Saturday, December 29, 2018

The Best (Older) Films I Watched in 2018

The Devils (1971)
In the words of Aaron Lewis and/or Scott Aukerman, it's been a while.

Owing to the demands of my actual real-life job, 2018 was the year in which I wrote the least, even as I didn't stop watching movies old and new. While I do miss writing (though it's probably more accurate to say that I miss having the time to write), I don't really miss the - entirely self-created - pressure to get reviews up as quickly as possible, rather than, you know, enjoying having seen a movie and letting my thoughts and feelings on it percolate for a bit.

To that end, I'll be keeping with tradition and posting lists of the best movies I watched this year over the next few days. This list is a summary of the best older movies I watched for the first time this year (with the cutoff being pre-2010, for cleanliness), and my Best of 2018 list will probably go up in a few days, giving me time for some frantic last-minute movies like Aquaman and The Mule. (Sadly two different movies, but both Warner Bros. releases, and who's to say where the DCEU will go next?)

Before we get into the list itself, I just wanted to mention how much I'll miss FilmStruck. Compiling this list, I realised that almost half of the films on it were ones I saw via that service, and while some were movies that I've been longing to see for years and finally had an easy way of watching, others were ones that I happened to take a chance on because they were included in one of their curated collections. Not since the pre-original content era of Netflix, when they bought huge libraries dirt cheap and you could while away an afternoon watching all four and a half hours of Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse the Gambler, has a streaming service offered the same dizzying rush of discovery. It was like a great local video store that happened to be in your home, and I'll miss it.

Note: The films are presented chronologically by year of release since they're all really good and trying to rank them would probably cause me to unravel like a shoddy jumper.

Twentieth Century (dir. Howard Hawks, 1932)

Though not the oldest movie I watched this year (I saw a handful of silent Lubitschs which were very good, but didn't leave that strong of an impression overall), Hawks' ur-screwball comedy was one of the most purely enjoyable. John Barrymore and Carole Lombard are brilliant as the Broadway impressario and the unknown actress he turns into a star, respectively, and the way their dynamic shifts over the course of the movie as she eclipses him is very deftly done. The real meat of the movie, though, comes in the second half, when the two estranged collaborators end up on the same train, and Barrymore starts scheming in close quarters. Very funny, while also fairly unsparing in its depiction of Barrymore's character as a manipulator and borderline abusive.

The Human Condition (dir. Masaki Kobayashi, 1959-1961)

I watched Kobayashi's humanist epic over the course of several months because, at more than 9 hours spread over three films, each of which is in turn split into two halves, it's quite a commitment. However, that I instantly remembered what had happened in the previous installments and was immediately drawn back into the story of a pacifist (Tatsuya Nakadai) trying to survive in the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II, even when it had been weeks or months between viewings, is a testament to the film's power. The journey that Kaji goes on over the course of the series is pretty heartbreaking, since we see him go from opposing the war to reluctantly running a labour camp to desperately clinging to life in Manchuria, all the while having his beliefs in humanity sorely, if not brutally, tested.

Purple Noon (dir. René Clément, 1960)

I'll always have a soft spot for Anthony Minghella's adaptation of The Talented Mr. Ripley, which is a wonderfully sultry and deeply stressful movie. However, Clément's earlier adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's novel might be a touch better, and it has a better handle on the effortless charm and sociopathy of Tom Ripley, played by Alain Delon at his most beautiful and beguiling. It does bungle the ending a tad by suggesting that Tom is about to get caught, but Delon does such a brilliant job of illustrating Ripley's cunning that even that feels like a mere inconvenience, and like he'll be out and about murdering to his heart's content in no time.

Kwaidan (dir. Masaki Kobayashi, 1964)

I don't have many Halloween traditions, but I think I may make watching this anthology of Japanese horror stories one. Comprised of four stories that range in style and scope from small, plaintive ghost stories to century-spanning epics replete with naval battles, Kobayashi delivers harrowing jump scares and unnerving chills with aplomb. It's also vivid and vibrant in its use of colour, and Kobayashi's camera moves with a Sam Raimi-esque freneticism at times.

La Collectionneuse (dir. Éric Rohmer, 1967)

It's hard to describe La Collectionneuse without making it sound like a parody of a certain kind of French cinema. Beautiful people swanning around a big country house? Check. Love triangles? Check. Long, digressive discussions about art and love and whatever happens to go through the characters' minds? That's a big check. But it's probably the best possible version of that style of filmmaking. Rohmer had such a brilliant ability for making those sorts of heady discussions feel natural, and for preventing the emotions of the characters from being intellectualised to death. His story is populated by real people, they just happen to be much smarter and more gorgeous than anyone has any right to be. Also every single shot in this movie is utterly breathtaking and could be the cover to a great album.

The Firemen's Ball (dir. Miloš Forman, 1967)

Considering that he directed Amadeus, one of my favourite movies ever,  I'd seen relatively little of Forman's work prior to his death earlier this year, something which I quickly set out to correct. This, the last of the films he made in his native Czechoslovakia before going into exile, was far and away my favourite. A bawdy and intricate comedy about a group of volunteer firefighters trying to organise a ball to commemorate their retired chairman, it beautifully captures the mounting sense of chaos that unfurls when a system allows the venal or merely incompetent any smidgen of power or influence. In its almost documentary realism and mounting absurdity, it feels like a predecessor to the work of Armando Iannucci.

The Sorrow and the Pity (dir. Marcel Ophüls, 1969)

A pretty immense piece of work, deserving of much higher renown than it currently has as a throwaway line in Annie Hall. Ophüls does “let’s hear from both sides” journalism than most of the modern practitioners: even though he talks at length with former German soldiers and a prototypical dapper Nazi, he never lets the movie melt into equivocation, or loses sight of his moral responsibility as the author of the work. It's as clear-eyed and thorough an account of French collaboration and resistance during World War II as you are likely to find.

The Devils (dir. Ken Russell, 1971)

A film that I'd been wanting to see for years and, while the version I saw was not the most complete version because, as far as I'm aware, that still hasn't been shown outside of special screenings, it was enough to demonstrate why it is held up as such a masterpiece of bravura British cinema. It's a visionary, excessive film which finds in the fall of Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed) a vehicle for exploring the kind of mania and hysteria that could cause a community to claim to be possessed, and of the brutal corrupting power of religion to idly destroy anyone.

Fiddler on the Roof (dir. Norman Jewison, 1971)

One of the best musicals ever made, and I can't believe it took me this long to watch it. It brims with life, both in its joyous celebrations and in its terrible, unsettling hints of things to come. Topol's performance as Tevye is one of the most charismatic ever committed to the screen.

What's Up, Doc? (dir. Peter Bogdanovich, 1972)

Deeeeeelightful. The first act feels strained, with Bogdanovich and his cast ramping up to the pace and tone of screwball comedies and stumbling (albeit charmingly) from scene to scene. Once all four of the identical suitcases that form the backbone of the story’s craziness are in play and Ryan O’Neal is fighting the irresistible pull of Barbra Streisand at her cutest, it becomes a graceful, giddy romp.

More than any of Bogdanovich’s other films from his early period, it feels like a kid-in-a-candy-store movie. He’s clearly having a blast getting to make a live-action cartoon, paying homage to his heroes and repurposing old gags for a savvy ‘70s audience.

The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum (dirs. Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta, 1975)

Great thriller about a young woman who sleeps with a terrorist, then finds her life being torn apart by the tabloid press and an indifferent police force. It’s kind of like Absence of Malice but with the added complexity of sex and gender, as well as moments of absurdism. It's also a great showcase for that feeling of leaden, grey, Cold War hopelessness that you also see in some of Wim Wenders and Rainer Werner Fassbinder's movies from the time, or even something less scrappy like the BBC version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. A palpable sense that everyone could be blown off the face of the Earth at any moment, so you can either succumb to bleakness or try to do something.

Abigail's Party (dir. Mike Leigh, 1977)

Probably the biggest touchstone of late 20th century British drama, at least as far as mass media goes, and it does not disappoint. Alison Steadman is utterly brilliant as the hostess of a small dinner party which gradually becomes more uncomfortable and violent as every needling remark starts to make the guests' resentments, whether personal or just as a natural outgrowth of their respective classes, start to bubble up. A masterclass in how to use a confined space and a good cast to ratchet up tension, even when the stakes are seemingly so low.

Hardcore (dir, Paul Schrader, 1978)

When I was first getting into movies in any serious way, my primary gateway was trying to understand Simpsons jokes. Sure, I might have sought out Rashomon anyway, but wanting to know why Homer saying "That's not how I remember it" was funny spurred me on to see it much sooner. I know that I've matured and evolved as a person, because now I watch older movies to understand memes. I've been wanting to see this early Paul Schrader effort ever since seeing the scene in which George C. Scott, playing a Midwestern father whose daughter goes missing after visiting Los Angeles, sits in a movie theatre and reacts to footage of his daughter in a porn movie, used as a hyperbolic reaction to different media.

The scene retains a lot of its visceral disquiet in its original context, even if I first experienced it in much more light-hearted circumstances. What was really surprising about seeing the movie, and where the scene is placed within it, was discovering that it happens in the first third. I had always assumed that it was this big, draining climactic moment, the culmination of a Schraderian descent into darkness. Instead it's more or less the inciting incident, and Scott searching for his daughter by becoming more involved in the late-70s porn scene - which Schrader depicts as a more frank version of Hollywood, with little of the keening judgement one might expect from someone who had a strict religious upbringing - makes for a more engrossing story overall, even as it flirts with ridiculousness.

The Driller Killer (dir. Abel Ferrara, 1979)

Probably the nastiest, scuzziest movie I watched all year. A brutal journey through New York at its seedy nadir (or its seedy peak, if you're into the whole No Wave, "I could be murdered at any moment!" thing) as a painter (Ferrera) grows increasingly frustrated and isolated from the people around him and starts taking a power drill to strangers. The performances and some of the gore effects are rough, but the atmosphere of the film is undeniable. Few films better conjure up the sense of alienation that comes from being in a big city, or the palpable dread that you'll be the one to slip through the cracks if you don't do something.

Tampopo (dir. Juzo Itami, 1985)

FilmStruck had a bunch of Itami's movies available at one point which I kept meaning to watch but never got around to. Just this one taste of his work has me regretting not seeing more when I had the opportunity, because it is as distinctive and strange a vision as I have seen in a while. A comedy sort-of-Western about a pair of truck drivers who decide to help a young woman improve her noodle recipe, it's a sensuous and funny film about the different ways in which we relate to food, an idea which is further explored through sketches, unconnected to the main narrative, about a couple introducing different foodstuffs into their sex life, and a dead woman coming back to life to make her family one last meal. An hilarious and thrillingly weird movie.

City on Fire (dir. Ringo Lam, 1987)

Like a lot of film people who came of age in the '90s and '00s, I knew this film primarily as one of Tarantino's main influences for Reservoir Dogs, and as such felt a kind of pathetically fanboyish desire to see it to get a fuller understanding of how that film came to be (even as I drifted away from QT and began to feel that, while he's good, everyone can stand to chill out just a bit). Beyond seeing just how much of City of Fire's DNA wound up in that later movie - spoilers: A LOT - it's a brilliantly lean thriller that makes great use of Chow Yun-Fat's charisma, athleticism and vulnerability. Even as Chow's undercover cop is infiltrating a gang he will ultimately betray, you really feel like he forges a connection with the other gang members, which lends weight to the string of reversals and double-crosses that make up the end of the movie.

Close-Up (dir. Abbas Kiarostami, 1990)

One of the last "major" Kiarostami movies that I hadn't seen, and it's probably my favourite. A knotty blend of fiction and documentary in which Kiarostami retells the story of a man who inveigled himself into the lives of a family by claiming to be a famous Iranian filmmaker, where the real people involved portray themselves in recreations, and also contains actual footage of the man's trial. It's a heady meditation on the nature of reality, storytelling, and cinematic form, but one which manages to be moving in its depiction of the hurt inflicted on the family, and the desire of the impersonator to be forgiven.

The Exorcist III, aka Legion (dir. William Peter Blatty, 1990/2016)

Another movie that I was partly driven to see because of its online presence (specifically this shudder-inducing jump scare), as well as its reputation as something of a wounded bird on account of how Blatty was forced to reshoot the ending and make it more of an Exorcist movie than he intended. I watched the reconstructed version from 2016, which suffers a little bit because it was assembled from different sources of varying quality (most of Brad Dourif's role as the villain is taken from video and is incredibly murky as a result), but those wind up being minor problems for a very effective and unsettling psychological thriller. George C. Scott is great as Detective Kinderman, taking over the role played by fellow initial-lover Lee J. Cobb in the original Exorcist, a man whose good-humour barely hides the dread that settles over him as he investigates a series of grizzly murders. In its mix of existential musings and elaborate deaths, it feels like a precursor of Seven and its derivatives, though it's considerably better than pretty much all of them.

Basic Instinct (dir. Paul Verheoven, 1992)

There's a broad sub-genre of movies that came out when I was young which still have an air of danger to them, for me. Candyman was the big one, mainly because the poster freaked me the fuck out when I saw it hanging in the corner shop where my family rented videos. Basic Instinct was another, largely because the hype around it in the early 90s made it sound so thoroughly sordid and illicit. It was a movie for grown-ups which even some grown-ups said people shouldn't see. It wasn't just dirty, it was wrong.

All of this is to say that I had built Basic Instinct up to be a very different movie in my head than what it actually is. I had envisioned this deeply transgressive, even perverted work of pure decadence, when it's in fact a knowingly silly dissection of American hangups around sex and sexuality circa 1992. Someone (most likely Griffin Newman or David Sims of the Blank Check podcast) described it as doing for sex what Verheoven's earlier movie RoboCop did for violence, and that is a perfect distillation of its overheated appeal. It takes an aspect of Hollywood filmmaking and pushes it to its ludicrous extremes, offering a take on film noir that removes all of the Hays Code-enforced subtlety and nuance to let its sweaty id run riot.

My Cousin Vinny (dir. Jonathan Lynn, 1992)

For years, I knew two things about My Cousin Vinny; that it was meant to be really good, and that people thought Marisa Tomei didn't deserve to win Best Supporting Actress for it (or at the very least that there was a long-standing rumour that Jack Palance read out her name by mistake and everyone just went with it). The first of those things is true and the second most definitely isn't. I mean, it is weird that she won, because it's not the kind of performance that usually wins Oscars. It's not especially showy, it's just a really funny performance in a really entertaining movie, one which functions as both a fun fish out of water comedy and as a solid courtroom/mystery.

Flesh and Bone (dir. Steve Kloves, 1993)

This was recommended to me by my Shot/Reverse Shot co-host Matt Risby years ago, in part because we're both fans of Kloves' only other directorial effort, 1989's The Fabulous Baker Boys, and share a fascination with his career: other than directing those two wonderful, character-based dramas, his work since 1993 has consisted of adapting Wonder Boys, for which he was nominated for an Oscar, writing every Harry Potter movie except Order of the Phoenix, and most recently the first of those terrible Andrew Garfield-Emma Stone Spider-Man movies. Not the career you would expect from someone who made this movie, which is an expertly handled neo-Western about a man (Dennis Quaid) who finds himself coming back into contact with his criminal father (James Caan) after becoming involved with a stripper (Meg Ryan). It's rich in mood and texture, with Quaid on particularly great form as a quiet, intense person trying to keep it together.

But I'm a Cheerleader (dir. Jamie Babbit, 1999)

I'd been wanting to see this for a while, mainly because it has one of those titles that pops out the first time you read it, and was thrilled to finally see it in all its glowing, hilarious glory. Natasha Lyonne stars as Megan, a young woman who is sent to a gay conversion camp when her family and friends suspect her of being a lesbian, a setting which Babbit uses to mercilessly ridicule the kind of religious fundamentalists who would run such an institution, while also imbuing Megan's own discovery of her sexuality with real heart, particularly in her relationship with fellow student Graham (Clea DuVall).

Reading up on the film after watching it, I thought it was interesting that it was dismissed as sub-John Waters by a lot of critics. Waters' work was one of the things that occurred to me while watching it - the pastel colour scheme and heightened tone recall Hairspray and Cry-Baby very strongly - but Babbit uses that kind of arch, peppy satire to her own brilliant ends, injecting more emotion into the story through the trauma of repression. Not to drift into 2018 movies too much, but it makes for an interesting pairing with Desiree Akhavan's The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which tackles similar subject matter in a much more realistic and dramatic, though no more or less affecting, way.

Josie & The Pussycats (dirs. Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan, 2001)

In addition to FilmStruck helping guide my movie watching this year, I should also shout out the Blank Check podcast, which pointed me in the direction of movies I might not have sought out otherwise. This was definitely one of the most fun movies I watched as a result of listening to that show; a maximalist pop music/corporate entertainment satire that is giddily silly, has great songs, and an hilarious cast, with Rosario Dawson and Parker Posey being the undeniable MVPs. Tara Reid is also very funny playing one of the most sweetly naive human beings to ever grace a cinema screen.

Shattered Glass (dir. Billy Ray, 2003)

I'm a sucker for a good journalism movie, but what I really love is a good bad journalism movie. In telling the story of Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen), a writer for The New Republic who was exposed for having fabricated dozens of stories, writer-director Billy Ray serves up great big helpings of very smart, capable people doing their jobs as best they can, even when that job means proving that someone they like, and like working with, is a total fraud who is about to be exposed and make them all into laughingstocks. The scenes of Glass' editor (Peter Sarsgaard) slowly dismantling his lies and realising just how easily his claims could be debunked are really electrifying, with Christensen's affectless quality being perfect for someone trying to smile and dissemble their way through a scandal.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (dir. Apitchapong Weerasethakul, 2010)

Kind of impossible to describe. Like a lot of Weerasethakul’s work, it’s incredibly engrossing, and the way he forces you to lean in makes the minimal story (it's pretty much all in the title) and wry humour feel totally enveloping. There's something almost transcendent about the way in which he makes simple techniques, such as having a character slowly fade into a scene so that the audience only notices them at the same time that the other characters do, regain their power to astonish.