Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Film Discoveries of 2016 - David Bax ""

Friday, February 10, 2017

Film Discoveries of 2016 - David Bax

David is co-host of the excellent Battleship Pretension Podcast, which I highly recommend.

See his Discoveries lists from last couple years too:
10. Woman on the Run (1950; Norman Foster)
Norman Foster’s Woman on the Run is one of those films noir stuffed with verbose characters, people who talk constantly and cleverly, with a cynical aside always at the ready to distract your attention and theirs from the pain of life.
Despite the title, Eleanor (Ann Sheridan) is not actually the one on the run; at least, not in the most straightforward sense. As the screenplay makes almost immediately clear, Ann and Frank’s (Ross Elliott) marriage is not exactly one of bliss. Though they loved each other once, their lives are now defined less by romance than by passiveness and resignation. As she drags the reporter from place to place, looking for her husband everywhere she knows they used to be happy, Ann is also reliving the history of their relationship, falling in love with Frank all over again.
It’s a beautiful journey but, if you prefer historical sightseeing to sentimentality, Woman on the Run has got you covered. The film is not just an overview of a love affair, it’s also one of San Francisco as it existed more than 60 years ago. From Chinatown to Fisherman’s Wharf to Telegraph Hill, the location shooting is abundant in this brisk movie.
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9. Bitter Rice (1949; Giuseppe De Santis)
Guiseppe De Santis’ Bitter Rice is, according to the criteria of the movement, an Italian neo-realist film. Its concern with contemporary social issues, on-location shooting and mix of professional and non-professional actors are all checkmarks of the genre. But the moniker fits a bit awkwardly in this case, as the film also works as a sexy crime thriller. However you want to describe it, though, it’s a winner that is both a galvanizing docudrama and a terrific yarn.
De Santis depicts the women who work in Northern Italy’s rice fields with sympathy, almost never even bothering to show us their bosses. The camp where they are lodged is a vivacious place, full of laughter and dancing. Among many other things, Bitter Rice is a fleshed out depiction of female camaraderie; these women draw strength from one another, committing to harvest as much rice as they can (resulting in a larger take-home at the end of the season) and even working through a days-long rainstorm. De Santis lingers on scenes of them at work, gravitating toward depictions of physical process which are inherently cinematic. From the scheduled and controlled flooding of the fields to the methodical movement down the rows of these hunched-over ladies, the film’s neo-realist muscles get a workout in these captivating and sometimes wordless sections.
At the same time, De Santis shows no hesitation to lay on visual flourishes, such as the sweeping crane and/or dolly shots that give us an overview of the multifaceted workforce on the job. Early on, large, floppy hats are distributed to all the woman by manner of being tossed one by one off a truck into the crowd. And so we end up with a scene detailing a discussion about contracted versus non-contracted workers with the backdrop of a cascade of soaring sun hats. It’s surreal and beautiful. Most of De Santis’ other visual touches aren’t quite so ethereal, though. More often than not, he is concerned with the visceral and the sensuous. When Silvana Mangano dances, as she does often, the film itself seems as if it must be warm to the touch. And when lowlife thief Walter (Vittorio Gassman) engages in fisticuffs with an Army sergeant (Raf Vallone), the fight is staged and shot like Bob Fosse choreographed it. Bitter Rice is a compassionate look at a particular subset of Italy’s working class that is also a film pulsing with life and movement.
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8. The Night of the Shooting Stars (1982; Paolo & Vittorio Taviani)
1982’s The Night of the Shooting Stars is large and cinematic. It’s also an assertively music-forward production. In the last days of World War II, a large band of men, women and children from a small town wander the Italian countryside, trying to find the liberating Americans before either the Germans or their pro-fascist fellow countrymen find them. That sounds grim and, truthfully, there is no escaping the tragic and fatal realities of the situation. But the Taviani brothers tell the story through the eyes of two protagonists – an older man (played winningly by Omero Antonutti) and a young girl (the adult version of whom serves as narrator) – who find the adventure and excitement a thrilling change from their lives in town. The Tavianis display an adeptness with big set-pieces, like the climactic shootout, and a penchant for being romantic and lyrical without sentimentality. The Night of the Shooting Stars plays like the retelling of a familiar folk tale.
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7. The Emigrants/The New Land (1971/72; Jan Troelle)
Criterion’s release of Jan Troell’s The Emigrants (1971) and The New Land (1972) as a two-disc set allows us to approach the films in the most fitting possible way, as a single, gargantuan epic. Adapted from novels by Vilhelm Moberg, Troell’s diptych tells the tale of a group of Swedes who leave their homeland in the late 1840s and start anew across the sea in the Minnesota territory. For most of the massive, six and half hour total runtime, Troell favors a straightforward narrative approach that is nonetheless naturalistic and sympathetic to the emotional and physical extremes of the characters and their journeys. On occasion, though, he breaks into extended, impressionistic and nearly wordless segments that recount, in engrossing detail, things such as the backbreaking and unceasing daily efforts to keep a farm running or a young man’s unlucky journey to California to seek his fortune in gold.
Troell’s main ally is time. With so much of it to stretch out in, he can explore the nooks and crannies of both his story and his characters. These folks don’t always come across as saints, particularly the obstinate and arrogant Karl Oskar (Max von Sydow). But, to stay long enough in anyone’s company is to begin to understand them (the masterful performances don’t hurt). The extended runtime also means we’re in no narrative rush; the first film, at roughly three hours and ten minutes, ends with them finally arriving at their new homestead in Minnesota. That means exacting attention can be paid to major matters like the ten week sea journey, which takes up nearly enough time to be a feature film on its own. Not everyone who gets on the boat steps off of it in New York and Troell takes care to pay respect to every inch of toil. Yet, throughout, he always makes room for everyday levity, in the way of a true humanist.
The Emigrants and The New Land make up an epic drama that is also a love story and also a comedy and also a Western and a few other genres to boot. Karl Oskar persists through it all with a stubbornness that his wife (Liv Ullmann) perceives as blasphemy; to Karl Oskar, God is often an inconvenience, an obligatory distraction from the things he needs to accomplish. So, as his own master, he has set off on a hazardous journey and brought others with him. He thrives in America, no doubt. But he and his fellow travelers also encounter strife and tragedy they would have avoided had they remained in Sweden. At the end of this long, long movie, Troell leaves it to us to consider whether it was all worth it.
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6. The Red House (1957; Delmer Daves)
The Red House is much more of a horror film than a noir film. In fact, as the hints of the supernatural recede over the course of the movie, the story elements start to feel even more horrific, rooted as they are in real atrocities carried out by human beings. The cast— Edward G. Robinson, Julie London and Rory Calhoun—are all strong, as is Miklos Rozsa’s tense but melancholy score.
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5. The Naked Island (1960; Kaneto Shindo)
On its website, Criterion describes Kaneto Shindô’s The Naked Island as “documentary-like.” I suppose, in our overall tendency to draw a sharp line between fiction and non-fiction, that’s fair. But, in a world where Robert Flaherty’s largely staged Nanook of the North is categorized as a straight up documentary, it’s hard to make an argument that this fierce and entrancing film is much different. It’s hard to say where the line is between re-creation and dramatization but, with exception of some dramatic flourishes like a slap to the face or a sudden sickness, most of this nearly wordless film could be as real as anything Flaherty produced, only more beautiful.
Most fascinating is Shindô’s decision to tell his story almost completely without dialogue. On the one hand, for non-Japanese speaking viewers like myself, it removes the language barrier. But, for the most part, it has the opposite effect, putting more distance between the spectator and the subjects. The resulting otherness of these silent agrarians lends the film an anthropological viewpoint. Or, in more drastic terms, The Naked Island is essentially a nature documentary that could just as easily be about birds or insects; it just happens to be about humans.
None of that, however, should be taken as a mark against the film. On the contrary, it’s what makes it so special. Just as we tend to insist on delineations between fiction and non-fiction, we build subconscious walls between humanity and nature. Shindô seeks to collapse those walls. He succeeds with the help of cinematographer Kiyomi Kuroda, who composes every breathtaking shot such that your attention is drawn to the beauty of the rolling hills, the incomprehensible vastness of the skies and the liquid metal shimmer of the still water just as much as it is to the people. The Naked Island is a testament to the essence of humanity in the world. It belongs in a time capsule for future generations or visiting aliens to discover.
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4. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (1990; Tom Stoppard)
The title characters in Tom Stoppard’s play and movie (his lone directorial effort), Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead have occasionally been compared to the protagonists of Waiting for Godot. They are not dissimilar, in that they spend much time standing around in anticipation, talking between themselves. Yet in this case – and despite the slapstick and shenanigans of the heightened reality – they might be even more harrowing stand-ins for ourselves and our lives. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seek purpose and, once they believe they have one, they strive to fulfill it. But it’s a lie. In the end, they’ve only been passing time until their one true use, to die, has been achieved.
The king (Donald Sumpter) has called our heroes to the castle; soon, hints begin to crop up that the two didn’t exist until the story needed them. For one thing, they don’t know which of them is Rosencrantz and which Guildenstern. When they aren’t being dedicatedly, hilariously earnest about their supposed task, to root out what’s ailing the prince, they’re trying to understand the world around them. Rosencrantz (Gary Oldman, I think) in particular seems preoccupied with reasoning out the basic laws of physics, only to have his findings undercut when he attempts to demonstrate them to Guildenstern (Tim Roth, I guess). Of course, what they fail to realize, and what The Player (Richard Dreyfuss) seems to understand, is that their world is not governed by such laws. As characters in a story, theirs is a world made of paper, in which traveling from one place to another (say, a castle corridor to the deck of a boat) happens as quickly as folding one page over another.
Stoppard the director is leashed to Stoppard the writer. He’s a stagebound stylist and, as such, he’s most comfortable letting scenes play out at length in open spaces like the courtyards and ballrooms of the castle. His close-ups are perfunctory and utilitarian. Still, he serves his material well. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead works as postmodern and existentialist literary critique and as a ripping comedy for the smart set.
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3. Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971; Robert Bresson)
Robert Bresson’s adaptation of the Dostoyevsky short story “White Nights” is in some ways a departure for the director. It’s less spiritual/existential meditation and more bitter romance. Aesthetically, though, it fits right into the director’s filmography. Though only 75 minutes long, it’s deliberately plotted and paced. And, of course, Bresson directs his nonprofessional cast to the usual dry absence of affect. Still, this non-chronological look at a few days in the lives of a young man and the young woman he loves but whose heart belong to another is full of beauty, longing and, notably, lots and lots of diegetic music. It’s almost as if the songs are saying what Bresson’s blank-faced protagonists can’t.

2. L’Inhumaine (1924; Marcel L'Herbier)
With his brazen 1924 film, L’Inhumaine, director Marcel L’Herbier set out to create a convergence of the most up to date modern art. The result is a kaleidoscopic picture of art deco in its blossoming prime. The movie makes its impression from the very beginning, in a lavish party at an aesthetically up-to-the-minute estate outside of Paris, where high ceilings and sharp angles dwarf the guests as they sit at a table surrounding by a sort of geographically designed indoor moat. Even the intertitles in this silent film come with stylized backgrounds. And, in case you were wondering, there are more creepy masks than you can shake a stick at.
The plot, inasmuch as it matters, takes a surprising but welcome feminist turn. The protagonist’s (Georgette Leblanc) reaction or lack of reaction to the suicide death of one of spurned, young suitors becomes a point of contention among both her friends and her audience. Her choice to continue with the next night’s scheduled performance leads to a riot between those who think her disgustingly callous and those who say she has a calling to answer. Basically, in a scenario that will likely feel familiar to roughly all of the world’s female population, everyone has a very firm and secure opinion of what exactly she ought to be doing and how exactly she ought to be doing it.
To continue with a plot description would be to spoil some of the wacko fun. Just know that the film is often described as science fiction and, though nothing laid out above hints at that genre, don’t worry. It will get there. In fact, it will get there fast, as velocity is one of L’Herbier’s primary filmmaking concerns. Racing tracking shots, cameras attached to speeding cars; there is almost non-stop movement. By the time you get to the nearly psychedelic montage that makes up the L’Inhumaine’s climax, you’ll wonder what the hell you’ve just watched and how soon you can watch it again.
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1. Jane B. par Agnes V. (1988; Agnes Varda)
Jane B. par Agnès V. is, I suppose, a documentary, in the sense that it is meant to document the real life individual named Jane Birkin. Yet somewhere between none and almost none of the film is unscripted. Even the interview portions come across like slightly heightened dramatizations of actual conversations. Between these bits, director Varda dresses her subject up and places her in different genres of film as well as of people. For a time, she’ll be a member of Renaissance aristocracy, and then a flamenco dancer (which she hates) and then a part of an early Hollywood film comedy duo and many more, each of them giving Birkin an opportunity to explore a different part of herself while commenting on the way those in her lines of work are utilized as sentient props. Varda begins the film with close-up tracking shot of Birkin’s body that’s so tight and slow-moving, you begin to lose track of what part of her person you’re seeing. That’s kind of a metaphor for Birkin’s whole existence as a beautiful woman whose life is hidden in plain view.
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Honorable mentions include Marice Pialat’s Loulou starring the great Isabelle Huppert; Edward L. Cahn’s 1932 western Law and Order, one of the highlights of my first year at the TCM Classic Film Festival; Byron Haskin’s Too Late for Tears, which was restored and re-released alongside the above-mentioned Woman on the Run; Frank LaLoggia’s criminally underrated ghost story, Lady in White; and, of course, Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust.

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