Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Film Discoveries of 2020 - Will Pfeifer ""

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Film Discoveries of 2020 - Will Pfeifer

Will Pfeifer has written for several comic book series, including Catwoman, Aquaman and H.E.R.O, and can be found at or on twitter at @willpfeifer.

1. “Fish Story” (2009) 
My favorite discovery of the year, a time-hopping Japanese film that stretches from the recording of a forgotten punk rock song in 1975 to a record store in 2012 when a comet is five hours from destroying the world. Funny, exciting and oddly inspiring, with one of the best “tying it all together” endings I’ve ever seen. Best of all, the title song – which you hear over and over – is truly great, never wearing out its welcome. A wonderful tribute to the power of music. 

2. “The Burglar” (1957) 
Dan Duryea (but all accounts a swell guy in real life) excelled at playing flamboyant heels in movies like “Scarlet Street” and “Woman in the Window,” but he’s even better here, playing an older, more beaten-down thief with a genuine moral sense and a need to protect his dead mentor’s daughter (a young Jayne Mansfield). A dark, downbeat and genuinely surprising noir with a thrilling third act filmed on location in Atlantic City.

3. “The Undertaker and His Pals” (1966) 
What if Herschell Gordon Lewis decided to add even more comedy to his groundbreaking gore films? You might end up with something like this, a no-budget gag-fest focusing two restaurant owners and an undertaker (hence the title) who kill people, charge the survivors for funerals and serve up the victims to unwitting diners. It’s no exactly good, but it has a goofy charm, and the jokes are so bad (guess how they advertise the remains “Sally Lamb” on the menu) that the gory theme is never too off-putting. Stick around for the end credits, when all the dead characters take a smiling, silly, somehow charming curtain call.

4. “The Aerial” (2007) 
This visually astounding Argentinian reminds me a bit of Guy Maddin’s early work, but without the psycho-sexual obsession that sometimes drives Maddin (and I mean that as a compliment). Instead, “The Aerial” is more in the vein of a fairy tale, taking place in a city that has “lost its voice” where a brave family tries to save the day and defeat the minions of “Mr. TV.” Filmed in lush black and white and chock-full of imaginative and breath-taking images, it has the sort of low-tech special effects that are deliberately awkward while conveying a real sense of wonder.

5. “6 Day Bike Rider” (1934) 
Thanks to TCM, I’ve become a real fan of Joe E. Brown, an acrobatic comedian who had a long career before his memorable appearance in Billy Wilder’s “Some Like It Hot.” In this 1934 romp, Joe plays Wilfred Simpson, a small-town guy who joins a marathon indoor bike race to impress his girl. Full of goofy slapstick and some genuinely impressive stunts, the grueling marathon almost feels like a comedic version of “They Shoot Horses Don’t They” with bikes replacing the dancing. Bonus points for including Warner Bros. stalwart Frank McHugh as Joe’s buddy.

6. “Suspense” (1946) 
Thanks, Eddie Muller, for introducing me to the one-off genre of noir on ice. World-class ice skater Belita stars as the femme fatale in this strange little drama, where Barry Sullivan takes a job with ice arena owner Albert Dekker and gradually becomes obsessed with his ice-skating wife. It’s strange when the standard noir plot takes a little break to showcase Belita’s particular set of skills, but the staging is interesting and Belita is a surprisingly solid actress (and, of course, skater).

7. “The Harlem Globetrotters” (1951) 
I’m a sucker for cultural artifacts like this one, a fictional film based on (and starring) the legendary basketball team. The plot is pretty standard stuff – a cocky basketball player drops out of college and joins the Globetrotters, but has to learn there’s no ‘I’ in ‘team – but it’s fun to watch, with frequent footage of the team in action and a genuinely fun period feel. Noir stalwart Thomas Gomez plays Abe Saperstein, Globetrotters owner/manager, and Dorothy Dandridge co-stars as the star players hapless girlfriend.

8. “Fail Safe” (1964) 
Somehow, I’d never seen this, the other 1964 movie about an errant nuclear attack that threatens to destroy the world, and I thought it was a weak imitation of “Dr. Strangelove.” Wrong. Though I still prefer Kubrick’s film for its jet-black humor, this Sidney Lumet film is no slouch. Filmed on stark, stylized sets that crank the claustrophobia up to 11, it’s a deadly serious take on the same story, with an all-star cast (Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, Larry Hagman, Fritz Weaver) trying to prevent Armageddon. I knew how the story ends, and I was still on the edge of my seat.

9. “Top of the Heap” (1972) 
Christopher St. John took the money and buzz he earned from “Shaft” and spent it in the best possible way: on this dark, surreal, consistently surprising story of an African-American police officer who struggles with his job, his family, his fellow cops and his place in society. Full of fantasies, dream sequences and offbeat touches, it’s like no other “blaxploitation” movie ever made. St. John wrote, directed, produced and stars, and the result is a deeply personal project on every level. Be sure to keep an eye out for the car chase that somehow stretches all the way from the streets of Washington, D.C. , to the oft-filmed Los Angeles River Basin. A mistake? Intentional? In this movie, there’s no way to tell!

10. “There’s Always Tomorrow” (1956) 
Barbara Stanwyck is my all-time favorite actress, and she’s especially good when paired with Fred MacMurray (take “Double Indemnity” or “Remember the Night,” for instance), and this 1955 Douglas Sirk drama is no exception. MacMurray feels ignored by his family (including wife Joan Bennett), so a former employee (Stanwyck) returns, he sees a chance at a late-in-life romance. All three leads are good, and this is one of those dramas where there’s no real bad guy, just adults trying to make their way through life. It lacks Sirk’s trademark lush colors, but the black-and-white cinematography fits the somber mood perfectly, and the toy factory setting results in some memorable, almost surreal images.


Stan said...

So great to see Will on here!
A fan of xrayspex, his podcast Out of Theatres and of course his comic work.

Based on this one I just bought Fish Story, Fail Safe, There’s Always Tomorrow and I’m looking for a Joe E Brown box set.

If anyone is a fan of comics do yourself a solid and find back issues of his H.E.R.O. series and Catwoman run for DC....both are a blast. The Catwoman run prior to his got all the love, but I genuinely prefer Will’s!!

Just hit me I am a 41 year old guy gushing over Catwoman comics on a movie blog father would be so ashamed, AND the day before the Super Bowl no less!! ;-)

KC said...

Fascinating list. Happy to find another fan of Belita and ice skating noir! Especially glad to learn about The Aerial and that it is on Netflix.