Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Film Discoveries of 2012 - James Napoli ""

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2012 - James Napoli

Mr. Napoli is a very close personal friend of mine and has been for years. He's a man who I've had many many wonderful film conversations with and someone whose taste in cinema I respect very much. I'm very pleased to have his list!
Here is the lowdown on him:

James Napoli is an author, humorist and filmmaker who has just published the follow up to his best-selling humor book The Official Dictionary of Sarcasm. ( He blogs in the comedy section on the Huffington Post ( and is the creator of the Internet self-help satirist Mr. Paul Maul. ( His philosophical web series, featuring inanimate objects discussing the meaning of life, is Rock Paper Scissors: A Dialogue. (

As for the film-related stuff, James has an MFA in Film and currently teaches screenwriting, screenplay analysis and movie history to BFA and MFA college students.


It was an unexpected honor to be asked to assemble a film discoveries list for Rupert. It especially means a lot to me because not only do I respect his vast love and knowledge of cinema, but I don’t get all that much chance to flaunt my own penchant for movies, since my main deal, on the Internet at least, is writing comedy. So it’s doubly fun to assemble this list because every film on it is a drama in one way or another, which means I get to give vent to my more serious side for a change. Thanks, Rupert!

James Napoli’s New Movie Discoveries, 2012

Viridiana (Luis Buñuel, 1961)
This is the film that launched Buñuel back into the world of the film aesthetes after he spent many years in Mexico cranking out melodramas. The DVD bonus materials reveal that the film was so scandalous it was banned in Spain and had to be smuggled out of the country, after which it won the Palm d’Or at Cannes in 1961. Perhaps because it represents a kind of return to an inner truth of expression for the director, it was a film I was pleased to encounter for the first time while running through Buñuel’s repertoire on Netflix. As with all his major works, it is unclassifiable and does not proceed along any traditional narrative lines you would care to name. A novice in a convent is summoned to the home of her uncle, where her resemblance to his late wife causes him to try and seduce her. When he dies shortly after the attempt, his estate reverts to her and she uses it as a home for indigent souls, although letting a collection of lunatics into her midst proves to be less religiously transforming than another filmmaker might have decided it should be. A most bizarre and challenging movie viewing experience.

Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979)
I remember seeing Solaris some years back, and being struck with a kind of ethereal feeling that always comes back whenever I think of the film. Just the same, it didn’t make me want to go more deeply into Tarkovsky’s catalogue, until a new cinephile buddy badgered me into starting again with Stalker. This one really gets inside your head. ‘Slow’ is certainly the word that comes to mind in terms of its narrative progression, but it is “artsy” in the most satisfying sense and the deliberate pacing only adds to its hypnotic quality, not to mention the gorgeous cinematography by Alexander Knyazhinsky. His glistening images takes us into a ruined rubble of a world in which a mercurial guide takes two clients into ‘The Zone,’ a place where one has the chance to confront and fulfill one’s deepest desires. Prepare for a head trip.

Mahanagar (The Big City, Satyajit Ray. 1963)
I waited far too long to expand my knowledge of Ray beyond the beautiful Pather Panchali, and a recent commitment to everything of his I could get was one of my better movie fan choices. This simple but beautifully compelling tale is about a woman entering the workforce in an India resistant to change. It’s also about the little moments between people and, for those of us who didn’t grow up in India, the subtle cultural differences that make for drama where we least expect it. The film’s protagonist is played by Jaya Bhaduri in her first movie role. According to Wikipedia, she later went on to become on of the leading Bollywood stars. One interesting side note is that most of the Ray material available on Netflix seems to be DVD burns from VHS originals with often funky subtitles. Some may find this irritating. I found it fascinating; a kind of glimpse into the way many people around the world were first exposed to this material on a wider scale.

Zéro de conduite & L'Atalante (Jean Vigo 1933 & 1934)
It is to my everlasting shame that I have been a lifelong Truffaut fan and not taken the time to explore Jean Vigo, whom Truffaut lists as his number one influence. Dead at 29 after only four films and two features, Vigo’s life is as interesting as his work, and the best way to experience and appreciate both is by soaking up the amazing Criterion Collection edition that is loaded with background materials, including a rare French TV interview with Truffaut. Both films clearly influenced Truffaut in different ways, Zéro in its playful depiction of rebellious schoolchildren (playfulness that veers into surrealism, which was an influence on Vigo) and L’Atalante in its romantic but tarnished view of love, in this case aboard a honeymoon barge. Each is a fascinating document, the first of a wild sensibility, the second of an emerging artist capable of unforgettable visuals and emotions.

Pigs and Battleships & The Insect Woman (Shōhei Imamura, 1961 & 1963)
After re-appraising Kurosawa, learning more about Mizoguchi and bonding over Ozu with Rupert, I had the good fortune of meeting a neighbor who collects Japanese movie posters, and he began to rattle off some titles that I am still diving into. His recommendations form the next three entries. (And please, everybody, see Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff if you have not already. I couldn’t put it on the list because it did not come to me in 2012, but it is one of the great Japanese films of all time.) At roughly the same time as the French New Wave, Japan’s New Wave brought us some in-your-face approaches in reaction to what was seen as the staid quality of the old masters. Imamura embodied this with Pigs & Battleships, his masterfully over-the-top patchwork of small-time criminality amid strained relations between citizens of Yokosuka and the U.S. military stationed there, the film features an outrageously brave performance by young Jitsuko Yoshimura (who stars in the next selection, too) as a willful woman who wants her hoodlum boyfriend to clean up his act and descends into decadence herself when she cannot get through to him. Another commanding female lead, Sschiki Hidari, appears in The Insect Woman, a stunning work of art depicting Tome, a woman who attempts to break the insect-like cycle of repetitive circumstances that force her into harsher and harsher ways of life. In so doing, she represents Japan’s own societal cycles leading up to World War II. Unrelenting, but well worth it, for its sheer unconventional storytelling power.

Onibaba (Kaneto Shindo, 1964)
Of all the films on this list, this is the one that most defies suitable words to describe it. It is essentially a ghost story period piece (Onibaba are monster creatures in Japanese folklore) about two desperately poor peasant women who kill wondering Samurai and trade their armor for food with a local merchant. When a neighbor, who fought with the younger woman’s now-dead husband in a war, returns to help the two women in their ghastly venture, he becomes part of a sexually-charged relationship with the young woman, as the older woman attempts to keep them apart. Within this framework Shindo puts some undeniably sexual images on screen, and some inescapably horrific ones, too. You will never see another film like this.

Street of Shame (Kenzi Mizoguchi, 1956)
Thanks to my poster-collecting friend for hipping me to all the above great movies, and this one. It’s the final film by Mizoguchi, who became known as Japan’s most prominent explorer of the resilient female psyche, embodied by women characters forced into life on the streets. Street of Shame is an ensemble (and a deftly juggled one at that) about several women working at a brothel called ‘Dreamland’ in Tokyo. It is all about the seemingly minor, but inwardly huge explosions that can go off in the human spirit, and it has one of the most haunting and memorable final images of any film in recent history.

Henri Langlois: The Phantom of the Cinémathèque (Jacques Richard, 2004)
Okay, the release date on this has me busted already, but since so few have heard of this film (recommended to me by the Stalker dude), I am hoping Rupert will let me squeak by with this as a pre-new millennium discovery. This is a movie for film geeks beyond belief. The French New Wave would essentially not have happened without Henri Langlois, who, as curator of France’s premiere repertory screen, had teenagers like Truffaut, Godard and Chabrol cramming into the front row of his theater to soak up film history. So many films that are now acknowledged classics (The Passion of Joan of Arc, Nosferatu, Méliès and the Lumière Bros.) are only here because Langlois showed the world how important they were. All you need to know about his importance is that filmmakers, yes, famous filmmakers rioted in the streets when he was removed from his post. There are a lot of long-winded interviews that to some extent you may feel you need to wade through, but Langlois was an eccentric guy to say the least, and watching this doc is like soaking up movies themselves.

Looking for Richard (Al Pacino, 1996)
This is a terrifically engaging documentary about the artistic process, and about demystifying William Shakespeare. I discovered it when I was faced with being asked to teach the subject of Shakespeare this year. In trying to get at the meat of the play Richard III, Pacino presents a handy little primer on the key aspects of the play itself, but also lets us see what is involved for actors as they make real, hard choices about how to play a scene, which is something rarely shown to audiences in any form. This is a must-see for anyone who has ever worked with actors or wants to understand what makes them tick, along with anybody who wants to revisit their relationship to the world’s greatest playwright. Pacino can get a little self-indulgently goofy at times, but compared to Scarface, it’s subtlety at its finest.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (John Cassavetes, 1976)
Another slight technicality, in that I had seen this film during my first man-crush-on-Cassavetes phase in the 1980s, but had written it off as his least effective film. This year, I went back and watched all his films again (Love Streams, a personal favorite, is not available digitally yet), and this one emerged as far more powerful than I had ever given it credit for. Somewhere during the viewing process, it hit me that the story of a lonely strip-club owner with delusions of grandeur about how he designs his burlesque routines was a metaphor. A metaphor for trying to maintain artistic integrity while everyone around you tries to pigeonhole you into obscurity—which is exactly what Cassavetes always went through. Sure enough, in an interview with the late Ben Gazzara in the bonus materials, he reveals how he caught Cassavetes crying behind the camera as he photographed Gazzara’s monologue about his vision being compromised. The film takes its time and, even more than most Cassavetes films, demands huge engagement on the part of the viewer. But once the hidden meaning of this one gets through to you, it informs every frame of the story and makes it a standout among standouts in the career of one of my Top 5 filmmakers of all time list.

The Up Series (Paul Almond & Michael Apted, 1964-2012)
"Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” intones the Granada Television narrator at the beginning of Seven Up (and at the end of subsequent installments). The pilot was directed by Paul Almond before Michael Apted took over for the remaining installments. 56 Up has just aired in Britain but is not available in the U.S. yet. What seems to have begun as social commentary documentary designed to critique Britain’s class system very soon evolves into a time capsule to future generations about what a representative sampling of people were thinking, feeling and experiencing at various times in their lives. So, Apted and his crew visit the subjects of his films every seven years to see what they are up to at age 14, 21, 28, etc. The series gained so much fame in Britain that many of the participants declined to come back for some of the episodes, either because they felt unfairly represented (a notable clip shows three 7-year-old children of privilege discussing what financial newspapers they read), or made a comment that was taken the wrong way (as with some criticism of Margaret Thatcher that had one of the subjects stay away from the program for 21 years, after viewers became angry with him). Obviously there isn’t room to detail the life arc of everyone covered in the Up series here, but it really should be seen as the invaluable testimony to life that it is. There is nothing fancy about it. Pretty much talking heads intercut with B-roll of their surroundings, but you cannot help but form an attachment to these very open and normal people. Whether by design or by luck, the interviews shown do not mention a single pop culture phenomenon of the past 50 years, so the films achieve a timelessness that makes them about the progression of an ordinary life and not about a shared cultural history. You will get hooked on these, waiting to see what has happened to everybody as seven more years have passed.

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