It's the last day of the year, so it's time for one of my favorite features, my look back at the best movies from previous years that I watched for the first time in 2016. (Some comments brazenly reproduced from Letterboxd.)
1. Grand Piano (Eugenio Mira, 2013) With all the praise that Damien Chazelle is getting for La La Land this year, maybe people will rediscover this early, mostly forgotten Chazelle film, which he wrote but didn't direct. In a way it's a riff on the same concept as Whiplash, with a driven but neurotic musician being pushed to the limits of his talent by a sadistic taskmaster. In this case, though, the musician's life is actually on the line, and the tormentor is portrayed as an actual villain. The silly premise, with Elijah Wood's master pianist forced to play a complicated piece perfectly or be killed by John Cusack's maniacal sniper, is a variation on the Speed formula, and seems like it would run out of steam within a few minutes. But Chazelle and director Mira find numerous entertaining variations on the theme, with dynamic camera work, near-constant suspense and enjoyable performances from the two leads. The movie knows how absurd it is, but still manages to generate nail-biting tension until the very end. Anyone who liked La La Land or (especially) Whiplash should check it out.
2. Fat City (John Huston, 1972) I almost skipped this one at the TCM Festival in favor of a different screening, but I'm glad I didn't, because it turned out to be the kind of fantastic discovery that I come to that festival to find. Starring Stacy Keach as a small-time boxer in central California and Jeff Bridges as an up-and-comer he takes under his wing, it's one of the most affecting sports movies I've ever seen. It's amazing that Huston, who's so strongly associated with classic Hollywood, directed something so completely contemporary and relevant, and Keach (whom I generally think of as a solid if one-note character actor) is equally revelatory in the lead role. This is a bleak, honest, funny and startlingly naturalistic portrayal of working-class life that just happens to include some boxing.
3. Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman, 2011) I loved Stillman's take on Jane Austen in this year's Love & Friendship, but I hadn't yet seen that when I watched this somewhat underappreciated comedy, which at the time was billed as his comeback (it was his first film in 13 years). I'm actually a bit lukewarm on Stillman's early, most acclaimed films (I found The Last Days of Disco to be kind of a slog), but I love these frothier, lighter comedies. Damsels is even more lighthearted than L&F, although it's also quite insightful about the insular culture of college campuses and college students' self-indulgent search for identity. Greta Gerwig is typically fabulous as a particularly narcissistic student at a small liberal arts college, and Stillman gives her and the rest of the cast a nearly nonstop series of clever witticisms. The movie ends with a gloriously silly musical number that makes me hope Stillman gets to make a full-on musical someday.
4. Little Darlings (Ronald F. Maxwell, 1980) It's really a shame that this movie is essentially unavailable (I watched a VHS rip on YouTube, for a piece in David Magazine about summer camp movies), because it's far better than you'd expect an '80s summer camp teen sex comedy to be. Kristy McNichol is outstanding as a tough but vulnerable teen looking to lose her virginity at summer camp, and Tatum O'Neal is also good as a lonely rich girl looking to do the same. Their contest to see who can get laid first is the stuff of crass gross-out comedies, but it's handled with remarkable sensitivity by the filmmakers. There are some typical dumb teen-comedy moments, and the supporting characters are a little one-dimensional, but overall this is a warm, funny, surprisingly smart and sophisticated movie about growing up and carving out an individual identity. It's also one of the most casually feminist mainstream movies of the period (it was written by two women), and it totally deserves a proper home-video release.
5. Fort Tilden (Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers, 2014) Continuing the theme of connections to 2016 releases, I loved Bliss and Rogers' TBS series Search Party, and Fort Tilden lays a lot of the groundwork for that show in its tone and character types. It's less plot-driven than Search Party, with a loose structure as its main characters, a pair of hilariously narcissistic Brooklyn hipsters played by Bridey Elliott and Clare McNulty, wander around the city as they attempt to get to the titular beach. The bone-dry sense of humor may not be for everyone, but I was laughing instantly during the first scene, as the main characters text each other cruel put-downs about the so-called friends whose musical performance they're watching. Rogers and Bliss even manage to throw in a bit of smart social commentary about class privilege, but they never lose sight of their deadpan nastiness. As I said on Letterboxd at the time I watched it, I've never laughed so hard at the prospect of kittens drowning.
6. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Elia Kazan, 1945) From one kind of Brooklyn story to a very different kind, this one set in a time when the borough was a home for working-class immigrant families. This was the final movie I saw at this year's TCM Festival, and it's the kind of well-loved classic that I often avoid at the festival in favor of something more obscure and offbeat. So I was a bit wary of it at first, but ultimately liked it quite a bit. It's a tearjerker that never relies on cheap sentiment in telling the story of the struggles of a poor Brooklyn family in the early 20th century, and it's often moving and powerful. I thought the third act dragged at times, but even then, all of the individual moments are touching and extremely well-acted, especially by young Peggy Ann Garner as the pre-teen main character, an aspiring writer who idolizes her alcoholic dreamer of a father.
7. Frankenstein: The True Story (Jack Smight, 1973) Of all the movies that I watched for my month of Frankenstein films, this was the most welcome surprise, a three-hour NBC TV movie (released theatrically overseas in shorter cuts) with more sophistication and cleverness than most of the more well-known adaptations. Its length makes it a bit unwieldy at times, and despite its title it's neither a faithful retelling of Mary Shelley's novel nor an attempt to depict the true events surrounding the book's creation, but the movie still works very well on its own. The layered writing and character relationships (between Victor Frankenstein and Henri Clerval, Frankenstein and his monster, the sinister Polidori and the female monster, Polidori and Frankenstein) are impressive, even if the somewhat episodic structure can be a bit jarring. Thanks to strong acting and surprisingly high production values for a 1970s TV movie, True Story goes deeper than most would expect. More in my original post.
8. Libeled Lady (Jack Conway, 1936) The convoluted plot of this screwball comedy is hilariously outdated, as William Powell's newspaper reporter attempts to lure Myrna Loy's socialite heiress into a compromising position so that she can't sue his employer for libel (since her scandalous reputation will be justified). All of the indiscretions, both real and manufactured, in this movie are the kind of things that are brushed off as insignificant nowadays, but the movie itself views them that way, too, and mostly mocks how seriously people take the appearance of propriety. Powell, Loy, Jean Harlow and Spencer Tracy are all very funny as the players in this constantly revolving romantic rectangle, and while the movie sticks to some of the period's rigid ideas about gender, it also subverts them in clever and satisfying ways.
9. Lifeboat (Alfred Hitchcock, 1944) I'm still working my way through a handful of notable Hitchcock movies that I haven't seen, and this was one I'd been meaning to see for a long time. Despite being produced explicitly as a pro-Allied propaganda piece, it still manages to create nuanced drama from a group of British and American citizens trapped in a lifeboat with a German seaman who was involved in torpedoing their cruise ship. Hitchcock builds suspense in the claustrophobic single location and also develops some well-realized characters, including the German himself. Eventually the movie draws clear lines between bad guys and good guys, but it never comes off as simplistic or dishonest. Hitchcock uses his filmmaking and storytelling skills to give life to what could have been a heavy-handed recruiting tool.
10. Experimenter (Michael Almereyda, 2015) It's pretty common to end up with biopic fatigue by the end of awards season, and so I put off watching this biopic about famous psychologist Stanley Milgram (creator of the renowned experiment in which subjects were told to administer electric shocks to a fellow volunteer) at the end of 2015. But some strong reviews eventually brought me back to it, and I'm glad they did, because it's an example of a biopic done right, using cinematic technique and formal innovation to tell the story of a real person's life. The movie is best when it focuses on Milgram's controversial and groundbreaking experiments, but Almereyda makes even the more mundane passages intriguing with metatextual devices, including characters addressing the audience and sets that look deliberately fake. It highlights the artificiality of shaping someone's life story into a movie, and it ties into the manufactured environment that Milgram (played well by Peter Sarsgaard) created in his experiments.
On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.
Based on the 2006 novel by Diane Setterfield, BBC movie The Thirteenth Tale promises Gothic chills but delivers something much tamer, getting less and less intriguing as it goes along. Part of that may be a peril of adaptation, not only condensing the story into 90 minutes from Setterfield's novel but also losing the Gothic style she apparently wrote in (I haven't read the book). While the novel was compared to Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, the movie doesn't capture any of that atmosphere, with the look of a genteel British TV drama rather than a creepy and foreboding ghost story. It's anchored by two great actors, but a lot of their work is sidelined in favor of extensive flashbacks that lose steam by the time they get to the story's big reveal.
Ubiquitous British TV/movie presence Olivia Colman is especially wasted in a role as what initially appears to be the main character, journalist Margaret Lea, who's summoned to the home of ailing, reclusive author Vida Winter (Vanessa Redgrave) to document her life story before she dies of cancer. Margaret holds her own secret from her past, but it's much less interesting than Vida's, and learning about it doesn't illuminate anything about her character. Mostly her function is to sit and look concerned while Vida tells her story, and to spend a bit of time poking around the ruins of Vida's childhood home, the sprawling estate known as Angelfield.
The bulk of the movie is devoted to Vida's story about growing up at Angelfield, where she was known as Adeline March and lived with her twin sister Emmeline (or so it appears). Madeleine Power plays the twins as children, and she makes them each disturbing and unpredictable in their own ways, as they grow up essentially without parents (their father is dead, and their heiress mother is confined to an insane asylum), raised by servants in the lavish but decaying family home. Power upstages the more well-known stars, making her segments the best parts of the movie. Vida, who refuses to allow Margaret to question her story, is set up as an unreliable narrator, but onscreen her account doesn't have the uncertainty that it would on the page. This is especially obvious when the story jumps ahead to Adeline and Emmeline as teenagers, and the truth of Vida's identity is blatantly telegraphed merely by the actresses playing the parts.
That's only part of the reason that the eventual twist falls flat; instead of adding a level of creepiness to the mystery of a potential haunting at Angelfield, the plot slowly lets the air out of it, revealing mundane explanations behind every spooky moment. Those explanations come from some dark places, but their presentation is straightforward and anticlimactic. Margaret gets the answers she came for, but despite the connection to her own past trauma, there's no emotional resonance for her or for the audience. Redgrave does more to sell Vida's need to unburden herself, but even her final throes are a bit underwhelming. In the end, Margaret just shrugs off the whole thing and goes off to write her biography, and the audience ends up similarly unaffected.
The Anatomy of Monsters (Tabitha Bastien, Jesse Lee Keeter, Conner Marx, dir. Byron C. Miller) This ultra-low-budget thriller starts out following Keeter's creepy loner Drew as he appears to select a murder victim at a bar, only to turn the tables on him when his pretty female target Sarah (Bastien) turns out to be even more dangerous. The two bond over their shared homicidal impulses in a sort of Before Sunrise for serial killers, although the bulk of the movie is devoted to flashbacks chronicling Sarah's development as a murderer. Bastien is strong as Sarah, making a cold-blooded killer into a likable and even occasionally sympathetic character, and her journey to becoming a confident, methodical killer is well-paced and convincing. Slightly less convincing is her gooey romance with her hipster boyfriend, meant to represent her inner conflict about her desire to kill. She's clearly a monster (as the title indicates), so it's only a matter of time before she gives in to her dark side. Keeter ends up with a much smaller role, and his character's murderous compulsions are less fully realized. I was eager to see the two of them team up, but the story eventually goes in a more downbeat direction, and the ending is a bit anticlimactic. The production values are low, and while director and co-writer Miller makes decent use of limited resources, the visual style is crude and some of the effects are shaky. Still, this is a promising second feature from a filmmaker who could certainly do more with a bigger budget. Available on Amazon and elsewhere.
Free of Thought (John Russell, Mella Gardner, dir. Nathan Barillaro) This Australian indie drama stars Russell and Gardner as a couple experiencing tension in their relationship while they collaborate on their own indie film, and it works best when it focuses on the couple's increasingly strained dynamic. Writer-director (and editor and producer) Barillaro starts things off slowly, establishing the couple's casual chemistry and genuine rapport, before picking at little threads that blow up into big conflicts. A lot of the scenes feel sort of inconsequential, but they add up to a portrait of a relationship, in which the meaningless moments are actually just as meaningful as the more clearly important ones. Although the movie fits with the mumblecore aesthetic in a lot of ways (the characters are often inarticulate mumblers, living aimless lives, and the movie fixates on the mundane), Barillaro's visual style is more polished, and there are a number of very well-composed shots that say as much about the central relationship as the dialogue does. Disappointingly, the entire last half hour switches gears, ditching Gardner's Mel (and the saga of the movie the couple is making) entirely, as Russell's John moves to Montreal and doesn't do much of anything. The lack of closure is probably intentional, but John on his own isn't particularly interesting, and nothing he does in Montreal connects back to the first two-thirds of the movie in any illuminating way. It ends up doing a disservice to the more interesting, ambitious female character in favor of the entitled male stoner, and ends the movie on a sour note. Available on No Budge.
Mercy (James Wolk, Tom Lipinski, Caitlin FitzGerald, dir. Chris Sparling) Two sets of half brothers fight over the legacy of their dying mother in this odd, disjointed thriller. The movie starts out as a family drama about the four brothers coming together to pay final respects to their mother at the house she shares with her second husband (father of two of the brothers). But the family conflict soon becomes secondary to a nighttime home invasion by masked criminals, who may or may not be the more aggressive set of brothers. Writer-director Sparling keeps things deliberately vague for much of the movie (characters say things like "We gotta do what we gotta do"), and around the halfway point he circles back in time to show the same events from a slightly different perspective, which is not particularly illuminating and mainly leads to a lot of repetition and filler (now we get even more specific detail about how that guy got to that door!). The action is often murky, making it hard to tell who's attacking whom, and the characters' motivations are just as murky, so it's also hard to care about what happens to any of them. The twist ending throws the movie into supernatural/sci-fi territory without following through on it, making the entire preceding 90 minutes feel like a crude waste of time. Available on Netflix.