As 2018 comes to a close, as usual I’m looking back at some of the movies and books I encountered in the past year. This year I continued to explore movies I hadn’t seen before, both classics and obscurities; consider the following capsule reviews a sampling of what I’ve been up to. (Usually I wait until closer to the end of the year to post this, but I’ve mostly been catching up on 2018 releases this month so I don’t expect to add much to this list.) These aren’t necessarily the best non-2018 movies I watched for the first time this year, but they’re ones that made an impression and have stayed with me.
Night Train to Munich (Carol Reed, 1940)
Margaret Lockwood plays the daughter of a Czech scientist; on the eve of the Nazi invasion, the scientist escapes to the West but she is sent to a concentration camp. With the help of another inmate, she escapes and finds her father in Britain, but when Nazi agents steal him back, she undertakes a dangerous mission to recover him with the help of the young spy who was her father’s handler (played by Rex Harrison with more life in him than I was used to seeing, being as I am mostly familiar with his later roles–he even sings in this, for real!). This was a quasi-sequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (which I also watched this year), but I liked this a bit more: the stakes are higher, and the will-they-won’t-they between Lockwood and Harrison feels genuine. I suspect that the setting, including a climactic shoot-out on gondolas suspended over the Swiss border, was an inspiration for Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Whistling in the Dark (S. Sylvan Simon, 1941)
Red Skelton plays Wally Benton, alias “The Fox,” the host of a radio crime program who must turn amateur sleuth when the leader of a phony spiritualist society (played by Conrad Veidt) drafts him to concoct the “perfect crime” to secure an inheritance from one of the society ladies the group bilks. The suspenseful situation turns toward farce when Benton’s fiancée and his sponsor’s daughter are kidnapped and held hostage to guarantee his cooperation. The mixture of comedy and mystery in this (and its two sequels, which I also watched this year) was likely an influence on Woody Allen’s The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. Maybe it’s just me, but the renewed popularity of audio dramas make this a premise ripe for revisiting in a contemporary setting, and not just as a period piece like Curse.
On the Town (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1949)
I was long aware of On the Town and had seen clips from it, but I had resisted watching it because I’m a big fan of the original stage version and I knew that Leonard Bernstein’s score had been cut to the bone in making the transition to the screen, and even had new songs added at the insistence of producer Arthur Freed, who didn’t like Bernstein’s “Prokofiev stuff.” This year I decided to bite the bullet and check it out, if only to confirm the worst. I am happy to say that the numbers that are relatively true to the original, such as “New York, New York” and “Come Up to My Place,” and sequences retaining Bernstein’s score are just as joyous as I remember, and I would happily watch a more faithful adaptation made by the same cast and crew. But too much of the score, both songs and incidental music, is cut to satisfy me, and the added songs by Roger Edens are frankly dumb (sorry, “Prehistoric Man”). I can almost hear Freed bellowing, “Whaddya mean, there’s not a song called ‘On the Town’? How are people gonna remember the name of the movie if they don’t hear it in a song!?”
Eyes Without a Face (Georges Franju, 1960)
Horror films in which a surgeon or scientist kidnaps women to restore or renew the beauty of a loved one are practically a subgenre unto themselves, but few examples of this particular twist on the Frankenstein concept are as arty as Eyes Without a Face. Franju was a new director to me this year; I also checked out his reimagining of the serial Judex, and as in that film the pulpy plot serves as a framework for richly observed miniature portraits of human behavior and artful compositions with minimal dialogue. Dr. Génessier (Pierre Brasseur) kidnaps girls in hopes of perfecting a process for facial transplants: his own daughter Christiane (Edith Scob) haunts the doctor’s house like a ghost, hidden behind a mask since she was disfigured by a car accident (which the doctor caused), and believed by the outside world to be dead. Most Frankenstein stories are studies of hubris, and this one more than most; Dr. Génessier is a character so ripe for comeuppance that much of the suspense comes from wondering just which of his many crimes will return to him as a form of poetic justice. Further, the film’s reputation is an elegant argument for the importance of design in horror: long after the details of the plot have faded, the iconic image of Christiane’s eyes behind her lifeless mask haunt the memory.
Virgin Witch (Ray Austin, 1971)
Two sisters visit a lavish country estate for a modeling gig, but the assignment is a cover to lure them into the world of witchcraft. However, the older sister (Ann Michelle) is supernaturally gifted herself and turns the tables on the lesbian modeling agent/high priestess. Yes, it is pretty trashy (there is a lot of T&A and the best description of the camera’s placement is “leering”), but somebody had a lot of fun making this and the sheer energy and inventiveness of the filmmaking is infectious. This seems like it could have been a direct inspiration for The Love Witch, and it also reminded me of a Jess Franco movie but with a livelier pace.
Wizards (Ralph Bakshi, 1977)
When I was in college, the student activities group announced an evening of adult animation in the campus theater: the anthology film Heavy Metal and Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards, along with a few shorts like the classic Bambi Meets Godzilla. I was pumped for it, but when the night rolled around, for some reason it completely slipped my mind and I didn’t go. No, I wasn’t high, as I didn’t (and still don’t) partake; in fact, I’m not even sure I was aware of these films’ reputation as “stoner” cinema at the time. I was just on the lookout for weird movies, and since this was the early ’90s it wasn’t always easy to find them (around the same time I recall driving across town just to rent a copy of Fantastic Planet from Blockbuster). A few years later I saw Heavy Metal, and have even had the opportunity to see it on the big screen since; despite its flaws, it’s a film I love, probably because it ends on such a high note. As for Wizards, I finally got around to it this year, and I guess I can stop kicking myself for that long-ago missed chance. Ralph Bakshi has much to answer for in American animation, not least the equation of “adult” cartoons with sleaze, and Wizards is no exception to that pattern. A sometimes-jarring mixture of second-hand Tolkien, environmental consciousness-raising, and hip counterculture references, Wizards is an “only in the ’70s” fantasy project and a fascinating example of mixed-media animation (even if its heavy reliance on rotoscoped stock footage was primarily a money-saving strategy). Its most famous sequence, in which the big bad projects Nazi propaganda films onto the clouds to overwhelm his elvish foes, is worth the price of admission and is as eloquent an anti-war statement as anything from the Vietnam War era, and there is some interesting art direction, but as for the rest of it, I’ll stick with Heavy Metal.
Liquid Sky (Slava Tsukerman, 1982)
In this punky independent sci-fi head-trip, filmed among the avant-garde artists and fashionistas of New York’s club scene, it turns out that aliens crave heroin, too. When a miniature flying saucer lands on the roof of aspiring model Margaret’s (Anne Carlisle) building, they forge a connection to her brain, vicariously enjoying her highs and granting her incredible psychic powers to lash out at her tormentors (not least Jimmy, an aloof pretty boy also played by Carlisle in an amazing dual performance). The aliens-among-us premise draws in a circle of interrelated characters: arty bohemians, rich poseurs in search of drugs or sex, and a German UFO researcher who doesn’t quite know what to make of the eccentric characters he meets. The plot is hardly the point, however, as Liquid Sky (the title refers to a nickname for heroin) is an exercise in high style, a bold mixture of New Wave fashions, then-cutting edge video effects, and beep-boop Knitting Factory music. What really lingers is the force of Carlisle’s performance and the sense of feminine rage that comes through the film.
Cutie Honey (Hideaki Anno, 2004)
A sexy superheroine (who is also an android, played by Eriko Sato) battles the terrorist organization “Panther Claw,” but the goals of its mysterious leader “Sister Jill” go beyond the typical world domination of most comic book villains: she wants Cutie Honey’s operating system for herself to guarantee her immortality. A strange mixture of fan service, bureaucratic satire, and wild sci-fi concepts, this was based on a long-running manga (its full name is Cutie Honey: Live Action, to distinguish it from several animated installments); realizing that its director was behind the anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion and would go on to helm Shin Godzilla explained a lot.
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (Jake Kasdan, 2007)
What most surprised me when I watched Walk Hard, the John C. Reilly-led spoof of musical biopics, was that after years of seeing and hearing the most quotable bits repeated by the film’s fans, there were still hilarious punchlines that were new to me. Walk Hard mercilessly skewers the clichés found in films about Elvis, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, and the Beach Boys, among others, from hopelessly awkward expository dialogue (“What do you think, George Harrison of the Beatles?”), tragic backstories (“Dewey, I’m cut in half pretty bad.”), and 20/20 hindsight (“That was early Dewey. This is middle Dewey.”). Not to mention that Reilly portrays Dewey’s almost entire life, from his teen years to old age, another conceit that has tripped up supposedly more serious films. Reilly is backed up by a game cast of supporting players including Jenna Fischer, Tim Meadows, and Kristen Wiig, and Dewey’s supposed body of work, provided by songwriters Dan Bern and Mike Viola, among others, isn’t just so-bad-it’s-good; the songs are genuinely good, as both examples of pop songcraft and vehicles for jokes that move the story forward, like the double entendre-laden “Let’s Duet” (by Charlie Wadhams) Dewey shares with his flame Darlene (Fischer).
The Box (Richard Kelly, 2009)
The (so far) final feature film from Donnie Darko creator Richard Kelly (I also watched Kelly’s sprawling, ambitious satire of the George W. Bush years, Southland Tales, for the first time this year), The Box is nominally based on a short story by Richard Matheson. A scarred stranger (played by Frank Langella) delivers a box to a young couple (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) and offers them a choice: press the button on the box within twenty-four hours and he will give them one million dollars, no strings attached, but someone somewhere else in the world will die. The story ends with a twist, of course, but Kelly spins this Twilight Zone-like premise into a dreamy meditation involving space travel and Martian intelligence, government conspiracy, and the nature of disfigurement. It’s typically enigmatic, but made memorable by Diaz’s soulful performance, a perpetually gauzy autumnal palette, and an elegiac score by Arcade Fire’s Win Butler.
Look for my Best of 2018 column to run next week!