Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Film Discoveries of 2017 - Everett Jones ""

Friday, March 9, 2018

Film Discoveries of 2017 - Everett Jones

Everett is an avid movie watcher and user of Letterboxd like myself - follow him there: - I've gotten many good film recs this way.

Though best known for, literally, filmed theater, British director Anthony Asquith was brilliantly, even proto-Hitchcockian, in his earliest, silent films. This behind-the-scenes look at a British studio isn't directly credited to Asquith as either director or writer--he instead gets an odd, unexplained "by" credit under the title--but the film's playful and stylish visual storytelling, as well as the subtle and psychologically cutting love triangle at its heart, unmistakably bears his youthful signature. The look it provides at the workings of a London film studio is fascinating, though its clear this isn't a documentary record of early British filmmaking--funnily enough, the main film-within-a-film being shot is a Western, something that as far as I've been able to determine has never been a staple of U.K. moviemaking, but a very un-British genre that's been a fascination for British filmmakers and cinephiles from Lindsay Anderson to Edgar Wright.
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With the word "Nazi" terrifyingly back into the news and even headlines of 2017, this alternate-universe story proved sadly more relevant than I'd ever have dreamed it would seem. Its depiction of a German-occupied, collaborator-adminstered England is superficially similar to big-budget thrillers like V FOR VENDETTA and Amazon's THE MAN FROM THE HIGH CASTLE adaptation, except that its documentary-style look and studiedly unheroic look at people under occupation is far more credible than we're used to from Hollywood dystopias. Co-director Kevin Brownlow went on to be better-known as a film archivist--rescuing the silent NAPOLEON, notably--and author (THE PARADE'S GONE BY, a great book on the silent era), but this early, near-student-film level project, with its assured and perfectly pitched storytelling, suggests he could've gone on become a major feature filmmaker in his own right.
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3. LES VAMPIRES (1915)
This epic-length French crime film is really 10 separate films, an early example of the serial format that would later become a cottage industry in Hollywood. It's best not binged; I spread it out over about a month, and at the end of the WWI-era blockbuster I almost felt surprised to rediscover that movies could have camera movement or more than a few closeups per film, let alone color or sound. It's a pretty heady journey into the past, feeling like a 3-hour immersion into the subconscious of Edward Gorey (a huge fan of the series). LES VAMPIRES is simultaneously outlandish in its storyline of the conflict between an intrepid, Tintin-like crime-solving reporter (who almost never files a story) and the titular gang of anarchist criminals (not literal bloodsuckers), including the Catwoman-like Irma Vep; and curiously mundane in its cozily well-appointed studio sets and ample real-life locations, which don't create the stylized world we now expect from movie fantasies, but a time capsule/machine-like view of a vanished world.
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Powerful, gorgeous French drama about a Protestant pastor and his illicit love for his beautiful, blind adopted daughter. Through the direction from the versatile Jean Delannoy (THE ETERNAL RETURN, MAIGRET) is excellent, it would seem the dominating creative force on the project was its source novel's author, Andre Gide. In this way and others--say, the many picturesque shots of the French Alpine valley where the pastor has his congregation and beautiful church and home--this seems like it might have been what Truffaut, Godard, and all the others had in mind when they denounced "cinema du qualite," or "cinema du papa" (I don't actually know this for certain, though.)But this is an excellent example of film-by-novelist; it's easy to imagine the same material being made in Hollywood, maybe very stylishly by someone like Douglas Sirk, as bombastic melodrama full of compromises, ellipses, and insincere moralizing, but LA PASTORAL SYMPHONIE avoids its story's potential for prurience, and treats all its characters with respect. And though Truffaut and Godard--or at least my imagined versions of them--might not have liked the film, its most memorable moments--you'll known them when you see them--reminded me of none other than their idol, Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece, VERTIGO.
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5. FRIEDA (1947)
Going through British filmmaker Basil Dearden's back catalogue was one of my viewing projects for the year, and right now I'd say this lesser-known postwar thriller might be his masterpiece. More respected than acclaimed for a prolific, 30-year career which basically went from the Blitz to Swinging London, Dearden is better known for tackling hot-button issues in audience-acceptable ways than for any particular stylistic signature. But there's a definite visual flair to his work, seemingly often repressed for the sake of remaining acceptable to critics and audiences, from his contribution to the classic horror anthology DEAD OF NIGHT to the fairly silly Roger Moore vehicle THE MAN WHO HAUNTED HIMSELF. It's in full, rare force throughout the atmospheric B&W of FRIEDA, about a German woman (Mai Zetterling) who marries the RAF flier (David Farrar) she helps escape from a prison camp in her own country, and goes to live with him in his cozy small town. Dearden styles the story a bit like the "(fill in blank) from hell" domestic thrillers we all know from the early '90s, but turns the as-yet-undiscovered genre on its head by treating his lead with the sensitivity Powell & Pressburger often extended to their Germans during WWII. In fact, every major character is treated respectfully here, not necessarily sympathetically but independent of the demands of the plot. I think that's why FRIEDA works both as thriller and drama, a rare combination that even directors more celebrated than Dearden--say, Hitchcock or Welles--might not have pulled off.

Even before I knew the name, Joe Dante was a favorites of mine, as a kid watching films like MATINEE and EXPLORERS. It's been one of the pleasures of watching and rewatching movies as an adult to discover his sometimes-seemingly frivolous, popcorn-y movies as the work of a distinctive and intelligent filmmaker. This HBO-aired TV movie doesn't have the big-screen scope and cinematic playfulness of his theatrical work, but its content--well-aimed political satire--cements any suspicions you might've had that there was more to Dante's sensibility than just riding the wave of kid-friendly Spielbergian entertainment. I'm as tired as everyone else of hearing that such-and-such past work of art or pop culture is prescient about current goings-on, but, watched in the early months of 2017, THE SECOND CIVIL WAR seemed shockingly topical. Its plot--involving mass migration triggered by crisis in the Middle East, nativist American pols threatening border closure, and nuclear brinksmanship--seemed shockingly topical. Dante has a three-ring circus of a cast on hand, including regulars Dick Miller and Kevin McCarthy, Joanna Cassidy, James Earl Jones, Ron Perlman, Brian Keith, an unusually tolerable Denis Leary, Beau Bridges, Dan Hedaya, and, in the standout role, the late Elizabeth Pena; and Dante orchestrates them all with a skill he's not often enough credited with. As movie satires go, this certainly isn't as pitch-perfect as the gold standard of DR. STRANGELOVE, but it's more humane, even surprisingly so, a quality that we've been especially in need of in 2017.
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The staginess of early sound films can be off-putting but is also fascinating to me, never more so than in this trilogy from playwright Marcel Pagnol. The Criterion box-set of all three films was easily my favorite release of theirs this year, since it allowed me to see finally see in a series of movies I'd long wanted to see as a predecessor to Jacques Demy's great '60s movies like THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG. There are certainly inspired cinematic touches throughout the three films, MARIUS, FANNY, and CESAR, respectively directed by Alexander Korda, Marc Allegret, and Pagnol himself, but the real appeal of this multigenerational story of love, loss, and class lies in the theatrical acting styles--particularly of star Raimu--and well-honed dialogue of Pagnol.
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Essentially, a glorified YouTube supercut video, but maybe the ultimate movie supercut. Hungarian director Gyorgy Palfi (whose work I'll admit I've heard of but never seen before) spent years assembling this compilation, apparently as a creative response to a funding crisis, of clips from some 450 other movies. The result tells a distinct, if simple, story, not unlike the silent classic SUNRISE, an "archetypal" story of the troubled love between a man and a woman. Screenwriter Daniel Waters, in an online interview, picked FINAL CUT as his desert island movie, for a reason which I fully understood after watching it, because it offers digest versions of so many beloved films, directors, and actors. It's the perfect shot in the arm for your movie love, if you ever feel it flagging.

The first film I've seen from Czech fantasy filmmaker Karel Zeman, which left me knowing I had to see more. I may have expected a straightforward piece of animation, but found something more interesting. His style mixes stop-motion with live action and artificial backdrops, and the effect is oddly like that of modern CGI-stuffed blockbusters, since almost every shot seems to involve a visual effect of some kind. Except that the intent here is flagrantly artificial and theatrical, and not nearly so visually enveloping and overpowering. The film is based directly on a lesser-known Verne novel, FACING THE FLAG, but more generally on the spirit of his books as a whole, and the optimistic spirit of his 19th century era's faith in scientific progress. I grew up loving Disney's lavish version of Verne's 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, and Zeman's movie, about a mysterious pirate-full island and the secret world-destroying weapon they're laboring over, is much like a wryer, dryer version of that classic.
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10. THE RAGE OF PARIS (1938)
Thoroughly delightful screwball comedy starring Danielle Derrieux, who was still alive, and 100 years old, when I watched it earlier this year, and has only recently died. Though I've seen other movies with the French star, like the classic THE EARRINGS OF MADAME DE..., this was the first role where I'd really noticed her on her own merits, and now I feel glad, in a way, to have made her acquaintaince while she was still with us. French actors have often struggled to make impressions in Hollywood films (the unmistakable accents seem to be an impediment in a way they aren't for other nationalities) but Derrieux is a charming as a continental Carole Lombard or Irene Dunne, playing a penniless French model who concocts a scheme to win herself an engagement to an NYC playboy in record time. She's helped in the plan by two other working-class friends, one a waiter at the fancy hotel where she hunts for her prey, played by familiar "foreigner" character specialist Mischa Auer. The movie carries a far-from-gritty but still unusually grounded basis in Depression reality that sets it apart from the unadulterated white-telephone movies of the time. As the undesignated playboy, the one who may or may not end up with Danielle by the fade-out, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. is far more winning than any actor with "Jr." affixed to a famous name has a right to be. After this and GUNGA DIN and ANGELS OVER BROADWAY, I'd even say I'm a Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. fan, which not too many people you pass on the street these days are likely to say.
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