Sunday, December 27, 2015

Top 30 film discoveries for 2015

I watched over a thousand films during the past year and made some interesting discoveries, from the ridiculous silliness of Ferdinando Baldi to the sublime melancholy of Federico Fellini, here are my top 30.

Little Rita nel West, aka, Crazy Westerners (1967) 
Ferdinando Baldi

Yes, it's utterly silly and the very notion of a spaghetti western musical is goofy as hell. But I absolutely defy anyone not to be charmed by the unbelievably cute and fully committed Rita Pavone in the lead role and not to be won over by the the clever hat tips to other popular Euro-westerns like Django and A Fistful of Dollars. The pop songs are fun, the dancing (yes, there's dancing) is professionally choreographed and Ferdinando Baldi's direction is up to his usual high standards. A pre-Trinity, Terence Hill as the love interest, Fernando Sancho as another over-the-top bandido and Gordon Mitchell as Chief Silly Bear also add to the insane fun. Considered by some critics as one of the worst spaghetti westerns ever made, the excellent cinematography by Enzo Barboni (Django, Nightmare Castle, The Five-Man Army), professional direction by Baldi (Forgotten Pistolero, Blindman) and engaging lead performance by pop star Pavone speak otherwise.

La nave de los monstruos, aka, The Ship of Monsters (1960) 
Rogelio A. González

Another enjoyably silly discovery, this time out of Mexico, The Ship of Monsters features a lonely, braggadocious singing caballero as the unlikely hero, two man-starved Venusian ladies as the romantic interests, a very retro, but quite efficient robot, and, well, a ship of monsters. The film is incredibly cheesy in the most enjoyable way possible. The space ladies are as far from believable astronauts as can be with their revealing, utterly impractical garb and toy laser guns. The robot is made up of spray-painted cardboard boxes, tin foil and radiator hose. The monsters are made out of rubber, strings and hope. But despite the dime store cheapness, the film works due to the light, tongue-in-cheek story and characters, sincere heartfelt emotion, and enjoyably sweet performances by romantic leads, Eulalio González and Ana Bertha Lepe. The monsters, though a bit underused, are imaginative and an absolute blast whenever they show up to cause trouble.

Seven Keys to Baldpate (1929) 
Reginald Barker

One of ten(!) screen adaptations of the popular stage play that began with the 1916 silent and continued until 1983 with House of the Long Shadows. The story involves a writer who bets his friend he can crank out a mystery novel in one night. His friend gives him what he purports to be the only key to a remote, closed down inn named Baldpate so that he may attempt to write the book in solitude. However, half a dozen other keys and their respective holders subsequently show up at the inn for various reasons and complicate matters. This version is the lightest and most stage-bound of the five I've seen, yet it works the best due to the snappy script, a likable lead in Richard Dix, and a unique double twist ending. Even though it's an early talky, the actors seem very much at ease probably due to the stage-like set to which they would be more accustomed. 

Ridin' on a Rainbow (1941) 
Lew Landers

Despite the popularity of prairie crooners like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, a successful singing cowboy western relies just as much on the supporting cast, the setting, and how well the musical numbers and action are woven into the story. A bad sidekick can break a film (hello Pinky Lee), and lackluster guest entertainers can likewise sink a production. In his early films, Gene Autry was ably backed by Smiley Burnette who was not just a good clown sidekick but an able musician and songwriter in his own right. Mary Lee, who usually starred as the kid sister of the love interest in these westerns, almost always stole the screen with her cute presence and Garland-like singing voice. In Ridin' on a Rainbow, Burnette, and especially Lee, are so strong they absolutely hijack the film from Autrey. Lee does a solo number in a stable that is surprisingly poignant and performs some upbeat numbers, sans Autry, as well. Burnette adds his usual goofy schtick, but has a rare moment of heroism at the end and uncharacteristically appears in a top hat and tails. The songs and dancing come in natural spots in the script and do not feel shoehorned despite their much higher than average appearances. The riverboat setting is sold well by Lew Landers with the aid of some rear projection that could have made the production look tacky if mishandled.

The Phantom Strikes, aka, The Gaunt Stranger (1938) 
Walter Forde

A low budget, UK adaptation of Edgar Wallace's, The Ringer, it's one of the most loyal versions I've seen with a great ending that would never have gotten past Code restrictions had it been produced in the States. The tone is somewhat light but not daft, the dialogue witty and the cast charming, particularly Alexander Knox as the doctor.

The Whistler (1944) 
William Castle

A bit of a cheat here, as I'm including the first five entries (The WhistlerMark of the WhistlerPower of the WhistlerVoice of the Whistler, and Mysterious Intruder) of the radio show-inspired, eight movie series. All five programmers star Richard Dix in varying roles and four of the entries were directed by a young William Castle. Prolific B-movie legend, Lew Landers, effectively helmed the third in the series, Power of the Whistler. However it's not really the direction that makes these low budget thrillers work but the surprisingly good scripts, often based on strong stories from the likes of Cornell Woolrich, that really impress. The premises, and initial set-ups in particular, are very engaging and unpredictable with Dix well cast as a cypher-like character whose true nature isn't revealed until late in the stories. The supporting cast of these earlier films is also strong featuring great character actors like J. Carrol Naish, Gloria Stuart, Paul Guilfoyle, John Abbott, Rhys Williams, Barton MacLane, Charles Lane and Mike Mazurki. There's a light dusting of noir style in the look and characters, and at just over an hour in length, these modest little stories get the entertainment job done in short order.

Deluge (1933) 
Felix E. Feist

The very definition of a film discovery as this RKO release was considered lost for years until a dubbed print was found by Forrest J. Ackerman in an Italian archive. The movie, which has been subtitled back into English, provides an interesting example of an early disaster/post-apocalypse film with very good effects shots of a flooding New York. The crux of the story deals with a love triangle that develops in the aftermath of the apocalyptic flood, but fear not, there are rape gangs, shootouts and plenty of proto-P/A tropes to go around.

The Girl on the Bridge (1951) 
Hugo Haas

Hugo Haas gets a bum rap as a filmmaker often being likened to a European version of Ed Wood. The comparison probably has more to do with the number of hats Haas wore as writer, director, producer and star of his low budget features than their quality which was actually quite decent. Like many of his films, The Girl on the Bridge is fairly melodramatic and involves a poor schlub getting involved with a woman with a past. Unlike his other works though, the characters are better developed and the pathos more believable. Beverly Michaels, who usually played a hard-bitten femme fatale type, and appeared as such in Haas' previous film, Pickup, is the female lead here and is surprisingly sympathetic as a suicidal unwed mother. Haas is likewise sympathetic as a sweet, lonely jeweler who lost his family in the holocaust and befriends Michaels' character. Though Haas has a tendency paint with a broad brush and lay the emotions on thick in his other films, he's a bit more restrained here especially in his direction and writing. Overall, he's definitely an entertaining low budget storyteller worth seeking out.

 Wicked Woman (1953) 
Russell Rouse

A noir melodrama with Beverly Michaels burning up the screen as a fabulously trashy and brazen bad girl character who blows into town and sets her sights on Richard Egan's hunky but married bartender. Percy Helton is also great as a sleazy, weasel neighbor whom Michaels manipulates. Anyone who digs over-the-top, campy melodrama needs to see this now.

Dragoon Wells Massacre (1957) 
Harold D Schuster

Superior Allied Artists production owing to the CinemaScope cinematography of William H. Clothier, better than expected characterizations and fast-paced story. Though the plot is standard, the characters' interrelationships are deeper than usual and backed by strong performances by an able cast. Barry Sullivan's cool outlaw prisoner bears somewhat of a resemblance to John Carpenter's, Napoleon Wilson from Assault on Precinct 13. Jack Elam's gunfighter, Tioga, generates some sympathy for a change as an ugly man who was never given a chance. Legendary western veteran, Trevor Bardette, plays the marshall transporting the prisoners and has some nice rapport with Sullivan, as does Elam, and their relationship is anything but the typical good lawman/bad outlaws stereotype. It's also refreshing to see a feisty latina (Katy Jurado) become the love interest of a strait-laced gringo calvary officer (Dennis O'Keefe) for a change. Sebastian Cabot breaks the mold as well playing a slimy Indian trader aptly named Jonah whom Sullivan delights in messing with. Overall, it's an excellent low-budget western that deserves rediscovery and cries out for a release in its original widescreen format.

Woman They Almost Lynched (1953) 
Allan Dwan

An unusual, female-dominated Republic western directed by the incredibly prolific Allan Dwan. The film features a classic middle-of-main-street showdown between Joan Leslie and Audrey Totter as well as a barroom cat fight. Totter, who is even more of a troublemaker here than in her noir films, wastes no time in starting a ruckus by singing/taunting her ex-boyfriend. Nina Varela is also enjoyable as the no-nonsense mayor and the saloon gals feature Ann Savage of Detour fame and the ubiquitous Virginia Christine. The male characters are relegated to the back seat for once but Ben Cooper and Brian Donlevy do give enjoyable performances as Jesse James and Charles Quantrill.

The Great Man (1956)  
José Ferrer

José Ferrer directs, co-writes and stars as a network reporter who is pressured to do a puff piece on a recently deceased beloved celebrity icon who appeared to have been an utterly despicable dirtbag in his private life. It's an engaging, dialogue heavy, stage-like production with the true nature of "the great man" revealed over the course of research interviews conducted by Ferrer. The characters are very strong with Ed Wynn's humble Christian broadcaster in particular providing an unexpected emotional punch that lays out Ferrer's cynical reporter. The political maneuverings by various network personnel to use the broadcast of the icon's death for their own ends is also smartly scripted and darkly humorous.

Communion aka Alice, Sweet Alice (1976) 
Alfred Sole

A very giallo-flavored, proto-slasher, the film features a masked, rain-coated killer who brings to mind the mysterious figure in Roeg's, Don't Look Now. The story is much more intelligent than the unimaginative, formula-bound slashers that would follow in its wake and features a enigmatic murderer who is very creepy but far from a super-human, flawless killing machine. The fleshed out characters are also more than the normal construct and add some authenticity. The filmmakers raised the degree of difficulty further on themselves by setting the story in the early 1960's and it works surprisingly well in this time period.

Road to Salina (1970) 
Georges Lautner

A strange Euro-thriller concerning a young drifter, played by Robert Walker Jr., who is inexplicably mistaken for a family's grown son who disappeared just four years earlier. The mystery is intriguing and there's an otherworldly atmosphere thanks to the Canary Islands setting. Rita Hayworth is very good in a later role as the slightly unbalanced mother, but it's Mimsy Farmer who steals the picture playing yet another psychologically suspect character while cranking up the erotic craziness.

Oh Boy, aka, A Coffee in Berlin (2012) 
Jan Ole Gerster

A young college drop-out cannot catch a break, or a cup of coffee, one day in Berlin. A smart German comedy filled with uncomfortably funny moments, a pathetic - yet sympathetic - protagonist, and a great, bittersweet ending. The beautiful black and white cinematography and stunning shots of Berlin were a surprising bonus that elevated the film to even greater heights.

Misterios de ultratumba, aka, The Black Pit of Dr. M (1959)  Fernando Méndez

A stylish, gothic horror film out of Mexico about a doctor's obsession with returning from the afterlife and his inevitable head-on collision with the fate train. An excellent atmosphere coupled with a solid story eclipses the usual melodrama and cheesiness found in Latin cinema of this era.

Ruthless (1948) 
Edgar G. Ulmer

A rare, decently budgeted production for Edgar Ulmer who makes the most of it in relating a compelling Citizen Kane-type story. Zachary Scott plays the lead role as a selfish financial wizard who rises to the top leaving all who helped behind. Sydney Greenstreet, not surprisingly, steals the show as an arrogant rival financier. There's nothing frighteningly original about the film, but the story is engaging and the presentation is positively lavish by Ulmer standards.

Die Brücke aka The Bridge (1959) 
Bernhard Wicki

A German film concerning a group of high school students who are pressed into service in the waning days of WWII. It's an intelligent character study of the gung-ho but painfully naive youths and the fully aware adults who attempt in vain to keep them out of harm's way. The cinematography is striking and the performances believable. A great anti-war film, it would make a good companion piece to Come and See and Paths of Glory.

Wu lin shoeing huo jin, aka, Holy Flame of the Martial World (1983) 
Chin-Ku Lu

Shaw Brothers insanity that is firmly ensconced in the fantasy domain. John Carpenter's, Big Trouble in Little China most definitely took its building blocks from films such as this. Those looking for a serious, grounded martial arts film, look elsewhere, nonetheless, this is extremely well made, imaginative lunacy and a non-stop joy ride.

Play It As It Lays (1972) 
Frank Perry

Frank Perry may not have been the most stylish director, but no one picked more interesting, character driven projects to make in the 60's and 70's. This film is a dark, brutally honest look at an established, avant garde indie actress (Tuesday Weld) and her gay producer/best friend (Anthony Perkins). Like much of Perry's work, the story plays out in episodic fashion gradually revealing the warts-and-all characters. Weld and Perkins, who are re-teamed from the underrated Pretty Poison, have good chemistry and elicit a surprising bit of sympathy as two jaded, cynical types whose lives are on a downward spiral but whose mutual friendship provides solace.

Morocco (1930) 
Josef von Sternberg

One of the hottest pairings in cinema history with Dietrich damn near burning the place down with her shameless sex appeal. I was never a big Cooper fan, but his presence and chemistry with Dietrich is undeniable. The story, though satisfying, takes a back seat to these magnetic performances.

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970) 
Elio Petri

A brilliant, dark, political satire about the bullet-proof nature of institutional authority. Gian Maria Volonté gives another excellent performance, which skillfully skirts the border of comic, as the lead.

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) 
William A. Wellman

William A. Wellman's western classic about mob mentality that is subdued for a western yet packs an incredibly powerful emotional and thematic punch. The ensemble is perfectly cast with Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan leading the way as two cowpokes who get roped into riding with a posse bent on vengeance. Never has a letter-reading been so heartbreaking.

Zatoichi and the Chess Expert (1965) 
Kenji Misumi

There are over two dozen of these blind swordsman films starring Shintarô Katsu and not a bad one in the bunch, but Zatoichi and the Chess Expert has become an instant favorite. All of the series' productions are beautifully rendered often using the weather to provide atmosphere and in this entry, unceasing rain provides the backdrop to create a melancholic mood of despair. The story is among the strongest featuring one of the best dark horse characters in the form of a badass chess-playing samurai (Mikio Narita) who befriends Zatoichi. An incognito brother and sister set on avenging their father's death also figure into the mix quite nicely. This film provides one of the best examples of what the series is all about.

Elevator to the Gallows (1958) 
Louis Malle

A meditation on loneliness disguised as a crime noir, the film reaches the epitome of French coolness in a scene with Jeanne Moreau walking down a rainy Paris street wondering what has become of her lover.

Vaxdockan, aka, The Doll (1962) 
Arne Mattsson

Even casual cinema fans are aware of great Swedish actors like Max von Sydow and Liv Ullman, but their contemporary, Per Oscarsson, does not get the international recognition he deserves. In Vaxdockan, Oscarsson is riveting as a quiet, misanthropic night watchman who falls in love with a store mannequin and enters into a relationship of sorts with her. Though director Arne Mattsson is known in part for his comedies, there's not one hint of humor to be found in this cold, bleak tale of unrequited love. Mattson creates a stark, gloomy, winter environment for Oscarsson's character to inhabit as he gradually and believably loses his sanity over a woman.

The Pawnbroker (1964)
Sidney Lumet

On any given day, Rod Steiger could either give the world's greatest acting performance or the world's hammiest. It's definitely the former in The Pawnbroker as Steiger is understated and brilliant in Sidney Lumet's dark character study of a holocaust survivor who has completely shut down emotionally. Though the New York setting, Boris Kaufman's sharp, neo-realistic cinematography and Quincy Jones' great score add immeasurably to the film, it's Steiger who owns it.

The Outlaw Josie Wales (1976)

Clint Eastwood is one of the few directors left who knows how to make a believable, engaging and entertaining western as this film demonstrates again and again.

La Strada, aka, The Road (1954)
Federico Fellini

A beautiful, haunting, sad ballad of a film with a star-making and heartbreaking performance by the lovely Giulietta Masina. It's easy to overlook the other actors and facets of Fellini's masterpiece with Masina front and center, however, Richard Basehart's clown is a joy to watch as his character mercilessly busts Anthony Quinn's balls while offering understanding tenderness to Masina's, Gelsomina. Quinn, who may be one of the most underrated A-list actors of all time, is also in top form as the untalented, boar-ish, Zampanò.

Nothing But a Man (1964)
Michael Roemer

For a film that was released four years prior to the passage of the civil rights act, it's honesty and subtlety in the portrayal of African-American characters is nothing short of amazing. At a time when Hollywood was walking on eggshells, serving up highly idealized, squeaky clean characterizations of black people, Michael Roemer was keeping it real in a film that wouldn't be matched in its understated truthfulness until the 70's golden era. Ivan Dixon is near perfection as an imperfect man who is striving to become something better. His character, Duff, is held back just as much by his own flaws as the racism that surrounds him. The story wisely stays focused on Duff and does not get sidetracked by the injustice of inequality though its definitely in evidence and plays a part in his struggle. The supporting characters are equally engaging with Julius Harris in particular giving an outstanding performance in his very first acting role. The film looks terrific with sharp, black and white, neo-realist style cinematography provided by Robert M. Young and the score comes courtesy of Motown. Overall, it's an intelligent, truthful, well written and acted character piece that I can't recommend enough.

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