Mad Doctors, Trolleys and Funerals: My Top Ten Film Discoveries of 2018

Another year has come and gone, which means it’s time for all of the best-ofs lists to come out. And as always, none of the films I saw this year were new releases. But if you want to know what some great films from 1928 are, this list has you covered. These are the ten best films I saw for the first time in 2018, in chronological order. It’s a strange, eclectic mix that probably wouldn’t go too great together as a big marathon. I’m not here to judge if you want to mix Harold Lloyd and Dario Argento, though. 

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Speedy (1928)

Everyone knows that they’re getting with a Harold Lloyd comedy, but this one is even better than most. The plot setup provides a great opportunity for the classic Lloyd big finale: his girlfriend’s family runs the last horse-drawn trolley in the city, and it will be put out of business by the railroad company if it doesn’t run in 24 hours. This, of course, leads way to a wild and crazy ending that is remarkable to watch. But even before Lloyd’s harried final trolley ride, things are a delight.

The rest of the film provides a great look into 1920s New York. Lloyd begins the film working as a soda jerk, a fun scene. Later, he weaves his way through city streets as a cab driver that drives around the real Babe Ruth. Ruth leads to a taste of more baseball footage before the film’s final scenes send the viewer all over the streets of New York.

Not only does it have the best of Lloyd’s comedy, but it is just a wonderful look into the past as well. Lloyd’s final silent film is one of his finest.

Beggars of Life (1928)

1928 was a remarkable year for cinema, and Beggars of Life is right at the top of the best. Louise Brooks’ performance as a woman on the run is one for the ages. Along the way, she’s joined on her journey by another vagabond (Richard Arlen). Their path is soon altered by the unpredictable Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery).

Beery gets top billing and gives a great performance, but it is the emotional journey of Brooks that leaves the greatest impression. In some ways, it’s a simple emotional journey. But visually, it’s a lot more than that. The train hopping scenes provide several stark visuals, and the climax is edge of your seat (or mountainside, as the case is here) stuff.

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Mad Love (1935)

Mad Love, the American film debut of Peter Lorre, could not be a better concoction of weird and creepy. One can’t help but wonder how much weirder it could have been if it had come in under the precode wire. Even in this state, it’s a bizarre little film that leaves a mark. Lorre plays a doctor so in love with a lovely actress (Francis Drake) that he even has a wax figure of her put in his home. But when her husband (Colin Clive) needs miracle surgery, he sees an opening to win her love–even if it means doing crazy things.

Lorre’s descent into madness is made all the more frightening by how realistic it is. It often seems like he has no control over his actions. That being said, the film’s height of creepiness comes when he hatches a scheme to don a particularly eerie costume. In a career full of unsettling performances, this is one of his weirdest.

The suspense is ratcheted up through the audience’s knowledge. We know the things he’s done long before the hapless victims. The film has some out of place twists and turns thanks to a Ted Healy comedy subplot, but it works in a kind of strange fashion. Well, everything in this film works in a strange fashion. 

Katharina, die Letzte (Catherine the Last) (1937)

This romantic comedy out of Hungary seems to be all but lost to the ages, which is a shame. Hans Holt stars as a man desperate to get near the woman he loves, following her father shutting him out. He decides the best way to get his foot in the door is feigning love for the family’s maid, Katharina (Franciska Gaal). Heavy on heart and sentiment, this a gem that will make you wish for more of this remarkable cast.

The Villain Still Pursued Her (1940)

This is not a film for everyone, and your mileage with it depends on how appealing the concept sounds: a parody of stuffy Victorian melodramas. The audience for this film probably dwindles more every year, but it is very good at what it sets out to do. The film boasts a great cast (Billy Gilbert, Buster Keaton, Margaret Hamilton, Anita Louise) is helmed by veteran silent comedy director Edward F. Cline. 

The plot centers around a family potentially losing their home, but the plot hardly matters. If the idea of a veteran group of actors playing melodrama broadly to the point of absurdity appeals, this is a film for you.

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The Innocents (1961)

At their best, an old dark house film can be just about the scariest type of horror film. The Innocents is one of the finest of the type, a white-knuckle haunted house thriller. And it accomplishes all that without a hint of cheap jump scares or overused conventions. The film provides all the tension it needs through atmosphere thick enough to cut with a knife. 

It’s best not to say any more about the events that unfold, as this is a film where it’s better to go in blind. What is no spoiler is that Deborah Kerr gives the perfect performance, along with the unnerving children she is in charge of (Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin). See this one with the lights out and go along for the ride. 

Bye Bye Braverman (1968)

Coming of age films are a particular kind of an emotional experience. Endless numbers of films showing children facing the precipice of adulthood have been made. Bye Bye Braverman, meanwhile, is a coming of age film of a much rarer variety: facing old age and death. Wrapped up in a package of a smart New York comedy, there’s a lot more going on than just clever fast-paced dialogue.

The plot is as simple as can be: when one of their friends dies, four buddies take a trip together to attend his funeral. This ordeal is handled exactly the way it’s gone on forever in daily life. None of them want to talk about what happened, and if they have to, they just wave it off as no big deal. All the while, they’re struggling with their own mortality and see premonitions about what their own end might look like. The film is never heavy-handed with the emotion or sentiment, but it does hit hard at just the right moments.

The ensemble cast of George Segal, Joseph Wiseman, Sorrell Booke and Jack Warden have stupendous chemistry. You can feel that this motley crew of friends has had conversations like this forever. They are funny and clever throughout, and are helped by memorable small parts from Alan King and Jessica Walter. 

It’s also a fascinating time capsule of New York. Sidney Lumet overwhelms the viewer with a stream of 60s New York streets and locations. It’s just an extra part of the experience, and one that provides a great window into the past.  Bye Bye Braverman is, on the surface, just a smart little film. But it’s the kind of film that leaves a deeper impression than you would ever expect.

Deep Red (1975)

Suspiria may be Dario Argento’s greatest work, but Deep Red isn’t too far behind. It has all the jaw-dropping visuals and colors you’d come to expect, with everything else being the icing on the cake. And in this case, the plot is an intriguing murder mystery. The mystery would be intriguing enough when done by anyone else, but when put together under the artful hand of Argento, it’s a real delight for the senses.
Eyes of Laura Mars (1978)

A psychological thriller that’s ripe with style and originality, Eyes of Laura Mars is a film that delivers an exceptional overall package. Faye Dunaway plays a fashion photographer who begins seeing premonitions of murders about to happen. This is a cool enough concept for a thriller, but it’s the style of the film that makes it so good. The film doesn’t skimp on the fashion part of the story, providing a cool and slick look at the fashion world at the time. The premonitions are just as slick and are quite eerie. This is one of those films that sounds kind of fun on paper, and then provides so much more in execution.

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Curtains (1983)
Reviewed here earlier this yearCurtains has all the feel of a 70s proto-slasher, despite coming much later. It has all that you can hope from the genre: actors that make you care about their fate, an unsettling atmosphere, and some scary moments. This is one of the better under-the-radar slashers out there.

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