Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Film Discoveries of 2018 - David Bax ""

Friday, February 22, 2019

Film Discoveries of 2018 - David Bax

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

See his Discoveries lists from last couple years too:

10. Peppermint Soda (1977; Diane Kurys)
Director Diane Kurys, who also cowrote the screenplay, divides Peppermint Soda into episodes which are clearly delineated by the fade-outs that end each one, like the curtain falling on another chapter of protagonist Anne’s (Eleonore Klarwein) childhood. Kurys also peppers the film with family snapshots of the girls and their parents posing with forced smiles in order to commemorate some noteworthy event, false memories that will outlast the true ones. And yet Kurys is no less particular in staging Anne and her sister Frédérique’s (Odile Michel) actual everyday existence, returning again and again to the same setups in the same rooms. These spaces thus become familiar to us but they also become banal, a bland background for the turmoils that will shape these young women for the rest of their lives. Many of Anne’s troubles come from school and the other girls there. It doesn’t matter that she is a relatively popular girl; eighth grade is a gauntlet of sadism and humiliation nonetheless. It certainly doesn’t help that each teacher and faculty member is effectless in their own way, from the teacher who can’t control her own classroom on one end of the spectrum to the headmistress who views every student as a potential criminal on the other. But then teachers are almost beside the point in Kurys’ vision of school. In Peppermint Soda, school is a place for these girls to learn the social skills they’ll need as they get older. Any other form of education is, at best, an afterthought. Kurys’ pessimism about institutions extends to politics. Frédérique becomes an outspoken leftist and an activist as the school year progresses. But the movie doesn’t give the viewer confidence that this represents anything other than a new group for her to hang out with. When one of her new comrades tells her, “The fight against fascists is never done,” it feels more like trendy new slang than a rallying cry. Frédérique’s testing of new waters, though, is not any less momentous for its base motivations. The strength of coming-of-age stories is that the characters’ personal transformations, minor though they may be in the scheme of things, are treated as revelatory explorations, like the discovery of a new world, which is how they feel to these young people at the time. And so Anne’s constant testing of boundaries–lying or pleading to achieve her desires–is not depicted as brattiness but as adventurous will. We root for her even as we understand from our own experiences that, as autonomy creeps into her life, so will danger. We can feel both joy and fear at once because coming-of-age stories exist in two worlds. While movies about childhood are often about memories, movies about adulthood are just as often about hopes, including the ones that never pan out. The coming-of-age genre can be so bittersweet because it bridges both. Peppermint Soda is a stellar example of the format.
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9. The Unborn (1991; Rodman Flender)
The Unborn’s greatest strength, and a grounding element for a movie that will eventually become wonderfully deranged, is that Virginia’s (Brooke Adams) anxieties begin well before she realizes that something sinister is going on. The film sympathetically explores the fear of parenthood. Virginia has struggled with depression and is understandably worried that she’ll pass her illness on to her child. But, more specifically, The Unborn is interested in the type of anxiety felt by feminists weighing the psychic conflict between their hard-fought independence and their desire to fulfill a traditional female role that has, for so long, been used to keep women down (although the movie does have some fun at the expense of more stereotypical, wacky, granola, lesbian feminists like the one played by Kathy Griffin). When Virginia refers to “this thing growing inside of me,” we the audience may know she’s talking about an actual monster but the metaphor for complicated feelings about impeding motherhood is clear and powerful. And that’s before the movie expands to include other feminist issues like gaslighting and the terror of a literal back alley abortion. Of course, this is also a movie about a demonic fetus. For all of its dialectical unpacking, the film never forgets to have good, schlocky fun. The Unborn is a culty midnight movie that, like far more such films than we tend to credit, has a brain whose synapses are constantly firing away just beneath all the gore.
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8. Belladonna of Sadness (1973; Eiichi Yamamoto)
I’ve been meaning to catch up with Eiichi Yamamoto’s Belladonna of Sadness since its restoration and re-release by Cinelicious Pics a few years ago. I held off, though, for reasons that ended up being well-founded. I’ve never felt more assured providing a trigger warning before recommending a movie before. This bit of rape/revenge folklore is decidedly weighted toward the rape part of the equation and anyone’s refusal to watch it for that reason would be more than supported by me. But its artistic worth is to be found in the hallucinatory beauty of its constantly undulating and reconfiguring pastel, pencil and watercolor imagery. Along with an entrancing acid rock/jazz score by Masahiko Sato, the sheer force of the film’s psychedelia is overwhelming. I’m not here to make the case that the latter makes the former “worth it,” though. You should decide that for yourself.
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7. So This Is Paris (1926; Ernst Lubitsch)
Ernst Lubitsch’s silent, pre-code sex farce So This Is Paris may be more than 90 years old but it just might be the liveliest movie I saw in 2018. This story of two upper crust Parisian couples with the hots for each other (except for their own spouses) moves at roughly a thousand miles per hour and features laughs at approximately the same rate. Lubitsch’s carefree inventiveness lets these jokes take many different forms, from clever uses of intertitles (italics clue us in to the double meaning of the phrase, “Let me lie in peace”) to fantastical elements like a floating cane with a mind of its own and a penchant for violence. Add to that the fact that, despite the lack of audio, the movie essentially contains a musical number in its big ballroom Charleston competition set-piece and there is literally nothing here to complain about.

6. The Ox-Bow Incident (1943; William A. Wellman)
Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan play two cowpokes who are unfortunate enough to happen to roll into town on the same morning a local farmer is shot. Despite their moral qualms, the two decide to ride along with the lynch mob in order to keep from inviting suspicion that they could be the killers and end up meeting the wrong end of the rope themselves. The party comes across three men, led by a young farmer (Dana Andrews). Circumstantial evidence suggests their guilt but–the peskiest thing–they keep insisting, convincingly, on their innocence. What follows bears some resemblance to the kind of heated debate in which Fonda would engage fourteen years later in 12 Angry Men. But, mostly, The Ox-Bow Incident is a damnation of mob mentality and the ability of a sentiment, once agreed upon by enough people, to override reason. It doesn’t help that the mob is made up entirely of men, save for one willful woman (Jane Darwell). Accusations of weakness, both spoken and unspoken, arise immediately when any one of them expresses reservations. “Toxic masculinity” may be a phrase recently coined but the phenomenon it describes isn’t. The movie ends with some Code-dictated suggestions that those who behaved immorally will face punishment. But Wellman doesn’t want you to take any pleasure in that. It’s just the next step in the cycle of human cruelty and misery.
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5. Nitrate Kisses (1992; Barbara Hammer)
It’s strange how rarely we seem to talk about gay culture pre-1969. It’s not as if gay people in America all just suddenly materialized at the Stonewall riots. But the atmosphere was even less friendly than it is today so visibility was understandably and, for survival, necessarily low. In 1992, Barbara Hammer set out to strike a blow against that invisible history with Nitrate Kisses, a collage-style documentary consisting of snippets of found footage accompanied by audio interviews of gay seniors discussing their lives and experiences in the 1940s and 1950s. They were there. They lived and loved. Oh, and they fucked and continue to fuck. Nitrate Kisses also features candid and explicit scenes of lovemaking between its subjects in the film’s present day. Graphic, sure, but it only makes the film more visceral and more moving.
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4. Ryan’s Daughter (1970; David Lean)
Largely unpopular among critics upon its release, Ryan’s Daughter deserves a reappraisal. Sure, a nearly three and a half hour long movie about something as commonplace in cinema as a love triangle may seem self-parodically indulgent but, on the other hand, anyone can make a super long movie when it’s overstuffed. It takes a genius like David Lean to fill up that runtime only with matter of the head and heart (oh, and some beautiful, pastoral cinematography and, oh right, a score by Maurice Jarre). The offscreen backdrop of World War I helps, too. Sarah Miles plays Rosy, the daughter of a publican in a small, Irish town occupied by English soldiers. Like Disney’s Belle, she’s a little too smart and bookish for her surrounding and so she sets her romantic sights on the most worldly man in the area, the schoolteacher (Robert Mitchum doing an Irish accent). They’re married and that goes swimmingly until a smart, handsome, brave Englishman gets assigned to the occupying force after being wounded on the battlefield. What follows is scandalous, not just because Rosy is a married woman but also because Major Doryan (Christopher Jones) is an Englishman. Everybody hates the English, of course. It’s the stuff of a million airport novels but few of them are likely to hold such crazy passion.
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3. Streets of Fire (1984; Walter Hill)
Streets of Fire soaks in its blaring, idiosyncratic style. It takes place in a retrofuturist alternate dimension where 50s greaser and rockabilly culture never stopped, only metastasized. The cops drive Studebakers, the bad guys carry switchblades, everybody’s got slicked-back hair and everything’s awash in neon, as if you’re cruising a boulevard that never ends. At one point, someone even uses the term “juvenile delinquent.” Hill’s not content to stop at one aesthetic choice, though, also layering on leather, bondage and au courant video footage, all of it painted with a coat of fast-talking, hard-boiled dialogue. It all works, somehow, probably because of the sustained, seamless, heightened tone. In that sense, Streets of Fire has a lot in common with yet another genre, the musical. Each scene has a centerpiece production. Some of them are actual musical numbers and some of them are, you know, sledgehammer fights.
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2. Edward II (1991; Derek Jarman)
Derek Jarman’s Edward II (1991), adapted from the play by Christopher Marlowe, is replete with knowing anachronisms, as characters smoke cigarettes, wear leather jackets and taffeta dresses designed by Sally Powell and occasionally retreat from Marlowe’s poetic dialogue, reducing it to sentiments such as, “Fuck ‘em.” One way Jarman does remain true to the era in which the events actually took place (the early 1300s) is in the way that Edward and the court’s surroundings don’t seem especially comfortable. Edward may have lived in a castle but luxuries like heating, cooling, electricity and indoor plumbing didn’t exist yet. And so, probably accurately, Edward II unfolds in mostly spare stone and earthen spaces with narrow strips of harsh light surrounded by deep, black shadows. On the other hand, Jarman emphasizes the contemporary when it comes to Edward and his favored Galveston’s sexuality. When Swinton locates the word “queer” in Marlowe’s text, she hits it hard, making plain what the author likely intended as subtext. And when the English people rise up in protest, they do so as members of Outrage, a real life AIDS activist organization, analogous to Act Up here in the States. Edward II is a fierce and passionate work of art, as timeless as it is of its time.
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1. Queen of Diamonds (1991; Nina Menkes)
Nina Menkes’ 1991 Queen of Diamonds, starring her sister, Tinka Menkes, is a movie that, if you had to sum it up in a narrative sense, is about a Las Vegas blackjack dealer navigating love and friendship while her husband is away on an extended business trip. Except this isn’t really a movie concerned with narrative and, besides, that husband may have left for good or never have existed at all. It doesn’t seem to matter to our protagonist, who deadpans her way through a multitude of vignettes involving everything from the domestic violence of her neighbors to a burning palm tree. It culminates in a long, climactic montage of her dealing blackjack over the course of a long shift that, like a lot of the film, is surprisingly moving and inexplicably hilarious.

Honorable mentions this year include Clarence Brown’s romantic, tragic Flesh and the Devil (1926), Nietzchka Keene’s witchy, Bjork-starring The Juniper Tree (1990), Robert Downey Sr.’s crude but committed satire Greaser’s Palace (1972), Irvin Willat’s shocking wartime revenge story Behind the Door (1919) and a shameful blindspot I finally filled in at this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival, Joseph Sargent’s The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.

1 comment:

KC said...

I enjoyed this list! When I saw So This is Paris, I laughed so hard I snorted. Nice to be reminded of how fun that was. Especially curious about the Hammer film, but there's lots of stuff here I'd like to check out. Thanks!