Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Favorite Film Discoveries of 2014 - Sean Gilman ""

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2014 - Sean Gilman

Late in 2013, I discovered a little movie podcast called The George Sanders Show. I became immediately obsessed with it and listened to every episode. I found myself quite intrigued with both Mike and Sean (the show's co-hosts) and really got into their offbeat choices for double features of films to talk about on the podcast (ISHTAR & SONS OF THE DESERT or GUN CRAZY & POINT BREAK are two great examples). I especially liked their show dedicated to their own Sight & Sound Top Tens and was even inspired enough to do one myself because of it:
So anyway, it should go without saying that I am a big fan of The George Sanders Show (which you should check out if you haven't) . Very pleased to have Sean back this year for another discoveries list.

Here's Sean's list from 2013:

Also, here's their George Sanders show episode where they discuss their discoveries (including the ones on this list) from 2014:


1. Shanghai Blues (Tsui Hark, 1984)
As with last year, I spent most of 2014 immersed in the last 50 years or so of Hong Kong cinema, ostensibly as contextual research for a chronological series of reviews of Johnnie To’s films, but mostly because I kept finding so many strange and wonderful movies around every corner. I’ve often said that the more movies you watch, the more you discover you need to watch, and my snowball of interest in Hong Kong film has become an avalanche. Of the more than 400 movies I watched in 2014, a little over 200 were older discoveries, and of those at least half were from either Hong Kong or Mainland China. The best of the bunch is this one fromTsui Hark, the director from whom I discovered more films in 2014 than any other. This, the eighth feature he’ddirected since his debut in 1979, isn’t exactly his first great film, not with films like the incendiary Dangerous Encounters – First Kind and the genre-defining Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain preceding it, but it is the film in which all of the elements that mark a great Tsui film come together for the first time. A screwball comedy set in the brief interregnum between the end of World War II and the Communist victory in the civil war that followed, Tsui meticulously manages a love triangle between three desperate people (Kenny Bee, Sylvia Chang and Sally Yeh) trying to get by in an overcrowded, lunatic world. Like its spiritual prequel, 1986’s Peking Opera Blues (which made my Discoveries list last year), Tsui blendanarchic comedy, carefully coordinated camera movement, editing and set design with an aching romanticism and melancholic perspective on history.

2. Ballet (Frederick Wiseman, 1995)
Another of my favorite obsessions of 2014 was the few weeks in late summer Ispent watching a handful of movies by the venerable documentarian Frederick Wiseman. I caught up with one of his most well-known works, finally, 1968’sHigh School, but while I did love that, I find myself much more interested in his films about performers and performance. Like 2009’s La danseabout the Paris Opera Ballet, 1995’s Ballet chronicles a season in the life of a dance troupe, in this case the American Ballet Theater.Alternating shots of dancers and choreographers at work as they build their routines from rehearsal to performance with looks backstage at wardrobe, set construction, physical therapy and overheard administrative phone calls, Wiseman creates the overwhelming sense of art as a process, as a job of work. The standout segmentis an interview with legendary choreographer Agnes DeMille that Wiseman’s camera peeks in on (his style won’t allow him to interview anyone himself, or let anyone to talk to the camera, of course) which is almost as interesting as the scenes of her working with a dancer to create a new number.

3. They Live (John Carpenter, 1988)
I don’t know how I managed to go 25 years without having seen this movie.Carpenter, like Wiseman, like Tsui, is a director I’ve known and been familiar with for years, but only know feel like I’m beginning to understand a little. What strikes me most about Carpenter is his coolness, the calm deliberation with which he lets his plots unfurl. This premise, in the hands of any other filmmaker, would be a lightning quick action comedy, Men in Black or Big Trouble in Little China-style. But instead it's almost an hour into a 90 minute film before the hero convinces someone else to try on the glasses. And the film's signature showpiece, the big action number, is a good old-fashioned slugging match between two friends, all over the one's stubborn refusal to do something as simple as try on a pair of glasses (hilariously allegorical, of course). Even the film's most famous line, one I've known for years (as I felt I'd known the film, though I'd somehow never seen it), is delivered slowly in Roddy Piper's affectless Canadian drawl. All scored to another brilliant Carpenter pulse, simple riffs repeating for eternity. Few American directors made as many great films in the 1980s as John Carpenter, but no one made as many so deliberately out of step with the rhythm of the system.

4. French Cancan (Jean Renoir, 1954)
Jean Gabin takes a laundress and turns her into a star while inventing a scandalous dance. Gorgeous, slyly cynical and as joyously alive as anything I’ve ever seen. Renoir is someone I definitely need to watch moresystematically. Every time I see a new one of his movies (and I have dozens left to watch) I leave convinced I’ve just seen the greatest film ever made.

5. The Love Eterne (Li Han-hsiang, 1963) 
Back to Hong Kong for my last choice. Li Han-hsiang was a director I was only dimly aware of as 2014 began, my exposure to Hong Kong cinema beginning only with the rise of the Shaw Brothers martial arts movies led by KingHu and Chang Cheh in the late 1960s. But before they became known for action movies, the Shaws specialized in sumptuous musical adaptations of classical Chinese stories, known ashuangmei musicals, after the opera formfrom which they were adapted. Foremost among the Shaw huangmei directors was Li and this is probably his best film, the one that has most come to define the genre. Like the later Shaw actioners, it’s set on elaborate soundstages with baroque costumes and a recognizable company of actors. Based on the legend of the Butterfly Lovers (a story later adapted by Tsui Hark in the mid-90s asThe Lovers), it’s about a young woman who wants to go to school and so disguises herself as a boy. There, she falls in love with another student who loves her in return, though he doesn’t know her true gender. That minor point gets resolved, only to see the class differences between the two characters separate them, with supernaturally tragic results. Complicating this is the huangmeitradition of women playing all the leading roles (I assume at least partly because it’s easier for them to sing the distinctively high pitches the songs require). Thus the female actor playing a girl pretending to be a boy (Betty Loh Ti)falls in love with a boy played by a female actor (Ivy Ling Po). Li also did an excellent huangmei version of The Dream of the Red Chamber in the late 70s (long after the genre had been superseded bykungfu and wuxia) that stars a very young Sylvia Chang and Brigitte Lin (playing the boy, of course) as well asThe Enchanting Shadow, a version of the same source material that Tsui adapted for his 1987 Leslie Cheung hit A Chinese Ghost Story. Both of those, along with1964’s Beyond the Great Wall, are terrific as well.

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