Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Film Discoveries of 2013 - Ross Birks ""

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2013 - Ross Birks

Ross' personal movie-based blog is called Tear Your Eyes Out (http://rossbirks.wordpress.com) and he can also be found on twitter at https://twitter.com/rossbirks. In addition to that, Ross also runs a video production company in the UK called Pictures & Noise.

1. The Devils (1971) 
Growing up in the UK, I’ve always been aware of Ken Russell’s The Devils as a notorious, forbidden specimen of home-grown cinema. Whenever anyone says the words “controversial movie” this is the first title that springs to mind. Watching The Devils last year, 42 years after it’s release was an amazing experience. Astonishingly, none of the film’s power has faded. It’s ability to shock and provoke is as potent as ever. Chaos reigns inThe Devilschaos of the flesh, chaos of caged passions and religious horror. Russell’s vision is so fierce and heightened that it had to be locked away in a vault and cut to ribbons. Even to this day it isn’t available in its original fully uncut form but it’s fire still burns. This is a brave and vivid masterwork. My favourite discovery of last year by a mile.
2. Black Sunday (1960) 
I jumped into Mario Bava’s filmography with both feet in 2013 but out of all the Bava movies I saw this remains my favourite. For all intents and purposes Black Sunday was Bava’s breakthrough movie and established him as an important new voice in horror. It’s a striking film in many ways, not just for the stunning gothic atmosphere and monochrome photography but in the way it combines vampirism and witchcraft lore to create an entirely new cinematic myth. Barbara Steele’s alluring performance is iconic - feral and erotic in equal measure and Bava’s skills behind the camera are felt in practically every frame.  An effective spine-tingler!

3. Wake In Fright (1971) 
When I think of Australian genre cinema, I often think of a grazed knee, red with blood but dry and darkened with grit and dirt. In a weird way that kind of sums up my thoughts about Ted Kotcheff’s Wake In Fright, which may be the best Australian movie I’ve ever seen. The way this movie is directed is so violent and visceral. It’s a savage, dizzying descent into outback debauchery. The more free beers John Grant (Gary Bond) accepts the more desperate and horribly surreal his ordeal becomes. Wake In Fright shows how certain corners of the world can eat a man whole then spit him out in tatters. To think this film was almost lost forever is terrifying. An incredible piece of filmmaking so frenzied it will leave you with a hangover.
4. Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) 
This is such a cool movie. John Sturges strikes me as a very masculine, tough filmmaker but one who had a terrific sense of humour and style. The set-up of Bad Day at Black Rock is beautifully simple: a one-armed Spencer Tracy arrives in the desert-town of Black Rock to find out who murdered his friend and he turns the entire place upside down in 24 hours. There’s a stellar ensemble which includes Lee Marvin, Walter Brennan, Ernest Borgnine, Anne Francis and Robert Ryan and seeing them all go up against Tracy’s badass is endlessly surprising. The way Sturges uses his CinemaScope lens to capture the desert landscapes is breathtaking and the film’s clever blend of noir and western sensibilities make it a unique cocktail. My only complaint is that it’s too short! I wanted it to go on forever.

5. Spider Baby or, The Maddest Story Ever Told (1964)
Spider Baby just screams CULT CLASSIC but it’s so rich with exciting, brilliant ideas and low-budget charm. It’s kind of like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre by the way of The Addams Family, telling the story of a bizarre cannibal clan led by Lon Chaney who have to keep up appearances as a normal, functioning family when some distant relatives show up. This might be the first film of it’s kind as it predates Texas Chainsaw by ten years. The thing I like about Jack Hill is how he operates very deeply in genre filmmaking and B-movies but there’s real care and craft to his writing and characters. They really do pop off of the screen and become embedded in your consciousness. Sid Haig gives a great, wordless performance too which is a highlight.   

6. The Knack…and How to Get It (1965) 
Richard Lester’s follow up to A Hard Day’s Night is another fantastically inventive romp through swinging sixties London. I watched this after finishing Steven Soderbergh’s bookGetting Away With It which features extensive interviews with Lester as it inspired me to check out the man’s work for myself. His energetic and playful editing style is really infectious and it genuinely feels like you’re watching a filmmaker burn the rulebook right in front of you. The french-new-wave influence is felt but Lester really does have a distinct vision of his own. Leading man Michael Crawford would go on to star in a famous British sitcom called Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em which would further showcase his, ahem, knack for physical comedy and his performance here is very sweet. It’d be great to see this film talked about a lot more. It deserves it.
7. Demons (1985) 
Oh my I’d been waiting to see this film for a long time. A horror movie directed by Mario Bava’s son and co-written by Dario Argento? Sign me up! The central concept is kind of perfect: a group of moviegoers end up trapped in a cinema when the events of the film they’re watching come to life in the form of bloodthirsty demons. The script is laughably bad in some places but it makes up for it with a few memorable character flourishes. There’s a great scene where a group of heavy metal thugs cruise around snorting cocaine through a straw from a Coca Cola can – how’s that for product placement? The soundtrack is surprisingly strong too, not just from the electronic scoe by Goblin keyboardist Claudio Simonetti’s but also the varied pop songs that feature ranging from Billy Idol to Motley Crue.Demons 2 is also worth a watch. The two films would make a great double-double feature with Joe Dante’s Gremlins movies.
8. The Funhouse (1981) 
Now this is a really wonderful little horror picture from Tobe Hooper, if only because it doesn’t fall short of it’s concept in any way. This is the best “horror movie in a funhouse” you could possibly make. All the set pieces are really strong and the pay-off is just as rewarding as the build-up. There are echoes of Carpenter, Argento and Bava in the cinematography which is really cool but you can also distinctly hear the dark laughter of the same man who made Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. The film doesn’t answer any questions it doesn’t need to either but clues are planted to ensure the answers are there if the audience chooses to go looking for them. The Funhouseis a massively underrated little shocker that’s pleasurably self-aware.
9. Possession (1981) 
Possession is a film that has one frequency – hysteria. The emotions on show are operatic and grand, and the sights are shocking and violent. It’s a film that sounds frenzied and twisted, an orchestra of shrieks and screams which all amount to an earth-shattering depiction of relationship apocalypse. This is the first film I’ve seen by Żuławski and I’m certainly curious to see some of his other work as a result. This film totally belongs to Isabelle Adjani, however, who is both stunningly beautiful and stomach-churningly terrifying in it. She delivers one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen – physically frantic and emotionally fearless. There’s a feeling of dread and terror running deeply through Possession‘s frames and it sits uncomfortably in your gut until the final moments. A masterpiece.
10. The Last American Virgin (1982) 
This movie is part celebration of 80s high school life and part cautionary tale. There’s loads of wonderful observations and attention to detail, it really feels like a time capsule of all things 1982. The soundtrack is chock-a-block with hits and fits perfectly with the episodic nature of the film’s first half which whizzes through all the silly stories and scenarios high-school kids end up in when chasing a member of the opposite sex. The second half is where it gets really interesting as everything comes crashing back down into reality. I won’t spoil anything but it was a surprisingly honest turn descends into one of the bleakest finales you’re ever likely to see from a teen comedy.

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