Thursday, 1 January 2015

Summing Up 2014 in First Time Watches Part 2

Biggest Surprise (Cult Film)
Winner: Killing Car (Jean Rollin, 1993)

Honourable Mentions: Tomb of Ligeria (Roger Corman, 1964); Dead & Buried (Gary Sherman, 1981); Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People (Honda Ishirô, 1963); Smoke & Flesh (Joseph Mangine, 1968)

An underrated Corman film that nearly becomes an Italian genre film with an unhinged Vincent Price performance; a Video Nasty that stands out as an underrated gem from the 1984 Video Recording Act controversy; a truly weird film from Godzilla and sci-fi director Honda that's a survivors on an island psychological drama that just happens to involve mushroom people; and a hippy drug movie that yet is lovable, has jaw droppingly good cinematography and one of the most erotic scenes you can find in an American exploitation movie. All of them were those little, unsung gems that, flaws and all, stood out with a level of quality that meant more with how they don't get talk about as much as they should be. The winner is probably one of the obscurest Jean Rollin films I've seen, one of the least conventional both for stepping out of his usual horror cinema into a crime drama narrative and being very unconventional by his standards of how to present it, a story of a woman seemingly killing random people with a handgun that is utterly unique.

Also considered: the low budget slasher Unhinged (1982), The Strange Saga of Hiroshi the Freeloading Sex Machine (2005); the playfully peculiar The Sadist With Red Teeth (1971); Madhouse (1981) and The Slayer (1982), two Video Nasties that for their flaws had things that stood out, the former for a surprisingly raw emotional thread in a certain plot event, the later for its dreamlike tone and unsettling ending; The Mutilator (1985), which despite its silly failures, is one of the first slasher films where I felt what excitement slasher film fans have viewing them; and Accoin Mutante (1993), which is well regarded, but its amazing to witness the madness the film contains the first time.

Biggest Surprise (Art and Mainstream Film)
Winner: Like Someone In Love (Abbas Kiarostami, 2012)

Honourable Mentions: Nightbirds (Andy Milligan, 1970); Duck Season (Fernando Eimbcke, 2004)

While Like Someone In Love has had great critical acclaim, it's also been seen as a lesser Kiarostami or the one he started to lose people with, not preparing me for how good the film actually is. A simple three person drama, a tiny story, is given a elliptical style that creates a great emotional depth. Like Jean Renoir's The River (1951) what seems very simplistic hides an incredible weight under the surface in terms of the emotions the characters have and what is not shown to the viewer onscreen. Countless scenes, including the abrupt and violent ending, still stick with me, emphasising how more and more I want to hold Kiarostami in high regard.

In terms of honourable mentions, there is the quirky Mexican comedy drama Duck Soup, a film I long remembered reading of in a film magazine a decade ago as a young lad, and my introduction to the infamous Andy Milligan, discovering not only do I like his stereotypical horror work with The Body Beneath (1970), the material that people dismiss his for, but he also made a barnstormer of a misanthropic drama that is legitimately great.


Special Mention
Winner(s): Donovan's Reef/Drums Along The Mohawk (John Ford, 1963/1939)

Honourable Mentions: Chameleon Street (Wendell B. Harris Jr., 1989); The Stray Cat Rock DVD/Blu-Ray release (1970-71); The Tempest (Derek Jarman, 1979); Suzhou River (Lou Ye, 2000)

For those films that'll be neglected in other categories. The one and only film by Wendell B. Harris Jr that crammed enough talent to fill a few films. The Arrow release of an entire series that even the US doesn't have barring one of the films on Region 1 DVD - while its far from the pinki violence genre as I thought they would be, and a limited edition only which is disappointing in terms of getting people interested in it, the series was nonetheless an interesting time capsule to Japanese early seventies b-movies and manages to be fun, playful and still manage to pull out moments of real drama for all the camp. The late Derek Jarman's contribution to Shakespeare that includes one of the most openly flamboyant endings for any film, makes a story as fantastical as The Tempest still as vivid in a set that many would view as a hindrance, and emphasises how subversive Jarman was as a director as he was an artist. And a mystery/romance/crime film from China with possible supernatural touches that has stuck with me.

The winner(s) have to be the other two John Ford films I saw this year, both the kind of movies I would've dismissed as a younger guy but are great films to me now. Ford's humanity, behind the masculinity, is his greatest virtue, where the stoic men can still feel emotion even if they keep to their desired goals and stand tall. Out of both films, Donovan's Reef is the superior, though I put them as one winner, in that what is such an indulgent film, one of Ford's last, a comedy drama of men drinking and romancing and fighting, set in Hawaii with the potential for crass stereotyping, turns out to be such an empathetic movie where every character onscreen has a lot to love about them while having fun with the comedy, a deeply humanist film masquerading as a slapstick series of comedy errors and drunken fighting.

Moment of the Year
Winner: The Eleanor car chase (Gone In 60 Seconds (H.B. Halicki, 1974))

Honourable Mentions: "Imprisoned memories prowl thro' the dark. Fuck it. They scatter like rats..." (The Last of England (Derek Jarman, 1988)); The phone messages in the taxi (Like Someone In Love (Abbas Kiarostami, 2012)); The supermarket sequence (Tout Va Bien (Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, 1972)); Dragging the rock through a crowded city street (964 Pinocchio (Fukui Shozin, 1991))

It's worth discussing other memorable moments in films I've seen this year, not necessarily the best films but those incidences, scenes or aspects that stood out, from amusement to awe, because everyone, while only one can win, were worth watching through some dire and tedious movies. Even the silliest were why I still watch films. The small details that stand out long after seeing the movies, like a camera shot from within a person's head, looking out the open mouth, in the late Raul Ruiz's City of Pirates (1984), which dumbfound you in their imagination. Those visceral jolts like the final psychic attack depicted in Rubber's Lover (1996), in an apartment where violent and the beautiful image of snow inexplicably falling indoors, in violent monochrome, which shock you. When a film that dissapoints it what it doesn't promise in the title, Werewolves On Wheels (1971), makes up for it in the brief moment you get at least one werewolf riding a motorcycle and they're on fire at the same time. The supernatural moment in Alexander the Great (1980) involving a statue head covered in blood that sent a chill down my spine, or the sudden moment in Jean Rollin's zombie film The Grapes of Death (1978) where two characters suddenly argue about the rural versus industry, a great cult film suddenly pulling out a moment that you'd never to see and hear, and is surprisingly profound for a lurid genre film. When films pay tribute to cinema, like in Once Upon A Time In China III (1993), or reference other art forms like the replication of Surrealist paintings in Alain Robbe-Grillet's La Belle Captive (1983). They can come out of nowhere, like one of the most pulse racing and erotic scenes I've seen, in the exploitation drug film Smoke & Flesh (1968) with two charismatically believable people and whipped cream, they can set up how good a film is going to be, like the first murder in White of the Eye (1987), or in the case of seeing two mannequin heads starting to talk in the beginning of Herschel Gordon Lewis' The Gruesome Twosome (1967), that a director that never believed his films were more than work still has yet contributed some of the most delirious things I've witnessed onscreen and was enjoying said work immensely.

But what of the films that were actually nominated? A single line of monologue, from The Last of England, has been stuck in my head for most of the year, all the anger felt in just a few words, the bile and the regret, expressed perfectly in one choice use of a curse. The economy, in action, seen in Like Someone In Love, involving shots looking out of a taxi and phone messages, that is devastating emotionally and also fills out a character's life for the viewer in a single scene. And there's those elaborate, huge moments in films that stick out triumphantly. Tout Va Bien is a difficult film by Jean-Luc Godard's standards, from the Mao period that divides even fans of his more difficult work, but the supermarket sequence with a camera continuously moving right to left over the tills, in one single take as a riot eventually takes place, could become one of the best moments he devised, shared with Jean-Pierre Gorin in how bold and precisely put together it is. The same, in the maniac lack of precision, is seen in 964 Pinocchio, a film full of potential candidates for this award, seeing real members of the public look on, moving out of the way, on a crowded Japanese street as a man covered in white face paint, with a Mohawk, is running through them with a fake giant rock being dragged behind him on a chain an out-there, exhilarating sight to see.

But the award has to go to one of the longest, if not the longest, car chase in film history, one that has greater meaning knowing the film, one of only three he managed to make, was a passion project for director H.B. Halicki, self funded and willing to potentially sacrifice himself as he is in the car, giving first billing on the opening credits before him or any actor, through the whole series of sequences taking on the risky stunts set up for the movie. Willing to gamble in the many potentially dangerous moments as a car dodges the police, the set piece never becomes repetitive, and while it's not as high octane as modern car chases, the visceral nature of it, including the willingness to weave in images of the damage left in the car chase's wake, humour and overlapping sound, is a masterpiece to see. It still stands up, despite the many decades that have passed, knowing real people drove real cars and how the weight to even a small stunt within the chase is felt especially knowing the risks involved. Film fans, which I am as bad in, can bitch and moan about how good the old days were to the point of rambling, even when we were too young to see said good days in the flesh, but it should be a sane, hundred percent fact that when you see something real, it should be superior than most computer generated fake depictions, the idea that it could be argued for the opposite insane, and comparing a CGI car to a real car being smashed, or jumping in the air off the ramp, it's the later by a country mile that should have more impact on the viewer.

The Artefact That Time Forgot
Winner: Ringu: Kanzen-ban (Takigawa Chisui, 1995)

Honourable Mentions: Devil Story (Bernard Launois, 1985); Call Me Tonight (Okamoto Tatsuya, 1986/OVA); Butt Attack Punisher Girl Gautaman: The Birth of Gautaman (Suzuki Iku, 1994/Anime OVA)

The deeper you get into film viewing as a hobby, if you go to the stage of someone who dives into the obscurest waters, you'll encounter some curious oddities along the way. I feel that, to do this special post properly, I need to mention those examples as well. They're not the best films, not even good, but they stand out as the artefacts of the title that should be remembered just for what inexplicably gets creates. Two of the honourable mentions are straight-to-video anime works. One with the title Butt Attack Punisher Girl Gautaman is going to immediately raise eyebrows, especially when it becomes the equivalent of the infamous Nagai Go character Kekko Kamen character but for the derriere  is a take on religious conflict through an evil Black Buddha cult. It really couldn't quality any higher than the bottom rung of the list though because, while it has its own IMDB page, its only the first half of a two part story and the second half seemed impossible for me to find to view, especially sore as the second half is where the anime apparently became utterly insane. If I can find that second half, I may talk about this anime a lot more later down the line. Call Me Tonight is just as peculiar but with a surprising concept - a mocking satire, within the same decade the trope only came into existence alongside straight-to-video anime releases, of tentacle and violent anime porn about a female phone sex operator who helps a man who keeps turning into a tentacle monster every time he gets aroused have a normal sex life. It's not a great work but - as I reviewed here for Videotape Swapshop - it shows how creative anime can be, willing to attack a side of it here that usually damns it to outside critics, and while its a little lurid, having its cake and eating it, its more light hearted and playful by its end with some intelligence to it. Something like Call Me Tonight is unfortunately obscure and only available to see online when it's the kind of one-off that stands out merely for existing.

The other two films are live action and just inexplicable in their existence. The highest honourable mention is a film that just doesn't make any sense, making Jean Rollin films more normal in comparison, in that there is no real connective tissue to link the content of the film, Devil Story, into something easy to digest. A farmer trying to shoot a black horse that may be connected to the evil force that is taking place, stood in a field all night with a never ending supply of shotgun shells to waste missing the equine beast. A deformed man in a Nazi jacket inexplicably killing people like it was a slasher film only the film itself to turn into a gothic horror film for the rest of its length, and even an Egyptian mummy thrown in with no rational explanation. Watched with Greek subtitles burnt into the muddy VHS print I saw, Devil Story legitimately qualifies as an strange item alongside films like Zoo zéro (1979), movies that could never exist anymore that seem alien even to their original eras.

The winner however manages to outdo even Devil Story with its place in an important, beloved pop culture franchise - many, like myself, thought the first film adaptation of Ring was the 1998 version, but there was a 1995 made for TV adaptation. It's said to be the most faithful version of the original novel, which makes how bizarre the result is baffling. Furthering this is that there are softcore sex scenes and nudity in the film, more abrupt in their placement as the "hot" version includes digital blurring for a brief and surprisingly graphic scene between two characters who have no contribution to the main plot. Instead of the growing dread of the Nakata Hideo 1998 version, that kick started a J-horror boom on both sides of the Pacific ocean, it shows that made for TV aesthetic is a universal language with flat images and loud, continuous music, a trippy interpretation of the cursed tape's content, an antagonist who is depicted as a beautiful, voluptuous woman instead of the being in the 1998 version that terrified many, including scenes of her being eroticised, and plot twists taken from the original source material that are dumb and make the significant streamlining of the 1998 version the best thing that may have happened for the source novel. Usually the kind of mishaps you see here are encountered in sequels and continuations of the original film, but for what is a poor film, this is a real oddball in the truest sense that, unlike most of those sequels and entries, was both the first and complicates the renowned franchise that came after it in its existence.

Best Actress:
Winner: Jane Wyman (All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, 1955))

Honourable Mentions: Maria Callas (Medea (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1969)); Emmanuelle Béart (La Belle noiseuse (Jacques Rivette, 1991)); Dorothy Malone (The Tarnished Angels (Douglas Sirk, 1957)); Takanashi Rin (Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami, 2012))

Best Actor(s)
Winner(s): Convicts of Rebibbia Prison (Caesar Must Die (Paolo Taviani, Vittorio Taviani, 2012))

Honourable Mentions: Kirk Douglas (Young Man With A Horn (Michael Curtiz, 1950)); Burt Lancaster (Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander Mackendrick, 1957) & The Swimmer (Frank Perry, 1968)); Hossain Emadeddin (Crimson Gold (Jafar Panahi, 2003)); Vincent Price (Theatre of Blood (Douglas Hickox, 1973) & The Tomb of Ligeia (Roger Corman, 1964))

As someone who admits he neglects acting in films sometimes, yet also believes a good performance is not enough to save a film, there were so many incredible examples this year in first watches, not just in dramas but even in knowingly absurd b-movies. The choices I had to go through also prove that the best performances are found in films where the content around those performances are as distinct and memorable, the actors adding to them in a whole rather than contributing the only thing of note. The huge number of performances to choose from was high to the point that my choice for Best Actress was a last minute inclusion, Jane Wyman, for a film that is said to be Douglas Sirk's best, but whose lack of inclusion in other categories is only because there were other Douglas Sirk films, let alone other films, that were just as good as it in the running. All That Heaven Allows is one of those incredibly well regarded films in an auteur's filmography I don't enjoy as much on the first viewing as an obscure and underrated one, but I can say will grow on me the more I view it. This is especially, if nothing else, for a performance vital to make a character still important to see in the modern day, for the honest fact that a fifties melodrama like it still touches upon a subject that is still an issue today, one that justifiably, seeing it, was continued in versions by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Todd Hayes to reflect the later decades their versions were made in. Sirk, if anything, got such great performances from actresses, not to mention actors, that I am kicking myself for forgetting and neglecting his films I saw this saw for these acting categories as I write them. But Wyman's is the one that is more than enough to show this through the best example of them all.

For the Best Actor I am going to cheat because there had to be one exception to the usual rules for such a category. Even though many of them qualify as supporting actors logically, the entire group of Rebibbia Prison inmates, shown in the documentary/Shakespeare adaptation hybrid Caesar Must Die, qualify as one whole for me impossible to choose between, both because their performance of Julius Caesar for the film viewer, set within the cells and courtyards they live within every day, are tremendous, but the added meaning of their existence as prisoners, and the added meaning this gives to the play's narrative of betrayal and political strife, creates something wondrous. I am willing to cheat for this award because the whole experience of Caesar Must Die, both the underlining documentary and the quality of the adaptation that makes the film mostly a narrative work, was overwhelming, an utmost sympathy for the convicts shown that make the desired effect for the Taviani Brother's experiment work perfectly.

The one factor that connects both categories, which is emphasised by my dismissal of "Oscar worthy" performances and the notion that a performance is enough to make a film good, is that none of the performances in the honourable mentions for either actors and actresses is in a conventional drama. Especially with the actress category this was clear. The most obvious performance I considered for earnestness was Emily Watson's in Breaking The Waves (1996), not included as a honourable mention, but that was a performance in a Lars von Trier film. The entire honourable mentions section for the actress category goes completely against the perceived notion of what a drama performance should be - a period historical film by Pier Paolo Pasolini where the actress is dubbed yet still gives a compelling performance physically (Callas); a performance where the lengthy dialogue sequences and the numerous scenes where she is completely naked onscreen for prolonged amounts of time is utterly brave, not for the hypocritical idea that being naked or participating in sex acts onscreen is transgressive, even debasing, but that the position inherently means being the centre of the viewer's gaze, as a person and an figure of symbolism, for the plot and the film, one's image stripped away onscreen beyond the flesh and having to make sure she is not made a mere entity, as a character in a performance, as a result (Béart); a performance in an unconventional drama, which has been criticised by Japanese critics for flat acting which, as a non-Japanese speaker, may affect my view of it if I spoke fluent Japanese, from an actress most people will know of in the bloody Indonesian-Japanese crime thriller Killers (2014) in a small role rather than as a known actress (Takanashi); and a performance in the closest thing to a conventional drama, a Douglas Sirk film, which is yet more of a classic, earnest melodrama with a hard, ragged edge that makes the emotions more strong, where it is willing to gamble with being hyper-emotive to the point of absurdity because, rather than being sober and "profound", the drama, done as an entertainment picture, is about heightened passion within a pulpy scenario of airplane races and potential adultery (Malone).

The same is with the Best Actors honourable mentions. Kirk Douglas in an earnest, but powerful role in a noir strained jazz film that feels like it would be more watered down if made now, without said earnestness and the willingness to enjoy the jazz soaked atmosphere shown on screen. Lancaster in two roles, which I've made one nomination, that are not safe choices in current cinema to give awards if one has seen at least one recent Oscar winner, a callous entity in Sweet Smell of Success  who is morally rancid yet you feel sadness in his demonic nature by the end, and a very complex character in The Swimmer, who you sympathise with but is also the bringer of his own misery in a metaphorical journey in a very off-kilter film, both of which he is incredible in. Hossain Emadeddin, in a type of role that gets ignored because acting in non-English roles gets neglected most of the time, feels like a man off the street, a complete amateur who brings his real emotions with him, emphasised by the fact that Crimson Gold is the only acting credit he has, and Vincent Price's gift was only really taken into consideration by genre fans like myself, able to juggle sincere takes on Shakespearian soliloquy, one moment, showing how chewing the scernry is a fine art that only great actors do well, being maniacally evil that you cheer him on, or slowly going mad in a perfect ripeness that he is a sympathetic character even if the being dogging him into misery is a black cat.

Best Actress choices also considered also included: Emily Watson for Breaking the Waves (1996) as mentioned; Lauren Bacall for Written In The Wind (1956), thought I am glad to say I gave her the Best Supporting Actress award in the last part; Julie Shaw in Nightbirds (1970), thumbing my nose up at Andy Milligan detractors; Malgorzata Foremniak in Avalon (2001), a potentially divisive Oshii Mamoru live action film that is helped by someone as interesting in the centre as her, and Susan Harrison in the Sweet Smell of Success (1957).

Best Actor choices also considered include Tony Curtis for Sweet Smell of Success (1957) who would've gotten into the honourable mentions if the competition wasn't as strong as it was; Rock Hudson for both All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Written On The Wind (1956); Robert Stack also for Written On The Wind (1956) and The Tarnished Angels (1957); Charles Laughton for the underrated, if flawed, Jean Renoir film This Land Is Mine (1943); Michel Piccoli for both La Belle noiseuse (1991) and Dillinger Is Dead (1969),  two of the most wildly contrasting films I could've paired together; James Stewart for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962); Mifune Toshiro for Sanjuro (1962); Fredric March in the Oscar winning role for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931); another potentially controversial choice from Like Someone In Love (2012) with Okuno Tadashi; JeanLouis Trintignant for The Man Who Lies (1968); Berwick Kaler for Nightbirds (1970) and John Turturro for Barton Fink (1991). If anything, this list just proves how much acting means more to me than I originally thought.

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