Adam Jahnke has written for such websites as The Digital Bits, One Perfect Shot and The Morton Report and co-authored two books with Troma Entertainment president Lloyd Kaufman, including Make Your Own Damn Movie. You can follow him online at the Jahnke’s Electric Theatre page on Facebook, on Letterboxd, or even on Twitter on the rare occasions he remembers that’s still a thing.
Like seemingly every other sentient being on planet Earth, 2016 was a weird year for me. With everything that was going on both personally and in the world at large, making time for movies seemed a lot less important than it used to. My usual patterns of watching older films were disrupted and I struggled to find much enthusiasm for keeping up with the latest releases. But while most of what I saw in 2016 elicited a shrug at best, there were a handful of bright spots that caught my eye and reminded me there are still countless unseen gems out there just waiting to be discovered.
Virtually every movie Josef von Sternberg made with Marlene Dietrich was a black-and-white fever dream of sumptuous costuming, art deco splendor and smoky, suitable-for-framing cinematography. This may not be their absolute best collaboration (The Scarlet Empress is pretty tough to beat) but it’s right up there. Bonus points for spotlighting the stunning and underrated Anna May Wong in a terrific supporting role. It’s too bad Dietrich and Wong weren’t paired up again. I’d love to have seen a whole series built around these two dynamos.
Every year should include at least one discovery so unexpected that you wonder how it’s even possible that you’d never heard of it before. This year for me, it was this black-and-white BBC-TV adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic. Produced on a shoestring budget without lavish costumes, makeup or puppetry (the Cheshire Cat is an actual cat), this dark, almost solemn version emphasizes Carroll’s language, rendering the nonsensical plot all the more disturbing. Featuring a who’s who of British actors and comedians, including Peter Cook as the Mad Hatter, Peter Sellers as the King of Hearts, Michael Redgrave as the Caterpillar and John Gielgud as the Mock Turtle, with an original score by sitar master Ravi Shankar. As a lifelong devotee of Lewis Carroll and collector of Alice-related books and films, I have no idea how this managed to get past me for so long.
Richard Burton stars as Father Goddard, form master at a Catholic boy’s school, whose doting attention to one of his favorite pupils (a slimily two-faced Dominic Guard) blows up in his face after the boy befriends a drifter (played by a very young Billy Connolly, of all people). For awhile, it seems like this UK film might be following in the footsteps of social issue, kitchen-sink dramas like The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner. But the fact that the screenplay is by Anthony Shaffer, author of The Wicker Man and Sleuth, should be your first clue that something more sinister is at play here. Filmed in 1978, the movie sat unreleased in the UK until ’81 and didn’t reach the US until ’88, four years after Burton’s death. To be honest, the movie doesn’t really stick the landing. It’s the type of story where the solution is a lot less interesting and entertaining than the mystery itself. But the performances are terrific and Page creates a weird and sinister atmosphere of foreboding throughout.
From its plot description alone, you’d be forgiven for thinking this Japanese crime drama sounds fairly routine. Nine convicts escape from prison and go in search of a stash of counterfeit money hidden by a former cellmate who wasn’t lucky enough to get out. But the journey writer/director Toyoda leads us and his characters on is anything but typical, walking a fine line between absurdist comedy and genuine heartfelt drama throughout. The movie has to juggle a lot of characters, stories and moods but Toyoda pulls it off remarkably well, crafting a thrilling and funny piece with more than a few standout moments that linger in your memory.
This one’s more recent than is the norm for this series but since I’m guessing most of you haven’t heard of it, I think it still fits. I did some work with the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival this year (January 24-February 15, 2017, check it out if you’re in the area), so I ended up seeing a lot of movies that haven’t received much, if any, US distribution yet. This Israeli family fantasy was one of the biggest surprises. A boy, still mourning the death of his older brother, befriends an enormous furry mythical creature called an Abulele, vowing to keep him safe from the heavily armed Special Forces squad tasked with capturing or killing it. Heavily indebted to E.T., this is essentially a mid-1980s Amblin movie transplanted roots and all into 21st century Jerusalem. Even if it was just an E.T. homage, it would be an exceptionally well-done one. But the context and setting help make it even more unusual. This is a fun, light-hearted movie from a region that isn’t necessarily known for them. It’s worth seeking out.