By Scott Ross
The movies and other video items I watched (or, in rare cases, went out to see) during the year just passed.
BOLD: Denotes very good… or at least, better-than-average.
BOLD+Underscore: A personal favorite.
Old Favorites re-viewed on a big theatre screen
I don’t quite know why there’s been so little love for the 24th Bond. True, it’s no Skyfall — what is? Some people I know disliked the central premise. Others think the Daniel Craig titles have turned 007 from a dashing, erudite figure into a thug: M’s “blunt instrument.” And while I have a particular fondness for Roger Moore as Bond (his was the first Bond I saw in a theatre) I admire the Craigs more than any others in the series apart from the early Connerys and the Timothy Daltons. Craig also comes closest to resembling the Hoagy Carmichael Fleming prototype. On its own terms, the picture seemed to me exciting, thematically dark in a way that appeals to me, and stylishly (and occasionally, beautifully) made.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind. One of my five favorite pictures, and which I haven’t seen on a big screen since 1978. (I don’t count the 1980 Special Edition.)
The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. A favorite comedy, given a rare screening by the Carolina Theatre in Durham.
Some Like it Hot. Also at the Carolina. My favorite movie. I always see something new in it. This time I focused on Billy Wilder’s astonishing technical achievement in matching Tony Curtis’ lips to Paul Frees’ looping of “Josephine”‘s dialogue.
New (non-documentary) movies viewed on a big theatre screen:
None. From which you may draw your own conclusions.
Revisited with pleasure
F for Fake. Orson Welles’ non pariel personal essay. “Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.”
Absence of Malice. When this Sidney Pollack-directed newspaper drama opened in 1981, it received middling reviews and seemed somehow inconsequential. What a difference 35 years of media consolidation and deepening personal taste can make! Those of us who cared about such things knew too many papers, magazines and broadcast stations were in the hands of too few (usually conservative) people. But we had no idea then that, 15 years later, a Democrat would, with his 1996 Telecommunications Act, usher out the flawed but vitally important American free press and replace it, eventually, with a completely corporate, wholly right-wing, one. For this reason alone, the picture has interest. Seeing it again, however, I was struck by the intelligence of Kurt Luedtke’s dialogue, how skillfully he lays out his narrative, and how deeply satisfying his denouement, which seemed at the time merely clever, really is. That Newman, Field, Bob Balaban, Josef Sommer and Wilford Brimley all give splendid performances is practically a given, and Melinda Dillon is shattering as Newman’s doomed sister; the sequence in which she runs desperately from house to house trying to gather up every copy of a paper carrying a story that will devastate her own life and her brother’s illustrates all too clearly not merely what a staggeringly humane and expressive actor she is, but how badly she has been served by Hollywood in the years since. Which is to say, barely at all.
Black Sunday. An immensely entertaining adaptation of Thomas Harris’ topical thriller about a Black September plot, directed in high style by John Frankenheimer. A vivid relic from the decades before The PATRIOT Act was a gleam in the Deep State’s eye.
Munich. Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s devastating look at the violent reaction of the Israeli Mossad to the killings at the 1972 Olympiad.
Wag the Dog. It’s almost impossible to reconcile this genuinely funny political satire with the sour conservatism of its screenwriter, the most overrated American playwright of the past 40 years… although the fact it was made during the Clinton era may be a clue.
The List of Adrian Messenger. An effective murder mystery from John Huston and Anthony Veillier out of Phillip MacDonald, burdened by an unnecessary gimmick (guest-stars in heavy makeup) and lumbered as well by its director’s tacit approval of upper-class snobbery and his love of that barbarous tradition, the fox-hunt.
The Third Man. Graham Greene wrote it. Carol Reed directed it. Anton Karras performed the soon-to-be ubiquitous music. And Orson Welles had what was arguably his best role in a movie not also written by him. The only drawback in one’s thorough enjoyment of this deservedly beloved post-war thriller is knowing the producers wanted James Stewart for the lead. Good as Joseph Cotton is, once you hear that bit of casting-that-might-have-been, it’s almost impossible to refrain from imagining Stewart’s unique delivery every time “Holly Martins” speaks a line.
Hot Millions. A 1968 sleeper hit, impossibly dated now in its then-striking use of computer technology, this Peter Ustinov-written comedy starring him and Maggie Smith is a movie that, for me, is a test of potential friendship. If I show it to someone and he or she doesn’t love it too, all bets are off.
Cinderella (Disney, 1950) Remarkably fresh after nearly 70 years, this beguiling rendition of the Perrault fairy tale was a make-or-break project for Disney animation, still struggling to regain its pre-war foothold. And unlike recent Mouse House product, schizophrenically made with one eye on each new heroine’s spunky feminist bona fides and the other on crafting an ageless new “Princess” to add to the lineage, there was no art-by-committee finagling here; generations of girls and boys loved Cinderella for her natural ebullience, her love of animals, and her complete lack of self-pity. (Parenthetical: Several years ago, the “Classical” music critic Lloyd Schwartz quoted a friend who cited “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” as the most frightening song title he’d ever heard. I always think about that when I see the picture.)
Cotton Comes to Harlem. Not as rich as the Chester Himes novel, but an awful lot of fun, with a perfectly cast Coffin Ed and Gravedigger Jones in Raymond St. Jacques and Godfrey Cambridge and a marvelous score by Galt McDermott.
Mary Poppins. This may have been the first movie I ever almost saw, during the summer following its record-breaking 1964 release, which would have put me at around four and a half. I know this because the movie was released in late August, and my sister and I were taken to it at a drive-in. Hence the “ever almost”: I remember only the beginning, and waking up in the back seat when Jane and Michael Banks were being menaced by a snarling dog in an alley. I finally got to see it again when it was reissued in 1973. I liked it then, but love it now in a way few 12 year-olds, even movie-mad pubescents as I was becoming then, ever could.
The Great Race. Another favorite of long-standing. Seeing this on television, even on a black-and-white set, in pan-and-scan format, interrupted by commercials and spread out over two consecutive Sunday evenings, delighted me and made me an instant Jack Lemmon freak. The new BluRay edition is stunningly executed.
French Connection II. The rare sequel that succeeds on its own terms; although it was made during the period of John Frankenheimer’s acutest alcoholism it bears his trademark intelligence, verisimilitude and equal care with both action and actors.
Juggernaut. A taut, entertaining thriller directed by Richard Lester concerning a bomb set to destroy a pleasure-liner at sea.
The Front Page. 1931: A new Criterion edition, beautifully rendered, of the Lewis Milestone adaptation that shows how cinematic even the earliest talkies could be when handled by a master craftsman.
Robin Hood. (Disney, 1973.) I loved this when it opened. But then at 12 I was much less critical.
Death on the Nile. Nowhere near as stylish or accomplished as the Sidney Lumet-directed Murder on the Orient Express which preceded it by four years, yet it holds many pleasures, not least its stellar cast. For a 17-year old nascent gay-boy, seeing both Maggie Smith and Angela Lansbury on the big screen was close to Nirvana.
The Seven-Ups. A sort of unofficial sequel to The French Connection, directed by that picture’s producer, this tense New York police procedural boasts a splendid central performance by Roy Scheider, a very fine supporting turn by Tony Lo Bianco, and a car chase sequence that, in its grittiness and excitement rivals those in Connection and Bullitt.
Two Mules for Sister Sarah. A solid comic Western directed by Don Siegel and with a sharp, leftist screenplay by Albert Maltz, one of the Hollywood 10. Shirley MacLaine and Clinton Eastwood would seem to be as mis-matched in life as their characters are here, but they make an awfully good team. Features superb photography by the redoubtable Gabriel Figueroa and a pleasing Morricone score.
The Jungle Book (Disney, 1967) I was the perfect age when this one was released to embrace a new Disney animated feature — I had previously seen both Snow White and Cinderella in re-issue — and I went duly gaga over it. I had the Jungle Book comic (I wore the over off that one through obsessive re-reading), Jungle Book Disneykins figurines from Royal Pudding, Jungle Book tattoos, Jungle Book books, and, of course, the Jungle Book soundtrack album, which I wore to a hockey-puck. My poor parents. Seeing it again in 1990 I was considerably less enthusiastic, but it’s remarkable what a quarter of a century can do for a picture. I still think it’s too self-consciously hip (especially in Phil Harris’ anachronistic vocal performance) for its own good, but the character animation seems to me wonderfully expressive, especially that by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, who did half the picture by themselves.
The Aristocats. Another I was less critical about when it was new, which seemed a bit bland on video but which now looks awfully good, and that in spite of its borrowings from the infinitely superior 101 Dalmatians and Lady and the Tramp, transposed to felinity. Not to be confused with The Aristocrats…
The Cheyenne Social Club. The pleasures inherent in seeing a relic from the time when even a trifling Western comedy was imbued with deliciously quirky characterizations and witty, fondly observed dialogue (in this case by James Lee Barrett.) It isn’t much, but for the much it isn’t, it’s rather charming.
Rosemary’s Baby. I somehow managed to miss this one until about 15 years ago, when I caught it at an art-house screening. Roman Polanksi’s screenplay (almost reverently faithful to the Ira Levin novel) and direction, the gorgeous cinematography by William A. Fraker and the effective score by Krzysztof Komeda (dead, sadly, within months of its release, this depriving us of a distinctive new compositional voice in movies), combined with the performances by its largely elderly cast and a notably plangent one by the often-insufferable Mia Farrow, make this exercise in stylish, low-key horror among the finest in the genre. What I was unprepared for then was how funny it could be, especially in Ruth Gordon’s knowing performance. “Chalky undertaste” become a running joke between me and my then-boyfriend for months afterward.
I Am Not Your Negro. What was effective about this meandering and ultimately unsuccessful study of James Baldwin was the many clips of him speaking. But its makers set up a premise — why was Baldwin unable to finish his tripartite memoir of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers? — and then almost immediately abandoned it. A wasted opportunity.
Kedi. Lovely, affecting movie about the street cats of Istanbul.
Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed. A timely reminder of a true progressive groundbreaker… who was ultimately screwed by the Democratic Party. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Point of Order! Emil de Antonio and Daniel Talbot’s superb compilation of kinescopes from the Army-McCarthy hearings. Especially relevant in these through-the-looking-glass times, in which liberal Democrats are, inexplicably, behaving in a way that would make Tail-Gunner Joe proud.
Selected Short Subject
Return to Glennascaul (aka, Orson Welles’ Ghost Story) Despite that second title, it’s not really his; Welles appended cinematic bookends to an atmospheric short picture made by Hilton Edwards.
Made for television
The Epic That Never Was. On the aborted I, Claudius starring Charles Laughton. A British television documentary I first read about around 1974 and which contains all the extant footage shot for the ill-fated 1934 adaptation of the Graves novel. Josef von Sternberg appears, imperiously (and predictably) blaming everyone but himself for the debacle.
W.C. Fields: Straight Up. Robert B. Weide and Ronald J. Fields’ marvelous celebration of the unlikeliest movie star of the 1930s.
The Marx Brothers in a Nutshell. Robert B. Weide again. When this delicious toast to the brothers first appeared in 1982, PBS committed the unpardonable sin of mentioning Woody Allen’s name in its promotional material, causing Allen to pitch a predictable fit and demand that Weide remove his footage. It was put back in for the DVD release, and reveals definitely that nothing was lost by its excision three decades ago. Allen says nothing of any importance, makes no great pronouncements and adds precisely zero to the critical canon on the team the documentary’s writer Joe Adamson once described as Groucho, Harpo, Chico and sometimes Zeppo.
Citizen Cohn. History as cartoon, supplemented by blatant rip-offs of Tony Kushner.
I, Claudius. Still powerful, if hampered by being shot on video rather than film, and with a beautifully modulated central performance by Derek Jacobi, who transformed stuttering into an art-form.
Kukla, Fran and Ollie: The Lost Episodes (Volumes I, II and III) One of the loveliest video events of the last few years has been the release of these utterly charming kinescopes by the Burr Tillstrom Trust, which is currently working to restore 700 additional episodes. I don’t know whether today’s children, weaned on CGI and iPhones before they’re out of preschool, have the capacity to respond to the show’s gentle humors, but I would be willing to bet that if you sat a relatively unspoiled five-year-old down in front of these 30-minute charmers, he or she might be hooked for life. It would be pretty to think so.
The Dick Cavett Show: Comic Legends. 12 full episodes from the late ’60s and early ’70s of that wittiest and most intelligent of American chat-shows. Lucille Ball, Jack Benny, Carol Burnett , Mel Brooks, George Burns, Bill Cosby and Jerry Lewis fascinate and delight; Groucho Marx banters deliciously with his young goyishe friend; Dick fawns all too fannishly over a smug, queer-baiting Bob Hope; the Smothers Brothers behave strangely (it seems to be a put-on, but of what?) and Woody Allen flaunts his repulsive persona. Ruth Gordon and Joe Frazier also show up, as does Rex Reed, bitching rather perceptively about the Academy Awards. Also included is the single most painful interview I’ve ever seen — and surely one of the most awkward Cavett ever conducted — with Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin, the beautiful but weirdly inarticulate stars of Zabriskie Point.
Seen a second time… and will never see again
The Anderson Tapes. Still interesting and entertaining but… what was it with Sidney Lumet and stereotyped “fag” characters?
One Day in September. A 1999 Oscar winner in the documentary category, this impassioned examination of the murders of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics muffs too many facts and, ultimately, sickens the viewer; not in the way the filmmakers hoped, but by exhibiting horrid color photos of the bloodied victims, which, whatever the intention, feels like an act of heartless exploitation.
New to me: Worth the trip
Dominion. This first version of the “prequel” (odious neologism) to The Exorcist, directed by Paul Schrader, was completely re-filmed, by Rennie Harlin, whose name is, as it should be, a hiss and a byword.
Moulin Rouge. Visually glorious but dramatically inert. And you can really see what in it inspired Bob Fosse when he made Cabaret. But… was there a less appealing leading actor of the Hollywood Era than Jose Ferrer?
New to Me: More than worth the trip
Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I avoided the theatrical release of this one in a manner not unlike my aversion to the first Star Wars picture when I was 16, largely due to my loathing of the Disney Company. But after stumbling across a second-act Blu-ray copy for an absurdly low price I thought I’d at least give it a spin. To my astonishment, this over-hyped space opera turned out more than well; it nearly obliterated the bad taste left by The Phantom Menace. J.J. Abrams’ direction, focused less on CGI effects than on human beings in conflict with each other and themselves (the latter the only thing Faulkner believed was worth writing about) was both riveting and surprisingly beautiful, and the Abrams/Lawrence Kasdan/Michael Arndt screenplay had pleasing weight and even levity. The only cavil about it is the niggling sense that the new series may be unable to shake replicating the same sort of father/son (or, in this case, grandfather/grandson) adulations and conflicts that powered the Lucas originals. Isn’t there any other plot available in that galaxy?
Across 110th Street. A tough slice of New York life, circa 1972. Adapted by Luther Davis from the equally visceral novel by Wally Ferris, with Anthony Quinn and the great Yaphet Kotto.
Take a Hard Ride. A cheerful, entertaining mix of Western and Blaxploitation from 1975, with very likable performances by Jim Brown and Fred Williamson, a fine villainous turn by Lee Van Cleef, an effectively silent Jim Kelly, a reasonably clever script (by Eric Bercovici and Jerrold L. Ludwig), good action set-pieces by the director Antonio Margheriti, and a one-of-kind score by Jerry Goldsmith.
Firecreek. A downbeat 1968 Western starring James Stewart and Henry Fonda that is, in Calvin Clements’ incisive screenplay, about as despairing of human nature as it’s possible to get without the viewer wanting to slash his or her wrists. A double-feature of this and Welcome to Hard Times could put you in a funk for weeks.
Wrong is Right. While we’re on the topic of press irresponsibility, this Richard Brooks satire of the year following Absence of Malice gleefully exposes, Chayefsky style, the appalling consequences of the electronic media’s love of ratings — a state of affairs being disastrously played out now, from Les Moonves’ giggling admission that the All-Trump-All-the-Time campaign coverage of 2016 was raking in the bucks for CBS to the current, slathering mania of so-called liberals for Russia-Russia-Russia McCarthyism.
The Kremlin Letter. A flop in its day, and roundly panned by Pauline Kael, this John Huston thriller from 1970, imaginatively adapted from the Noel Behn novel by the director and his longtime collaborator Gladys Hill and featuring an absolutely marvelous score by Robert Drasnin is infinitely finer than its detractors would have you believe. The only complaint — and it’s a failure shared by Sidney Lumet in his 1971 version of the rather ingenious Laurence Sanders novel The Anderson Tapes, in his use of Martin Balsam — lies in Huston’s miscasting of the 63-year old George Sanders as a gay spy. The character, as Behn wrote him, is an attractive young man, which makes his position within a group of spectacularly selfish mercenaries eminently explicable. As with Balsam in Anderson, the change is mind-boggling, although the notoriously homophobic Huston is far less offensive in his handling of Sanders than Lumet was with his star. But it is, finally, Richard Boone’s movie, and he makes a meal of it.
The Night of the Following Day. One of many late-1960s Brando pictures that helped make him box-office poison, this adaptation of a Lionel White thriller boasts an impeccably arranged kidnapping, a very fine performance by Brando, a good one by Pamela Franklin as the victim, and an unequivocally great one by Richard Boone as the most terrifying of the felons. The only sour note is the ending the director (Hubert Cornfield) imposed on it, over his star’s quite reasonable objections.
Rio Conchos. Thanks to these last three pictures I was finally able to comprehend why aficionados love Richard Boone, an actor I had somehow managed to go 56 years without having seen.
Act of Violence. A nicely-observed 1949 thriller starring Van Heflin, the young Janet Leigh and a typically stellar Robert Ryan that gets at some dark aspects of World War II mythology and contains one sequence, in which a stalking, menacing Ryan is heard but never seen, that is unlike anything I’ve ever encountered before.
Westward the Women. An interesting Western variation, about a trail-boss transporting 138 “good women” to California. Expertly directed by William Wellman from a fine Charles Schnee original. Typically strong photography by William C. Mellor, a good central performance from Robert Taylor and an exceptionally vivid one by Hope Emerson make this, if not wholly successful, diverting and markedly original.
Track of the Cat. One of the strongest, strangest Westerns of the 1950s, beautifully adapted from the psychologically harrowing Walter Van Tillberg Clark novel and spectacularly filmed by William A. Clothier. I think this one ranks as the most pleasing surprise of my cinema year.
Cuba. A fast flop from Richard Lester in 1979, it’s actually a finely observed look at the events leading up to Castro’s coup, and is infinitely finer than Havana, the terrible 1990 romance from Sidney Pollack. Sean Connery adds his rough charm, Brooke Adams is almost impossibly beautiful, there is also delicious support from Jack Weston, Hector Elizondo, Denholm Elliott, Martin Balsam, Chris Sarandon, Alejandro Rey and Lonette McKee, splendid photography by David Watkin, and a memorable score by Patrick Williams.
Rio Lobo. An old-pro’s swan-song. Howard Hawks directed it, John Wayne is the star, Leigh Brackett wrote it (with Burton Wahl), Jack Elam gives juicy support, William A. Clothier shot it, and Jerry Goldsmith scored it. The only complaints I have concern some remarkably bad pulled punches by Wayne. But with a set-up this entertaining, and the stunningly pulchritudinous Jorge Rivero along for the ride, that’s a minor matter indeed.
Cutter’s Way. Critically lauded, half-heartedly marketed and ignored by audiences, this fatalistic 1981 drama is one of the last hurrahs of ‘70s era personal filmmaking.
Butch and Sundance: The Early Years. Entirely unnecessary, and hampered by anachronism and a lack of internal logic — people, names and incidents Paul Newman either doesn’t know or is vaguely aware of in the previous picture are revealed or dwelt on at length here — this Richard Lester-directed diversion goes down surprisingly well, abetted by László Kovács’ glorious cinematography, the charming central performances of Tom Berenger and William Katt, and yet another marvelous score by Patrick Williams, one that may stick in your head and which you could find yourself humming passages from for days or even weeks afterward.
The Social Network. Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher’s take on the birth of Facebook. It’s exceptionally articulate and well-made, with gorgeously muted lighting by Jeff Cronenweth and impeccable performances by Jesse Eisenberg (as Mark Zuckerberg), Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake and Armie Hammer. But you will be forgiven for wondering, at the end, what it all meant.
Up Tight. Jules Dassin’s 1968 return to American moviemaking is a spirited “fuck you” to everything the studios, and the audience, held dear.
Paranormal Activity. I generally avoid hand-held camera exercises, but the best and most terrifying sequences in this cleverly conceived and executed horror 2007 hit, ingeniously executed by its writer-director Oren Peli for $15,000, are nicely nailed-down. The absolute reality Peli sets up for the picture, and which is perfectly anchored by the performances of Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat (for whom the movie should have opened doors but, oddly, did not) makes the periodic scares that much more effective, leading to a genuinely shocking finale.
Super 8. J. J. Abrams’ paean to his adolescence, and to certain entertainments in the ‘80s quiver of his co-producer Steven Spielberg is a kind of E.T. for the post-Nixonian Aliens generation. The world Abrams’ middle-school protagonists inhabit is similar to that of my own high-school years, and that specificity (explicable only when you discover that in 1979 the writer-director was 13) grounds the blissfully scary goings-on, and one is struck from the first frames by how keen an eye its filmmaker has for the wide-screen image. There’s a nice Twilight Zone in-joke in the Air Force operation code-named “Operation Walking Distance,” and the kids are just about perfect, especially the endearingly sweet Joel Courtney and the almost preternaturally poised Elle Fanning. Michael Giacchino’s score is a rousing example of the John Williams School of action movie composition, Kyle Chandler gives a fine account of Courtney’s newly-widowed father (the tensions between the two will be especially resonant to those whose relationships with their own fathers were less than ideal), Larry Fong’s cinematography could scarcely be improved upon, and the special effects are apt and canny, the CGI work for once rarely noticeable as CGI work. Funny, frightening and with a finale that is pleasingly emotional — plangent but in no way bathetic. The movie has a genuine sense of wonder.
New to Me: Meh…
Not With My Wife You Don’t! Even the great Larry Gelbart couldn’t make a silk purse out of this somewhat frenetic sex-farce, although it’s by no means a total loss.
Journey into Fear. What’s good of Orson Welles’ direction is overwhelmed by what’s bad of Norman Foster’s.
Carlton-Brown of the F.O. Middling political satire from Ealing.
The Crimson Kimono. Surprisingly unsubstantial to have come from Samuel Fuller.
Where Were You Went the Lights Were Out? Fitfully amusing blackout comedy starring Doris Day and Robert Morse that betrayed its French farce stage origins in the less ingenious second half.
Shalako. The short Louis L’Amour novel was better, and more successful.
So. Some mediocrities, but no real dogs this year, which was nice. As Pauline Kael once observed: Life’s too short to waste time on some stinky movie.
Text copyright 2018 by Scott Ross
Grateful thanks to my good friend Eliot M. Camarena for enlightening my movie year, and special thanks to him for Act of Violence, The List of Adrian Messenger, Moulin Rouge, Point of Order, Up Tight, Westward the Women, and especially The Kremlin Letter and Track of the Cat. Eliot is one of the sanest, most politically astute people I know, and his recommendations are not to be taken lightly.