A year in movies isn’t just about the new releases. In addition to the EMOs, now I present the 3rd annual Ethan’s Repertory Picks, running down some of the best, worst and most memorable games of cinematic catch-up that I played in 2017. Enjoy!
For Marilyn Monroe Really Going For It With the Crazy: “Don’t Bother to Knock” (1952), Roy Ward Baker
For Marilyn Monroe Really Bored: “Niagara” (1953), Henry Hathaway
For the Origin of Every Think-Piece and Opinion You’ve Ever Seen or Had About Marilyn Monroe: “The Seven Year Itch” (1955), Billy Wilder
For “Deliverance” But More Martial and Also Insane: “Southern Comfort” (1981), Walter Hill
For the Silliest Vin Diesel Hair: “The Last Witch Hunter” (2015), Breck Eisner
For When Your “Stranger Things” ’80s Nostalgia Isn’t Ultra-Violent Enough: “Turbo Kid” (2015), Francois Simard, Anouk Whissell, Yoann-Karl Whissell
For When You Want to Yell At Protagonists Who Are Not Nearly Freaked Out Enough About the Circumstances They Find Themselves In: “Children of the Corn” (1984), Fritz Kiersch
For Cary Grant In Some Really Primo Hats: “Only Angels Have Wings” (1939), Howard Hawks
For Faye Dunaway Really Going For It in a Movie with Unclear Reasons for Existing: “Mommie Dearest” (1981), Frank Perry
For a Great Le Carre Adaptation Done in By Bizarre Casting: “The Little Drummer Girl” (1984), George Roy Hill
For A So-So Le Carre Adaptation Elevated By Great Casting: “The Russia House” (1990), Fred Schepisi
For Sexy Mermaids That Will Eat the Patriarchy: “The Lure” (2015), Agnieszka Smoczynska
For the Particular Delight of Rock Hudson Trying to Fit Into a Car That’s Too Small For Him, Which Is Really What We Should Be Talking About When We Say That They Don’t Make Them Like They Used To: “Pillow Talk” (1959), Michael Gordon
For a Thriller About Revenge Against the 1% and Nazis That, Somehow, Feels Even Less Timely: “Inside Man” (2006), Spike Lee
For Checking Your Goddamn Narrative Logic At the Door, We’re Making a Soviet Avant-Garde War Movie and Just Go With It: “Story of the Flaming Years” (1961), Yulia Solntseva
For Super Super Fashionable Murder: “Blood and Black Lace” (1964), Mario Bava
For the Good Old Days When Charles Durning Could Be An Action/Thriller Hero: “When a Stranger Calls” (1979), Fred Walton
For When You Really Feel Like Suspending Disbelief, Sure Orson Welles Could Hide Out in Small-Town Connecticut Without Attracting Any Attention: “The Stranger” (1946), Orson Welles
For The Most Xtreme Xaction Xaround: “xXx” (2002), Rob Cohen
For Half of a Pretty Good Movie Just Repeated Twice: “Sully” (2016), Clint Eastwood
Top 10 Repertory Picks of 2017
10. “Train to Busan” (2016), Sang-ho Yeon
A clever, zippy take on the zombie outbreak genre, follows through on its killer conceit with claustrophobic action and character work. The third act really starts to lag, but terrific set-pieces and likable leads make for a real romp that manages to sneak in some feeling.
9. “Woman of the Year” (1942), George Stevens
A contradictory movie – obvious reshoots and edits reveal paradoxical attitudes towards femininity and Hepburn’s fierce investigative journalist Tess Harding in particular. Her independent spirit is both validated by a refreshingly oddball-yet-realistic romance with Tracy’s kind but emotionally stunted sports reporter; yet knocked down by that grafted-on ending that clearly needs to put the character “in her place” for a 1940s American wife. But when it’s embracing the eccentricities and fumbling of Tess and Sam’s relationship, “Woman of the Year” feels surprisingly ahead of its time and quite unlike contemporary screwball romances – and, while that re-shot ending sequence is awkward, poorly written and problematic against the rest of the film, it *does* give Hepburn one of the best purely comic set-pieces of her career.
8. “The Women” (1939), George Cukor
Likewise – it’s rough that even when investing in a rare all-female production, it’s tough to say whether Golden Age Hollywood could quite pass the Bechdel Test. But even if the story can’t stray past typical character confinements – “The Women” is all socialite machinations, gossip, and affairs – it’s impossible to put such an incredible cast together and not get something special. Shearer, Crawford, Russell, Fontaine, Paulette Goddard, Marjorie Main, Ruth Hussey – letting these superb actresses bounce off each other, without a rote Melvyn Douglas performance or somesuch to get in the way, remains (sadly) a unique experience.
7. “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (1941), William Dieterle
Dieterle, a Hollywood transplant from Weimar Germany, leans into the gothic horror of Stephen Vincent Benet’s colonial New England fable, with playful special effects and haunting imagery. Walter Huston has a near criminal amount of fun as the demonic Mr. Scratch.
6. “Repo Man” (1984), Alex Cox
Cox’s encyclopedic knowledge of and affinity with the L.A. punk scene of the early ’80s may provide the easy hook, but it’s one thing to be referential and another to actually translate punk’s off-kilter humor and disregard for social norms into a movie so viscerally. A send-up of wacky conspiratorial sci-fi B-movies, a satirical critique of consumer dystopia, a punk rock coming-of-age story – none of it should add up to anything coherent, and maybe it doesn’t, but you can’t help but think about the makers laughing at you for being square enough to try to square it, and go along for the ride.
5. “Mildred Pierce” (1945), Michael Curtiz
Anyone who’s only seen Joan Crawford second-hand: filtered through “Mommie Dearest” or “Feud”, really owes it to themselves to see her at the height of her own power. “Mildred Pierce” ain’t a bad place to start. Narrative casts her as both heel and patsy, but the expressionistic noir wasteland of Curtiz’s California coastline, along with Crawford’s nuanced, powerhouse performance, suggest the deeper tragedy of circumstance going on here in Mildred Pierce’s story.
4. “Paprika” (2006), Satoshi Kon
A trippy, balls-to-the-wall thriller that appropriately abandons all logic in favor of stunning, dreamy imagery. Rather than some of its Hollywood equivalents – think “Inception” – Satoshi Kon’s anime classic leans into the absurdity and spontaneity of subconscious thought, trading precision plotting for a zippy, delightful journey that *feels* sensical, even when the details can, and should, fall by the wayside.
3. “Pather Panchali” (1955), Satyajit Ray
Ray’s loose, eminently empathetic masterpiece practically defines humanist cinema. Effortlessly gorgeous (the Criterion Collection and Academy’s painstaking 2015 restoration is truly something to behold), gently heart-breaking, “Pather Panchali” tells the story of a childhood with minimal bluster and excess. It’s a triumph of understatement and sensitivity.
2. “Poem of an Inland Sea” (1958), Yulia Solntseva
A deep cut – and even among the small crowd of New York cinephiles who happened to catch all three of Yulia Solntseva’s gorgeous Ukraine trilogy at Museum of the Moving Image this past summer, perhaps the oddball choice. The consensus pick for best of the bunch seemed to be the Tarkovsky-esque “Enchanted Desna”, and Solntseva won Best Director at Cannes for “Story of the Flaming Years”. But “Poem of an Inland Sea” really captured my fascination – precisely because it is in many ways the most stilted of the three. The most overtly “propagandistic”, it is also by far the queasiest about those propagandistic elements – building up the Soviet achievement of a new dam with visual grandeur while at the same time mourning the loss of the Ukrainian communities about to be flooded with a thoroughly anti-Party sense of melancholy and romanticism for the past. Though Solntseva’s visual style had clearly not yet fully matured, the characters in “Poem of an Inland Sea” are fleshed out and empathized with in a way the later films abandon for pure sensual stimulation – and it’s still hardly skimpy on stunning shots. A fascinating relic of the cultural/generational/ethnic tensions contained within the USSR.
1. “Dekalog: One” (1989), Krzysztof Kieslowski
No other filmmaker gives me chills in quite the same way as Kieslowski. I’m still only partially through the Dekalog, his cinematic series of loosely Biblical morality tales, but the distressing, bitter opening chapter sets a pall that is not easily shaken. As queasy and probing about the relationship between humanity and technology as the best episodes of “Black Mirror”, Kieslowski manages to ask some of the most unsettling, existential questions with the simplest of images.