Monday, January 21, 2013

The Best and Worst Film Discoveries of 2012

Well, I covered my thoughts on the films of 2012, I also wanted to talk about some of the more interesting films I watched last year,  though not from last year. So here are my best and worst film discoveries, i.e.: first viewings, of the last year. As usual, links are to full films.

Best Film Discoveries of 2012:

Apaches (1977)
Thirty minute scare-tactic safety film screened to British schoolchildren in the 1970s. From just about the least auspicious origins, director John Mackenzie created one of the best kitchen sink dramas ever made. It's at once surreal, as the curled timeline and decontextualized scene openings keep us constantly in a little over our heads, and neo-realist, as the carefully curated banal facade grounds us. We watch over the course of weeks as farm children die one by one, and along the way Mackenzie quietly implicates the parents (one child drinks poison from the same cup her father sipped whiskey out of) and the dangerous, rickety, inhospitable world the children navigate. It's unforgettable filmmaking from an unexpected place - and the first part of a loose trilogy of powerful, savage PIFs. Mackenzie's 1971 thriller Unman, Wittering and Zigo, despite the terrible title, is also worth seeing.

Chainsaw Scumfuck (1988)
Here's another ultra-violent British short, though it's as stylistically removed as possible from the formal sadness of Apaches. This is moonshine 100 proof horror filmmaking. Five minutes of screaming, shaking pure monkey rage. If the monsters from 28 Days Later had a cinema, it would look like this. Total anarchic joy, it's infectious and makes you want to pick up a camera and out-do it. Can't ask for anything more, can ya?

Defense Counsel Sedov / Zashchitnik Sedov (1988)
Evgeniy Tsymbal's stunning black and white indictment of Soviet bureaucracy reminded me of what political film can do. Its weaving, angry handheld camerawork and slouchy unglamorous leading man remind me of the early years of Homicide: Life on the Street. The opening sequence says in two minutes more about living under totalitarianism than any other film I've ever seen, and the unjust ending is almost physically painful.

The Execution of Private Slovik (1974)
Pre-stardom Martin Sheen and Ned Beatty are always worth setting aside time for, and this understated television film - the highest rated until Roots - is each at their best. The story of a soldier who just can't be brave anymore and the horrible machination grinding him towards a death nobody wants to see, it's a good companion piece to Tsymbal's film. Gracefully shot, using the encroachment of winter to its advantage. This may be the best made-for-TV film I've seen, and it's an item I'll point to when people ask why I tend to seek them out.

A Farewell to Arms (1932)
I have a tumultuous relationship with Hemingway's second novel. There are moments of real power, evocations of muddy battlefields and weary men that are as strong as anything anyone's written, but it's brought down by an immaturity and emotional dishonesty that crystalizes in Catherine Barkley, one of the weakest and most offensive female characters I've ever come across. Paramount Pictures, in a moment of counterintuitive brilliance, dodged the problems of the book by assigning the film to director Frank Borzage, not a director of war stories but of romances. 

Fresh off of the similar Lucky Star, which is also the story of a WWI vet with an injured leg falling in cynical love, Borzage just owns the absolute hell out of Hemingway's framework. Hardly a word is changed but he spins them into sense - lines from the book that come off stone serious like "I'm nothing when I'm not with you" are played sweet and frivolous, like they're products of passing frustration and not codependency. The dreamy golden age camerawork and some great performances from the likes of Gary Cooper, Helen Hayes, and Adolphe Menjou at the beginnings of their careers, make this one of the most enjoyable films I've seen this year.

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969)
I don't know how I always wind up on the wrong side of public opinion, but Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed is bandied about with some regularity as one of the worst of the sprawling Hammer Frankenstein series. It's really not, I promise. It pulls a Breaking Bad and in this, the fifth in the series, antihero Dr. Frankenstein becomes a full-on villain. And what a villain.

Peter Cushing is working on some next level here, weaving his way between the quirky-but-well-meaning townsfolk, playing them off one another and destroying just about everyone with a cool confidence. It's a stellar performance, one that's matched by veteran character actor Freddie Jones, whose Dr. Brandt is the one that decides Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed. His absolute Shakespearian anguish and dignity on lines like "I fancy I am the spider and you are the fly" is stellar. It's like the first Star Wars, these tremendously talented and magnetic classical actors going to work on a sharp genre script.

The film balances ghoulish glee and genuine pathos and tragedy spectacularly, often smash-cutting between the two, like Frankenstein's plea for peace and quiet undercut by a cut to a screaming madwoman in a different scene. There are some setpieces here, like a dead body disinterred by a burst water main or an excruciatingly tense asylum breakout, which reach heights Hammer almost never reaches - for that matter, which art almost never reaches. I don't understand why this one is so often dismissed.

H-8... (1958)
One day last spring, I realized I had never seen a Croatian film. Did a bit of digging and heard good things about this fairly obscure 1958 film, which was made to mobilize the public to catch the perpetrator of a terrible bus wreck. My god what a lucky find.  We open with a breathless rundown of the facts of the case, chugging along towards the ugly accident which left 8 people, including a child, dead in the rain. "It's easy to read," we're told, "but difficult to really understand," right before director Nikola Tanhofer takes us on an hour and a half long tour of the bus, forcing us to see these dead and injured as human beings, before destroying them again at the film's end.

What a film! I mean even if it wasn't a good movie, what a brilliant use of the medium. It plays to every strength of film as a humanizing agent to try and solve a heinous crime. As it happens, it's not only a good movie, it's probably a great one. The camera wrings every inch out of the cramped setting. It's constantly moving back and forth, side to side, popping in and out of conversations like an other passenger, and the power of that opening coupled with the classic stories on the bus give the whole thing a kind of sick inevitability like The Wages of Fear. We're told 8 die, but we don't know which ones. It's a harrowing ride. Essential viewing.

Hamlet / Gamlet (1964)
Director Grigori Kozintsev plays the text more or less word for word - albeit truncated, but his control over little details makes it his own. For example, the "to be or not to be" soliloquy is distinguished in two ways: it's shot on a desolate beach. I've never seen another version which played this monologue outside, but it's such a natural fit for the Prince's hopeless and vast thoughts. In fact, I can't recall seeing a version of Hamlet with so many exteriors. It's also delivered not as an aside to the camera, but as an internal monologue while Hamlet goes about his business. I've rarely seen Shakespearean soliloquies handled this way, even in non-traditional adaptations, and now I can't believe it's not the standard. It's so CINEMATIC.

The whole thing is just exquisite. Dmitri Shostakovich, arguably the greatest 20th century composer, does not disappoint with a grand, complex score. The camerawork is stellar, huge gestures and an amazing contrast between vast washed-out exteriors and vast dark interiors. Magnificent. My favorite adaptation of the play by a wide margin.

The Ghost of Yotsuya / Yotsuya kaidan(1949)
I'm in the middle of a torrid love affair with this film. The 1959 Nobou Nakagawa version has found a spot in the canon, but this earlier, two-part black and white version directed by Keisuke Kinoshita seems to have just slipped away. A few months back, I listed four reasons why everyone should watch it. Those still stand, and I want to emphasize the quiet beauty of it. This year was a big year for my appreciation of 1930s/1940s Japanese cinema, and that delicate slice of life quality the best of them possess never ceases to catch me.

Greed (1924)
Even in a badly recorded gray market print of a four hour restoration of a nine hour movie, at least two full hours of which are still shots of production stills, Greed is overwhelming in its scope, beauty, wit, and depth of character.

That last point is key here. Von Stroheim structures the tortured dissolution of two fine people like a Russian novel - we come in a full hour before the plot starts, enough time to learn about our subjects' virtues and failings, the personality flaws and fears that drive the plot. It's one of the more interior films I've ever seen, much of the motivation is implied instead of outright said. I don't want to give the wrong impression though, it's a novelistic film for sure, but also a deeply cinematic one. Some amazing shots on display here, particularly in the last act when we travel to Death Valley and von Stroheim stretches his legs.

This is just a hell of a picture. I was expecting something incomplete, sort of a curiosity with moments of grace, but instead I got one of the most complete and powerful portraits of the human spirit ever made.

Law and Order (1969)
This is another one I wrote about already. Wiseman, who silently documents vast systems, is one of our most overly political filmmakers without ever saying a single word in any of his films. Here he puts an eye to the Kansas City police department, watching racial tension brew, horrible police brutality occur, and, sometimes, acts of wonderful kindness from individuals in the department. It's a complicated and elegant film which beat COPS by 20 years.

A Man Escaped (1956)
In my experience Bresson fails as much as he succeeds, because of his dogmatic refusal to change his style to accommodate the story. That sounds harsher than I mean it - his failures are rarely absolute, just films that don't live up to what they could be, and at his best, he's unforgettable. But that depends on a story which gains from being told in his numb, lean way.

That sparse style is nonnegotiable here. These are lean, brave men in small rooms, and the lack of context and non-essential material allows the strength of their character to reveal itself. It's his purest film, playing on our knowledge of the outcome to draw tension.

I also have to say I adore the title. It's simple and blunt, which matches the film perfectly, but its anonymity suggests bureaucracy - I love to think of it as an excerpt from the Nazi report on the event.

Mike's Murder (1984)
This one was too smart for its own good. The first cut played out backwards like Memento, with a catchy counter-punctual pop score by Joe Jackson. Test audiences, expecting a fun romance like James Bridges/Debra Winger's previous Urban Cowboy, balked and the whole thing was put back in chronological order with a more traditional score by John Barry. It was lost in the shuffle, cursed with middling reviews and general disinterest from a film culture that didn't reward darkness or ambiguity. Even in this more prosaic cut, it's a film of deep intelligence, wit, and beauty.

Winger stars as Betty Parrish, but really as Debra Winger, and she puts in a heartbreaking and beautiful role as a woman trying to piece together the murder of her sometimes-lover. Paul Winfield puts in a career high in a supporting role, the only time this gay actor played a gay character.

I'm prepared to call this the best neo-noir yet made.

Mikey and Nicky (1976)
It's John Cassavetes and Peter Falk in cramped rooms for two hours, dreading dawn. Phenomenal. A raw force of nature, some of the most complex and captivating characters put on film. I love the low-fi style, and the laborious editing paid off as each scene both stands on its own as a vignette and ratchets up the tension. The ending is unforgettable.

Murderers Among Us (1946)
This is the first post-WW2 German film. It attempts to make sense of the horrible things that happened and how Germany can heal. It's enhanced by an unique behind-the-scenes story: the director was trying to atone for his work on an antisemitic propaganda film! Hildegard Knef who plays a concentration camp survivor actually did survive a Nazi POW camp! The Soviets changed the ending of the film because they feared it would cause vigilante violence! Every heartbreaking frame shivers with pain.

It feels like a noir, with a slouchy-hatted alcoholic lead climbing out of despair alongside a horrible spiral into murder, and I guess it is the German equivalent. What's fascinating about this sort of post-War film is that it's shot like a period piece. It lingers on the mundane elements of day-to-day life in the ruins: old x-rays used as window panes, shattered glass still in doorframes, improvised graves in the street. The film has a keen awareness of its place in history, and it must have been cathartic to shoot the horrible things around you like they were sets. It has a lot riding on its shoulders, made for very limited resources, so it's doubly amazing that it succeeds with such a richness of space and such a richness of character. lies (1973)

What an elegant premise - a man filming a female friend as she gets ready to go out. Things are revealed. It's just what short films are great for (and what they're so rarely treated as): a sudden fiction, a single elliptical conversation telling us a lot about a time and a place, and a few carefully curated, layered characters.

It's about 16 minutes of shockingly good raw '70s New York school acting, with a meticulous script that peels away layers of social tragedy and artifice. It will infuriate and sadden you, as well as challenge your instincts on a crucial gender issue.

The director, Mitchell Block, kind of comes and goes. Back in the '70s he made a traffic safety film called Speeding which has some funny cameos from, among others, Dick Miller and Vincent Schiavelli, and three years ago he was up for Best Documentary at the Oscars for Poster Girl, a short about PTSD. He seems to be more involved in distribution than directing, which is a shame, but maybe not because it preserves his extraordinary caliber of work. This, his student film, is worth more than most directors' entire careers.

Pariah (2011)
Dee Rees's debut film is one of those movies that, for some obscure reason, seems to be constantly damned with faint praise. "It's merely a great coming-of-age story," they say, like that's not a hell of an accomplishment. There's a strong sense of place here, Rees's Brooklyn is at once beautiful and broken, insurmountable and comfortable. She focuses on the small, passing details of Alike's (what a perfect name for a character defined by her differences from everyone else) life. It's almost got the feel of the '30s slice-of-life dramas from Japan, a film marked by its love and understanding. That's always something to cherish.

The Structure of Crystal / Struktura Krysztalu (1969)
Here's another slice-of-life drama, and it's beautiful in its sense of scale. A small low-stakes chamber drama played out in long shots against the vastness of a steppe and in intimate close-ups against the titular microscopic structure of crystals. Literate and heartfelt, it's like a great house guest. It's one of those rare movies which manages to make its black and white feel intimate and warm.

The Sweet Hereafter (1997)
I slept on this one too long. I was expecting something tediously middle-of-the-road like Crash, but instead I discovered one of the best depictions of grief yet filmed. Ian Holm, long an underused actor, puts in an incredibly complex and wrenching performance. Bruce Greenwood's great too. He's a voice. With his mustache, bad teeth (to my memory anyway), and workclothes, he disappears into the scenery until he opens his mouth and that voice reveals uncommon reservoirs of intelligence and strength.

The whole thing is just perfectly constructed. It bends its timeline so logically that it never feels like a series of flashbacks and forwards, but instead perfectly pitched engines of grief building up to a unified climax.

A Time to Love and a Time to Die (1958)
Douglas Sirk started his career in America directing Hitler's Madman, a classic Poverty Row World War 2 film. It was a cheap, small-scale, black-and-white affair from the point of view of the Czech Resistance. Nearly 20 years later, Sirk returned to the battlefields of Europe to make his second World War 2 film, A Time to Love and a Time to Die - an expensive, sprawling, Technicolor affair from the point of view of a few German soldiers. Gotta love the symmetry.

This one is as long, classic, and expansive as its title, a majestic and angry wartime romance. It treads similar ground as Murderers Among Us, though in place of that film's gritty naturalism, Sirk's is a masterpiece of expressionism. Vast, shattered landscapes as far as the eye can see, and among them, lovers clinging to life among the ruins. It's downright operatic, the type of film so hard to do, and so rewarding when done right.

Zoo In Budapest (1933)
What an absolute delight. An Edenic fairy tale romance in the spirit of Curse of the Cat People or Spirit of the Beehive, we're awash in mysterious and beautiful sights and sounds for a fast eight reels. Loretta Young is radiant, the layered and exotic soundscape is one-of-a-kind. Magical filmmaking, simply magical.

And the Worst:

An American Crime (2007)
Tasteless and nauseating true crime cash-in with no perspective or insight beyond a vague, dutiful sadism.

Born Innocent (1974)
This a '70s TV movie featuring a 14 year old Linda Blair in a lesbian prison rape fantasy. It's one of those movies that hides under the veneer of an issue but really only exists so see how much of a child's body it can get away with showing. The ads, which told us "she was born innocent... but that was 14 years ago!," and the DVD cover both trade in the sex appeal of a child, and it's weird and gross to think of the families crowded around the TV watching that. There's nothing redemptive in its artistry. The story is meandering and detached. The acting is adequate at best, TV actors fumbling around terrible dialogue. The camerawork, muddy. What a loathsome film.

The Crow (1994)
So ugly, so tacky, so pointless.

Deadgirl (2008)
This one's a real bummer because it squanders a really evocative and disturbing premise. In the hands of a good filmmaker it could've been as transgressive and smart as the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre - but it's shoddily filmed (it's one of those ones where everything is zoomed in just a little too much for some half-assed queasy simulation of tension), poorly acted, plodding, and terribly written. Overall, just unforgivably lazy.

Goodbye Uncle Tom (1971)
Leering racist S&M slavery fantasy disguised as a broken-hearted sermon about the evils of slavery. It's defined best by the slow-motion rape scene in which we're pitched a violative, monstrous act, and yet the camera smash-zooms in on the victim's breasts. Hypocritical, detestable. Without merit, without love, without honesty.

Killers of the Sea (1937)
This is a documentary about a man who cruises around the ocean killing wildlife in the name of "ocean law." This is the world we live in.

Project Moon Base (1953)
Project Moon Base is a movie in which the female lead is given the same nickname the apes gave Heston in Planet of the Apes. That about says what needs to be said on this one.

Rampage (2009)
How did this one get a reputation for being Uwe Boll's "smart" film? It's a brick-dumb celebration of childish whiny violence. It's like a Limp Bizkit song for an hour and a half.

Zombie Nightmare (1986)
Put me in a zen-like state of complete disinterest, body and soul. I have never cared less about anything than I have about the events of Zombie Nightmare.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Fun fact: the narrator of Killers of the Sea, Lowell Thomas, also narrated This is Cinerama and has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

    What possessed you to watch Born Innocent?

    1. "Lowell Thomas is best known as the man who made Lawrence of Arabia famous" - Wikipedia. Oh dang, I'm gonna have to read this guy's biography. Hell of a life.

      Born Innocent snared me because of its historical importance in breaking down TV censorship, and because I have a soft spot for '70s sexual dramas... but come to think of it I haven't watched another since.