Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Top 30 film discoveries for 2014

My weirdly eclectic tastes are on full display in this year's top 30 film discoveries. The fact that seven different decades are represented with westerns, noir, horror and science fiction films making strong showings shouldn't surprise. Nor should the fact that directors like Sam Fuller, Fritz Lang, Anthony Mann, Robert Wise and William Witney are favored. What is unusual is that four of my top five first time watches are silent films. Clearly, I should visit this genre much more often.

30. Missile to the Moon (1958)

I'm a sucker for 50's sci-fi especially when it involves traveling to a planet inhabited by love-starved ladies. This movie is awesomely ridiculous in its premise concerning a research scientist who forces two juvenile delinquent-type prison escapees to help him pilot a homemade rocket ship to the moon. Of course, it turns out the moon is populated by rock monsters, big spiders, and most importantly, beauty contest winners. Like all great cheesy sci-fi, its earnestness in the face of the ludicrous story and terrible production values (highlighted by wrinkled matte backdrops) make it that much more enjoyable.
29. Colorado Sundown (1952)

One of four William Witney movies on the list, I discovered this Rex Allen singing cowboy picture when looking for early Slim Pickens movies. Slim puts on a real tour-de-force comedy performance but I was equally pleased by Allen's singing skills and the overall enjoyable, feel-good quality of the piece. Also a pleasant surprise is the level of villainy displayed by the black hats who are uncharacteristically led by a female baddie. Like most, I use to shun singing cowboy movies as corny and old fashioned, but after watching Colorado Sundown, I tracked down the other 18 Rex Allen films and began digging deeper into Witney's filmography.

28. Shoot (1976)

The adult male's love affair with guns and all things paramilitary is explored in this smart, unsettling war allegory. Cliff Robertson is solid as the leader of a group of weekend warriors who happen across another, similar group while on an outing resulting in a violent confrontation. Briskly paced, tense and unpredictable, featuring some odd characters like Kate Reid's bizarre, not-so-grieving widow, the film is an engaging indictment of America's paranoid, war-mongering culture.

27. South Pacific Trail (1952) 

More Witney wonderfulness with singing cowboy Rex Allen, Slim Pickens and "King of the Badmen", Roy Barcroft. However, it's Nester Paiva and Estelita Rodriguez who steal the show as a father and daughter at odds over her shady fiancee. Paiva's lonely ranchero boss character, who would rather be riding the range with the boys, really elicits sympathy and brings some uncharacteristic pathos to the subgenre. Estelita Rodriguez, a triple threat singer, dancer and actress, has an ample amount of charm and captivates whenever she appears.

26. Cat Burglar (1961)

Another William Witney joint, this one being a noir-ish crime drama starring Jack Hogan, who would go on to carry a BAR and complain incessantly on the Combat! television series. Despite a very low budget and a brief 65-minute run-time, Witney still manages some nice directorial flourishes and adds some style to what may have otherwise been an unremarkable B-movie. The supporting cast was also a plus with character actors like Billie Bird, Gene Roth, Bruno VeSota and short-lived genre queen, June Kenney appearing.
25. Midnight Intruder (1938)

Delightfully odd comedy owing to the presence of Louis Hayward (And Then There Were None, The Man in the Iron Mask and House by the River) who is genetically incapable of not being disarming and classy. The mistaken identity premise is strong and Hayward is so likable, it's easy to overlook all the crimes he's committing. The ending is smile-inducing and surprisingly heartwarming despite tying up all loose ends in a very credibility-stretching fashion.

24. Stranger at My Door (1956)

The great Skip Homeier is a bad-ass outlaw on the run who takes refuge with a minister (Macdonald Carey) and his young wife (Patricia Medina) in yet another quality William Witney western. The somewhat melodramatic film could have easily turned campy as Carey attempts to save Homeier's soul and Homeier puts the moves on Medina but Witney manages to steer clear of this. The film features a fantastic action sequence with a rampaging horse unlike anything I've ever scene where even the family dog attempts to subdue the wild colt by hanging from its bridal with its teeth. The ending is patented 50's feelgood, but as with most of Witney's work, his action is solid, the tension is well sustained and the pacing fast. The man just didn't make dull films.

23. Moonfleet (1955)

A mix of Robert Louis Stevenson and Charles Dickens, Fritz Lang's Moonfleet is an enjoyable, visually pleasing adventure about an orphaned boy sent to live with his ne'er-do-well uncle played by Stewart Granger. I've never met a CinemaScope film I didn't love and despite being shot in Eastman Color, it looks lush. The supporting cast features some of my favorite character actors including George Sanders, Joan Greenwood, Viveca Lindfors Alan Napier, Jack Elam and Skelton Knaggs.

22. Captain Clegg (1962)

A non-horror Hammer film that's another visually striking adventure with some great, unforgettable imagery involving a scarecrow and some horse-riding skeletons. The scene the above poster is inspired by is certainly the money shot of the film, but it is dispensed with at the outset and the real highlight, being Peter Cushing's performance, comes to the fore. A young, dashing Oliver Reed is also on hand as is his buxom love interest played by Yvonne Romain, but it's Cushing's character that propels the story and his charismatic performance that makes the movie as well along with strong supporting cast.

21. The Raven (1935) 

Bela Lugosi's hand wringing evilness is the draw of this Universal horror picture as he menaces Irene Ware's body and messes with Boris Karloff's mind. The storytelling is fairly straightforward and its not as cool in atmosphere as Ulmer's, The Black Cat, but Lugosi gives one hell of a performance.

20. Aventurera (1950)

A Mexican "rumberas" or cabaret melodrama with some wildly over-the-top moments, it stars the absolutely captivating Ninon Sevilla who acts, sings and dances up a storm. The film can certainly be enjoyed for its turned-up-to-11 campiness, but its surprisingly well-crafted look is a testament to the golden age of Mexican cinema. Sevilla will convert even hardcore haters of musicals into fans.

19. Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)

A Byron Haskin sci-fi film that is anything but the cheese-fest I was expecting. Instead, it's an earnest, gripping survival tale with some great Technicolor landscapes shot by The Searchers cinematographer, Winton C. Hoch.

18. The Haunting of Julia (1977)

Based on the Peter Straub novel, Julia, the film is a subtle, slow burn, ghost story with an excellent performance by Mia Farrow. It has the emotional character depth and strong back story of Roeg's Don't Look Now and the creepy believability of The Changeling. The effective third act pays off the gradual building sense of unease quite well with an ambiguous denouement that somehow manages not to cheat the viewer out of both an emotional and rational satisfying conclusion.

17. Return from the Ashes (1965)
Return from the Ashes is a well photographed black and white thriller about a concentration camp survivor who returns home to her husband but finds things have changed. Ingrid Thulin and Maximilian Schell are excellent as the leads and the story is mostly unpredictable. Fans of the director, J. Lee Thompson, may remember him as the filmmaker of various trashy Charles Bronson flicks like Death Wish 4 or of the last two Planet of the Apes sequels. However, his early career was pretty darn classy with films like Ice Cold in Alex, The Guns of Navarone and the original Cape Fear. Return from the Ashes definitely deserves to be mentioned along side these films as one of Thompson's best.

16. I Don't Want to Be A Man (1918) 
Comedies where women try to pass themselves off as men often fail to convince as the gender-bending actresses quite often appear and behave nothing like a male but supposedly fool other characters in the story (looking at you, Just One of the Guys). In Ernst Lubitsch's, I Don't Want to be a Man, lead Ossie Oswalda is able to transform from a spunky, rebellious, attractive female to a soft looking, charming, boyish male with only the aid of a top hat, tails and a short-haired wig. Instead of acting overly masculine and aggressive, Oswalda actually tones down a bit when impersonating a male but still manages to hang on to her amazingly charismatic presence and she physically sells the character quite well.

15. Targets (1968)
Peter Bogdanovich took a hodgepodge of seemingly disparate elements handed to him by Roger Corman and made an engrossing, prescient film about a mad sniper and an aging horror icon. I expected Boris Karloff to have just a throwaway type cameo, but he plays a fully realized, and at times, surprisingly humorous and endearing character that I was actively behind at the end. The sniper scenes are very tense and unsettling and are smoothly broken up by the lighter Karloff moments.

14. Cash on Demand (1962)

Another film that proves Hammer can operate well outside of the horror genre. People who aren't already fans of Peter Cushing will become instant converts after watching this riveting heist film. Cushing perfectly plays a slightly tyrannical, uptight, patrician bank manager who's character slowly and believably gets humanized over the course of the story. It's an amazing transition executed by the brilliant script and Cushing's magnificent performance.

13. Tension (1949)

Richard Basehart stars as a meek pharmacist married to a way-out-of-his-league femme fatale played by the amazing Audrey Totter. Totter is so good as the cuckolding vixen, viewers will want to choke her out on Basehart's behalf long before he begins planning her murder. Barry Sullivan and radio great, William Conrad, have some great chemistry as the investigating flatfoots and sell their partnership well in some subtle but humorous moments.

12. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1984)

I've seen all but one of Hayao Myasaki's featuring length films, and this stands as the most well-written, coherent and thematically sound of them all. Had he the animation experience, skills and artistry he would later display in films like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, doubtless this would be considered his best. Nevertheless, it's still a beautifully rendered piece with a strong female lead role and an engaging adventure
11. The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)
Brilliantly written, character driven science fiction out of the UK. It's cautionary global climate change tale is just as relevant today but it's the whip-smart, realistic characters with their everyday problems that really engages and anchors the picture. Edward Judd, Janet Munro and Leo McKern are excellent in the lead roles and deal the fast, snappy dialogue like nobody's business.

10. The Tunnel (1935)

The extreme financial, technical, physical and psychological difficulties of taking on a monumental project are explored in another intelligently written science fiction story out of the UK. I was really impressed at how serious the filmmakers took the subject matter and how in depth the story was. Richard Dix, who was so memorable in Val Lewton's, Ghost Ship, does another amazing job with a character who is obsessed in a far different but much more admirable manner. The special effects and sets are quite skillfully executed as well and add a nice steampunk flavor to the film.

9. The Naked Kiss (1964)

Sam Fuller brings his gritty, cigar-chomping directorial style while Constance Towers brings her wig and high heels to this pulpy melodramatic delight. If the opening scene doesn't rope you in, nothing will. The jaw-dropping twist, set up so well by Fuller, is one for the ages and I never saw it coming.

8. The Set-Up (1949)

Lean, real-time sports-noir superbly directed by Robert Wise that ranks among the best boxing films. Robert Ryan is great in the lead as an aging boxer who won't get out of the game even though no one believes in him.

7. Raw Deal (1948)
Very atmospheric, fast-paced Anthony Mann crime noir that utilizes a theremin during Claire Trevor's narration to surprisingly good effect. Raymond Burr nearly steals the movie as the short-fused boss antagonist and Ireland was strong as his henchman but I really loved Trevor's character who was so much more sympathetic than the average gun moll.

6. Gates to Paradise (1968)
A very nicely structured script with twisty stories told in flashback by various young, medieval characters making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Lionel Stander is surprisingly believable as a monk and former crusader who joins the children and soon discovers they have ulterior motives for making the trip. The filmmaking was solid by Academy Award winning director Andrzej Wadja but it's the strong plot and thematic elements from Jerzy Andrzejewski (Ashes and Diamonds) that makes the movie work well.

5. Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler (1922)
Fritz Lang's 4 1/2 hour origin story of the Dr. Mabuse character who was one of the first super villains in cinema. Rudolf Klein-Rogge owns the screen as the mind-controlling, megalomaniac master-of-disguise.The film may test patience due to its length and silent format but it really needs to be seen to fully appreciate the subsequent Mabuse films.

4. Dementia (1955)
Heavily influenced by German expressionism and certainly influential on subsequent filmmakers, Dementia is a cool, fever dream concerning a young woman's late night sojourn through the bowels of an anonymous city. Although very obvious in both its storytelling and psychological contrivances, it nevertheless has a hypnotic quality that sustains it throughout and was far ahead of its time with the Lynch-like, off-kilter characters, settings and moments.

3. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)
The visual flair Fritz Lang demonstrated in M and Metropolis is on full display in this follow up to his silent film, The Gambler. Whereas Rudolf Klein-Rogge's performance was the main attraction in that film, Lang completely dominates this one with his exceptional style. The story has elements of crime, adventure, even horror and is a lot of fun in addition to being an artistic masterpiece.

2. The Doll (1919) 
Ernst Lubitsh again teams up with Ossie Oswalda in an utterly charming, silent, romantic comedy about a young woman who poses as a life size doll and winds up falling for her would be owner - a young heir who's attempting to escape marriage. The supporting characters like the monks, the young apprentice and the doll maker are almost as enjoyable and wittily crafted as Oswalda's and make the film a thoroughly enjoyable, knowing romp from start to finish.

1. The General (1926)
A silent, civil war-set, chase comedy starring Buster Keaton as an engineer trying to get both his train and his girl back. The pacing of the movie never flags, quite rare for a silent film, due to the effective blend of action and comedy. The set pieces on the train are jaw dropping with Keaton making the most difficult stunts look easy and humorous. The best comedic moments, however, occur between Keaton and co-star Marion Mack who plays his hapless, slightly dim girlfriend, Annabelle Lee and had me laughing out loud consistently. Not only is The General my best first time watch of the year, it has jumped to the top of my favorite films.