Always an awkward post title, but I can never seem to manage to figure out a good way to sum up the kind of list I’m presenting here. My list of Top 2012 Films is included in the Row Three group post back here, but now I want to focus on the films I enjoyed the most this year which were released prior to 2012. I should stress that this is hardly an objective list, were such a thing even possible – it’s just what I liked the best and felt most desirous to share out of my first-time watches this year, excluding 2012 releases.
What older films did you love the best in 2012?
GIRL SHY (1924)
FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE (1926)
WHY WORRY (1923)
I’d seen Harold Lloyd’s best-known film Safety Last before, but I really consider 2012 my crash course in his comedy, with a trio of films I saw in close succession and really convinced me for sure that he belongs in the silent comedian pantheon. Girl Shy is, in fact, my favorite new-to-me film I’ve seen all year, and thanks to its sweet romance and breathtaking final chase scene, I actually liked it more than I do Safety Last. For Heaven’s Sake, with Lloyd as a millionaire bringing in street thugs and miscreants to fill up an inner-city mission’s pews to impress the preacher’s lovely daughter, is a ton of fun, too, full of insane gags and stunts. I liked Why Worry, with Lloyd as a hypochondriac who gets mixed up in the Mexican Civil War, the least of the three, but it’s still a solid film and a whole lot of fun. With these three under my belt, chalk me up a definite Lloyd fan.
THE VIRGIN SPRING (1960)
Sometimes Ingmar Bergman films are a bit tough for me to get into – I can appreciate their austere humanism, but they often feel remote and uninvolving to me. The Virgin Spring grabbed me immediately and didn’t let me go until I collapsed at the end breathless, like the grieving father in the story. A young girl is violated by a group of men who later unknowingly seek shelter in her father’s home, whereupon he finds out what happened and exacts retribution. But nothing is so simple in Bergman’s world, and this is a deeply thoughtful and starkly beautiful film, questioning a God who allows tragedy to happen and yet also accepting that personal vengeance may not be the best way either.
THE DRIVER (1978)
Clearly a prototype for 2011’s Drive (a recent favorite of mine), The Driver stars Ryan O’Neal as a laconic getaway driver who’s being hunted by an arrogant cop (Bruce Dern) who wants to collar him simply because he’s never been caught. In between them are a gambling woman who may be playing both sides and a bunch of thugs who are no match for the Driver. It’s a mystery to me why this film isn’t always mentioned in the same breath with great car chase movies like Bullitt and The French Connection, because the chases here are every bit as good. Mix in the Le Samourai-esque lead character, and this film was made for me.
First of all, it took me several days to get through this meditative sci-fi film musing on love and loss. I’m not proud of that, but it can certainly be blamed on my pregnancy-related tiredness at the time rather than the film itself, although the film itself is definitely on the slow side. I actually liked the pacing and thought it worked well for the kind of heady, evocative sci-fi this is. That said, because of the viewing conditions, I had difficulty holding it all in my head at once or feeling like I had a solid grasp of it by the end. I’m already looking forward to a rewatch, upon which time I think I will appreciate it even more.
THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (1928)
I know Mike Rot (and probably others) are going to tell me that even Top Five placement is not high enough for this film, and that’s probably right. The movie is an intriguing combination of austerity (sparse set design) and raw emotion (Marie Falconetti’s extraordinary face, usually seen in close-ups). I’ve seen a couple of other Dreyer films, and I generally find them a bit difficult to relate to stylistically, and I have to say I felt kind of the same tension here. I do think some rewatches will move it much higher on my list, though – it feels like the kind of film I will grow into. Also, the print on HuluPlus does not have a music track with it, and I don’t think that helped my experience.
THE LOVE TRAP (1929)
I loved this film more than it probably deserves, but sometimes we can’t help what we love. A silent-talkie transitional film directed by William Wyler, this one starts off totally silent as we meet showgirl Laura LaPlante, watch her struggle after being fired from the chorus line, and end up falling for a rich guy who marries her much to the disdain of his family. Then it shifts to fully talking about two-thirds the way through, and I’m not going to pretend there aren’t some awkward bits as it sorts itself out, but by the end, LaPlante’s bubbly mischievousness wins the day and the film ends up being quite a charmer.
WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966)
This one’s been on my to-watch list for quite a while, and it ended up being much tougher to watch than I expected. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton are downright vicious, as the source play calls for, and there were times that I felt Taylor went too grandiose for what the scene required. But there was always Burton to bring it back down again, and it’s really he that grounds the film. Time spent away from the film, remembering scenes and bits of dialogue and images of Haskell Wexler’s harsh yet often beautiful cinematography, has warmed me up to it considerably, hence its high placement on my favorites of the year list.
PEOPLE ON SUNDAY (1930)
As much a time capsule as a film, People on Sunday captures that fleeting moment in Germany’s history right at the end of the Weimar Republic, just before the Nazi party came to power. It is on the cusp of fiction and documentary, with real people with ordinary jobs essentially playing themselves in a loosely scripted scenario of two men and two women meeting for a holiday at the beach. There’s a spontaneity here that feels utterly real, and it makes for quite a fascinating bit of cinema.
Like The Love Trap, Lonesome is a silent-sound transitional film, this time with a few sound sequences interspersed into the silent majority. Like People on Sunday, it’s about young people vacationing for a day and falling in love. Its attempt to integrate sound is pretty unsuccessful, with the poetic beauty of the film, which rivals that of Sunrise, suddenly shackled by the need to record sound and the two leads, formerly exhuberant, reduced to the most awkward and unbelievable dialogue readings I’ve heard in a while. And yet…the silent portions of this film are so lovely and so moving in their simplicity that I can’t get it out of my mind. The film has been largely forgotten up until this year, when the TCM Classic Film Festival programmed it and Criterion released it, and it certainly deserves the renewed interest.
THE BREAKING POINT (1950)
Most classic Hollywood film buffs know the story of Howard Hawks making what he called Ernest Hemingway’s worst book, To Have and Have Not, into a great movie, largely by changing most of the plot and casting soon-to-be couple Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Less well-known is the fact that the book was adapted relatively faithfully as The Breaking Point in 1950 (at least, I didn’t know it until I saw the film). Here John Garfield is a down-on-his-luck cargo shipper whose life, career, and marriage are going on the rocks as he struggles to make enough to keep his boat. A smuggling job comes through, and he gets drawn into an inevitable web of complications and corruption. It’s a much less glossy and less romantic film than Hawks’, but it’s a great noir and ought to be better known.
RAW DEAL (1948)
A solidly B-level noir from Anthony Mann about a convict (Dennis O’Keefe) breaking out of jail and ending up on the run from both cops and his former boss (who intended that he’d get killed in the escape attempt, thus tying up a loose end). But it’s made quite interesting by a few unusual touches – a voiceover from O’Keefe’s girlfriend Claire Trevor which tends to be both flat and poetic, and the triangle dynamic between O’Keefe, Trevor, and the upstanding Marsha Hunt, his lawyer’s assistant who ends up on the run with them. There’s a moral battle played out here quite overtly, yet not always in the way you’d expect, and the potential femme fatales end up shifting roles in unusual and interesting ways. As a noir fan, I found this one quite refreshing.
DROP DEAD GORGEOUS (1999)
Believe it or not, my husband Jonathan had to introduce me to this film. I had written it off as a dumb late ’90s teen comedy, but I did not realize it was actually a bitingly hilarious satire of beauty pageants with an incredible cast of people who would become much more famous over the next few years. The humor is perfectly tuned to my frequency, and so, yeah. I pretty much loved this from start to finish.
BEGGARS OF LIFE (1928)
This may have been my first Louise Brooks film, but it certainly won’t be my last. A young drifter (Richard Arlen, best known from Wings) begs for food at a house, but finds a dead guy instead – killed by Brooks in defense against his unwanted advances. Arlen and Brooks head out on the road together to escape the law and fall in with a gang led by Wallace Beery. There’s a good bit of melodrama in this late silent, but also a lot to enjoy, from Brooks’ impish waif to Beery’s heavy.
HOUSE BY THE RIVER (1950)
A Fritz Lang noir that flies under the radar compared to many of his efforts like Scarlet Street or The Big Heat, but has a lot to offer, especially in the Expressionistically atmospheric arena. A failing writer accidentally murders his maid and tries to cover it up with the help of his brother by throwing her body in the bloated, driftwood-infested river behind his house, but circumstances lead to both success and paranoia before long. This one definitely earns its noir title if only based on the utter darkness of the house itself, a cluttered, oppressive, dimly lit Victorian affair.
CALL HER SAVAGE (1932)
One of Clara Bow’s few talkies, and a sort of up-yours to the people intent on bringing rumor and scandal to her door in the early ’30s, this is truly one of the more bizarre Pre-Code films I’ve seen. It jumps from naughty comedy to tragic melodrama in the blink of an eye, following Bow’s character from wild ranch girl to big city society dame to tenement mother and back again. It’s gotta be seen to be believed. Is it good? I’m not honestly sure. But I watched the whole thing in amazement and it’s certainly stuck with me, and that’s worth a lot.
Joan Crawford centers this noir melodrama of a woman dealing with not only unrequited love (from basically an homme fatale, an interesting twist on the usual noir formula) but conflict with her stepdaughter and the woman she nurses, an accusation of murder, schizophrenia, and more. The film tries to do too much plotwise, but the fun of noir is in the details, and this has plenty of juicy ones, plus some attention-grabbing cinematography and camerawork.
This early Roman Polanski film (one of his first English-language ones) is a typically strange piece, with a pair of criminals on the run holing up at a remote English estate – but even hardened criminals may be no match for the unpredictable and possibly unhinged Françoise Dorleac and her husband Donald Pleasance. The pervading sense of disquiet and unease in the film is difficult to shake off, even after it’s over, and there are plenty of layers here to unpack in the deceptively simple plot.
THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM (1962)
The opportunity to see this in actual Cinerama gave it an extra boost, but frankly, even aside from the presentation, I really quite enjoyed this fictionalized look at Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. Three Grimm stories are visualized (with help from George Pal stop-motion), tied together with a biographical frame story. Frankly, I expected the frame story to be a dull affair to put up with in between the dramatization of the fairy tales, but it was fairly engaging as well.
TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES (1990)
I remember when the Ninja Turtles were all the rage, but I was never into them myself as a kid. Jonathan’s a different story – this is one of the first movies he can remember seeing in a theatre, and I decided I would indulge him and watch it with him. And you know what? I enjoyed it far more than I had any right to do. Sure, it’s cheesy and over-the-top and ridiculous, but it plays to that, and I had a great time watching it.
LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1986)
I’ve been meaning to watch this (and/or its 1960 Corman original) for quite a while, but once again, it was Jonathan who pushed me into it, as one of the few musicals he really enjoys. It was…not what I expected at all. I guess I knew it was a Broadway show first, but this movie is EXTREMELY Broadway in style and execution. Also, when Audrey II started singing, well, let’s just say it’s pretty much the opposite of what I thought it would be. I did think it would be scarier, but it went for a campier, sillier tone, and there’s nothing wrong with that either. Definitely a fun time.