Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Film Discoveries of 2013 - Sean Gilman & Mike Strenski (of The George Sanders Show Podcast) ""

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2013 - Sean Gilman & Mike Strenski (of The George Sanders Show Podcast)

Late in 2013, I discovered a little movie podcast called The George Sanders Show. I became immediately obsessed with it and listened to every episode. I found myself quite intrigued with both Mike and Sean (the show's co-hosts) and really got into their offbeat choices for double features of films to talk about on the podcast (ISHTAR & SONS OF THE DESERT or GUN CRAZY & POINT BREAK are two great examples). I especially liked their show dedicated to their own Sight & Sound Top Tens and was even inspired enough to do one myself because of it:
So anyway, it should go without saying that I am a big fan of The George Sanders Show (which you should check out if you haven't) and was honored to get these two gentlemen to contribute discoveries lists. Check out both the lists below and listen to The George Sanders Show if you enjoy knowledgeable old film talk like I do.

Sean Gilman's List:
The vast majority of the movies I watched in 2013 were from Hong Kong. Not for any particular reason, I just got hooked earlier in the year by Johnnie To, then got hooked again by Sammo Hung for the summer and then went back to To for the fall. I discovered a bunch of great new-to-me films and filmmakers along the way (Patrick Tam, Chor Yuen, Ann Hui, Peter Chan and Sammo himself) and dived deeper into the careers of directors and stars I’d already admired (Tsui Hark, Lau Kar-leung, Chang Cheh, King Hu, John Woo and more). But I also saw a lot of great non-Hong Kong movies this year and I want to acknowledge them too. So here are some of my favorite pre-2000 film discoveries this year, from Hong Kong and from the rest of the world.

1Comrades: Almost a Love Story (Peter Chan, 1996)
Leon Lai plays a recent immigrant from the mainland trying to get by in ultra-modern 80s Hong Kong. He makes friends with streetwise Maggie Cheung, who works a zillion jobs and shares his love for the music of Teresa Teng, a taste that marks them as hopeless rubes. They become friends, marry other people, fall in love, separate and find each other a decade later on the other side of the world. It’s just about the most romantic thing ever, and features great supporting turns from Eric Tsang (playing against his comic dope type as Maggie’s gangster lover) and none other than Christopher Doyle as a drunken English instructor.

2. Peking Opera Blues (Tsui Hark, 1986)
One of the few films I watched twice this year is Tsui Hark’s masterpiece genremashup of comedy, action, opera,romance and historical epic. Three women (Brigitte Lin as an androgynous rebel agent, Cherie Chung as a thieving musician and Sally Yeh as a wanna-be actor) get caught up in a plot to steal some MacGuffins from the local warlord.Packed with gender-reversals, love triangles both explicit and merely hinted at, and a scattershot anarchic subversion of traditional values and political structures, Tsui tangles and deepens the character relationships while maintaining a breezy pace punctuated by spectacular Ching Siu-tung-coordinatedaction sequences.

3Wheels on Meals and Pedicab Driver(Sammo Hung, 1984 & 1989)
OK, so I’m cheating a bit. But I couldn’t choose between these two Sammo Hung films. The first finds Sammo and his lifelong pals Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao in Barcelona (a Barcelona where everyone speaks Cantonese, of course). Chan and Yuen run a food truck (an amazingly tricked-out yellow van) andSammo is an aspiring private detective on a case. The three join forces to, more or less, rescue a princess from a castle. Packed with great gags, horrifying wardrobe choices and the expected awe-inspiring stunts, include one of the most brutal fights of Chan’s career. The second film is one of Sammo’s darkest, following the plights of the very poor in Hong Kong as they eke out life despite being prey for gangster pimps and the rich. The best fight sequence is a showdown between Sammo and one of his idols, Lau Kar-leung, but the best scenes are the ones where the poor immigrants reason out the moral implications of the plot, showing a strong sense of community and a surprising amount of empathy for a filmmaker generally noted for outrageouslyslapstick violence.

4. Nomad (Patrick Tam, 1982)
One of the great films of the Hong Kong New Wave, an influx of young directors moving from television into film in the late 70s and integrating a more modern, European-influenced realism to HK cinema in both genre films and straight dramas, often focusing on youth culture. Along with Yim Ho’s harrowing The Happening and Tsui Hark’s incendiaryDangerous Encounters – First Kind,Nomad depicts a lost generation, rootless kids who grew up transplanted to Hong Kong in the wake of World War, civil war and Cultural Revolution. A slice of life teenager film for most of its run, with a sense of impending doom that erupts in the film’s haunting final scenes.Features a great early performance from Leslie Cheung.

5. Dirty Ho (Lau Kar-leung, 1976)
One of the saddest events of the film year was the death of director/choreographer/actor Lau Kar-leung. I ended up watching orrewatching seven of his films this year,and this might be the best of them.Despite the (intentionally I suspect)hilarious title, it’s one of the most politically complex 70s kung fu films, with Gordon Liu’s master/hero ambivalent at best: he’s committed to a spiritual moral ideal, but that neither translates to a desire to improve social justice or subvert the class system that gives him the leisure time to pursue hisaesthetic and martial interests. The action scenes are some of Lau’s best, intricately choreographed group fights with a pair of three-person fights that rank with his most beautiful achievements.

6. The Red & The White (Miklós Jancsó, 1967)
The first film I’ve seen from Hungarian director Miklós Jancsó is the very best film I’ve seen as a result of The George Sanders Show. Set in the civil war that followed the Russian Revolution in a small patch of countryside (a castle, a farm, a hospital, a river) that constantly changes hands as one side and then the other takes charge. Linked by extraordinarily fluid long takes, the macabre dance that is the movements of men in war has never been more abstractly lovely and concretely hideous,stripping the war of its moral justifications with every prisoner forced into a deadly game of shirts and skins (as my co-host succinctly put it).

7. Yearning and Flowing (Mikio Naruse,1964 & 1956)
Before Johnnie To and Sammo Hung, the first filmmaker I became obsessed with this year was Mikio Naruse, the least well-known in the West of Japan’s big four classical directors. I watched 17 of his films in January, and while I loved a pair of his films starring Setsuko Hara,Repast and Sound of the Mountain, it’s these two that have stuck with me the most. Yearning stars Hideko Takamine as a widow who sacrifices everything for her dead husband’s family, running their small business and generally being unappreciated and condescended to, who finally takes a leap into freedom, only to end in one of the most devastating final shots I’ve seen. Flowingis a portrait of a network of women who live and work around a brothel in the final days of legalized prostitution. An amazing collection of talent, starring some of the greatest actresses of the 50s, Japanese or otherwise, and headed byIsuzu Yamada and Kinuyo Tanaka. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film with so many fully-realized and human female characters.

8. Whisper of the Heart and Only Yesterday (Yoshifumi Kondo, 1995 andIsao Takahata, 1991)
One of the projects I’m most anticipating taking on in 2014 is an exploration ofStudio Ghibli. Initially I was just going to focus on Hayao Miyazaki, but after watching these by two of his compatriots, I’m going to have to watch them all.Whisper not only manages the impossible task of making me love a John Denver song, it’s a lovely ode to the grinding near-impossibility of artistic creation. Yesterday owes a great influence to Naruse, the story of a young woman of the city who takes a train rideto the country, haunted by childhood memories. Apparently it’s the only Ghiblifilm Disney won’t release in the US because it acknowledges the existence of menstruation. (I suppose this is more controversial that the magical giant raccoon-dog testicles in Pom Poko.)

9. Lonesome and Applause (Paul Fejos, 1928 and Rouben Mamoulian1929)
Two relatively unheralded films from the early days of sound. Lonesome, mostly silent except for three inserted talking scenes (which are absolutely terrible) is a pinnacle of late-silent filmmaking, a city symphony of romantic longing and missed connections which indirectly proves how unnecessarily sound really is to cinema. Applausea seedy backstage musical released almost exactly two years after The Jazz Singer, gives the lie to the notion that early sound films were necessarily clunky and stage-bound, asMamoulian fully integrates the expressive visuals of the late silent period with the new technology. Taken together, they’re a reminder that our received wisdom about film history should always been taken as provisional, there are always new discoveries to be made.

10. A New Leaf (Elaine May, 1971)
The year’s most welcome revival, for me, was the release, finally, of Elaine May’sIshtar on Blu-Ray. My family were one of the few people who bought tickets to see it back in 1987, and not only did we pay money for it: we absolutely loved it. That year we even bought it on VHS and for years it was one of our most-watched tapes. For years I was certain the only people that liked it were related to me, so I was quite heartened by the warmth with which it has been received and rediscovered. But as much as I continue to love it, I have to admit that it pales in comparison with May’s directorial debut.Rich guy Walter Matthau (quickly becoming one of my all-time favorite actors), just about out of money, hatches a scheme to marry and then murder aclutzy, geeky heiress, played by the adorably appalling May. Dark, beautiful and silly in the most profound ways.

Mike Strenski's List:
2013 found me falling ever further down the cinematic rabbit hole, farther than I ever thought possible. Around this time last year I had just completed my goal of writing about all 52 theatrically-released Disney animated features. How could I possibly stoop any lower? The answer, my acquaintance, was the podcast.

As a way of getting Sean Gilman to interact with the outside world, this past summer I co-created The George Sanders Show, an entirely novel idea for a podcast that found Sean and me yakking about movies. The show has kindly returned the favor of existing by introducing me to a wealth of great motion pictures. However, having spent the better part of the last six months talking up the charms of The Roaring Twenties and The Chess Players, I am instead listing only the extracurricular features, the ones not discussed on the show, that subsequently won my heart this year.

Tally ho!

The Big Snooze (1946)
I recently read a quaint British novel called Miss Buncle's Bookoriginally published in 1934. The story concerns a small English village that is scandalized when one of their own writes a bestseller that uses the town and its people as the subjects. Events made up for the book soon start happening in real life, and by that I mean in the book. It's a book about books that features lengthy descriptions of passages that never existed, except that now they do because they're in the book. Miss Buncle's Book was meta long before the term was coined, which makes it all the more enjoyable, much like this ingenious Looney Tunes short from director Robert Clampett. Elmer Fudd is sick of playing the stooge to the irascible Bugs Bunny and so he tears up his contract, telling Mr. Warner to stuff it. Bugs pleads for Fudd's forgiveness but when that proves fruitless, the anarchic rabbit enters Elmer's dreams where he causes enough chaos to drive Fudd insane. It's a story about two fictional characters aware of their fictional environment that enter another fictional environment to wage war on one another's psyche. Or it's just a damn funny cartoon. Or both.

The Unholy Three (1925)
Tod Browning teaming up with Lon Chaney is akin to John Carpenter and Kurt Russell getting busy. You just knowsome crazy shit is about to go down. Chaney plays a grifting ventriloquist who poses as a grandma, and with the aid of a strongman and a midget they fleece the wealthy out of their fortunes. Oh, and Browning sees fit to unleash a homicidal gorilla in a rustic cabin.

County Hospital (1932)
The universe is a vast array of unanswerable questions buried beneath deep, dark mysteries. We strive to organize the world into lies our feeble minds can accept, when really, it's all just chaos. There are but a few universal truths in this waking life. One of them is that Stan Laurel driving Oliver Hardy crazy is awesome. He makes him so mad!

The Doll (1919)
One of the arguments made against today's rabid reliance on CGI is that it makes a movie's whole world seem fake. I certainly share these concerns when I see trailers for yet another bloated epic built around famous monuments crumbling or candy-colored "realms of imagination", but I would like to take a moment to praise artificiality of a sort. In 1919 director Ernst Lubitsch adapted a story about a timid man forced to marry so that he may receive his inheritance. To skirt the issue of his emasculation he marries what he thinks is an automaton, but in fact it is a real flesh-and-blood woman. This all takes place in an exaggerated storybook world full of impossible sets and flimsy facades. It is fake, fake, fake. And absolutely magical.

Lonesome (1928)
Speaking of technological advancements of dubious merit, director Paul Fejos was forced into sandwiching three sound scenes into his otherwise silent 1928 feature,LonesomeNearly a century removed from this decision, the awkward, clunky, shoehorned scenes are the one thing that stops this otherwise remarkable feature from reaching the heights of its spiritual brethrenSunrise. Two lonely people find each other when thrust into the throngsdescending upon a Coney Island holiday. They meet cute,ride rollercoasters, and fall in love. Then they're separated, dejected, and despondent. All in an one beautiful, hand-tinted day.

1 comment:

Spenser Hoyt said...

"Hard boiled eggs and nuts"