NitrateVille.com, a discussion site devoted to silent and classic film, and the podcast NitrateVille Radio, which talks to archivists, collectors, authors and others in the world of classic film.
On Twitter @Nitrateville.
His 2019 Discoveries list can be seen here:
Last year I said we should note not only the films we saw the first time, but where we saw them (to prove it wasn’t all streaming). Well, I can sum up where I saw this year’s films pretty easily: my couch, my couch, my couch…. We’ll see if people go back to theaters when we’re all vaccinated, but right now it looks like the biggest technological extinction event for the medium since sound killed silents.
Still, I see signs of evolution in how we watch films, and where movies come from, in my list this year. It wasn’t all big corporate streaming services, either—I “went” to two different virtual film festivals this year, ultra-obscure films from archives being streamed over YouTube or Vimeo to anyone willing to pay to see them. For me it was a demonstration of what movie watching might become… the locked-away treasures of world cinema offered in curated festivals available to everyone.
The Devil and Miss Jones (1941)
Early in 2020 Criterion Channel had a series of films starring Jean Arthur, and I kind of think I came out of it loving her more than any other vintage female star, a scratchy-voiced, snub-nosed angel. The best of them, I think, was a big-hearted comedy about the workers in a department store, which in its humanism seemed more like something from France or Weimar Germany than Hollywood: when the workers start talking about unionizing, secretive owner Charles Coburn goes undercover in his own shoe department to spy on them, and discovers through Arthur that they’re people too. She sure is.
The Pordenone Silent Film Festival, the top event worldwide for silent films and research presentations, went online this year, and the best film I saw was this little-know3n G.W. Pabst film (which I suspect was mostly borrowed from Arthur Schnitzler’s then-recent bestseller Traumnovelle, better known as the source material for Eyes Wide Shut).
Clueless husband Gustav Diessl works too hard, leaving wife Brigitte Helm bored; she goes out with a fast crowd, samples decadence (including cocaine!) and shocks herself—but when she comes home repentant and hungry for him, he gets his dander up, and they wind up headed for divorce. A slight story but told with loads of style, from art deco set design to swirling cinematography to Helm (Metropolis), who can slink in a cocktail dress like nobody’s business.
Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970)
Not sure how I never saw this winner of the Best Foreign Film Oscar before, by Italian director Elio Petri, but it’s a biting satire couldn’t have been more timely in this year of riots and police violence. Gian Maria Volonte has just been appointed head of the anti-revolutionary unit on the police force, and to prove that the police are the law, he… murders his mistress and plants clues which will lead his fellow cops to suspect him. Which they won’t accept, because as all the cops know, the revolutionaries are the true enemy. Volonte gives a performance of Brandoesque power and Kinskiesque batshit-craziness, in a brass-balled social commentary movie (and kudos as well to the Academy of 1970 for having the cojones to honor it).
Big City Blues (1931)
Another series on Criterion Channel was devoted to Joan Blondell, rarely a lead but excellent as a sassy female costar in racy pre-Codes. This one, about a country hick getting swindled in the big city, is like a sendup of its own subgenre, with dada snappy dialogue and stopping a wild party dead at one point for a radio commercial for Yum Yum Popcorn, recommended by doctors for expectant mothers. (The wild party isn’t the only thing that will end up dead before the night is over.) The cast, including Humphrey Bogart as a partygoer, Walter Catlett as a close relation to his fox in PInocchio, and Guy Kibbee as a house detective, is a tribute to the genius of the Warner Bros. casting office.
The Great Leap (1927)
Kino Lorber released a ton of obscure silents this year, but for sheer improbability, try to beat a slapstick comedy starring Hitler’s favorite director, Leni Riefenstahl. It’s a mountain-climbing comedy about a city slicker who’s smitten by her ability to scale rocks barefoot, and enters a skiing competition to win her, inventing an inflatable suit so he won’t get hurt (though looking like the MIchelin Man on skis doesn’t seem likely to impress the chicks to me). Lots of goofy physical gags—certainly more than in her later films—make this German Expressionism’s answer to Buster Keaton.
Ice Cold in Alex (1958)
This British war film, little known in the US, was the highlight of a blu-ray set from Film Movement called Their Finest Hour, with five British WWII films, three of them starring John Mills as the archetypal British soldier. The title refers to a beer Mills plans to drink in Alexandria once he gets himself, his sergeant (Harry Andrews) and a nurse (Sylvia Sims) across the Sahara in a rickety truck as Rommel overruns the British position at Tobruk. Along the way they pick up a South African officer (Anthony Quayle) who they come to suspect of being a German officer in disguise—which would be grounds for him to be shot when they get to Alexandria. What follows is a gripping action film, like a British Wages of Fear, shot on location by J. Lee Thompson (Guns of Navarone), and a humanist take on war that suggests that following orders isn’t always the only responsibility of a soldier.