Wednesday, 6 January 2016

The Best and Worst First Watches of 2015 Part 2

The Best First Watches of 2015 Part 1
After the dreck covered in the worse of my first time watches list, which can be read if you follow the link HERE, it's worth like the cleansing of a burnt meal with a fine wine to start covering the first ten best films I saw for the first time, all of which had to be at least released or premiered before 2015 in the United Kingdom. With one TV series or two and one film serial included in the whole list, as I am against discriminating against them when they are the same medium, I also have themed films (a franchise, a director etc.) together as one entry.

30. Quatermass II/Quatermass and the Pit (Dir. Rudolph Cartier, 1955-58/TV Mini-Series)
Emphasising the lack of bias towards television, number thirty is two six episode mini-series from the BBC. It has felt arbitrary for years for me to dictate television cannot be on these lists when it's the same medium as cinema and is only watched differently. With Quatermass and the Pit, not to be confused with the later feature film adaptation of the series by Hammer Studios, I even watched every episode in a night's marathon with my fathe, which was by far a greater viewing experience than with most cinema released films. Amongst the couple of franchises that I viewed for the first time in 2015, one was viewing all the Quatermass stories baring the 1979 series that ending writer Nigel Kneale's version of the character and the 2005 live television remake of The Quatermass Experiment. It originally started out as only watching the three Hammer adaptations, but by chance I started with the TV series, three in total too, which ironically turned out to be the better versions for at least two of them. Only two because sadly the original Quatermas Experiment for the BBC has only survived through its first two episodes, casualties of the lack of archival presentation Dr. Who episodes fells into, but the others after despite their budgetary limits and lack of Hammer production value are superior than the films made from them.

That's not to say the Hammer films aren't good, particular with their Quatermass II (1957) being a gem, but with the TV versions six episodes of Kneale's masterful screenwriting means a lot more character depth, a lot more British eccentricity, a lot more pacing of events, and a lot more to digest in the shows' messages. Quatermass II the TV version manages to even be more cinematic than the film in its ending by literally ending in orbit thanks to the BBC model department. The entire experience of all these Quatermass TV shows over the months was a very delightful one, the kind that would encourage me to visit other BBC television from the decades particularly in terms of science-fiction and fantasy like this franchise's ilk. Certainly as someone who only knew of Nigel Kneale through his connection to Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982), he was an incredible discovery for the year.

29. For Your Eyes Only (Dir. John Glen, 1981)/The Spy Who Loved Me (Dir. Lewis Gilbert, 1977)/The Living Daylights (Dir. John Glen, 1987)/Casino Royale (Dir. Martin Campbell, 2006)

The biggest viewing marathon of the year however in terms of scope, size and effect on me was two months devoted to all the James Bond films from Dr. No (1962) on DVD to Spectre (2015) in the theatre, also including the terrible Casino Royale parody I've covered, the fifties American TV adaptation of Casino Royale no one brings up barring hardcore fans, and the unfortunately return of Sean Connery as Bond in Never Say Never Again (1983) that should be buried. Sadly there's few franchises from now on that are going to have the epic nature to them as viewing all these films one-by-onw, many I never saw before or not since childhood, because this series managed to get over twenty four entries and is still going. This is not something like the Friday the 13th franchise or the Marvel Universe of now, but a monolith containing decades worth of cultural politics, enough issues of sexual politics to skewer and dissect, and enough martinis to have causes permanent liver failure. In fact the length of the series is as much a factor of why I've fallen in love with it now after; if there had only been a few films, or if it was only the dullness of the Pierce Brosnan entries, than I would have no attachment to them, but six decades and counting brings up the fact the Bond films represented their eras for good and bad, as much travelogues and excuses to reveal in other cultures as it was to enjoy the silly gadgets. Terrible CGI and dumb attempts to turn the series into an American style film lost each time in favour of real stunts and a Britishness each time after, whilst with each film Desmond Llewelyn as Q became an uncle figure to Bond you adored each time he appeared onscreen. It was surprising how little of the films before the Cole War ended were actually about the Russians being villains, trying to build up peacefulness between us and them with only an occassional war hungry maniac trying to ruin it. It was also an education lesson for anyone that casting European art house and genre film stars as Bond Girls and villains is the smartest thing you can do considering the list of people who were cast over the years and how memorable they nearly all were.

More surprising is how different my opinion turned out from common perception. Connery is one of the best Bonds, but Goldfinger (1964) and a few others were flawed, whilst Roger Moore's worst two were actually his first, even A View To A Kill (1985) a hell of a lot more entertaining if you accepted it's silliness. George Lazenby was unfairly maligned in his sole entry, whilst Timothy Dalton is now a personal favourite Bond, his bottling of emotions so entertaining even if License To Kill (1989) is a Cannon Pictures film with a higher budget. The less said about Brosnan's entries however the better though, even GoldenEye (1995) a weak film, making the Daniel Craig era a breath of fresh air afterwards.The three chosen reflect those I'd yet to see and liked. I'd already loved From Russia With Love (1963) and You Only Live Twice (1967) in the Connery years, and as mentioned, Goldfinger was actually a disappointment. On Your Majesty's Secret Service (1969) was another I saw and already liked. The Spy Who Loved Me and For Your Eyes Only proved how good the Roger Moore era was even if you weren't like me and even found Octopussy (1983) entertaining. The Living Daylights is really the film I treasure the most even if it's not the best - and I admit to viewing the A-Ha title song as one of my personal favourites too - while Casino Royale alongside Skyfall (2012) were great bookends after the misguided but admirable silliness of Quantum of Solace (2008). Sadly, barring probably one of the most best title sequences in a long time, Spectre was a flat conclusion to the marathon, but the experience of it was more than worth it and the real experience to take away.

28. Wes Craven's New Nightmare (Dir. Wes Craven, 1994)
Finally in marathons, there was the Nightmare On Elm Street series when I purchased the brick set available in the UK. I left the first, iconic film to last actually, starting with Freddy's Revenge (1985) to Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991), the original well known to me whilst the sequels were uncharted waters. As mentioned in the first of these posts, Dream Warriors (1987), the third and the first 18 certificate I ever saw as a kid, is actually the least interesting of the lot. After the late Wes Craven's inspired premise for the first, and that film still stands up, you have the homoerotic subtext of the second, Renny Harlin and the whose-who of special effects creators going insane on the forth, the fifth redeeming itself with some inspired creativity despite its blandness and Freddy's Dead being so weird it's actually compelling. While none of them got on the list, I enjoyed them all, and despite everything that caused the series to crash and burn, the fact that the premise was about a killer who murdered people in their dreams ultimately saves the franchise as, in the height of practical effects and creative ideas in the eighties, every film has an inspired or bizarre idea to it even in the dumber concepts. Even if its child killer villain, who was terrifying in the first film, ends up making wisecracks and riding a broomstick in a Wizard of Oz parody in Freddy's Dead,  such monstrous and strange sights as a girl being turned into cockroach got used and created in elaborate detail through practical effects, effects that could still be haunting or freakish even if the films got sillier.

The entire series is also needed because, with it, New Nightmare is even more potent. Scream (1996) is completely overrated as a meta-commentary on horror cinema with Craven's filmography, done better by New Nightmare through a Lovecraftian nod of unseen horrors being spread over the entire story of the original creators and actors being terrified by Freddy Krueger, even Craven himself a victim of abominable nightmares as he admits that the sequels were needed, no matter how bad, to keep the real monster called Krueger safely locked up in stories and not getting into the real world. For this great content - including the nightmarish dream logic, nods to fairy tales and Heather Langenkamp's wonderful central performance as "herself" - to work you need Freddy's Dead and five previous sequels to exist before it. Like the Bond films, the catalogue even if the quality is bad at times actually creates a strong foundation for a greater emotional investment, with Craven looking on at embarrassment at his creation being a quip merchant but not ignoring what had taken place when he takes it back, using it instead for greater relevance. I've found Craven's films to be inconsistent, which is a horrible thing to admit when the man sadly passed away unexpectedly this year, but I ended up with a tribute to the man's best virtues here that also proves that one great film can justify even the terrible rap songs that scored some of the sequels' end credits.

27. Dial M For Murder (Dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)
A priority for 2016 is watching the films by acclaimed directors I've yet to get to, from well known titles that would be on lists of shames for others to obscurities. Hitchcock is one such individual, and while I was unfortunate not to see the original 3D version, Dial M For Murder's real virtue is how in a chamber piece limited by sets and actors it manages to boil down all of his virtues, from his misanthropic black humour to the importance of small details affecting the narratives, into one great film. Alongside this you also have his skill at using camera movements and the general high quality technical quality of his films, making each moment as tense as possible, craftsmanship that is utterly entertaining. It's also deliciously dark, Ray Milland alone enough to justify the film on the list for how he almost reveals in wanting to bump off Grace Kelly.

26. The Quiller Memorandum (Dir. Michael Anderson, 1966)
In contrast, while a suitably well made and tense spy drama, it's Harold Pinter's script and the words spoken which make The Quiller Memorandum as rewarding too. My first real encounter with Pinter's voice, the first moment of two politicians in London debating a West Berlin situation and the food on the menu with the same manner of tone immediately sets one on a tangent vastly different from James Bond in its political view and poetic, sharp speeches. With Alan Guinness as the eccentric contact and Max von Sydow as the menacing neo-Nazi leader Oktober, the cast is strong enough to make every word stand out, the bleakness of the ending still smarting for me months after seeing the film. It is a stylish film, but The Quiller Memorandum is also a diagram for how economical filmmaking is just as powerful as being elaborate in the aesthetic.

25. The Decline of Western Civilization Trilogy (Dir. Penelope Spheeris, 1981/1988/1998)
Finally making its way to physical home media in both the US and the UK, the cult acclaim of the Decline of Western Civilization has been in my ears for years beforehand. The release of the films is a triumph, but controversially for me the first film, the most acclaimed, is actually the least interesting of the trio. Still exceptionally good, its look at the growing American hardcore scene is rich but I confess to finding the musicians in question even more reckless and shambolic than the hair metallers in the second film, a catalogue of haphazard music which pumps the blood but, alongside the interviews, are not the most rewarding of the series. Naturally as a heavy metal fan seeing The Decline of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years finally was momentous, but what's surprising is that for all the car crash moments that are infamous - such as the notorious interview of Chris Holmes of W.A.S.P. drunk in his mother's swimming pool - the sincerity between the scuzz and shocking decadence, especially from the male and female fans, is so sweet that the sad end of the musical genre, killed by stagnation before grunge finally got on the radio, adds tragedy to their words now. Of course, there's also Paul Stanley of KISS laying on a bed with many beautiful women looking like a perm wearing cherub, thus also succeeding the Spinal Tap-like ridiculousness I was also hoping for.

My personal favourite of the trio however is the last talked about, The Decline of Western Civilisation III, completely wandering off from its original subject of crust punk music to the fans themselves, living off the streets and on the extreme outskirts of life. At times depressing, at other times joyful because of the good humour and energy of its young interviewees, this is such an underrated music documentary that, to pick a dark horse, it the most rewarding part of the whole trilogy. The trilogy altogether in general is a milestone for Penelope Spheeris herself to be proud off, coming off as an unbelievably charismatic and strong willed person asking questions and chatting to the individuals in front of her camera with great, sympathetic ease.

24. Edward II (Dir. Derek Jarman, 1991)
Derek Jarman is edging ever so closer to becoming one of my favourite directors, having seen almost all his feature films as a result of extensive DVD renting in 2014 and 2015. Not always inspiring me - I admit I found The Angelic Conversation (1985) incredibly dull - but there have been some great entries in my viewing, Edward II one of last but the best of the lot. The openly political content of the film in terms of gay rights is still strong even if it also counts as historical documentation too, but the anachronistic take on a real British history, existing in an English of cinema of gothic corridors and mixing World War II era aesthetics, is also incredibly inspired. There's a really haunting aspect of this film for me personally, depicting the history of the openly gay Edward II, where I walked through the secret corridors of Nottingham castle important to the real history of the king's life as, after his arrest and death by torture, his son Edward III sent his soldiers to go through those tunnels I walked through to arrest Edward II's wife Isabella of France and her lover Roger Mortimer for the act. Only some time before I saw the film, being in them adds a lot to the film in weight knowing what the historical material Jarman was using was. The film itself is an incredible piece of work just for the risks Jarman was willing to take just for dramatic potential. This film can get away with a musical number out-of-the-blue and make it one of the most emotionally powerful part of the entire work, an unpredictability one feels badly absence in so many bland historical biopics.

23. Ganja & Hess (Dir. Bill Gunn, 1973)
I have covered this film for the blog, as the first review of 2016, so I will include a link HERE. What I'll add is that, as someone who'd rather watch these unique, unpredictable horror movies rather than most of the horror cinema made currently, even if I can struggle with them sometimes on the first viewing, having a film like Ganja & Hess in my DVD collection and being able to revisit it multiple times is wonderful.

22. Dougal and the Blue Cat (Dir. Serge Danot, 1970)
An odd inclusion, a dark blue horse of the list in fact. One of critic Mark Kermode's favourite films, his constant referencing of it pushed me to actually view this theatrical length story for the Magic Roundabout series. I don't actually know if I've actually watched an episode of the series, but it's still something that has had a cultural impact on me, enough to know who Zebedee is. I can say regardless that, viewed with Eric Thompson's voice work, Dougal and the Blue Cat is one of those rare family friendly films that can win me over with its imagination. Being strange and freakish at times also helps, liable to frighten children still and somehow leading, unlike serious avant-garde short, to me thinking hard about the important of colours and their effect on people through its tale of a malicious cat named Buxton who wants to turn the whole world (and eventually the moon) blue. I wasn't expecting a sweet, stop motion world to have such a creepy vibe to it nor cause me to think about my relationship with colours without being pretentious, but Dougal and the Blue Cat succeeded in both.

21. The Tenderness of the Wolves (Dir. Ulli Lommel, 1973)
20. Lisa and the Devil (Dir. Mario Bava, 1973)

Alongside Ganja & Hess, these two films prove that 1973 by itself, not mentioning the early seventies, was a jaw droppingly strong year for unique horror films. Not getting on the list, but stuck in memory, was Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz's Messiah of Evil as well; in general, baring The Wicker Man which stands over everything else, you can also add Jean Rollin's The Iron Rose, Brian DePalma's psychdrama thriller Sisters, Jess Franco's Female Vampire, Theatre of Blood with Vincent Price, and Flesh For Frankenstein with Udo Kier which is as strong as you could get for a year. They all prove how good horror can be when its elastic in what can be done with it, particularly when you get a film like The Tenderness of Wolves, a take on the real life serial killer Fritz Haarmann who, played by the bald headed and baby faced Kurt Raab, is as complex and unsettling figure you can get for this type of subject matter.The melding of drama, Euro horror and the influence of producer Rainer Warner Fassbinder, some might find it surprising that Ulli Lommel can have this and The Boogeyman (1980) in the same career, let alone films like Zombie Nation (2005), but I can proudly say that this film is as good as it is for his contributions as it is from everyone from the cinematographer Jürgen Jürges to the actors.

Lisa and The Devil, thankfully avoiding the drastically changed House of Exorcism cut, is the complete opposite in tone, a fun and macabre mindbender where, allowed to make whatever film he wanted, Mario Bava decided to make a dreamlike, woozy odyssey. Telly Savalas gets to revel in his performance onscreen (and might've discovered a love of lollipops), while Elke Sommer goes through a nightmare journey that somehow ends up on an airplane but makes completely and utter sense in context of what took place beforehand. Bava is another director growing in stature for me, and having his films released at their best quality by Arrow Video is helping matters incredibly. While not on the list, I can add Blood and Black Lace (1964), their 2015 release, as another great first watch, only missing the list by how strong the candidates around it was. Hopefully, one day, I can see Kill, Baby Kill (1966) for the first time as it was meant to be, that a personal favourite Danger: Diabolik (1968) might get a re-release, and that maybe, just maybe, they might take a gamble on his none horror work like Hercules in A Haunted World (1961) just so I could see what his aesthetic strengths were like dealing with peplums and westerns.


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