Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Film Discoveries of 2014 - Jack Criddle ""

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2014 - Jack Criddle

Jack Criddle is a filmmaker based in Brooklyn, NY and North Adams, MA. His credits include work as a production coordinator on Brendan Canty and Christoph Green’s Wilco Solid Sound Festival film, and as a camera operator on William Paul Smith’s A PORTRAIT OF IZHAR PATKIN. The subjects of his own short documentaries range from Vermont-based stained glass artist Debora Coombs to z-grade 1930’s proto-grindhouse director Dwain Esper. At the rare time’s he finds a free moment, he likes to watch movies.

This summer I made the acquaintance of Tommy Jose Stathes, a film historian, collector, archivist and exhibitor who specializes in the regrettably under-researched field of early animation. Stathes has collected 16mm cartoon shorts since childhood, and holds regular screenings of them in the NYC area. He went on TCM to talk about the Bray Studio, will be featured in the forthcoming documentary CARTOON CARNIVAL, and just released “Cartoon Roots," which I hope is just the first of many blu-ray anthologies of public domain cartoons from his collection. THE HASHER’S DELIRIUM, by French animation pioneer Emile Cohle, was a surreal short I saw at one of Tommy’s screenings, depicting a drunkard’s visions of bats, snakes, and googly-eyed hobgoblins. It’s pretty weird and wonderful, and prefigures DUMBO’s “Pink Elephants” sequence by 30 years.

I’d heard this period thriller described as Hitchcockian - and indeed, my girlfriend Jess, who sat me down to watch it, couldn’t recall if Hitchcock himself had directed it. But the truth is, George Cukor, the master of screwball comedies and "women’s pictures,” had a greater sensitivity to three-dimensional human characters than the Master of Suspense, making this a psychological thriller of a more close-to-home, personal nature. Highly recommended for fans of GONE GIRL; this is perhaps the most perfect film ever made about a toxic marriage.

Rex Harrison, I’m told, is something of a sex symbol for women in their 20’s and 30’s, who grew up with a VCR in the house, and fell in love with him in MY FAIR LADY and DR. DOLITTLE when they were young. He’s no less charming and arrogantly lovable as Captain Gregg, the salty sea captain’s ghost who forms a bond with Gene Tierney’s widow. The film is funny, lyrical, romantic and intensely bittersweet, and is the type of picture everyone thinks of when they say “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore."

I haven’t really got an excuse as to why it took me so long to see this well-regarded classic noir, but I’m definitely glad I did. The one thing that did strike me about this film is its total lack of cliches. Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy’s characters never display any macho heroics; rather, they let themselves be psychologically tortured and broken by William Talman’s gun-wielding murderer for most of the film’s duraton It’s a fascinating and authentic study of the complexities of male psychology masquerading as a genre programmer.

Speaking of psychologically rich b-movies, there’s this this gem, which Francois Truffaut allegedly called his favorite American film. Ostensibly a ripped-from-the-headlines dramatization of “Lonely Hearts Killers” Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez’ murder-and-robbery spree, it’s really a tragic story about the insecurity of a woman who doesn’t feel she’s attractive or good enough for her partner. The heavy-set Shirley Stoler is impossible to take your eyes off as she alternates between jealous rage and wounded despair, and the film’s low budget and shabby production value only enhance its feeling of dread.

Though I missed out on this film when it made its revival-house rounds some time back, I finally caught up with it this year. It’s pretty brutal stuff, and I wouldn’t recommend it to animal lovers, as there’s a real kangaroo hunt in the film that is pretty upsetting. It’s still an amazing film and a damning critique of Australian macho culture that prefigures the similar DELIVERANCE and STRAW DOGS. A small-town Australian schoolteacher, trying to get to Sydney to reunite with his girlfriend, instead finds himself journeying further into the Outback, which director Ted Kotcheff depicts as a purgatory for the living.

After listening to Mel Brooks’ wonderful long-form interview on the WTF with Marc Maron podcast (which is itself one of my favorite discoveries of the year - New Media Category) I decided to check out a few of his movies I hadn’t got around to yet. His riff on the “one-man-genre” of Alfred Hitchcock, which had somehow eluded me thus far, is a hoot. Brooks, who workshopped the script with Hitchcock, plays the recently-hired new director of the Psychoneurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous, who uncovers a dastardly plot and finds himself in a “wrong man” scenario. Keep an eye out for young co-writer Barry Levinson as a hotel bellhop who provides the movie’s funniest scene.

It seems to me that early Albert Brooks movies are something of a Rosetta Stone of comedy, and are contained in the creative DNA of the cringey, awkward humor of "Curb Your Enthusiasm,” "The Larry Sanders Show," "Alan Partride" and others. Playing a self-centered, needy and jealous movie editor who dumps and subsequently tries to win back his girlfriend, Brooks blurs the line between depicting a character you could laugh at and one you want to sock in the head. The film also contains the funniest scene depicting film editing ever. (Come to think of it, outside of the that new one by those Astron 6 guys, it might be the only scene of film editing.) Brooks’ character tries in vain to make sense of a z-grade sci-fi b-flick by removing repetitive dialogue, only to be hounded by the picture’s director that he wants it put back in. The results are hysterical.

Jeff Goldblum is the straight man in a slapstick revue by Rowan Atkinson’s unfunny and deeply unpleasant superstar comedian, who feels creatively unfulfilled until he strikes up a romance with Emma Thompson’s hospital nurse, and gets cast in the lead of a musical reworking of David Lynch’s THE ELEPHANT MAN. This first directorial outing by British stand-up Mel Smith is a wonderful time capsule of people struggling on the lower rungs of the ladder in London’s West End theater scene circa the late 80’s. While far from perfect, it has a wacky, try-anything energy, with scenes that include cartoonishly over-the-top lovemaking and an out-of-nowhere sing-along sequence. 

Bobcat Goldthwait’s complete oddity of a first feature stars the comedian as an alcoholic birthday party clown in a universe where clannish and rivalrous clowns go about their daily lives (much of which consists of drinking and trash-talking each other) in full costume and makeup. It’s a weird and wonderful little movie, with clown factions filling in for dysfunctional, back-stabbing cliques of stand-up comics as Goldthwait knew them. Though reviled upon its release, the movie has minor cult reputation, though with today’s popularity of meta-comedy and the interest in the inside-baseball workings of show business, it’s ripe for rediscovery.

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