Thanks to being unemployed for most of the year, I saw even more movies in 2021 than I did in 2020. Here are my top ten older films (pre-2020) watched for the first time.
1. A BREAD FACTORY
Compare the generosity and spirit writer/director Patrick Wang elicits to that of other, better-known filmmakers, but that might discredit what he’s singularly accomplished here: a two-part, four-hour-long, layered, emphatic study of a struggling arts organization in small town America whose universe, as finite as it may physically appear, keeps on expanding without obscuring the constants that define and embody it. A pivotal conflict drives the first part (subtitled For The Sake Of Gold) while the second (Walk With Me A While) unexpectedly, gleefully delves into surrealism only to bring it all back to a quietly resonant conclusion. Also, who knew a dramatization of a town budget hearing could be so riveting?
2. A NEW LEAF
I’ve been hearing for years how special this film is, and from the opening EKG car gag on, it does not disappoint. Elaine May’s directorial debut is certainly screwball comedy; however, unlike contemporaneous homage What’s Up Doc, it pushes the genre to unprecedented, discomforting places, tempering Walter Matthau’s sinister intentions with chance occurrences that reset this universe’s moral balance. It’s often brilliant, not only for casting Matthau as a priggish trust fund cad or for May directing herself as a proto-Shelley Duvall character, but also for her convincing him to get so thoroughly soaked in the film’s delirious finale.
3. 12 ANGRY MEN
I don’t know why it took me so long to watch this. Sure, you can adequately summarize it in one or two sentences, but how it gets from point A to point B conveys Sidney Lumet’s mastery of pacing, blocking and framing to transform what is essentially a single set play into cinema. While obviously dated in its racially and sexually uniform cast, it’s best viewed as a period piece that intrigues most when it offers occasional glimpses of self-recognition. And Henry Fonda is perfectly cast in that you both want to slap him and shake his hand, maybe even tell his character your real name.
4. THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY?
A psychological horror film and the monster is utter despair. Sidney Pollack’s 1969 adaptation of a 1935 novel about a Depression-era marathon dance contest eschews any hint of nostalgia for a brutal, gallows humor realism in line with a post Bonnie and Clyde world. I doubt I’ve previously seen a lead character more jaded and irritable than Gloria, and Jane Fonda is indelible in the role—I only wish she was the one to have spoken the film’s title, as it could’ve been up there with “What a dump!” as classic line readings go.
5. NIGHT MOVES
This is almost Royal Tenenbaum, P. I., and that kinda rules. Searching for the missing teenage daughter of a former movie actress, Gene Hackman is nearly as rumpled and lived-in as Elliot Gould’s Marlowe in The Long Goodbye, only without the latter’s tics and insouciance. Gen-X pop culture buffs will take delight in seeing Susan Clark (the mom from Webster) as his wife, a young James Woods as a bad boyfriend and an even younger Melanie Griffith as the missing girl. A tightly constructed, character-driven thriller that more cineastes should know.
Sean Baker excels at getting great performances from young Dree Hemingway (a dead ringer for her mom Mariel) and the elderly Besedka Johnson. Both could’ve easily come off as one-note or shtick-driven, but they add heft to this L.A. sex-work centered drama about an unlikely friendship. As someone who found The Florida Project overrated and hasn’t yet seen Red Rocket, I think I liked this even more than Tangerine.
Possibly the best ensemble cast of its era: Patricia Neal and Melvyn Douglas deservedly won Oscars for this, while Paul Newman’s titular cad was also nominated and teenaged Brandon deWilde should’ve been. Beyond that and the great cinematography, Martin Ritt’s film also feels slightly out of time and proves that old Hollywood could interpret Larry McMurtry nearly as well as Peter Bogdanovich (RIP) would about a decade later.
8. MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW
Director Leo McCarey, who helmed many comedies (including The Awful Truth the same year) anticipates his later melodramas like Going My Way with this story of an older couple forced to separate when they lose their home and none of their children will take them in. Remarkably candid and unwavering for its time; the last third, where Bark (Victor Moore) and Lucy (Beulah Bondi) are finally freed from the shackles of their family and making time for themselves, together, is wonderfully poignant.
9. FAT CITY
I love that this improbable little film from the director of The African Queen (giving New Hollywood a run for its money) with Stacy Keach showing how well he can carry a film, fresh-faced Jeff Bridges more than holding his own and the future Coach from Cheers providing more substance and grace than you’d ever expect from him (takes a deep breath) exists.
10. THE LEGEND OF THE STARDUST BROTHERS
This 1985 extravaganza is one of the craziest cult films to re-emerge from Japan to western audiences since the 1977 wackjob comedic-horror dream House. Would make an ideal double feature with Phantom of the Paradise (the credits end with “Thanks, Winslow Leach”(!)) or The Happiness of The Katikuris or even The Apple. Absolutely deranged and all its best songs sound exactly like early-mid ’80s Sparks.
Broadcast News, Bugsy Malone, O Fantasma, The Holy Mountain, The Hudsucker Proxy, In The Cut, The In-Laws, It’s Such A Beautiful Day, The Last of Sheila, Little Murders, Payday, Pink Narcissus, Le Rayon Vert, A Sunday In The Country, Sylvio, Tower, The Treasure of The Sierra Madre, Weirdos
BEST RE-WATCHES (not including anything for 24 Frames):
After Life, Beyond The Valley of The Dolls, Chinatown, The Conformist, Exotica, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Happy Together, Head, Housekeeping, The Lady Eve, The Long Goodbye, Margaret, Stranger Than Paradise, The Taking Of Pelham One Two Three (1974), To Sleep With Anger, What Happened Was…, The Wicker Man (1973)