Film Discoveries of 2014

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Let the proliferation of year-end lists wash over you with a resigned calm. And let me add another one to the ocean of opinion. Today I’m presenting my top ten new-to-me movies of 2014. That is, older films that I have seen for the first time. They are the backbone of any movie-going year, whether it’s catching up to acknowledged classics (for me, The Best Years of Our Lives) or going trawling for obscure auteurist gems (Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby, Edward L. Cahn’s Redhead).  It’s a way to draw attention to a wider range of filmgoing possibilities, so you don’t have to read about Boyhood for the bazillionth time (though, if you do, my appreciation is over here). All credit goes to prodigious blogger Brian Saur from Rupert Pupkin Speaks, who collects “Favorite Film Discoveries” from writers, programmers and filmmakers every year, and asked me to contribute once upon a time. I found the exercise invigorating, more so than the usual end-of-year recycling, so you have him to thank or blame.

 

The films are presented in alphabetical order

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The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, directed by William Wyler)

I had been indoctrinated in aversion to Wyler, from half-remembered slams by Andrew Sarris. This is not Sarris’ fault but my own, as he was a persistent re-evaulator, trying to undermine his own biases. But now that I’m here, my goodness what a movie. Wyler was a serviceman for three years, and knew who these men were and how they lived. The deep focus cinematography by Gregg Toland is justly famous, but it’s the gestures inside of it that make it work so beautifully. The orchestration of glances as the family silently reacts to Homer’s amputation isolates him even as he’s surrounded by well-wishers.

On Blu-ray from Warner Brothers

 

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Broken Lullaby (1932, directed by Ernst Lubtisch)

Lubitsch’s only non-comic sound film is a post-traumatic post-WWI drama about a shellshocked vet who seeks penance for bayoneting a German soldier in the trenches. He travels to atone to his victim’s parents, but when he arrives, he can’t bring himself to admit his guilt. Instead he falls in love with their daughter. Like in many of Lubitsch’s comedies, it’s about a man who fakes his life so beautifully he almost makes it come true. It opens with a blast of dialectical montage, cutting rhythmically between a Paris belfry’s bells and a battlefield cannon, the drums of the soldier’s homecoming parade sliced in with a wounded vet’s screams. It is as potent a three minutes as anything Eisenstein concocted. But then, a stylstic shift into daring long takes and a subdued, declamatory kind of acting. There is an unbroken two-minute take of two mothers grieving over their sons that is devastating in its quietude.

Unavailable on home video or VOD

 

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Carnival of Souls (1962, directed by Herk Harvey)

This miraculous motion picture is a dip into the Midwestern uncanny, ghosts haunting the long flat highways and abandoned amusements. It’s one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen, undoubtedly aided by viewing it on July 4th weekend, where bottle rockets were popping off behind my head every five minutes. I was too gripped to turn around and look at the firecracking kids outside, for fear I would see that face reflected in the window.

On DVD from Criterion (I watched it on Hulu Plus)

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The Clockmaker of St. Paul (1974, directed by Bertrand Tavernier)

Tavernier’s debut feature is a subdued adaptation of a Simenon novel about a habit-minded watchmaker whose estranged son is wanted for murder. Shot in Tavernier’s hometown of Lyon, it traces the father’s ritualized walks through his city as he grapples with this rupture in his life. The outdoor photography is hushed and autumnal,the death of summer framing the father’s unspoken struggle over his son’s situation, which rouses the communist factory workers at which his son worked, as well as the accusatory owners. The father’s motivations and inner being are kept opaque, his inner workings as unfathomable as his clocks are understandable. So when his decision arrives, it is with the gathering force of a thunderbolt.

On Region 2 DVD from Optimum

 

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Forgotten Faces (1928, directed by Victor Schertzinger)

The undisputed highlight of this year’s Capitolfest in Rome, NY, this is a visually extravagant crime melodrama. The story is a convoluted stew  involving gentlemen thieves, orphaned daughters, scheming mothers, and a devoted sidekick named Froggy (William Powell). Not memorable material, but the clarity and elegance of its late silent film style are often overwhelming. There are elegant tracking shots, provocative use of off-screen space, and complicated spiraling sets that are split in half and filmed in a Wes Anderson-esque dollhouse style. It’s enough to make one shake a fist at the sky and rue the coming of sound.

Unavailable on home video or VOD

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Good Sam (1948, directed by Leo McCarey)

I am morally obligated to write about every Leo McCarey movie someday, so this year it was Good Sam, a complicated moral fable about the unintended consequences of doing good. Gary Cooper is Sam, an inveterate do-gooder whose charity consistently leads to troubles, whether its debt, permanent visitors or missing cars. The film’s central theme is the impossibility of saintliness in a consumer society – one in which Sam becomes an object of ridicule (by his boss, his wife and the world at large), rather than lauded for his selflessness. Cooper is appropriately skittish and perpetually aghast, but the real star is Ann Sheridan as his put upon wife. Her acerbic realism cuts the sweetness of Sam’s saintliness, and she provides the greatest laughs in the film – especially when she busts out cackling at Sam as he uncharacteristically runs down a neighbor (who happens to be sitting right behind him).

On Blu-ray and DVD from Olive Films

 

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The Long Day Closes (1992, directed by Terence Davies)

Note perfect reminiscence about growing up lonely and growing up in the movies, usually the same thing.

On DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection

 

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Mongo’s Back in Town (1971, directed by Marvin J. Chomsky)

A relentlessly downbeat telefilm noir starring Joe Don Baker as the titular Mongo. Mongo is a beast intent on destroying his hometown. His milquetoast brother summons him back to San Pedro, CA in order to knock off a local competitor, but instead Mongo brings the whole criminal edifice down around everyone’s heads. Baker is gruff and relentless, an analogue to Lee Marvin’s Walker in Point Blank (1967). Nothing will sway Mongo from his own disgust. The rest of the cast includes Telly Savalas, Martin Sheen and Sally Field, all dumb witnesses to Mongo’s clumsy, bloody vengeance.

On MOD-DVD from CBS Films

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Redhead (1941, directed by Edward L. Cahn)

I am contractually obligated to write about 10-12 Edward L. Cahn movies this year, and this one was my favorite (When the Clock Strikes finishing a close second). It’s a downbeat suicide comedy about a pair of mismatched lovers(one rich, one poor) who meet each other both on the precipice of leaping off a cliff. They save each other instead, opening a roadside diner and learning how to live on modest means. It’s death-driven, class-conscious comedy only possible in the dark, delightful world of Cahn.

Available to stream on Amazon Instant Video

 

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A Touch of Zen/The Valiant Ones (1969/1975, both directed by King Hu)

One of the major events in NYC was the BAM Cinematek’s King Hu retrospective. I was only able to make it to these two, but they are jaw dropping spectacles. I preferred the relentless logic of The Valiant Ones, in which the intricately choreographed battles are mapped out on chess boards, and each faction is eliminated with unforgiving procession. The earlier Touch of Zen is more inside the head than the hands, a Buddhist fable of enlightenment in which blood turns into told and only through self-abnegation can come glory.

Both are out of print on DVD

 

 

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Utamaro and his Five Women (1946, directed by Kenji Mizoguchi)

Wherein the life of an artist (here woodblock print portratist Utamaro) is presented as one of continuous battle, in which everyone suffers, his models most of all.

Available on Region 2 DVD from Artificial Eye

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

13 Responses Film Discoveries of 2014
Posted By Dan Heaton : December 23, 2014 4:16 pm

I wasn’t that excited to watch The Best Years of Our Lives, and my hesitation was silly. I loved it and believe it stands among the best movies about war that take place at home. I was drawn into each story and didn’t mind the long running time at all.

Posted By swac44 : December 23, 2014 4:21 pm

Great list! I really need to figure out how to find that Lubitsch film. I see it was on YouTube at one time but Universal (which owns the early Paramount sound films catalogue) had it removed.

Posted By Lyndell : December 23, 2014 6:34 pm

My choice to see for the first time would be Lubtisch’s BROKEN LULLABY. It sounds haunting; sorry it isn’t available to us. Also, THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES is one of the most gripping films I’ve ever seen. Bringing it up makes me want to follow through this year with making a personal list of my top 25, 50, or 100 film favorites.

Posted By george : December 23, 2014 7:05 pm

I didn’t know FORGOTTEN FACES still existed. C’mon, Paramount (or Criterion), give us a DVD! Or someone leak it onto YouTube ASAP.

Posted By kingrat : December 23, 2014 11:35 pm

Sarris’ various pantheons don’t correspond to my filmgoing experience very well. So glad that you have discovered that Wyler is, in fact, one of the great Hollywood directors, along with Zinnemann, Huston, and others belittled by Sarris. Wyler’s work from DODSWORTH to THE HEIRESS, at the very least, is extremely impressive.

Here’s my list of the ten best discoveries of 2014, mostly thanks to TCM:

1. LES ENFANTS TERRIBLES – Cocteau + Melville = amazing.
2. LE SILENCE DE LA MER – Astonishing first film by Melville.
3. THE ETERNAL RETURN – Cocteau + Jean Delannoy = equally amazing. Truffaut hated Delannoy; the only two films of his I’ve seen (THIS SPECIAL FRIENDSHIP is the other) are excellent.
4. LES MAUDITS – Early masterpiece by Rene Clement; Sartre’s NO EXIT relocated to a Nazi submarine. Also saw GERVAISE and KNAVE OF HEARTS (MONSIEUR RIPOIS), other fine films by Clement.
5. WARLOCK – Good script and cast, directed by Edward Dmytryk. Sublime cinematography by Joseph MacDonald.
6. CRIME WAVE and DAY OF THE OUTLAW – Some great directing by Andre de Toth.
7. THE FIRST LEGION – Little-seen Douglas Sirk film about a supposed miracle in a monastery. One especially remarkable shot. Thank goodness for VHS.
8. ALL I DESIRE – This is now my favorite Sirk film. This is what Sirk can do with a great actress like Barbara Stanwyck in the leading role.
9. TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH – Possibly Henry King’s masterpiece.
10. THE PAWNBROKER – Boris Kaufman’s cinematography unites noir styling in some scenes with documentary realism in others, a difficult combination to pull off.

For re-evaluations, seeing ZULU on the big screen convinced me this is one of the best films of the 1960s, and the gorgeous restoration of A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH finally made me appreciate this film.

Posted By LD : December 23, 2014 11:54 pm

After reading this post I started thinking about the films I have seen this year for the first time. The one that stands out for me is NIGHTS OF CABIRIA. Giulietta Masina is wonderful in the lead and it is easy to understand why she is considered to be the “female Chaplin”. I was so impressed with her performance, I also watched LA STRADA and JULIET OF THE SPIRITS. All of these films were directed by her husband, Fellini.

Posted By george : December 23, 2014 11:55 pm

I think Sarris was trying to provide a corrective, or at least bring attention to directors who were not taken seriously by critics or Oscar voters: Hawks, Hitchcock, Sirk, etc. Even John Ford, winner of four Oscars, was patronized by the late ’50s for making those John Wayne Westerns.

The critical establishment, epitomized by Bosley Crowther, didn’t take genre films seriously, and neither did the Motion Picture Academy. As Mr. Sweeney says, Sarris did reevaluate his opinions over the years; he admitted he had been wrong about Billy Wilder, among others.

Posted By george : December 24, 2014 12:13 am

My major movie discoveries this year:

1. The films of D.W. Griffith (shorts and features). Finally got around to watching them in large numbers. Among many surprises: TRUE HEART SUSIE and HEARTS OF THE WORLD are better movies than BIRTH OF A NATION or INTOLERANCE. Still haven’t seen THE STRUGGLE, alas.

2. Harold Lloyd’s early films. Watching Lloyd develop his character, week by week (in 1917-19, he cranked out a one-reeler almost every week) was fascinating.

3. The utterly delightful Thelma Todd-Zasu Pitts and Todd-Patsy Kelly shorts. When is Warner Archive (or someone) going to put these on DVD?

4. William Wellman’s SAFE IN HELL. It’s great. See it.

Posted By Jeffrey E. Ford : December 24, 2014 5:58 am

Although they were not a 2014 “discovery” for me, I have to second the request of george that someone get on the ball and release all of the Thelma Todd-Zazu Pitts and Todd-Patsy Kelly shorts on DVD. They are wonderful, and a great testiment to the comic talents of the ladies involved. Here’s hoping…

Posted By Christine Hoard-Barre : December 25, 2014 12:10 am

R. Emmit, I am surprised it took you so long to discover BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, a truly great movie – great cast, script, direction, photography, everything. I saw CARNIVAL OF SOULS on a re-release in the theater several years ago – very disturbing and different. Agree with George about SAFE IN HELL – outstanding pre-code. I think TCM ran one of the Todd shorts a few years ago. I think they were supposed to be the female answer to Laurel & Hardy. ACT OF VIOLENCE and MYSTERY STREET were two good noirs I saw this year for the first time, thanks to TCM.

Posted By David Bird : December 26, 2014 6:57 am

SORCERER by William Friedkin, and after a long time chasing it, SECONDS by John Frankenheimer.

Posted By george : December 26, 2014 10:01 pm

The Todd-Pitts and Todd-Kelly shorts are shown on TCM from time to time, as are other Roach two-reelers that are MIA on DVD (the Charley Chase talkies, the George Stevens-directed Boy Friends shorts). You can also find several of them on YouTube.

I’m not sure about the legality of putting this stuff on YouTube … but when the owner won’t make it commercially available, I can’t complain.

One benefit of watching these shorts: I learned that Zasu Pitts’ first name is pronounced “ZAY-Soo.”

Posted By robbushblog : January 2, 2015 8:05 am

Films that I finally got around to seeing this year were: THE GUNFIGHTER, JUBAL, ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS, THE UNDEFEATED, WRITTEN ON THE WIND, MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION, THE WAGES OF FEAR, FLOWER DRUM SONG, WINGS, DODSWORTH, THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA, THE GREAT ZIEGFELD, MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, CHARIOTS OF FIRE, THE DEER HUNTER, ORDINARY PEOPLE, GANDHI, LONELY ARE THE BRAVE, FORBIDDEN GAMES, JESSE JAMES, A HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA, BROKEN ARROW, CHINA SEAS, TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA, SUNRISE, BLUE VELVET, MEAN STREETS, MOONTIDE, and HANGOVER SQUARE. Whew! I don’t know if I can top that in 2015.

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