Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Film Discoveries of 2020 - Marc Edward Heuck ""

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Film Discoveries of 2020 - Marc Edward Heuck

Under the circumstances of this past year, anyone who’s followed this site and my contributions to it would likely deduce that while public theatrical viewings plummeted, first-time viewings at home bloody skyrocketed. I saw so many movies at home, and even in socially distanced drive-in events, that in a sense it made making this list harder because it left me in the position of either severely narrowing down which titles to speak about here and leaving out so many others that affected me, or just throwing out a longer list of movies without elaboration and thus providing no context as to why you should watch them. I’m going with the former because understandably, not everyone is inclined to blind watch a film just on the reputation of the recommender, and writing these lists for me is always about the endgame of getting more people to see what I have seen.

People like me who grew up through the 70s and 80s were not immediately aware just how much Randal Kleiser was dominating their childhood; he wasn’t a front-and-center rock star like Steven Spielberg, but from TV movies as DAWN: PORTRAIT OF A TEENAGE RUNAWAY and THE BOY IN THE PLASTIC BUBBLE to the juggernaut of GREASE to the kid perennials FLIGHT OF THE NAVIGATOR and BIG TOP PEE-WEE, your first pangs of young love, young lust, and fantasy were being shaped through his lens. And when I was in middle school, it seemed like *all* the cool kids found a grown-up to get them into his very adult and yet very innocent THE BLUE LAGOON and SUMMER LOVERS while my parents wouldn't let me see them. Thanks to the New Beverly, in one of the last repertory screenings that happened before the big sequester, I got caught up. Of those two, SUMMER LOVERS so knew me with its Radley Metzger sex candor and last-bit-of-'70s idealism. Experimentation without stigmatization? Girls who actually like the Three Stooges? And what a soundtrack, with its iconic placement of "I'm So Excited" plus I believe the first use of Prince in film, and while "Hard to Say I'm Sorry" was already doing well, it kinda exploded after the release, plus some radio realized that "Getaway" should be attached to it when they played it. If I could live in a movie, well, like Liz Lemon says, I want to go to there.

SCALPEL (1977)
A juicy Southern Gothic potboiler that starts from a fine template reminiscent of the early Hammer thriller Stolen Face – a rogue plastic surgeon gives a desperate, unmannered woman the likeness of another woman of significance in his life – and then gets progressively and enjoyably ickier as the repercussions unfold. Grissmer had previously written the underrated THE BRIDE with Robin Strasser, which was an effective if spare meshing of THE HEIRESS and DIABOLIQUE with a doozy ending, and this one builds on the potential from that previous effort, also throwing in a finish that is darkly just, yet surprisingly not bleak.

SCARRED (1983)
Tales of teenage prostitution have pretty much been a guaranteed draw dating back to Victor Hugo and Stephen Crane. Rose-Marie Turko, then a student filmmaker at UCLA shooting over four years with grants from AFI and NEA, brought some nicely distinct touches to her version of this template, not least of which is the participation of provocateur artist Nina Menkes, second unit work from REPO MAN auteur Alex Cox (in fact, a significant overlap of REPO MAN crew in general), and cinematography by ROBOCOP creator Michael Minor, plus a punchy soundtrack featuring The Plugz, and unlike Hugo and Crane’s chronicles of “women of brilliance and audacity," a hopeful ending. Turko demonstrated some righteous chops and should have had as many opportunities for more as her mates Cox and Minor did, but she has only one other directing credit, the “Ice Gallery” segment of the Empire Pictures gaming horror fave THE DUNGEONMASTER, and that’s the real bummer ending to this story.

Another long-overlooked female directed discovery from the ‘80s, the time in the coming of age genre, and while its ad campaign promised your standard wacky hijinx, it’s very much more serious and thoughtful, with elements of SPRING NIGHT SUMMER NIGHT, SMOOTH TALK, and RUBY IN PARADISE. A wordly but still inexperienced city girl spends her vacation with her grandparents in Appalachia, and is swept up in the often banal and violent dramas that have hung over the town for years, one of which includes her own family. Serendipitously, it shares some personnel with SCARRED, including cinematographer Afshin Chamasmany and Nina Menkes. The only film to date by writer/director Teresa Sparks, it’s the kind of regional drama that could have found a better reception a few years later during the 90s indie boom, and deserves a fresh look today.

I think by the nature of how my film obsession began as a youth, I learned that BECKY SHARP was the first film shot in 3-strip Technicolor (and one of the first important restoration rescues by the UCLA Film & TV Archive) long before I learned that it was a stripped-down adaptation of Thackeray’s VANITY FAIR, which I sheepishly admit I have never read. That aside, the combination of the overwhelming color design and Miriam Hopkins zealous performance was a knockout. There’s a clear excitement about being able to use color at length in a production, almost as if this was the make-or-break for the format, so it’s the right accompaniment for Hopkins’ social climber, one of the best cinematic bad girls of all time: If anyone were to draw up brackets, she’d definitely crush the first couple rounds. Many have rightfully praised Autumn DeWilde’s 2020 adaptation of EMMA, and it’s clear to me she drew heavily from here for the staging and Anya Taylor-Joy’s saucy demeanor.

Darn it this movie is adorbs. Looking back at reviews from male critics of the day, it's sad but not surprising so many dismissed it because all they saw were the crazy clothes and not the coming of age. Granted, I've had 15 years since its release to catch up with classic Pinky Violence movies and other details embedded within, but I felt its core idea about how teenagers often immerse and isolate themselves in a scene when it feels like they can't even with other teens and those kids won't even with them, along with discovering that you do care about someone else more than your own comfort, and that even within an outwardly frivolous fixation you can discover a true talent. It also occurred to me that this movie is kind of an unsanctioned, gritty origin story for the J-Pop band Puffy AmiYumi, since that duo was playing on a dressy queen/scrappy punk best friend dynamic as well. Considering that Puffy was formed in 1996, while the manga that sourced this movie was published in 2002, I'm surprised the band didn't sue. Lower stakes than GIRL BOSS GUERRILLA, way more sugar-charged than TIMES SQUARE, and aside from the frequent headbutting and a certain dude's phallic pompadour, safe enough for your tweeners.

DRIVE-IN (1976)
Technically, when I was a child, I had been in a room where this was on TV making its debut as the ABC Friday Night Movie, but nothing beyond its opening bars of “Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott” by The Statler Brothers stuck in my memory. This past fall, I had the surreal joy of watching this in 35mm at an actual drive-in, a damned great one in fact – the Skyline in Shelbyville, Indiana – and I’m sorry little Marc didn’t pay closer attention. Occupying some of the same terrain that Linklater’s DAZED AND CONFUSED did so well – Texas teens, all-in-a-night story – while it doesn’t have the character depth and style that made the later film an instant classic, it does have the of-that-moment authenticity of that curious Bicentennial year (you can practically taste the barbecue sandwiches), and how roller skating rinks, disaster movies, and petty rivalries were probably the most interesting things a young adult had to occupy them in a small town. It also had a refreshing theme of proto-feminism in its use of now-reality TV producer Lisa Oz as unapologetically flirty heroine Glowie Hudson, who likes sex but not fuccbois, and Playboy playmate Ashley Cox as ersatz fiancee Mary Louise, who isn’t necessarily ready to chuck college for domesticity. A chance for our daily-stressed souls to gather up our cars and watch a movie about less-stressed souls pulling up in their cars to watch a movie was a special kind of getaway.

Kind of a BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S played for grimmer stakes, Maggie Cheung is a social-climbing actress whose apartment shares resources with Kenny Bee, a scab taxi driver subsidized by a sugar mama, during the Hong Kong riots of 1967. The two grudgingly help each other out with short-term goals and infatuation does build, but both their ambitions and the country's political instability comes between them. Everything is beautifully staged, especially the scenes of Maggie on film sets; one number definitely feels like a homage to "Big Spender" from SWEET CHARITY, only more vicious. And it was a kick to see Margaret Lee from CENTIPEDE HORROR pop up as a mean actress. Good use of English-language period pop too. There's been no Blu release of this anywhere in the world; hoping that since Criterion is now deep in the soup with Fortune Star, maybe they'll get this and other long-neglected Hong Kong classics like FAREWELL CHINA upgraded in the near future.

I watch plenty of feature-length retrospectives on the making of films, and most of them are pleasing fan service but generally not much more than that. But Jesse Moss, who went on to make the effectively troubling religious-cabal-in-government docuseries “THE FAMILY” for Netflix, took what could have been just a puff piece about one of the greatest crowd-pleasers of the ‘70s, SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT, and turned it into a supremely affecting chronicle of not just the making of what was then an unlikely hit, but also the friendship, parallel careers, and darker moments of its respective director and star, Hal Needham and Burt Reynolds. There’s been plenty of comparisons of Hal and Burt to the fictional Clyde Booth and Rick Dalton of ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD, and its own way, this documentary would pair nicely with that film as they both explore trying to keep personal integrity within the showbiz machine. You come away from this with a bigger respect for the movie, its creators, and why precisely it has hit a sweet spot with so many fans for decades since.

So what if I told you that Sidney Lumet made a period polyamory drama in 1974? Would that get your attention? Granted, there are so many rock solid classics in his repertoire, and some "well they can't all be gems" along the way, but LOVIN' MOLLY has been one of the hardest to see and thus least discussed works of the plain-spoken sage. It didn't get a lot of love the first time out since Larry McMurtry, whose book LEAVING CHEYENNE was the basis, openly hated the movie and said it nearly killed his dad. And it didn't even get a VHS release until the 2000s. But this year, the 40 year back-and-forth between Anthony Perkins, Beau Bridges, and Blythe Danner really affected me. Maybe some grit was lost along the way in the adaptation, but I rather liked how earnestly it wanted to present a sex-positive story amidst a repressive climate; really, the biggest knock I could give to this movie is that it's too darned nice. It has an eerie poignance too in its depiction of the ebbing between Perkins and Danner; when contemplating Perkins' real life with Berry Berenson, navigating public propriety, genuine affection, and personal desire. I could well imagine that yeah, long ago, this was how people who couldn't articulate why they weren't set for traditional coupling would muddle through the years. Hoping someone will get the eternally luminous Danner on the record talking about this movie since a Blu upgrade seems unlikely for now.

I know most people who love the iconic Eugene Ionesco play hate this movie, thinking that in an American idiom of the '70s it lost bite, but seeing it a first time at the dawn of the pandemic, director Tom O'Horgan must have had a nightmare about 2020 in between pansexual hookups and channeled it into the film, because it felt relevant as fuck. Not just as political metaphor for the long-rampaging lunatic charging through America and the death cult that worships him, but with the constant references to plagues and lines like "I never believe journalists. They’re all liars. I don’t need them to tell me what to think." and "We mustn't interfere with people's lives", and, oh yeah, and a sequence where Gene Wilder is walking home and he CAN'T πŸ‘ SEE πŸ‘ PEOPLE'S πŸ‘ FACESπŸ‘! Is it funny? Funny ha-ha? No. I didn't laugh. But then again, I laughed at very little this year, because THE COMEDY AIN'T WORKING: HE'S STILL THERE! But was it an effective prediction/encapsulation of our current apocalypse? Very. Which means the maligned O'Horgan, and for that matter Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder, and Karen Black, are all ruefully laughing in their graves right now.

The most treasured first-time viewing this year carries particular significance, not just for its impact on film history, but also that it was one of the few classic films I saw in a theatrical setting before Everything Went Wrong, and right now, it can only effectively be seen in a theatrical setting unless you happen to luck out with Turner Classic Movies’ scheduling or you happen to have $400 to give Frederick Wiseman for an “educational” VHS tape. The second narrative film by the innovative Shirley Clarke, it took a fairly popular trope of the early ‘60s, juvenile delinquency, and dared to meet it with empathy and without moralizing, showing its young protagonists trying to achieve dignity and small pleasures in a frequently unstable environment. The use of real non-professional teenagers given rein to improvise is a big element of Clarke’s verisimilitude in telling this saga. It was added to the National Film Registry in 1994, so it’s importance on culture has been recognized, but again, it’s a very difficult film to see, thus standing as the embodiment of every archivist’s stern warning, “Preservation without access is pointless.”

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