Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Film Discoveries of 2013 - Tyler Foster ""

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2013 - Tyler Foster

Tyler Foster  is a film critic who has been writing for DVDTalk since 2009. He will also be contributing pieces to the newly-launched game entertainment website SharcTank Media. He is also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. He can be reached on several social media platforms, including facebook and Twitter.


Sherlock, Jr. (1924) and Safety Last! (1923)
When I was a kid, my favorite film was Ghostbusters, which successfully balances the precise technical wizardry of visual effects with the natural, improvisational feel of comedy. It's only fitting that I was drawn to these two movies, which did the same sixty years earlier.

Sherlock starts out with the usual Buster Keaton trademarks: a girl (Kathryn McGuire), competition for said girl's affections (Ward Crane), and a job that Keaton isn't particularly good at (working in a movie theater). This is the set-up for two wonderful sequences: Keaton envisioning himself as the protagonist in a mystery movie, featuring the jaw-dropping inclusion of some of his old circus tricks and a hysterical billiards game (more complete than ever on Kino's excellent Blu-Ray release), and a wonderful sequence in which he walks right onto the movie screen.
Safety Last! has a similar story, casting Harold Lloyd as a man who lies to his future wife (Mildred Davis) about his success in the big city at a major department store, but the effects in this one are more about thrills than fantasy. Through a series of misunderstandings, Lloyd is forced to climb all 12 stories of the building to drum up publicity. Not only is it funny to watch, but each shot of Lloyd dangling from one building apparatus or another is as heart-stopping as it was in 1923 (only moreso if you know that Lloyd, injured in an earlier accident, only has eight fingers).

Drunken Angel (1948) and Thieves' Highway (1949)
In 2012, I participated in my first Noirvember (hosted by Ms. Marya E. Gates). In 2013, I pushed myself to do better than the 21 noirs I watched the first year, and I succeeded. These were my two favorites.

Drunken Angel marks the first of many films that Akira Kurosawa would make with Toshiro Mifune, one of the most enduring actor-director partnerships in film history. Mifune plays Matsunaga, a would-be gangster, stricken with a persistent cough. The doctor who treats him, Sanada (Takashi Shimura), discovers Matsunaga has tuberculosis. Slowly, tentatively, the two men become somewhat friendly -- as friendly as either can muster -- while Sanada tries to get Matsunaga to stop drinking so that he can heal. It's an unlikely friendship filled with some humor and deep sorrow, performed with elegance by both actors.
Thieves' Highway is also a performance piece, despite an action-friendly revenge story about long-haul truckers. Lee J. Cobb plays the menacing Mike Figlia, who crippled an old man just to make a few extra bucks. Richard Conte is Nick Garcos, the crippled man's son, who jumps into the trucking industry for one job just to get revenge on Figlia. Scenes between Cobb and Conte crackle with electricity, while Jack Oakie, Millard Mitchell, and Joseph Pevney dig into their colorful supporting characters. You'll never hear the sound of a rolling apple without thinking of this movie, even with an unnecessary seduction subplot, and an out-of-place ending shoehorned in by producer Darryl F. Zanuck.

Singin' in the Rain (1952)
Although I watched that one Volkswagen commercial hundreds of times when I was in high school, I never saw the movie that inspired it. This year, my favorite local joint The Grand Illusion picked it as their fundraiser film, and I got to right this wrong in beautiful 35mm. The experience of watching it is pure joy -- not just for the wonderful, infectious music, but also Donald O'Connor's exhausting physical comedy, Jean Hagen's mouse-voiced villain, and the sweet showbiz romance between star/co-director Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds. 

Hell Drivers (1957) and The Chase (1946)
More noir: 2013 was my first year attending Noir City, and I caught two of my favorite discoveries at the festival.

The UK thriller Hell Drivers follows a group of truckers assigned to cart gravel as fast as possible down a series of twisting country roads. Tempers flare when newcomer Tom Yately (Stanley Baker) challenges the reign of C. "Red" Redman (Patrick McGoohan), the company's top driver. Baker is good and McGoohan is better, but the heart of the film is provided by Herbert Lom as Tom's friend and fellow driver Gino, who wants nothing more than to romance the company secretary, Lucy (Peggy Cummins). Featuring heart-stopping trucking sequences and an excellent cast, it's a real shame Cy Endfield's isn't available on DVD in the US, or on Blu-Ray anywhere. A UK friend says it's a staple on TV across the pond, but without Noir City, I doubt I'd have seen it.
The Chase is another breakneck thriller about a driver, although this time, the vehicle is a town car with an extra accelerator in the backseat. Chuck Scott (Robert Cummings) is an unemployed vet who gets a job as chauffeur for a gangster named Eddie Roman (Steve Cochran). Things take one turn for the worse when Chuck falls in love with Eddie's wife, Lorna (Michele Morgan), and then another when they flee to Cuba, and Chuck starts to lose his grip on reality. Peter Lorre has a menacing supporting role as Roman's right-hand man. This one is on DVD in the US, but public domain versions won't hold a candle to the new restoration presented at the festival (literally -- one of the most revitalized scenes is lit only by a single candle).

The Awful Dr. Orlof (1962)
This early horror movie by director Jess Franco -- possibly the first horror film produced in Spain -- is a fun blend of Frankenstein and Dracula-esque imagery. Dr. Orlof (Howard Vernon, who could pass as Boris Karloff's brother) seeks a new face for his daughter, whom he accidentally disfigured in a fire, and now keeps in his lab in a glass case. He sends his blind assistant Morpho (Ricardo Valle) to hunt for beautiful ladies who might provide the necessary materials, while an incompetent cop (Conrado San Martin) fails to track them down. The real detective is the cop's ballerina wife, Wanda (the lovely Diana Lorys), who shows more ingenuity and observational skills in five minutes than her husband does during the entire movie. Unlike Franco's later films, Orlof is focused, and features a number of wonderful characters, including Wanda, Morpho, and Jean Rousseau (Venancio Muro), the world's most intelligent wino.

Branded to Kill (1967)
Gleefully ridiculous and stylistically unhinged, Branded to Kill stands out even among Seijun Suzuki's vivid and unusual catalog. The inimitable Joe Shishido plays a hitman who screws up a job and ends up hunted by his employers. In between his determination to identify the organization's number one killer and his fetish for the smell of steamed rice, he fends off a number of attackers, culminating in an extended stand-off that's just short of a Marx Brothers routine.

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) Manhattan is frequently cited as one of Allen's greatest films (and it lives up to the hype), but I've heard less, or perhaps unfairly ignored praise for Hannah and Her Sisters, which I had zero expectations for. What starts out as a drama about an affair grows and blossoms into a surprisingly uplifting comedy about the backward and unusual paths life takes people down as they make their way toward happiness. Plus, in addition to the film's overwhelming warmth and wit, it also serves as a drinking game involving future famous people in bit parts.

Raw Deal (1986)
When it comes to down-and-dirty '80s Arnold Schwarzenegger action that doesn't involve Terminators or Predators, most people give their love to Commando, but I can't get into it -- although the film is inherently ridiculous, the filmmakers don't seem to be in on the joke. Raw Deal is just as violent, but feels less mean-spirited somehow. When Arnold's married undercover cop character is taken home by a beautiful moll (Kathryn Harrold), he pretends to fall asleep on her. Arnold's captain, distraught over the death of his son, screams "Fuck justice!" in a police station. It also contains one of Arnold's most enduring one-liners: "You should not drink, and bake."

Wilder Napalm (1993)
Before he created everyone's favorite meth dealer, Vince Gilligan imagined this bizarre romantic comedy about Wilder Foudroyant (Arliss Howard) and his brother, Wallace (Dennis Quaid). Both of them have pyrokinesis, and both of them are in love with Vida (Debra Winger), even though she's already happily married to Wilder. The fire effects are elaborate, Winger is incredibly sexy, and there are firemen who occasionally pop up to sing themed love songs. "Breaking Bad" fans will also be pleased to know that bacon is used to convey information. Now back in print, thanks to Sony's disc-on-demand service.

Election (1999)
Alexander Payne is making waves with Nebraska, but I've just caught up with one of his first films. Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor pair an incredibly witty and observant screenplay with actors who play their roles just short of slapstick, and the results are riotiously, painfully funny. Although everyone is great, including Chris Klein in his debut performance, the casting of Matthew Broderick as one of the schlubbiest, pettiest characters ever created is a genuinely perfect choice. Every expression of exasperation, frustration, and resignation that crosses his face is comically sublime.

Also: A Night at the Opera (1935), Scarface (1932) -- Paul Muni!, All the President's Men (1976), Rocky (1976) -- not a sports movie, but a character piece, Wizards (1977), Manhattan (1979), Swamp Thing (1982) -- Reggie Batts!, Raw Deal (1986) -- way more fun than Commando!, Throw Momma From the Train (1987), The Untouchables (1987) -- that train station sequence!, City Hunter (1993) -- ridiculous!, Schizopolis (1996) -- impossible to explain!, and the too-recent-to-qualify-but-necessary-to-include warmth and humor of All the Real Girls (2003).

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