Monday, January 12, 2015

My Favorite Cinematic Discoveries of 2014

Through both assignments and my own leisure, I saw 199 films made prior to 2013 for the very first time in 2014. Couldn’t quite crack the 200 mark, I guess. 40 were on film, 7 on DCP, 58 on Blu-ray, 52 on DVD, 40 on various home digital platforms, and 2 on Beta tape. I’m slightly ashamed by just how many were American (123!), while 6 came from the United Kingdom, another 6 from Japan, 8 from Italy, 16 from Germany, 29 from France, 2 from Czechoslovakia, 2 from Poland, and 1 each from Armenia, Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, India, the Netherlands, and Romania.

Cataloguing, and admitting such things publicly, helps bolster resolve to do better in all arenas in the new year - surely I can get up to a film a week in 35mm, right? Isn’t six Japanese films downright pathetic, given that it is by far the most-represented country on Hulu? I’m five films into the new year, though, and already things are looking up. Not a single film is American, for starters.

We’ll see around this time next year how all that turned out. For now, here are the fifty (or so) most notable older films I saw for the very first time in 2014. I've taken more of a diary approach that straight criticism, as this is by its very nature a personal journey. Formats in which they were viewed are noted at the end of each listing (“Digital” includes any streaming/download service), and links are provided if I’ve previously written about the film.

I Don't Want to Be a Man (Ernst Lubitsch, 1918) - By virtue of him being among my favorite filmmakers, and my having seen eleven of his films for the first time this year, Ernst Lubitsch will appear quite a few times on this list. I Don’t Want to Be a Man isn’t the best of them, but it may be the most audacious. Ossi Oswalda plays a rebellious young woman who, frustrated with the constraints of femininity (her guardians scold her drinking, gambling, and smoking habits), masquerades as a man for an evening. There, she has a rousing good time with another man, and they fall into a bit of intimacy, all while he is under the impression that she is a he. The story resolves somewhat more conventionally, but that strong queer foundation makes for the sort of complex sexuality that is central to Lubitsch’s cinema for at least the next twenty years (the finale of which will be discussed later in this column). [DVD]

Madame Dubarry (Ernst Lubitsch, 1919) - Having previously seen his somewhat more dreary costume dramas Sumurun and Anna Boleyn (neither of which are devoid of their virtues, Sumurun especially, it should be noted), I was very uncertain in approaching Lubitsch’s take on the French revolution. But leave it to the man to focus on the bawdy, outrageous elements of the final days of the French monarchy. The film, resultantly, plays like a predecessor to Sofia Coppola’s relatively tamer Marie Antoinette, investing completely in the frivolity that royalty enjoyed as its privilege, only for the inevitable overthrow to feel all the more violent, chaotic, and righteous. [Blu-ray]

The Oyster Princess (Ernst Lubitsch, 1919) - I saw this movie over six months ago, but I’m still racking my brain for ways to explain it. It does, as the above still indicates, feature a scene in which about two dozen women box each other. It’s perhaps the most perfectly-executed thing of organized madness there is. It’s absolutely mercenary in its characterization of excess, yet totally joyous in watching it unfold. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and I want to always be seeing it. [DVD]

The Epic of Everest (J.B.L. Noel, 1924) - In 1924, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine mounted the third-ever attempt to climb Mt. Everest. They brought along captain John Noel to film the expedition, and to capture something of the local people there. Mallory and Irvine died from a fall; it remains unknown to this day whether they reached the top. Infused with tragedy, there’s a dark undercurrent to the stunning images that proliferate this picture. Something of the impossibility of their endeavor is embedded in this film, a yearning to reach beyond their capacity - physical, personal, technological - that creates a more imposing and awe-inspiring vision of Everest than has graced the screen since. [Blu-ray]

Frau im Mond (Fritz Lang, 1929) - The thing about Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon) is that, even though it’s about a space-race to gather a stash of gold on the moon, the premise only becomes campy in retrospect. In 1929, the prospect of gold on the moon (or, for that matter, breathing on the moon, as you see above) wasn’t any more outlandish than sea monsters on Jupiter, the premise of a Very Serious sci-fi movie that came out just two years ago. Frau im Mond is in many ways the precursor to the modern science fiction film, blending its fantastical elements in an action/adventure plot, and heavily investing in whatever level of realism it can determine (it was the first film to depict multistage rockets, which, forty years later, would actually take us to the moon). Its imagination fills in the blanks, finding a concrete form for the dream of space travel. Like so much of pop culture pre-1970, it’s forever looking forward to what we can accomplish. [Blu-ray]

Pandora's Box (G.W. Pabst, 1929) - Every frame a painting. I should have seen this twelve times by now, but I look forward to doing so soon. [DVD]

The Three From the Filling Station (Wilhelm Thiele, 1930) - After finding themselves completely destitute and literally stranded on the side of the road after their car runs out of gas, three good friends (as the film was sometimes titled) sell the vehicle to build a petrol station on that very spot. They work in three eight-hour shifts, alternating who’s at work, who’s at sleep, and who’s at play. While working the pump, each independently and unknowingly falls in love with the same woman. Add in plenty of songs and a dash of surrealism, and it's easy to see why it was a massive hit. [Digital]

The Criminal Code (Howard Hawks, 1931) - Hawks has ranked among my favorite filmmakers for nearly as long as I've held such a list, and the layers of his films continue to unfold. The first film of his I saw was The Big Sleep, so his talent with language was always immediately evident to me. It is certainly on display in this early talkie: two detectives have an extended disagreement about the rules of a card game on the way to a crime scene, and Walter Huston's ability to turn "yeah?" into a sort of mantra is something to behold. But what has lingered most with me is the physicality of the picture, the way Boris Karloff moves through rooms with a sort of hulking, terrifying grace, and the mix of desperation and skill that accompanies the eventual jailbreak. [35mm]

City Streets (Rouben Mamoulian, 1931) - Not the deepest picture, and certainly not in the ranks of Applause or Love Me Tonight, but Mamoulian's talent in locking onto and exploiting genre elements, never mind the stunning cinematography that seems to accompany each of his pictures (the movement is extraordinary, certainly, but oh, that lighting!), makes this a thrilling adventure. [Digital]

Red Headed Woman (Jack Conway, 1932) - Now, this is a Jean Harlow film about a woman who seduces her way to wealth, and the hallmarks of the Pre-Code era hardly end there. And, for that matter, Conway is more than happy to play them up. But his directorial talent is not merely at the service of the story, focusing his camera quite a bit on the victims of the titular character’s excess (just look at that dissolve above!), including the character herself, whose moral corruption is so embedded that she keeps on seducing a man while he beats her. Anita Loos’s screenplay, too, refuses to judge her, too caught up in the complexity of her desires to reduce her in the way so many Pre-Code films did. And, hell, this may just be Harlow’s finest hour. [DVD]

High Pressure (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932) - A sort of more overtly comedic Wolf of Wall Street for the Depression, William Powell stars as a business promoter who can’t resist a way to fast cash, even if he inevitably finds the cash all dried up by the end. Powell is an expert at playing these guys who are one step ahead of a dozen potentially-deadly hurdles, relying on pure charm and blind luck to see him through the stickiest situations. Packed into a quick 74 minutes, this is as tightly-woven and funny as they come. [DVD]

Hallelujah I'm a Bum (Lewis Milestone, 1933) - You can’t beat the Depression for its depictions of people down on their luck. No culture did it better. “You might as well laugh a little” was the overriding ethos, rarely better expressed than in this Al Jolson vehicle that satirizes the lifestyles and condescension of the rich, with a pep in its step and a light in its eyes. [DVD]

The Stranger's Return (King Vidor, 1933) - There aren’t a lot of movies out there (from any era, honestly) like The Stranger’s Return, where people face difficult moral decisions, make some poor choices, but aren’t overtly punished for it, nor quite rewarded, just left vaguely dissatisfied and perhaps a little wiser. [35mm]

The Actress and the Poet (Mikio Naruse, 1935) - The gender politics of this are a little rough, especially considering the great work Naruse would go on to do with female protagonists (never mind those he had already done in the silent era), but the comedy works quite well, and there’s a long scene at the end that anticipates Kiarostami in a big way, exploring the programmatic ways people behave within a marriage. [Digital]

Ceiling Zero (Howard Hawks, 1936) - Ho-ly shit, you guys. This movie. From what I’ve read, Hawks changed none of Frank Wead’s play about a group of former army pilots who now work in the air delivery business in bringing it to the screen, but it would be just about impossible for the resulting film to be any more Hawksian. James Cagney plays Dizzy Davis, the best pilot in the business, but too reckless to be trusted by growing corporate interests; while Dizzy might not care what those bigwigs think of his style, what happens when his carelessness endangers his fellow fliers? And what of the sharp young female pilot, who seems a good match for Dizzy if only he was half as old? Male camaraderie, the body’s relationship to its environment, and gender politics are central themes for Hawks, all outstandingly condensed into a tight 95 minutes that still manages to have the same sort of languid, hangout feel of his roomier Rio Bravo. It’s an astounding film, one of Hawks’s very best. [Digital]

Final Chord (Detlef Sierck, 1936) - This early film from the man better known as Douglas Sirk holds many of his hallmarks, notably in forging a spiritual connection between two people long before they properly meet, and in exploring the difficulty of navigating love than cannot be fulfilled (more, in this instance, between a mother and her child). [Digital]

Angel (Ernst Lubitsch, 1937) - This is the previously-mentioned other end of Lubitsch’s fascination with sexuality, which he would have to all but bury in more conventional forms of romance over the next few years. Angel doesn’t judge Maria (Marlene Dietrich) for cheating on her husband, but explores the difficulties in marriage that would spur a woman to do such a thing. Further, it doesn’t damn the husband for his carelessness - Sir Frederich Barker (Herbert Marshall) is a genuinely good man, doing necessary work to actually, legitimately make the world a better place. He just forgets to make his wife’s world as fulfilling. And for that matter, her lover, Anthony (Melvyn Douglas) isn’t the perfectly-suave ladykiller, but a somewhat shy, authentically romantic sort who, for that matter, admires Frederich quite a bit himself. Lubitsch and his frequent screenwriter, Samuel Raphaelson, were unparalleled in approaching marital strife in an adult manner, acknowledging the base impulses that cause disruption while rendering a solution that rests within forgiveness, generosity, humility, and a bit of sacrifice. [Digital]

Smart Blonde (Frank McDonald, 1937) - The first in a series of films featuring intrepid reporter Torchy Blane (Glenda Farrell), which, if the second is anything to go by, get repetitive very fast, nevertheless establishes a fascinating central character and her sometimes-lover partner, detective Steve McBride (Barton MacLane). The mystery element is as formulaic as they come, but you can’t beat this one for quick, clever dialogue and odd character details, most notably that Torchy is constantly asking when they’ll have time to eat, an activity most films scarcely have room for but of which she never seems to tire. [DVD]

Bachelor Mother (Garson Kanin, 1939) - As screwball set-ups go, Ginger Rogers being unable to convince just about anybody that she’s not the mother of the baby she brought into an orphanage is one of the more socially resonant, all the way through to today when women’s opinions about their own bodies’ activity is given lower precedence in the face of a panel of male experts. Rogers could certainly play the indignation, but the real meat of the picture is doubtlessly one many women could and can relate to - suddenly being stuck with this living thing and having not a clue in the world how to keep it alive, let alone responsibly raise it. Only in this era could something so topical also be this damn funny without sacrificing an ounce of its heart; a scene in which David Niven and Charles Coburn have to repeatedly stall their argument to not look bad in front of their butler had me laughing harder than nearly anything else this year. [35mm]

The Clock (Vincente Minnelli, 1945) - A sort of Before Sunrise for the wartime era, with all the heart that implies, and, courtesy of Minnelli, a considerably more daring aesthetic. [DVD]

Easter Parade (Charles Waters, 1948) - So besides just having incredible dance scenes and songs, the relationship aspect of this film is vastly more interesting than the musical comedy typically got (and this coming from someone for whom the musical comedy is the greatest film genre there is). Fred Astaire is in love with Ann Miller, who leaves their song-and-dance duo after getting an offer for a solo show. He replaces her with Judy Garland, who has none of the formal chops of Miller, but has a lot of spunk, and, once Astaire becomes willing to change the nature of his show, she emerges as a huge star herself. Yet he still pines for Miller, who is giving hints she’d like to take him back, professionally and otherwise. It’s no spoiler to say who he ends up with, but the film has a very adult approach to feeling torn between two people who satisfy different sides of oneself, how much forgiveness is required in a relationship, and how little that need detract from the love you share. [35mm]

Tension (John Berry, 1949) - There’s a lot of good stuff in this picture, but you have to give it up for a single small speech Cyd Charisse gives that concludes with a line so simple and beautiful and perfect that it literally caused the audience to cheer. [35mm]

Born to Be Bad (Nicholas Ray, 1950) - All the usual pleasures of Ray, a film full of sin and degradation and the impossibility of true redemption. [35mm]

A Streetcar Named Desire (Elia Kazan, 1951) - Yeah, well, I’m sure there’s some landmark films you haven’t seen, either! Anyway, this one’s pretty good, who’d have thought. [35mm]

Fourteen Hours (Henry Hathaway, 1951) - Adapted from a magazine article detailing the social and media circus the emerged around a man who stood on a New York window ledge for fourteen hours before jumping, Hathaway’s version uses only the scarcest details - the time frame, the place, and the fact that the man would only speak to a beat cop the whole time - but finds a modern link in the subject’s despondency over the course his life has taken. Notable, too, is the light suggestion of shame over repressed homosexuality, touched on so briefly that the Hays Office (or many audiences, I’m sure) wouldn’t think twice, but implied just enough for those who wish to interpret it as such. [DVD]

La Pointe-Courte (Agnes Varda, 1955) - Varda’s debut feature, arguably the first of the French New Wave, had, thus, little commercial or industrial precedent. She simply saw something lovely in the titular place, and went about capturing it in a singularly discursive mix of avant-garde and documentary techniques. At once a portrait of the physical reality of a place and a dreamlike exploration of the mind (via a married couple on the rocks), one can see how Alain Resnais (who served as editor on this film) really ran with the aesthetic conceit a few years later, but for Varda, there were other avenues yet to explore. That this has not been forcefully posited as a landmark film in the French cinema is absurd. [DVD]

Hollywood or Bust (Frank Tashlin, 1956) - Not exactly a discovery, as I’d seen it on DVD back in 2010, and thought it pretty, well...corny. But I was younger then! Less experienced in the ways of the world. That was before I’d seen any other Tashlin features, or any Jerry Lewis at all. So the experience of seeing it now, with both Tashlin and Lewis among my favorite filmmakers - certainly of their era, possibly of all time - with a crowd, on might as well have been my first time. This was the last film Dean Martin did with Lewis, and they reportedly didn't say a word to one another on set when the cameras weren't rolling, but you'd never guess it from the finished film. Their rapport is as snappy as ever, their roles so clearly defined that, even if they were more or less on automatic, the result feels as pure as their first film together. And Tashlin, who took an existing screenplay and tailored it for them, has gags to spare to keep them rolling. [35mm]

King Creole (Michael Curtiz, 1958) - This remains the only Elvis film I’ve ever seen, and I gather it is not a terribly representative one, but man, if there is even one more out there like it, I want it. The King plays a high school dropout trying to support his father and sister when he catches a lucky break as a nightclub singer. He gets into more than a little trouble along the way, with local gangs and shady club owners, trying to stay on the righteous path but beset by temptation. The emotional tenor often hits some serious Written on the Wind territory, nearly as effectively, and Presley makes for a surprisingly compelling leading man, unmannered and unable to be anything but authentic. [Digital]

Mon Oncle (Jacques Tati, 1958) - I must confess, aside from some truly inspired moments, I wasn’t completely feeling this one the way that I had the other Tati films I’ve seen (PlayTime, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, and Jour de fete)...until that ending came. For all his rigidly-constructed comedic set pieces, what sets Tati apart as a vital filmmaker is that those never detract from the central feeling of his pictures, which all have something to do with a sort of yearning. As totally heartbreaking a portrait of loss as they come, Mon Oncle illustrates how the upwardly-mobile middle class assimilates and ruins those who wish to simply exist. [Blu-ray]

Too Late Blues (John Cassavetes, 1961) - As much as I dig Shadows, Faces, and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (still haven’t seen A Woman Under the Influence :-/ ), this was the first Cassavetes drama that really landed with me. And yeah, I know, it’s the big compromised one, where he used “sets” and “studio money” and “a tripod,” but when you can’t get purity, the tension of compromise can go a long way. And here, getting Bobby Darin and Stella Stevens - as these repressed, unsuccessful musicians (he a band leader, she a singer) trapped by some mix of convenience and economics - giving performances that are, yes, somewhat awkward, but reflective of the real, honest resistance most people put up to actual emotional engagement, in the context of a John Cassavetes film that will absolutely test their limits and push them both right up against the, that’s the tension of life. [Blu-ray]

Bay of Angels (Jacques Demy, 1963) - As those of you who follow me on Twitter are aware, I am all in when it comes to Jacques Demy. I get him, he gets’s love, what can I say. Not everybody feels the same way, and that’s fine. Those people tend to be much more into Bay of Angels than I am. Far and away his most “normative” feature, Bay of Angels has classical tension, elaborately-detailed characters, restrained performances, and a handful of scenes declaring the film’s themes. Its central story of a man who keeps chasing a woman who’s no good for him has been so extensively played out in narrative cinema, literature, theatre, and music that its familiarity becomes comforting. It often feels imitative of the mainstream French cinema that preceded it (Ophüls, Becker, Malle, and Carné are all up in this thing), refined to a modernist style. But you know what else? It’s also really, really, really freaking good. [Blu-ray]

The Big City (Satyajit Ray, 1963) - I’m still very poorly-versed in Ray (only seen this and The Music Room), but this especially convinced me that I’m hugely missing out. This is a rich, complex, beautiful look at gender dynamics in a repressive society that offers no cheap answers, no easy ways out, and is very honest about how complicit both men and women are in maintaining the status quo. Lovely, moving stuff. [Blu-ray]

Une femme mariée (Jean-Luc Godard, 1964) - Viewing this the same year as Goodbye to Language points to how little has changed for Godard, and the culture around him. Aesthetically, both employ voiceover; overlapping dialogue; vague and off-putting insinuations about sex, marriage, and sex outside of marriage; affronts to capitalism; and abrasive aesthetic contrasts (in both, via montage; in Goodbye to Language, via the 3D camera). Both were received in some quarters with confusion, in others exaltation, and in not a few with genuine anger. Maybe someday we’ll all learn to get along. [Blu-ray]

Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965) - It’s worth briefly noting that the experience of seeing this thing could not be been more excruciating. When seeing a foreign-language film in theaters, one has to carefully negotiate seating so that no heads block the subtitles. Sometimes this means moving from the first chosen seat if someone suddenly sits in front of you. This time, it meant moving three times. I eventually ended up near the back of the New Beverly - not a large establishment, not a large screen - for a film that’s often said to benefit most from complete immersion. And wouldn’t you know it, the film was still totally immersive and spellbinding and enthralling, Godard’s delightful small asides jazzing up the ominosity that might have otherwise buried the picture. [DCP]

Boeing Boeing (John Rich, 1965) - In terms of pure where-the-hell-did-this-come-from, this is far and away the discovery of the year. One day back in April, Quentin Tarantino showed four Jerry Lewis films for free at the New Beverly. Unfortunately, it was during TCM Fest, so I could only reasonably make it to one. Boeing Boeing, incidentally, would have been a distant last pick, if I'd had my druthers - the others he was showing also had Dean Martin, the fact that this costarred Tony Curtis suggested that the clash of egos would get in the way, never mind some of stodginess that often accompanies American films from the 1960s, and who the hell is John Rich, anyway?
I don’t know about all that, but Boeing Boeing is amazing. Adapted from a razor-sharp play, it’s about an American journalist (Curtis) living in Paris who is maintaining three carefully-scheduled relationships with three unaware stewardesses from three international airlines. His world comes crashing down around him due to a combination of airline schedule changes and the recent arrival of his friend and nemesis (Lewis), who expects to be put up in Curtis’s bachelor pad while he finds his own. The thing is, Lewis isn’t playing the familiar Lewis character; if anything, he’s the straight man. And how beautifully he does it. The ego clashing is still there, but Rich uses it to further the competition between the two men, which builds and builds and builds until they’ve finally torn down all they have. [35mm]

Le bonheur (Agnes Varda, 1965) - So, I’d had Criterion’s Varda box set on my shelf for, oh, about five years at this point (having fallen in love with Cleo from 5 to 7 in college) when I suddenly decide “hey, maybe I should give the rest of these a shot.” So I idly throw in Le bonheur thinking I’m in for a rather pleasant French relationship drama. 80 minutes later, I’m utterly speechless and on the verge of tears. This is as incendiary a portrait of a marriage as anything from that era, or anything since for that matter, as provocative and ruthless and heartbreaking as they come. To say more would be to completely wreck the experience, but this needs to be sought out and widely seen. [DVD]

Rapture (John Guillermin, 1965) - You have to see it to believe it. No film today would go where this film goes, and keep this sort of attitude about it. Beautiful, in and out, through and through. [Blu-ray]

Ride in the Whirlwind (Monte Hellman, 1966) - “This was made WHEN?” I kept asking myself. “Nineteen-SIXTY-six!” the answer kept coming. Unbelievable. Outrageously ahead of its time in its aesthetic looseness and deeply-ingrained moral uncertainty, Ride in the Whirlwind boldly establishes a difficult moral conundrum and offers no easy solutions, or even solutions at all. In the mid-1960s, this is something of a revolution, pitched ahead of something like The Ox-Bow Incident (which takes the same basic premise, but flips it so that the audience is always safely removed from doubting themselves), but anticipating a moral trajectory that New Hollywood would pretty much beat into the freaking ground ten years later. Something of that radicalism remains embedded in these images still today. [Blu-ray]

The Color of Pomegranates (1968) - I still don’t really get it in any traditional sense, but that’s a little overrated anyway, don’t you think? The images alone are enough. [DCP]

Mr. and Mrs. Kabal's Theatre (Walerian Borowczyk, 1967) - Like getting a message of outrageous importance from another planet that disintegrates the moment you receive it. I cannot conceive of the mind that conceived of it, I only understand a little bit of it from the basic context it establishes, but I feel nonetheless transformed, shaken, and revitalized because of it. [Blu-ray]

Model Shop (Jacques Demy, 1969) - Due to its reputation, I expected this to be one I’d have to go out of my way to defend, finding little nooks and crannies worth appreciating. But no, this is every bit as masterful as anything else Demy made in the 60s (The Young Girls of Rochefort aside, which is a transcendent masterpiece that cannot be equalled). Bitterly, but beautifully, capping off the relative optimism of his previous efforts, Demy’s arc in those ten years ends up reflecting the mood of the decade altogether, forcefully suggesting that whatever happiness we might find is only temporary. We’re doomed the moment we fall in love, the moment we open ourselves to the possibility of betterment. It was the only film Demy made in America, and it left me wishing he’d stayed to make more. He picked up on so many specifics about Los Angeles, from the oil drilling to the way people use cars as an extension of themselves to communicate with their world. He really captured the mood of a people just waiting for the next shoe to drop, worn out from the events of 1968 and certain of their eventual annihilation. Viewed now, it’s also a mourning for a certain loss of freedom that would slowly clamp down, the limitation of job opportunities, economic inflation, even personal movement. The roads didn’t have lanes back then - you could move about as much as you want, but you’re still charted for the same course. [DVD]

Eden and After (Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1970) / Successive Slidings of Pleasure (Alain Robbe-Grillet, 1974) - I got some rather puzzled looks from friends who saw the rather lurid poster art for these films pop up on my Letterboxd, and believe me, whatever you think goes on in the films, I promise they are almost certainly more sexually troubling than you’re imagining, if only because they don’t quite go about it in the usual way. Robbe-Grillet isn’t even toeing the line between exploration and exploitation; the films are rather confrontational about the fact that he is totally getting off on all of it. But he’s also indicting himself a bit in the process of so doing, if that helps. Whatever the case, if you value honesty as much as I do, these are very honest films. No small amount of mystery and intrigue thrown in for good measure. [Blu-ray]

Wake in Fright (Ted Kotcheff, 1971) - We’ve no shortage of films and TV shows exploring masculine angst, but how many of them, really, when you get right down to it - and be honest now - feature a scene in which the protagonist actually kills scores of kangaroos and later has (heavily implied) gay sex? I mean really? How many? Wake in Fright charts its course quite early on, and drives as fast as it can in that direction for the duration of its running time. My kind of movie. [Blu-ray]

Sisters (Brian De Palma, 1973) - I’m not the biggest De Palma guy, on the whole. Most of what he made in the 1980s feels like a retread of a half-dozen influences, not the least of which, it turns out, is himself. Sisters feels like a vital film that simply had to be made, that emerged from a very pure, twisted place. Sure, there are Hitchcock riffs and the like, but whereas this tendency would later feel like a model he would go back to to figure out how to even make a film, this felt more like a genuine extension of his passions and desires. [Blu-ray]

Sticks and Bones (Robert Downey, 1973) - This has garnered a sort of infamous reputation. Shown exactly one time on TV back in 1973. It played without commercials once advertisers found out the nature of the film, and has never been made available in any other form. I can see why. Taking place almost entirely within one house, it’s about a man who returns from Vietnam, blind, and the family who is glad to have him back, but wants nothing to do with the actual trauma he experienced. It’s a deeply uncomfortable experience even today, as much for its irreverence as its confrontation. If I’d seen it on television back in the early 70s, some mixture of fear and disbelief probably would have cause me to light my set on fire. [Beta]

Sorcerer (William Friedkin, 1977) - I’m not the biggest Wages of Fear guy, but this is a wholly different, unsettling, dreamy beast. Friedkin has noted numerous times that it’s the kind of film he could only make when he was too young to value the project above human life. Like Coppola with Apocalypse Now or Herzog with Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, that reckless abandon is completely evident onscreen, and while I tend to be on the side of human, you cannot deny these images. [DCP]

Tess (Roman Polanski, 1979) - Fitting loosely into the “English costume drama” genre, this, for many, may seem distinctly apart from Polanski’s “edgier,” more violent and surreal films that came before. Yet it could not fit more perfectly into his filmography. Besides the usual pleasures of his films - the camera always being in precisely the right place, the slightly-heightened performance styles - this is about a woman whose life is determined by forces beyond her control, whose methods of escape become increasingly limited, and who only finds a way to live freely once it’s too late. Just like Rosemary’s Baby, Repulsion, and, on the male side, Chinatown and The Tenant. And it’s just as good as any of those. [Blu-ray]

Every Man for Himself (Jean-Luc Godard, 1980) - More palatable than many of his post-60s films, yet more overtly emotionally violent than the comparatively friendly efforts upon which he build his reputation. It remains fully Godard, through and through. [Digital]

Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (Robert Altman, 1982) - It’s a great play and a great film, and one need not exclude the other, even without “expanding” it in any traditionally “cinematic” way. An odd thing to see on the fourth of July, let me tell you. [35mm]

Night of the Comet (Thom Eberhardt, 1984) - The ultimate hangout movie at the end of the world. Two sisters - one cheerleader, the other an aimless movie theater employee - survive the apocalypse. Some others do, too. Then there are zombies. And it’s so great and discursive and has that real Hawksian sense of taking genre for granted and almost immediately discarding it. One or two of the funniest lines I heard all year, too. [Blu-ray]

Akira (Katsuhiro Otomo, 1988) - Since I spent a good deal of middle and high school floating around comic book message boards, I’ve known of Akira for nearly the entirety of my culturally-cognizant life. Somehow, the way it was described to me was always as an action movie, and I equated it to something akin to Cowboy Bebop, which I enjoy a lot, but am not really in a hurry to go out of my way for, you know? It turns out Akira is completely unhinged and boundlessly imaginative. [Blu-ray]

La vie de boheme (Aki Kaurismaki, 1992) - Kaurismaki’s adaptation of the classic starving-artist story is certainly wryly funny, absolutely, but really quite moving by the end, too. Oh, and also unfathomably gorgeous - it was shot in black and white, and the behind-the-scenes doc included on the Criterion disc shows that the sets were painted in very bright primary colors and lit very sharply, the effect of which, in color, makes it look sort of like amateur theatre, but which, on celluloid, renders lusciously. [Blu-ray]

4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007) - So yeah, this is one suffocating, harrowing experience. It’s also an unusual reflection on communism, insofar as Otilia, our protagonist, is deeply invested in helping her friend, Găbița, get an abortion. Her life is tied to her, the way communism demands and promises. But Găbița is a little flaky, unable to manage even the small tasks for which she is responsible, and one quickly gets the feeling she would not be as willing or able to help Otilia, were their roles reversed. There are a thousand other magnificent things going on in this film, it should also be noted, but our time here is limited. [Digital]