or much about production. So there’s a lot of different communities that can come together to address this.”

Kevin Smith says that Dogma (1999) is being held hostage.
Kevin Smith says that Dogma (1999) is being held hostage.

As a result, the founders created an advisory board for Missing Movies that can attack this issue from all angles. Filmmakers including Nair, Harron, Charles Burnett and Joe Dante, archivists, lawyers, journalists, festival programmers and more have pooled their immense fields of knowledge to make sure that everyone has the resources they need to attempt resurrecting these buried works. Just as importantly, the organization aims to discover films that were never even given a chance to have this rallying cry around them. For every instance like Kevin Smith’s Dogma, which the director says is being “held hostage” thanks to Harvey Weinstein, there’s a missing movie that didn’t get a proper release to begin with, such as Ayoka Chenzira’s Alma’s Rainbow.

This issue disproportionately impacts work from marginalized filmmakers, who are far more likely to struggle for support in an industry that has always prioritized straight, white men. “For Black cinema, missing can also mean it never had its proper recognition,” Maya Cade, founder of Black Film Archive and Missing Movies advisory board member, explains. “It never had its proper moment, which is how my work comes to be. If these filmmakers never had the access or the resources to have that distributor, have that marketing campaign or whatever it may be, that film is missing from the cultural consciousness.”

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Mamma Roma (1962), coming to Blu-ray soon from Criterion.
Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Mamma Roma (1962), coming to Blu-ray soon from Criterion.

Heller and Doros are keenly aware of how the history of cinema has been shaped, and by whom. “Often when Amy and I have acquired films, we’re astonished how some of these amazing works had such horrible reviews coming out,” Doros says. “We had that first with Mamma Roma. Everybody hated it when it was released and we asked for it and finally saw it. It was this wonderful film and there’s a lot like that on this list, especially by African American and Native American [filmmakers], that were trashed 40 years ago. Films that had folks saying ‘these are not real people’. So many of the African American filmmakers that we’ve talked to say they were refused distribution because [they were told]: ‘We don’t know anybody like that’.”

For Cade, the expedition to discover more films is a major part of the appeal. “I do wonder about the films we don’t know,” she tells me. “There are the films that [Missing Movies] have listed and I’m like, these are great, but my chief concern is really what have we not unearthed? Who have we not spoken to? How can we get them involved? And I think an advisory group is definitely a great list of people from so many walks of life who have that on their mind as well. Like a scholar who has been doing this for 40 years knows something different than I do. Being in a place where all voices are welcomed and accepted and heralded is a wonderful thing.”

Some of the selections from Missing Movie’s list of 101 titles which need rescuing.
Some of the selections from Missing Movie’s list of 101 titles which need rescuing.

In an effort to help raise awareness for the Missing Movies mission, Heller and Doros have put together a Letterboxd list of 101 titles that are in need of rescue. The list is by no means intended to be comprehensive. “We could do this ten different ways and come up with ten different lists. It really was the idea of seeding the process. ‘We’re going to give you a variety of different things that already are on our radar. What can you add, or how do you respond to this list?’” Heller asks.

Doros adds, “What we did was include some personal favorites, some directors that we know. We tried to be inclusive. We tried a lot of different ways to go about it, but just a list of films that people would recognize, hopefully, and realize that there is a problem.”

In collaboration with Missing Movies, we invited several advisory board members to narrow in on select titles on the list, and tell us why these lost films need rescuing.

The Heartbreak Kid

Directed by Elaine May, written by Neil Simon
Selected by Isabel Sandoval

Philippe Petit may have been the definitive tightrope artist of the ’70s but Elaine May pulls a jaw-dropping high-wire act of her own (aided immeasurably by Charles Grodin) in The Heartbreak Kid, pitched between hilarity and anxiety, romance and sociopathy. On paper, the premise of newly-married young Jewish man Lenny Cantrow (Grodin) plotting to dump his quirky yet otherwise devoted bride (May’s daughter Jeannie Berlin, in an Oscar-nominated role) in order to flagrantly and monomaniacally pursue a blonde WASP (Cybill Shepherd, fresh off The Last Picture Show) may sound downright barbaric. It’s a comedy of manners played like a trainwreck in agonizingly slow motion (where no one on the train, least of all the operator, knows they crashed).

Lesser talents would’ve leaned into easy judgment of Lenny’s villainy or exaggerated the preposterous setup for laughs. Instead, a sharply observant May puts us in Lenny’s POV and plays the proceedings with a straight (and detached) face. Lenny is either a heartless, oblivious philanderer or an awkwardly endearing romantic hero chasing his very own alabaster blonde American Dream. Grodin makes him both, and winningly so, at every moment. The greatest achievement of this sly masterpiece is the perpetual oscillation it subjects the audience to. It’s The Graduate if Benjamin Braddock had a penchant for obsessive psychopathy. Now I wonder if The Heartbreak Kid may have been May’s winky retort to her former partner-in-crime’s classic. IS

Mi Vida Loca

Written and directed by Allison Anders
Selected by Mary Harron

I first saw Allison Anders’ Mi Vida Loca in an LA movie theater when the film was first released in 1993. It seemed so fresh and intriguing: a young female director making a movie about two members of a Mexican American girl gang in LA’s Echo Park. Her approach was empathetic, non-judgmental and it avoided the moralizing and the contrived dramatic endings of Hollywood.

I didn’t realize until later that what I was seeing was an early example of an American independent film. Mi Vida Loca was groundbreaking both in its relaxed, semi-documentary storytelling and in the way it centered the story on these marginalized young girls, cholas, and made us experience life through their eyes. Thirty years later I’m sure it would appear even more relevant—if only we could see it. MH

The Cool World

Directed by Shirley Clarke, written by Clarke and Carl Lee
Selected by Allison Anders

I first saw Shirley Clarke’s The Cool World in 1983 when I was a film student at UCLA, where she was a professor. The screening was in a class taught by Clarke’s fellow professor, Janet Bergstrom—they did a Q&A together after the film. That movie, which was at that time twenty years old, and the discussion that followed, were life-changing for me and would impact my own work to this day. 

That the movie is gorgeously shot, with an inventive use of direct-to-camera interviews of the characters within a fictional narrative, is only the beginning of its many cinematic accomplishments: Clarke also cast non-actor, real gang youth in leads alongside professional actors Carl Lee, Gloria Foster, and Clarence White III in one of his earliest on-screen performances. Authenticity is not just a feel in this movie, it’s driving the narrative.

After the screening, Clarke discussed what would radically inform my work and life when she said she had vowed to keep in touch with the real-life gang kids in the movie for twenty years afterward because, as she explained, they had not set out to become actors and she could not abandon them. Ten years after seeing The Cool World that first time, I made my film Mi Vida Loca with real gang kids alongside professional actors and they are still in my life today.

There is no other movie like The Cool World.  Because of its authenticity, it is completely unique and it is a living document of a specific time and place in American history. It is absolutely necessary that this film becomes found by as many eyes as possible. 

Shirley Clarke was the very first woman director I saw talk about her own feature work. It was massively impactful. The Cool World is not only a film of wonder, it was made by such a brilliant woman. AA

Terror in the City

Written and directed by Allen Baron
Selected by Joe Dante

Pie in the Sky is an independent film directed by New York filmmaker Allen Barron, whose 1961 Blast of Silence has since developed a cult following and been added to The Criterion Collection. This low-budget follow-up received scant theatrical bookings, and didn’t see the light of a projector until 1964, nearly three years after it was made—and even then with an exploitative title card, Terror in the City, spliced in place of the original.

It’s an unusual hybrid of sentiment and sleaze, about a nine-year-old farm boy (played by non-actor Richard Bray) who escapes his rural poverty by running away to Manhattan, where he runs afoul of teen gangs, gets beat up and is taken in by the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold, poignantly played in one of her few blacklist-period lead roles by Oscar nominee Lee Grant. It’s as charming as Blast of Silence was blunt, but it’s completely disappeared. Sylvia Miles and Robert Earl Jones also appear, and the editor was Ralph Rosenblum. JD


Written and directed by Karyn Kusama
Selected by Richard Guay, Dolly Hall

Girlfight introduced two major talents: star Michelle Rodriguez and writer-director Karyn Kusama. The film’s raw energy and realism nailed a world I knew growing up and Rodriguez’s performance in that world was a revelation. While the details made it specific to the Puerto Rican community in Brooklyn in the 1990s, the themes of gender identity, low expectations, racial prejudice, and sexual stereotyping opened it up and made it universal in a way that only outstanding art can.

Girlfight broke ground that is still being battled over. Here, the boxing world provides an oft used movie setting, but this common entry point leads us to a set of characters that had hardly ever been given central roles on camera. Sadly, not much has changed. Today, more than twenty years later, there remains a dearth of stories about Latinx people in general, let alone ones with female leads.

The magic of the film is in its approach. It draws you into the story from the first moments, with characters that have very familiar longings and flaws, then never lets you go. That’s largely due to a powerful lead actor and an ensemble of outstanding performances, including two of my favorite actors, Jaime Tirelli and Paul Calderon. The battle is about so much more than winning a trophy. There’s a part of this movie that is good old-fashioned Hollywood storytelling, but the director delivers it all through a wholly unique cultural and gender lens. RG

I remember the buzz while Karyn was making the movie. I have devoted a lot of my career to producing women filmmakers, and this was a big deal. She had a budget and a spectacular cast. This is a movie that inspires other women to do what at first seems impossible. How will other women know unless they can see this film and hear Karyn speak about her process? This film should be shown at festivals, and in a retrospective for Karyn, as it is such a seminal work. The movie also made a lot of money in its original release, and has the potential to make money now—another reason to get it back into circulation. There are artistic and financial incentives here. Slam dunk. DH

Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story

Directed by Todd Haynes, written by Haynes and Cynthia Schneider
Selected by Amy Heller

I am one of the rare people who has actually seen Todd Haynes’s Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story on screen. I believe I saw it at the very last time it was shown to the public—in 1989 at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC with Todd presenting. As I recall, I was dubious going in: Carpenter’s music always struck me as schmaltzy and old-fashioned. Her voice was gorgeous but the lyrics and orchestrations seemed corny. “Why do birds suddenly appear every time you are near?” Really?

I also remember feeling uneasy about seeing her life story reenacted using dolls, worried that the film would be a campy send-up of a celebrity whose demise had been featured in the tabloids. In fact, Todd’s film was just heartbreaking and his choice to use the Barbies that I had loved as a girl to portray Karen Carpenter’s tragic story was incredibly powerful and painful. Seeing the Karen doll literally being whittled away was emotionally devastating. Like so many women, I had my own experiences of anorexia and bulimia, and I saw my own pain and struggle in Todd’s short experimental film. AH


Directed by Zeinabu irene Davis, written by Mark Arthur Chéry
Selected by Ayoka Chenzira

Compensation is a groundbreaking feature film. I remember seeing it at a festival many years ago and being deeply moved by Zeinabu irene Davis’s bold vision and execution of the story. Inspired by a poem of the same name written by Paul Laurence Dunbar, the black and white film alternates between two love stories, following an African American Deaf woman and a hearing man during two pandemics; tuberculosis at the beginning of the 20th century and HIV/AIDS towards the end of that century.

The film is about joy and love (a rarity for films featuring African Americans) intersecting with the challenges of race, racism, class, gender, conflicts between the Deaf and hearing communities, and the inevitability of death. Davis’s vision was a holistic one. Set in Chicago, Compensation is the first (and perhaps only) feature film to allow us inside Black Deaf communities. Davis cast a Deaf actor as the lead (Michelle A. Banks) and invited Black Deaf advocates to contribute to the screenplay. In constructing the narrative, she interweaves sign language, archival photographs, title cards, ragtime music and experimental techniques. The film is primarily silent, and Davis nods to Black silent films by reenacting The Railroad Porter by William Foster.

When I saw Compensation on the list of missing movies, I thought ‘no way’ and the admiration that I first had for this fearless film returned to me. It is a thought-provoking work of art unlike anything we have seen and a notable achievement in American cinema. AC

The Doom Generation

Written and directed by Gregg Araki
Selected by Zackary Drucker

The Doom Generation is an indispensable monument in my teenage imagination. Although my friends and I watched every single New Queer Cinema film we could get our hands on, my VHS tape of The Doom Generation was always in heavy rotation. It’s an essential film in my lexicon and a missing link in cinema history for future generations of outsiders and renegades. ZD

American Hot Wax

Directed by Floyd Mutrux, written by John Kaye
Selected by Ira Deutchman

When VHS cassettes were introduced, I immediately took advantage by taping all of my favorite movies when they appeared on TV. It was also the early years of HBO, Showtime and other channels that offered feature films without commercials, so the combination meant that I could start accumulating a collection—something that had not been possible previously. As the years went on, I replaced those recordings one-by-one as they became available on other (better) media, and my shelf of VHS cassettes got smaller and smaller. As of this moment, that shelf is still occupied by films that, as far as I can tell, are completely out of circulation, many of which are now on the Missing Movies list of films.

One of those titles, American Hot Wax, is one that I had fond memories of, so I recently pulled out the old VHS copy to revisit it. Yes, I still have a working VHS machine. Yes, the movie still resonated for me. American Hot Wax is the story of Alan Freed, the Cleveland disc jockey who is credited by some as the man who brought rock and roll into the mainstream in the 1950s. It’s an odd mashup of an old-fashioned “us against them” narrative and a raucous performance film, with the final concert taking up almost half of the movie’s running time.

The wonderful cast includes Tim McIntire as Freed, and great character appearances by Fran Drescher, Laraine Newman and Jay Leno (of all people!). Rock and roll legends play themselves, including Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and The Chesterfields. Through the current day lens, there are some cringe-inducing moments that are certainly true to the time in which the film takes place. As important as Freed may have been in the history of rock and roll, centering him runs the risk of overshadowing the creative spark that came from African American culture—a point that is central to the new Little Richard documentary that just played at Sundance.

Rewatching American Hot Wax, I had the same emotional response that I remembered from my first viewing. It made me want to explore more of the music from that period and made me appreciate how brave it was for those folks who supported the music to do so against the prevailing racism in the culture. There are several incredibly moving scenes in which it becomes clear how much this music means in terms of personal rebellions and the larger social upheaval. When the final credits roll, with “Rock and Roll is Here to Stay” on the soundtrack, it’s hard not to tear up.

Why this film has disappeared is beyond me. It was a Paramount production, as well as a Paramount release. Music rights issues? Perhaps. Distributor disinterest? Likely. Boy, would I like to see it in a better version than my old VHS cassette! ID

House Made of Dawn

Written and directed by Richardson Morse
Selected by Sky Hopinka

I haven’t seen the 1972 film House Made of Dawn, the only cinematic adaptation of N. Scott Momaday’s novel, and I also hadn’t heard of it before the Missing Movies project. There are a lot of areas in the history of cinema and Indigenous cinema that are missing, and this film feels like one of those important ones that helps fill in a small bit of the vast era between Stagecoach and Smoke Signals.

I want to see this story on screen, hear the actors and experience for myself how it sits in an emergent yet historical canon; to understand where a cinema like this has been before, and to give context and foundation to where it’s going. For now, I’m waiting for a friend to find me a copy in a library in a campus somewhere. SH

Children of Fate: Life and Death in a Sicilian Family

Directed by Andrew Young and Susan Todd
Selected by Nancy Savoca

When I learned that my rehearsal with Patti LuPone (who had a small but pivotal role in our micro-budget film, Union Square) had been whittled down to a fifteen-minute meeting during a break from her dress rehearsal for Broadway’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, I had a bit of a breakdown myself. The character that Patti would play had to shock us when we saw her—she was a troubled woman with problems she’d inherited and had surely passed down to her children. 

What could I say about this in fifteen minutes? In my panic, I did what I always do when faced with a monstrous problem in pre-production: I “walked” through my movie collection. Usually, I feel I’m seeking advice from movie mentors but this time I was desperately begging favors from the movie gods. My eyes scanned the titles I owned until I found the answer in a VHS copy of Children of Fate.

The 1993 film is an update of an NBC documentary filmed 30 years earlier called Cortile Cascino, about a Sicilian family who lived in poverty in that community. The older doc was made by Michael Roemer and Robert Young, but the network thought it too upsetting for American audiences and shelved it. In 1988, Young’s son, Andrew, and his wife Susan Todd revisited the Capra family. They intercut their new footage with the earlier one shot by Andrew’s father—Children of Fate was the resulting film.

The movie struck me when I first saw it. The Bronx neighborhood I grew up in was poor. In  Angela and her kids, I recognized the fatalism and despair that comes when there’s a lack of everything and the selfishness and violence it can breed. We rarely see these stories told without judgment or sentimentality, and it was clear that this family had bared all for the filmmakers. My only complaint is that the focus remains on the family’s anguish and misery, even when the characters themselves have these terrible moments of dark wit that make me laugh out loud. 

It was one of those moments that I chose to share with Patti in our fifteen minutes together. We laughed until we cried. She ate it up and transformed it into a startling performance in Union Square. Children of Fate—an Academy Award-nominated film—is not available on DVD nor is it streaming. How I would love to see it in a better version than my scratchy VHS copy. How I would love to share it with others who would see themselves in it, and maybe illuminate those who won’t. How I would love for it to inspire a young filmmaker who might need it, like I did that panicky day when all I wanted was a movie to nourish and guide me. NS

Further Reading


Share This Article