164. Museum Hours (2013, Cohen)
A must-see of 2013. Forces us to consider snapshots of life the way we would a painting. It focuses on the neglected details of the everyday as well as the way we look at and consider art. The scarcity/non-existence of narrative allows Cohen to mold a free-form structure that becomes invigorating to watch. It also depicts a lived-in and cloudy portrait of Vienna with the kind of familiarity that dispels any touristy perspective. It gets far too pointed in its final scene but this was an absolute delight and one of my favorites of the year so far.
#165. Stories We Tell (2013, Polley)
I really admire Sarah Polley and how she uses exposure to investigate truths and tales. It was great to get to know her family and hear about their stories and experiences. But the film runs out of steam and Polley and her family spend far too much time talking and pontificating about the purpose of the documentary. Once was enough. Twice is pushing it. Twenty minutes of this? No. Just no! But perhaps most disappointing is the fact that this is Polley’s story and she refuses to incorporate her own perspective. That self-distancing kills so much of the impact.
166. The People Under the Stairs (1991, Craven)
I’ve never been too big on Wes Craven as a whole despite liking several of his films, particularly New Nightmare. The People Under the Stairs, a bizarre eccentricity within his filmography, is all over the map but damn if that isn’t what makes it a good time. Some misguided but well-meaning attempts at race commentary soon gives way to a cartoonishly horrific free-for-all where earnestness slips into comedy; it’s an ineffective yet devilishly fun concoction. Its main problem is that it does not take the story in enough directions. ‘Fool’ goes back into the house voluntarily; instead of this signaling an act that switches things up a bit, it redundantly puts both he and the audience back in the same situation.
90’s go-to kid Brandon Adams gains our sympathies but the real breadwinner of the endeavor is Wendy Robie who gives the drag performance of a lifetime (Owen Glieberman actually thought Robie was a female impersonator, something he wrongly included as fact in his 1991 pan). It’s also a joy to see Nadine and Big Ed Hurley onscreen together even if McGill’s similarly outlandish performance misses the mark. It feels like he’s auditioning to be a third crook in Home Alone, channeling Artie, the Strongest Man in the World two years before the fact.
#167. She (1935, Holden & Pichel)
At their worst, the earliest adventure films get trapped in the tropes they simultaneously establish. Merian C. Cooper, hot off of King Kong, tries to top himself with She. Working off an H. Rider Haggard novel, he moves the story to the Arctic and plays around with fusing the ancient and futuristic in its sense of spectacle and theme. While the spectacle of the piece is indeed accomplished, the overwhelming grandiosity of it locks in a static non-movement and lack of energy that appears right from the beginning. When the characters get to where they’re headed, the film shuts down right when it should be getting started. The acting, Nigel Bruce aside, is by-the-book to a fault (begone Randolph Scott (!) and Helen Mack who is basically a low-rent Lillian Roth). The story itself has potential but everything about the execution stultifies movement or entertainment in almost every way.
The one true highlight (besides the impressive effects work) is the costume for Helen Gahagan in the picture above, an outfit that clearly was taken and used in two years later for The Evil Queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
168. American Mary (2013, Soska Sisters)
Even though American Mary doesn’t know what to do with itself it entices and prods in equal measure. The tenuous story is held together by a non-judgmental fascination with the body modification community (reminding me of the way freeganism is depicted in The East), the dissociative emotionless aftermath of trauma, and an inquiring detective. Writing this in just two weeks to get it to Eli Roth might have something to do with its hodgepodge feel. But what holds this together is Katharine Isabelle, reminding me that she needs to be in everything; stat. It’s a dry and ambiguous performance which becomes more stunningly remote as the finale approaches.
#169. Blancanieves (2013, Berger)
A startling and evocative silent retelling of Snow White where the magic of the fairy tale is replaced with the magic of form. Berger wisely doesn’t restrict himself to loyally aligning with an authenticity to conventional silent filmmaking. Instead he uses it as an opportunity to blend the old (most notably a European silent sensibility) with the newly creative. The form also fits really nicely with the big broad strokes of fairy tales, allowing us to feel the heightened melodrama and emotion. Alfonso de Vilallonga’s score is perfect as is the entire cast. Maribel Verdu is gloriously over-the-top without ever losing the creepiness she brings to the role. Simple heroines tend to be difficult roles to fill. How to make us genuinely care? Macarena Garcia brings such a naturally radiant presence that you immediately root for her. That it struggles to be anything more than pleasantly diverting is a mite disappointing but it’s hard to complain when everything onscreen is wondrous even though it stops just short of dazzling.
#170. The Whole Town’s Talking (1935, Ford)
An underrated slice of comedy that fuses Capra with Little Caesar. This is in no large part due to the screenplay by Robert Riskin’s (co-written by Jo Swerling), who also wrote a great number of Capra classics. In fact, this script was sandwiched between his work on It Happened One Night and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town! This is a must for Edward G. Robinson connoisseurs, myself included. He plays dual roles; the solitary and prompt bank teller Jones and Public Enemy #1 Killer Mannion. He puts inspired and subtle spins on each part with standout moments on both sides. Furthering the Capra connections, this is the film that established Jean Arthur’s archetypal no-nonsense dame. She is so natural here that it feels like the folks at Colombia found her on the street, put her in front of the camera, and told her to react to her surroundings. The film suffers from some tonal dissonance when it shifts to its second half. The first half has a lighter touch where the second seems to give way to the more criminal elements of the story, which by the way becomes quite convoluted by the end. Arthur also disappears at the hour mark, and with her goes a lot of the comedy. But this was such a welcome find and it’s got a killer Edward G. Robinson drunk scene; “Goodbye, slaves!”
171. Alice Adams (1935, Stevens)
Katharine Hepburn is radiant here, a determined force of nature to be reckoned with. But her character is so exhausting, so misguided and overeager that we never break through her defense mechanisms. And when we do, all we see is that she’s in desperate need of re-prioritizing. The first act where Alice relentlessly tries to fit in with the upper class is heartbreaking and a tour-de-force. It’s painful to watch Hepburn as a ticking time bomb, smiling to keep the tears in. But when that gives way to the main plot, it’s an empty shell of a story. Alice talks so breathlessly and with such energy and lies that the film sidesteps conversational dialogue. This results in nearly everyone else reading as inert, none more than Fred MacMurray, a non-entity here, unable to make us feel or understand his infatuation with her. When dealing with flawed characters who eventually change you have to be invested in the character. I was not invested in Alice and therefore was not invested in the film.
#172. Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971, Hancock)
A low-key psychological horror that is impressively less concerned about what’s actually happening and more concerned about getting inside Jessica’s (a wonderfully unhinged Zohra Lambert) head. Its use of sound is what stays with me, an in-the-moment use of voice-over as well as a sonic landscape where focus is left-of-center with drowned out elements. This fleshes out how Jessica gets lost in herself and forces us to experience it as well. They also shot the film 15 minutes from where I work in Connecticut which was crazy to see, particularly the Chester ferry at the beginning!
173. Christine (1983, Carpenter)
Forgive me, but I’m still on such a giddy high from this film. Christine is not a film I ever had much of an interest in seeing outside of the fact that John Carpenter was at the helm. A killer car movie? No thanks. Color me shocked; I fucking love Christine. It isn’t one of John Carpenter’s most acclaimed works and yet I actually prefer it over most if not all of his other films. To be clear, this isn’t a knock on anything else he’s done (although I’ll never understand the love for They Live; sue me). It just goes to show how taken in by this I was to the point where, as you can see, I’m a rambling mess about it.
Christine accomplishes the seemingly impossible in that it plays its ridiculous concept relatively straight when anyone else would have smartly taken a different tonal route. Apparently in the book, the spirit of the car’s previous owner is attached to it, explaining its power. Screenwriter Bill Phillips audaciously gets rid of that entire notion, suggesting in the first scene that the car was born evil. This abstraction is not only far more interesting, but it allows for Carpenter and Keith Gordon to push the presence of a sexual connection between Artie and the car, an idea that is pushed just enough and is anything but laughable; it’s goddamn entrancing and completely fucked up. That moment (and music cue) when Artie says “Show me” sort of left me speechless.
Christine is only a horror film in name only. There is surprisingly little gore and it doesn’t try very hard to scare. A reason I love it so much is that it’s a horror film based in its characters. It’s about friendship, feeling out of place, change, the more frightening aspects of adolescence, the wedges that can be driven between friends. And the performances are spot-on. Keith Gordon plays up his initial nerdiness making his transformation that much more jarring. I immediately became enamored of John Stockwell’s endearing Dennis. Their friendship grounds the film, a pair cemented in a loyalty and unlikeliness that it smartly never comments on. Of course Alexandra Paul is barely a character but this isn’t exactly surprising. Nearly everyone from Roberts Blossoms to Robert Prosky to the high school bullies who must be at least 40; all spot-on.
Carpenter’s use of Panavision is full of expert touches (that shot above caused my jaw to drop) and his music cues are consistently effective. His camera is touchingly lyrical, roaming at the perfect moments. Dennis seeing Artie and Leigh at the football game is a favorite. And the use of 50’s and 60’s rock n’ roll is creepily otherwordly. You guys; I love pretty much everything about this to the point of unbridled gushing.
#174. The Dead Zone (1983, Cronenberg)
I always forget how much I love Christopher Walken and then performances like this remind me that he’s pretty much the greatest. And it’s a good thing Walken is here to hold down the fort because The Dead Zone personally disappointed. Definitely an important work within Cronenberg’s filmography re: working within a more traditional narrative/mainstream cinema but that doesn’t equate good. After watching this it’s clear why it as made into a TV show because the film itself feels like 4 or 5 potential episodes piled up next to each other. It has an episodic structure, using Walken’s character arc as the consistent throughline. Problem is that none of the separate stories are remotely fetching from the serial killer to the boy he tutors to Senator, etc. It’s all just sort of there and the film as a whole ended up feeling that way as a result.