Nuns, Communists and Witches: My Top Ten Film Discoveries of 2017

Another year has ended, and with that comes the deluge of end of year lists. It’s time for me to do my own, my favorite films I saw for the first time this year. As usual, some of these were reviewed earlier in the year here, but many haven’t been. This year, the list heavily on the comedy side, but there’s plenty of variety in time period. They are presented in chronological order.

A Woman in Grey (1920)

Actually a film serial, A Woman in Grey was reviewed in full here. Considered one of the last adult American serials, it is a smart mystery that keeps the audience hooked. For anyone curious, it’s the perfect first serial to try. Expertly filmed in real Pennsylvania mansions, it’s just as good looking as it is compelling and mysterious. 

Zaza (1923)

The full review of Zaza from earlier this year can be found here. It’s a great introduction to the talent of Gloria Swanson in her prime. She gives an amazing wild performance, playing all the comedy to the hilt. A fight scene between her and Mary Thurman is a highlight that won’t be forgotten by any who see it.

The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case (1930)

For classic film fans, this an especially fun Laurel and Hardy romp. The duo show up at the reading of a will, hoping to con the family into thinking Stan is the heir to a Laurel family fortune. But the dead man has been murdered and they are forced to stay at the house with the family until the killer is found.

What follows is a great sendup of the old dark house films. It has every element you need: the unsettling butler, creepy portraits, family members disappearing one by one. It plays like a more over-the-top version of The Cat and the Canary, with all the parody elements in overdrive. There’s a great chase sequence involving a bat, giving Laurel and Hardy a chance to put their original stamp on the proceedings. The ending in which the murderer and method are revealed is both a good satisfying twist and funny too. That is no small feat.

The Ghost Camera (1933)

This is a fun little mystery that shares a similar jumping off point as Blow-Up, except with an actual solution and no pretension (thank goodness). A man finds a camera and discovers that one of the pictures appears to depict a murder. From there, he must attempt to track down a woman found in the photos. Complications ensue and the mystery continues to deepen.

At just over an hour long, it’s a quick but satisfying mystery. There’s plenty of good British humor throughout, and all the twists and little mysteries pay off in a satisfying manner.

Service with a Smile (1934)

For fans of early Technicolor, this short is a must see. The loose “plot” centers around comedian Leon Errol creating a bizarre and comically over the top gas station. It’s all a backdrop for elaborate musical numbers with eye popping color. Whether it’s a fleet of dancers in bright green dresses or a number at a golf course, the color is bright and remarkable. Also looking gorgeous in color are the number of cars seen throughout. A rare look at vintage cars in vibrant color can’t be passed up.

The musical numbers are strong themselves, with the song “What You Gonna Do Now?” being particularly catchy. Errol’s cheesy jokes have some charm too. This overall package makes it one of the most entertaining and notable shorts of the period.

Climbing High (1938)

Climbing High is familiar territory for fans of screwball comedies. A wealthy man (Michael Redgrave) is supposed to marry a socialite (Margaret Vyner), but falls in love with someone without the social status (Jessie Matthews). Every bit of wackiness is to be found, from pies being thrown to wind machines knocking people around. The film does get credit for originality: it may be the only film where someone holds someone hostage until they sing opera.

What makes the film really stand out is Jessie Matthews. Perfectly at home with some fast silly comedy, she carries every scene with equal parts charm and befuddlement. And yes, she somehow makes singing opera with a madman funny. Matthews alone makes this above average fare that’s worth seeing.  

Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)

Another comedy duo horror movie on this list? Sure, why not. Somehow I’d gone all this time without seeing this classic mix of comedy and horror. It certainly lived up to the legendary hype. Abbott and Costello do exactly what you’d expect and do it well, but it’s the performances of the horror icons that stand out. Bela Lugosi especially is great playing it straight, and Lon Chaney Jr and Glenn Strange play their parts well.

With all these stars (as well as Lenore Aubert playing the doctor) acting as if they’re in a classic Universal monster film, it’s all quite the perfect fun tribute to them. Horror and comedy have rarely mixed better, and it satisfies all you want from a Universal horror and classic comedy film.

The Trouble with Angels (1966)

The Trouble with Angels, simply put, is some of the most fun you’ll ever have watching a movie. The story of two high school girls at a convent supplies plenty of good cheer and good fun. There’s hijinks to be had, resulting in plenty of light fun. The cast is stellar: Rosalind Russell, Hayley Mills, Mary Wickes, June Harding and Gypsy Rose Lee all play their parts well. A fun coming of age tale, you’ll be left in a better mood seeing this.

Reds (1981)

Warren Beatty’s epic chronicle of John Reed, Louise Bryant and the rise of communism is an unforgettable ride. It’s not just a biopic of a couple people. It’s an immersive chronicle into an important period of American and Russian history. Numerous notable historical figures play into the story, the roles performed by an all star cast (Beatty, Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson, just to name a few).

Helping with the realism is the numerous appearances of real witnesses to the characters. They appear throughout in interviews, speaking directly about the real Reed and Bryant. In some cases, songs they sing end up as the soundtrack music to some scenes. This makes the rest of the film with the actors all the more real and raw. Reds feels like you’re in every part of that real scene, and you come away having learned a lot.

The Love Witch (2016)

Perhaps it’s fitting that the only modern film on the list has a decidedly retro feel. A tongue-in-cheek tale of a witch putting men under her spell, it’s worth seeing if only for now good the film looks. Shot in the style of the 60s or 70s, the film features gorgeous color and cinematography throughout. Luckily, it’s just as fun as it is visually pleasing. Fans of old horror should appreciate the modern retro feel.