In a sense, 2014 was the year I expanded upon the template Brian established at this blog with the launch of my film series Cinema Tremens, which by its initial mandate was to screen films that are not as familiar to repertory play as most perennials, and in many occasions, had not been visible in decades. In my 9-month run, I pulled a lot of forgotten gems out of the vault to very appreciative audiences, and was even luckier to get some of the principals involved with those films to speak about them. Selfishly, I'd like to think that some of those titles ultimately popped up on the lists of Brian's other contributors because of my screenings, but I'm sure there are plenty of other determined film hunters who may have discovered them without my help.
Please note that none of the choices I have made for my list come from my own series - as much as I had some great revelations from my gut programming choices, I feel like that's the equivalent of getting high on my own supply. There were plenty of better, braver programmers out in the L.A. repertory scene that I feel should be commended by having their picks acknowledged as my prime first-time viewings of the year. In ascending order:
CENTIPEDE HORROR (1982)
I always put my trust in Phil Blankenship and his Heavy Midnites series; for years he has found the tender balance of familiar crowd-pleasers, zeitgeist-savvy revivals, and the why-the-hell-nots to fill out his midnight movies and lure his devoted fans off the living room sofa. So even though I found very little English-language scholarship on this Category III Hong Kong horror film, and a lot of IMDb reviews that seemed to contradict each other, I eagerly took the plunge. While novices would be put off by the mishmosh of a plot, which are pretty much there solely to allow for acrobatic fights, lots of blood, and heaping helpings of those creepy crawlies (and a zombie chicken!), I just sat there with a big grin on my face. Unlike most of his midnights, Phil printed up two sets of commemorative pins - one for people going into the movie, the other solely for the people who made it all the way to its very stomach-challenging conclusion. He also passed out barf bags. I did not need my free barf bag. But someone else did. Well planned! I have also determined that Tien-Lang Li (a/k/a Margaret Li) is my new retro-crush, and the ballsiest actress of the '80's nobody discusses. Frankly, much scarier and more entertaining that that other recent cringey-for-cringeys-sake series involving man/insect mayhem.
A REPORT ON THE PARTY AND THE GUESTS (1966)
I freely admit there are lots of holes in my film knowledge, and the gap in my experience with Slavic films in general, let alone the Czech New Wave movement, would be large enough to swallow both a large multiplex popcorn and its refill. I think it was thus complete random impulse that motivated me to hit CineFamily to catch Jan Němec's absurdist satire during a retrospective on the director. And it was illuminating. A group of well-to-do picknickers are unexpectedly overwhelmed by well-dressed muscle, who herd them into submission while their slimy leader (looking disturbingly like a menacing Paul Lynde) proceeds to interrogate them; despite the lack of guns or logic, the people comply. When an older, more amiable gentleman breaks up this unpleasantry to invite them to his large outdoor dinner party, things seem to improve, until we see that it's one of those functions that strongly discourages leaving early. Part political rant, part absurdist farce, with elements of Kafka, Bunuel, and Beckett, it kept me rapt where other po-faced allegorical films previously lost me. I can't say this would be a relaxing night's entertainment, but if you're up for fare that will stimulate discussion, you will have much to chew on after this.
DEATH PROMISE (1977)
In this climate full of homeowners stuck with underwater mortgages and neighborhoods getting overpriced and gentrified by douchey hipsters, how can one *not* love a film where a few guys from the local dojo (because, y'know, every good neighborhood has one) kick, claw, and poison their way through every sleazy developer in their path? You would think it would be difficult to top the infamous trailer to this film, where the gravelly narrator introduces each villain, and makes sure that in addition to rattling off all their moneyed power and privilege, he ends by stressing they are each...a LANDLORD! But then, you actually watch this film and, despite its amateurish execution, it delivers all the vengeance and too-jacked-to-be-choreographed action it promised, or should I say, Death Promised! I can't believe some enterprising producer hasn't considered a remake set in Williamsburg NYC or Downtown L.A., with martial arts vigilantes taking down pricey coffee houses and vintage clothing boutiques. Score another for the Heavy Midnites playbook!
BAD TIMING (1980)
Nicolas Roeg's fractured narrative about the cold, creepy decline of a relationship had been on my list for many years, formented by my long love of Roeg's unconventional storytelling and tales of audiences (and its own studio) reacting with outrage at the events of its climax. Not quite as rage-driven as Zulawski's POSSESSION, but no less unsettling than that previous Film Discovery of 2012 occupant, this drama frankly does a much better job at presenting the darkest aspects of sexual attraction and deterioration, and the potential for unspeakable actions as a result, than the glib and unbearably misogynist GONE GIRL, right down to making you unable to see Art Garfunkel as merely that nice socially-conscious folksinger of the '60's ever again.
BLUME IN LOVE (1973)
Oddly enough, this follow-up choice would be a rather bizarrely appropriate co-feature with BAD TIMING. The late filmmaker (and beloved Farmer's Market-lunching mensch) Paul Mazursky followed up his classic BOB AND CAROL AND TED AND ALICE with this complex rom-com in-name-only. George Segal has the difficult task of playing a philanderer who realizes the grave mistake of his adultery and wants desperately to get his wife back, having to be both sympathetic enough to get behind and yet callow and obtuse enough to show that he has and may not earn that option anytime soon. Susan Anspach has the even more difficult task of being the hard pragmatist who does not want to get wrapped back up in her ex's drama without making her seem like a cold unforgiving bitch. Mazursky understood the dips and rises in human behavior that make us capable of kind gestures and selfish outbursts, and applied them to this story of re-courtship that, while dated by some of the fads and fashions of the seventies, still has a salient point about how men see, or don't really see, women.
IL SORPASSO (1962)
Decades ago, when I was still a fresh-faced teenager already full-bore into my cinematic obsession, a professor friend of my father told me a half-remembered film he saw in his own youth, of two strangers quickly befriending each other to go on a road trip, each learning some aspects about the other's life situation, but yet still never really getting to know each other. It sounded intriguing, but the gent could not remember a title or anyone of the cast. Cut to spring 2014, when Janus Films reissued this early Dino Risi comedy-drama with Vittorio Gassman and Jean-Louis Tritignant at the suggestion of Alexander Payne, who credited it as an influence on NEBRASKA, and I walked into a screening of it cold. As it unfolded, I kept thinking, this must be the movie my dad's friend was talking about, and I was also thinking, this is pretty damned great indeed! And let's have a few words about the stunning Catherine Spaak. Actually, let's have several of them at this awesome blog devoted to her movies! The next morning, I emailed the professor, and he was quite happy to relearn about this forgotten memory, and that it was back in circulation. The dramatic buddy film may not have quite begun with this outing, but it certainly set a solid template.
THE ASTROLOGER (1975)
The most exciting, captivating, and memorable Film Discovery of 2014 for me may sound like some sort of punchline to the cynical cinephiles who continue to trade in tired ideas of "guilty pleasures" or "so-bad-it's-good" filmmaking. I am totally and completely serious when I say watching Craig Denny's long-forgotten and unseen vanity project gave me a rush of emotions on my first viewing that was unmatched, and remained consistent over repeat viewings. Yes, there are plenty of legitimately funny moments in this film where the nascent auteur shows the limits of his pacing, composing, and editing skills, questionable choices which can jar an audience that has come to accept certain conventions of coherency. As co-star and ersatz crisis manager Arthyr Chadbourne revealed at a CineFamily screening, Denny shot without a script, crafting each days' shoot to his horoscope readings, thus changing the story and the direction on several dimes. He had no idea this was not how to make a film. However, because he didn't know any of the rules, that meant he wasn't bound by any of them either, and there are in fact many moments of inspired editing and transition, ways of telling the story that I can't say I've seen in any other film, that were fresh and interesting. When I try to describe THE ASTROLOGER with people, I like to say that it straddles the line between making THE ROOM and making GOODFELLAS; had Denny decided to try again, and build upon the lessons previously learned with some more discipline and research, he may well have become a singular stylist in the manner of, say, Abel Ferrara or Duke Mitchell. At the very least, if more people get to see this film, I think you'll be seeing certain elements from it popping up in other directors' works in the future. A special salute should be sent out to Samuel B. Prime, Lars Nilsen, and others from American Genre Film Archive and Alamo Drafthouse for gambling on putting this in front of an audience again, and to the venues that have followed their lead in helping new audiences discover it. And whether Craig Denny is really no longer among the living, or living in unextraditable seclusion like some cinematic D.B. Cooper with his ill-gotten gains and wisdom, his folly demonstrates that every so often, we need a madman with a mad plan to remind us of the untapped possibilities of the movies.