Monday, December 17, 2012

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2012 - Jon Hertzberg

My friend Jon is the proprietor of the Obscure One-Sheet Blog which gets a high recommend from me:
http://knifeinthehead.blogspot.com/
He is a fellow disciple of Danny Peary and really knows his films.
He can also be found on twitter at @carroljohummer.


7TH HEAVEN (1927, Frank Borzage, DVD): Another essential late silent classic for which I have little excuse for not seeing until now.  Perhaps no one did these transportive, life affirming dramas of the urban lower class better than Borzage.  His favorite onscreen pair Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell portray a young Parisian couple taken from each other by WWI and they are a sight to behold on screen, together and apart.  The sets, particularly their towering tenement, with its stunning views of the night sky, are gorgeous.  Full of poetic and beautiful imagery, it's a perfect example of an artist and form (late silent cinema) at the peak of their powers.



ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930, Lewis Milestone, Blu-ray): I love late silents and early talkies so it was a bit of surprise that it took me so long to see Milestone's watershed anti-war film.  Lew Ayres, a conscientious objector in real life, is wonderful as the young German soldier through whose eyes we witness the horrors of war.  Despite Universal's irritating practice of overly de-graining their films on Blu-ray, this one still manages to look quite handsome and the film remains as hard-hitting and, at times, shocking as war films that would come decades later. 



THE HIRED HAND (1971, Peter Fonda, DVD): I got the great (though, somewhat misleading) one-sheet for this film a few months ago and I finally watched it a short time later.  What took me so long?  I've no idea.  I'm a Western lover and voracious consumer of '70s American New Wave.  This is another film that barely rates a mention in Peter Biskind's largely useless Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, and, if it does get cited there, it is probably in a dismissive, non-complimentary way.  No matter.  This is one of the best, most mature, and most deliberate pictures of that era.  The great Warren Oates stars alongside director Fonda and the equally great Verna Bloom.  Goddamn if Oates doesn't hit every note perfectly here, just as he did in the same year's and same studio's Two-Lane Blacktop.  Aside from both films featuring Oates, both are road movies and both have similar meditative, very anti-pop sensibilities.  Hired Hand has a truly sublime, lo-fi score by "Tambourine Man" Bruce Langhorne, which matches the "action" perfectly and can also boast of giving the legendary Vilmos Zsigmond his big break in Hollywood.  Actor-turned editor Frank Mazzola is responsible for the poetic and extra-long dissolves and montages.  Perhaps best of all, it's scripted by Alan Sharp, the Scottish scribe behind Night Moves, Ulzana's Raid, The Last Run, and others.   Catch the recently departed Larry Hagman in an unbilled role as a smalltown sheriff in the deleted scenes on the DVD.



LIPS OF BLOOD (1975, Jean Rollin, Blu-ray): My first Rollin was this quite haunting and poetic fever dream of a film.  Not having seen anything else in the Rollin oeuvre and knowing that the prolific director did not always hit them out of the park, I suspect this is probably one of his strongest efforts.  I look forward to looking at some of the Rollin Blu-rays that have come via Kino - Lorber / Redemption with that knowledge in mind.  Months after watching this, much of the silent, nighttime imagery and medieval-like sets, as well as the naked form of the lovely Annie Belle, remain etched in my memory.


LOLLY-MADONNA XXX (1973, Richard Sarafian, 35mm): I was lucky enough to see this at a private screening earlier this year, after being curious about it for years.  Boasting one of the more impressive ensembles of the era, this is Hollywood "hixploitation" par excellence, based on a novel by Sue Grafton of all people.  It's never been available on home video, sadly, but I'm told by the Warner Archive folks that it should be coming from them eventually.  Season Hubley (years before Hardcore) is a pleasant young woman thrust into the middle of an ongoing backwoods family feud, fought by patriarchs Robert Ryan and Rod Steiger and their sons Jeff Bridges, Gary Busey, Kiel Martin, Paul Koslo, Randy Quaid, Ed Lauter, Scott Wilson, and Timothy Scott.  This is a goldmine for those who love this type of milieu, particularly when it's populated by some of the creme de la creme of American character players and rising leading men of the time period.  I think only Jan-Micheal Vincent is missing from this bunch.  This was Sarafian's follow-up to his all-time cult classic car picture Vanishing Point and it's an impressive change of pace and one I actually enjoyed more than the more famous one which preceded it.  The impressive widescreen cinematography is by veteran lensman Philip H. Lathrop, who was in the midst of a very impressive stretch that included things like Point Blank, The Traveling Executioner, Hard Times, The Gypsy Moths, and The Driver.



LONESOME (1928, Paul Fejos, Blu-ray): Another fascinating, transporting late silent city symphony...I'd seen clips of this in film school years earlier, but it wasn't until the great Criterion Blu-ray package that I finally saw the whole show.  Doctor turned Hollywood filmmaker turned ethnographic filmmaker / anthropologist Fejos, led as fascinating a life as that description sounds; we get a slightly more detailed description on the short biographical visual essay by Fejos that accompanies the feature.  Sharing kinship with more famous films by Vidor, Murnau, Borzage, Vigo, and Vertov, Lonesome is essential viewing.  Like a number of films that straddled the line between silent and talkie, Lonesome had a couple of talking sequences added in after principal photography was completed...there's still quite a shock when these sequences arrive even if you know they are coming.
  

A NEW LEAF (1971, Elaine May, 35mm): I grew up watching May's The Heartbreak Kid with my late grandfather via the old Media VHS with the ghastly pink cover, but I never saw her directorial debut until now.  I was thoroughly won over by May's screenplay and direction, as well as her one-of-a-kind on screen persona opposite star Walter Matthau.  There's some great early '70s - still looks like the '60s footage of NYC and surrounding areas.  I saw this via a very attractive 35mm print and with a good audience and I found myself (and others around me) laughing throughout, but I was also quite moved by the end.  There is a good deal of sadness just underneath the comedy on the surface.  May's film was originally much longer, but the studio took the film and edited it down to its release length (102 minutes) against her wishes.  I don't know that the longer cut or excised footage exists anymore, but I can't say I was disappointed in the least with what I saw.  There was a plot strand or two that I could tell had been truncated / left hanging a bit, but even sensing that and knowing the production history a bit, I felt this came pretty close to perfection.  A sublime comedy now available on Blu-ray and DVD via Olive.



NIGHT OF THE DEVILS (1972, Giorgio Ferroni, Blu-ray):  I've seen a number of giallos this year, both on video and on film, and this is my favorite of the bunch.  Based on Tolstoy's The Wurdulak, Night of the Devils introduces viewers to a man who emerges from the woods traumatized and amnesiac and shows what horrific experiences brought him to this condition.  Unavailable on legitimate home video in this country until now, Raro's very attractive Blu-ray does the film justice and then some.  This one establishes an appropriate tone of dread and mystery and maintains it until its powerful conclusion.  Spaghetti Western and giallo veteran Gianni Garko is excellent in the lead role and Agostina Belli is absolutely gorgeous and heartbreaking here.  Still years before his Hollywood work, Carlo Rambaldi contributes the highly effective, but by no means over-the-top gore f/x.



SAINT JACK (1979, Peter Bogdanovich, 35mm): Here's another one I'd been meaning to see for around 20 years, since I read about Ben Gazzara's great performance in Danny Peary's Alternate Oscars.  This is probably my favorite kind of movie, a gritty, unsentimental drama, with not a few off color moments.  The fact that it's set in an exotic milieu is a bit of icing on the cake.  Gazzara is even better than I expected he would be as Jack Flowers, an American expat in Singapore working as a pimp.  Gazzara is streetwise, charming, and noble in a way that very few can pull off, particularly those in the generations that followed him.  A great loss his recent death was and what a fine a double feature he and Bogdanovich pulled off with this and their next film together, They All Laughed.  Bogdanovich is quite good in a key supporting role and the great Denholm Elliott turns in an especially fine, sensitive performance as a rather beaten down fellow.  I would have liked to have seen ex-Bond man George Lazenby with a little more to do here, however.  Apparently the only Hollywood production shot in Singapore (and done so under false pretenses due to the negative reception of the book in Singapore), it's the first American production to feature the exquisite work of d.p. Robby Muller.  As with They All Laughed, Saint Jack was plagued by poor distribution, a shame since these were and remain some of Bogdanovich's most impressive achievements.



SCARLET STREET (1945, Fritz Lang, Blu-ray): This represented an immense hole in my viewing history, now thankfully filled.  One would be hard-pressed to find a more bleak, more acidic, and more tragic portrait of lust and greed gone very, very bad.  The three stars turn in career-best, career-defining performances.  With this and The Big Heat, two of Lang's greatest American achievements can now be admired via very handsome Blu-ray presentations.




SHOW PEOPLE (1928, King Vidor, 35mm):  As good a showcase as any for the talents of Marion Davies and Billy Haines, Show People is one of the better, more knowing backstage pictures of this or any era.  The film introduces us to neophyte actress Davies as she arrives in Hollywood and is taken under the wing of experienced onscreen comedian Haines.  We see her rise and inevitably eclipse Haines' star.  For students of the silent era, the film provides a cameo for just about every big star of the period and offers a pretty good approximation of the filmmaking and star-making (and breaking) process.  It's often categorized as a comedy, and it is quite adept in that department, but it's also quite effective and moving on a dramatic level.  With this, The Patsy, and, especially, The Crowd, all in 1928, it's a year when Vidor can truly do no wrong.



AN UNMARRIED WOMAN (1978, Paul Mazursky, DVD): For whatever reason, it took me until this year to see Mazursky's most recognizable, most acclaimed title even though I'm an admirer of the filmmaker and I love '70s character studies and '70s shot-in-New York City films.  An Unmarried Woman is both, of course, and provides Jill Clayburgh with the role of her career.  She is a revelation as Erica, who, in the course of the film, is betrayed by her philandering husband (Michael Murphy), becomes involved with a famous artist (Alan Bates), and determines that she will live her life as only she chooses, whether that involves a man or not.  I think this was pretty progressive in '78 and remains so today.  It's not bogged down by the sentimentality and sappiness that plague so many "women's pictures" of the last couple decades.  This is still a gritty, urban '70s entry, complete with great location work and expert cinematography by Arthur J. Ornitz who shot so many well-remembered NYC films of the era.  In the supporting cast, special mention must be given to quintessential '70s NY actor Cliff Gorman, who electrified Broadway as Lenny, gave some great, offbeat performances in the likes of Cops and Robbers, Night of the Juggler, and this film, but who never really got his just desserts in terms of fame and recognition.  Cancer took both he and Clayburgh too soon, surely robbing cinema and theatergoers of many more indelible performances.  Bill Conti, a favorite of mine who specialized in these kinds of reality-driven, small-scale dramas no longer made by Hollywood, provides an effective, memorable theme. 

3 comments:

Shiftless said...

Holy cow! Lolly Madonna, Saint Jack, Scarlet Street, Lips of Blood and The Hired Hand are all fantastic films that couldn't be more different from each other. And I've got to see Night of the Devils asap. Great list Jon!

Robert M. Lindsey said...

Saw A New Leaf years ago and have been looking for it ever since.

This year I also saw Scarlett Street for the first time. I'll be including it in my year end top list. Magnificent film.

RetroHound.com

Ned Merrill said...

@Shiftless,

Thanks! I consider that quite a compliment.

@Robert,

Look forward to seeing your list!

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