2017 represented a bit of a shift for me in terms of movies watched. My overall watching declined by quite a bit over previous years, and I didn’t even see a thousand movies total in the year (although I did spend quite a bit of time watching classic television and ended up seeing over a thousand TV episodes). I ended up with only 947 movies total for the year (589 in theater and 358 outside of a theater), with 609 of those being movies I’d never seen before. 338 of those first-time watches were in a theater, with 186 of them being new releases and 152 of them repertory screenings.
It feels appropriate to look back over the year and try to come up with a list of my favorite first-time watches. I think that I’d have to classify the following as my top ten new release favorites for the year (in alphabetical order; I don’t want to try ranking them):
- 20th Century Women
- Brigsby Bear
- Command and Control
- The Florida Project
- Hidden Figures
- Hounds of Love
- My Life as a Zucchini
- The Transfiguration
And my eleven (I just can’t cut it down to ten) favorite first-time-watch repertory screenings would be:
- American Movie (1999)
- Geteven (aka Get Even aka Road to Revenge; 1993)
- Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)
- Kirikou and the Sorceress (1998)
- Mafioso (1962)
- Magnificent Obsession (1954)
- The Peanut Butter Solution (1985)
- Shoes (1916)
- Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)
- Truth or Dare?: A Critical Madness (1986)
- The Uncanny (1977)
But in actuality, there are a lot more than these twenty-one movies that deserve to be seen, so here’s an alphabetical list of the first-time watches that are among the best or most fun new discoveries for the year, along with a brief description of each of them. Note that some of them are festival films that may not have actually been released yet so you might need to keep an eye out for them.
20th Century Women (2016) — Dorothea (Annette Bening) is a single mother who rents a couple of rooms to Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and William (Billy Crudup), and she enlists their help in raising her son without a father. It’s an excellent film that is a pure joy to watch. Full review at https://nawilson.com/2017/01/21/20th-century-women/.
78/52 (2017) — Psycho is one of the greatest films of all time, horror or otherwise, and the shower scene is its centerpiece. This documentary focuses on that one scene, both in the context of Psycho itself, as well as its impact on and influence over other films. It’s got everything you’d expect to see in a documentary of that one scene, from a breakdown of the shots to Bernard Herrmann’s score to what exactly is and isn’t shown, but it’s also full of interviews with film lovers putting it into both historical and personal context. It’s clearly a labor of love and a must-see movie for anyone who loves Psycho, Hitchcock, or film in general.
American Movie (1999) — Mark Borchardt is an aspiring filmmaker with a vision of how he wants his film to turn out and the drive to see it through. He’s currently finishing a half-hour short film called Coven that he hopes will make enough money to help him make his next movie, Northwestern. With the help of his friends and relatives, he hopes to make his dream a reality. While Mark has a highly abrasive personality and level of recklessness that I’m sure would be unbearable in real life, and while his best friend Mike is burned out and uninspired, their story makes for some tremendous entertainment.
Armored Car Robbery (1590) — Purvis (William Talman) has a plan to rob an armored car near the end of its run when it’s full of cash. It’s a great plan, and he’s very careful, but he has to use an inexperienced crew to pull it off. And that inexperience turns out to be deadly when things start to go wrong. It’s an incredible 67-minute film with no fat and a great story.
The Battle of Algiers (1966) — A film that depicts the Algerian struggle for independence against the French government, and the tactics that the French used in an attempt to quell that resistance. It’s a tremendous, powerful film that only suffers from not providing enough context for modern audiences who may not be as familiar with the Algerian rebellion as audiences at the time the film was released.
The Beguiled (2017) — During the Civil War, a student at a Virginia all-girls school happens upon a Union soldier (Colin Farrell) who has been shot in the leg. She helps him make his way to the school, where her teachers (Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst) clean and stitch up the wound. After some discussion, the women decide that the best thing to do is to give him time to heal before they hand him over to be taken prisoner by the Confederate army. But that’s not exactly what happened. Full review at https://nawilson.com/2017/06/30/the-beguiled-2017/.
Brief Encounter (1945) — A loyal but bored British housewife finds herself falling in love with an out-of-town doctor whose weekly travel schedule just happens to align with hers. Despite their best efforts to the contrary, they fall in love and make their lives complicated. It’s stiff and proper but darned if it isn’t also really good.
Brigsby Bear (2017) — James (Kyle Mooney) has lived all his life alone with his parents (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams) in a survival shelter, afraid to go out into the world without a protective mask. His main source of entertainment is the television show Brigsby Bear, and he’s obsessed with it. Then he finds that his entire life has been a lie. Full review at https://nawilson.com/2017/08/11/brigsby-bear/.
Buster’s Mal Heart (2016) — Jonah (Rami Malek) worked as the nighttime concierge at a hotel, which was just about the only job he could get. He really wanted to be able to provide for his wife (Kate Lyn Sheil) and his daughter, with the hope of someday buying a house on their own property, but he just couldn’t get ahead in his dead-end job, and his body couldn’t adjust to the hours, so he wasn’t much more than a sleep-deprived zombie most of the time. Then some things happened, and he started living alone in the woods, living off the land when it was warm enough, and breaking into unoccupied vacation homes when it got too cold. And when he started calling into radio shows with his crackpot ideas about a wormhole, he picked up the nickname Buster.
I’d heard good things about this one from last year’s Fantastic Fest, and it mostly lived up to the hype. Its nonlinear structure can be a bit confusing at times, while at the same time making it much too easy to guess at least one of the film’s twists, but it’s still entertaining even when you’ve got a pretty good idea about what’s coming. Also featuring DJ Qualls and Lin Shaye.
Cameraperson (2016) — A fascinating compilation of footage shot by long-time documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson. The clips tend toward dark, heavy subjects like rape, torture, and genocide, so it’s certainly not an uplifting film, but it is an incredibly powerful and human look behind the scenes of documentary filmmaking. Full review at https://nawilson.com/2017/01/05/cameraperson/.
Carpinteros (aka Woodpeckers; 2017) — Julián is a new inmate in a Dominican men’s prison that is located next to a women’s prison. The men and women can communicate with each other through a kind of sign language that they’ve invented called “woodpeckering” or “pecker-talk”. Julián befriends Manaury, who has been sent to another area of the prison where he can no longer see the women’s prison and can therefore no longer communicate with his beloved Yanelly, so he enlists Julián’s help to act as an intermediary. Before long, Julián and Yanelly fall in love and Manaury isn’t happy about it. It’s an amazing film in its own right but is made all the more impressive by the fact that it was done in a real, working prison in which most of the supporting characters (including some with speaking roles) are actual inmates.
Cinderella Liberty (1973) — John (James Caan) is a sailor who’s on temporary leave because the Navy lost his records. Maggie (Marsha Mason) is a hooker who’s struggling to support herself and her mixed-race son. It’s got the wonderful, dark feel of a 70s desperation film, but it also can’t help but remind you of The Last Detail (which also came out the same year). Throw in Eli Wallach, Burt Young, Bruno Kirby, and a little bit of Dabney Coleman, and you’ve really got something.
Cold Hell (2017) — Özge is a taxi driver who can take care of herself. One night after getting home from a shift, she sees a killer in the act through her window. Except she can’t make out his face, and now he knows where she lives. What follows is an intense thriller with no downtime in which each hunts the other and Özge just can’t catch a break. The premise has been done before, but rarely this well.
Columbus (2017) — Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) is a self-taught architecture enthusiast who has chosen to stay in the relatively small city of Columbus, Indiana with her mom rather than pursue goals elsewhere like all of her friends. Jin (John Cho) is the son of a famous architect who was slated to give a talk in Columbus before collapsing and falling into a coma. They become friends and, often begrudgingly, help each other work through their issues. It’s a pretty minimal film with slow pacing, but surprisingly good. Full review at https://nawilson.com/2017/09/01/columbus/.
Command and Control (2016) — A harrowing documentary about the little-known September 1980 incident that nearly led to an atomic bomb detonation in a missile silo in Damascus, Arkansas. It includes archival footage interspersed with training video content, reenactments, and interviews with many of the people involved. Full review at https://nawilson.com/2017/01/13/command-and-control/.
Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981) — Bubba (Larry Drake) is a mentally challenged man who acts like a child and whose best friend, Marylee (Tonya Crowe) is a little girl. Otis, Harless, Skeeter, and Philby (Charles Durning, Lane Smith, Robert F. Lyons, and Claude Earl Jones, respectively) are convinced that he’s going to do something bad to her. They kill him and get off by claiming self defense. But then they start to die. This is a surprisingly good TV slasher with a strong cast (also including Jocelyn Brando and Alice Nunn) and terrific cinematography, sound design, and direction.
Death Warrior (1984) — Murat (Turkish superstar Cüneyt Arkin) is a police officer with advanced martial arts skills. He’s on vacation, but that ends early when an evil ninja unleashes his well-trained clan of killers on the world, kidnapping a high-ranking officer. His boss just wants to pay the ransom and hope the bad guys will go away, but Murat knows the only way to win is to take them down. It’s a very short video (only 65 minutes) from the director and star of The Man Who Saves the World (aka Turkish Star Wars), but Death Warrior somehow manages to outshine it with virtually non-stop insanity and horrible subtitles.
Der Fan (aka The Fan aka Trance; 1982) — Simone (Désirée Nosbusch) is obsessed with German pop singer R (Bodo Steiger). She’s written him several letters and has all but ruined her academic life by frequently skipping school to wait for the mailman in hopes of a reply, and by a complete lack of concentration when she does make it to class. When it becomes clear that her parents won’t continue to put up with her behavior, she runs away and actually gets the chance to meet him. But things don’t go in quite the way she had envisioned. It’s a good movie that is fairly predictable until the end, where it goes off the rails in a pretty enjoyable way.
Divorce Italian Style (1961) — Ferdinando (Marcello Mastroianni) is married to Rosalia (Daniela Rocca). It’s not a happy marriage, and he really wants to get with his 16-year-old cousin, Angela (Stefania Sandrelli). But this is Italy, and divorce is illegal. Ferdinando decides that his only way out is to kill Rosalia, but he doesn’t want to go to jail for too long. To get the lightest sentence possible, he’ll have to catch her cheating on him, which means that he’ll have to find a way to make her cheat on him. It’s both ridiculous and hilarious, and it’s an intelligent comedy with jokes that run the gamut from highbrow to lowbrow. And speaking of brows, Rosalia only has one, and it goes well with her mustache.
The Duellists (1977) — Feraud (Harvey Keitel) is an officer in Napoleon’s army, and he loves swordfighting. But when he picks a fight with the mayor’s nephew, fellow officer d’Hubert (Keith Carradine) is sent to arrest him. Feraud doesn’t like this, so he picks a fight with d’Hubert. Feraud loses this fight, but doesn’t take it well and continues to challenge d’Hubert at every opportunity over the course of their lives. It’s the kind of film that should be mind-numbingly boring, and yet it’s somehow captivating, even through its Frenchiest and most periody scenes.
Fists of the White Lotus (aka The Clan of the White Lotus; 1980) — After the members of the White Lotus Clan destroy the Shaolin Temple and kill its master, two of the remaining Shaolin students, brothers in law, kill the head of the White Lotus Clan. So the White Lotus retaliates, killing one of the Shaolin students, leaving the other to seek further revenge while caring for his widowed pregnant sister. But his attempts at revenge keep failing because his technique can’t touch that of the White Lotus master. It’s an incredible film that pulls of the rare feat of having multiple endings without feeling like it goes on too long.
The Fog of War (2003) — Errol Morris interviews Robert McNamara about his experiences as Secretary of Defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. It’s mostly a simple talking head documentary often showing McNamara in close-up, and mostly responding to questions and prompts that are withheld from the audience, but it is engaging and fascinating and offers great insight into the state of the world around the time of the Vietnam War.
Geteven (aka Get Even aka Road to Revenge; 1993) — Normad (William Smith), Huck Finney (Wings Hauser), and Rick Bode (writer/director/producer/singer/songwriter John De Hart) are police officers. But when Normad frames Huck and Rick for selling drugs, he’s promoted to judge, and they’re kicked off the force and get jobs as limo drivers. Normad is also the leader of a satanic cult in which Rick’s former girlfriend (Pamela Jean Bryant) was a member until she freaked out and returned to Rick when they sacrificed a human baby. Now Normad and his fellow cult members are after her, while Rick and Huck still hold a grudge against Normad for his past and ongoing shenanigans. No one would ever call this a good movie in the classical sense, but it is far more entertaining than the vast majority of classically good movies.
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) — Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker) loves birds and samurai stuff. When he was younger, a mobster named Louie (John Tormey) helped him out, and Ghost Dog felt indebted to him. Since then, he’s become a master assassin. Now, another mobster has been messing around with Louise (Tricia Vessey), the daughter of the big boss, Ray (Henry Silva). Ray tells Louie to take out the thug, and Ghost Dog handles it. But since the guy was also a mobster, they couldn’t let his murder go unpunished, and now Ghost Dog has become the scapegoat. It’s surprisingly good for a rap-infused modern samurai tale, but then again it’s directed by Jim Jarmusch, so maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise after all.
Gifted (2017) — Mary Adler (played by McKenna Grace) is a mathematical genius, just like her mother, Diane, was before she committed suicide. So Mary now lives with her uncle Frank (Chris Evans), who occasionally gets a little help raising her with his landlord Roberta (Octavia Spencer). Frank wants Mary to be well-rounded, so he sends her to public school where her teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) quickly recognizes her abilities and inadvertently sets off a chain of events that leads to a bitter custody battle between Frank and his mother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan). It sounds like it should be Oscar bait, but the incredible performances elevate the somewhat ordinary story into something pretty special. Full review at https://nawilson.com/2017/04/14/gifted/.
Gilbert (2017) — Gilbert Gottfried is a comedian with an abrasive voice and who frequently has an equally abrasive act. He’s vulgar and insensitive and doesn’t consider anything out of bounds. But at home, he’s different. He’s got a sweet, loving wife and two cute kids. He’s got two sisters that he visits on an almost daily basis when he’s not traveling. And to call him frugal would be an understatement. This totally engrossing documentary shows him at home and on the road, and it’s mostly hilarious in appropriate and inappropriate ways, but it’s also very personal and touching. It’s the kind of film that few people might want, but everyone will love.
The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920) — A rabbi creates a large man out of clay and brings it to life with a magic amulet. He hopes to use the golem to protect the Jewish people from the oppressive rulers. He has some success, but he also doesn’t have as much control over the golem as he would like. It’s like a German expressionist precursor to Frankenstein, and it’s not quite as amazing as the later James Whale film, but it’s still an impressive under-seen work.
Hell’s Half Acre (1954) — Donna Williams (played by Evelyn Keyes) lost her husband Richard when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. But she never really accepted it, and nearly a dozen years later, she has reason to believe that he’s still alive, living in Hawaii under the name Chet Chester (played by Wendell Corey), and that he’s been arrested for murder. She goes to see him and finds herself caught in the middle between cops, criminals, and the man who might be her husband. Aside from some old-fashioned racism masquerading as comedy, it’s a terrific, tightly-paced Hawaiian noir film with a lot of surprises.
Hidden Figures (2016) — An inspirational dramatization of the true stories of three African-American women (Katharine Goble-Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan, played by Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monáe, and Octavia Spencer, respectively) who were critical to the success of NASA in the 1960s and beyond, in spite of their color and their gender. Full review at https://nawilson.com/2017/01/08/hidden-figures/.
High Sierra (1941) — Roy Earle (Humphrey Bogart) has just gotten out of jail, and he’s called to California for a heist. He’s going to help rob the safe of a posh resort hotel during its busy season. He’s paired up with a couple of inexperienced accomplices, and one of them brings Marie (Ida Lupino) for companionship while they plan. She’s immediately smitten with Roy, but he’s got feelings for a young girl, Velma (played by Joan Leslie; her grandfather was played by Henry Travers) that he met on the drive out. It’s a very good film with an ending that’s probably the best they could do given the restrictions of the Hollywood production code, and several scenes were stolen by Bogart’s own dog in the role of Pard.
Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015) — In the 1960s, budding French New Wave director François Truffaut was granted an extensive interview with master filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock, who was nearing the end of his career. The result of that interview was published as a book that became an essential reference for filmmakers and movie enthusiasts, and that book spawned a documentary in which a number of modern directors (David Fincher, Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese, James Gray, Richard Linklater, Peter Bogdanovich, Olivier Assayas, Arnaud Desplechin, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, and unfortunately Wes Anderson) discuss the book and more generally the effect and influence that Hitchcock’s films had on their lives as film fans and their careers as filmmakers.
Hounds of Love (2016) — Vicki is a high school student who has just been kidnapped by John and Evelyn. They intend to use her for their own sexual gratification, then kill her and hide the body, like they’ve done before. It’s a highly uncomfortable movie, with a lot of intensity and some great cinematography. It’s not always easy to watch but is definitely worth seeing. Full review at https://nawilson.com/2017/05/14/hounds-of-love/.
I Am Not Your Negro (2016) — A powerful documentary/autobiography about race in America in the 1960s, and throughout the nation’s history, through the writing and speech of James Baldwin. Baldwin may be less known than his contemporaries like Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers, but seems even more eloquent, logical, calm, and compelling. Full review at https://nawilson.com/2017/02/02/i-am-not-your-negro/.
Il Boom (aka The Boom; 1963) — Giovanni Alberti is in debt. He’s surrounded by wealthy people and wants to seem like he’s one of them, but he spends more than he makes and now a loan is coming due with no way for him to repay it. Then the wife of a very rich friend makes him an interesting offer that could mean the end to his financial trouble. From director The Bicycle Thief director Vittorio De Sica and Mafioso star Alberto Sordi, it’s a light, fun film that for some reason is only just now getting a release in the United States.
Jezebel (1938) — Julie (Bette Davis) is in love with Preston (Henry Fonda), but she keeps pushing him away. He’s a successful banker, and on one trip to New York, he comes back with a new wife (Margaret Lindsay). Now Julie is extremely jealous and spiteful, and it doesn’t help things that looming war and raging yellow fever have both inflicted 1850s Louisiana. In the hands of lesser actors, this probably would have been just another boring period film, but Davis, Fonda, and director William Wyler transform it into something special.
Kansas City Confidential (1952) — A former police chief (Preston Foster) resents being forced out of his job, and he puts together a plan to rob an armored car, get himself rich, and get rid of some nasty criminals (played by Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef, and Neville Brand) in the process. He’s careful to wear a mask when he meets each of them, and they all wear masks whenever they’re together, so only he knows their identities, and they don’t know each other. The job goes off without a hitch, and they manage to frame an ex-con who’s now a delivery driver (John Payne) for a flower shop. The police eventually have to let him go for lack of evidence but still think that he did it, so it’s up to the driver to find the real culprits so that he can save himself. It’s a highly original and very clever story that keeps you on your toes even though you’re in on everything that’s happening.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) — Steven (Colin Farrell), a cardiac surgeon, befriends Martin (Barry Keoghan), the son of a man who died on his operating table a couple of years ago. Martin starts demanding more of Steven’s time, and tries to make himself part of the family, including Steven’s wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and children Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and Bob (Sunny Sujlic). When Steven starts to push back against Martin, and to avoid advances from Martin’s mother (Alicia Silverstone), Martin starts to become less friendly. It’s a really good film that doesn’t try to offer any explanation for the things that are happening, but sucks you in nonetheless.
Kirikou and the Sorceress (1998) — After Kirikou crawls out of his mother and into the world, he learns that his village is under siege by an evil sorceress. She’s taken nearly all of their men, stolen all their gold, and dried up their water supply. Tiny Kirikou decides that he needs to do something about it. It’s an incredible animated film based on an African folk tale that crams so much comedy, creativity, and charm into a very tight 74 minutes. It’s a crime that it’s such a little-known film.
Last Flag Flying (2017) — Shortly after losing his wife to cancer, Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell) learns that his son was killed during a military tour in Iraq. Larry seeks out his old Vietnam War pals, Sal (Bryan Cranston) and Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) to accompany him on the trip to retrieve his son’s body and see that he’s given a proper burial. It’s a terrific film with amazing genuine performances that finds the perfect balance of grief and humor so that it’s serious when it needs to be but isn’t a complete downer.
Lisa (1989) — Lisa (Staci Keanan) doesn’t have any family other than her mother Katherine (Cheryl Ladd), who has always been overprotective and doesn’t want Lisa to start dating until she’s sixteen. But Lisa is fourteen, and she doesn’t like that idea, especially since her best friend Wendy (Tanya Fenmore) is already dating. One day, she happens to meet an attractive man (D.W. Moffett) on the street. She finds out who she is and starts having seductive phone conversations with him, without him knowing who she is. The only problem is that Lisa doesn’t know that he’s the serial killer who has been terrorizing the neighborhood.
The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1976) — Rynn (Jodie Foster) lives with her father in a small town. Or that’s what she wants people to think. Her father died several months ago, and she’s trying to live on her own without drawing too much attention to herself. She’s doing a pretty good job of it until her landlord’s perverted son (Martin Sheen) decides that he has to have her, and until she befriends a boy magician (Scott Jacoby) who wants to help make her troubles disappear.
Lost in Paris (2016) — Fiona is a Canadian woman who receives a letter from her elderly aunt Martha, who lives in Paris. She’s not doing so well, and they want to put her in a home. Fiona heads off to Paris to try to meet her, only to get no response when she rings at her apartment. An unfortunate encounter with the Seine river leaves her with only the wet clothes on her back—no money, no passport, and no luggage.
It’s a surprisingly light and whimsical film given its somewhat dark subject matter. It feels like it’s going for a Wes Anderson sort of vibe, but fortunately, it fails at that because it’s not the worst thing ever made. Not all of the comedy works as well as I’d like, and the “Fiona and Martha are constantly missing each other” gags do get a bit tiresome, but it’s still an enjoyable film that’s worth checking out.
Mafioso (1962) — Antonio “Nino” Badalamenti lives in Milan, but he’s taking his wife and children on vacation to visit his relatives in his Sicilian homeland. He instantly feels right at home, but his wife is very much a fish out of water, in a very funny Ellen Griswold sort of way. His boss in Milan asked Nino to deliver a package to Don Vincenzo, a very powerful and respected man (with obvious ties to the mafia) in Sicily. Nino soon finds himself faced with an offer he can’t refuse. Hilarious at the beginning, serious at the end, and terrific throughout.
Magnificent Obsession (1954) — Millionaire playboy Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) is showing off his high-speed boat for a girl when he gets into an accident that nearly kills him. Fortunately, Dr. Phillips lives across the lake, and he has a resuscitator at his house that the police are able to take and use to save Merrick’s life. Unfortunately, the reason that Dr. Phillips has the resuscitator is that he’s also in need of it, and he dies as a result of an attack that he suffers when it’s being used on Merrick. When Merrick learns of this, he wants to help the widow, Helen Phillips (Jane Wyman), but his attempts are at first rejected, and later even have more dire consequences. So Merrick devotes his life to secretly helping Helen. The movie often feels cheesy and exaggerated, but it’s also thoroughly wonderful and highly effective at making you feel things.
Mayhem (2017) — Derek Cho is a lawyer who’s doing a very good job at moving up the ladder at his firm, especially after his instrumental work in helping a big client beat a murder rap. But office politics are very serious business, and the people at the top don’t have any qualms about stepping on the people beneath them. When one of his superiors screws up, Derek finds himself the scapegoat, and he’s fired without much hesitation. But before he can be kicked out, the building is quarantined as a result of a viral infection that puts emotional reactions on overdrive. The building is overrun with fighting and violence, and, in the midst of that, Derek is determined to make his way to the top floor so he can help the executives see the error of their ways. Along the way, he’s accompanied by an angry woman who also feels that she’s been mistreated by the firm, but since he’s been her main point of contact with the company, her ire is directed as strongly at him as it is for anything else.
This is what The Belko Experiment should have been. Mayhem is a highly violent film in an office building, but it’s not as predictable or as stupid as Belko. It’s very funny, full of action, and loaded with gore, but not so stupid that it becomes hard to swallow. This is one I look forward to revisiting, and I hope I get the chance to do so in the near future.
Mom and Dad (2017) — Something is causing parents to attack and try to kill their children. It only applies to their own children; they’re indifferent to, or perhaps even protective of, other people’s children as long as they don’t get in the way. Nicolas Cage and Selma Blair just happen to be the parents of two of those kids, and they succumb to those urges. It’s an immensely fun movie overall, but Nicolas Cage going full-on Nicolas Cage at many points throughout the film really gives it that additional push of awesomeness.
My Life as a Zucchini (2016) — Zucchini’s dad is a womanizer who’s not around any more. His mom is a drunk who dies in an accident. So he’s hauled off to live in a group home with several other kids who haven’t had the best luck in their lives so far, either. There’s some bullying at first, but soon they become great friends who stick up for each other. Then Camille shows up, and it’s love at first sight for Zucchini.
This one surprised me. The claymation is done very well, and the story is surprisingly deep. It gets very dark at times, especially when dealing with some of the things the kids have been through, but then it can turn on a dime to become sweet and uplifting. It works on just about every level, its pacing is tight, and it might just leave you with some emotions.
Not of This Earth (1988) — An alien (Arthur Roberts) comes to Earth in search of blood. He goes to Dr. Rochelle (Ace Mask) for a transfusion and ends up hiring his nurse (Traci Lords) to administer the daily treatments. As strange things happen, the humans around the alien start to get suspicious. It’s a very dumb movie made on a very tight schedule that’s loaded with unnecessary nudity and cheesy effects, but it is thoroughly entertaining and right up my alley.
Notes on Blindness (2016) — When John Hull found himself going blind in the early 1980s, he began to capture his feelings and experiences on audio cassettes. The filmmakers hired actors to portray John, his wife Marilyn, and their children, with most of the dialogue taken from John’s tapes and lip-synced by the actors. Full review at https://nawilson.com/2017/01/23/notes-on-blindness/.
Offside (2006) — Controversial Iranian director Jafar Panahi provides us with this simple but very powerful film that focuses on a handful of girls caught trying to sneak into a soccer game. Women aren’t allowed in the stadium, purportedly because they might hear men swear, but really for no good reason. Through a series of interactions between the girls and the soldiers ordered to guard them, Panahi questions this practice to such an extent that it (in conjunction with other films he’d made in the past) got him banned from making films by the Iranian government. Fortunately, that didn’t stop him, and he’s continued to make films, like Taxi, that are every bit as good and continue to question the Iranian status quo.
Open Secret (1948) — A small town is plagued by a secret society intent on eliminating, or at least heavily oppressing, the Jewish population. A newlywed couple gets mixed up in this as they come to visit a friend only to find that he has been kidnapped. The more they investigate, the darker things get. A tight 68 minutes, it was very bold and timely for its release in 1948, and it still feels that way today.
The Peanut Butter Solution (1985) — When a fire breaks out in an abandoned house and kills a couple of homeless people, a young kid named Michael is intent on looking into that house. He sees something so scary that his hair falls out and he’s stricken with embarrassment. But the spirit of one of the deceased appears to him and gives him the recipe for a concoction that should allow him to regrow his hair. But he doesn’t follow the recipe exactly and ends up with hair that just won’t stop growing. It just gets weirder from there and turns into one of the greatest things to have ever come out of Canada.
Raiders of the Sacred Stone (aka Shalimar; 1978) — An old master thief (Rex Harrison) has brought four other top thieves (one of whom is a mute John Saxon who only communicates through sign language) to tell them that he has stolen a giant ruby, and to invite them to try to claim the title of world’s greatest thief by stealing it from him. They’ll have to defeat his advanced security system and outwit his army of devoted guards to do it. It’s a Bollywood attempt at making a movie suitable for American audiences, featuring American actors and a 90-minute cut with no musical numbers, but it was a flop because it’s a terrible movie. But it’s also terribly entertaining because of the ridiculous situations and characters, the defense measures, and the plans the thieves hatch to try to get around them.
Radius (2017) — A man wakes up next to a crashed vehicle with a head injury and no memory of who he is. His driver’s license gives him his name (Liam) and address, and he starts to make his way from the remote crash site back to civilization. But he soon learns that all people and animals around him die if he gets too close. Except for another woman, who claims she was also in the crash and also has amnesia but no ID to tell her who she is. For some reason, her presence suppresses whatever force causes everyone to die. The police work out that Liam is somehow connected to the deaths of many people he came in contact with before working out what was going on, so Liam and Jane Doe must work together to figure out who they are, what happened, and what to do about it before the police catch up to them and separate them. It’s a really well-done film with a kind of sci-fi that’s right up my alley.
Salon Mexico (1949) — Mercedes Gómez works at a dance hall, entertaining men and doing whatever she can (legally and otherwise) to earn enough money to help put her younger sister Beatriz through boarding school. After winning a dance contest, her gangster partner Paco refused to give her any of the winnings, so she stole it from him while he slept. This upset Paco very much, but it also drew the attention of local police officer Lupe, who learned why she took the money and felt tremendous respect for the sacrifices she was willing to make for her sister. It’s a wonderful film that is as tragic as it is engaging.
Saturn 3 (1980) — Adam and Alex (Kirk Douglas and Farrah Fawcett) are the only two people on Saturn 3, a space station intended to produce food to help sustain Earth’s population. They’re not producing as much as they could, so they’re sent help in the way of Benson (Harvey Keitel) and his robot Hector. Hector has a human brain that was raised in a laboratory that was a blank slate until Benson started teaching it by connecting it to his brain. But Benson isn’t exactly mentally stable, so the robot isn’t either. It’s a thoroughly entertaining film that only suffers because it keeps going after a great ending to have two more endings that are progressively weaker.
Sequence Break (2016) — Osgood (aka Oz, played by Chase Williamson) is a whiz at restoring and fixing old arcade games. Not only does it provide him with a job that he loves, but it also introduced him to his nerdy, game-loving girlfriend, Tess (Fabianne Therese). Then one day Oz finds a mysterious circuit board for a game that becomes a life-changing experience.
This movie is very much The Bishop of Battle (a segment in the Nightmares horror anthology) crossed with eXistenZ. I like both of those things a lot, and that probably has something to do with why I liked Sequence Break so much. It doesn’t seem like it knows how to end, so it does go a bit too far into the Cronenbergy end of the spectrum before copping out with a kind of “mega happy ending” a la Wayne’s World, but by that point I’d already been won over by everything prior that the end didn’t diminish my enjoyment all that much.
Shoes (1916) — An utterly devastating film with a dead-simple plot: a young woman (played by Mary MacLaren) must work to support her deadbeat father, her mother, and her three sisters, and doesn’t have the money to buy the new shoes that she desperately needs. It manages to overcome so many obstacles to become something more engrossing than just about any other film I’ve encountered. Full review at https://nawilson.com/2017/02/20/shoes-1916/.
Small Crimes (2017) — Joe (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is a former cop who found himself in debt to the wrong people, which led to him doing things he shouldn’t have done. He’s just gotten out of prison and is living at home with his parents (Robert Forster and Jacki Weaver). He thinks he’s done with that life, but others feel differently. Also featuring Gary Cole, Molly Parker, Macon Blair, and Pat Healy.
It’s hard to describe the film in much more detail without giving too much away, and it’s really a joy to discover the film as it unfolds. It mostly works, although there are a couple of times when it relies a little too heavily on coincidence. It’s worth seeing in a theater if you get the chance, and I’m glad that I did because after its festival run, it’s likely to only be available on Netflix, and you shouldn’t give them your money because they give it to Adam Sandler so that he can keep making movies.
The Square (2017) — Christian (Claes Bang) is the head curator at a large museum in Stockholm. They’re getting a new exhibit called “The Square”, which is simply a square on the ground whose perimeter is framed in lights. It’s supposed to represent a “be nice to each other” zone, and they’re having trouble figuring out how to market it. Meanwhile, he’s also confronted with other problems, like having his wallet and phone stolen, having a one-night stand with a reporter (Elisabeth Moss) who doesn’t think it was a one-night stand, coordinating a performance art installation featuring a man acting like an animal, and being a part-time father to his two daughters. It’s the latest comedy by Ruben Östlund, and it’s both funnier and more effective than Force Majeure.
Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928) — Haggard, longtime captain William “Steamboat Bill” Canfield (Ernest Torrence) and his foppish, recent-college-graduate son William Jr. (Buster Keaton) are trying to keep their business afloat after wealthy businessman J.J. King (Tom McGuire) decides he wants to get into steamboating and buys a bigger and better boat for himself. Meanwhile, Bill Jr. and King’s daughter Kitty (Marion Byron) know each other from school and are sweet on each other, but their fathers don’t want them to have anything to do with each other. It’s mostly a very funny Romeo and Juliet-type story, but then it really changes gears and amps up the physical comedy in the finale with some truly impressive stunts. While not as well known as The General, it’s every bit as good.
The Sugarland Express (1974) — Lou Jean (Goldie Hawn) and her husband Clovis (William Atherton) both have criminal records, and Clovis is currently finishing up the tail end of his sentence in a minimum security facility. Lou Jean has lost custody of her baby, so she helps break Clovis out so that they can go take their baby back. They’re soon stopped by a police officer (Michael Sacks), but they take him hostage and lead a swarm of police and onlookers on a low-speed chase across the state. It’s Spielberg’s first theatrical film, and it’s like he foresaw the infamous OJ Simpson car chase, or maybe it’s a little of Smokey and the Bandit meets The Legend of Billie Jean. At any rate, it’s mostly a very lighthearted film but effortlessly becomes serious when the need arises.
Super Dark Times (2017) — Zach and Josh are best friends. They’re hanging out with acquaintances Charlie and Daryl when it comes out that Zach’s older brother, who’s joined the Marines and moved away, has a sword in his old room. The boys get the sword and go outside to engage in some ill-advised horseplay, which ends in Daryl getting accidentally stabbed and killed. The other three hide the body and make a pact to keep it a secret. But they still have to deal with the knowledge of what happened. Each of them does that poorly in his own way. It is indeed a dark time, but one well worth seeing for the performances and the conclusion.
The Sword and the Claw (aka Lionman aka Kiliç Aslan; 1975) — King Solomon is killed in a coup, but his very pregnant wife escapes for long enough to give birth to a son. She dies in childbirth, and the boy is raised by lions. When he’s grown, he has super strength and a deadly grip, and he gets involved in the fight to recover the throne. On one hand, it’s a typical Turkish film, with really low production values, the best kind of awful dubbing, and a soundtrack lifted from Spartacus. But on the other, it takes some legitimately interesting turns and does much more than the bare minimum with its plot. It may not be great art, but it’s highly entertaining.
Tampopo (1985) — A woman who owns a small ramen restaurant gets a truck driver to help her improve her food. Their quest to create the perfect broth, noodles, pork, and other components is frequently interrupted with a number of food-related tangents. It’s very funny and thoroughly enjoyable.
Teenage Gang Debs (1966) — Terry (Diane Conti) is a very assertive and very manipulative girl who’s just moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn. She’s fallen in with a local gang, the Rebels, and she goes right after the president, Johnny (John Batis), ousting his current girl. But she soon decides that she doesn’t like him, so she goes to Nino (Joey Naudic) and convinces him to drop his girl and take out Johnny so he can become the new president. At that point, it’s pretty obvious who’s really calling the shots, and it’s pretty obvious how the movie is going to end. But even with the predictable plot and the excessive amount of padding required to reach even a 75-minute runtime, it’s a highly enjoyable movie. Much of that is actually due to the padding, which includes a lot of 60s dancing, especially a karate dance to a song called “The Black Belt” that enumerates the levels needed to reach martial arts mastery.
Tender Mercies (1983) — Mac Sledge (Robert Duvall) used to be a famous singer/songwriter, married to famous singer Dixie (Betty Buckley). Then his drinking got out of control, and he lost his wife and his musical career. It took several more years for him to hit rock bottom, but when that finally happened, it was at a tiny, rural Texas hotel owned by Rosa Lee (Tess Harper). She took pity on Mac and hired him to help out around the hotel. He began to get his life back together, began to explore his musical options, and began to explore the possibility of life with Rosa Lee. It’s a simple film, but everything about it works, and it doesn’t always go where you’d expect.
Thelma (2017) — Thelma grew up with an overprotective, devoutly Christian family, but now she’s going away to college for the first time. But just as she’s getting her first tastes of freedom and temptation, and just when it looks like she might start making friends, she has a seizure. Then she has more of them. While doctors try to figure out why she’s having them, Thelma learns more about her past and her family. It’s a terrific film that captivates you right from the opening scene and easily holds your attention throughout.
There’s Always Tomorrow (1956) — A married man is tempted when an old flame re-enters his life, to the great dismay of his children. It’s a Douglas Sirk film starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, and that’s really all you need to know.
Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) — Frustrated with the police department’s lack of results in solving her daughter’s murder, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) rents three billboards calling out Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) in the hopes that it will rile them up into something that might lead to a break in the case. But it makes a lot of people mad, including officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), and they seek retaliation. What follows is an intricate, unexpected, and exceptional drama from writer/director Martin McDonagh.
The Transfiguration (2016) — Milo lives with his older brother Lewis in a poor New York neighborhood. Their parents are dead (their father through sickness and their mother by suicide), so they’re left to fend for themselves, which leads to Milo often being bullied. Milo is obsessed with vampire movies and lore, and he really wants to become a vampire himself, but his attempts thus far haven’t been all that successful. Then he meets Sophie, a new girl who’s moved into his building to live with her abusive grandfather.
This film reminds me a lot of Park Chan-wook’s Thirst in that it’s primarily a drama, and although vampirism is a key part of the film, it’s actually pretty incidental to the plot most of the time. The way that Milo is treated by others, and his relationship with Sophie, have almost nothing to do with vampires and would have been just as at home in a film that didn’t use the V word at all. But the way that it does incorporate that subject into its plot works really well and makes it all the more meaningful when it is necessary.
Truth or Dare?: A Critical Madness (1986) — Mike Strauber had a bad experience playing “truth or dare” as a kid that led to him being committed to an asylum for a while. But he’s much better now. Or at least he was until he caught his wife cheating on him with his best friend. Now he’s lost a lot of sanity, and a lot of people have to die. This film provides nonstop exhilaration resulting from its unpredictability, enthusiasm, effects, and theme song.
The Uncanny (1977) — An author (Peter Cushing) has written a book warning of the dangers of cats and is trying to sell it to a publisher (Ray Milland), and tells three cautionary tales. A wealthy old woman is killed just after changing her will, and her horde of cats make sure the guilty parties don’t get away. A recently orphaned little girl (Katrina Holden Bronson, daughter of Charles Bronson and Jill Ireland) turns to witchcraft after her jealous cousin tries to get her aunt and uncle to take her cat away. An actor (Donald Pleasence) kills his wife in an on-set “accident” and immediately convinces the producer (John Vernon) to re-cast his girlfriend (Samantha Eggar), but didn’t count on his wife’s cat seeking revenge. It’s very over the top and makes for the best kind of bad movie.
Ugetsu (1953) — Genjurô makes pottery. He’s gotten a taste of wealth and has become very greedy for more. His friend Tôbei is intent on becoming a samurai and is very happy to help Genjurô with his pottery and earn money on the side to help buy weapons and armor. Both become successful, but at the expense of their families. It’s a beautiful film, and it’s hard to describe in more detail without spoiling anything.
Violent Saturday (1955) — Three men (Stephen McNally, Lee Marvin, and J. Carrol Naish) plan to rob a bank in a small mining town and make their escape to a nearby Amish farm (run by Ernest Borgnine), where they can hide out and switch vehicles. They find themselves in the midst of a great deal of drama, including competition between the mining company boss (Richard Egan) and his second in command (Victor Mature), between the bank manager (Tommy Noonan) and a nurse (Virginia Leith), and a prim librarian (Sylvia Sidney) in financial difficulty. It’s an intricate soap-opera-esque melodrama meant to compete with the excellent films of Douglas Sirk, and it does an admirable job of it.
Who Killed Teddy Bear? (1965) — Norah (Juliet Prowse) is a pretty young woman who works at a dance club. She’s started getting threatening and harassing phone calls. She doesn’t know the identity of the caller, but we do. It’s Lawrence (Sal Mineo), who also works at the dance club and has taken to watching her through her apartment window and following her around. And to make matters worse, Norah keeps encountering unwanted creepiness from the people she goes to for help, including a cop (Jan Murray) who specializes in sex crimes and her boss (Elaine Stritch). It’s a very dark movie with a lot of artful sleaze that goes in unexpected directions.
Wind River (2017) — Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is a fish and wildlife agent who comes across the body of his late daughter’s best friend. Because the body is on a Native American reservation, the FBI is called in, and they send Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) to investigate. She’s clearly passionate about the case but also clearly out of her league, so she enlists Cory’s help in trying to figure out what happened. Full review at https://nawilson.com/2017/08/02/wind-river/.
Wings (1927) — Jack and David (Charles Rogers and Richard Arlen) are friends from the same small town who go to war. They’re also in a love quadrangle in which Mary (Clara Bow) loves Jack, Jack loves Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston), and Sylvia and David love each other. Both Jack and David become successful pilots, but they’re fated to fight over Sylvia. It’s a beautifully shot film with some hand-colored effects for even more impressive visuals, and the wonderful story is full of heroism and tragedy.
Wolf Warrior 2 (2017) — Leng Feng (Jing Wu) used to be a member of the elite Wolf Warrior squadron of the Chinese army, but he was stripped of his rank and locked up after killing a bad man who was terrorizing a family. And while he was in jail, some bad guys killed his fiancée, and now he wants revenge. He’s traveling the world trying to find out who’s responsible, and he finds himself in the middle of a civil war in Africa. He’s got to rescue a prestigious Chinese doctor and his godson’s mother, and he’s got to do it alone. It’s tough to describe how utterly ridiculous this movie is. It’s bad by just about every measure there is, except the measure of how utterly enjoyable it is. Full review at https://nawilson.com/2017/10/15/wolf-warrior-2/.
Your Name (2016) — Mitsuha and Taki have never met and don’t live anywhere near each other, but each keeps waking up in the other’s body. They devise a way to communicate with each other indirectly but attempts to speak to each other or meet in person keep falling apart. It’s a little confusing initially, but once you’ve gotten your bearings, it’s a very funny and highly-captivating movie. Full review at https://nawilson.com/2017/04/14/your-name/.