December 23, 2014


Let the proliferation of year-end lists wash over you with a resigned calm. And let me add another one to the ocean of opinion. Today I’m presenting my top ten new-to-me movies of 2014. That is, older films that I have seen for the first time. They are the backbone of any movie-going year, whether it’s catching up to acknowledged classics (for me, The Best Years of Our Lives) or going trawling for obscure auteurist gems (Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby, Edward L. Cahn’s Redhead).  It’s a way to draw attention to a wider range of filmgoing possibilities, so you don’t have to read about Boyhood for the bazillionth time (though, if you do, my appreciation is over here). All credit goes to prodigious blogger Brian Saur from Rupert Pupkin Speaks, who collects “Favorite Film Discoveries” from writers, programmers and filmmakers every year, and asked me to contribute once upon a time. I found the exercise invigorating, more so than the usual end-of-year recycling, so you have him to thank or blame.

The films are presented in alphabetical order


The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, directed by William Wyler)

I had been indoctrinated in aversion to Wyler, from half-remembered slams by Andrew Sarris. This is not Sarris’ fault but my own, as he was a persistent re-evaulator, trying to undermine his own biases. But now that I’m here, my goodness what a movie. Wyler was a serviceman for three years, and knew who these men were and how they lived. The deep focus cinematography by Gregg Toland is justly famous, but it’s the gestures inside of it that make it work so beautifully. The orchestration of glances as the family silently reacts to Homer’s amputation isolates him even as he’s surrounded by well-wishers.

On Blu-ray from Warner Brothers


Broken Lullaby (1932, directed by Ernst Lubtisch)

Lubitsch’s only non-comic sound film is a post-traumatic post-WWI drama about a shellshocked vet who seeks penance for bayoneting a German soldier in the trenches. He travels to atone to his victim’s parents, but when he arrives, he can’t bring himself to admit his guilt. Instead he falls in love with their daughter. Like in many of Lubitsch’s comedies, it’s about a man who fakes his life so beautifully he almost makes it come true. It opens with a blast of dialectical montage, cutting rhythmically between a Paris belfry’s bells and a battlefield cannon, the drums of the soldier’s homecoming parade sliced in with a wounded vet’s screams. It is as potent a three minutes as anything Eisenstein concocted. But then, a stylstic shift into daring long takes and a subdued, declamatory kind of acting. There is an unbroken two-minute take of two mothers grieving over their sons that is devastating in its quietude.

Unavailable on home video or VOD


Carnival of Souls (1962, directed by Herk Harvey)

This miraculous motion picture is a dip into the Midwestern uncanny, ghosts haunting the long flat highways and abandoned amusements. It’s one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen, undoubtedly aided by viewing it on July 4th weekend, where bottle rockets were popping off behind my head every five minutes. I was too gripped to turn around and look at the firecracking kids outside, for fear I would see that face reflected in the window.

On DVD from Criterion (I watched it on Hulu Plus)


The Clockmaker of St. Paul (1974, directed by Bertrand Tavernier)

Tavernier’s debut feature is a subdued adaptation of a Simenon novel about a habit-minded watchmaker whose estranged son is wanted for murder. Shot in Tavernier’s hometown of Lyon, it traces the father’s ritualized walks through his city as he grapples with this rupture in his life. The outdoor photography is hushed and autumnal,the death of summer framing the father’s unspoken struggle over his son’s situation, which rouses the communist factory workers at which his son worked, as well as the accusatory owners. The father’s motivations and inner being are kept opaque, his inner workings as unfathomable as his clocks are understandable. So when his decision arrives, it is with the gathering force of a thunderbolt.

On Region 2 DVD from Optimum



Forgotten Faces (1928, directed by Victor Schertzinger)

The undisputed highlight of this year’s Capitolfest in Rome, NY, this is a visually extravagant crime melodrama. The story is a convoluted stew  involving gentlemen thieves, orphaned daughters, scheming mothers, and a devoted sidekick named Froggy (William Powell). Not memorable material, but the clarity and elegance of its late silent film style are often overwhelming. There are elegant tracking shots, provocative use of off-screen space, and complicated spiraling sets that are split in half and filmed in a Wes Anderson-esque dollhouse style. It’s enough to make one shake a fist at the sky and rue the coming of sound.

Unavailable on home video or VOD

Annex - Cooper, Gary (Good Sam)_NRFPT_08

Good Sam (1948, directed by Leo McCarey)

I am morally obligated to write about every Leo McCarey movie someday, so this year it was Good Sam, a complicated moral fable about the unintended consequences of doing good. Gary Cooper is Sam, an inveterate do-gooder whose charity consistently leads to troubles, whether its debt, permanent visitors or missing cars. The film’s central theme is the impossibility of saintliness in a consumer society – one in which Sam becomes an object of ridicule (by his boss, his wife and the world at large), rather than lauded for his selflessness. Cooper is appropriately skittish and perpetually aghast, but the real star is Ann Sheridan as his put upon wife. Her acerbic realism cuts the sweetness of Sam’s saintliness, and she provides the greatest laughs in the film – especially when she busts out cackling at Sam as he uncharacteristically runs down a neighbor (who happens to be sitting right behind him).

On Blu-ray and DVD from Olive Films


The Long Day Closes (1992, directed by Terence Davies)

Note perfect reminiscence about growing up lonely and growing up in the movies, usually the same thing.

On DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection



Mongo’s Back in Town (1971, directed by Marvin J. Chomsky)

A relentlessly downbeat telefilm noir starring Joe Don Baker as the titular Mongo. Mongo is a beast intent on destroying his hometown. His milquetoast brother summons him back to San Pedro, CA in order to knock off a local competitor, but instead Mongo brings the whole criminal edifice down around everyone’s heads. Baker is gruff and relentless, an analogue to Lee Marvin’s Walker in Point Blank (1967). Nothing will sway Mongo from his own disgust. The rest of the cast includes Telly Savalas, Martin Sheen and Sally Field, all dumb witnesses to Mongo’s clumsy, bloody vengeance.

On MOD-DVD from CBS Films


Redhead (1941, directed by Edward L. Cahn)

I am contractually obligated to write about 10-12 Edward L. Cahn movies this year, and this one was my favorite (When the Clock Strikes finishing a close second). It’s a downbeat suicide comedy about a pair of mismatched lovers(one rich, one poor) who meet each other both on the precipice of leaping off a cliff. They save each other instead, opening a roadside diner and learning how to live on modest means. It’s death-driven, class-conscious comedy only possible in the dark, delightful world of Cahn.

Available to stream on Amazon Instant Video



A Touch of Zen/The Valiant Ones (1969/1975, both directed by King Hu)

One of the major events in NYC was the BAM Cinematek’s King Hu retrospective. I was only able to make it to these two, but they are jaw dropping spectacles. I preferred the relentless logic of The Valiant Ones, in which the intricately choreographed battles are mapped out on chess boards, and each faction is eliminated with unforgiving procession. The earlier Touch of Zen is more inside the head than the hands, a Buddhist fable of enlightenment in which blood turns into told and only through self-abnegation can come glory.

Both are out of print on DVD


Utamaro and his Five Women (1946, directed by Kenji Mizoguchi)

Wherein the life of an artist (here woodblock print portratist Utamaro) is presented as one of continuous battle, in which everyone suffers, his models most of all.

Available on Region 2 DVD from Artificial Eye


July 1, 2014


The last outpost of the retail cinephile shrine Kim’s Video is shutting down this year. I made one last pilgrimage to its lower east side redoubt in NYC to experience the disappearing pleasure of browsing. The simpleminded algorithms at Amazon and Netflix want to give you more of the same, regurgitating films from the same genre, actor or director. What they miss is the pleasure of turning down an aisle and entering a different world. I had no title in mind when walking in, only knowing I needed to make one last purchase before Kim’s was replaced by an upscale frogurt shop or whatever. At first I pawed the BFI DVD of E.A. Dupont’s Piccadilly (1929), the raucous silent starring Anna May Wong. Netflix’s “More like Piccadilly” section offered random unrelated silents, from Chaplin to Pickford, while Amazon’s slightly more helpful recommendations were a Wong biography and a few of her films on public domain DVD. At Kim’s, in the Region 2 DVD section, I stumbled upon Bertrand Tavernier’s debut feature The Watchmaker of St. Paul (1974, aka The Clockmaker). I have had Tavernier idly on the mind for a few years, as I have much admired his last two features (The Princess of Montpensier and The French Minister) while being mostly unacquainted with his earlier work. Thus I gently placed Piccadilly on the shelf, and brought The Watchmaker of St. Paul to the knowledgeable cashier, who had seen a screening of the film at Anthology Film Archives, though seemed underwhelmed. The clerks at Kim’s had a reputation for being snotty, but I’ve always found them to be remarkably informed and helpful – though perhaps they could spot that I was one of their own grubby tribe.


Born in Lyon, France in 1941, Bertrand Tavernier was a movie-mad youth who soaked up projector rays in repertory houses, preferring the American Westerns and melodramas of William Wellman, Delmer Daves, and other unsung Hollywood directors. A writer for his student paper, he interviewed Jean-Pierre Melville, who was so impressed with Tavernier that he hired him to be his assistant director on Leon Morin, Priest (1961), which let him drop law school for cinema. Tavernier called Melville his “godfather in film.”:

He would give me an appointment, and he’d show up four hours late. Then he’d arrive in his big convertible Cadillac, with electric windows, and driving through Paris telling stories about the French underground, the resistance, showing you where famous gangsters had been killed. He’d take me to dinner, take me to films, and he’d keep me up all night, because Melville could not sleep.

Melville re-assigned Tavernier from assistant director to press agent, a job in which he went on to promote numerous members of the French New Wave on the films of Godard, Chabrol and Varda, among others. He spent years learning the business as a publicist and as a critic. Starting around 1960 he began contributing regularly to Positif and Cahiers du Cinema, a run I would dearly like to see translated into English, if this bibliography is any way accurate. He would go on to write comprehensive tomes on Hollywood, first with Jean-Pierre Coursodon in 50 ans de cinéma américain (never translated into English) and his massive book of director interviews Amis américains (ditto).


In an interview included on the Optimum DVD I purchased, Tavernier said he waited until 1974 to make his debut feature because he “needed to learn about life.” His first project would be an adaptation of the Georges Simenon novel The Watchmaker of Everton (1954). It tells the story of a habitually-minded watchmaker in a small town in New York State whose son is suddenly wanted for murder. In a 1974 interview Tavernier claimed that the novel had grabbed his attention with the father’s line, “I stand behind my son”, during a murder trial. Despite their estranged and non-communicative relationship, the strange familial bond forces the father to veer out of his etched path and express his emotions. At this time Tavernier was a loosely affiliated member of the OCI (Organisation Communiste Internationaliste), and reconfigures the plot to express contemporary political concerns. He would quit the organisation by 1976, fed up by the Stalinist factions “rigid and totally reactionary rules”. The Watchmaker of St. Paul  changes Simenon’s murder victim from an anonymous motorist to a thuggish factory manager who may have abused the son’s girlfriend. The son is then used as a political tool by both the publicity machines of the left and right, though the boy’s act ultimately seems to be one of less of politics than of passion. The story’s focus is on how the father Michel Descombes (Philippe Noiret) processes his son Bernard’s act, and how he comes to “stand by” him, despite the emotional gulf that separates them. The film also stands as a documentary of Lyon in 1974, the film being shot on the streets and inside the courtrooms of Tavernier’s home city. It is distinctly an insider’s view of town, focusing on the side streets and alleyways that one treasures of home, the places not shared by the wider city at large.


Tavernier is a committed progressive, but he often look into the past for aesthetic inspiration. He hired Pierre Bost and Jean Aurenche to write the screenplay for The Watchmaker of St. Paul, two of the central figures in France’s 1940s-1950s “cinema of quality” that Truffaut eviscerated in his “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema” broadside, in which he said Aurenche and Bost “have made the works they adapt insipid”. With the rise of the New Wave, the duo of Aurenche and Bost (Forbidden Games) had stopped receiving work in features. Tavernier claims he was making no point in hiring them, just that they were the best men for the job.  His decision was also based on his experience as a press agent, when he decided he would “avoid all the people who were fashionable”, since they were so busy they could devote little time to each project. The generation gap between Tavernier and the two screenwriters would match that of the father and son, and that tension would be appropriate for the material. It would also fit a line Billy Wilder had told him, that the “screenwriter should be the minister of opposition.” Each line should be a battle. Bost passed away soon after The Watchmaker, but Aurenche would go on to be Tavernier’s minister of opposition on three more films.


The Watchmaker of St. Paul is an intricate, multi-layered and tactile thing. It is anchored by Philippe Noiret, who made the film possible. His presence attracted funding, and he cut his salary in half to lower the budget. When Tavernier asked him later on why he chose to help, Noiret responded, “I gave you my word.” As the father in Watchmaker, Noiret is not that upright and just. Noiret plays Descombes as a watchful outsider, taking seats at ends of tables and joining conversations instead of starting them. He prefers to circulate than to be centered, and Noiret emphasizes the character’s ungainliness and uncertainty. He says very little, and usually regrets what he does say. His opposite number is the investigator Guilboud (Jean Rochefort), a dashing, drily witty intellectual who offers a self-satisfied smile when he correctly attributes a quote by Paul Claudel. Guilboud is nevertheless attracted to Descombes for the insights he may have into the opaque actions of the younger generation. Each older man is baffled by the rhetoric of revolt. Guilboud sees it as a fad, or a phase – burning cars as the fashionable new thing. Descombes comes to a deeper understanding, or at least a detente, with his preternaturally calm Bernard. He is sickened by Guilboud’s condescension, disheartened by the manipulations of the legal system, and suffused with love. Descombes stands by his son.