Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Film Discoveries of 2012 - Battleship Pretension ""

Monday, February 11, 2013

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2012 - Battleship Pretension

David & Tyler run the excellent Battleship Pretension Podcast, which I can't recommend highly enough. 

Below find both of their film discoveries lists:

David -  
I gave perhaps a little too much initial thought into how to present this list. I thought perhaps chronological by year, chronological by when I saw them, and so on. I almost went with presenting them in groups (classics I finally caught up on, obscurities I stumbled across, etc.) Eventually, though, I threw my hands and admitted that I’m a movie nerd. And nerds like to rank things. So here are my top ten favorite older films I discovered in 2012.


10. THE DARK WIND (1991)
Errol Morris’ first and only foray into narrative, non-documentary filmmaking is a fascinating near- masterpiece. It also contains perhaps Lou Diamond Phillips’ best performance, as the Navajo reservation police officer who teams up with his counterpart from the neighboring Hopi tribe (Gary Farmer, reliable as always) to solve a murder, a robbery and a plane crash that are mysteriously connected. It’s a Western noir with a surprisingly offbeat sense of humor. Rumors of behind-the-scenes turmoil between Morris and producer Robert Redford, though, may go a ways toward explaining its disappointingly formulaic conclusion.

9. NIGHT ON EARTH (1991)
I’ve been a Jim Jarmusch fan since I saw the brilliant Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai upon its theatrical release when I was seventeen. But I’d always overlooked this taxi-centric anthology, assuming it to be little more than a novelty exercise. It’s a hit and miss affair and the misses prove my assumption right. However, with three of the five vignettes knocking it out of the park, it was well worth the wait. Armin Mueller-Stahl and Giancarlo Esposito delight as the New York odd couple and the Helsinki chapter – a tribute to director Aki Kaurismäki – is drily hilarious and poignant. The centerpiece, though, is the sojourn to Rome where Roberto Benigni, then unknown to most Americans, spends his entire time onscreen delivering a boisterous, jaw-dropping, laugh out loud, stream of consciousness monologue that on its own proves his comic genius. Alas, the Paris section is dull and opaque and, as an Angeleno, I can’t tolerate the circuitous route Winona Ryder takes from LAX to Beverly Hills.

This is the first of two films on this list that I saw thanks to the Criterion collection releasing them on Blu-ray. The portrait of a bourgeois London couple who are divorced and both dating the same man, it’s a daring film that is far too modest to recognize itself as such. Murray Head, as the man caught between the former couple, is both the centerpiece of the film and intentionally the least dynamic character. His role is the catalyst that leads to his lovers – Peter Finch and Glenda Jackson – experiencing a double whammy of a midlife crisis. The tragic beauty of the film is that, for these two, the catharsis never comes. They are simply left facing the downhill portion of their lives with no map to the bottom.

This late-period Robert Bresson film could make the list on the strength of its amazingly awesome title alone. In addition to that, though, it’s also a daring story of perhaps the most drawn-out suicide in cinema history as well as being the rare argument in favor of self-murder. How this film was not embraced by the glum, mid-90’s alternative crowd I’ll never understand

6. PURPLE NOON (1960)
I’ve been meaning to watch this film for thirteen years. In 1999, after seeing Anthony Minghella’s gorgeous and exquisite The Talented Mr. Ripley, I immediately read the Patricia Highsmith novel on which the film was based and also became aware of René Clément’s 1960 adaptation starring Alain Delon in the role later filled by Matt Damon. Now, the unfortunate change to the ending of Highsmith’s source material as well as the unconscionable decision to change Dickie Greenleaf to Philippe Greenleaf keep it from competing with Minghella’s vision but the stunning location photography and the simultaneously subtle and outlandish performance from Delon make this a fixating and enjoyable film in its own right.

5. THE IRON ROSE (1973) 
Thanks to Kino’s Redemption imprint and their series of restored re-releases, this was the year I discovered a number of films by Jean Rollin. But the undisputed masterpiece, in my opinion, is 1973’s The Iron Rose. Instead of his usual sprawling and baroque approach, this is essentially a two-hander about a young couple on their first date who duck into a cemetery crypt to explore amorous pursuits and emerge after dark to find the labyrinthine graveyard empty, closed and impossible to navigate their way out of. What unfolds next is both incredibly creepy and a razor-sharp exploration of the ingrained gender biases that exist even in among seemingly progressive, young bohemians.

In a just world, this film would exist alongside Mildred Pierce and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? in the list of the most iconic Joan Crawford performances. In this story of a poor, small-town Texas woman who essentially sleeps her way to a life of blood money and ill-gotten luxury, Crawford portrays one of the most unflinching and uncompromising noir heroes in the history of the genre. It’s both a gripping yarn a shockingly progressive and sympathetic view of womanhood amongst the generally moralistic and whitewashed domestic portraits that dominated cinema and television at the time. 

My top three should all come with apologies to those who’ve considered me a source of anything approaching cinema expertise. I suppose we all have our lists of shame but I’ve got no excuse for not seeing Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night before this year, given how perfectly suited my tastes are to its lean, blunt approach and its atmosphere that first appears loose and casual but reveals itself to be sharply purposeful. As with The Dark Wind, the resolution of the plot isn’t entirely satisfying but that’s not the real point here. The shot of Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger sitting on a bench in the muggy heat and not talking is practically an end in itself. 

Shortly after I moved to Chicago at the age of nineteen, the indispensable Gene Siskel Film Center ran a month-long series highlighting the best and most interesting of Luis Buñuel’s career. I’d never seen any of his films before and – from Un Chien Andalou to The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz to The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie – it was a life-changing experience. Buñuel freed me from thinking about films only as narratives and threw into relief the surreal, temporal insanity that is only possible with cinema. Yet I missed his penultimate film, The Phantom of Liberty, and only caught up with it this year. Buñuel takes one simple idea – that civilization and civility are very thin and destructible constructs that only barely manage to conceal the vulgar animalism of humanity – and presents what is essentially a series of bizarre and hilarious sketches, each linked in that the end of one is the beginning of the next. It’s a long, French and flooring episode of Mr. Show.

1. BADLANDS (1973)
I know, right? I can’t believe I’d never seen it before either. But now I have so lay off me. Terrence Malick’s first feature is surprisingly grounded to someone more accustomed to the ethereal meanderings of The Thin Red Line and The Tree of Life. Yet most of the same ingredients are there. Strikingly, achingly beautiful imagery; hushed and wondrous voice-over; the sense that what we’re seeing is much bigger than it looks, like it’s taking place on a separate but very similar planet where everyone’s a giant. It’s essentially a B-movie road trip story draped in gorgeous, existential pondering and rumination. It boils down to the literally iconic moment in the climax when Martin Sheen’s Kit pauses in the middle of a gunfight to build a little monument to the event out of some nearby rocks. That tendency toward myth-making is the exact thing that makes us love cinema in the first place. And aren’t all our most important parables really just little genre movies?

Honorable mentions:
I got to see Volker Schlondörff’s weird and compelling The Tin Drum a couple weeks before it came out on Criterion Blu-ray because they were nice enough to send it to me to review. But I thought putting it on this list when the disc I watched wasn’t technically released until 2013 was a bit of a cheat.

Hayao Miyazaki’s early work Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind contains most of the stuff I love about the director. Namely, the realizing of images whose impact comes from the fact that they seem to live deep in our universal, collective unconscious. That said, the movie is also ridiculously convoluted.

The very particular capitalization of Felix Venable’s 1965 crazy, experimental short “Les Anges Dorment” should be a clue that it’s all about LSD. Venable was an important psychedelic filmmaker who unfortunately died only five years after making this highly effective attempt to recreate the effects of the hallucinogenic drug. He was also a close friend of Jim Morrison’s but I wouldn’t hold that against him.

Tyler -
As far as older movies go, 2012 has proven to be a veritable grab-bag of different genres and styles for me. It has been a year in which I finally got around to watching a few classics that I had always meant to see, as well as a series of obligations that, in some cases, wound up being pleasant surprises.

A few of the notable films include Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire, which I found to be beautiful and haunting, but narratively empty. I also finally watched Robert Downey's Putney Swope, a gonzo little film that anti-establishment contrarians will want to take notes on. After seeing a few clips when I was a kid, I became fascinated by Bob Balaban's horror-comedy Parents, which I saw in its entirety this past year. A fascinating and disturbing film that owes more than a little to David Lynch's Blue Velvet, Parents heroically tries to push through the polished veneer of the 1950s to the comically strange world underneath. Being a fan of the first Babe, I was inspired to watch Babe: Pig in the City, a surprisingly expressionistic children's film that seems like something out of a particularly dark Roald Dahl book; a real delight.

There are several other films, but I've decided to count down my ten favorite pre-2000 films that I saw in 2012. They are as follows:

10. STREET ASYLUM (1990) - In the late '80s and early '90s, everybody was fascinated with the seemingly endless stories of corruption and brutality in the Los Angeles Police Department, and of the police in general. There were several films made at this time that explored and questioned the methods of post-Reagan law enforcement. A manic little science fiction thriller called Street Asylum set a new standard, as far as I'm concerned, in cop-related paranoia. Through a series of experiments, Los Angeles police officers find themselves more driven than ever to brutalize criminals, before they eventually go insane. The man behind this plot? An ambitious mayoral candidate played by real life Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy. Wait, what?
9. THE PROWLER (1951) - Speaking of insane police officers, Joseph Losey's The Prowler is a lesser known film noir about a wisecracking cop sent to investigate a possible prowler outside the home of a beautiful woman. The cop becomes more obsessed with the woman, and eventually plots to murder her husband so they can finally be together. This seems easy, but the situation turns desperate as the plan starts to unravel. The Prowler is disturbing not merely for the cop's initial plan, but for the panicked performance by Van Heflin as a man trying desperately to ignore that his life is coming apart.

8. LA JETEE (1962) - Chris Marker's story is ostensibly about time travel, but also explores the sad, fleeting nature of love and relationships. The fact that it is told through still images- and thus makes it seem like we are looking through the photo album of somebody's memories- serves to make the film all the more ethereal and intangible. This stylish, experimental film may only be 30 minutes, but that proves more than enough time to haunt you long after it is over.

7. THREE OUTLAW SAMURAI (1964) - Hideo Gosha's stripped-down samurai film has a raw quality that pulls us into the action, like we're right there in the middle of the fight. The fight choreography is messy and unpredictable, which puts us on the edge of our seat. And the volatility of the characters involved- even and especially our three heroes- helps to keep us guessing as to what will happen next. Three Outlaw Samurai is a film that I wasn't really expecting to like, but won't soon forget.

6. ARTHUR (1981) - That rare film that only wanted to be entertaining, but, in retrospect, wound up being a portrait of its time. While Dudley Moore is truly, genuinely hilarious as a spoiled millionaire, his ability to suggest a desperate desire to be more than the hundreds of millions of dollars he is worth makes this film a funny- yet poignant- exploration of the limits of excess at a time when excess was the height of the American dream.

5. VANYA ON 42nd STREET (1994) - What a wonderful and magical film this is, all while seeming like a simple documentary about a stage production. For years, a troupe of actors got together to run through Chekhov's Uncle Vanya. They did not do this for an audience, but for themselves. A desire to explore their characters out from under the watchful eye of the spectator allowed them to go places artistically, and personally, that they had never gone before. By the end, there really seemed to be no difference between actor and character. Louis Malle's documentary expertly blends the performance and the process to such a degree that they soon become one and the same.

4. BREATHLESS(1960) - I'm very late to the game on this one. Having previously only seen Godard's Band of Outsiders, I was not a huge fan of the director. The jaunty, shallow characters just didn't hold my interest. So, for years, when people insisted that I see Breathless, I replied that I'm sure the film was good, but that I likely wouldn't enjoy it. I'm happy to report that I was very wrong. In Breathless, Godard presents us with the same time of image-conscious, posturing characters as in Band of Outsiders, but he is much more willing to delve into what makes them tick. And, sure enough, he finds a wellspring of unhappiness, mixed with a childlike desire to be loved, admired, and taken seriously. It is all the more heartbreaking when our hero- so eager to find somebody he trusts- is sold out. But, then, perhaps that was the best gift somebody could have given to a man who wanted nothing more than to be a cool, Bogart-like anti-hero.

3. SCARLET STREET (1945) - Fritz Lang's bitter little film noir starts things off right by subverting our expectations and casting tough guy Edward G. Robinson as a henpecked, nebbish bank teller who falls in love with an undependable floozy. He lies to her about his career, telling her that he is, in fact, a successful painter. This grabs the attention of the woman's abusive boyfriend, who uses her to seduce money from the poor bank teller. The film ends like so many others, with everybody losing. But, unlike films like Double Indemnity or The Maltese Falcon, whose nihilistic endings cause us to nod our heads in artistic approval, Scarlet Street has the power to legitimately make us wonder just what the hell is the point of all this. This may not seem like high praise, but, for a film noir, it's the highest.

2. THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO (1998) - Whit Stillman's loving ensemble comedy about yuppies in the early '80s is both smart and sassy. It explores language and communication as a way of distancing ourselves from one another, when it should be bringing us together. These characters are intelligent and articulate, but they soon come to realize that this will not save them from themselves. Stillman clearly has a deep love and affection for his characters, while also understanding that they are empty, narcissistic people who very much deserve what's coming to them.

1. THIS HAPPY BREED (1944) - When we think of David Lean, we think of Peter O'Toole in the desert, or a bridge blowing up, or a train trudging across a vast, frozen tundra. Lean is, first and foremost, a director of epics. And yet we often forget that his ability to work with actors, and his obsessive attention to detail, has also served him well in the various character studies that he has directed. This Happy Breed, based on the play by Noel Coward, follows the life of an upper middle class British couple shortly after World War I, when they settle down into their new home. It follows this couple over the years, as they have children, get new jobs, and eventually weather a second war; one that brings the fighting to their own doorstep. This Happy Breed is fascinating in its ability to be funny, heartbreaking, inspiring, and angering all while seeming to do almost nothing. People come and go, relationships are broken and mended, lives are lost, and still our normal, unassuming family carries on. It is a deeply affecting film that demonstrates that David Lean may be known for his large scale, big budget extravaganzas, but he realized that there is plenty of grandeur in the emotional epics happening behind the front door of even the most seemingly uninteresting home.


Robert M. Lindsey said...

Dark Wind looks great. I really like Lou Diamond Phillips in everything I see him in.

The Damned Don't Cry is on my to watch list.

"The shot of Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger sitting on a bench in the muggy heat and not talking is practically an end in itself." So true, so true.

Scarlett Street (which I just watched for the first time in 2012) is one of the 3 essential Flims Noir.

This Happy Breed sounds fabulous, can't wait to watch it.

SteveQ said...

So glad to see someone else has seen La Jetee (and even more so to not mention "12 Monkeys" in the same breath)!

Anonymous said...

There have long been admirers of DEVIL, PROBABLY. Unfortunately, for many years, it was hard to see in the U.S.. I don't think it EVER got an official VHS release, and is only rather recently come out on DVD.
In fact, the first time I saw it about 10 years ago, it was part of a "Not on Home Video" film series!!