Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Film Discoveries of 2016 - Rami Raff ""

Friday, December 16, 2016

Film Discoveries of 2016 - Rami Raff

Rami Raff teaches filmmaking and film studies at a prominent Los Angeles private school.  He holds a Bachelor's degree in Film Studies from Columbia University and worked in the development office at Robert DeNiro's Tribeca Productions.  You can follow his obsessive journey through film on his Letterboxd page and on Twitter - @thesickness85.

Donkey Skin (Jacques Demy, 1970) 
While Demy is perhaps best known for his deeply-felt, sumptuous musicals, don't sleep on this tragically under-seen gorgeous fairy tale.  Catherine Deneuve plays a princess who has to disguise herself to avoid marrying her own father.  Along the way, Demy dazzles with practical effects and breathtaking costumes. The film walks a fine tonal line that imbues the story with childlike wonder, while not shying away from darker content.  The closest comparison I could make is to equate this to something like Night of the Hunter or Pan's Labyrinth or The Company of Wolves, a fairytale presented to children but whose content is ultimately aimed at adults.
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Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers (Les Blank, 1980)
Les Blank is responsible for a huge number of lively, inquisitive documentaries about people finding their bliss.  Blank uses a combination of verite footage and talking head interviews to examine how garlic has been an agent of change in the lives of his subjects.  Blank is able to get remarkable insight into the various chefs, foodies and locals through his thoughtful questions amid beautiful compositions of garlic being prepared.  Fair warning: don't watch when hungry.  This film, like many Blank documentaries, is joyous and frequently life-affirming.
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Nickelodeon (Peter Bogdanovich, 1976) 
Peter Bogdanovich has always been enamored with film history, and this is his love letter to the silent age of film-making.  Bogdanovich captures the freewheeling, "anything goes" nature of the era where vicious patent battles forced production companies to head west and constantly innovate.  Bogdanovich shows a deep love for his large cast of screw-ups, egomaniacs, nuts and techies (it would be easy to call this movie bloated, as the director wants to showcase his nearly dozen characters) and it's thrilling to watch them navigate the perils of creating an industry out of nothing.
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The Brother from Another Planet (John Sayles, 1984)
At a quick glance of his CV, John Sayles has had two careers.  In one, he is a deeply humanistic writer/director who is interested in exploring social issues through large ensemble dramas like Lone Star, Go For Sisters and City of Hope.  In the other, he is a subversive genre writer, crafting the scripts for films such as The Howling, Piranha, and Battle Beyond the Stars.  In The Brother from Another Planet, the two sides of John Sayles fuse for a singular cinematic experience.  The story revolves around a mute alien who has come to Earth in the form of a black man.  In addition to being chased by space bounty hunters, he has to contend with the obstacles of being an alien in America twice over.  It's startling, powerful, funny and deeply melancholy in a way few genre films are.
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Race with the Devil (Jack Starrett, 1975)
What starts out as a friendly getaway turns into a dangerous and horrifying trip through the American heartland. Race with the Devil constantly surprises the viewer, shifting from a relaxed character study to horror to paranoid thriller to action and then back to...well, that would be spoiling it! Starrett gets great mileage out of his two leads, Peter Fonda and Warren Oates, whose feel-good weekend warrior attitude curdles into a total loss of control and sanity. It's refreshing to watch a film that feels equally comfortable with car chases as it does with mind games and jump scares.
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Innerspace (Joe Dante, 1987)
It's little wonder that Joe Dante gets name-checked by many beloved contemporary genre directors. He has a keen ability to blend theme and genre elements seamlessly so that they add up to a satisfying whole. Time has somehow inexplicably left behind Innerspace, despite its impeccable technical bonafides and enjoyable performances. The story revolves around a meek grocery clerk (Martin Short) who must listen to the voice inside him - literally - as a daring test pilot (Dennis Quaid) has been miniaturized in an experimental science craft and accidentally injected into his bloodstream. Funny, exciting and endlessly inventive in its scripting, Innerspace keeps its stakes no bigger than a flea but manages to be as compelling and thrilling as any modern blockbuster threatening the end of the universe.
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Eating Raoul (Paul Baretl, 1980)
This dark satire has only grown increasing prescient given the boutique nature of the service industry and the broadening gulf between classes. The would-be elite Bland couple (Bartel is not one for subtlety) discovers they can fund their dream of opening a restaurant and wine bar by luring in wealthy deviants with the promise of carnal release, then killing them and robbing them. Bartel transcends his meager budget with a series of images equal parts disturbing and hilarious, as the would-be refined duo continues to dirty their hands and values.
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A New Leaf (Elaine May, 1971)
In a more just world, Elaine May would be as revered and well known as her contemporaries - or at least have better recognition beyond comedy nerds and cinephiles.  Luckily, this doesn't take away from her brilliant work as both director and writer on this dark romantic comedy.  May uses a diverse arsenal of comedic styles and techniques throughout her script as she tells the story of a wealthy playboy. This man has frittered away his savings and decides to marry a wealthy heiress/botanist and then kill her.  Walter Mattheau brings his usual hangdog aplomb to the role of the playboy, while May plays the botanist who is impossibly introverted except when taking a deep academic dive into her field of choice. As writer and director, May keeps her cards close to her chest as to whether we should believe the clever reversals and reveals as the story progresses. It makes for a much richer viewing experience than most other films within the genre.
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Wise Guys (Brian De Palma, 1986)
You'd have to go back to the earliest days of his career to find overt, intentional comedies in the career of Brian De Palma.  The noted exception is this fun studio programmer. The story features two would-be goodfellas who are trying to prove themselves to the mob and accidentally stumble upon a fortune in the process.  Danny DeVito does herculean work here as a schemer who quickly realizes he's in over his head and yet finds himself in increasingly dire predicaments.  De Palma has a good handle on the comedy, and when he can suffuse it with suspense - such as DeVito's character checking to see if his car has had a bomb planted inside - so much the better.  The films also stars Joe Piscopo, but no film is perfect.
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The Stuff (Larry Cohen, 1985)
My friend Dylan recommended this one to me - it's an a horror film in the mold of the Blob, though with a much more cynical social conscious attached to it.  Larry Cohen is a writer/director whose ambitions outpace his budget, and while the effects are inconsistent in terms of quality, they're frequently memorable, walking a fine line between horrifying and very silly.  Cohen lets you know right up front that he is going after consumerism and shifty corporate practices, and never lets up.  There's not a lot of call for subtlety where one of the CEOs of the titular Stuff compares his secret formula to Coca-Cola.  Also a boon to the film is the bizarre choices of Cohen's leading man Michael Moriarty.  Moriarty is never going to get confused for George Clooney or Ryan Gosling, and thank goodness for that, as his offbeat energy helps further develop the singular vision on display of this cult oddity.
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