As 2021 draws to a close, I think it’s fair to say that the reopening of public life following the introduction of vaccines against Covid-19 hasn’t been all it was cracked up to be. With variants continually evolving and hospitalizations rising and falling like the peaks and valleys of a roller coaster, I just haven’t made it a priority to visit indoor movie theaters outside of a few times during the summer. So, while the film schedule cranked back up this year, I didn’t see very many new releases. On the other hand, the normalization of day-and-date streaming and shorter windows for streaming and home video releases meant that I did see more current films than I did in 2020: I just mostly watched them at home. (You can check out my diary on Letterboxd for a full list of films I viewed although I typically don’t rate or review anything.)
As far as the big releases go, I still need to see Dune (I almost went to see it during its IMAX rerelease, but the times didn’t line up for me to see it in the large-screen format, so I thought, why bother?) and Spider-Man: Far From Home. I wasn’t too impressed with Black Widow (too little too late for one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most ill-served characters, plus ick), but Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was a lot of fun. Godzilla vs. Kong was another enjoyable popcornball that I saw at the drive-in.
Smaller releases I enjoyed include The Mitchells vs. The Machines (a little too formulaic to live up to the massive hype, but it had a lot of heart), Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar (ditto on the heart, but much less predictable), and Old (I joked about the most recent M. Night Shyamalan feature during my October wrap-up, but when I saw it, it was . . . good).
Still, continuing to explore films at home was as rewarding as ever, and here’s a small sample of the best or most interesting older films I watched for the first time this year:
Traveling Saleslady (Ray Enright, 1935)
This is one of several frothy pre-Code comedies starring Joan Blondell that I’ve watched in the last couple of years. Blondell plays the headstrong daughter of a stuck-in-his-ways toothpaste magnate, full of ideas for the business but always shut down by her father’s sexist conservatism. So, with the help of scientist Hugh Herbert, she takes her ideas (and the scientist’s new invention that makes toothpaste taste like the alcoholic beverage of your choice) to her father’s competitor under an assumed name. Does she cross paths with her father’s chauvinistic head salesman, and do they drive each other crazy until they can’t deny their mutual feelings for one another, and is there an explosive finale in which her true identity comes out? Well, some formulas don’t change.
Nightmare Alley (Edmund Goulding, 1947)
Speaking of Joan Blondell, her world-weary performance as carnival mind reader Zeena is a high point of this adaptation of the same William Lindsay Gresham novel that Guillermo Del Toro remade this year (I haven’t seen the new version yet but I plan to). Tyrone Power stars as Stanton Carlisle, an ambitious, unscrupulous carny who buys the act from Zeena and her washed-up husband, getting into the mentalism racket and taking it as far as it will go, with disastrous results. This may be my favorite new discovery of the year: Power is magnetic, as are the three women (Blondell, Coleen Gray as Stan’s naïve wife, and Helen Walker as a psychiatrist who is every bet the operator Stan is) who mark the stations of his rise and fall. Even the studio-mandated “happy ending” is only mildly hopeful, at best. Nightmare Alley explores the desperate underbelly of the American dream in a manner reminiscent of It’s a Wonderful Life (and was similarly rejected by audiences), but it’s as if the whole movie takes place in the world where George Bailey was never born.
Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (Nathan Juran, 1958)
This is one of those movies everyone thinks they’ve seen, but the famous rampage is only the last ten minutes or so. Before that is a good hour of melodrama about obsession, jealousy, manipulation, and, to a degree, “contactee psychology,” as millionaire heiress Nancy Archer (Allison Hayes) tries to convince anyone who will listen that she really did see a “satellite” and a thirty-foot-tall giant in the desert while her no-good husband Harry (William Hudson) plots to have her institutionalized. A short but sweet classic of ‘50s sci-fi.
The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (Karel Zeman, 1962)
I’ve been a fan of the Baron’s preposterous adventures since seeing Terry Gilliam’s 1988 The Adventures of Baron Munchausen—one of these days I’m going to carry out my threat of writing a series on cinematic Munchausen adaptations—so I was glad to catch up with the Czech version that seems to have been the most direct influence on Gilliam. The flat, cartoon-like compositions and animated interludes already have a lot in common with Gilliam’s early Monty Python animations, for one thing, and Milos Kopecký’s take on the Baron as charismatic and heroic but hilariously vain is also familiar through John Neville’s version of the character. The plot in Zeman’s version involves an astronaut arriving on the moon and finding the Baron dining with several other historical and literary figures there. In a reversal of the expected dynamic, the Baron treats the astronaut’s description of his rocket ship and modern life on earth as utterly ridiculous, and offers to help him find his way home . . . in the Baron’s own unique style, of course, and not without a few digressions along the way. It’s charming throughout, and while it has some of the same element of Munchausen being treated as a man out of step with modernity, Zeman uses a feather duster where Gilliam uses a sledge hammer.
Yokai Monsters trilogy (Kimiyoshi Yasuda and Yoshiyuki Kuroda, 1968-69)
As sometimes happens, I watched the three Yokai Monsters films (subtitled 100 Monsters, Spook Warfare, and Along with Ghosts) on YouTube about a month before Arrow announced a box set collecting them (along with Takashi Miike’s The Great Yokai War, which I haven’t seen). Each film is a standalone story, connected only by the recycling of puppets and props, but they are all fun ghost stories drawing on Japanese folklore (the yokai are something like ghosts or spirits attached to certain places, but by convention there are many discrete types, such as the long-necked lady or the one-eyed umbrella yokai who both make multiple appearances in the series). In a process familiar to fans of monster movies, the yokai who first appear as spooky threats to humans gradually become the heroes, guarding “their” humans from other, more serious supernatural menaces.
The Legend of Frenchie King (Christian-Jaque, 1971)
Comic Westerns are a favorite subgenre of mine, and one without much critical cachet—for every Cat Ballou or Blazing Saddles there are dozens of duds or forgotten obscurities—but every once in a while a surprise turns up. Going by Les Pétroleuses (dubbed in English as The Legend of Frenchie King), the French equivalent of the Italian “spaghetti Western” should be the “Beaujolais Western,” as it centers on a French-settled town in Texas where the saloon taps flow with red wine instead of beer or whiskey. Were it not clear enough that we’re in movieland, this gives us Brigitte Bardot as the leader of an all-girl gang of train robbers and Claudia Cardinale as a rancher battling over a plot of land with oil deposits hidden beneath it. With Bardot’s gang and Cardinale looking after her shiftless, rowdy brothers, there’s a comic-opera symmetry that fits the cartoonish plot (and even a literal cartoon explosion), and the frank but playful sexiness strikes me as very French indeed. Ditch the misogynistic McLintock! and give this one a try instead.
The Astrologer (Craig Denney, 1976)
A self-financed, self-aggrandizing pseudo-biopic about an astrologer who starts out telling fortunes at a carnival and uses his knowledge of the Zodiac to build a financial empire, The Astrologer is a bit like Nightmare Alley if it took for granted that the ambitious mentalist’s powers were genuine. I had wanted to see this for years since I first heard about it, but director-star Denney’s use of unauthorized music from the Moody Blues and others kept it in limbo, viewable only at infrequent public screenings of rare prints. Well, this year some Robin Hood of the internet put a fresh scan of the film on YouTube, and you’d better believe watching it became my top priority. The movie lived up to the hype: lavish and self-indulgent in the way that self-financed art often is, but equally stylish and eccentric, full of location shooting in Africa and Tahiti, slow motion, prismatic colored light effects, and let-it-all-hang-out storytelling. There are comparisons to The Room to be made, but this is a much more accomplished film, making the wtf moments (and there are many) stand out all the more.
Brainstorm (Douglas Trumbull, 1983)
Christopher Walken plays a researcher whose invention lets people share experiences directly, or even record them for later playback; the first half is mostly about the wonderful promise (and a few complications) of the device, but when it becomes clear the military has its own applications in mind it becomes more of a techno-thriller. Brainstorm is an interesting and beautifully-designed film (as one would expect from special effects artist-turned-director Trumbull) that doesn’t quite hang together. It invites comparisons to other movies, like Tron but less purely entertaining or WarGames but more ridiculous, and it seems to have been a major influence on Inception as well. Some of the shagginess is probably due to Natalie Wood’s death during the production but it is also divided between crowd-pleasing special effects showcase in the Spielberg vein and a more cerebral experience following Kubrick’s influence. (The criticism that Walken seems checked out most of the time is also fair.) The best performance and most intense scenes are from Louise Fletcher as the device’s co-inventor, but the plot dictates that she can’t be the center of the film.
The Journey to Melonia (Per Åhlin, 1989)
In this Swedish animated film, loosely based on The Tempest, a kindly wizard protects the last fertile island from an incursion by the residents of Plutonia, a grimy, industrialized island run by rapacious capitalists. The resultant film is not exactly subtle in its environmental and economic themes, but it’s gorgeously animated, reminiscent of Don Bluth and Hayao Miyazaki, and it has many clever touches: there’s a Hensonesque quality to Caliban, Prospero’s grouchy servant and gardener, being literally made of vegetables. This seems like it would have been an easy film to export, so I was surprised I had never heard of it until this year.
Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion (Hideaki Anno and Kazuya Tsurumaki, 1997)
The sprawling Evangelion series was a major pop culture blind spot I caught up with this year: the original TV series from 1995-96, the film that originally capped it off, and the twenty-first century “Rebuild” series of four films that ended this year with Evangelion 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time (how’s that for anime titling conventions, but the suggestion of a software update combined with an ancient myth or fairy tale fits surprisingly well). Years after the “Second Impact” and an attack by “angels” wiped out half of humanity, young Shinji is one of a few teenagers conditioned to pilot the gigantic bio-mechanical “Evas” prepared for the angels’ inevitable return (I had heard that Pacific Rim owed a lot to Evangelion, and boy, that was an understatement). The 1997 feature film reveals both the traumas that shaped the individual characters and how they tie into the ultimate goal of Commander Ikari, leader of the Eva program (and Shinji’s estranged father).
I had already seen series creator Hideaki Anno’s live-action updates of Gamera and Godzilla (not to mention the fan work that led to the formation of Studio Gainax), but this mixture of sci-fi action, mysticism, and psychodrama, exploring depression and the psychological toll of war, is where he made his mark. By turns exhilarating, devastating, baffling, and infuriating, I can’t say I always understood everything that was happening, but I’ve seen enough Anno by now to believe that’s the point: you can’t change the past, you’ll never know everything, and everyone around you is going through experiences you can only imagine, but you can make choices in the here and now. I’m planning a deeper dive into this with a friend of the blog for next year, so keep an eye out for that.