Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Film Discoveries of 2013 - David Blakeslee ""

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2013 - David Blakeslee

Since 2009, David Blakeslee has been systematically blogging his way through the films released by the Criterion Collection. On January 1 of that year, he created a checklist of all the titles, arranged in order of original chronological release, beginning with 1922’s Nanook of the North, and he’s been watching and writing about them in sequence ever since, updating his list as needed as new releases occur. So far, he’s worked his way up to 1964, and you can follow along on his trek by visiting his Criterion Reflections blog. In 2010, he began writing for CriterionCast.com, which hosts his Journey Through the Eclipse Series column along with other reviews of various films released by Criterion, Kino Lorber and other publishers, as well as the occasional guest appearance on their podcast. David lives near Grand Rapids MI.
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Five Favorite Film Discoveries of 2013
Looking back over the list of 66 (and counting) reviews that I’ve written over the course of this year, here are a few titles that genuinely jump out at me as surprisingly better than I was expecting to find, based on my presumptions going in. The first three are films that I reviewed as part of my obsessive exploration of Criterion films. The last two are one-offs that were sent my way quite unexpectedly but turned out to be among my most memorable viewing experiences of 2013.

I Hate But Love (1962)
Back in January, I was pretty astounded by the emotional range covered in director Koreyoshi Kurahara’s offbeat take on the celebrity pop culture of early 1960s Japan. I Hate But Love is two steps removed from the real-life mania experienced by its real-life teen idol heartthrobs Yujiro Ishihara and Ruriko Asaoka. The names may not be familiar to most readers here, but in their time and place, they were every bit as famous as Elvis Presley, Ann-Margret, Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello were in that same era. The big difference is the relative freedom that Yujiro and Ruriko had to unleash more visceral emotions in telling the story of a frustrated movie star who wants nothing more than to escape the cage of endless scrutiny that is the price of fame and adoration. He is the star, she is the manager who sets off in frantic pursuit when her meal ticket impulsively chooses to embark on a long road trip that stretches out across nearly the entire length of Japan. The plot serves as a great premise for a unique road movie that offers a generous portion of local sights, cultural festivities and Kurahara’s trademark ferocity when it comes to hyperkinetic camera moves. Though I came into the film already a confirmed fan of the late 50s “sun tribe” films of Japan, this title had a vibrancy I didn’t quite expect but was happy to enjoy.

Yoyo (1965) /Le Grand Amour (1969)
 
Rumors of an impending Criterion release of films by Pierre Etaix had been swirling around for a year or more before the box set bearing his name was confirmed back on January 15. We weren’t sure if the films would come out bearing the Eclipse Series logo or if any of them would warrant standalone releases, but there was certainly a lot of curiosity generated by the news that this disciple of Jacques Tati would soon be freed from the decades of legal limbo that had kept his work under lock and key for the past several decades. Fortunately, all that build-up was more than justified when I had a chance to view both Yoyo and Le Grand Amour as screeners for the Portland International Film Festival, prior to their release on blu-ray last spring. After having seen the rest of the features on that set, I feel safe in saying that these two are the best of the bunch, each of them displaying an admirable balance of sweet, self-deprecating humor and bold confidence to present Etaix’s indisputable comedic gifts on the artist’s own terms. Yoyo interweaves a bittersweet family comedy with a sly recapitulation of the development of 20th century cinema, while Le Grand Amour applies Etaix’s deft touch in constructing clever and  memorably humorous visuals to the impact of the late 1960s sexual revolution on an average middle class marriage. Just like Tati at his most sublime, both films transcend mere comedy to speak more knowingly to the condition of our lives.

Hands Over The City (1963)
As I spelled out in the review over on my Criterion Reflections blog, I didn’t have very high hopes for Francesco Rosi’s Hands Over the City when I sat down to watch it last May. After all, how much enjoyment should one expect to get from a film focused on corrupt goings-on in the Italian real estate business? Nobody I knew had ever had anything particularly positive to say about it either, so my expectation was that I’d give it a cursory viewing, write up a quick essay and move on to something else. Boy, was I pleasantly surprised to find it one of the most compelling films I saw all year. As I said in my review, it’s “a serious movie, one that requires close attention and a fair amount of concentration to understand the significance of what takes place in the many verbal exchanges between various stakeholders in the controversies. Fortunately, Rosi's directorial skills are such that he's created a film that succeeds on the basis of its drama and cinematography as well, with stark and crisply defined, high contrast monochrome images assisting our eye in staying focused.” The extra bit of effort paid off handsomely for me in providing a useful and surprisingly sharp tool, despite its age, for analyzing much of the political gridlock, corruption and obstruction that plagues discourse at all levels of our government in 2013. 

Free Radicals: A History of Experimental Film (2012)
Even though the title I’m reviewing here bears a 2010 release date, I think I’m still in keeping with the rules of this site that celebrates “older films.” Free Radicals is largely a compilation of many abstract and avant garde short subjects shot mainly between the 1920s and the 1960s, by such pioneers as Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, Len Lye and Hans Richter. If the names aren’t quite familiar, this DVD released by Kino earlier this year is probably the most convenient introduction to their work that you’ll find this side of YouTube (where some of these films can be found, but without the helpful explanatory context in which director Pip Chodorov frames them.) Chodorov grew up knowing many of these artists himself and has done his best to follow in their steps, even though the cinematic landscape has changed so much over the past several decades as video has become the medium of choice for low-budget auteurs. Between the archival segments that preserve and present these obscurities for a contemporary audience and the priceless interviews offered by their elderly creators, we’re given a glimpse of an exciting, free-wheeling era of anything-goes experimentalism that may prove to be quite illuminating to anyone who’s been befuddled by the strange scratchings, bright colors, geometric convulsions and chaotic absurdity found in this microgenre of expressionistic cinema.

Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room (2012)
    
Another DVD documentary that qualifies (imo) as a discovery of older film is Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room, the remarkable chronicle of one of the most preeminent child movie stars of her times. Baby Peggy (Peggy Jean Montgomery) was nothing short of a global phenomenon back in the early 1920s, but her abrupt departure from show business and a lack of adequate measures to preserve most of the 50+ films she appeared in over the course of a few years have rendered her all but forgotten ever since. That is, until a few years ago, when her story of family abuse and exploitation was publicized and the few titles that still remain of her work finally got the attention they deserve. In the DVD’s title feature, director Vera Iwerebor provides generous excerpts from those films to round out contemporary interviews with Montgomery and many of her friends, family and professional acquaintances that tell an inspiring story that goes well beyond a summary of fame and fortune swiftly acquired and just as rapidly squandered. It’s a great tale of redemption that I think most viewers will find moving and enlightening. The inclusion of three vintage short films and a full-length (hour long) silent feature, all featuring Baby Peggy at her most charming and adorable - truly, the kid was possessed of uncanny performing instincts, all of which flowed naturally, without any of the rigorous coaching and oversight common in today’s wannabe child celebrities - give the disc a vitality and staying power that I’m glad to have in my increasingly eclectic home video collection.

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