December 27, 2016
As 2016 staggers to a close, I am looking back at the pockets of film pleasure I enjoyed from the year that was. This season is clogged with lists, and here I offer another, though one more suited to the historically minded viewers of TCM and FilmStruck. It is a list of my favorite old movies that I viewed for the first time over the past twelve months. These came from all over – rare MoMA film prints, old Warner Brothers DVDs, and yes, from streaming titles on FilmStruck. It’s an eclectic grouping of arts high and low, from all over the world. I hope it points you in some different cinema directions in 2017, or at least diverts your attention from current events for a few minutes. So prematurely, let me wish you all a Happy New Year, and I hope you’ll continue reading our little blog in the year to come.
The below list is in alphabetical order
Any Which Way You Can (1980), directed by Buddy Van Horn
Raucously entertaining Clint Eastwood-orangutan buddy comedy in which a bare knuckle brawl tears down Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The sequel to Every Which Way But Loose (1978), this one shunts tough guy Philo Beddoe (Eastwood) into a mob-backed big money fight against infamous fighter Jack Wilson (William Smith). Most of the run time is spent on the road, as Eastwood pals around with his yokel brother Orville (Geoffrey Lewis) on a trip to Wyoming. Ruth Gordon is on hand as their combative battle ax mother, tougher than both her kids combined. The real star, of course, is Clyde the orangutan, an expressive primate who loves Philo and despises the cops who try to break up their fun. The chaos builds into a full-on brawling blowout that tears up the Jackson Hole countryside. All that plus a killer title song sung by Ray Charles and Clint himself.
Emperor of the North (1973), directed by Robert Aldrich
In Emperor of the North (1973) the Hobo and the Railroad Man are respective avatars of chaos and order, bloody abstractions who engage in a near-wordless duel to the death on a train rumbling through the Pacific Northwest. They have no back stories or personal motivation, they simply fight because it is in their nature, and the other one is there. Though the film is set in 1933 during the Depression, the story seems to take place outside history on a plane of pure hatred. Director Robert Aldrich expertly channels this hate in an elemental chase film in which stars Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin tear out chunks of each other’s flesh to perpetuate their mutually solitary ways of life. It was released last year on Blu-ray from Twilight Time.
Her Man (1930), directed by Tay Garnett
Tay Garnett’s Her Man (1930) has had a small but enduring auteurist cult, for those lucky enough to have seen the Cinematheque Francaise print that circulated in the ’50s and ’60s. In his American Cinema, Andrew Sarris wrote of its “extraordinarily fluid camera movements that dispel the myth of static talkies,” while British critic Raymond Durgnat compared it favorably to Howard Hawks’ A Girl in Every Port (1928). Poet John Ashbery saw it in Paris in the late ’50s, and it was an inspiration for his “Pavane pour Helen Twelvetrees,” which you can read here. The film has seemingly disappeared from view since then, with David Thomson erroneously stating that it was a “lost film” in his Biographical Dictionary of Film. It wasn’t lost, but just hiding. The camera negative was discovered in the Columbia Pictures collection at the Library of Congress, and a 4K restoration was performed by Sony Pictures, with funding provided by the Film Foundation (I viewed the restoration at MoMA earlier this year). Her Man is a redemptive romance that takes place in one of the scummiest bars in Havana: the Thalia. There Garnett winds his camera through a knockabout group of con artists, drunks and killers to get to his dewy-eyed lovers, who strong-arm their way out the door.
The Heroic Trio (1993), directed by Johnnie To
A deliriously entertaining Hong Kong superhero movie starring the unbeatable trio of Anita Mui, Michelle Yeoh, and Maggie Cheung. I went to see a battered but beautiful print at the Metrograph in NYC, and was whisked away by the elegant wirework fight scenes and breathless plot mechanics that mashes up kung fu/comic book/horror tropes. Anita Mui is Wonder Woman (no relation), intent on breaking the nefarious baby stealing underworld demon king known only as Evil Master. She is reluctantly joined by fast talking mercenary Chat (aka Thief Catcher – Maggie Cheung) and Ching (Michelle Yeoh), who has access to an invisibility robe (it’s a long story). The three actresses slice through the film with grace and aplomb, but Cheung is the acid-tongued standout – introduced flying over the police’s heads on a motorcycle, and then riding a dynamited barrel into a hostage situation. It’s a well-carpentered, ever surprising entertainment that I’d take over any of the Marvel movies thus far.
In Vanda’s Room (2001)
The second film in Pedro Costa’s Fontainhas Trilogy, three remarkable features that depict the everyday life of a slum in Lisbon. Vanda Duarte, who portrayed one of the maids in Ossos, becomes the central character here, playing herself as she and her friends smoke heroin, play cards and gossip. The destruction and relocation of Fontainhas’ residents had already begun, so half the neighborhood is rubble. With the shift to digital Costa experiments in recording in very low light and extremely long takes. He is able to shape hieratic, exalted images with these limited means, turning Vanda and her friends into saints. Whether Vanda is snorting H, hacking up a cough or napping, the waver and hum of the blacks as they buffet her angelic face lend the images a religious intensity. Available to view on the Criterion Channel on FilmStruck.
Men Don’t Leave (1990)
Paul Brickman took seven years to make his follow-up to Risky Business, and Men Don’t Leave is a finely tuned family melodrama about the loss of a husband and father – and the aftershocks of grief. But it failed to find an audience and swiftly disappeared from view. Brickman has not directed a feature since. Men Don’t Leave, now streaming on FilmStruck, should have been the start of the next phase of his career instead of an abrupt end. It is a film of empathy and grace, led by a thorny performance by Jessica Lange as a widowed, exhausted single mother trying to raise two kids and make ends meet.
My Little Loves (1974), directed by Jean Eustache
Jean Eustache’s My Little Loves (1974) is about a boy. Twelve-year-old Daniel climbs trees, flirts with girls and punches classmates in the stomach. He is poised between youth and adolescence, and the film seeks to capture all the moments, and all the silences, of this befuddling transition. After Eustache’s coruscating The Mother and the Whore (1973), a logorrheic portrait of post-May ’68 despair, My Little Loves seems startlingly quiet and gentle. But each are after a kind of completism, of leaving nothing out. Discussing My Little Loves, Eustache told his fellow filmmaker, and Cahiers du Cinema habitue, Luc Moullet, that he wanted “to reconstruct [my] childhood: every wall section, every tree, every light pole.” With the help of cinematographer Nestor Almendros, All My Loves becomes a sensorial memory object. There isn’t much of a narrative – it drifts – but it builds up the fabric and texture of Eustache’s childhood in the small rural town of Pessac (outside of Bordeaux), and the industrial city of Narbonnes, on the Mediterranean coast.
Placido (1961), directed by Luis Garcia Berlanga
Placido (1961) takes place over the course of one chaotic Christmas Eve night as a provincial Spanish town desperately tries to prove its Christian charity. It is a ferociously funny black comedy about performative morality, in which the homeless are used as props to stroke the middle classes’ ego. It is directed by Luis Garcia Berlanga (The Executioner) with intricately orchestrated long takes in which a chorus of self-serving characters negotiate the social corridors of Franco’s Spain. With its rhythmic rapid-fire dialogue and cutting use of caricature, it reminded me most of Preston Sturges (and the small town misunderstandings of The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek ). Placido is now streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck, along with four other Berlanga features.
A Summer’s Tale (1996), directed by Eric Rohmer
Like all of Eric Rohmer’s summer vacation films, it is about hesitation and uncertainty, the holidays a transient borderland before the return to adulthood, when decisions have to be made. A Summer’s Tale involves a moody engineering student and hopeful musician named Gaspard who is romantically entangled with three women on the beach. He is entranced by the idea of love but is rather afraid of the physical reality, and masters the art of the indeterminate reply, a master of escape. One of Rohmer’s few male protagonists (the film often feels like a throwback to the masculine bull sessions of the Moral Tales), Gaspard is reported to be a highly autobiographical character who runs through a composite of events from the director’s life. Rohmer doesn’t look back with nostalgia, but with a lucid gimlet eye, his Gaspard one of high ideals and evasive, indecisive actions. A Summer’s Tale is streaming on Netflix, and is available on DVD from Big World Pictures.
Too Late For Tears (1949), directed by Byron Haskin
After viewing Too Late For Tears (1949), I would advise all couples against accepting cash-stuffed valises of mysterious origin. Sure, it would be nice to be raised up out of your dead-end middle-class marriage, but there is the whole issue of the money’s origin, and the pile-up of bodies that keeping the cash may entail. Too Late For Tears is a vicious little film noir with a flinty, sociopathic performance by Lizabeth Scott, but it had been in public domain purgatory for decades, circulating in muddy transfers under its re-release title Killer Bait. The Film Noir Foundation has lobbied for its restoration for years, and with the help of a Hollywood Foreign Press grant, the UCLA Film and Television Archive was able to reconstruct the film from a 35mm nitrate French dupe negative, a 35mm acetate re-issue print, and a 16mm acetate. The result can be seen in a superb new Blu-ray from Flicker Alley.