What fun I had with movies in 2015– save for the nightmares that were the Robert Altman Popeye and Jupiter Ascending, most of it was good stuff. Here are my favorite discoveries of the previous year:
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (dir. Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell, 1943)
I prefer The Red Shoes, but only by a hair, because this war time film is Powell and Pressburer’s masterpiece, full of warm humor and elegiac yearning in addition to satire. It’s also cemented my love for Anton Walbrook and Deborah Kerr.
Hamlet (dir. Kenneth Branaugh, 1996)
To date, the definitive version, despite some over the top silly moments. As someone who does not care for the Oedipal readings of the original play, this version is further made my favorite of all the movie adaptations I have perused.
Greed (dir. Erich von Stroheim, 1924)
A masterpiece that more than lives up to its reputation, Greed is a must-see, even in its truncated form. Von Stroheim may have been over-indulgent, but he was a genius oif the medium. Also Zasu Pitts is damned fine in a dramatic role, as is Gibson Gowland, who should procured had more great roles after his turn as McTeague. Having read the original novel from which it is based in a college class, I am of the opinion that the movie is actually superior to the book.
Scarlet Street (dir. Fritz Lang, 1945)
To date, my favorite Lang picture. Perfectly cast and about as bleak as noir gets while still possessing a wicked sense of humor to go with the tragic story of the pathetic would-be painter Christopher Cross and his unrequited love for a sadomasochistic prostitute.
The Fatal Glass of Beer (dir. Clyde Bruckman, 1933)
Hands down, best thing W.C. Fields ever did in the short format. I have rarely ever laughed so hard when watching a comedy alone. It’s also insanely quotable: “I’ll go milk the elk.” “Ain’t a fit night out— for man NOR BEAST!”
The Vikings (dir. Richard Fleischer, 1958)
Schlock, glorious schlock! Tony Curtis in Ugg boots and tiny shorts! Kirk Douglas and Ernest Borgnine chewing the sets and crying “ODIN!!!” And yet, there are moments of surprising beauty amidst the campy fun, like Jack Cardiff’s breathtaking color cinematography or the climactic sword fight.
The Blues Brothers (dir. John Landis, 1980)
How have I been alive for 22 years and not seen this movie? It’s hilarious and has tons of great music, plus one of the finest car chases ever filmed.
Pickup on South Street (dir. Samuel Fuller, 1953)
Aside from its great characters, intense score, political subtext, and being a rare example of noir that is (sort of) optimistic, this gave me a crush on Richard Widmark. Total landmark in my life, guys.
The Hidden Fortress (dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1958)
Aside from minor elements, it’s not really like Star Wars at all. With that obligatory mention out of the way, this may not be as “masterful” as Seven Samurai, Rashomon, or Ikiru, but The Hidden Fortress is a great blend of humor and humane drama. I love Mifune and the bandits, but for me, Misa Uehara steals the spotlight as the tough yet compassionate princess.
Blast of Silence (dir. Allen Baron, 1961)
Made after the noir cycle was pretty much dead in Hollywood, this is a brutal, bleak film. Everything feels rough and unpolished, but that’s what gives the film its power even after all this time. Its plot about a hitman doing a job during Christmas inspired my Nanowrimo novel this year too (I won for the first time!), so it has a personal significance for me too. Can I call it one of my new favorite Christmas films? I mean, it is set during Christmas!
Michael Strogoff (dir. Viktor Tourjansky, 1926)
A silent film epic you’ve likely not heard of. Romance! Adventure! Political intrigue! Historical setting! Humor! Everything you could ever want in a three hour movie.
Hedgehog in the Fog (dir. Yuri Norsteyn, 1975)
A lovely fable about the mysteries and beauty of the world. I don’t know why, but it arouses all kinds of emotions in me, mainly nostalgia, melancholy, and a sense of wonder.
Marie Antoinette (dir. Sofia Coppola, 2006)
A lot of people hate this movie, but I just think it’s the bee’s knees. In addition to the sheer eye candy of the 18th century costumes and goodies, it’s a fine exploration of the doomed queen’s isolation in a foreign court as well as the destructive decadence within Versailles itself. It’s also made me rethink my opinion of Kirsten Dunst as an actress, as she’s just fabulous in the lead.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (dir. Jacques Demy, 1964)
Jacques Demy is now officially one of my favorite filmmakers. This gentle musical rightfully earns its stellar reputation. The candy colors and fairy tale elements would lead one to think this is cinematic cotton candy, but I found its themes of youth, romance, and the uncertainty of the future to be poignant and true to life. Make sure you have handkerchiefs ready.
Grand Slam Opera (dir. Charles Lamont, 1936)
Hands down Buster Keaton’s best 1930s effort. The dance sequence is just too funny, Keaton’s energetic body perfectly contrasted with his face’s subtle expressiveness. Yeah, he’s named Elmer Butts again, but his character has a decent amount of competence and few are the gags that don’t hit the mark. To me, it proves that his style could have survived into the sound era, had he remained in control of his own studio, but I’m content that we have this brilliant gem and his other Educational shorts that really aren’t as horrible as reputation has implied.
The Evil Dead trilogy (dir. Sam Raimi, 1981, 1987, 1992)
Another set of movies that I’m surprised I have not seen in all my years on this planet. Army of Darkness in particular is insanely quotable. Bruce Campbell is excellent in all three of these films, showing a good amount of range and comedic power too.
The Toll Gate (dir. Lambert Hillyer, 1920)
My long-overdue introduction to Bill Hart. His westerns were gritty and morally grey long before the days of Sergio Leone. The Toll Gate in particular centers around a fugitive bandit leader who’s a far cry from Gene Autry, only just barely redeemed by a good woman, played by the lovely and shamefully overlooked Anna Q. Nilsson.
Young Mr. Lincoln (dir. John Ford, 1940)
A gentle, funny, and even melancholic look at the early career of Abraham Lincoln with Henry Fonda in the lead role– probably my favorite Ford picture, closely followed by How Green Was My Valley.
Love Me or Leave Me (dir. Charles Vidor, 1955)
Don’t let the Technicolor and presence of Doris Day mislead you, this musical “biopic” is a cynical and occasionally sinister melodrama of great power. Day and James Cagney have great chemistry as the ruthless singer (a character who’s really not much like the real Ruth Etting, from what I have read) and the gangster who wants to possess her body and soul. Even if you don’t like musicals, I would recommend this one.
Time Bandits (dir. Terry Gilliam, 1981)
Wouldn’t it be great if most family entertainment had such imagination, brains, and heart behind it? At once possessing satire, slapstick, adventure, and a surprising amount of spiritual/philosophical questions, it’s a good one whether you’re 3 or 300.
Blind Husbands (dir. Erich von Stroheim, 1919)
A mature look at marriage and infidelity, this is about the only von Stroheim film in which he doesn’t indulge his bizarre tastes, so I imagine non-fans of his work will enjoy it too.
Charade (dir. Stanley Donen, 1963)
Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn should have had more team-ups, because they are just excellent together in this famously Hitchcockian thriller/romantic comedy. Gosh, it just makes me realize how much I adore genre mash-ups!
Le Roi de Champs-Elysses (dir. Maz Nossek, 1934)
I finally got to watch this rare movie, a French movie Keaton made during the nadir of his alcoholic period, right after he’d been fired from MGM in 1933. It’s not perfect and has some clunky moments (Keaton himself did not think much of it in later years), but it’s more Keatonesque than most of his slicker work at MGM had been, plus we get to see Keaton’s woefully underused versatility as an actor, with him playing both the hapless hero and the ruthless gangster villain.
The Great Locomotive Chase (dir. Francis Lyon, 1956)
Though most people dismiss this film and compare it to Buster Keaton’s masterpiece The General, I enjoyed it very much. I would even say it is an underrated gem. It’s a tense film with solid performances, taking the same historical situation Keaton used but examining it from the Union’s perspective. Yeah, not as fun or compelling as Keaton at the peak of his powers, but few movies are to be fair.
Dragnet Girl (dir. Yasujiro Ozu, 1933)
This silent gangster drama from the early days of Yasujiro Ozu’s career may not be on par with something like Tokyo Story, but it is a very good picture with great compositions (though what Ozu film doesn’t have these?) and performances. The leading lady Kinuyo Tanaka possesses both talent and beauty as the gangster’s moll desperate not to lose him to a younger, more virtuous woman.
His Birthright (dir. William Worthington, 1918)
Sessue Hayakawa shows off his comedic talents in an otherwise average film about a biracial dude who wants to get vengeance upon his white father for abandoning his Japanese mother. Still, it’s Hayakawa. The man could make even the worst script worth the time.
Shanghai Express (dir. Josef von Sternburg, 1932)
Paramount’s much-superior answer to MGM’s Grand Hotel, complete with Marlene Dietrich in extravagant outfits, gorgeous black and white cinematography, and Anna May Wong stealing the show.
The Portrait of Lady Anne (1912)
Florence La Badie died much too early. I sampled many of her films last fall and was impressed with the charm and emotion she exuded. While I like her Cinderella best, this ghostly little melodrama is a close second.
Bubba Ho-Tep (dir. Don Coscarelli, 2002)
Elvis isn’t really dead; he’s just stuck in a nursing home with a black man who thinks he’s JFK and a soul-sucking mummy. From this synopsis you’d expect an out and out comedy, but Bubba Ho-Tep is surprisingly sad in addition to being funny, often touching on the troubles of being an elderly person in a society which holds up youth above everything. The ending actually made me weep. Go figure.
The Monster Squad (dir. Fred Dekker, 1987)
This weird, weird curio from the 1980s has lines like, “Wolfman’s got NARDS!” It has a scene where Dracula picks up a five year old girl and screams, “Give me the amulet, you BITCH!” It’s so bizarre, it has to be seen to be believed.
Descendants (dir. Kenny Ortega, 2015)
Guess who’s got a new guilty pleasure? This movie features the Disney villains living together in an apartment, eating junk food, and yelling at the television all day. Not to mention some of the songs are catchy (save for the rap version of “Be Our Guest,” which makes Kidz Bop sound like an angelic chorus). What’s not to love, huh?
The Wild One (dir. Laslo Benedek, 1953)
I expected unbridled camp, so imagine my surprise when I found this movie kind of compelling. Yes, its “dangerous bikers” come across like goofy frat boys nowadays, but the alienation and frustration of the Brando character stood out big time. I imagine most of that came from Brando and not the lackluster script.
A Lady of Chance (dir. Ribert Z. Leonard, 1928)
A pretty cute romantic comedy about a lady thief and a gullible Southern guy. I could have done without some of the racist stereotyping in a few scenes, but Norma Shearer is in fine comedic form.
Wuthering Heights (dir. Andrea Arnold, 2011)
I didn’t like this one’s interpretation of Emily Bronte’s novel that much and found most of the actors terrible, but it hasn’t left me since I’ve seen it. The bleakness and obsession within the story are captured well, and I’ll give it this, it’s unlike any other WH adaptation which came before it, so I’ll likely revisit it.
What were your favorite film discoveries this year?