Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)
Now that 2018 is coming to an end and most critics have already filed their “best of the year” lists, we’ve decided to step away from new releases for a moment, and shift focus to older movies that members of our survey fell in love with for the first time this year.
This week’s question: What was the best “older” film — anything from the early silents to recent under-the-radar gems — that you discovered for the first time this year?
Late last year, I went to see Samuel Maoz’s “Foxtrot” and walked out a different person. The Israeli drama about a couple waiting on news of their soldier son had simultaneously devastated my psyche and shown me a refined and measured film language that made use of all available tools. Maoz instantly became a virtuoso of cinema in my eyes. Weeks later, and without knowing much about it other than who’d made it, I ordered a Blu-ray copy of Maoz’s 2009 fiction debut “Lebanon,” and my suspicions of his brilliance were confirmed. The auteur was a former tank gunner during the 1982 Lebanon War, and had distilled all of his recollections into a cleverly claustrophobic look at the human condition in times of crisis and a poignant commentary on his country’s policies. Taking place entirely inside a tank as a group of soldiers grapple with the violence they must carry out in the name of their homeland, “Lebanon” is a tense, intellectually stimulating, and strikingly produced piece of cinema that should be more widely seen.
“Lebanon” is available on Blu-ray and DVD, as well as to stream on Amazon Prime, iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu.
Somehow, I hadn’t seen “Stop Making Sense” in its entirety until a few months ago, and I’ve concluded that such an oversight can only be rectified through many rewatches to come. I found it both as purely exhilarating and precisely assembled as everyone else has said it is, with Jonathan Demme’s unmatched approach to concert filmmaking as dynamic as the boundlessly energetic performances onstage. It’s a masterpiece through and through, and it’s streaming on Amazon Prime and available for rental on every major outlet.
It has been a year of great discoveries thanks to the vitality of New York’s revival houses, often working together with (i.e., screening new restorations by) physical-media companies; such films as “One Sings, the Other Doesn’t,” “Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day,” “Hypocrites,” “Not a Pretty Picture,” “Personal Problems,” “Arsène Lupin,” “Driftwood” were among the year’s great experiences, alongside others made available on streaming services (again, hand-in-hand with home-video releases), such as “Tilaï” and “Punishment.” But the one that stands out as the great exhilaration is Jan Oxenberg’s 1992 film “Thank You and Good Night,” a reckoning with life and death from the perspective of family and memory that’s one of the most boldly imaginative films of its time; with cardboard cutouts and hands-on effects, Oxenberg reaches, with exuberant humor and shuddering frankness, cosmic and intimate depths beyond the era’s processed and targeted fantasies of Spielbergian sentiment and Lucasian bombast. And, no, it’s still not on home video or streaming.
Carol Reed’s “The Third Man” is a film that stood out to me this year. After a whole month of Film Noir for Noirvember, it easily came out on top. Most film’s of the Noir genre hit similar beats, and often annoyingly so. “The Third Man”‘s uniqueness hits you instantly as the credits roll with its unconventional score, which sounds like something out of “Spongebob Squarepants”. The dark post-WWII atmosphere and the masterful use of shadow in the film’s cinematography are dazzling. It’s rife with suspense and intrigue that never falters and includes a thrilling chase sequence through the sewers of Vienna – the best chase I’ve ever seen on film. It’s a film that has the power to appeal to all audiences, even the ones that feel classic films are too outdated to enjoy.
I hate bragging about living a block away from the Metrograph, but if there wasn’t a theater right there, I probably wouldn’t have bothered seeing as many older repertory films this year as I did. I’ve seen a lot of great old movies that I never got around to seeing but I was most impressed by 1950’s “Sunset Boulevard,” which I’m well aware is considered a classic and was even adapted to the stage. There’s a lot of talk these days about filmmakers trying to do “modern noir” (Karyn Kusama’s “Destroyer,” for instance), but you really do have to go back to 1950 to see noir delivered to perfection.
I guess it was easy to relate to a struggling writer who ends up working as a ghost writer for a faded and quite crazy silent film star. The performances by William Holden and Gloria Swanson are both fantastic, but the movie also has cameos by the likes of Cecil B. Demille and Buster Keaton, essentially playing themselves. I feel when you watch this movie and then see Orson Welles’ recently-finished final film “The Other Side of the Wind,” it’s obvious that Billy Wilder was probably a better overall director, since he was able to bounce between genres fairly effortlessly, doing noir as well as one of the genre’s masters.
2018 has been the year of film education for me. I’ve seen more films for the first time this year than I had in any previous years. One of the directors I discovered this year was Mike Leigh. Despite seeing two of his films (Vera Drake and Mr. Turner) previously, I didn’t know much about him or his work. One of the films I’ve seen this year for the first time was his 2008 film “Happy-Go-Lucky”, starring Sally Hawkins with a performance that’ll make you ask “Why isn’t she in more films?”. It’d not be wrong to say it was love at first sight for me and “Happy-Go-Lucky”. I watched the film three times in the span of a week and five more times since then. It’s one of the best character-driven films I’ve ever seen. The protagonist Poppy’s cheerful attitude towards life radiates through the screen like no other. To Poppy the glass is not just half full, it’s overflowing, but she isn’t a Pollyanna caricature. It’s no wonder that Mike Leigh spent six months with the cast developing the characters through rehearsals; Every single character in “Happy-Go-Lucky” from ones with two lines to Poppy feels so real that it feels like you’re watching lives of actual people and not characters.
Happy-Go-Lucky is available to watch on Amazon Prime, Youtube, iTunes and Google Play.
My family didn’t watch that many current-to-the-time movies while I was growing up, so I missed a fair amount of the thrillers and action movies that hit theaters in the 1990s. This past year, I tried to catch up with those genres, and really enjoyed the 1998 Robert De Niro heist movie “Ronin” and 1996’s Geena Davis-starring “The Long Kiss Goodnight.” “Ronin” certainly felt like a throwback, with its twisty plot, lengthy car chases, and the mysterious case that is central to the plot; of course it was directed by John Frankenheimer, whose previous films “Birdman of Alcatraz” and “The Manchurian Candidate” I had watched with my parents. And “The Long Kiss Goodnight” sketched in the early stages of Shane Black’s career and made me realize everything Jennifer Garner does now, she’s able to achieve because Geena Davis came before her. “Ronin” is available for rent through YouTube, Amazon Prime, Google Play, Vudu, and iTunes and also available to HBO subscribers through HBO Now; “The Long Kiss Goodnight” is available to rent on Amazon Prime and Vudu; both are great Saturday night picks.
Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or winning “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” is a gut-wrenching stand out from this year’s first watches (which include other such brilliant films as “The Deer Hunter,” “Wild at Heart,” and “Akira”), which is saying a lot. It is a prescient film for a politically divided country that belongs at the heart of our incessant (yet necessary) political debates. It begs the question (among many others): how far are we willing to take our political convictions? And it does so through the historically accurate lens of the Irish War of Independence, which has a lot to teach us, as history often does when we take the time to examine it. Cillian Murphy’s performance is an all-time wonder. Overall, it is truly one of the most heartbreaking films I have ever seen. It has attached itself to my soul since watching in February. I have thought about it more than I have thought about any film in the past couple years. You must experience it. It’s not streaming anywhere for free, but you can rent it on Amazon for a kindly priced $4 (the best $4 you will spend this month).
Though for many this was the year of MoviePass, this was my year of Filmstruck, having gifted myself with the now-defunct streaming service last Christmas and nearly getting an entire calendar year out of it. One of my many wonderful discoveries on Filmstruck was James Ivory’s 1985 film, “A Room With A View.” Adapted from the E.M. Forster novel of the same name, “A Room With A View” is a lush and deeply funny period piece about a moody young woman (played with apt moodiness by a teenage Helena Bonham Carter) who lets herself develop a life-altering crush on a handsome young man named George (Julian Sands) staying at the same Italian pensione as her one summer, only to have to return to her drab fiancé Cecil (Daniel Day-Lewis in perhaps my favorite role of his to date). In my un-air conditioned apartment, I watched “A Room With A View” a handful of times this summer, never tiring of its cheery optimism and richly comic dialogue (and eventually writing about it for Bright Wall/Dark Room). Sans Filmstruck, I’m hesitant to know where exactly it can be found beyond a standard Amazon or iTunes rental, but it’s well worth a few bucks for a warm couple of hours in the sun during this dark and drab time of year.
Shortly before FilmStruck’s demise, I caught Sam Peckinpah’s 1962 western “Ride the High Country,” and the narrative structure-lead performances resonated from scene to scene.
The first half seamlessly examines myth building, the central threat, old school vs. new school philosophies, the female wildcard and outlaw religion, as Peckinpah consistently gives the audience something to chew on and organically pushes the plot forward. He’s in full command of his craft.
Ultimately, it’s two old-timers that bring the script to life with their chemistry and line delivery. In his last role, Randolph Scott stars as the antihero Gil Westrum opposite Joel McCrea’s moralistic Steve Judd. It’s fascinating to see these veterans actors kill it late in their careers, as they naturally communicate empathy and mystery, especially when the focus is solely on them.
“Ride the High Country” is available to rent on Amazon Prime.
Though I’m a fan of director Leo McCarey’s “An Affair To Remember” and “The Awful Truth,” I had yet to dive deeper into any of his other films until I blind-bought what by all accounts is his masterpiece, “Make Way For Tomorrow.” Simply put, you’re a horrible monster if you don’t cry during this movie. It makes you want to pick up the phone and call your parents. This resonant drama about a sweet elderly couple (played by Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi), forced to live separately and move in with their grown kids when the bank forecloses on their home, never hits any false notes in dealing with its uncomfortable, yet highly universal subject matter. The way McCarey and Company place the audience in the shoes of both the annoyed children and the put-upon parents is unique and devastatingly palpable. It pulls on the heartstrings in a masterful, un-manipulative manner. Plus, the bold and rather rebellious ending is completely incongruous to what was popular at the time. This is the film which should’ve garnered McCarey his Oscar (a feeling he’s also expressed), not the film that actually did (“The Awful Truth”). It’s currently available on Criterion Collection.
After watching the Netflix bio doc “Quincy” I realized I hadn’t heard many of the film scores Quincy Jones composed during his peak in the ’60s and ’70s. (I think “In the Heat of the Night” was the only film he scored that I had previously seen.) So I watched the Criterion blu-ray edition of the 1967 Richard Brooks film “In Cold Blood,” and I was promptly blown away.
The enduring thought I had while watching “In Cold Blood” is that it’s a 50-year-old movie that doesn’t even seem half that age. It’s not necessarily that it was so far ahead of its time, but rather that every aspect of the film was so impeccably crafted that nothing feels remotely dated. That’s what’s so shocking about it. It doesn’t look like an old movie, it doesn’t sound like an old movie, and it doesn’t feel like an old movie.
The minimalist, bass-driven jazz score by Jones and the stark, moody black and white imagery shot by Conrad Hall leave almost as indelible a mark on the viewer as the moral murkiness of the film’s climactic, matter-of-fact execution of its two leads. Writer/director Richard Brooks impressively structured the script so the recreation of those two men murdering an entire Kansas family in 1959 isn’t actually seen until the film’s final act. By the time we see what they’ve been on the run for, the two criminals have already been humanized. And the scenes of them both killing and being killed follow in such close succession that the cold, senseless similarities between the two events are impossible to deny.
This year, I was lucky enough to catch many older movies on the big screen for the first time, including “Taxi Driver” and “Goodfellas,” but one I hadn’t ever managed to catch, in any capacity, was “Heathers.” Instantly, it became a favorite, a film I’ve already gone back to several times since, a film I can see reflected in other personal favorites, and a film I’ve already added to my collection because I quite honestly couldn’t wait to own it. There are certain movies that feel as though they’ve been a part of my life even when I haven’t seen them yet, and “Heathers” was definitely one of them.
But, with the release of “Thoroughbreds” and even “Riverdale” (Jughead is definitely influenced by JD, right down to his jacket) this year, it’s been wonderful to see it reflected everywhere, and to see its influence. The movie is very of its time, but “Heathers” is also insanely topical, even nowadays, and its premise still feels really fresh and brave. Also, I caught Christian Slater in “The Wife” earlier this year and he hasn’t aged a day, so that was pretty cool/creepy.
Earlier this year I attended the TCM Classic Film Festival where I was fortunate to watch the 1941 Michael Curtiz-directed film “The Sea Wolf.” Recently released in a beautifully restored Blu-ray via Warner Archive, the film follows two lost souls (played by legendary actress/director Ida Lupino and John Garfield) trapped on a boat helmed by an evil captain going blind (played by Edward G. Robinson). Curtiz was a master of all genres but “The Sea Wolf” is his best. Darkly flirting with the noir genre that would capture the decade, there’s so much tension and hostility, secrets and lies that permeate the ship. Ida Lupino has never been more beautiful as the criminal attempting to rewrite her past; I love that this movie could easily be examined as a feminist tale of women attempting to revise their history in the wake of male double standards. And John Garfield is a different type of romantic leading man, mixing swoon with surliness in a way that’s sexy as hell. If you don’t want to watch the Warner Blu, which restores several minutes of presumed-lost footage, you can rent the movie on Vudu.
I was unaware of Whit Stillman’s genius until I caught “The Last Days at Disco” at the Quad Cinema in NYC. It’s an absolute dream of a film. Stillman’s razor sharp wit, droll satire, and laconic storylines are absolutely enchanting, buoyed by a charming ensemble led by a quiet Chloë Sevingy and smooth-voiced Chris Eigeman. The repartee between these solipsistic Ivy League brats bobs and weaves with effortless comic brevity. One conversational highlight is their dissection of “Lady and the Tramp”’s psychological and moral subtexts with a great scholarly seriousness. Stillman deftly captures the grit 1980s New York City: the fading disco clubs, the railroad apartments, the rickety subways. “The Last Days of Disco” is a sweet film about letting go of the past and your free-spirited youth. The delightful final scene of a subway car singing and dancing to “Love Train” by the O’Jays is one of the greatest film endings of all time. It’s available on Vudu, YouTube, Amazon Prime, iTunes, and Google Play.
I watched Hiroshi Teshigahara’s 1964 film “Woman in the Dunes” for the first time during a heat wave in Europe this past summer, and its images and ideas are still lingering in my mind. The film is a parable, a conundrum, a simple-yet-confounding story about a man trapped at the bottom of a dune by a group of villagers, forced to live with a woman in a hut and shovel the ever-encroaching sand into a bucket. Erotic, evocative, and enigmatic, I have no idea what this film is about, but I love it anyway, especially its engrossing images of bodies and bugs and betrayals. Any attempt to classify or contain it via traditional generic forms is like grabbing at a handful of…well…you get the picture.
So much has already been written about the film “Call Me By Your Name.” But, I will now happily add to the chorus of its admirers. I saw the film well after the initial buzz surrounding it had died down, and now I can understand more why it was covered so widely. The way the film sucks you into its story, like Alice falling down a hole into Wonderland, is near-magical. I emerged from seeing it with that age-old, dazed, lovestruck feeling which all great movies elicit: “Damn. It’s over already?” Although it won an award for its words (Oscar – Best Adapted Screenplay), what struck me most about the film was in its moments of quietude and moments of music. The original compositions by Sufjan Stevens, along with the rest of the soundtrack, coupled with the moments where nothing was said verbally, but all could be said in a fleeting look – made the movie feel more real and more human than so many movies I’ve seen. “Call Me By Your Name” had its U.S. wide release last January, but I saw it on a sweet, sweaty summer night last July. Diving into that Italy-set, 1980s summer love story while in hot-as-the-sun 2018 New York City, was a more welcome escape than I expected. The credits rolled, and I felt I’d been changed.
As soon as I heard that the previously hard-to-find Prince concert documentary “Sign O’ the Times” was streaming on Amazon Prime, I pulled a seat close to my 55-inch TV and cranked up the surround sound. What an amazing experience this film is. I never had the chance to see Prince perform live. The closest I ever got was seeing his former guitarist Dez Dickerson open for Billy Idol in 1985. No offense to Mr. Dickerson, but it’s not even remotely the same. “Sign O’ the Times” brought me a little closer, capturing Prince in all his high-energy purple-ness, performing one powerhouse song after another. I’ve been to my fair share of concerts over the years, yet have never seen any artist perform with the passion or intensity that Prince does in this remarkable movie. Just writing this answer is making me want to go watch it again right now.
“Dial Code Santa Claus.” This Christmas-themed action/horror film about a kid left home alone on Christmas Eve to fend off against a threatening invader shares several plot points with “Home Alone”, but it predates it by a whole year. This French film does it all bigger, bolder and better by having actual stakes in the form of a deadly psychopath dressed as Santa Claus chasing a kid who believes he is actually the real Father Christmas. Even better, the film draws from 80s action films like “Die Hard” and “Rambo,” with a young protagonist who dresses up just like Stallone in his prime, complete with oily muscles and a mullet, who must suck up his pain and defend his half-blind grandpa from certain death. Somehow the film is both funny, sweet and quite scary, and it’s a crime that this wasn’t as big a hit as Chris Columbus’ holiday comedy.
“Dial Code Santa Claus” is available in Alamo Drafthouses and select US theaters thanks to the American Genre Film Archive.
Among the films I was able to catch up with for the first time this year, Victor Sjostrom’s “The Phantom Carriage” was an easy highlight. The 1921 Swedish film is a terrific watch for all the ways I could see cinematic ambition coming through at such an early time in film history. Now bound to serve as my go-to New Years movie, this story of how death comes around and forces a man to reflect on his bad life choices has so many fascinating aspects, which includes its influence in the time since. Ingmar Bergman was a huge fan of this film and it shows. And now I’m aware Stanley Kubrick paid homage to this film with one of the signature scenes of “The Shining.” As much fun and insight I get from seeing modern cinema from new and unique voices, “The Phantom Carriage” presented a lot from the silent era for me to appreciate a whole lot as well.
“The Phantom Carriage” is available to stream on Kanopy and is available on a beautiful Criterion Collection Blu-ray.
I sought out Alice Rohrwacher’s 2014 Grand Prix winner “The Wonders” this year (currently on BFI Player in the UK), after falling in love with her most recent work “Happy as Lazzaro”. A wonderfully expressive filmmaker, Rohrwacher’s films float in a realm of magic neo-realism and manage to be as refreshing as they are beautifully nostalgic – alive with the innocence of childhood and the earthy richness of Italian landscapes. “The Wonders” follows Gelsomina, the eldest, brightest daughter of a farmer and beekeeper who she helps with the day to day running of their home. When a TV talent contest begins their search for the wonders of the countryside, inviting farming families to showcase their work, Gelsomina is desperate to enter the family’s honey against the wishes of her father. Rohrwacher’s film navigates the wider issues of family politics and rural Italian life, as well as the intimacy and sorrow of Gelsomina’s coming-of-age in a world where she has little time to be young.
The film has many visually arresting moments but I think the scene that has stuck with me, perhaps the most across the films I’ve seen this year, is the moment where the honey overflows in the small factory room where it is being produced and bottled. It is so wonderfully sensorial and haptic, as the children desperately clasp at and push away the thick flood covering their floors and feet. It is such a futile exercise for them, and watching it is at once delightfully enjoyable and agonising.
Unlike in previous years, this year I did not actually watch that many films not released in 2018, old or recent. Among the few that I did see, my favorite is Laurent Bouzereau’s three-hour-plus documentary “Five Came Back,” adapted from the eponymous nonfiction book by Mark Harris (who also wrote the screenplay) and presented as a three-part series on Netflix. It follows the five Hollywood directors – Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens and William Wyler – who placed their successful careers on hold to shoot and produce documentary content for the United States armed services during World War II. Each man would find his life transformed by the experience in different ways, some more severely than others.
Stevens, for example, known mostly for light comedies before the war, found himself among the forces that liberated the Dachau concentration camp, and the horrors he witnessed (which he personally captured on film that was later used in the Nuremberg Trials) forever changed him. In addition to such classics as “I Remember Mama,” “Shane” and “Giant,” he would eventually direct “The Diary of Anne Frank” in 1959, an act of cinematic exorcism that had long gestated in his tortured mind. Wyler, after making the 1944 “The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress,” about the men behind the bombing runs over Germany, lost most of his hearing while flying in new sorties over Italy, an injury that would make his first film after the war, the 1946 “The Best Years of Our Lives,” especially personal. The movie, which won most of the major Oscars that year, tells the story of three returning veterans – one with a severe injury – struggling to adapt to post-war civilian life, and was one of the first major films to look at post-traumatic stress disorder (though it did not call it by that name).
Beyond the affecting narratives, supported by strong voiceover work from Meryl Streep and terrific interviews with Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo del Toro, Paul Greengrass, Lawrence Kasdan and Steven Spielberg, the documentary is made with impressive production value. I particularly admire the opening title sequence (created by Elastic) and its accompanying theme music (written by Thomas Newman). This is a great movie for cinephiles, history buffs and lovers of good filmmaking, alike, and I highly recommend.
After discovering and falling madly in love with “The Red Shoes” in 2016, this year led me to another stunning piece of work from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. “A Matter of Life and Death” depicts the star-crossed love story between WWII pilot Peter Carter (David Niven) and radio operator June (Kim Hunter), with a twist only The Archers could bring to such vivid and astonishing life on screen. When a celestial messenger arrives to correct the error that spared Peter’s life, he must fight the powers-that-be for his right to remain with his beloved June. Exploring heaven and Earth, Powell and Pressburger combine whimsical fantasy and the boundless power of love in this cinematic treasure that I won’t be forgetting anytime soon.
I highly recommend you pick up this marvelous feast for the eyes from Criterion.
This past year, fellow Critics Survey contributor Aaron White, one of the hosts of the Feelin’ Film podcast, has led a monthly podcast discussion featuring selections from the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American films of all-time. Bridging video chat from his Seattle to my Chicago, I have been honored to be his co-host in that endeavor. We call it “Connecting With Classics.” Aaron and I combine the signature hallmarks from both of our websites for this collaboration. For every movie, we each submit and discuss an emotional “connecting point,” the specialty focus of Feelin’ Film, and a “life lesson” from my Every Movie Has a Lesson. Our dive into older films has enabled the two of us to scratch off a few blind spots from our resumes.
The largest discovery for me on “Connecting With Classics” was “Lawrence of Arabia,” the #5 film of AFI’s original last and #7 on its anniversary update. David Lean’s epic had long been a victim of never feeling like I had the ideal or dedicated 227 minutes of time and focus to absorb it. Hell, I’ve owned a physical copy of it for years on principle and was glad to finally take it out of the cellophane. The sweep and scope was as impressive as its many long-held historical kudos advertised. While I would have loved to soak it in those Jordanian and Moroccan vistas properly on the big screen where “Lawrence of Arabia” is a staple of the annual 70mm Film Festival hosted by Chicago’s Music Box Theatre, little was lost viewing it at home. Peter O’Toole’s towering debut performance captivated me more than the sizable scenery. Between his near-wordless emergence from the desert rescuing a comrade and earning his robes to his longer orations of poise and conflict throughout the film, O’Toole’s refined commitment was astounding. I wouldn’t take away Gregory Peck’s Best Actor Oscar from “To Kill a Mockingbird” that same year, but I would have lobbied for a tie. Sadly, “Lawrence of Arabia” is not available for streaming at the moment on any of the major services, but it is worth every penny of its $3 rental price on Vudu. Go ahead and wipe the smudges off the TV screen and throw in an extra buck to spring for the HD rental from Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Apple. Go see why modern films need to bring back overtures and intermissions.
I wasn’t cranking through films on FilmStruck in November like so many other members of #FilmTwitter. The only classic — or film released before 2018 — that I watched for the first time this year was “A Streetcar Named Desire.” I DVR’d many classic films on TCM over the past several months but finding the time to watch isn’t easy when one is watching as many of the new releases (both mainstream and indie) as possible or attending film festivals.
“A Streetcar Named Desire” is one of the few stage plays that truly work when adapted for film. Both the stage play and film were written by Tennessee Williams and directed by Elia Kazan. Even though he didn’t win the Oscar for this role, Marlon Brando turned out to be an absolute discovery. Brando delivered a remarkable performance and a classic for the ages but lost the Oscar for Best Actor to Humphrey Bogart (who managed to somehow lose for “Casablanca” some years earlier). Very few films are able to get nominations in all four acting categories but “A Streetcar Named Desire” was the first film to win in three of those categories.
I’ve been a big Sergio Leone fan since I was a teenager, always there for “Clint Eastwood Week” on my local UHF channel. But I had never seen “A Fistful of Dynamite” (aka “Duck You Sucker”) until I watched the Kino Lorber Blu-ray this year, featuring the 157-minute director’s cut, assuming it was an inferior retread of Leone’s Man With No Name Westerns.
Instead, it’s a much stranger and sadder film than I expected. Perhaps the slowest-paced movie ever that also features huge explosions, it features some of Leone’s most ambitious shots, and takes a dim eye to revolution in its tale of a Mexican highwayman (Rod Steiger) and an ex-IRA bomber (James Coburn) caught up in Pancho Villa’s revolution. Leone was commenting (bitterly) on contemporary Italian politics, and in one scene the camera lingers on a horrific massacre that Italian audiences would have recognized as inspired by real-life events. I wouldn’t have gotten “Dynamite” at all had I first seen it as a teenager, but I’m glad I finally caught up with it now. The full 157-minute cut is streaming on Hulu.
Once I learned Filmstruck (RIP!) was shutting down, I committed to watching both the more obscure and mainstream classics that I just hadn’t gotten around to yet. And my favorite was the 1947 film “Black Narcissus,” which sensitively explored (well, mostly) female desire, faith, love, culture clashes, and masculinity, all while making full, breathtaking use of its setting. The characters themselves could’ve easily been neglected, but each one’s struggles-as well as their limitations-were also thoughtfully explored. It’s a stark contrast to many later, and even modern films, which often devolve into glorifications of masculinity and/or an obsession with female purity.
Fantasia Film Festival hosted a 35mm screening of Lynne Stopkewich’s 1996 debut “Kissed” for Canada Day this year, and it’s a film that’s definitely due for reappraisal. Starring Molly Parker as a mortuary student who finds herself sexually drawn towards cadavers, it’s far from the exploitative schlock one might associate with such subject material. Rather, “Kissed,” adapted from a short story by Barbara Gowdy, is a poetic and beautiful examination of life, death, love, and the spirit.
Shot and edited with delicate finesse, and wonderfully performed by Parker, the low-budget, 16mm feature goes where many films would never dare venture, treating a sexual obsession with the dead as something more than just body horror. A tragic subplot involving Parker’s character with a living lover only serves to further interrogate her veneration of death. It’s all very dark, but treated with a gentle touch.
“Kissed” is available on iTunes, although not in all territories, and DVD copies can be found floating around (it’s now out of print). Stopkewich has stated an intention to re-scan the film in HD, so perhaps a new release is on its way. Also, I did a pretty good interview with her the day after the screening, and it would be great if some outlet or other would buy it.
This year I discovered many old, brilliant movies, yet the one that keeps popping up and the one I still think about is Ken Russell’s ‘The Devils’. I saw it on Easter week, in a dimly-lit horror-themed restaurant with an old friend, expecting to see a horror movie with possessed nuns but found a very political film focusing on power and control, with blasphemous imagery, stunning design and costume production and brilliant performances by Oliver Reed, Vanessa Redgrave and Dudley Sutton.
Based on the Loudun possession case ocurred in the XVIIth century, the film presents the growing conflict between King Louis XIII’s court, strongly influenced (if not controlled) by Cardinal Richelieu, and the Jesuit priest Father Urbain Grandier, who had just unified the autonomous Loudun cidadel after prolongued conflicts between Catholics and Protestants. The King’s court finds an unexpected aid in the figure of Sister Jeanne, a hunckbacked nun who claimed Grandier had a pact signed with the Devil. Both Grandier and Sister Jeanne expose questions regarding their religious vocation and their faith, while the Catholic Church and the higher ruling class uses vulnerable women to advance and achieve their political goals in the most horrifying manner.
‘The Devils’ is a remarkable film that balances the political-religious drama with philosophical contemplation and the terrifying violence perpetrated by the Catholic Church at a time where the separation between Church and State was unheard of and the notion of human rights did not exist. Unfortunately, the movie is still globally unaccessible thanks to the censoring efforts of highly conservative groups during the 70s, and it remains to be seen which international streaming platform will keep it on their catalogues.
I watched “Wings of Desire” (Wim Wenders, 1987) for the first time this year, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. It’s about angels wandering divided Berlin, eavesdropping on the people who live there, listening to their internal fears and pains and hopes, and providing comfort where they can. One angel finds himself falling for a trapeze artist in a struggling circus, and must make a decision: keep his wings and remain separate from humanity, or become a mortal and be with the woman he loves. The library scene is one of the loveliest I’ve ever watched; it touched me so deeply I was in tears by the end, and I’m still having a difficult time fully articulating why.
“Wings of Desire” available to stream on Amazon and Kanopy right now, and for those lucky enough to be in Chicago around the New Year, the Gene Siskel Film Center is showing the newly restored 4K edition December 28-January 3.
This year we started a monthly series on the Feelin’ Film Podcast called “Connecting With Classics,” where fellow Critics Survey contributor Don Shanahan and myself cover some of the classics listed on AFI’s Top 100 list. Through that project I was able to catch up with many fantastic works of eras past, but it was a little known 2009 French-language film from one of my favorite directors that has stuck with me the most. Denis Villeneuve’s “Polytechnique” is an incredible, but difficult, film to watch. It centers around a Montreal school shooting from 1989 and is filmed in a very straightforward manner using gorgeous black and white photography. Villeneuve approaches the massacre as if distanced from it, crafting an experience unlike most stories dealing with this subject matter. Gunshots go off so loudly that you can feel them in your bones. After the shootings, Villeneuve lingers. Nothing remains but chaos and death, and the presence of a cold, soulless, and Terminator-like shooter.
Villeneuve brilliantly frames the story between a suicide letter composed by the shooter and a letter to his parents by a lone survivor, creating a visceral emotional connection for the audience that highlights how important empathy is in response to violence and hate. This is a masterful piece of work on every level that really gets at the terrible truth of how a shooting like this affects the lives of not just those who die but those who live through it. Ultimately, the film calls for hope and strength, and is well worth a viewing for anyone who can handle the heavy retelling of this real-life tragedy.
I’ve been a longtime collector of the Criterion Collection – gotta keep physical media alive, folks! – and blind-buys are one of my favorite things to do. Sure, I’ll grab one or two gems I’d seen before, but whenever those flash sales come around, my main focus is on grabbing a few things I’ve either never heard of or works from respected filmmakers I hadn’t seen yet. I’ve gotten my fair share of wonderful surprises with this method, but this year none compared to the experience of finally seeing Andrei Tarkovsky’s dark sci-fi epic “Stalker”. The melancholic tale a mysterious guide (Aleksandr Kaidanovsky) escorting a writer and an intellectual to the mysterious “Zone,” a place rumored to grant your deepest wishes, “Stalker” is one of the most intellectually rich, cinematically draining and fulfilling experiences I’ve ever had. “Stalker”‘s deeply philosophical approach to science fiction is a clear inspiration for the works of more modern filmmakers like Jonathan Glazer and Alex Garland, their contemplative works of slow-horror (“Under the Skin”, “Annihilation”) evoking Tarkovsky’s incredibly ambitious approach. Something about “Stalker” digs deep into your flesh, crawling inside you as you watch the ways these three men challenge and are challenged by each other’s viewpoints. Each of them wants something different from the Zone – closure, divine truth, inspiration – Tarkovsky forcing you to sit with these men and live with their regrets, seeing the difficult choices they must make and wondering whether you’d do the same.
On top of its thematic richness, it’s just one of the most bleakly beautiful films I’ve ever seen. No one moves a camera with more longing, more haunting beauty than Tarkovsky; there’s elegance in the spareness of his images, Tarkovsky throwing in an earthquake here, a moving glass there to sell the terrifying magic of the Zone. If you like his “Solaris”, this is a beautiful accompaniment – both intriguing works of cinematic science fiction as vehicles for pursuing ideas about human consciousness and the dangers of getting exactly what we wish for.