Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Film Discoveries of 2017 - Jim Hemphill ""

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Film Discoveries of 2017 - Jim Hemphill

Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film THE TROUBLE WITH THE TRUTH, starring Lea Thompson and John Shea (and now streaming on Amazon Prime). His writing on cinema has appeared in Film Comment, American Cinematographer and Filmmaker Magazine, and he writes a monthly column on TV for the Talkhouse website. He is a programming consultant at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles and blogs at

The Breaking Point (Michael Curtiz, 1950)
When I was in film school I used to prove my auteurist credentials by arguing with people that Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not was a superior film to Casablanca, but this adaptation of the same Hemingway novel as Hawks’ film by the same director as Casablanca is quite possibly better than either of those movies. It’s certainly more complex and challenging than the former and more genuinely tragic poignant than the latter; Curtiz’s unflinching study of a charter boat captain (John Garfield) who loses everything from his money and his family to his own sense of morality due to bad luck is one of the most harrowing tragedies ever released by a Hollywood studio. It's also one of the best directed movies made by anyone, anywhere, at any time – the irony, looking back at those silly arguments I used to have, is that the older I get the more I realize that Curtiz was himself one of the greatest auteurs who ever lived.
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Desert Hearts (Donna Deitch, 1985)
It’s hard for me to get a sense of how revolutionary Desert Hearts was at the time of its release, when director Donna Deitch made it in order to tell a love story between two women in which neither of them died or wound up in a bisexual love triangle, but if anything I suspect it plays even better now than it did in 1985; removed from its cultural moment, it exists as a gorgeous, complex, and touching dramedy for the ages. A period piece about an east coast academic (Helen Shaver) who spends six weeks in 1959 Reno to divorce her husband and falls in love with a younger woman (Patricia Charbonneau), Desert Hearts is the kind of movie that exerts great effort and discipline in order to achieve the appearance of effortless, breezy charm. A funny, romantic, poignant delight from beginning to end, it’s an expertly photographed (by future P.T. Anderson collaborator Robert Elswit) and designed (by Jeannine Oppewall, who would go on to L.A. Confidential and other major works) character study in which every visual, aural, and gestural detail expresses the characters’ inner states with delicacy and precision. Deitch’s unadorned but evocative mise-en-scene is a master class in conveying subtle emotional states through imagery - the simple camera move that reveals the beginning of the lead characters’ consummation of their relationship is as breathtaking as it is simple and efficient.
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Impostor (Gary Fleder, 2001)
When I worked as a script reader back in the late ’90s and early 2000s, I must have read about a dozen drafts of this thing – the finished film has four credited writers (among them Scott Rosenberg and Ehren Kruger), but that’s just scratching the surface of how many permutations Imposter went through before making it to the screen. In spite of actually liking several of the different versions I read of this Philip K. Dick adaptation, I never did see the finished film directed by Gary Fleder when it was released in 2001…then again, barely anyone did, since Miramax/Dimension dumped it into theaters with minimal advertising in spite of having spent somewhere around forty million bucks on it. I finally caught up with Imposter this year, and while it reeks of Weinstein meddling (odd editing rhythms, half-assed incomplete effects coexisting alongside scenes of genuine ambition and style, etc.), it’s actually a pretty nifty, compelling, and – even for a guy who read the script fourteen or fifteen times – unpredictable sci-fi thriller. Great performances by Gary Sinise, Madeleine Stow, and Vincent D’Onofrio paper over some of the film’s rougher moments, and Dick’s typically grim but visionary sensibility shines through.
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The Klansman (Terence Young, 1974)
This portrait of a Southern town’s racial tensions exploding is lurid melodrama raised to the level of high art by the sheer force of its execution – one suspects co-screenwriter Sam Fuller deserves a lot of the credit for its fearlessness and relentless sense of provocation, but everyone involved brings their A-game to what in lesser hands could have been merely unpleasant at best and offensive at worst. Lee Marvin and Richard Burton chew into the scenery with gusto, Terence Young (Dr. No, Thunderball) directs with ruthless precision and clarity, and although the movie has a terrible reputation – the words “sleazy” and “incompetent” come up a lot in reviews – I think it’s one of the most unsettlingly prescient movies I’ve ever seen. I happened to watch it the same week the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally was going on, and damned if this film that was criticized for being sensationalistic when it came out 43 years ago didn’t look like a chilling and accurate dissection of a very specific form of American rage.
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The Passionate Friends (David Lean, 1949)
I go back and forth on later David Lean films – depending on my mood, I can get swept up in the majesty of Lawrence of Arabia or find it to be a colossally affected bore – but his early, more modest studies of frustrated longing like Brief Encounter and this 1949 masterpiece never cease to blow me away. The story of a married woman who can’t resist an affair with her childhood sweetheart, it’s deeply empathetic to all of the characters involved, devastatingly romantic, and ultimately almost unbearably sad…a delicate, subtle film with the impact of a plane crash. I hadn’t even heard of this film until I stumbled across it on FilmStruck…browsing on the site and coming across this gem made for one of the most satisfying movie viewing experiences I’ve ever had in my life.
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