Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Film Discoveries of 2013 - James Napoli ""

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2013 - James Napoli

James is a close personal friend of mine and we bonded early right away when we met over a love of KING OF COMEDY and THE WIRE among many other things.
You can visit him on the web at
(and on Twitter @JamesNapoli)
Son of Frankenstein (1939)
 How in the hell did I miss this one in the first place? I guess I’ve never been big on sequels and so perhaps I avoided the many spin-offs that were part and parcel to the Universal Horror era. At any rate, this may well be the Godfather IIof vintage monster movies (even though it’s actually the third film in the Frankenstein series and was not directed by James Whale). This one, with Rowland V. Lee at the helm, is smart, cheeky, irreverent and full of wonderful, atmospheric set pieces every bit as fun as the Whale films. It even has a pretty cool plot, with the unforgettable Ygor, played by Bela Lugosi, reviving the Frankenstein monster to kill off a bunch of his enemies from the past. Plus, there are several very clear inspirations for Mel Brooks’ homage some years later. Very glad to have finally caught up to this classic.

Ninotchka (1939)
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch and co-written by the legendary team of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett (plus Walter Reisch), again, I had to wonder how I waited so long to check this one out. (Weirdly enough, it was released in the same year as Son of Frankenstein.)  The movie tells the story of a Russian envoy (Greta Garbo) who comes to America to deport a trio of jewelers selling royal property, and in the process falls for everything the U.S. has to offer. The wry socio-political statement is typical of Wilder, and the fluid direction is typical of Lubitsch, but it is Garbo who walks away with this one. The movie loses a little steam once Ninotchka starts to weaken and love the West, but the first third of it, with Garbo giving an impossibly funny deadpan performance as a died-in-the-wool proletarian, is so good you could watch it three times, which would constitute a full-length movie right there.  

Brief Encounter (1945)
What a shock to learn in this DVD’s bonus materials that its director David Lean hated it! (Although they say it was because he was bruised when it did not perform well in Britain’s box office upon its initial release.) This achingly romantic story of a suburban English housewife (Celia Johnson) whose chance encounter at a train station with a doctor (Trevor Howard) makes her question her loveless marriage takes us right along on a heady ride through repressed anguish and inner torment. From a play by Noel Coward, who was also one of the co-authors of the screenplay, this is one of several collaborations between Coward and Lean, before the latter made the sweeping epics with which he is more commonly associated. But this is every bit an epic of the human heart, and the effortlessly emotive Celia Johnson has such a cinema-friendly face that she holds the screen with every look and gesture. Well worth checking out and transporting yourself to another time.  

Forbidden Games (1952)
It may sound like a Michael Haneke New French Extremism home invasion movie, but nothing could be further from the truth. I don’t remember how I got put onto this film, but I am happy to put others onto it post haste. Set during World War II France, Rene Clement’s film follows the fate of a little city girl who loses her parents during an air raid (an unforgettable scene) and finds morbid, childlike ways of coping with the death and destruction around her when she is taken in by a farming family.  The final image will either haunt you forever or make you sob your eyes out. Probably both.

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985)
Paul Schrader’s sort-of cult film is a knockout. Using four separate, stylized narratives to explore the life of Japan’s Yukio Mishima, a controversial best-selling author who rose from an enfeebled childhood to form his own ideological army and launch an attempt to stage a military takeover (yes, it really happened).  Very much an art film, but consistently compelling and ambitious (plus beautifully photographed by John Bailey and with a score by Philip Glass), this is a movie that everyone should open their minds to.

Buffalo ’66 (1998)
Maybe it was just the reputation of Vincent Gallo as a self-indulgent and exploitive nut job that made me avoid this one for so many years. I couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised by this endearingly good-natured, if certainly nasty, weird and edgy meditation on alienation and need. The chemistry between Gallo’s twitchy and rather insane protagonist and his abductee/eventual girlfriend Christina Ricci is infectious. The flat, presentational style suits the uber-indie subject matter, and Gallo resists the temptation to overplay, keeping us on guard and willing to give him the benefit of the doubt all the way through. And his utterly dysfunctional parents, played with zeal by Anjelica Huston and Ben Gazzara, are so creepy and unsettling you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Which is pretty much how the movie itself leaves you feeling, in the best possible way.

Our Friends in the North (1996)
Hoping Rupert will indulge the inclusion of an epic television movie on my list. I stumbled upon it this year and it made such an impression that it seemed only fair to get the word out (especially since it is not readily available, and some kind soul currently has the whole series posted on YouTube). This one rightly earns the title of a “discovery,” and, if asked to make my case further, I could add that this is the project that put Daniel Craig on the fast track to superstardom. The series follows four friends in the English town of Newcastle upon Tyne from 1964 to 1995 as they try to find their way amid corrupt politicians, murderous pornography merchants (led by Malcom McDowell!), relationships to their parents and each other, and the economic and social crises facing England at the time. Written by Peter Flannery and starring Craig along with Christopher Eccleston (the ninth Doctor Who, fans!), Gina McKee and Mark Strong, the nine episodes are exhilarating, authentic and heartbreaking. Non-Anglophiles might find some of the local politics tough to follow, but the series does a great job of making it mostly universal as a shared disillusioning experience.  When the program ends, we really feel like we have lived, suffered and celebrated with these people as they experience thirty or so years of their lives. And there are some great musical selections, too. Check it out.  


SteveQ said...

Forbidden Games is one of the few films that ever made me cry, but it wasn't the final scene, it was at the beginning, when the little girl's lost her parents and is carrying her dead dog.

[Really, folks, watch it. It's not that sad!]

Unknown said...

Yeah, that scene was devastating. Right, movie as a whole is not that sad, but laced with tragedy. Thanks for commenting on the selection!