Fright Night Part 2 (1988; Tommy Lee Wallace)
Sometimes the most exciting film discoveries occur not with films you’ve never seen before, but with films you had seen and dismissed years ago. Such is the case with Fright Night Part 2, a sequel I had remembered as being a disappointment back when I saw it when I was 13. At that moment in time all I could see were the things that the film wasn’t—namely the original film, one of my favorite horror movies of all time.
But when I got the random urge to revisit the film this year, I focused instead on everything Fright Night Part 2 is and happily discovered that it amounted to one of the most underrated horror films of the 80s! For some reason adolescent Allan proved immune to the charms of Julie Carmen’s villainous Regine (the sexy sister of the first film’s Jerry Dandridge), but as a 41 year-old I couldn’t take my eyes off her. However, I was most impressed by Traci Lind as Alex, Charley Brewster’s new girlfriend, who transcended the limitations such a role usually brings and who instead felt like a smart, fully realized character whohelped more than she hindered. If, like me, it’s been decades since you gave this unfairly maligned sequel a look, I urge you to see it once again with fresh grown-up eyes.
Almost Summer (Martin Davidson; 1978)
2016 was the year I decided to let my full hipster hat fly and bought a record player and started collecting vinyl. One of the main impetuses behind this decision was my desire to buy soundtracks to long-forgotten films, which brings us to Almost Summer, a movie I had never heard of until a friend pulled its soundtrack out of a sales bin and showed it to me. I’ve reached the point in my life where I’m genuinely surprised when I come across a mainstream studio feature from that period I am completely unaware of, so I bought the album and investigated the film online as I listened to it.
Unavailable on iTunes (in Canada at least) and apparently unavailable on DVD, I ended up watching the film on YouTube and was surprised to find a fun low-key high school movie that struck me as a less sinister precursor to films like Election and The Chocolate War. The late Bruno Kirby plays Bobby DeVito, a young hustler who plucks a fellow student no one knows to run against gorgeous overachiever Lee Purcell for high school class president. Thanks to a smart script, Almost Summer doesn’t feel like a typical 70s teen comedy (a la the nearly plotless The Pom-Pom Girls) and instead feels like an offbeat companion to the much (much) darker Massacre at Central High in the way it uses teenage life as an allegory for adult corruption. While I wouldn’t call it a lost classic, it’s definitely a film worth going to YouTube for.
Om Shanti Om (2007; Farah Khan)
2016 was the year I jumped feet first into Bollywood cinema and the best description I can come up for it is thus: Imagine a world where the Hollywood studio system never collapsed—where Easy Rider and Blow Up flopped and Doctor Doolittle and the musical remake of Lost Horizon broke box office records. To many that might sound like hell, but to me it’s the perfect Shangri-La I’ve spent my life looking for.
And much of the weight of my newfound love can be placed on the shoulders of Farah Khan’s transcendent Om Shanti Om, easily the best film from any time period I saw this year. This is a movie for people who love movies, a tribute to their power and inherent spirituality. If cinema is your religion, this film is a hymn you’ll never be able to stop humming.
Shah Rukh Khan plays two roles in the film—a murdered 70s movie extra (aka “junior artist”) and his spoiled Bollywood superstar reincarnation, both named Om. When modern-day Om uncovers the truth of his past life, he dedicates himself to exposing (a la Hamlet) and punishing the film producer responsible for killing not only his former self, but also his past love.
I cried four times watching Om Shanti Om, my tears inspired by the power of the story, the beauty of the imagery and the sheer joy of its existence. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the “Dhoom Taana” sequence made me happier than anything I’ve seen on film in the past 20 years. It’s on YouTube and I’ve watched it at least once a week since I saw the movie. It’s as pure anembodiment of everything I love about the movies as I have or will ever see.
The Only Game in Town (1970; George Stevens)
Prior to my seeing it this year I knew The Only Game in Town based on its reputation as Warren Beatty’s disastrous attempt to follow-up on the revolutionary success of Bonnie & Clyde. Despite being one of the biggest flops in film history, it’s seldom mentioned as such, if it’s ever even mentioned all. This can likely be blamed on the fact that—for all the money lavished on it (virtually none of which can be seen onscreen)—it’s ultimately an intimate two character comedy-drama very much rooted in the stage play it was adapted from.
Yet, despite its obvious flaws, I found myself intrigued and fascinated by the film, which was Beatty’s attempt to combine the French New Wave-inspired aesthetic of his groundbreaking success with the directorial touch of classical Hollywood master Stevens. As one would expect, this mixture of old and new school doesn’t really gel, but I found myself admiring that it was even attempted even as the seams holding it together grew more and more apparent.
Beatty and co-star, Elizabeth Taylor, are both great (even though she feels miscast if only because her presence—as sexy as it is—just doesn’t jibe with that of an aging Las Vegas showgirl), but the tone is off and would have ultimately been served better by slightly less ambition on Beatty’s part. The same material played in the style of a Doris Day/Rock Hudson movie wouldn’t have resulted in a classic, but might have made a lot more of its money back.
La vedova inconsolabile ringrazia quanti la consolarono(aka The Inconsolable Widow Thanks All Who Consoled Her, 1973; Mariano Laurenti)
I consider Raquel Welch to be the sexiest woman to ever appear onscreen, but it probably wouldn’t take a lot of effort to convince me that the title better belongs to Edwige Fenech. Either way, like Welch, being a fan of Fenech’s copious charms can mean suffering through some truly terrible films, which is why this 1973 sex farce (also known as The Winsome Widow) stood out by being occasionally funny and even borderline clever.
Fenech plays Catarina, a gorgeous (duh) young widow whose only hope to snatch away her late husband’s estate from his greedy relatives is to have a baby within nine months of the reading of his will. While her mother schemes to get her pregnant by any means necessary, his brothers do their best to cock block her for as long as they have to. Hijinks occur.
While many Italian sex comedies from this period can feel more like tests of endurance than light entertainment, Widow manages to flow quickly and smoothly with every potential detour made more bearable by Catarina’s habit of wearing extremely sheer shirts without any form of underwear.
Another Nice Mess (1972; Bob Einstein)
I had no idea this movie even existed until I read about it this year in Kliph Nesteroff’s excellent book The Comedians. Not that I can be blamed, since producer Tom Smothers essentially shelved it after it was completed after determining it wasn’t worth releasing.
Honestly, he wasn’t wrong. Somehow the film did manage to escape out into the world and is now easily viewable on YouTube and you can see why it was kept out of theaters and off home video—it simply isn’t funny.
Written and directed by Bob Einstein a decade before he became Super Dave Osborne, the film stars Rich Little and character actor Herb Voland as Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, who they play as Oliver Hardy and Stan Laurel. With that as the premise, the film simply inserts the two in different situations from which comedy is expected to ensue. But it doesn’t.
Historically, the film is most notable for being the feature film debut of Steve Martin, who plays a shaggy-haired hippie, but beyond that it’s pretty hard to sit through despite the talent involved. Still, I’m including it here because it proves that no matter how much you think you know about movies, there’s always something out there waiting to surprise you and that alone makes me happy.
Stage Door (1937; Gregory La Cava)
Despite my being a huge Katharine Hepburn fan, it took me this long to get to this classic tale of a boardinghouse of young women trying to make it in show business in NYC. I wish I hadn’t waited so long, since I could have seen it so many more times by now.
Stage Door is so fresh and full of life that I couldn’t help but think of it as an early example of the manufactured naturalism found in the best of Robert Altman’s films—where the conversations feel like a brilliant form of constructed chaos. Apparently this wasn’t an accident. Director La Cava asked a woman who lived in the Hollywood equivalent of one of these boardinghouses to write down the conversations she overheard amongst the other boarders and used these transcripts to fill the film with the spirit that makes it feel current even as it approaches its 80th year of existence.
Of the actors, only co-lead Ginger Rogers fails to fully exploit the benefits of this approach. While one wishes less screen time was spent on her (and given instead to Lucille Ball), the film manages to transcend her dated performance and live up to everything you’ve ever likely heard about it.
English Vinglish (2012; Gauri Shinde)
The second best movie I saw this year also happens to be from India, even though it deviates (slightly) from the standard Bollywood formula. English Vinglish marked the return of Hindi film legend Sridevi after a 15-year absence from the screen and the result is—perhaps—my favourite film performance of all time.
In the film she’s cast as Shashi, a devoted mother and part-time entrepreneur who—for all her love and hard work—Is often mocked and belittled by her family for her inability to understand or speak English. This becomes even more of an issue when familial obligation requires her to travel outside of India solo for the first time in her life to go to New York and help with her niece’s wedding. After suffering an extremely humiliating encounter in a coffee shop, she decides to sign up for an English class, where she meets a handsome French cook and discovers the value of who she is and what that means for her and her family.
While some might (very mistakenly) dismiss the film as a trifle, Shashi’s journey of discovery is one of the most moving I have ever seen, as much for its universal simplicity as despite it. Sridevi’s performance is note perfect without a single false moment—all the more impressive when you consider that she’s an icon on the level of Elizabeth Taylor taking on the role of an everyday (albeit still very beautiful) housewife.
The first feature by Gauri Shinde, English Vinglish and this year’s also excellent Dear Zindagi, make her—to my mind—the most egregiously overlooked filmmaker by western critics today (at the time of its release in North America, Dear Zindagi only received ONE review on Rotten Tomatoes, despite the fact it had the third highest per-screen average of films in theatres playing that week). I urge everyone reading this to seek out her films and look beyond their simple premises to see how effortlessly a truly talented filmmaker can make the universal feel personal and profound.
California Girls (1983; William Webb)
As far as I know this “movie” was never seen in theatres and will likely never make it to any form of (legal) digital distribution. That’s because the main selling feature of California Girls (which is essentially a weird combo of early 80s teen titty comedy and “mondo”-style stock footage travelogue) is its wall-to-wall soundtrack of then-contemporary hit singles that may have been cheap to license then (IF they even were licensed and that seems like a very big if), but would cost in the millions to license now.
The film is centered around Los Angeles radio DJ “Mad Man Jack” who—desperate for ratings—gets listeners’ attention through his attempts to find the perfect “California Girl”. Each listener suggestion is given its own vignette featuring one of the aforementioned hit singles and mondo footage (including dirt bike racing, martial art demonstration, foxy boxing, mud wrestling, a weird ode to street prostitution and more). To further pad the running time we’re also given obviously staged “man on the street” interviews and the nudity-abundant attempts by three attractive listeners to earn MMJ’s prize for themselves (the last of which involves nude skydiving).
California Girls barely qualifies as a film, but it has that outlaw chutzpah found throughout most memorable exploitation efforts. While not really worth searching out, I’d still say give it a look if you happen to come across it like I did.
Next Time I Marry (1938, Garson Kanin)
Seeing Stage Door this year was all the excuse I needed to start watching the movies from Lucille Ball’s RKO contract player days. For those who know her best from her TV years, it can be hard to reconcile that she began less as a madcap comedian and more as a typical glamour girl. Until you actually see her that is and realize just how much va-vashe put in her voom before she became Lucy Ricardo.
But this short (just 65 minutes) B-level romantic comedy does a good job of marrying these two disparate parts of Ball’s career. She’s in full glamour mode as a desperate heiress whose plans to marry a smarmy European gold digger are stymied by her father’s will stating she must marry a “real American” instead. The film begins in medias res as she picks up a random man working on the side of the road and offers him a hefty sum to marry her no questions asked. The typical complications ensue towards the obvious conclusion (she doesn’t marry the foreigner), but it’s still a lot of fun.
While there are probably better places to start your appreciation of Ball’s early work, Next Time I Marry offers a great glimpse of a legend in transition from what producers wanted her to be and what she would eventually become.