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.