Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Film Discoveries of 2013 - Jonathan Hertzberg ""

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2013 - Jonathan Hertzberg

Jonathan Hertzberg is a longtime personal friend of mine and he runs the Obscure One-Sheet Blog:
He has turned me on to countless films over the years and my lists often contain movies I may not have watched if not for his urging. My Underrated Dramas list, for example, contains Alan Parker's SHOOT THE MOON  which is a movie I saw because of Mr. Hertzberg. Needless to say , he is a driven cinephile, constantly seeking out older films to discover. 
Check out his excellent "Dirty Old New York" Series of videos, which are wonderful pastiches of scenes from films shot in old New York City(the way I'd like to remember it):

1) "Dirty Old New York Subway"
2) "Dirty Old New York aka Fun City, Part I"
3) "Dirty Old New York aka Fun City, Part II" 

--------------- I had less "in-theater" rep screening experiences this year, as more and more houses transitioned to digital projection and new studio-sanctioned 35mm restorations gave way to DCP restorations.  The latter just don't entice me in the same way that a celluloid version would.

In alphabetical order are ten of my favorite "repertory discoveries" this past year...

And Hope to Die (1972, Rene Clement, 35mm).  I saw this at the tail end of 2012, but after I submitted my '12 list to Rupert, so I'm including it here.  Clement's Quebec-set crime thriller stars Jean-Louis Trintignant--acting in English--as Froggy (fancy that!), a crook on the run who hides out with another gang of criminals led by Robert Ryan.  I found something refreshingly Leone-esque here, with its use of flashbacks and portrayal of male camaraderie amongst criminals, particularly the two stars.  The film goes up a few more notches for using Montreal (too rarely seen in English-language films) for a number of key scenes.  The supporting cast includes Lea Massari, the great Aldo Ray, and Tisa Farrow, who lent her presence to a number of enduring cult favorites of the '70s before hanging up her acting shoes. Cinematography is by Welles and Bunuel favorite Edmond Richard and music by Francis Lai, a maestro who can often give Maestro Morricone a run for his money when it comes to memorable, pop-oriented film themes.

Barry Lyndon (1975, Stanley Kubrick, Blu-ray).  I couldn't provide a definitive reason for why I took so long to finally see this sublime masterpiece; suffice it to say, once seen, it rose to the top of my list of favorite Kubrick films.  From the now justifiably famous candlelit cinematography by John Alcott to the script by Kubrick to the Michael Hordern narration to the completely authentic-looking locations to the music adaptation and score by Leonard Rosenman to Ryan O'Neal in the titular role, this is a perfect film.  In recent years, I've also finally crossed off Polanski's Tess and Scorsese's The Age of Innocence and, like Barry Lyndon, I now count them as my favorite or near-favorite films in those directors' oeuvres.  All three, period literary adaptations which stand in their respective directors' careers as unique or atypical, on the surface anyway.  After finding myself profoundly moved after each film, I found myself asking myself the same question: "What the hell took me so long?!"

Experiment in Terror (1962, Blake Edwards, Blu-ray).  From the first strains of Mancini's magnificent score and the glorious nocturnal San Francisco photography by Philip Lathrop, I was hooked.  The Twilight Time Blu-ray shows off both assets beautifully, only being outdone by a fresh 35mm print. Lee Remick, who earlier starred in another of my favorite 2013 rep discoveries, Anatomy of a Murder, is so good as the young bank teller being stalked by Ross Martin's psychopath. There's a fascinating dichotomy here between the now-quaint portrayal of the law enforcement process and kindly FBI agent Glenn Ford and the forward-looking portrayal (i.e. surprisingly frank and unrestrained) of the villain who foreshadows future cinematic sociopaths like Hannibal Lecter in his viciousness and twisted humor. Remick's Kelly Sherwood, an independent, resourceful heroine who is guardian to her kid sister (Stefanie Powers), reenforces the idea that this is a progressive, ahead-of-its-time thriller.  Baseball fans will love the use of the Giants, Dodgers, and the voice of the great Vin Scully for the white-knuckle climax at (the just-shuttered) Candlestick Park.

Just Before Dawn (1981, Jeff Lieberman, Blu-ray).  Lieberman infuses new life into what is, on paper, a derivative and tired premise.  Five young people drive into the mountains in their camper for a weekend of camping in the woods (scenic Silver Falls State Park in Oregon), despite multiple warnings to turn back.  The filmmaker does away with the buckets of gore that normally go with the slasher film in favor of strong atmosphere and well-crafted suspense. Lieberman is aided by strong tech credits, particularly Brad Fiedel's uber-creepy, minimal electronic score, art direction by Craig Stearns (who was just coming off The Fog), and evocative lensing by Dean and Joel King.  The game cast is especially strong and a lot better than what usually finds in this sub-genre.  The older generation is represented by Mike Kellin, as the survivor of a bloody attack at the start of the film, and George Kennedy (quite restrained here) as a park ranger.  The doomed youngsters are well played by Gregg Henry (who previously starred with Kennedy in Mean Dog Blues), Chris Lemmon (son of Jack), Deborah Benson (of Bridges' 9/30/55), Ralph Seymour (looking a lot like John Friedrich, who starred in another early '80s backwoods horror, The Final Terror), and Jamie Rose.

Laughter in Hell (1933, Edward L. Cahn, 35mm).  I haven't been more excited about a screening for as long as I can remember.  I wrote about it on this site already, but I'm compelled to double dip this time.  Since I first read about this film several years ago when doing research for a paper on chain gang films, I'd been dying to see it...but I couldn't since it was considered lost.  Recently revived at Film Forum (where I saw it) and prior to that, at the Egyptian, for a celebration of the life and career of Laughter in Hell author Jim Tully, the film was out of circulation for decades as far as I can tell. In its fast-moving 70 minutes, a lot happens, as is typical of pre-Code fare, and, of course, there is much eyebrow-raising content, particularly for those unschooled in Hollywood cinema of the late '20s and early '30s.  Hard-working train conductor Pat O'Brien finds himself in a jealous rage when he discovers his wife has been two-timing him with a childhood rival and, following the rather disturbingly-staged crime of passion, ends up in a brutal prison camp run by the sadistic brother of the man he killed.  But, that's only the beginning.  Cahn and the writers take the film into something of a Depression-era Grimm's fairytale place and the overall result is a fascinating, often bizarre, and moving piece. Hopefully, the print will make its way to more rep houses and eventually to packaged, shiny plastic discs.

Little Fugitive (1953, Morris Engel, 35mm).  Engel and his future wife Ruth Orkin brilliantly capture a day in the life of early '50s Brooklyn, particularly Coney Island, as seen through the eyes of an adorable 7 year-old boy (Richie Andrusco).  Engel had the then-revolutionary idea to shoot a feature with a concealed 35mm camera, using a non-professional cast, and thousands of real New Yorkers completely unaware a film was being produced in front of them.  The resulting film contains the expected docu-realism, but is also deeply entertaining and ultimately quite affecting.  Another fine re-release by my friend Jake.  Get the Blu-ray and DVD here.

Pillaged (1967, Alain Cavalier, 35mm).  Cavalier's taut, unsentimental, and darkly humorous heist film is one of the best Donald E. Westlake (writing as Richard Stark) film adaptations out there and also one of the most difficult to see.  Genre vet Michel Constantin leads a game cast on a score that almost goes swimmingly. Constantin essays the "Parker role"--famously also filled by Lee Marvin, Robert Duvall, Mel Gibson, Jason Statham, and others--brilliantly.  There's nary a dull moment in Cavalier's intelligent take on this well-worn concept.  For me, transplanting Westlake's novel The Score from the U.S. to rural France adds to the level of interest and overall effectiveness of the film.  The atmosphere is aided immensely by the nighttime, small town French milieu, as photographed by Cavalier and Pierre Lhomme, and the haunting, minimalist score by Jean Prodromides.

Variety (1983, Bette Gordon, DVD).  Working on an ongoing video essay project entitled Dirty Old New York aka Fun City has given me the opportunity to visit many old favorites and also discover a number of new ones.  For those like me who crave filmed depictions of "dirty old New York" locales, Variety offers a veritable cornucopia, but it's also a brilliant reversal of the the "male gaze," as porn theater ticket taker Sandy McLeod takes to stalking one of her male clients from old Yankee Stadium to pre-revival Asbury Park.  Gordon proved prescient with her casting, uncovering future character actor extraordinaires Luis Guzman, Will Patton, and Mark Boone Junior.  The screenplay is by pioneering punk feminist writer Kathy Acker.  Look for photographer Nan Goldin as one of McLeod's pals; Goldin's work would later be used to represent that of Ally Sheedy's fictional photographer in High Art.

Wanda (1970, Barbara Loden, DVD).  This one's been on my "to see" list since I read about it in Rupe's favorite book, Guide for the Film Fanatic, over 20 years ago.  I missed it when it was revived a number of times here in New York in the last several years and the DVD, which my friend Mimi put out through her Parlour Pictures, has been sitting shrinkwrapped on my shelf for a few years.  Again, "what took me so damn long" now that the film's been available for awhile?  No clue really, but obviously since I put it on this list, it did not disappoint.  This is one of the most vital, uncompromising, and influential American independents--where that word actually means something--and not just because it's directed by a woman.  Images of Loden, dressed in white and walking by herself amongst big piles of coal in desolate coal region Pennsylvania continue to haunt me.  As the inarticulate, passive Wanda, Loden is alternately fascinating and heartbreaking.  Usually relegated to supporting parts in studio fare of the '60s-'80s, co-star Michael Higgins is never less than convincing as the career thief who Wanda tags along with on an ill-fated road trip. Largely improvisational and deliberately paced, the maturity of this piece, belies its status as a "directorial debut."  Loden is fully in control in front of and behind the camera in what she considered a story and character very close to her own hardscrabble, backcountry upbringing.  Her then-husband Elia Kazan offered mostly patronizing comments about Loden and her work on Wanda, but don't let that stop you from seeing this ever-impressive film.

Wild River (1960, Elia Kazan, Blu-ray).  A Kazan home run that's somehow remained relatively under-the-radar (coming very late to DVD / Blu) within his oeuvre.  Montgomery Clift submits one of his best and most sensitive (in a career filled with them) onscreen performances as a Depression-era, idealistic government worker sent to a rural area along the Tennessee River that's going to be flooded for the construction of a new dam.  Matriarch Jo Van Fleet (made up to look much older) refuses to pack up her extended brood, which includes Lee Remick (making her second appearance on my list, which could easily be 3, if I'd included Anatomy of a Murder), and get off soon-to-be-underwater land.  With sumptuous black and white Scope photography by Ellsworth Fredericks, excellent Kenyon Hopkins score, script by Paul Osborn (who, not surprisingly to me, also penned East of Eden, which also should probably be on my list this year), no shortage of great performances, and some of Kazan's (an Academy favorite if there ever was one) best direction, it's truly a wonder that this film was completely shut out of the major awards at the end of its release year.  Barbara Loden, seen above, makes her film debut and first of two appearances in Kazan films.


Will Errickson said...

I felt the same way about BARRY LYNDON! Had no expectation I would like it so, so much, more so than other Kubrick faves. A real thrill. It's great to learn that movies from the past can still do that to you.

Ned Merrill said...

Most definitely, Will. It's hard for me to conceive of too many greater thrills than when one of those "movies from the past" works you over that way.