Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Film Discoveries of 2018 - Craig J. Clark ""

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Film Discoveries of 2018 - Craig J. Clark

Craig watches a lot of movies and has the Letterboxd profile to prove it. He’s also a regular contributor to Crooked Marquee, writes the monthly Full Moon Features column for Werewolf News, and tweets at @Hooded_Werewolf.

Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (Yasujirō Ozu, 1941)
Like a lot of film fans, I was saddened by last October’s announcement that FilmStruck was being shuttered. To make up for lost time, I spent its last month of operation streaming as many feature films and shorts as I could, including seven by Japanese master Ozu that were part of the Criterion Channel. Most of the ones I hadn’t seen before were fragments of otherwise lost films and silent to boot, but Brothers and Sisters is neither and it easily ranks among Ozu’s best. A dry run of sorts for his later masterpiece Tokyo Story, its story concerns a widow and her youngest daughter who lose their home after the family patriarch dies, leaving them with a mountain of business debts to be settled, and are put up by a succession of siblings who treat them shabbily. Definitely one to seek out when Criterion gets its standalone service up and running in the spring.
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Sylvie et le fantôme (Claude Autant-Lara, 1946)
This absolute charmer of a fantasy came to me by way of Criterion’s Claude Autant-Lara Eclipse set, Four Romantic Escapes from Occupied France. Made at the same time Jean Cocteau was placing his indelible mark on Beauty and the Beast, and under similarly trying circumstances, Sylvie demonstrates that both men intrinsically understood the need for escapism and a lightness of touch at a time when hardship was the order of the day. Set in France’s fairytale past (to distinguish it from the country’s fraught present), the film is about an impressionable young woman who’s smitten with the ghost that inhabits her cash-strapped father’s castle. To make Sylvie’s 16th birthday special, her father hires actors to wear hooded robes (designed by Christian Dior) to impersonate the ghost at various points during her party, while the actual ghost (wordlessly portrayed by Jacques Tati in his first feature) watches from the sidelines and even gets in on the act. An absolute delight.
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Spotlight on a Murderer (Georges Franju, 1961)
Filling a gap left by Criterion, which thus far has only put out Franju’s Eyes without a Face and Judex, Arrow Academy has stepped up to the plate with this pitch-black comedy about a count’s greedy relatives gathering at his sprawling estate to see who will inherit it when he dies. The trouble is the old fellow has secreted himself in a hidden chamber on the premises, making it impossible for them to collect since he can’t legally be declared dead. I have yet to see a Franju film that didn't cause me to fall under its spell, and this one is no exception. For me, though, the highlight is the son et lumière show (which brings to mind the dancing spotlight at the close of Powell & Pressburger’s The Red Shoes) that is allowed to play out in its entirety before the castle claims its third victim. Features a young Jean-Louis Trintignant as one of the would-be heirs who, along with his siblings, wonders which one of them will still be standing at the end of the day.
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The 10th Victim (Elio Petri, 1965)
Long before Bobby Riggs challenged Billie Jean King to a tennis match, Petri made the battle of the sexes literal with this sharp satire, in which Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress plays contestants in a lethal competition where the participants take turns being the hunter and the hunted. (In this way, Petri planted the seeds of such disparate films as Peter Watkins’s The Gladiators, Paul Bartel’s Death Race 2000, Stuart Gordon’s Robot Jox, and Daniel Minahan’s Series 7: The Contenders, to name a few.) Most endearing to me is the scene early on where Mastroianni is being interviewed by a reporter who asks what comics he prefers. “The masked man,” he replies. “I’m a romantic.” A man after my own heart.
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Walker (Alex Cox, 1987)
Of all the films I saw for the first time in 2018, few have resonated with me as strongly as Walker, a purposefully unsubtle take on the USA’s first misadventure in Central America. A poison-pen letter to the twin concepts of American Exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny in all their insidious forms, it employs anachronisms aplenty so the viewer doesn't miss the contemporary parallels. (And if they do, well, the news reports over the closing credits surely do the trick.) The combination of Rudy Wurlitzer’s visionary screenplay, Alex Cox’s clear-eyed direction, Ed Harris’s fearless lead performance, and Joe Strummer’s wistful soundtrack is unbeatable. Were Criterion to upgrade their decade-old DVD transfer to Blu-ray, Walker would take its rightful place alongside their stellar editions of Repo Man and Sid & Nancy.
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The Scarlet Scorpion (Ivan Cardoso, 1990)
Gleefully absurd camp, Brazilian-style, The Scarlet Scorpion is an affectionate sendup of serial conventions, especially those pertaining to their dastardly villains. Its title character is the red-hooded antagonist in a popular radio soap called The Adventures of the Angel that the entire population of Rio de Janeiro stops in its tracks to listen to every day and one woman is so obsessed with she sees parallels between it and an actual crime wave in the city. Paralleling Gene Wilder’s Haunted Honeymoon, the film starts with the radio actors at work, but once the film enters the imaginations of their listeners, writer/director Ivan Cardoso shows the Scorpion and his minions Limping Frog and Madam Ming as they menace the spunky lady reporter chronicling his crimes and the suave hero out to stop him when he isn't bedding the other women who throw themselves at him. It’s the height of frivolity, but who doesn’t need a little levity in their lives from time to time?

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