Best Old Movies I Saw For The First Time in 2012
1. The Clock (Vincente Minelli, 1945)
My curiosity about this movie was awakened by a post on the TCM blog, which I have spent the last half hour trying unsuccessfully to find. The quote that got me interested was something like "Vincente Minelli choreographed this movie as painstakingly as he did his musicals," or something like that. It had me imagining some kind of early version of Tati's Playtime. At any rate, when I saw it listed on TCM, I TiVo'd it, and I'm so glad I did.
The Clock is a simple film about a soldier (Robert Walker) spending a few days in New York City before shipping off to Europe. As soon as he gets off the subway, he meets cute with Judy Garland, they go on a date, fall very quickly in love, miss their connection and think they'll never see each other again, are reunited, resolve to get married before he ships off, encounter a host of obstacles to that goal, and so on. Classic romantic comedy stuff. The thing is, there's not really an air of comedy to this. Instead, there's this atmosphere of foreboding weighing down on the whole thing. This is 1945. The war that he's about to go fight is a real thing, happening right now. He could very well be dead in a few weeks. When they are separated, and fear that they'll never see each other again, it feels like a deadly serious situation. And in the final scene, when she sees him off at the docks, the camera pulls back and reveals scores of other couples saying tearful goodbyes. It's a heavy movie.
It's also one of the all-time great New York movies. The photography of WWII-era New York is fantastic, and fetishizes bits of the city that are hidden from view. In my favorite sequence, the lovers somehow end up on a milk truck, and we follow them to the dairy where the trucks are loaded up for their daily deliveries at something like 4:00 in the morning. It's a beautiful sequence, and I love how you see the guts of the city, guts of a system that doesn't exactly exist anymore.
The other really remarkable sequence begins when they try to get married, and have to go through a nightmarish bureaucratic maze to get it done before the end of the business day. It's like an early version of Brazil!
2. Went the Day Well? (Alberto Cavalcanti, 1942)
This British film, also produced during the height of WWII, is fascinating in its glimpse of small-town British life during the War. It's also, occasionally, shockingly violent. A group of Nazi agents are trying to take over the town and establish a sort of beachhead for a German invasion. The townsfolk get wise, and set about stopping them. For the most part, this is standard thriller stuff, but there are some shocking scenes, like an nice old lady murdering a Nazi with a hatchet over tea. Again, you see a different tone than you would in a movie that wasn't made in the middle of a war, because its a movie for an audience who's living through the horrors every day.
3. Design For Living (Ernst Lubitsch, 1933)
Lubitsch's adaptation of Noel Coward's play about two guys (Gary Cooper and Fredrich March) and a girl (Miriam Hopkins) engaged in (as the promotional material associated with the new Criterion disc puts it) a menage a trois. Now, that word apparently didn't have quite the same definition in 1933 as it does now. It's about two guys dating the same girl, but not, you know, all at the same time. (Actually, it's more innocent than that: they will live platonically together, despite the triangle of sexual tension, or at least that's the plan.) But watch the pictures without minding the dialogue, and the story seems a bit more explicit. Lubitsch sets up plenty of masterfully framed shots of Hopkins framed by the two actors in vaguely suggestive poses, as if he's telling a different story with the pictures that he can't get away with telling in his exquisite dialogue.
4. The Miracle Woman (Frank Capra, 1931)
This one has been on my list for a long time. Barbara Stanwyck plays a faith healer, a character supposedly based on Aimee Semple McPherson. In a way, I had some disappointment with this, as the only real resemblance to McPherson, as far as I can tell, is that Stanwyck is playing a female preacher, but the movie is still more than worth seeking out. It begins with Stanwyck giving a barnburner of a sermon against her father's congregation, who have recently fired him to replace him with a younger pastor. From there, we see her getting into the flim flam side of the religion biz. I would have preferred a much more cynical take--it ain't exactly Nightmare Alley--but without bitching about it not being a different movie, I loved the movie it was.
5. World's Greatest Dad (Bobcat Goldthwait, 2009)
I came away from hearing Bobcat on Marc Maron's podcast interested in the guy's body of work, including his movies. I watched Shakes the Clown, and while I didn't like it much, it was way better than the movie I had been imagining all these years. Encouraged, I proceeded to World's Greatest Dad, and was shocked to find that, a decade or so after Shakes, Bobcat had produced a dark comic masterpiece about a teen suicide who is subsequently transformed in everyone's mind from a nasty jerk to some kind of deep, misunderstood philosopher. Robin Williams, whose presence in a film is most often a giant red flag for me, does amazing work here. 90% of the time, he's my least favorite actor in the world, but when a director understands how to use him, you remember how damned talented he is. His great setpiece here is a talkshow appearance near the end, where he talks about his son's death, and the mask of dishonesty he's been holding over his face the whole time begins to slip off. He begins laughing, but manages to pass it off as crying. This is an old improv exercise that Robin probably had nailed down in the early 70's, and that skill pays off in one of the most brilliant comedy scenes in recent memory. By the end of the film, when we see Williams' character literally letting go of all of his baggage, this dark comedy turns out to actually be something of a feel-good movie.
6. Sleep Dealer (Alex Rivera, 2008)
This Mexican scifi film was barely noticed when it came out, which is a shame. It deals with crucial, ripped-from-the-headlines issues like immigration, water rights, internet communication, government monitoring, and drone warfare, all in the course of a fun adventure.
7. My Dinner With Andre (Louis Malle, 1981)
Obviously, I've heard about this movie for a long time, but didn't really know much about it, other than (a) it starred that guy from The Princess Bride that also guested on every sitcom at least once in the 70's and 80's, and (b) it's title is pretty much used as shorthand for "arthouse." Actually, I guess I was vaguely aware that the whole movie was just a dinner conversation between these two guys, but it turns out to be a fascinating conversation, so much so that I actually made my wife (who has perhaps less patience for this kind of film than even the average moviegoer) watch about half of it, and even SHE found it fascinating (it kind of went along with a lot of what she's writing in her book). Plus, I really like all the business going on in the background with the staff of the restaurant. It's like they have their own separate movie that we can glimpse in the corner of our movie.
8. Yes, Madam (Corey Yuen Kwai, 1985)
Michelle Yeoh made her screen debut in this buddy cop film with Cynthia Rothrock. This is the first Rothrock film I've seen (as far as I can recall), and goddamn, those high kicks! Probably no need to talk much about this, just let the video speak for itself.
9. Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling (Richard Pryor, 1986)
This is more or less an autobiographical film, with fanciful touches a la All That Jazz, written, directed and starring Richard Pryor. It bombed hard at the box office, and its easy to see why. This isn't what anyone was interested in seeing from Pryor, and it ain't exactly a great film either. But this is a good example of how perceptions of a movie can change over time. Seeing it now as targeting a small, niche audience who are deeply interested in Pryor, it makes a lot more sense. Because you're really getting a glimpse into the man's mind here. There's not a lot of comedy, but what there is is gold: witness Pryor's recreation of one of his earliest bits, a magnificent pantomime performance of a baby being born.
10. Ornette: Made in America (Shirley Clarke, 1984)
It's funny how little we really know about Ornette Coleman, the man. I mean, do you even have an impression of him? Not as a musician, but just as a personality? Most of the giants of jazz are remembered as BIG personalities: mugging showman (Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Fats Waller), dapper gentlemen (Duke Ellington), erratic headcases (Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Albert Ayler), badass motherfuckers (Miles Davis, Jellyroll Morton), doomed and damaged wrecks (Billie Holiday, Buddy Bolden), introspective spiritualists (John Coltrane, Charles Mingus). But Ornette seems a near non-entity. And as soon as you see him on camera, talking about his music, you begin to understand why. This is not a charismatic man, nor a wild iconoclast. This short guy with asymetrical features and a thin, reedy voice, is all intellect (to the point that he tried at one point to get a doctor to castrate him so as not to be distracted from his work by carnal urges--the doctor talked him out of it). He's a strange guy, but not in any flashy sense. He's almost the prototype of the black nerd, a "type" that's barely recognized in society even today.
So it's fascinating to see Ornette on camera talking about his music, something that I don't even recall occurring in Ken Burns' Jazz series (maybe it did, and he just made so little impression that I forgot it). We discover that he had a life-changing experience hearing Bucky Fuller speak, which makes a lot of sense--the conventional wisdom on Ornette (and free jazz in general) is that he's just blowing whatever comes off the top of his head (probably due to the arguably inappropriate significance the album Free Jazz is given in his discography), but his compositions are created through a logic that may defy my ears, but is certainly ever present. Also some great coverage of his visits to the Master Musicians of Jajouka with Robert Palmer, some great contemporary (ie, 80's era) live footage, and some rather amusing footage of the audience at a gala opening of his symphony, trying very hard to give off the impression that they enjoy the music.
Some others that could have made the list (and I'm sure there were more that I've forgotten): Songs From the Second Floor, Deep Blues, All the President's Men, Quadrophenia, This is the Life: How the West was Won