Each year I like to single out not only the best new films and TV shows I saw in the year, but the best new discoveries from the full spectrum of film and TV history. If I’m seeing something for the first time, no matter how long ago it was produced, then—guess what?—it’s a new movie. This is the first time I’ve done this for my blog. (And where else are you going to find a Best-of list that includes both Ozu and Pokémon?)
Partly because I retired this year, I made more trips to movie theaters this year than I have in a single year since 2004. I made 31 trips to theaters in 2015 and saw 33 movies. 18 were U.S. productions, eight were from Japan, six from the U.K., three from China, and two from Hong Kong. 24 were new releases dating from 2014 or 2015. 17 were indies and six were documentaries (the most I’ve seen in one year on the big screen in a few decades). Ten were revival/repertory screenings. Only six were major studio Hollywood releases. It helped that I’m now eligible for senior citizen discounts at some theaters. ($8 at the Paris!)
If I had to pick a best-of-2015 list from the new releases seen in theaters, it would include these seven titles, in the order in which I saw them, with comments from my original notes on them:
WELCOME TO ME (2015/U.S., 105 min., color, comedy/Alchemy) Seen May 13 at the Angelika Film Center. Dir.: Shira Piven. Cast: Kristen Wiig, Wes Bentley, James Marsden, Linda Cardellini, Joan Cusack, Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh.
Kristen Wiig stars as a bipolar woman who wins the lottery and uses her winnings to hire an infomercial crew to shoot a weekly hour-long show about her. Interesting supporting cast, including Wes Bentley, James Marsden, Tim Robbins, Joan Cusack, and Jennifer Jason Leigh. The film won me over right from the start when, in the very first scene, Wiig pops in a VHS tape of an old Oprah show! VHS lives! Wiig is amazing in this. Parts of it early on are quite funny, but then it turns sad and painful. I was engrossed the whole time and engaged with Wiig’s character, Alice Klieg, even when she gets really crazy and hurtful. Robbins plays her frustrated psychiatrist, Cusack the director of the TV show and Leigh one of the crew. Bentley and Marsden play the two brothers who produce the show with Wiig’s newly-won money. There are no cheap shots in it. No one is set up as a villain. Alice is clearly her own worst enemy, but we care deeply about her, as do many of the characters in the film. I didn’t detect any false moments.
WHEN MARNIE WAS THERE (2014/Japan, 103 min., color, fantasy drama, dubbed in English/Studio Ghibli) Seen May 22 at the IFC Center. Dir.: Hiromasa Yonebayashi. Voice Cast: Hailee Steinfeld, Kiernan Shipka, Geena Davis.
WHEN MARNIE WAS THERE is a love story, a ghost story and a coming-of-age tale, all rendered in beautiful, painterly, exquisite 2-D animation. It’s about Anna, a troubled 12-year-old girl in modern Japan who is sent away one summer to visit relatives in Kushiro, on the island of Hokkaido, so that she can get a break from the stress that is giving her asthma attacks. While exploring the rural region where she is staying, she finds a magnificent old house that’s apparently been abandoned and eventually meets a beautiful girl named Marnie, who supposedly lives there, and embarks on a series of adventures with her in what soon becomes obvious is some kind of ghostly realm. When a new family moves into the house and a little girl named Sayaka moves into the room once occupied by Marnie, she discovers Marnie’s diary and shares it with Anna, solving part of the mystery, but complicating other parts. More revelations ensue, resulting in the kind of emotional spectacle that some of us cherish but encounter too rarely in films these days.
Continued in my blog entry of May 24, 2015.
THE OUTRAGEOUS SOPHIE TUCKER (2014/U.S., 96 min., color and b&w, documentary) Seen August 13 at the Cinema Village. Dir.: William Gazecki. Producers: Susan and Lloyd Ecker. Interviewees include Tony Bennett, Michael Feinstein, Barbara Walters, Carol Channing, Shecky Greene, and various Tucker relatives. Producers Susan and Lloyd Ecker introduced the film and did a Q&A afterwards.
Jazz singer Sophie Tucker (1887-1966) was a seminal figure in American show business in the first two-thirds of the 20th century. She performed all over the country and knew everybody in show biz and other areas of public life. She didn’t make a lot of movies and kept her TV appearances few and far between, compared to many of her contemporaries, so she’s not as well known today as she ought to be, but this film does a fine job of reminding us why she was important and the battles she fought for those who came after. She was a larger-than-life character who was held in awe by so many other show biz icons.
LISTEN TO ME MARLON (2015/UK, 95 min., color and b&w, documentary/Showtime) Seen August 14 at the Film Forum. Director: Stevan Riley.
This film uses lots of behind-the-scenes footage of Marlon Brando and interview clips with him from over the decades to supplement audio recordings that Brando made about himself over the years. It takes an impressionistic approach that is just mesmerizing, especially if you’re already a fan of Brando and I can’t imagine younger film students not wanting to seek out his films after seeing this.
DRAGON BLADE (2015/China, 100 min., color, historical epic/Lionsgate) Seen September 10 at the AMC Empire. Dir.: Daniel Lee. Cast: Jackie Chan, John Cusack, Adrien Brody, Lin Peng, Mika Wang.
Jackie Chan’s latest film is a Chinese production, a historical epic set on the Silk Road in 50 BC. John Cusack co-stars as a Roman general commanding a lost legion and–long story short–he and his men help Jackie and his men rebuild Wild Geese Gate using Roman engineering technology. The villain is would-be Roman emperor Tiberius (Adrien Brody), who’s after the heir to the throne of Rome, a blind boy whom Cusack is protecting. Wild Geese Gate is an outpost on the Silk Road that holds citizens from a variety of countries. Jackie’s motto is “Turn foes into friends.” Lots of action, lots of languages–Jackie speaks Arabic at one point and Mandarin to his men, while the Romans speak English, but sing in Latin. Fascinating movie with very high production values and a big budget. The U.S. release version is only about 100 min., cut down from 127 min. It played for only one week at one theater, the AMC Empire. I thought it was quite good and don’t understand why it didn’t get a wider release.
CAROL (2015/U.S.-U.K.-France, 118 min., color, drama/The Weinstein Company) Seen November 24 at the Paris Theater. Dir.: Todd Haynes. Cast: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler.
Based on a Patricia Highsmith novel about a lesbian love affair, CAROL is quite good and the performances by the two leads are just about perfect. And they’re photographed so well. I couldn’t take my eyes off either one of them. (No one has a piercing stare like Rooney.) I cared about the characters and was easily drawn into the story. What’s equally great about the film is the production design and art direction employed to recreate 1953 Manhattan. Every detail rang true to me. You really feel like you’re in that world. Every supporting part and extra are cast with people who look like they could have stepped out of crowd shots of Manhattan in that era. Haircuts, clothes, coats, furniture, sets, cigarettes, cars, offices (including the New York Times Photo Section). The songs in the background. The streets of Manhattan in 1953. I kept looking for recognizable Manhattan streets and landmarks dressed up in period décor, but didn’t spot any. So where’d they shoot this? Cincinnati! And it works! I had problems with the ending, but I’ve since learned that it matches the one in the book, so I won’t complain.
HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT (2015/France-U.S., 80 min., color and b&w, documentary/Cohen Media Group/Artline Films) Seen December 6 at the Film Forum. Dir.: Kent Jones. Narrator: Bob Balaban. Interviewees include Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Paul Schrader, Olivier Assayas, Wes Anderson, Richard Linklater, David Fincher, James Gray, Kiyoshi Kurosawa.
The second documentary this year about iconic figures from cinema history relying chiefly on audio recordings of the subject. Here, it’s the 1962 interviews with Alfred Hitchcock conducted by Francois Truffaut, excerpts of which are heard on the soundtrack and are supplemented by footage from Hitchcock’s films and new interviews with a generational cross-section of American film directors and two from other countries (France and Japan).
Here’s my IMDB review.
Here are glimpses of other trips to the movies this year:
As for home video, here’s the breakdown of movies I watched this year:
Movies seen: 293
First-time viewings: 159
Kung fu: 44
Animated features: 19 (17 Japanese)
Films by country:
Hong Kong: 48
(Shaw Bros.: 12)
Films by format:
Cable TV: 45 (usually TCM or Encore Western)
I saw at least one movie from every year from 1928 to 2015. The most I saw from any one year was 1954, with a total of 12, most of them westerns. I saw more films from the 1950s than from any other decade (68), with the 1960s and 1970s coming in second and third with 46 and 45, respectively.
The best first-time viewings seen at home included the following 21 films, in chronological order by year of release. (More than half are from the ’50s.) For some of them, I’ve included short reviews that I composed when I watched them or links to my IMDB reviews or previous blog entries where applicable:
JAPANESE GIRLS AT THE HARBOR (1933/Japan) Dir.: Hiroshi Shimizu. Cast: Michiko Oikawa, Yukiko Inoue, Ureo Egawa, Ranko Sawa, Tatsuo Saito. This is the first film I’ve seen by Hiroshi Shimizu and it’s unlike any other silent film I’ve ever seen and unlike any other Japanese film I’ve seen. I haven’t quite processed it yet. Three of the lead actors seem to be, in my eyes, half-white and I’m not sure that one of them isn’t supposed to be a westerner. It’s set in Yokohama and is about a love triangle involving two school girls and a boy they like and what happens when an act of violence sends one of the girls away, off to eventually run a brothel, while the other girl marries the boy and settles into domestic bliss in a western-style home. Eventually the girl who ran off comes back and complicates their lives. I was entranced the whole time, not an easy thing when I watch a film in the evening before bedtime.
SALUTE TO THE MARINES (1943/U.S.) Dir.: S. Sylvan Simon. Cast: Wallace Beery, Fay Bainter, Ray Collins, Keye Luke. SALUTE TO THE MARINES (1943) is an MGM production, in Technicolor, about a retired Marine Corps sergeant (Wallace Beery) living in the Philippines who gets pulled back into action when the Japanese invade on Dec. 7, 1941. (Keye Luke plays his sidekick.) It’s quite a rousing film about the war, focused on the Philippines and the Americans who were stationed there. There’s a spectacular battle scene late in the film where Beery leads a contingent of marines and local Filipinos in defending a bridge to keep the Japanese invaders from getting across. And it’s all in Technicolor. It may not be as intense as the similarly-themed BATAAN (1943) and BACK TO BATAAN (1945), but it’s quite an astounding film in its own right. A lot of attention is paid to relations among the different communities there before the conflict begins, including future enemies.
THE NEVADAN (1950/U.S.) Dir.: Gordon Douglas. Stars: Randolph Scott, Dorothy Malone, Forrest Tucker. Tough, gritty western shot at Lone Pine, CA, about a hunt for hidden cash in a remote abandoned mine with one set of tough guys (Scott and Tucker, who don’t trust each other very much) pursued by another set of tough guys (George Macready, Frank Faylen, Jeff Corey), with spunky Dorothy Malone caught in the middle.
THE SECRET OF CONVICT LAKE (1951/U.S.) Dir.: Michael Gordon. Cast: Glenn Ford, Gene Tierney, Ethel Barrymore, Zachary Scott, Ann Dvorak. Superb cast, excellent script, expert direction in really compelling and suspenseful tale of town of women in a snowed-in California mountain town who have to contend with five escaped convicts. There’s not a false note in this. Why did I not know of this film? Why had no one ever told me about it? It’s hard to categorize. Not quite a western, not quite a crime drama, not quite film noir, not quite gothic melodrama. And based on a true story, per narrator Dale Robertson.
Blog entry from August 2, 2015.
JAPANESE WAR BRIDE (1952/U.S.) Dir.: King Vidor. Cast: Don Taylor, Shirley Yamaguchi, Cameron Mitchell, Marie Windsor. Shirley Yamaguchi plays Tae Shimizu, a Red Cross nurse in Japan who tends to Jim Sterling (Don Taylor) after he’s wounded in Korea, so she’s not really a “Japanese War Bride.” (I would imagine that marrying one’s nurse puts them in a different category.) Shot on location in Salinas and, later in the film, Monterey. It presents an honest look at the prejudice and culture clash involved in bringing a Japanese bride to California in 1952, as Jim’s family adjusts to Tae’s presence and she deals with various slights, misunderstandings and acts of malice. There are Japanese-American neighbors and their experience in an internment camp during the war is referenced, possibly the first time a Hollywood film acknowledged this. The elderly father of that family is still quite bitter about it. Pretty strong stuff for 1952. Nancy Kwan says the Production Code prevented whites and Asians from kissing before SUZIE WONG (1960), but Shirley and Don kiss in this film.
THE STORY OF ROBIN HOOD AND HIS MERRIE MEN (1952/U.K.) Dir.: Ken Annakin. Cast: Richard Todd, Joan Rice, Peter Finch, James Robertson Justice, James Hayter, Martita Hunt, Elton Hayes, Michael Hordern. So much good stuff in this, easily the best Robin Hood movie after the 1938 Errol Flynn version I’ve ever seen. More down-to-earth than Flynn’s version. Great running song commentary by Allan-a-Dale, who joins the Merrie Men late in the film. Rice is excellent and makes a very proactive Marian. Finch is superb as the villain, the Sheriff of Nottingham. I wouldn’t have recognized him if I hadn’t consulted the cast list. Great production, too, with lots of location filming somewhere.
WOMAN THEY ALMOST LYNCHED (1953/U.S.) Dir.: Allan Dwan. Cast: Joan Leslie, Audrey Totter, Brian Donlevy. Forget JOHNNY GUITAR, this is the female western you’ve been waiting for
THE OUTLAW STALLION (1954/U.S.) Dir.: Fred F. Sears. Cast: Philip Carey, Dorothy Patrick, Billy Gray, Roy Roberts. Solid western with beautiful Technicolor footage of wild horses
WYOMING RENEGADES (1954/U.S.) Dir.: Fred F. Sears. Cast: Philip Carey, Martha Hyer, Gene Evans, William Bishop, Douglas Kennedy, Roy Roberts. Evans and Bishop play snarling Butch Cassidy and grinning Sundance Kid and their gang is the Wild Bunch. Carey is an ex-gang member trying to go straight. Sundance comes to town and puts money in the bank to set up a robbery the next day—exactly what David Brian did in FURY OF GUNSIGHT PASS by the same director a year later. Carey warns the town authorities in advance, yet the gang succeeds in the robbery anyway and the town blames Carey and tries to hang him but Douglas Kennedy, his new partner in the blacksmith shop, pulls out a rifle and enables Carey to escape. Lots of clever twists and turns abound in this short, compact, action-packed, low-budget color western, with quite a surprise at the end.
FURY AT GUNSIGHT PASS (1956/U.S.) Dir.: Fred F. Sears. Cast: David Brian, Neville Brand, Richard Long, Lisa Davis. Tight, well-plotted western about a hunt for missing loot as a group of outlaws take over a town during a sandstorm after a botched bank robbery. The outlaws are led by David Brian and Neville Brand who can do this kind of thing in their sleep.
MEET ME IN LAS VEGAS (1956/U.S.) Dir.: Roy Rowland. Cast: Dan Dailey, Cyd Charisse, Jim Backus. Guest stars include: Lena Horne, Frankie Laine, Mitsuko Sawamura. Unbilled cameos include: Tony Martin, Vic Damone, Debbie Reynolds, Frank Sinatra, Peter Lorre. Lots of musical numbers, all good, some great. Cyd’s numbers are all fantastic. Dan’s duet with her at the barbecue with about ten male backups is excellent. His duet with Mitsuko is delightful. She sings one song in Japanese before doing “My Lucky Charm” with Dan. DVD extras feature two songs cut from the film, one with Dan, George Chakiris and Betty Lynn and one more number by Lena Horne, which is better than the one that’s IN the film. All in all, I really liked this. Why had I not known about it all these years? Why was it never screened back in the day? It didn’t come on my radar until a friend told me about it on Oct. 4, 2014.
THE VAMPIRE (1957/U.S.) Dir.: Paul Landres. Cast: John Beal, Coleen Gray, Kenneth Tobey, Dabbs Greer, James Griffith. This obscure horror film starring John Beal turns out to be one of the best b&w 1950s horror films I’ve ever seen. It’s not the only film to treat vampirism as an addiction, but it’s gotta be the very first. Beal plays a medical doctor who is given a vial of experimental pills by one of his patients, a scientist, who then dies. Beal inadvertently takes one for a headache and soon finds himself addicted to them and has to take one every night. The chief side effect is that he turns into a Mr. Hyde-type monster at night and seeks victims in his suburban California town to drink their blood. Beal is excellent, especially in scenes where he has to cope with his withdrawal pains. He’s a single parent and the growing tension with his adolescent daughter as the strains of his addiction become apparent are particularly harrowing. Just watching Beal act this out makes me wonder why he didn’t have a bigger film career. I know he did a lot of theatre and preferred New York to L.A., but I’m astounded at how few films of his I’ve seen.
KING CREOLE (1958/U.S.) Dir.: Michael Curtiz. Cast: Elvis Presley, Walter Matthau, Carolyn Jones, Dolores Hart, Vic Morrow.
From my Elvis at 80 blog entry of January 8, 2015:
I’ve always felt that Elvis fared best when in the hands of strong directors (e.g. Phil Karlson, Gordon Douglas, Don Siegel) and here he’s working with an old Hollywood hand who’d guided such stars as Errol Flynn, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart through some of their best films. It’s a contrived and formulaic Hollywood melodrama about a good boy with a chip on his shoulder who tries to survive in the world of New Orleans nightlife by negotiating his way out of trouble with the bad guys while trying to stick full-time with the good guys only to run into inevitable violence. (It’s based on a novel by Harold Robbins.) But Elvis manages to make the character his own and one constantly feels the moral seesaw he’s forced to ride throughout the film and the battle between his own desires and goals and those of the adults and women around him. He’s basically a good guy, with more nerve and courage than usual, who finds he might have to dirty his hands once in a while to get ahead in this world. He sings ten songs in it and they’re much bluesier than the fluffy songs he was saddled with in his 1960s musicals. He’s got a top-notch supporting cast, too, including Carolyn Jones, Walter Matthau, Dean Jagger, Paul Stewart, Vic Morrow and future nun Dolores Hart. In fact, he beats up both Matthau and Morrow in it. I tend to like FLAMING STAR and a couple of his other films better, but this one is definitely in the top five of Presley films. And he even shows up on location in New Orleans for a few scenes, surely a first for Elvis and something he didn’t often do for the rest of his film career.
THE GIANT OF MARATHON (1959/Italy-France) Directors: Jacques Tourneur, Mario Bava. Cast: Steve Reeves, Mylene Demongeot, Sergio Fantoni. Above-average sword-&-sandal epic with Reeves as Philippides, hero of the Battle of Marathon, who guides Athens’ efforts to fend off the invading Persians. Bigger-budgeted than usual, with scenes of armies clashing on land and then switching to a sea battle, including extensive underwater action. Quite satisfying.
LATE AUTUMN (1960/Japan) Dir.: Yasujiro Ozu. Cast: Setsuko Hara, Yoko Tsukasa, Mariko Okada. As close to perfection as I’ve seen in a film in a long time. It’s a remake of LATE SPRING (1949), with significant variations. In the earlier film, Setsuko Hara played the daughter, but here she plays the mother. She’s a widow and her daughter (Yoko Tsukasa) is full-grown and lives with her and there’s extraordinary pressure from family friends for them both to get married. The resolution was not what I predicted. Quite a change from the earlier film (about a widowed father and his daughter) in which no one quite got to do what they wanted. And it’s got Mariko Okada (pictured above) as the daughter’s co-worker and friend, a woman who is rapidly becoming my favorite Japanese actress of all time.
JAPAN’S LONGEST DAY (1967/Japan) Dir.: Kihachi Okamoto. Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Chishu Ryu, Toshio Kurosawa, So Yamamura, Akira Kubo, Jun Tazaki.
Blog entry from August 16, 2015: Epic drama of Japan’s surrender in 1945
THE DEVIL’S BRIDE (aka THE DEVIL RIDES OUT, 1968/U.K.) Dir.: Terence Fisher. Screenplay: Richard Matheson. Cast: Christopher Lee, Charles Gray, Nike Arrighi, Leon Greene. Based on the novel by Dennis Wheatley. This film is very good, one of the best Hammer films I’ve seen and one of Lee’s best roles. He plays the hero. Very good treatment of occult lore. A little hokey at times (e.g. the Angel of Death), but I found it acceptable. Lee invokes the name of Jesus Christ during one session. Would a remake have the courage to allow that? I believe I have the novel somewhere. In the book, The Films of Christopher Lee, Lee claims he was technical adviser for the occult lore and based it on his own studies and trips to the British Museum. He says he’d been pushing Hammer for years to do an occult film based on the real thing.
RIVER OF FURY (1973/Hong Kong) Dir.: Chang Tseng-Chai. Cast: Lily Ho, Danny Lee, Ku Feng, Ouyang Shafei, Yang Chih-Ching, Tien Ching, Fan Mei-Sheng. RIVER OF FURY: Tale of young love, crime and opera in period China
AKO-JO DANZETSU (THE FALL OF AKO CASTLE, aka SWORDS OF VENGEANCE) (1978/Japan) Dir.: Kinji Fukasaku. Cast: Kinnosuke Yorozuya, Masaomi Kondo, Kensaku Morita, Mariko Okada, Mieko Harada, Sonny Chiba, Tetsuro Tamba, Toshiro Mifune. Kinji Fukasaku’s emotional rendering of the saga of the 47 Ronin
THE CAVALIER (1978/Taiwan) Dir.: Joseph Kuo. Cast: Doris Chen (Lung Chung Erh), Yee Yuen, Lo Lieh, Nancy Yen. Unusual kung fu comedy with some pleasant surprises
VAMPIRE VS. VAMPIRE (1989/Hong Kong) Dir.: Lam Ching Ying. Cast: Lam Ching Ying, Chin Siu Ho, Fong Liu, Maria Cordero, Sandra Ng, Billy Lau, Regina Kent. Pretty wild and fast-paced, with lots of imagination and surprisingly good FX throughout. Lots of ghost and vampire action. The nuns are interesting characters, four comical but attractive female nuns led by a heavyset Mother Superior (Maria Cordero) who appears to be mixed-race (the actress is from Macau) and does a lot of physical action in the film. There’s a western priest-turned-vampire, but the actor is not listed in any credits list. Fong Liu as Chin Siu Ho’s fellow student is funny—he plays the more slapstick-y comical part—and he looks familiar but nothing in his credits rings a bell. Not familiar with Billy Lau, who plays the captain. Where was this filmed? It doesn’t look like Hong Kong. There’s a little boy playing a young hopping vampire who becomes the protagonists’ helpmate/sidekick. Very funny and the kid is in full makeup and costume and has to do a lot of physical action, including getting hung on a wall.
I watched 569 TV episodes in 2015, 211 of which were American and 345 of which were Japanese and of those Japanese episodes, 287 were animated. I watched 67 current TV episodes, mostly from three different series, and 110 classic American TV episodes. I sampled 169 different series in all.
I watched the complete runs of three series, all current ones that premiered this year, and I watched them all the old-fashioned way–sitting down in front of my set at their scheduled time (how quaint):
Pokémon the Series: XY – Cartoon Network
In this season, Ash Ketchum continues his journey to various cities to rack up his gym badges, but he’s accompanied by Serena, who specializes in Pokémon performances, rather than battles, so she brings an attention to design and a little artistic sophistication to the episodes in which she’s highlighted. They’re also accompanied by young scientific genius Clemont and his little sister Bonnie. Serena is the companion with whom Ash has bonded the strongest out of all the female traveling companions he had in his 18 years as the adolescent hero of this program and there is none of the arguing, bickering, or tension he’s experienced with past companions. She clearly admires and respects him and values the courage he consistently displays and the care and compassion he lavishes on his Pokémon (in between pitting them in battle with each other in every other episode) and is not afraid to tell him. It’s quite touching, actually.
Power Rangers Dino Charge – Nickelodeon
Make It Pop – Nickelodeon
One IMDB review and an entry from my other blog:
Another new series intrigued me and I watched a few episodes from it:
Empire – Fox
Encore Western started running two series I hadn’t seen in many years and I watched several episodes of each:
Death Valley Days
16 episodes seen.
I also was impressed by the two-part American Experience: Walt Disney
Finally, here’s a look back at some of the stars who passed away this year:
Samuel Goldwyn Jr.
Dick Van Patten
George “Foghorn” Winslow