alphabetical, going to 11 for 2011:
BEAT THIS! A HIP-HOP HISTORY (1983, Dick Fontaine, video projection): Noted BBC documentarian Fontaine's stylish and vital film documents the nascent hip-hop culture in the Bronx in the early '80s years that were so pivotal to the growth of the genre and subculture, while offering a nuanced, genuinely interested, non-prejudiced viewpoint that could only come from an outsider at that time. We see the expected figures like Afrika Bambaataa and the Cold Crush Brothers and we also get equally necessary, priceless interviews with the likes of Malcolm McLaren, signifying the historical parallels between seemingly disparate genres like punk and hip-hop. For those interested in seeing street level New York of the late '70s and early '80s, not filtered through Hollywood, Fontaine's film offers ample footage of the city as it was then and, with that, evidence of a singularly creative and beautiful cultural moment even, as it were, in the midst of the urban blight typical of the working class unfriendly Reagan era. It's hard to top the image of Bambaataa and a comrade overlooking the Bronx from the top of a tenement building and noting its inherent beauty and their role in it.
CITY GIRL (1930, F.W. Murnau, Blu-ray): Another masterpiece that I am coming to inexplicably late...I didn't get to see this via a 35mm print, but the MoC Blu-ray is about the best possible substitute, I think. A farm boy (Charles Farrell) goes to the city to sell his father's wheat and comes home with lonely waitress (Mary Duncan), much to the chagrin of his family, particularly his father (David Torrence). Farrell and Duncan are a beautiful onscreen couple, with Duncan being particularly heartbreaking in the later scenes where she struggles to stand up for herself against Farrell's father and the other farm workers. Murnau makes the day to day life scenes in the urban and rural settings gorgeous and cinematic, while simultaneously depicting their harshness and the characters' loneliness within them. Kind've amazing that this might be considered minor Murnau...it's anything, but that.
FANTASTIC PLANET (1973, Rene Laloux, Blu-ray): Another day, another gorgeous Blu-ray from Masters of Cinema...I am an aficionado of animation for adults, but it inexplicably took me until now to finally see Laloux's masterpiece, which has a perfect combination of art, story, music--by Gainsbourg cohort Alain Goraguer, and that undeniable trippy-ness that seems to be unique to the late '60s and early '70s, and it is not something that can only be enjoyed or appreciated while under the influence of...whatever. It's nigh impossible to not be drawn in by the beautiful and evocative hand-drawn animation and design and, of course, the deliberate pace that seems to be impossible for children and adults today to accept and fall under the spell of. For those that appreciate the cinema of Bakshi, particularly something like WIZARDS, this is an obvious no-brainer, but then, you probably already knew that.
THE GAMBLER (1974, Karel Reisz, DVD): A remake of Reisz and James Toback's THE GAMBLER was recently listed as in development, with Scorsese and Di Caprio attached, prompting a scathing rebuke from Toback, who was not consulted on the new project . I understand his frustration, seeing as this was his first screenplay and it is so close to his personal experiences--though there is high probability that the announcement may remain just that..an announcement. As an avowed student of the New American Cinema, particularly the titles that fall outside of the canon, it's somewhat amazing to me that I kept missing this one for so long. Toback's highly autobiographical script follows an amped up, hotshot James Caan, truly at the top of his game here, repeatedly fall into and climb out of...and fall back into sizable gambling debts. He's a brilliant New York literature professor, scion of a prominent Jewish family, and highly addicted gambler. There are great, uniquely New York characters and incidents here, some of which appear again in similar fashion in Toback's directorial debut FINGERS. One of my all-time favorite character players, Burt Young, hits a home run in a small, but pivotal role as a collector with no qualms about getting violent and Morris Carnovsky, co-founder of the Group Theatre, gives a knowing, powerful performance as the Jewish patriarch, particularly in the scene in which he puts the kibosh on Caan's shiksa girlfriend (Lauren Hutton). This is as incisive a film about addiction and the addictive personality that I've seen--someone close to me who has conquered serious addiction has cited this film as one of the supreme cinematic portrayals of the experience. On a secondary level, Toback's script offers an equally authentic portrayal of one strand of the Jewish-American experience and distinctly NY machismo.
HEAT LIGHTNING (1934, Mervyn Le Roy, DVD): One of the more perfect Pre-Code films this devoted Pre-Code enthusiast has seen, HEAT LIGHTNING stars the incomparable Aline MacMahon as the no-nonsence owner of a filling station located on an isolated stretch of American southwest desert. Based on a one act play by Robert F. Carroll, the film version was condemned by the Legion of Decency and just managed to get out there before the Code was re-worked and enforced in mid-1934. MacMahon tries to keep her naive younger sister (the great Ann Dvorak) from making the mistakes she made with men when she was an impressionable young woman while serving the needs of whoever stumbles upon her little oasis, including a fellow (character actor supreme Preston Foster) she has a regrettable history with. Pre-Code standbys Lyle Talbot, Glenda Farrell, and Frank McHugh make welcome appearances in Mervyn's Le Roy's lightning quick melodrama, but it is the remarkable MacMahon you will remember above all else.
MORE (1969, Barbet Schroeder, Blu-ray): Not that I was traveling the world at the time, let alone alive, nor have I ingested heroin in any shape or form, but Schroeder's debut seems to have perfectly captured the globetrotting hippie experience circa '69, and its dark side. My late father spent something like a year traveling in Spain and eventually Morocco around the same time this film was produced. I was never able to get all the stories about those days out of him, sadly, but I'm sure he met people like the tragic Mimsy Farmer and Klaus Grunberg in MORE and had some of the same experiences. Watching this film via the BFI's absolutely gorgeous Blu-ray, I felt my dad's presence near me. Schroeder got in a lot of trouble with censorship authorities in various territories for his too real depiction of all things junkie. However, rather than the drug lingo and authentic depiction of usage, it's the loose narrative portraying the experience of young, progressive types exploring exotic, foreign locales at that particular moment in time that resonates with me.
REMEMBER MY NAME (1978, Alan Rudolph, DVD-R from VHS rip): Rudolph's second film remains one of the most truly New Wave and avant-garde films to come out of a major American studio, making most other films, even in the "anything goes" '70s heyday of the New American Cinema, appear conventional. Of course, this made it a disaster in the eyes of Columbia and the film remains unavailable on home video due to legal issues concerning the original soundtrack score composed by blues singer Alberta Hunter. It was reissued theatrically by an independent distributor in 1979, an unusual circumstance for an American studio film; since then, it's been available to see only through repertory screenings or the rare television broadcast. Largely eschewing narrative logic, the film's concern is not in making sure that all the loose ends of the rather skeletal plot are wrapped up; it's more about watching recently paroled murderess Geraldine Chaplin make figurative mincemeat of everyone she crosses paths with including former husband Anthony Perkins--here, not playing the craziest person in the room, his current wife Berry Berenson, landlord Moses Gunn, supermarket manager boss Jeff Goldblum, and co-worker Alfre Woodard. According to Jonathan Rosenbaum's 1979 review of the film, Rudolph intended it as an update of the Warner Bros. women's pictures starring Davis, Stanwyck, Crawford, something which Rosenbaum suggests has been crossed with European art cinema, particularly that of Rivette. Those elements, when combined with the songs whose lyrics closely mirror the thoughts of Chaplin's Emily and the absolutely fearless, revelatory performance of Chaplin, make REMEMBER MY NAME a must-see.
SAILOR'S LUCK (1933, Raoul Walsh, 35mm): James Dunn and Sally Eiler, the hard-luck lovers of Borzage's classic BAD GIRL (1931), returned in Walsh's more light-hearted 1933 comic romance SAILOR'S LUCK, hooking up when sailor Dunn and his pals get shore leave in San Pedro and Dunn falls for Eilers...and, really, who wouldn't?! This briskly-paced, enormously entertaining, often laugh out loud funny film is another sublime Pre-Code title, which will hopefully become more widely available for home viewing now that a new print has been struck. Typical of many Pre-Code films, there is plenty of off-color humor and the film actually acknowledges the different ethnicities of the characters and not only for humorous effect--it's something that would sadly mostly disappear from American cinema screens for the next three decades or so. While movies like SAILOR'S' LUCK poke fun at certain ethnic stereotypes, it's mostly equal opportunity...seemingly everyone gets razzed at some point.
SOMETIMES A GREAT NOTION aka NEVER GIVE A INCH (1971, Paul Newman, 35mm): A lost masterpiece of the early post-ratings era, Paul Newman's adaptation of Ken Kesey's second novel is one of those films that evokes some of the best elements of the studio-era picture while maintaining an attitude and containing the harder-edged content that came with the creation of the ratings system and the progressive mores of the late '60s and early '70s. Newman is the Hud-like older son of Oregon logging family patriarch Henry Fonda, leading the clan against the town's unionized workers who want the family to join them on the picket lines, in the face of lower wages and shorter hours by way of the introduction of the chainsaw. This is a tough, but intelligent masculine-heavy drama with Newman mounting--and acting in--some damned impressive, authentically physical logging sequences. Hearing an ornery Fonda repeatedly cuss and call out younger son Michael Sarrazin for coming back from New York City with long hair never gets old. Lee Remick is incredibly moving as Newman's ignored wife. The four lead actors are matched and then some by the perpetually undervalued Richard Jaeckel as Newman's cousin and co-worker who shares the film's most memorable moment with Newman, a gut-wrenching scene that garnered Jaeckel a well-deserved Oscar nomination. The film's alternate title, which graced the 35mm print I viewed, comes from Fonda's oft-repeated credo: "Never give a inch!" (Netflix Instant Link)
THE SOUND OF FURY aka TRY AND GET ME (1950, Cy Endfield, Netflix Instant): Cy Endfield is one of those directors of the moment for me...seems like I've seen a number of gems directed by this Blacklistee recently, or have them in my "to watch" pile. HELL DRIVERS was a major discovery for me when I saw it in a Brit noir series a couple years back at Film Forum; SANDS OF THE KALAHARI, ZULU, and MYSTERIOUS ISLAND remain in my unwatched Blu-ray pile. This brings me to THE SOUND OF FURY, which I caught via Netflix Streaming. Not on DVD (I don't know that it ever appeared on any home video format), it's as dark and disturbing a film noir as one is likely to find. The perpetually underrated Frank Lovejoy is a down on his luck regular joe struggling--big time--to provide for his wife and young son. Catching Lovejoy in a moment of desperation, cocksure, small-time hood Lloyd Bridges manipulates the nice guy into being his wheelman on a number of hold-up jobs. As they usually do in stories like this, things go horribly wrong leading to one of the more shocking, brutal, impassioned, and moving denouements I've seen in an American film, particularly one from the '50s. The events in the film were inspired by the Brooke Hart murder and the lynching that followed, an incident that also gave inspiration to Lang's FURY. At the moment, the estimable Film Noir Foundation is raising funds to restore SOUND OF FURY in order to make it more accessible and widely seen...a great and noble mission, if you ask me. (Netflix Instant Link).
TESS (1979, Roman Polanski, 35mm): I don't know why I hadn't seen Polanski's TESS until now, but I'm glad I was able to experience it via a good 35mm print during MoMA's Polanski retrospective. This is sumptuous, exhilarating, and sensitive filmmaking of the first order. Never mind that Nastassia Kinski is the only one of the film's British characters to speak with a German accent...she is absolutely right and, of course, beautiful in the title role. She is another of the persecuted outsiders that appear so often in Polanski's work. I haven't read Hardy's TESS OF THE D'URBERVILLES, nor way too many other literary classics, so I don't know how much or little Polanski diverges from the source. In my eyes, it's one of the benchmark literary adaptations, a lovingly mounted production with great performances all around, sublime score by Philippe Sarde, Oscar-winning photography by the late Geoffrey Unsworth and Ghislain Cloquet, and Oscar winning set decoration and design. Another sterling example of Polanski's enormous range as a filmmaker, while also retaining some of his favorite themes and narrative elements.