A new year is upon us, and that means every self-respecting person is creating a best of list. This blog is always part of that too, although in a different way. No best of 2016 films will be seen (luckily for me). Instead, we’ll once again look at my ten top ten personal film discoveries of the year. As always, some of these films are obvious classics that I somehow missed before. Some, though, are ones more off the beaten path that deserve a look. They are presented in chronological order.
A Fool There Was (1915)
Just from a pure quality standpoint, the Theda Bara vehicle A Fool There Was is not the greatest film by any means. The story is plenty flimsy and the pacing leaves a lot to be desired, but none of that really matters. The scarcity of Theda Bara’s films alone make this an important and worthwhile film.
With so many silent films lost, there are some things that film fans can only read about but not experience. One of the biggest blind spots is practically all of Theda Bara’s career. An early sex symbol thanks to her vamp persona, Bara is still recognizable today thanks to striking publicity shots like this:
Those images are practically all we have now. Bara perhaps has the worst survival rate of any silent film star. All told, only three of her starring vehicles remain (she appears in another surviving film under her birth name). Of those, one is a later comeback vehicle when Bara was past her peak period. This makes A Fool There Was almost the only look we have about what he vamp character was like. Bara’s aura and presence carries the whole film. Even without much of a supporting cast to work with, Bara makes an otherwise dull film worthwhile. This may be a terribly small glimpse into one of our most unique early stars, but it sure is an important one.
A Busy Night (1916)
This Marcel Perez comedy was discussed here earlier in the year. Even though the idea of playing every role has been done elsewhere, Perez’s one man show may actually be more technically impressive than Keaton’s Playhouse. Perez’s reputation of cleverness is well born out in this film.
Three’s a Crowd (1927)
Also discussed here earlier in the year, Three’s a Crowd displays that the legend of Harry Langdon’s failure as director may be overblown. Not without its warts, Langdon’s directoral debut is an effective attempt at a comedy with some heart and pathos. Langdon creates some great visuals with a memorable set piece. Given more of a chance, maybe Langdon could have grown into a stellar comedy director.
Diary of a Lost Girl (1929)
Anchored by a perfectly cast Louise Brooks and a bevy of unsavory and unpleasant character actors, Diary of a Lost Girl is melodrama at its finest. Throughout the the film, Brooks is put through horrors almost too numerous to mention, all the while making the audience ache in pain. The film boasts the kind of ugly character actors long absent from cinema, vicious and heartless. This tale of lost innocence, motherhood and the absence of love is one mighty tearjerker.
Three on a Match (1932)
Three on a Match looks, at least for a few moments, like it could be some good light hearted fare. By the time the film plunges deeper into unsavory and dark territory, you’re both surprised and pretty well hooked.
As someone who loves separate lives and stories converging, Three on a Match was right up my alley. Ann Dvorak, Joan Blondell and Bette Davis play three former classmates who reconvene and discover they are now leading very different lives. Davis doesn’t have a whole lot to do in the film, but what she does is pretty interesting. She plays the lighter role you would usually expect from Blondell (including an obligatory revealing nightgown). Dvorak is the real star here, giving one of her best performances while getting wrapped up in extramarital affairs, kidnapping and gangsters. Three on a Match fits a lot into just over and an hour, and it never lets up.
Don’t let the mass of Ruby Keeler faces scare you. Dames may be a slight notch below some other Busby Berkeley films, but it still packs in a whole lot of fun. The comedy works, and Joan Blondell and Dick Powell especially deliver. Highlights include Blondell’s “Girl at the Ironing Board” and a just lovely “I Only Have Eyes for You.” Just hope that the dancing Ruby Keeler heads won’t cause any nightmares.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
Long before creating a lavish wrong man film with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day, Alfred Hitchcock told the same story with some major changes. And in some ways, the original version of the thriller might be the better one.
Sporting a much more tightly packed runtime, this original also has some major differences in tone. The Hitchcock British dry humor is much more prevalent, and yet it still feels a lot more serious than the remake. For one, this original boasts an intense and gripping shootout scene that is as impressive as anything else Hitchcock ever did. In addition, Edna Best is a far more compelling female lead than Doris Day. Part of that is because Best just has a lot more to do. Her character makes Day’s seem like a cardboard cutout in comparison. Best’s character is tougher and much more interesting. And she doesn’t sing the same song over and over again either.
The film’s strongest point is easily the performance of Peter Lorre. Getting a chance to watch him play a menacing villain is always a treat, and he delivers in his trademark cold manner. Lorre could have carried a lesser film, but with a witty and fast paced story alongside him, it adds up to an underappreciated Hitchcock gem.
Few filmmakers, if any, can make a musical as entertaining as Jacques Demy. It’s debatable whether this film is better than The Umbrellas of Cherboug, one thing is for certain: this film is about as fun as it gets.
Visually, Demy uses color to create something that is almost unfathomably gorgeous. Practically every outfit worn in the film pops right off the screen with bright colors. The set pieces compliment the beauty of the outfits well, creating visuals that would be just as stunning as still life. On top of all that, the numbers have such a fun and elegance to them as well. And it goes without saying that Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorléac add a whole lot of fun to the mix. The Young Girls of Rochefort is a cure for any bad mood.
American Graffiti (1973)
Every film fan has their blind spots: time periods or genres they just haven’t watched much of. For as heavily I binge on everything 1930s or older, my knowledge of films from decades after is much worse. I’ve seen so few 70s films that admitting to some I haven’t watched would cause my classic film fan credentials to be revoked.
This year, seeing American Graffiti finally got remedied. Any piece of nostalgia is right in my wheelhouse, so this film was an enjoyable time machine. There’s something universal and poignant about coming of age films, no matter what time period they take place in. A strong period piece with a killer young cast of future stars, American Graffiti proved to be a real treat.
Boogie Nights (1997)
The same could also be said about films from the 90s. Boogie Nights is yet another period piece, this one to the 1970s and the porn industry. It turkey is an all immersive experience. From the look to the tremendous soundtrack, it truly is an engrossing experience to a different time. The stellar cast list stretches on seemingly forever. Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore and Burt Retnolds are all superb, and and every player of the impressive supporting cast hits the right notes.
Most importantly, it proves not to really be about the porn industry at all. It’s one of those tales about life in an entertainment industry, and how it can raise someone up or drop them cold in no time. The specifics may be different, but it’s a tale that can resonate with anyone.