Marc Edward Heuck runs the wonderful blog, The Projector Has Been Drinking which gets a high recommend from me. Marc's been with this series since it started in 2010, so please check out his other lists as he always brings the good stuff and his list are always greatly appreciated:
---------------2016 saw my relationship to older and lesser-known movies ascend to a new level.
---------------2016 saw my relationship to older and lesser-known movies ascend to a new level.
First, I had the tremendous honor this past summer of being asked by Edgar Wright to compose a list of my favorite films for MUBI, and thus came my ambitious Canon For a Fresh Film Conversation, with 400 titles that in my estimation, haven’t been discussed enough. I received a lot of constructive feedback, and I hope that I inspired many to seek them out.
Soon after, I was welcomed, with venerated film writers Kim Morgan and Chris D. and close friends Ariel Schudson and Witney Seibold, as a regular contributor to the New Beverly Cinema blog. Now on a regular basis I am writing about cool stuff that’s been less-heralded (with the occasional puff piece on a personal fave) with the goal of nudging people out of the house and into a theatre seat to watch it writ large. In a sense, elevating forgotten film is no longer just an adventure for me, it’s a job!
Up front I will acknowledge some of these picks overlap with the MUBI list. Normally, I would be stricter about avoiding that, but those double-dips still deserve a larger web presence, and the list doesn’t offer any extra text, so it’s worth taking a moment to talk about why they meant so much to me. In ascending order:
Yeah, while all the other high school kids were reading Tiger Beat and Sports Illustrated, I was reading Variety. And every week, I saw that vanity ad that actor Zack Norman took out, first “Zack Norman as Terrence Hackley in Robert Downey’s MOONBEAM,” but most famously, “Zack Norman as Sammy in CHIEF ZABU.” A movie that purportedly existed, but nobody knew what it was about, and it had never been seen. Eventually, thanks to other uber-movie-geeks, especially the MST3K gang, those seven words became a secret handshake to engage in deep nerdular nerdence. And then this year, 30 years later, the holy grail finally emerged. And this satire on how, as a tiny island nation seeks UN membership, a band of U.S. hucksters try to profit from it, it was pretty darned funny. Full of great singular ‘70s faces – Allan Arbus, Allen Garfield, Ed Lauter, Shirley Stoler, and yes, Zack Norman as Sammy. Could it live up to 30 years of anticipation? Well… But, had I saw it then, would I have liked it? Yeah. And I liked it viewed in the present-day too. So what more d’ya want, a singing commercial?
Like the average post-modern American film omnivore, I knew all the clichés about Bollywood movies – melodramatic plots, chaste romance, and those incongruous musical numbers – but had never fully watched one in any fashion. This entertaining fusion of those sensibilities to tested crime drama tropes, with the added attraction of Hindi stars with American technicians, was a terrific first taste. While many shorthand it as just a “Bollywood RESERVOIR DOGS,” and yes, it uses a great deal of that film’s structure, it’s more complex than that. The main characters frequently shift dialogue from Hindi to English, providing context for the kind of code-switching all manner of minorities must engage in each day to deal with the establishment. And when that element comes into play during one of those Tarantino allusions, it lends an extra layer to the proceedings, so that it’s not just foreign actors reenacting anymore, it feels like this is how it would go down with these characters of this race. Like any good spin on an established work, it expands on the possibilities only hinted at previously. Even the musical numbers, while designed for easy excision for foreign markets, feel organic to the plot, and while unusual, are no more way out than the “Wise Up” sequence in MAGNOLIA. And bottom line, this made me want to seek out more Bollywood fare.
Definitely one of the larger cultural and cinematic milestones that I had long but an academic appreciation for, it was thrilling to finally see what had always loomed large yet felt out of reach. Michael Wadleigh and his team of both camera operators and editors somehow took a large, amorphous event, complete with unforeseen complications from without and within, captured it on miles of film, and compacted it to deliver both the artistic and the aspirational highs of that incredible long weekend. I could genuinely feel the hopeful buoyancy that overcame John Sebastian as he tried to do his number, marvel at the herculean task of feeding the equivalent of a small city, and while I’ve heard Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” dozens of times, heck even seen the footage in TV clips, witnessing it within the context of everything that led up to it made me finally get it. I don’t know if, had I been of age in that time, I would have had the nerve to enter that enormous throng, but this made me understand what it must have meant to those that did.
I had never heard of this film when this was first announced as a New Beverly midnight, under its bland reissue title WILD GIRL. So naturally, I volunteered to write about it for the blog and learn more in the process. So glad I did, this romantic thriller from Eugenio Martin of HORROR EXPRESS fame was a terrific discovery. Spanish pop star Marisol is groomed by wealthy benefactor Mel Ferrer to settle an old vendetta with a rival, with some clever side plots sprinkled about the place. Her three big production numbers, written by legendary songwriting duo Tony Hatch and Jackie Trent, are glam enough that if more people knew this movie, straight and drag homages would be commonplace. And when I saw the resolution of how she deals with a lecherous heckler during one of her songs, I knew this was great.
And the second of the awesome “girl” discoveries of this year is from the Czech Republic, and it too has a fetching pop singer as its star. Again, I had not heard of this film before Cinefamily screened it as part of their outstanding “All of Them Witches” series, in a rare English-dubbed kiddie matinee print titled THE MAGIC WITCH. But in Cyrillic countries, this adorable movie and its catchy title song are as huge as GHOSTBUSTERS; look up its original Czech title on YouTube, you’ll see dozens of clips of little girls in talent shows paying homage. And it deserves a U.S. following as well. Petra Černocká, sporting a head of curls as intense as Catherine Spaak’s in Argento's THE CAT O' NINE TAILS, is Saxana, a teenage witch who, rather than spend 300 years in detention for flubbing spells, escapes to the human realm for 44 hours, only to make more mistakes at the expense of us mortals. Full of ingenious low-fi special effects and gags so silly you’ll giggle and groan at once. Groagle, perhaps? C’mon, check out the infectious theme tune, and tell me you’re not under a spell already.
I am not an expert in the late Chantal Akerman, or her aesthetic, suffice to say that JEANNE DIELMAN was one of my significant Film Discoveries in a previous year’s list and as such have always been on the lookout for more opportunities to delve further. But I have gathered from even my pharmacie-level knowledge that this deceptively exuberant musical was very much a departure for her and her fans, though experts can surely point you to ongoing themes of class and feminism that were more blatant in her other films. Nonetheless, from the opening moments, I was hooked into what must surely be the most eightiesest eighties movie that ever eightied in the eighties. Hyperactive love, bouncy songs, and all those damned purty colors and kicky fashions, and it’s staged entirely in a mall. Remember malls? Where it was climate-controlled and you could be dry and jacketless and do some powerwalking during inclement weather, instead of these new Rick Caruso open-air faux “marketplaces” where you pay $10 parking and still get rained on as you buy your Sephora? LA LA LAND is sending a lot of the retro-musical love towards Jacques Demy’s musicals, and they deserve it, but I dare say if you really want more savory with your sugar, this is an excellent destination.
Cinefamily had possibly the best umbrella film series of the year with their “Underground USA” program of scrappy indie films of the ‘80s, because not only did it showcase many of the usual suspects (Jarmusch, Seidelman, Cox, Raimi), but also a thrilling number of lesser-known works. Besides being unfamiliar with the film, I had no idea that for a short while Penny Allen was her own one-woman Portland filmmaking scene, so big thanks for that history lesson! A deceptively laconic drama about Portland vintners who quietly supplant their enterprise through marijuana farming, and the increasing dangers of such activity, Allen's movie had gorgeous bright photography and understated performances, especially the lead Lola Desmond, who reminded me a great deal of current earthy redheaded “It” performer Amy Ferguson. The prologue depicting the history of standoffs between so-called merchants of vice against prohibitionists and industrialists lent a sort of "DEADWOOD" vibe to the laid back surroundings, and the rising threat levels reminded me of last year's A MOST DANGEROUS YEAR in their intimate violence. And with the ongoing referendums on legalizing recreational weed across the country, the politics on this film are uncannily timely. The fine folks at Watchmaker Films spearheaded this restored DCP, along with Eagle Pennell’s LAST NIGHT AT THE ALAMO, which both played during the fest, but have been maddeningly slow to announce any home video availability since; praying that 2017 answers this question firmly so that more can enjoy this neglected document.
Another important element that made Cinefamily’s “Underground USA” festival so vital was the spotlight on underappreciated (and criminally underemployed) female directors, including the above-mentioned Allen, and the still fit-and-fierce Lizzie Borden. BORN IN FLAMES and Borden were already hot topics when I was an unbearable virtue-signaling feminist-cookie groveller in college, but it was not the easiest movie to see then. And thanks to this restoration via Anthology Film Archives, the HFPA, and the Film Foundation, it should become much easier. A speculative fiction about feminist bonding in dystopia that the tireless Borden and her friends shot for five years before completion, now it plays even more frighteningly prescient today, as it depicts the undermining and fall of a formerly utopian society into a regressive and aggressive climate of hatred, with like-minded factions having to figure out how to work past philosophical divisions. Thankfully, Borden predicted a happy, if messy, ending to her saga.
I’m doing this one as a tie because when linked together with the aforementioned JEANNE DIELMAN a couple lists back, it means that this year I finally scored the 1970s 3-hours-plus French-language arthouse-epic trifecta. And in the case of these two, there is a kind of spiritual link. Granted, Jean Eustache’s M&W is black-and-white and fraught all over, while Jacques Rivette’s C&J is colorful and loopy, but both are testaments to being young, adventurous, and experimenting with the world’s possibilities. And in their long running times, with their often leisurely pacing, they demonstrate that those moments of youth when you were seemingly doing nothing – reading, listening to records, lounging with friends – you were still creating memories and capturing a place and time.
This year, as far as discovery goes, delivered me a one-two punch crash course in the genius of triple threat Andrew L. Stone and actor Eddie Bracken. And while I had so many revelations to pick from that are also worth seeking out (George Marshall’s HOLD THAT BLONDE! where Bracken does tremendous screwball work with Veronica Lake, or Stone’s taut and blackly comic heist thriller THE STEEL TRAP w/ Joseph Cotton), this collaboration between them both stuck with me the most. Using a very simple comic premise – luckless Bracken and Priscilla Lane pass themselves off as millionaires at a Florida beach resort to ridiculous success – Stone yields amazing quantities of class commentary, surprise plot turns, and really engaging lead chemistry. Modern comedies would throw in twice as much plot detail and still garner only half as many laughs, so this forgotten jewel is a clinic in how to explore and heighten your basic gimmick. Reportedly, Paramount inherited this and other Stone comedies (HI DIDDLE DIDDLE, THE BACHELOR’S DAUGHTERS, SENSATIONS OF 1945, BEDSIDE MANNER), but have almost no elements to do any kind of preservation or transfer work: 2017 needs to see some spelunking in the vaults happen to rectify this state of affairs.
A high-concept all-star action movie is always an easy pitch to studio execs and to cinema audiences, because of its exquisite and deceptive simplicity of description. DIE HARD: terrorists seize an office building; SPEED: a bomb on a bus; EARTHQUAKE: you get the idea. But little did I know that back when I was still in short pants, Richard Lester made a movie that used an easy logline – specialists try to defuse bombs on a storm-battered cruise ship – and presented an epic so rich with enigmatically well-drawn characters, political commentary, class observation, tight editing, and quick-step plot turns, that it renders almost all modern thrillers irrelevant. Michael Bay weeps to sleep over the fact that he'll never have an equal film on his resume. As such, this is the most exciting, crucial, and welcome first-time film discovery I made this year. From this point on, I dare say I will be applying comedian Joey Coco Diaz’ school of thought for similar films in the future, i.e., "Was it better than JUGGERNAUT? No? FUCK THAT MOVIE!"