Jan. 2, 2020

My Favorite First-Time Watches of 2019  

watched a lot of movies last year. Here are some of my favorite discoveries that were not released in 2019, in no particular order. Descriptions are taken from the review written at the time; film titles are linked the pieces themselves.


Losing Ground (1982), dir. Kathleen Collins


Watching the film almost 40 years later on DVD, it came before me as a movie one has to stop themselves from speaking about in hyperbole. The feature, one of the first made by a black woman filmmaker, makes a good argument for Collins’ genius. What else might she have given the movies had she not died, of breast cancer, a few years later?


Love Jones (1997), dir. Theodore Witcher


Love Jones, I think, should be in the pantheon of the great romantic comedies of the 1990s. It’s without hyperbole on the same level as what Nora Ephron was putting out at her peak. The movie takes the time to clearly render the interior lives of its characters, following each individually as they work on their writing, their photography, for instance. We can see what fuels them; we know them apart from their are-they-or-aren’t-they significant other. And their social lives (which bear an almost equal importance to the romance) are well-developed and real to us. 


To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), dir. William Friedkin


Some might watch the movie enthralled by the increasing insanity of this locomotive of a narrative. (It climaxes in a breakneck car chase down the wrong side of the highway, whose behind-the-scenes planning I’d rather not know.) Others might be more glued by Chance’s psychology, thinking more about what it takes for a person to sink lower and lower than getting a kick out of the action sequences. To Live and Die in L.A. has plenty of them. You could do both, as I did most of the time. 


Dangerous Game (1993), dir. Abel Ferrara


The film made just $23,671 at the box office (against a $10 million budget). I wonder if, had it been more widely seen, it would have resulted in a broader reevaluation of Madonna’s acting career. She got above-average notices for the Evita musical of 1996 (she even won a Golden Globe). But in Dangerous Game she’s more so a revelation — a bonafide “serious actress” after all.


Blood for Dracula (1974), dir. Paul Morrissey


I’d almost call it Mel Brooksian if it weren’t also, characteristic for Morrissey, tawdry-feeling, with dubiousness lying under the laughs. (Some lines and plot twists are obviously meant to get us all giggly, but others make it unclear. What's truly earnest, and what's actually meant to be comedic? After a while, I couldn't really tell.)


Dead Alive (1992), dir. Peter Jackson


Dead Alive is the goriest movie I’ve seen in a while. Such a statement shouldn’t be a turn-off for those who get as nauseous around movie blood as I get around the real-life stuff, though: This all is more akin to a gross-out comedy, or a film-length reminder that the human body is fairly icky. If not, Dead Alive is a grimier-than-usual zombie movie. And if it’s not a grimier-than-usual zombie movie, it’s a contagion thriller.


Popcorn (1991), dir. Mark Herrier


In a 2017 interview with The A.V. Club, [actress Dee] Wallace described the making of Popcorn as a “true adventure” — chaotic because of ever-shifting producers, directors, and questionable shooting conditions. But you can’t feel any of the bedlam in the finished product. Here is a strange, high-concept movie that showcases such narrative and visual mettle that we trust it. We also kind of want to live in it.


The Cell (2000), dir. Tarsem Singh


Singh, like the best of cinematic stylists, is always in command of his craft, never too indulgent in what he’s offering. He has such confidence in what he does that you get enraptured, eager to see what he does next.


Trees Lounge (1996), dir. Steve Buscemi


What’s most evocative about Trees Lounge is that there are no obvious arcs, no excuses for the character, no bouts of for-the-sake-of-misery misery — it has an alive, slice-of-life quality about it that haunts.


Fuego (1969), dir. Armando Bó


The kind of ludicrousness instilled in the objectively terrible Fuego is of the kind that makes a particularly memorable so-bad-it’s-good movie so good. Its logic and unsophisticated delivery inspire laughs and lines we’re happy to have experienced. You can see why [John] Waters loved it so much: this is a collection of the nuttiest of soap-opera-slash-sexploitation-movie tropes packaged as a delectably neurotic melodrama. 


Chinese Roulette (1976), dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder


There is not an inch of fat on Chinese Roulette, which, in addition to being a concise 82 minutes long, is a sage and to-the-point exploration of emotional, romantic, and familial ruin. The film is a message movie of sorts — a karma-driven semi-thriller about the ripple effects of infidelity. But characteristically for Fassbinder, it’s also emotionally naked without being blatant about it. 


A Matter of Life and Death (1943), dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger


A Matter of Life and Death is a high-concept fantasy movie that nimbly mixes eclair-light comedy, existential-crisis heaviness, and passionate (and of-course-dated) patriotism. It’s a strange kind of masterpiece, where every one of Powell’s and Pressburger’s whims — aesthetic, dramatic, you name it — is tested and could fuck up everything but never does. It’s a spry balancing act, yet they make it all seem as easy to make as one of Ernst Lubitsch's featherlight comedies. (And those, too, were not easy to make.) 


Mikey and Nicky (1976), dir. Elaine May


Mikey and Nicky, downtempo and wandering to a point, feels like an antithesis of the gangster movies of the 1970s. It makes for a stark contrast to the homeric, romantic The Godfather movies of the decade (1972-’74) and the brash, stormy Mean Streets (1973). Though the genre’s finest also just as much emphasized their characters as they did their sweepingly seedy storylines, few feel as unprocessed yet wide-ranging as Mikey and Nicky. It takes place over the course of just a night and focuses mostly on two characters.


Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), dir. Todd Solondz


Solondz has fashioned a great cinematic Bildungsroman. He has captured exactly what it feels like, when you’re 12 and a half, to be so intensely uncomfortable in your skin that you wish you could tear it off like tissue paper. He also understands the cyclical, near-absurd nature of juvenile bullying, how almost-humorously poor our logic is at that age, and what even the smallest-seeming of micro-aggressions enacted by family members can do after they’ve been put up with for an x number of years. 


The Wicker Man (1973), dir. Robin Hardy


It feels inaccurate to call The Wicker Man a horror comedy, and not just because it never appears to be shooting for obvious laughs. What it does, more remarkably, is make the comedy horrific, and the horror itself so inconceivable that it’s comedic. 


Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922), dir. Benjamin Christensen


Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages, a genre-bending horror movie, is an audacious experiment whose ingenuity and ambitious craftsmanship holds up. Written and directed by Christensen, a Danish filmmaker who otherwise leaned more toward orthodox drama in his career, the movie is part standard-fare venture into the macabre, part academic-style documentary.


Wanda (1970), dir. Barbara Loden


Wanda is the type of artistic statement so singular it could define a legacy — which is what it’s pretty much done for Loden. Aside from the film, the uttermost acclaim Loden got during her career came via After the Fall, the 1964 play written by Arthur Miller and directed by her husband. She won a Tony for her performance, which unfortunately can't be seen for oneself all these years later. Loden's film career is otherwise virtually entirely made up of movies helmed by Kazan, many of which saw her in minor roles one tends to forget. 


Claire's Camera (2017), dir. Hong Sang-soo


Hong is a rare filmmaker in that his notoriety and acclaim grows in terms of months rather than years. Though he’s been making movies since the mid-1990s, in recent years he's tacitly suggested that he’s nearing the height of his creativity: making multiple films per year, with all of them, like Claire’s Camera, deceptively simple. 


Creepshow (1982), dir. George A. Romero


There are five short movies making up Creepshow, a horror-anthology film directed by George A. Romero (1968’s Night of the Living Dead) and written by Stephen King. In a rare twist for the omnibus movie, which is among the most finicky of subgenres, each vignette offered here is inspired. All efficiently capitalize on fairly all-inclusive fears and sprinkle in some nihilism and black humor for good measure.


The Lusty Men (1952), dir. Nicholas Ray


The Lusty Men turns cowboy lore on its head. Mythology tends to promote individuality and liberation — the cowboy as the free spirit who is also nail-tough and the master of his domain. Unbothered, almost. But not a cowboy in the film is ever unencumbered. He must work hard to maintain appearances; he must work hard just generally. He’s never carefree. A romantic, heroic fate usually awaits a cowboy, if a finite conclusion is part of the mythos swirling around in your head. In The Lusty Men, a cowboy, given few other options besides competing in rodeos, is doomed, bound for ruin in a system that crosses persona and commerce.


Jámon, Jámon (1992), dir. Bigas Luna


This narrative’s ridiculous, but the ensemble treats everything Luna throws their way as if it were the same as the material defining any storied play you’d find in a Classics 101 class at a community college. Fornicating under the testicles of a gargantuan roadside bull cutout? The movie’s equivalent of the literary rendition of the Battle of Troy, I think.


Hard Boiled (1992), dir. John Woo


This is great action filmmaking; Woo is a giddy showman who makes a strong case for the wonders of habitual slow motion and weapons that go off with such bluster that they double as fog machines. His excitement is a luster on his images.


Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), dir. Sam Peckinpah


Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is usually either lauded or criticized for its lopsidedness; it’s as much a deconstruction as the macho Western action movie as it is a gently absurdist tragicomedy. It bears many a trademark of a typical Peckinpah film — the most noticeable one being its use of straightforward, aromantically depicted violence — but it’s not every day, especially in a Peckinpah feature, that you’re seeing a hero chatting away with a decapitated head while driving a dilapidated sedan. I happened to like the crookedness. 


Pennies from Heaven (1981), dir. Herbert Ross


In cinemusicals galore, to break out into song or dance is generally an extension of a particularly strong emotion. Why not suddenly start acting like a gonzo vaudevillian in a grocery store? In Pennies from Heaven, by contrast, the placement of a musical sequence is purposefully disjointed, and comes with overpowering sadness. When characters lip-sync to their songs of choice, there is a desperation in their eyes and expressions that suggests that every fiber of their being would like to experience or, at the very least, believe in what they’re “singing.”


Mudhoney (1965), dir. Russ Meyer


It’s one of Meyer’s most primitive, narratively intriguing movies. Yet it remains underrated not just because it pales in comparison to Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, an orgiastic opus widely considered Meyer’s career-defining work, but also because Meyer himself always viewed it, in part due to its lacking of commercial success, as a failure. But I revere Mudhoney not as a fiasco for Meyer but an emerald — a dirtied melodrama so brilliantly dirty that it makes me wish he made more stuff like it.


The Decline of Western Civilization (1981), dir. Penelope Spheeris


The Decline of Western Civilization is not only one of the few documentaries to capture the essence of a particular musical era in an authentic, sweat-on-the-skin-close sort of way — it also takes a rather ethnographic approach that’s at once visceral, of the moment, and still seldom seen. The movie would be pivotal, too, in helping fortify the names of many of its featured acts.


Maniac (1981), dir. William Lustig


Maniac drops us off, and then leaves us unmoored, in a setting where violence is rife and senseless, devoid of the subliminal messaging plaguing so many slasher movies. Keeping us in such close proximity to the Frank character seems less an attempt to get us to try to grasp him and more a way for screenwriters Spinell and C.A. Rosenberg to underscore that you could be minding your business and someone like Frank — deranged, out of touch — could very well claim you his next means of a catharsis. That's what makes it so chilling. 


Monterey Pop (1968), dir. D.A. Pennebaker


Monterey Pop doesn’t date because its interconcerts don’t. While many an audience member might have been getting familiar with some of these artists at the time while gawking at them from their seats — something that, even for newcomers now, cannot be recreated or totally understood unless you were experiencing what was going on then and there — now you can appreciate the moment in part for how deftly Pennebaker and his collaborators captured what we’re still able to see and hear, and how smartly they caught the minutiae.