Top Ten: Films First Seen in 2012
10. 27 Missing Kisses (2000)
A delightfully uninhibited Georgian coming-of-age comedy, 27 Missing Kisses is the picaresque tale of teenage tomboy Sibylla’s (Nutsa Kukhianidze) summer of romance, paired with a similarly-aged boy (Shalva Iashvili) but smitten with his widowed womanizer father (Evgeniy Sidikhin). Uptight villagers are seemingly loosened by Sibylla’s fairy tale presence as sexual shenanigans happen under their noses and Emmanuelle gets shown at the local theater. Co-writer/director Nana Djordjadze merges a free-spirited wit with a Kusturica-like vibe for the foibles of close-knit village life, and lead actress Kukhianidze (who has subsequently appeared in Eastern European films and Neil Jordan’s The Good Thief) has an appealing, rollicking fearlessness. Numerous minor, sometimes surreal subplots abound, with probable resonance for those more familiar with the former Soviet satellite, but the focus on Kukhianidze and the randiness she brings to the sleepy town is what counts, even down to the poignant finale at the end of the season.
9. The Wife (1995)
Writer/director/actor Tom Noonan, he of the high, domed forehead and menacing gate of such films as Manhunter, RoboCop 2, and Synecdoche, NY, made his second film out of his claustrophobic psychodrama of a play, The Wife. Noonan and Julie Hagerty are a married pair of sedate but off-kilter psychotherapists with distinct New Age leanings, living essentially in the middle of nowhere when patient Wallace Shawn and his hilariously motor-mouthed wife Karen Young (then Noonan’s wife) arrive suddenly in the middle of the night. Noonan keeps the stagey setup interesting by constantly shifting visual perspectives or cleverly framing conversations within the house using walls, windows, and the often inexplicably spooky low-key lighting. The central scene is an all-too-familiar dinner around a table that vulgarly devolves into recrimination, revelation, and spite, but the four actors and the camera keep the viewer constantly off-balance, playing against each other with wit and gusto. Each actor their crucial has part to play, Noonan the mischievous patriarch, Hagerty the tamped-down referee, Shawn the soul-bearing schlemiel, and Young the bitter interloper, tied together by Noonan the orchestra conductor (a.k.a writer, director, composer, and editor).
8. Ganja & Hess (1973)
Black artist Bill Gunn was tapped by an independent production company in the early 1970s to make his second directorial feature a black vampire movie in the wake of AIP’s announcement of Blacula. Gunn took that bare concept and crafted an eerie, deeply symbolic investigation of black culture, Christianity, and sexual obsession, much to the consternation of the producers but a solid reception at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival. Despite critical raves, the film did poorly in early screenings and was mutilated and resold for distribution. Nevertheless, the original version was given to the Museum of Modern Art and made its way to DVD. The film is ostensibly the tale of upper-class anthropologist Hess (Duane Jones of Night of the Living Dead), his talkative, disturbed assistant George (Gunn himself), and George’s sensual wife Ganja (force-of-nature Marlene Clark). George stabs his employer with an ancient dagger crafted by an African tribe of blood-drinkers, essentially turning Hess into a vampire (although the term, and most of its lore and mythology, is studiously avoided). But Gunn transforms this genre pretext into a heady mélange of social class critique, Godardian associative editing, and religious musical performance. Ganja & Hess is most assuredly a film better experienced than described, a nearly-forgotten landmark of black independent American filmmaking.
7. Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land (1992)
US-born Taiwanese writer/director/playwright Stan Lai’s directorial debut is an adaptation of his celebrated 1986 stage production Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land, about two rival theater troupes, one performing a traditional comedy and one a more modern melodrama, who find they’ve both been given the same rehearsal space. Much more than just a photographed play, though, the film takes the self-referential layers inherent in a play-within-a-play and wholly turns the theatrical space into cinematic space via Christopher Doyle’s unobtrusive but all-absorbing camera. The two troupes and their respective backers conflict with seriocomic gusto, but Lai’s real concern is the surrounding allegorical background: the battle over Taiwan’s past and future, exemplified by the political aspects of the rival plays’ plots. “Secret Love” is the story of lovers wrenched apart by war and China’s governmental upheavals of the early and mid-20th century, while “The Peach Blossom Land” chronicles in a farcical vein a man’s journey to a mythical paradise and subsequent return to his disbelieving homeland. History has an inordinate pull on the present, forcing even entertainers to struggle over the wide-ranging meaning and implications of the past.
6. Cooley High (1975)
Enjoyed at the 92nd St. Y screening room this year during my visit to NYC, director Michael Schultz’s and writer Eric Monte’s moving, affectionate Cooley High was designed as and has been dubbed the “black American Graffiti,” but while sharing a wall-to-wall soundtrack and the relative age of the characters, this film is looser and ultimately even more resonant. Glynn Turman, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Corin Rogers, and Joseph Carter Wilson are best friends and students of the 60s-era Chicago public high school of the title, a place of truancy and well-meaning teachers (especially the righteous Garrett Morris). The joy of adventurous dawdling at the zoo, neighborhood parties, and comical pursuits of romance gradually give way to some of the deeply personal pitfalls of the inner city. Schultz would go on to direct the likes of Car Wash and The Last Dragon, Monte would co-create the spin-off show What’s Happening!! and Good Times, Turman and Hilton-Jacobs would be especially good on TV, and of course Morris would be in the original cast for Saturday Night Live. But none would match the bittersweet chemistry found when they were all together at Cooley High.
5. The Window (1948)
Finally released in 2010 within the on-demand Warner Archive catalog, Ted Tetzlaff’s compressed, borderline neo-realist film noir The Window captures a shadowy, summery New York City of the 1940s from an imaginative young boy’s (Bobby Driscoll) point of view. In maybe the ultimate cinematic “boy who cried wolf” tale, screenwriter Mel Dinelli turns Cornell Woolrich’s short story (who also wrote the basis of Rear Window, which could form a constructive double-bill with this movie) into a suspenseful yarn about a boy who witnesses a murder perpetrated by his family’s upstairs apartment neighbors but can’t convince his parents or the police. Driscoll is an infectiously likeable protagonist, manipulated on all sides by the parental and other authority figures, and dwarfed by the larger-than-life but claustrophobic architecture of mid-century Manhattan, yet steadfastly committed to his civic responsibility. Prolific Hollywood cinematographer Tetzlaff (lensing films from the 1920s through the 1940s) directed about a dozen features in his career, but The Window stands out with its intense appreciation for a kid’s sensibility.
4. Lonesome (1928)
The release of Paul Fejös’s Lonesome by Criterion this past August was a major cause for celebration, as those who were not able to see its traveling exhibition through film festivals and theaters for the past few years could now experience the restored silent-talkie hybrid for themselves. Hungarian-born doctor/filmmaker/ethnographer Fejös made a work of late-20s social relations, love, and alienating city life to stand alongside those other marvels of American cinema, Murnau’s Sunrise and Vidor’s The Crowd, not to mention the city symphonies of Vertov, Ruttmann, and Vigo. Barbara Kent and Glenn Tryon are lonely workers in the big city escaping to the beach where they find and then lose each other in the mass of humanity and the exigencies of weather beyond their control. In the midst of the film are some charmingly awkward early sound scenes of chit-chat and banter, helped immensely by the likeably Everyperson qualities of the leads. Like the previously-mentioned landmarks of Hollywood poetic realism, Fejös takes a relatively banal storyline and transforms it via potent cinematic effects, including superimpositions, subjective camera moves and editing, and expressionistic set design flourishes to complement the late-added talkie scenes.
3. This Land is Mine (1943)
Despite existing ostensibly as wartime propaganda, Jean Renoir’s overly neglected This Land is Mine is the finest of his few American films and a deft balance of his patent humanistic tendencies and acknowledgment of the politics of the time. Famously set “somewhere in Europe,” the movie stars a powerfully understated Charles Laughton, an actor not known for that characteristic, as a meek schoolteacher caught by circumstance between resistance of and collaboration with the Nazis; around him orbit well-defined characters played most notably by Maureen O’Hara, George Sanders, and Walter Slezak. Renoir can’t help but humanize his characters, even imbuing the villains with surprising depth, but the film definitely belongs to Laughton’s transforming protagonist, a man who becomes a hero of word and deed before the viewer’s eyes, culminating in an impassioned courtroom speech that transcends mere propaganda by virtue of Laughton’s delivery and Renoir’s choice cutting to his listeners’ faces. Hope survives within an occupied territory as long as ordinary citizens can voice and act according to their consciences, Renoir concludes, but this freedom needs to be fought at every level and at every step of the way.
2. The Devil’s Envoys (1942)
Marcel Carné and Jacques Prévert are the acknowledged masters of French poetic realism, a loosely-defined style of the late 1930 and early 1940s encompassing a romantic fatalism and pre-film noir visual style; yet between their masterpieces Le jour se lève and Children of Paradise came the melancholy fantastic fable The Devil’s Envoys [Les visiteurs du soir], released this year by Criterion. Alain Cuny and Arletty are spiritual minstrels sent to sow mischief within the courtly wedding banquet of Marie Déa and Marcel Herrand, but their nascent humanity and passionate longing get the better of them, prompting the appearance of their demonic master (Jules Berry in a performance as frighteningly delicious as the one in Renoir’s The Crime of Monsieur Lange). Much has been made of the film’s timing and its sliding by the Nazi censors thanks to high fantasy elements, but over and above its political undertones is an astounding dedication to transcendental love beyond time and space, exemplified by a cinematic tour-de-force in which Arletty freezes the banquet’s dance via the pluck of her mandolin and the spirits seduce their would-be lovers.
1. The Family Game (1983)
Yoshimitsu Morita, the prolific Japanese filmmaker who died only a year ago, wrote and directed his best-known film The Family Game in 1983. A dark comedy about the vicious pressures of traditional family life and the educational system, the film balances commentary with slapstick and wit with droll tenderness. Yûsaku Matsuda is a “blandly arrogant” tutor (perfect phrasing via Vincent Canby’s contemporaneous review) hired to academically shape up Ichirôta Miyakawa, but he ends up building his student up into his own man with consequences for the family unit as well as his school life. Actor and film director Jûzô Itami, a more morally-ambiguous version of whose cultural satires The Family Game resembles, plays the domineering if ultimately ineffectual father. Morita stages much of the memorable verbal and emotional clashes between characters in deadpan frontal shots, foregoing naturalism for incredibly funny tableaux of simmering violence. Everything comes to a head in the terrific penultimate shot, a “Last Supper”-like reprise of an earlier scene of the entire family plus the tutor having dinner on one side of the dining table that slowly, inexorably devolves with pent-up rage at the whole lot of modern industrial society.