I’m proud to be returning to Rupert Pupkin Speaks for a Film Discovery List! At my blog, The Nitrate Diva, you can read my further reflections and rants on classic cinema. You can also check out my old movie GIFs on Tumblr.
I was lucky enough to discover plenty of astonishing movies in 2014, too many to list here—and some woefully rare. So, to minimize your frustration and heartache, dear reader, I’m concentrating on the best movies I saw for the first time this year that are reasonably available.
Hands Up! (1926)Raymond Griffith deserves a place among the top comic luminaries of the silent era for a dapper, amoral brand of fast-paced humor that was uniquely his. In Hands Up!, his finest surviving vehicle, he plays a Southern spy sent to hijack a supply of gold during the Civil War. Whether Griffith is wooing two sisters simultaneously or escaping multiple executions, he’s a non-stop laugh riot.
I started my Griffith obsession this year with his similarly awesome Paths to Paradise. Now I say a little prayer each night that his lost films will find their way back to us. Watch Hands Up! and I think you’ll feel the same way.
Gary Cooper and Ronald Colman photographed by Gregg Toland. Need I say more? There’s hardly a shot of this unusual Western—all about the struggles of irrigating vast tracts of desert land—that I wouldn’t happily frame and hang on my wall.
Developed from an original story by John Gilbert, Downstairs focuses on a caddish chauffeur who insinuates his way into an aristocratic household. Gilbert not only had a wonderful, purring voice (contrary to popular belief), but also a wicked sense of humor, as this deliciously cynical black comedy shows.
In this slightly naughty concoction, a lonely tycoon hires a penniless girl to masquerade as his mistress—all as a means of bringing his ungrateful family back in line. Ginger Rogers turns in a daringly understated performance and Walter Connolly makes us root for the beleaguered but wily rich man. Gregory La Cava rekindles the breezy, refined silliness ofMy Man Godfrey in what’s essentially a gender-flipped version of that more famous screwball comedy.
Jean Renoir’s first American film, a morality play about revenge and redemption in the Louisiana bayou country, was a resounding flop when released. However, this nuanced drama has aged remarkably well. Dana Andrews delivers a compelling early performance and two of Hollywood’s all-time character actor greats, Water Brennan and Walter Huston, are both at their intense best.
A sadly neglected entry in the classic horror canon, Return of the Vampire gave Bela Lugosi the opportunity to play a bloodsucker at least as complex as Dracula. Though made at Columbia, Lew Landers’s neglected chiller channels the misty, foreboding Gothic feel of the original Universal cycle, but adds strong overtones of WWII-era tyranny and paranoia. Moreover, the regal Frieda Inescort proves a formidable vampire-hunter, one of the few strong female protagonists in old Hollywood horror.
This gripping, ethereal film noir centers on a mystery radio host’s attempts to kill his ward for her money. In the end, though, the plot is beside the point. Watch this for Claude Rains’s lovingly villainous portrayal, Audrey Totter’s juicy turn as a wry bad girl, and stunning cinematography by Elwood Bredell.
This sparkling anthology film captures many facets of Paris at the height of its 1960s coolness. Segments by the likes of Godard, Rohmer, and Chabrol, among others—each exploring a specific part of the city—range in tone from the playful to the macabre. I had the privilege of seeing this overlooked classic of the Nouvelle Vague projected on the banks of the Seine this summer, but I suspect that it would be (almost) as engaging in my living room.