Sunday, January 03, 2021

My top 10 non-2020 movies of 2020

Slightly behind schedule, here's one of my favorite traditions of the year (which has become an increasingly common practice for others as well, since the rise of Letterboxd), my list of my favorite movies from earlier years that I saw for the first time in 2020.

1. The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961)
Henry James' The Turn of the Screw had a bit of a resurgence in 2020 with the feature film The Turning starring Mackenzie Davis and Mike Flanagan's Netflix miniseries The Haunting of Bly Manor, and I hope that any curious viewers of those will look back at this stunning earlier adaptation from director Jack Clayton, based on the play by William Archibald. Deborah Kerr is phenomenal as Miss Giddens, the governess hired to take care of orphans Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin), who either encounters ghosts or slowly loses her mind while isolated with the children on the family's sprawling estate. Kerr perfectly balances her performance between madness and compassion, and the child actors both project an eerie self-assurance. The CinemaScope images from cinematographer Freddie Francis are breathtaking, and the sound design is unsettling, especially the use of the ethereal theme song "O Willow Waly." It's hard to imagine anyone doing a better job of bringing this story to life.

2. Emma (Douglas McGrath, 1996)
The article I spent the most time researching, pitching and writing in 2020 was this Vague Visages piece on the greatness of Gwyneth Paltrow in the 1990s, and my viewing of Douglas McGrath's adaptation of Jane Austen's classic novel was the spark for that story. I initially watched this movie to prepare for the new version directed by Autumn de Wilde and starring Anya Taylor-Joy, and while I think Taylor-Joy is brilliant, that movie fell a little short for me. This one, on the other hand, is a pure delight, led by Paltrow's fabulous performance as the well-intentioned meddler Emma Woodhouse, who is oblivious to her privilege but also humbly open to learning from her mistakes. The various romances are all satisfying, the writing (from either Austen or McGrath) is witty, and the performances are all effortlessly charming.

3. Gold Diggers of 1933 (Mervyn LeRoy, 1933)
This pre-Code musical is a sheer joy, even as it tackles the realities of the Great Depression from the perspective of out-of-work theater professionals. Ruby Keeler, Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon and Ginger Rogers play four Broadway dancer/singer/actresses struggling to find work when shows close before they can even premiere (the opening features authorities seizing sets and costumes for non-payment), and they are all giddy and witty in that particularly naughty pre-Code manner. There's a silly romantic storyline about Keeler's Polly falling for a rich heir (Dick Powell) who's also an aspiring composer, which provides the requisite mix-ups and entanglements. The sharp dialogue is as entertaining as the dazzling musical set pieces from Busby Berkeley, one of which features Rogers singing in Pig Latin, clearly the height of cinema.

4. Secrets & Lies (Mike Leigh, 1996)
We covered this movie (which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes) as part of our 1996 season of the Awesome Movie Year podcast, and it's a great example of Mike Leigh's humanistic, character-driven storytelling, with justifiably lauded and awarded performances from Brenda Blethyn, Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Timothy Spall. It takes the kind of storyline that could come from a sensationalistic TV movie (an upper-middle-class Black woman reconnects with her working-class white birth mother) and treats it with warmth and sensitivity, more about forging genuine connections than about exploiting divisions.

5. Home Before Dark (Mervyn LeRoy, 1958)
I didn't even realize before gathering details for this list that I had included two movies by the incredibly versatile Mervyn LeRoy. Home Before Dark could not possibly be more different from Gold Diggers of 1933, and not just because it was made 25 years later. It's a rich, serious drama about a fragile woman (an excellent Jean Simmons) attempting to adjust to regular life after spending a year in a mental institution, and encountering hostility, suspicion and gaslighting from nearly everyone in her life. I watched it to include in this tribute to the late Rhonda Fleming, who often cited it as her favorite role. Fleming is good as the main character's scheming stepsister, but this is Simmons' show all the way, and she brings vulnerability and a reserve of unexpected strength to this surprisingly nuanced and progressive drama about mental illness.

6. Let's Scare Jessica to Death (John D. Hancock, 1971)
Although this low-budget production has one of the all-time great horror-movie titles, it's more of a slow-burn psychological thriller than a horror movie. Similar to The Innocents, it's the story of a possibly unstable woman (Zohra Lampert's Jessica) living on a remote estate and believing that she's seeing apparitions. And like Home Before Dark, it's the story of a woman recently released from a mental institution who is treated with suspicion by the people in her life. Jessica, her husband and their best friend embrace a hippie lifestyle by moving to an old country house in Connecticut and attempting to work as farmers, and they let a squatter they find in their new house continue living there. But Emily (Mariclare Costello) may be more than a harmless drifter, with ties to the house's sordid history. Director John D. Hancock builds creepy atmosphere in the house and the surrounding town, and the story takes on an impressionistic, dreamlike quality as Jessica slowly loses her mind, or is tormented into believing that she is.

7. Thelma & Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991)
I finally got around to watching this movie as part of a round-up on road trip movies that I wrote (somewhat ironically) just before the pandemic lockdown, and it lives up to its reputation as a rollicking thriller with a dark edge. Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon are fantastic as the title characters, who free themselves from their downtrodden lives when they inadvertently embark on a crime spree. Director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Callie Khouri portray female empowerment and rebellion against the patriarchy without losing the movie's sense of raucous fun. Some of it goes a little too far over the top, but it all builds beautifully to that iconic (and remarkably cynical) ending, in which the only way to truly defeat a rigged system is to opt out of it entirely.

8. Anna and the Apocalypse (John McPhail, 2017)
This was the one movie on my list of Christmas horror recommendations that I hadn't previously seen, and I'm grateful to that assignment for pushing me to watch a movie I'd had in my queue since it came out. Like Gold Diggers of 1933, this is a joyous musical about a dark subject, although zombies are less of a real-world concern than economic depression. The cast of mostly unknown young actors capture the outsize emotions of teen angst as well as the terror of witnessing the end of the world, and then they engage in gleeful song-and-dance numbers about it. The catchy original songs don't end when the violence begins, and director John McPhail successfully balances the music with the violence, giving proper attention to both. The filmmakers impressively integrate multiple genres into an entertaining and weirdly heartwarming movie.

9. The Right Stuff (Philip Kaufman, 1983)
The recent Disney+ adaptation of Tom Wolfe's nonfiction book about the early days of the American space program was a disappointment, but reviewing it got me to watch this earlier film adaptation, which is quite long (over three hours) but is consistently engrossing. Director Philip Kaufman somehow fits more range and nuance into his movie than the series creators can fit into an entire TV season, and he includes the story of pioneering test pilot Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) that the series leaves out. Yeager's refusal to join the space program and the way he's subsequently left behind adds a melancholy counterpoint to the scenes of hotshot future astronauts like John Glenn (Ed Harris) and Gordo Cooper (Dennis Quaid). The movie makes these towering national heroes into flawed, even sometimes unlikable people, bringing them satisfyingly back down to Earth.

10. Pumping Iron (George Butler & Robert Fiore, 1977)
This is another Awesome Movie Year selection, and I didn't really have any expectations for this documentary about the bodybuilding scene in the late 1970s. But it's so much fun to watch, with future stars Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno hamming it up for the cameras, alongside other bodybuilding champions who became minor celebrities. Schwarzenegger comes off like the villain on a reality TV show, self-consciously playing up his devious scheming in a way that he would never do now that he's a beloved celebrity and former politician. It's a fascinating glimpse into a younger, less guarded Schwarzenegger, and a snapshot of a scene poised between wider pop-culture recognition and weird underground subculture.

Honorable mentions: Beverly Hills Cop (Martin Brest, 1984); Dark Water (Hideo Nakata, 2002)

Monday, December 28, 2020

The best movies of 2020

As has been the case for the last few years, although I wrote a lot of articles and reviews about a lot of movies in 2020, I didn't have an outlet for a traditional top 10 list. So here are my favorite movies (plus some favorite performances) of a very strange year for cinema, in which theaters were mostly closed but I probably saw more new releases than I ever have before.

1. Dreamland I remain surprised that this movie hasn't become a major awards contender, but I don't want to turn people off by describing it as typical Oscar bait. The Depression-era drama about an intense but doomed connection between a fugitive bank robber (Margot Robbie) and a troubled dreamer (Finn Cole) explores elegiac themes about the lost American dream, with a strong Terrence Malick influence (albeit more accessible than anything Malick has made in quite some time). Gorgeous cinematography, haunting score, careful pacing, evocative use of cross-cutting, and a great performance from Margot Robbie make this easily my favorite movie of the year.

2. Selah and the Spades Tayarisha Poe makes a striking debut with this gorgeous, clever and totally original take on the high school drama, with what should be a star-making performance from Lovie Simone as the title character, who runs the mafia-like underground at an elite prep school. Poe combines the plot elements of a crime thriller (threats, betrayal, rival factions) with the environment and activities of a typical high school (the major showdown is over the prom). The visuals and the dialogue are heavily stylized, immersing the audience in a world that is both unique and entirely familiar. More thoughts in my CBR review.

3. Gretel & Hansel I saw Oz Perkins' third feature in a mostly empty movie theater back in January, when people weren't staying away because of pandemic restrictions, but because apparently nobody cared about this movie. But they missed out on another haunting, atmospheric horror movie from Perkins, who has established a distinctive impressionistic style in his three films. His take on the classic fairy tale is moody and artistic, with a surreal narrative, gorgeous production design, and great lead performances from Sophia Lillis (as Gretel, a young woman tempted by dark power) and Alice Krige (as the witch who attempts to bring Gretel under her spell). More thoughts in my Piecing It Together podcast appearance.

4. The Invisible Man This is another horror movie I got to see in a theater before the pandemic shutdown, although I watched this one with a full house, and that probably added to my enjoyment of Leigh Whannell's delightfully suspenseful reimagining of the iconic Universal monster movie. Elisabeth Moss is predictably great as the victimized woman standing up for herself against a literally invisible abuser, making the somewhat absurd scenario completely believable and emotionally devastating. And Whannell creates such a convincing narrative that he manages to generate tension just by pointing his camera at empty spaces. More thoughts in my Film Racket review.

5. Banana Split There were quite a few charming teen coming-of-age movies this year, but this delightful comedy from co-writer and star Hannah Marks was easily my favorite, with its story about the bonds of teen-girl friendship transcending any romantic entanglements with boys. Marks and Liana Liberato have fantastic chemistry as two teenagers who should be fighting over the same guy (one is his ex, one is his current girlfriend) but instead discover that they love hanging out together far more than they care about who's dating whom. It's joyous and funny while tackling real, complex emotions. More thoughts in my Crooked Marquee capsule review.

6. The Assistant The scene in which Julia Garner's title character attempts to report her boss' serial sexual harassment and abuse to her company's HR department is the best (and most uncomfortable) scene I saw in any movie this year. Kitty Green's movie is full of those mundane and yet horrifying moments that add up to a portrait of the dehumanizing cost of being a low-level female employee at a corporation full of entitled men who never face consequences for their actions.

7. Bad Education I loved director Cory Finley's first film, the dark teen comedy Thoroughbreds, and Bad Education (which he directed but didn't write) is a very different kind of story. But it's sharp and funny and wonderfully acted by Hugh Jackman (in possibly his best-ever performance) and Allison Janney, among others, taking a ripped-from-the-headlines scandal and turning it into a meditation on the costs (and benefits) of institutional corruption. More thoughts in my Film Racket review.

8. Palm Springs This rom-com riff on Groundhog Day is far more than that high-concept pitch suggests. It's a smart take on the time-loop formula, a hilarious comedy about the soul-sucking experience of attending a destination wedding, an existential musing on the nature of identity, and a giddy romance between two soft-hearted cynics played by the dynamic team of Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti.

9. Shithouse This is a frighteningly assured debut from 23-year-old writer/director/star Cooper Raiff, who finds honest, vulnerable ways to tell a familiar story about two young people (college students played by Raiff and Dylan Gelula) discovering a thrilling, unexpected connection. The story struggles a bit after the heady first night the two characters spend together, but it's still a sweet romance and a sensitive look at the difficulties of being away from home for the first time.

10. Boys State I don't watch nearly as many documentaries as a lot of critics (or my Awesome Movie Year podcast co-host Jason Harris), and I tend to prefer nonfiction films that play more like cinematic narratives. So this character-driven documentary about a mock-government retreat for Texas teens works perfectly for me, making incisive (and scary) points about the political future of our country while remaining focused on its engaging central personalities.

Honorable mentions: The Dark and the Wicked, The Devil All the Time, Driveways, The Platform, Sea Fever, Swallow

Top five lead performances: Julia Garner, The Assistant; Elisabeth Moss, The Invisible Man; Hugh Jackman, Bad Education; Margot Robbie, Dreamland; Christopher Abbott, Possessor

Top five supporting performances: Brian Dennehy, Driveways; Allison Janney, Bad Education; Cristin Milioti, Palm Springs; Rene Auberjonois, Raising Buchanan; Frank Langella, The Trial of the Chicago 7

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Bette Davis Month Bonus: 'John Paul Jones' (1959)

I'm not sure I should even bother including the 1959 biopic John Paul Jones in my Bette Davis series, since Davis' appearance in it is so brief that in the intro to the TCM showing I recorded, Ben Mankiewicz referred to her role as a cameo. Davis gets a splashy "special appearance" title card all to herself in the opening credits, but she only shows up for about four minutes near the end of the movie. The rest of the two-hour-plus movie belongs to Robert Stack as the title character, a hotheaded naval commander considered one of the founders of the modern U.S. navy.

The final film directed by John Farrow (father of Mia, who briefly makes her first onscreen appearance at age 13), John Paul Jones is a lavish but stilted military epic, full of bombastic patriotism but very little human emotion, even in its attempts at depicting its title character's romantic dalliances. Stack is stiff and robotic as Jones, like an exhibit in Disney World's Hall of Presidents, playing the rough-and-tumble Scotsman as a humorless scold who condescendingly dismisses pretty much all of his colleagues as spineless idiots.

The characterization may not be far off, since the real Jones was known for his questionable leadership tactics and possible criminal activities as much as for his bravery and strategic insight. But this movie glosses over any sordid aspects of Jones' life, portraying him as unerringly honorable and correct, whether arguing with the founding fathers of the United States or facing down a rival British sea captain. He comes off as equally pompous when interacting with his love interests, neither of whom get much screen time or make much of an impact on the story. Charles Coburn brings some earthy wit to his performance as Benjamin Franklin, whom Jones befriended during the Revolutionary War when he was based in France, but he's the only cast member who brings one of these historical figures to life.

And what about Bette Davis? She plays Russian Empress Catherine the Great, who employed Jones' services for a few years after the war, and she's appropriately regal in her brief appearance, even getting to speak some Russian and French. After that, though, it's back to Stack's bloviating, which continues all the way to Jones' deathbed. The movie is framed by modern-day Navy footage, connecting Jones to the integrity and honor of the contemporary American Navy, in a way that plays like an extended recruitment film. Given the movie's lackluster sea battles and self-important blowhard of a hero, though, it's hard to imagine it convincing anyone to sign up for military service.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Bette Davis Month Bonus: 'Beyond the Forest' (1949)

Bette Davis' final film in her 18-year career at Warner Bros., Beyond the Forest is mostly known for its extraneous qualities, from the behind-the-scenes battles that led to Davis' departure from Warners, to her later comments about its low quality, to the bad reviews (including a designation from the founder of the Razzies as one of "the most enjoyably bad movies ever made"), to the iconic Davis line ("What a dump!") that's generally used as a clip without any context. Although it's still mostly regarded as terrible, Beyond the Forest has also picked up a cult following of sorts, like any campy movie with big stars tends to do, and some critics have re-evaluated it as subversively brilliant.

I fall somewhere in the middle, I suppose. Watching the movie, I had kind of forgotten about its reputation, so aside from waiting for that famous line (which is such a throwaway that I never would have guessed it was particularly notable), I wasn't focused on how notorious it apparently is. Mainly, as usual with these lower-tier Davis movies, I was watching for Davis' performance, which is vampy in the extreme, possibly because she held the production in such contempt and just decided to let loose on what she felt was a poor script. Davis plays Rosa Moline, a vain housewife who's contemptuous of her small Wisconsin town and her square doctor husband Lewis (Joseph Cotten).

Rosa dreams of moving to the big city (Chicago, just because it's the closest), and is having an affair with a rich businessman named Neil Latimer (David Brian) who clearly does not care about her at all. The movie is sort of a tragedy about Rosa's ambitions ruining her happiness and ultimately leading to her death (after she attempts a self-induced abortion by literally throwing herself off a cliff), but Rosa is such a haughty, mean-spirited person that it's hard to sympathize with her. Davis is great at playing these kinds of imperious villain figures, but the movie doesn't seem to know whether Rosa is actually a villain or not, and so Davis' nasty line readings don't have much of an impact.

Poor Joseph Cotten plays the world's blandest, most upstanding man, who endures all of Rosa's abuse with saintly patience, takes her back after she runs off with Neil and then is rejected, and serves his small-town patients with compassion and dignity, even if they can't pay. The dynamic between them is so lopsided that there's no interest in them staying together, but there's also no reason to want to see Rosa end up with Neil, especially after she commits murder just to keep word of her pregnancy a secret. Seeing Rosa end up dead isn't very satisfying, either, since she's at least partially a victim of sexist expectations of women (and possibly of unspoken racial prejudice, according to some viewers who read her as Latina, although that's never explicitly stated).

Director King Vidor puts together some striking compositions (as is often the case, Davis makes sure to get great lighting during her most dramatic scenes), and the story is so increasingly over-the-top that it's at least an entertaining train wreck. It's not quite insane enough to qualify as a camp classic, and I think the people who read sophisticated social commentary into it are reaching too far. But it's far from Davis' worst film, and it's certainly far from the least memorable (any number of 1930s cheapies outweigh it there). It's at least worth a look from anyone interested in Davis' late-period turn toward camp icon.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Triskaidekaphilia: '13 Days in France' (1968)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

A disclaimer at the beginning of the impressionistic sports documentary 13 Days in France declares that it's not the official film of the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France, and it's not hard to see why this movie would be the wrong choice as a sanctioned record of the Olympic games. Produced and co-directed by French New Wave icon Claude Lelouch (along with more than a dozen credited collaborators), 13 Days is an abstract snapshot of the games that's almost entirely devoid of context, with virtually no dialogue and very little diegetic sound. It more closely resembles something like Aquarela or Samsara, documentaries made up of a series of images around a central theme, rather than what you'd expect from a movie about the biggest sporting event in the world.

Considering that I have no interest in sports or the Olympics, this approach generally works for me, although at nearly two hours, the movie does get repetitive and tedious at times. Having at least some sports knowledge would probably help, since there's no explanation of the various events or competitors, and while I eventually spotted a couple of famous athletes via context clues (Jean-Claude Killy and Peggy Fleming, both of whom have songs sung about them on the soundtrack), most of the time I had no idea what was happening in the competitions, or even what many of them were (there's a weird skiing one where you shoot a gun in the middle of it?). Lelouch and his collaborators are just as interested in local color and behind-the-scenes details (including parties and musical performances), though, and the movie is really a feat of editing, as various athletic accomplishments are juxtaposed with mundane activities.

Even when portraying the athletes, the filmmakers focus on the less obvious aspects of the competition. There's a montage of hockey players spitting, and one rapid-fire sequence of a starting pistol indicating the beginning of multiple races that we never see. There are scenes of spectators frolicking in the snow, and one shot of a baby's diaper being changed by the side of a ski slope. Lelouch matches the shots of the Olympic flame being lit with shots of a cameraman's long, dangling cigarette ash. It's playful and also clearly meant to sort of deflate the self-importance of the games, especially in brief shots of newspaper headlines about Vietnam inserted between marching bands and cheering crowds. The point of view is a bit muddled, but the movie is distinctive enough to make it worth watching as cinema, and not just as a recording of sports history.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

My top 10 non-2019 movies of 2019

After 10-plus years, this is still one of my favorite things to write, a look at the best movies from previous years that I saw for the first time in 2019.

1. Point Blank (John Boorman, 1967) Although the structure of this existential thriller is your basic revenge story (criminal gets screwed out of money by his associates, tracks them all down and kills them), Boorman presents it as a sort of fever dream, to the point where it's not always clear what's meant to be real and what might be occurring in the mind of taciturn main character Walker (Lee Marvin). Marvin is brutish and implacable as the single-minded Walker, who appears to derive no pleasure or satisfaction from any of his efforts, and his mission becomes increasingly abstract, culminating in a deliberately obtuse ending that turns the simple quest for stolen funds into a meditation on the pointlessness of existence.

2. Road House (Jean Negulesco, 1948) No, not the Patrick Swayze movie. I saw this sweaty, sensuous noir projected on nitrate at the TCM Classic Film Festival, where it was easily the highlight of my festival weekend. Ida Lupino is outstanding as a  singer in a roadside diner/nightclub/bowling alley who is pursued by the establishment's shady owner (Richard Widmark) but instead falls for his more upstanding, respectful right-hand man (Cornel Wilde). Lupino delivers world-weary dialogue and anguished torch songs with equal beauty and poise, and the movie gets more unhinged as it goes along, moving from a low-key potboiler into a full-on chase thriller by the end.

3. Catch-22 (Mike Nichols, 1970) I watched this movie almost as an afterthought after writing about the new (and mostly solid) Hulu miniseries, to prepare for a TV segment talking about both. But while I thought the Hulu series was fine, Nichols' somewhat forgotten movie version is much better, preserving the fractured structure from Joseph Heller's novel and keeping more of the dark, nasty edge. Nichols balances the satire with the genuine horror of war (and of callous, amoral officers only out for themselves), and his stellar, eclectic cast, including Alan Arkin, Jon Voight, Bob Newhart, Art Garfunkel and Orson Welles, matches his every ambition.

4. Strait-Jacket (William Castle, 1964) The only William Castle movies I've previously seen have been cheesy (but sometimes entertaining) schlock like 13 Ghosts, The Tingler, House on Haunted Hill and Zotz!, but Strait-Jacket, despite being an obviously trend-chasing mix of Psycho and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, is genuinely fantastic filmmaking, with a stunning performance from Joan Crawford as a woman released from a mental institution after decades locked up, who finds herself possibly reverting to her delusional, homicidal ways. The twists in the script from Psycho writer Richard Bloch are maybe a bit obvious, but Castle executes them all masterfully, with Crawford playing the perfect balance between insanity and insecurity.

5. The Killers (Don Siegel, 1964) Hey, it's Lee Marvin again! Marvin only has a supporting role in this brutal thriller, providing a bit of comic relief alongside Clu Gulager as a pair of sardonic hitmen tracking down the associates of a man they were hired to kill. John Cassavetes is the real star as that man, a racecar driver drawn into a life of crime by a mob moll played by Angie Dickinson (who had a similar role in Point Blank). The story (drawn loosely from an Ernest Hemingway short story) is relentless and unsentimental, with Ronald Reagan (in his final onscreen role) as the weaselly villain. Reagan's reported discomfort with playing a bad guy actually enhances his performance, making his character fidgety and untrustworthy, and Cassavetes brings pathos to the role of the doomed nice guy.

6. Woman on the Run (Norman Foster, 1950) The woman in this movie (played by Ann Sheridan) isn't really on the run; rather, she's tracking down her husband, who may be on the run or may just want to be left alone. He's being sought by the cops after witnessing a murder, but he clearly isn't interested in cooperating. Sheridan's Eleanor Johnson tries to stay one step ahead of the cops (who are constantly following her) as she looks for her husband, along the way questioning whether she actually really knows him at all. The dialogue is razor sharp, the characters are all complex, and the visual style is moody and evocative, with great location shooting around San Francisco.

7. My Brilliant Career (Gillian Armstrong, 1979) I saw two Armstrong movies for the first time this year, and her 1994 take on Little Women is certainly the more well-known of the two. But her feature debut is even better, with many of the same qualities (a warm period piece about a headstrong young woman who dreams of becoming a writer and rejects her romantic suitors, based on a beloved work of literature) but a harder, more pragmatic edge. Judy Davis shines in her first role as stubborn 19th-century farm girl Sybylla, and she has lovely romantic chemistry with Sam Neill as her repeatedly thwarted paramour. Armstrong vividly captures the sense of possibility and the endless frustration of creative pursuits, along with the rhythms of rural Australian life.

8. Thunder Road (Jim Cummings, 2018) Cummings' 2016 short film of the same name is a pretty perfect encapsulation of one man's emotional collapse in a single scene, so I was skeptical about its adaptation into a feature film (the original short is re-created here as the movie's opening scene). But Cummings (as director, writer and star) expands on it in impressive ways, taking the awkwardness of the short and applying it to everything in the life of a cop undergoing a complete mental breakdown. The movie is tough to watch but also emotionally powerful, with the same impact as the short film sustained over the course of 90 minutes.

9. First Cousin Once Removed (Alan Berliner, 2012) Berliner, like Ross McElwee, is a master of the personal documentary, and this heartbreaking movie about his cousin (noted poet and intellectual Edwin Honig) succumbing to Alzheimer's is poignant and sad without every becoming maudlin. Berliner filmed Honig over the course of many years, but he edits footage together in a non-linear fashion that shows how Honig deteriorated but also how many core elements of his personality remained intact. Rather than a sentimental tribute to Honig, First Cousin is a clear-eyed look at a man with many flaws as he faces down the end of his life.

10. Alien Raiders (Ben Rock, 2008) I have no idea what led me to add this movie to my Netflix DVD queue (yes, a thing I still have) many years ago, but I'm glad that I did, and I'm glad it finally came up for me to watch. This is the kind of low-budget genre fare that floods streaming services and VOD in 2019, most of which is not worth seeing. But Rock and screenwriters Julia Fair and David Simkins come up with a clever twist on two direct-to-video staples, the single-location siege and the stealth alien invasion, beginning with what looks like an action thriller with a group of criminals taking hostages at a grocery store and turning it into something like The Thing, as the hostages realize that the attackers are actually the seasoned alien hunters they claim to be. Don't let the generic title and cheesy poster art fool you: This is a tense, effective and well-acted thriller.

Previous lists:

Friday, December 13, 2019

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Blood 13' (2018)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

It's good to know that even in other countries, there are generic crime thrillers that feel like extended episodes of police procedural TV series. The Chinese movie Blood 13 is a dull, rote cop drama about the search for a serial killer who targets prostitutes, aiming for some sort of David Fincher-style darkness but ending up a lot closer to Criminal Minds, or something from the '90s starring Ashley Judd. There's no mystery here, really, since the identity of the killer is revealed halfway through the movie and never called into question, so the theoretical entertainment value is just in watching the two main detectives slowly realize that this guy they have repeatedly been questioning is in fact the killer, then racing to apprehend him.

The only mild tension comes from the main detective's prejudice against prostitutes, which is explained in a heavy-handed flashback to her father leaving her mother (presumably because of his habit of visiting prostitutes). But it doesn't have much of an effect on her dedication to the case, and other than a single scene in which she gets lectured about giving sex workers basic respect, it's not a major theme of the movie. That detective, Xing Min (Lu Huang), is a cop-movie stereotype, a reckless lone wolf (note her leather jacket) who never listens to anyone's advice. The movie just uses that as an excuse to place her as a damsel in distress for the last half-hour, though, when she offers herself as bait for the killer and ends up being abducted.

The other detective on the case is veteran Lao Zhou (Gang Xie), who's been obsessed with this killer since failing to catch him 15 years ago. I think he's meant to be a tragic figure looking for redemption, but his habit of carrying around the first victim's skull in a wooden box wherever he goes mostly just makes him seem creepy. The characterization of both detectives is pretty minimal, and the killer is the one who gets the most development, in a long monologue toward the end as he explains his evolution as a murderer. None of it is particularly interesting, and the movie especially drags once the audience knows who the killer is and we have to wait for the detectives to figure it out. It's not surprising that director Candy Li has worked on productions in both the U.S. and China, since she seems to have learned all about making bland, forgettable low-budget cop movies directly from the original source.