Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Film Discoveries of 2013 - Anthony Strand ""

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2013 - Anthony Strand

Anthony Strand is a librarian and writer who lives in Fulton, Missouri. His blog can be found at zeppomarxist.blogspot.com, and he has contributed to thiswastv.com and toughpigs.com. You can follow him on Twitter @zeppomarxist.
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This year, I watched 186 movies for the first time, and these were the cream of the crop among non-new releases. Several of these appeared on the AFI's "100 Years, 100 Laughs" list of top comedies, which I'm trying to see all of (just 13 to go!). I know this is a bit late - we’re eleven whole days into 2014, and I'm still thinking about the old movies I saw in 2013 - but here they are, in roughly the order I watched them:
Cleopatra (1963)
Joseph L. Mankiewicz's epic has a reputation for being a gigantic, bloated mess, but it's really only the first of those things. It's a huge undertaking, but it also remembers to be a thoroughly absorbing story. More accurately, it's two absorbing stories separated by an intermission. It feels like a first movie (let's call it "Caesar and Cleopatra") immediately followed by its sequel ("Antony and Cleopatra"). The first half is the superior half, but that's mostly because Rex Harrison's Caesar is a far more interesting character than Richard Burton's Marc Antony. That said, the second half is helped by the eye-poppingly gorgeous battle scenes, and Elizabeth Taylor is magnetic throughout.

Reds (1981)
I watched Reds immediately after Cleopatra, and I was surprised by quickly it moves compared to the older movie. I tend to run hot or cold on Warren Beatty, but this is some of the best work I've seen from him either in front of or behind the camera. I wanted to watch Jack Hall and Louise Bryant live their entire lives in real time. It's easy to forget that Warren Beatty has only directed four movies (the same number as Gene Wilder!), because this movie seems like the work of a veteran.

Ikiru (1952)/Stray Dog (1949)
Hulu offered all of the Akira Kurosawa movies in their collection for free during one weekend this spring, and I took advantage of it by watching five, doubling the amount of his movies I'd seen. The other three - Throne of Blood, the hilarious Sanjuro, and the surprisingly effective WWII propaganda drama The Most Beautiful - were all terrific as well, as I'd recommend them to anyone. But these were the two that really stuck with me, and that cemented Takashi Shimura as my favorite member of Kurosawa's repertory company. He's wonderful as Toshiro Mifune's laid-back mentor cop in Stray Dog, but he's even better in Ikiru, as an elderly government working stiff who decides to make a difference when he finds out he has stomach cancer. It's not just my favorite Kurosawa movie, it's genuinely one of the best movies I've ever seen.

From Russia with Love (1963)
After I saw Skyfall in February (my second-ever James Bond movie), I decided to make a project of watching the entire series. This is my favorite without question. It's lower-key than most of its successors, with a tight story that allows the tension to build and build throughout the first two-thirds, leading to a final act that's full of tremendous action sequences. It also has the best guest characters in the series, particularly sadistic SPECTRE agent Rosa Klebb (Lotte Lenya). (NOTE: I previously wrote about On Her Majesty's Secret Service, now my 2nd-favorite entry in the series.)

Design for Living (1933)
Ernst Lubitsch is my favorite director, and it's always a delight to discover another one of his masterpieces. That's especially true when the star is Miriam Hopkins, his best leading lady. Here she's joined by Gary Cooper and Fredric March, as a love triangle who decide to try a completely platonic living arrangement. They all have great chemistry with each other, and Ben Hecht's screenplay is full of hilarious lines ("Immorality may be fun, but it isn't fun enough to take the place of one hundred percent virtue and three square meals a day.")

What's Up Doc? (1972)
Intended as a modern-day take on the screwball comedy, which was then three decades past its heyday, What's Up Doc? is now four decades old itself, which makes for a somewhat strange experience. It's almost like watching a 30s movie and a 70s and the same time. In any case, it's still 94 minutes of solid laughs. Ryan O'Neal is no Cary Grant, but Barbra Streisand is amazing (I've never been a fan, and I've never found her at all attractive, but she's both hilarious and sexy in this). And they're surrounded by people like Kenneth Mars, Madeline Kahn, and Austin Pendleton, which certainly helps a lot.


Going in Style (1979)
Before Martin Brest directed action comedies Beverly Hills Cop and Gigli, he made this charming little caper movie about three elderly roommates (George Burns, Lee Strasberg, and Art Carney, who was 61 years old, about two decades younger than his co-stars) who decide to alleviate their boredom by robbing a bank. It's very funny, but more impressively, it's also an interesting meditation on aging and on losing people close to you.



The Late Show (1977) 
This was the second-straight Art Carney movie I watched during my free trial of Warner Instant Archive, and the combination of the two gave me a new respect for him as an actor. Robert Benton's neo-noir came out just two years before Going in Style, but Carney's shaggy middle-aged detective seems like he could be the son of his character in the later movie. I've always known Carney as a comedic actor, but this is largely a serious (if sarcastic role). The same is true of Lily Tomlin, who does fine work as Carney's distressed client. Best of all, the movie tells a satisfying mystery story.
Blonde Crazy (1931)/Lady Killer (1933)
Two more that I watched on Warner Instant Archive, both directed by Roy Del Ruth and starring James Cagney. Overall, I prefer Lady Killer, which gives Cagney the chance to spoof his image by casting him as a small-time crook with an interesting face who gets cast as an extra in the movies and then becomes a big star. That story could easily be a mess, but it doesn't matter, because Cagney is so charismatic and he has such strong chemistry with Mae Clarke as his con-woman love interest. Blonde Crazy is slightly less memorable because the story is more generic, but it does pair him with Joan Blondell, always his best match, and it's a blast watching them joke and laugh and threaten each other. 

Robin and Marian (1976)
After the unpleasant Man of Steel, I rediscovered my love of Superman by watching the underrated Superman III. That led to watch a bunch of other Richard Lester movies, including the following two gems. Robin & Marian shows a beautiful reunion between the middle-aged characters from Robin Hood, who have the good fortune of being played by Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn. It's the best sequel I never knew I wanted. It's a lovely mix of melancholy and joy, a rousing adventure story about how much people change as they get older.

The Bed-Sitting Room (1969)
Lester's The Bed-Sitting Room is nothing like that at all. It's a droll comedy set in the aftermath of a nuclear attack on Britain, where the few remaining survivors try to carry on as though nothing has changed. They never say "bomb," prefer euphemisms like "the rude thing." It's all very silly, but it made me laugh loudly and frequently. Actors wandering politely around the rubble include Roy Kinnear, Marty Feldman, Dudley Moore, Peter Cook, and Spike Milligan.

Duck, You Sucker! (1971)
The only film Sergio Leone made between Once Upon a Time in the West in 1968 and Once Upon a Time in America in 1984, this film doesn't get discussed nearly as much as either of them (or his earlier work with Clint Eastwood). Having seen it, I can't imagine why. Sure, Rod Steiger's Mexican accent is ridiculous, but his bandit and James Coburn's Irish ex-pat make a great team. The banter between the two makes this maybe Leone's funniest movie, and it's visually beautiful as well (particularly during the bucolic flashbacks to Coburn's happier days).

The Great Dictator (1940)
I finally got the chance to see this - my first sound movie from Charlie Chaplin - when my wife got me the Criterion DVD for my birthday. I always expected it to be kind of overwrought, particularly with Chaplin playing both leads. It does feel like two different movies, but they're both highly enjoyable. The Jewish barber is in the vein of City Lights, while the Hitler/Hynkel stuff is closer to something like Duck Soup. The former is sweet enough and the latter is surreal enough that it all works. I even enjoyed the climactic speech, because Chaplin invests it with such passion.
The Doll (1919)
Just as The Great Dictator was my first sound Chaplin, The Doll is my first silent Lubitsch movie. I wouldn't put it at the top of his filmography (Trouble in Paradise!), but I was delighted to find that it's certainly in the discussion. The movie begins with an image of Lubitsch building the tiny set on a table, which sets the perfect storybook tone. It's about a baron who orders his foppish nephew to get married. The nephew tries to marry a life-size clockwork doll so he can secure his inheritance without actually having to touch a yucky girl. Surprisingly, things get more ridiculous from there.

The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944)
I've been a fan of director Preston Sturges for years, but I'd mostly only seen the films in this DVD box set. I finally got my hands on a copy ofCreek. Turns out that it's his best movie I've seen yet. When a small town girl (Betty Hutton) is impregnated by a departing soldier she just met, she turns to the local sap who's been in love with her for years (Eddie Bracken) for help. Her dad gets mad, things get ridiculous, and Bracken is so nervous that it appears he could shake out of his skin at any time. This is the kind of movie that'll make your head spin - the pace never slows down for a minute, and it's exhilarating.

Hellzapoppin' (1941)
Years after reading Jaime Weinman's intriguing post about Hellzapoppin', I finally looked upon it with my own eyes. I mostly agree with Weinman - after the first ten minutes, it becomes a conventional, moderately amusing Universal comedy in the mold of Abbott & Costello movies. That's fine - and it has Martha Raye, who's terrific - but that first reel is a marvel, one of the funniest sequences I've ever seen on film. Olsen & Johnson wander around a silly "Hell" set from one gag to the next, all the while complaining that they have to star in a typical movie with a story. I can't help but agree with them.

The Navigator (1924)
True fact: I always thought Buster Keaton played a navigator in this movie. He doesn't. He plays a rich young man who books a ship called "The Navigator" for his honeymoon cruise (before he's actually proposed, naturally). After Betsy (Kathryn McGuire, who is wonderful) rejects him, the two end up on the ship together anyway. Cannibal stereotypes aside, this is a great one. The love story is touching, the action sequences are genuinely exciting, and it's full of hilarious sequences (particularly a card game in the rain).

The Court Jester (1956)
Outside of White Christmas (an annual tradition in my house growing up) and his episode of The Muppet Show, Danny Kaye has been a big blind spot for me. The Court Jester makes me want to change that. Every single thing about this movie works - it's laugh-out-loud funny, it's a rousing adventure, the songs are memorable (particularly the opening number, "Life Could Not Better Be," which has been in my head ever since), and the actors are all perfectly cast. I don't have children yet, but if I ever do, I'm going to make sure they see this long before their late 20s.


1 comment:

SteveQ said...

Remember: "the vessel with the pestle has the brew that is true." Every time someone mentions "The Court Jester," that scene pops into my mind.