I've been a film programmer for six years now, and even went to film school (and stuff) before that, but every year I am wowed more and more not by those new films that everyone talks about, but by old classics that I somehow missed. I tend to come late in the game because I prefer to see the "big" classics in the theatre (home video just doesn't so it for me sometimes), or something obvious just misses my radar. Oh, what I wouldn't give to trade in some of the crap I've seen in the past for more enjoyable educational film experiences. Anyway, here are my favorite "new" films from the past year.
1) Over the Edge (1979) & My Bodyguard (1980)
Young Matt Dillon is truly a thing to behold. His performance in Over the Edge is electrifying, and the film, about bored suburban kids fighting back against the system, is one I should have seen when I was thirteen. Seriously, it could have changed my life. Even more important than that, if someone had paid attention to the sentiments of this film, a whole future of school shootings may have been avoided (the setting for Over the Edge is pretty much in the same Colorado suburbs where the Columbine massacre took place). Over the Edge Trailer
My Bodyguard is a film I remembered vaguely from repeated screenings on HBO as a kid, but watching it as an adult was a completely different experience. It isn't just a "getting back at your bullies" movie, it's a realistic and rather grim look at how high school can be hell - wrapped inside a sweet buddy story. It also shows some really nice scenes of dirty Chicago in the late 70s. Dillon plays the bully in this one, and it's impressive that he can be so menacing, especially since he looks so scrawny next to bulky Adam Baldwin (who you may now know from Firefly/Serenity). The presence of Ruth Gordon is an added bonus. My Bodyguard Trailer
2) Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997)
I have been working my way through as much Werner Herzog as I can since rediscovering him a few years ago. I liked him as a young pup, but pretty much only knew his bleak narrative films (Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, and my favorite, Stroszek) and never explored the documentaries. Since Grizzly Man, his doc catalogue has made a comeback (and you can now buy them all - even the obscure ones - on his website). Little Dieter Needs To Fly is the latest in a long list of catch-up films, and is so far my favorite. This gripping story of a German immigrant who then becomes an American prisoner of war doesn't do what you expect - that is, show recreated scenes of the war. Instead, Herzog and his subject head to the jungle and completely re-enact his experience. Emotionally draining, beautifully shot, and like all Herzog, still somehow hilariously funny and life-affirming, now is a good time to revisit this film as his upcoming film Rescue Dawn is the narrative version of Dieter's story. And I hear it is among his best as well.
3) Airport 1975
I loved disaster movies as a kid, but wouldn't watch ones about airplanes or airports because I was already afraid of flying. Then, of course, there was Airplane, the Zucker Brothers' comedy which I would watch over and over without being freaked out because, you know, I was too busy squirting milk out my nose with laughter. This year I finally saw the film that inspired it all, and now I will never go back to Airplane. The real thing is Airport 1975, the sequel to the first successful airplane disaster film. With Karen Black freaking out, Charlton Heston heroically sky-jumping onto the damaged 747, and Helen Reddy as a nun singing folk songs, it is way cheesier than any parody could hope to be. And, yeah, even more fun then Snakes on a Plane (which I actually really liked). The DVD also includes the original Airport as well - which I liked a bit less because, for shame, it was actually a "better" movie.
4) L'Argent (1983)
Ah, Robert Bresson. His films always kind of bored me, something about them was so detached and emotionally drained that I just couldn't relate. However, I never fell into the love him or hate him camp (his films can be so divisive), rather I was still waiting to see if anything of his would take hold on me. And then I stubbled on his last film, L'Argent. Based on a Tolstoy story that follows the circulation of a forged bill, it is told with a unique style even for French cinema. The stilted dialogue. The 80s preppie mentality. The seeming unemotional acting. It all takes some getting used to, but it leads to an ending that just rocked me to the core. Most amazing is that Bresson was 82 when he made this and it feels completely fresh and young. I am now in the process of reassessing my previous knee-jerk opinion.
5) Hallelujah, I'm a Bum (1933) & The Bowery (1933)
Honestly, neither of these Hollywood versions of down-and-out New York should work at all, but by somehow spreading on a thick layer of cheese, they managed to capture a weird archetype: the happy-go-hard-lucky New Yorker. Hallelujah, I'm A Bum stars the incredibly perky Al Jolson as the lovable and happy Bumper, the homeless "Mayor of Central Park". It addresses homelessness, vagrancy, Marxism, and what happens when you fall in love with the real Mayor's amnesiac girlfriend (a mayor with a girlfriend - how scandalous!). Most notably the dialogue for the entire film is told in rhythm. It's like a modern Shakespeare comedy, and features some great Rodgers & Hart songs like this one, "My Pal Bumper:
Who protects your apple stand / When you've no license in your hand?
My pal Bumper
When you break a law or two / Who can make the cops skidoo?
My pal Bumper
Who can keep a business man / From vacations in the can?
My pal Bumper
Who can keep the cops away / When we kiddies want to play?
My pal Bumper
When you're hungry for a steak / Who can cure your bellyache?
My pal Bumper
He can make me feel I'm full / When he feed me full of bull.
My pal Bumper
And here's a video clip of Jolson singing Hallelujia I'm a Bum.
The Bowery, recently seen in the Film Forum's pre-code series, tells the story of two Irish volunteer firemen (Wallace Beery and George Raft) who are jostling for control of the Lower East Side. It plays like a Tammany Hall screwball comedy complete with feisty paper-boys, illegal bare-knuckle boxing, heavily-accented showgirls, explosive cigars, rampant racism and sexism, a comedic appearance from Carrie Nation, and a jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. Pretty much every moment of sleazy Bowery history is packed into this highly enjoyable little time capsule.
6) Shoot the Piano Player (1960) & The Rules of the Game (1939)
I love the French new wave, but here are two great films by two of my favorite filmmakers that I avoided for way too long because I just didn't know any better. I thought that Shoot the Piano Player was lesser Turffaut for some reason. Silly me. This noir crossed with the cinematic style of the new wave has everything you'd want out a crime film, action, gunplay, tragic romance, and with two incredibly charming leads, Charles Aznavour (already a famous singer at the time) and Marie Dubois (so dangerously cute). Left off my list for too long, this film is now it is right up there among my all time favorites.
The Rules of the Game is one of those films I'd always heard about and wanted to see, but was just waiting for the right moment. Well, that came this year with a gorgeous new restoration and reconstruction - since the film was almost destroyed by the Nazis, it took years to put together a full print of the original film. Jean Renoir not only made one of the best character movies, one that explores class, romance, screwball comedy, and the troubled uneasy feeling in pre-war Europe, but his co-starring role is one of my favorite acting performances. Totally worth the wait.
7) Cockfigher (1974)
Monte Hellman retrospectives have been popping up all over the place, but Cockfighter always gets skipped. It could be because of the completely un-pc anti-PETA topic - and yes, actual cockfights are featured in the film. But the movie is so much better than the exploitative title. It's the story of a trouble cockfighting champion (Warren Oates), who has taken a vow of silence until he regains his winning status. Oates is fantastic, delivering more emotion with no dialogue then most could do with pages of dialogue. You also get Harry Dean Stanton as a rival cockfighter, and a screenplay by the author Charles Willeford (whose novel is pretty darn good as well). Oh, and the best thing is that I found this on DVD at the library. Transgressive! Cockfighter trailer.
8) The Mack (1973) & Wattstax (1973)
I went through a blaxploitation phase in my early 20s, but somehow missed some of the best West Coast titles (outside of the Dolemite films, that is). The Mack has of course influenced a great deal of hip-hop culture, and now it has finally found it's way into my heart. Max Julien gives a rather heart-felt performance as Goldie, the pimp on a quest for power and then redemption. Forget about all those fake macks, this film is filled with more pimp realism than any other film about the life could be, mostly because of the use of real pimps and pimp events, like the Player's Ball and Baseball Game/Picnic. The documentary included on the DVD gives all the back story, and, oh yeah, Richard Pryor is a great side-kick. Video clips from The Mack.
Little did I know, but the director of Willy Wonka had a huge career as a documentary director. I finally saw Wattstax at a screening with the director, Mel Stuart, in person, and he talked extensively about his career making somewhat outre non-fiction films. His most famous is this one, chronicling a landmark concert of Stax soul (dubbed the Black Woodstock), which brought the community together seven years after the Watts riots. Of course, the music is fantastic, and it is infectiously awesome to see the huge crowd moving and grooving in the stands. Isaac Hayes is the hottest billed act in the film, but Rufus Thomas pretty much steals the show - even in his silly pink schoolboy outfit. But the on-the-street interviews with Watts residents (including some hilarious moments with Richard Pryor, doing impromptu stand-up) make this so much more than a concert film. Rufus Thomas Wattstax clip.
9) The Long Goodbye (1973) & California Split (1974)
Until recently, I wasn't a huge fan of Robert Altman, mostly because I hadn't seen the right films. M*A*S*H was okay, but I couldn't separate it from the ubiquitous TV show. The Player, Short Cuts and Nashville I felt were overrated. And some other ones I had seen were just plain boring or confusing (O.C. & Stiggs - the f??). But earlier this year the theatre I was programming brought Altman to town for a career retrospective (and to help us honor Meryl Streep, but more on that in a minute). This gave me a chance to catch The Long Goodbye on the big screen. I had seen it several years ago, but it was on a crappy old VHS and just didn't translate well. This time I was immediately in love. Not only is this my favorite adaptation of Raymond Chandler - it veers quite a bit from the novel, but captures the feeling of his writing more than any other adaptation - but the performance by Elliot Gould is nothing short of astounding.
The next year Altman made California Split, which I only saw a few months later in it's re-issue and was again madly in love with film again for a few lovely hours. This is a more personal Altman film, about a pair of scuzzy gamblers (Gould again and George Segal), who team up for the big score. But really there is no plot. Two guys get together and gamble like crazy until one day it ends. But talk about immersion...today's Celebrity Poker tv matches have nothing on this look at like at the poker table. Intro to California Split.
As for finally meeting Altman, I only had a few minutes alone backstage with him before introducing a screening, and all I really managed to do was croak about how much I liked Elliot Gould. He agreed (of course), then offered me a joint. RIP, you magnificent bastard. (Psst - almost all of Altman's films are playing over the next few months at the IFC Center - with the exception of The Long Goodbye. Damn!)
10) Sophie's Choice (1982)
Alright, this one is kind of unexpected for me to pull out, I think. So, first the backstory. My aforementioned theatre pulled a big coup by getting Meryl Streep to come to Boston and accept a lifetime achievement award. The theatre's middle aged executives and donors were all atwitter with anticipation. I was...well, I was less excited. I knew of Meryl Streep of course, but I had never seen her career defining movies because most of them were released in the early 80s when I was still a kid, and they were, you know, serious films. The kind your mom liked. The job fell to me to write the Meryl Streep bio and film blurbs and help select clips for a retrospective tribute. So I found myself hunched down with a ton of videos. I saw some great movies - Silkwood, Ironweed, The Deer Hunter - and some crappy ones - The River Wild, One True Thing, Death Becomes Her - and discovered that no matter what the movie, there was something about Meryl that really was pretty amazing.
The last film I watched the film that launched her as a modern star, Sophie's Choice. We showed that on the big screen not long before she arrived, and even though I had seen a bunch of her films and was pretty satisfied, I was kind of dreading this one. All I knew was that my mom loved it and the holocaust played a big role. I've never had much of a stomach for holocaust films. I've just seen that story too many times. But then the film started, Meryl showed up with this beautiful Polish accent and sensual alive demeanor and I was deeply smitten. Heck, I didn't even recognize her. Add to that Kevin Kline in excellent hamming mode, a wanna-be young writer, and a distraught tale of tragic love and I was hooked. Then the holocaust flashback kicked in - a relatively small part of the film - and it was just...It was devastating. I was crying and getting all girly. Whew. While the film hasn't weathered fantastically (a bit too misty around the edges at times), it still packs quite a wallop.
Bonus Top Ten:
Top 10 Movies in My Netflix Queue That I Don't Remember Putting There
- Space Truckers
- The Mansion of Madness
- Mazes and Monsters
- 2019: After the Fall of New York
- Date With an Angel
- I, Madman
- Next of Kin
- The Octagon