Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Top Twenty First Time Viewings for 2016.

I greatly enjoyed doing this last year, so, with further apologies for the protracted delay in getting it to you, here is a run-down of what I consider the twenty best films I watched for the first time during 2016.

1. Ran 
(Akira Kurosawa, 1985)

Whilst I bow to no one in my admiration for ‘The Seven Samurai’, I have to confess that many of Kurosawa’s other famous, influential films tend to leave me cold – which I offer to some extent as an excuse for my tardiness in getting around to watching ‘Ran’, which, as you can probably guess from its placement here, I found to be pretty damned incredible, matching and perhaps even surpassing the achievements of the director's aforementioned masterpiece, not only in terms of the scale and ambition of its execution, but also in terms of the emotional power and raw beauty Kurosawa brings to bear on his subject matter.

As Kurosawa’s innate pessimism regarding the essential flaws of the human condition is layered atop Shakespeare’s already thoroughly doom-laden tragedy, ‘Ran’ coalesces into a gut-wrenching vision of apocalypse that hits hard, despite its highly stylised presentation – a harrowing and grotesque chronicle of man’s inhumanity to man, full of exquisitely rendered but ultimately senseless “sound and fury”, that by its conclusion feels like a requiem for the very idea of our trying to build something worthwhile from our species’ venal, self-sabotaging impulses – a message that, sadly, makes it feel like pretty much perfect viewing at the dawn of 2017.

2. The Conversation 
(Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)

The first time I watched ‘The Conversation’, I thought it was an excellent, meticulously planned thriller, marred by some ill-advised unreliable narrator/breakdown-of-reality stuff that undermined its otherwise watertight, logical construction in the second half. On second viewing however (about a week later), these more outré elements now seemed to fit perfectly into place within what I could now appreciate as a pretty much perfectly realised film – a layers-of-an-onion character POV piece that keeps revealing more and more, for as long we can stand to contemplate the crushing loneliness at its core.

Most of the time, when movies deal with the theme of ‘paranoia’, they do so in pretty heavy-handed fashion, but Coppola here captures the deeper and more subtle ways in which a paranoid outlook can affect an individual’s perception of the world extremely well. On second viewing, every single exchange, every movement that takes place in the film becomes ambiguous, as we see events through the eyes of a man entirely consumed by his condition, yet tragically aware of its symptoms and consequences.

As the seeds of doubt spread, nothing, not even the smallest facet of the character relationships that Hackman and the supporting cast so expertly play out, is ever comfortably resolved.

Amid all of ‘The Conversation’s more justly celebrated moments, the key to the whole movie for me comes from a line casually uttered by Harrison Ford’s sinister PA character: “I wasn’t following you, I was looking for you – there’s a difference.”

3. Quatermass & The Pit 
(Roy Ward Baker, 1967)

Yes, believe it or not, I’d never seen this before 2016, despite owning it on VHS for years. Having always been somewhat irked by the compromises Hammer imposed upon Nigel Kneale’s vision in their earlier Quatermass adaptations, I suppose I just didn’t quite have the heart to assess whatever damage they inflicted upon his masterpiece.

Well, as it turns out, I needn’t have worried. Whilst the TV version still just about edges it for me (largely thanks to the contribution of Andre Morell, god rest his soul), this one is nonetheless a knockout.

Compressing his own three hour TV script into under ninety minutes, and seemingly facing little interference from the producers in the process, Kneale if anything manages to make his earth-shattering science fictional concept revelations feel even more head-spinning in their implications, whilst, new to the Hammer treadmill, Baker directs as if he was still calling shots on a Hollywood blockbuster, making this into one of the studio’s grandest and most focused productions.

Throw in a fine cast (I’ll take Andrew Keir as as a close second best to Morell in the Quatermass stakes), an absolutely extraordinary score from Tristram Cary and a sincere dedication to bringing the story’s weirder and more transgressive elements to a matinee double bill crowd in full strength form, and this is not just one of Hammer’s best films, but one of the best British science fiction films ever made, period.

4. Under The Flag of the Red Sun 
(Kinji Fukasaku, 1972)

From the stricken school kids of ‘Battle Royale’ to the doomed street gangers of his Yakuza epics, the influence of the oft-chronicled trauma Kinji Fukasaku experienced whilst growing up during the second world war feel like an elephant in the room throughout long and varied directorial career. As a result, this modest yet devastating based-on-a-true-story drama, in which a war widow who has been denied a state pension gradually uncovers the appalling circumstances that led to her husband’s execution for treason whilst serving in New Guinea, feels very much like a key to understanding Fukasaku’s central concerns as a filmmaker.

As flashbacks depict conscripted Japanese soldiers reduced to a state of starvation and barbarism, eerily prefiguring the protagonists of the aforementioned ‘Battle Royale’ in their pointless “defence” of a deserted island the enemy probably couldn’t care less about, contemporary footage meanwhile depicts their surviving superior officers callously massaging the sordid truth into a reassuring national myth, whilst Fukasaku’s own core message – a bottomless rage against the way a government can destroy its own citizens, a quiet call to resist the toxic application of power against the powerless – comes across loud and clear.

Mixing just the right quantities of melodrama and ugly realism, the film eventually resolves itself into something approaching a Japanese equivalent to Kubrick’s ‘Paths of Glory’, leaving not a dry eye in the house, guaranteed.

Though this may all sound a bit heavy-going, ‘Under The Flag of the Red Sun’ takes an approachable, unpretentious and highly rewarding approach to some none-more-serious subject matter, and fans of Fukasaku’s more commercial work in particular owe it to themselves to track it down.

5. Wolf Guy: Enraged Lycanthrope 
(Kazuhiko Yamaguchi, 1975)

About twenty minutes into this extraordinary Toei actioner, you may wish to take a breath and reflect that you are watching a film in which Sonny Chiba plays a karate-fighting journalist who is secretly the last survivor of a race of werewolves, investigating the deaths of members of a bad boy rock band who are gradually being torn apart by an invisible lion apparently summoned as an act of pure vengeance by a psychic(?) nightclub singer. And it only gets wilder from thereon in.

Whilst the delightfully transliterated ‘Wolf Guy: Enraged Lycanthrope’ certainly delivers plenty of the cahotic, lunatic action you might expect of it, director Yamaguchi manages to throw in so much more besides – from the harrowing back story of Japan’s attempts to exterminate the rural enclave of werewolves in their midst, to a neon-soaked aesthetic of urban gothic horror expressionism, covert military experiments and cold war intrigue, and scattered moments of pure, Seijun Suzuki-esque pop art overload… there is just so much going on here that the fact we – shamefully - never get to see Chiba undergoing a full-on werewolf transformation scarcely even matters. A real one off, this one almost ranks alongside Shunya Ito’s ‘Female Prisoner Scorpion’ trilogy as one of the most jaw-droppingly creative exploitation freakouts Toei ever produced.

6. King of New York 
(Abel Ferrara, 1990)

Perhaps not strictly speaking a first time viewing, as I believe I saw this one on TV many years ago – but whilst at that time I disdainfully tuned it out, questioning whether we needed another one of these bloody ‘rise & fall’ gangster epics, returning to it for a proper, more deliberate viewing in 2016 revealed a film that may or may not be Abel Ferrara’s masterpiece, fronting with some truly impressive technical acumen and mighty acting chops, without sacrificing one iota of the director’s impulsive, improvisatory wildness.

Whilst heavily stylised, hip-hop soundtracked machine gun battles frequently pull this ostensibly down-on-the-street tale into the realms of outright macho fantasy, they are no less outrageously enjoyable for that, and such tonal uncertainty never prevents the basic nitty-gritty of Frank White’s quasi-messianic criminal career from assuming a universal dimension, mirroring the familiar pattern by which mad dog lone operators will always shake things up before crashing and burning, whether in the fields of business, politics, entertainment or whatever else.

All else aside though, what really elevates ‘King of New York’ into the clouds is: Christopher Walken. Because, if you like Christopher Walken, let it be known that this is pretty much Peak Christopher Walken, the most Christopher Walkenin’ movie that Christopher ever Walkened in – and that’s probably worthy a top ten spot in my movies of the year in and of itself, to be honest.

7. The Godfather: Part III 
(Francis Ford Coppola, 1990)

Negative critical consensus had previously steered me away from Part III, but, rewatching the entire trilogy for the first time in many years in 2016, I found myself surprised at how solid this oft-maligned third Godfather instalment is.

The real question here, I suppose, is whether a third film was even needed; whether there is anything in this tale of Michael Corleone vainly attempting to regain his humanity in his final years that couldn’t have been read on his face at the heart-of-darkness conclusion to Part II.

But, assuming we give Paramount and Coppola the benefit of the doubt and acknowledge its right to exist, I think Part III maintains the high standards set by the earlier instalments very well. The key theme of Michael discovering that, no matter how high he goes in seeking the ‘legitimacy’ he has always craved, the laws of the gangster world still apply, is excellently handled, and the tragic verisimilitude created by comparing Michael’s death here with that of his father in the first film alone makes Part III worthwhile.

8. Hitch-Hike 
(Pasquale Festa Campanile, 1977)

Back in August, I said of this one:

“Accomplished though it may be in technical terms, ‘Hitch Hike’ exhibits absolutely no traces of self-conscious artistry or social responsibility, and frankly a story this relentlessly hard-boiled is better off without them. It’s as if an Umberto Lenzi movie crashed head-first into a Jim Thompson novel leaving bullet casings and panties scattered across the asphalt, and it doesn’t need no fuckin’ auteur theory getting in the way.”

I’ll stand by that.

9. Split Second 
(Tony Maylam, 1992)

There are no words to express how much I enjoyed this low budget transatlantic sci-fi effort, in which bad-ass renegade cop Rutger Hauer stalks the streets and mutant cyber-goth nightclubs of a near-future flooded London (that actually looks suspiciously like circa 1992 non-flooded London), on the hunt for a lets-throw-everything-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks Alien/Predator/serial killer/Satan/whatever hybrid menace.

A feast of gritted teeth macho lunacy, oddball Withnail-esque British humour, head-spinning script malfunctions, random misogynist sleaze and a decidedly unhealthy fixation with “big fucking guns!!”, ‘Split Second’ is basically a lobotomised version of an early ‘90s ‘2000AD’ strip come to life, and I loved every fevered second of it.

10. Five Element Ninja 
(Chang Cheh, 1982)

And so my slow education in the classics of kung-fu continues apace, with last year’s choice item being this late period example of stone-cold Shaw Bros cool, in which wildly inventive ninja weirdness meets the kind of impossibly beautiful, lightning speed fight choreography we might well expect of the ‘Venoms mob’, whilst director Chang’s characteristic chest-wound obsessed macho grandeur is taken to such extremes it becomes positively cartoon-like, especially when placed against the positively Wizard-of-Oz-like Technicolor splendour of the set-bound universe created on the Shaw Bros backlot.

Just absolutely jaw-dropping stuff throughout, this one stands proudly alongside the likes of ‘Master of the Flying Guillotine’ and ‘8 Diagram Pole Fighter’ in my all-time kung-fu top five as of this date. As I continue trying to stockpile any movie I can find with the words “Shaolin”, “Buddha”, “Venom” or “Ninja” (careful now) in the English title, here’s hoping 2017 will bring some more chop-socky discoveries of a comparably high quality.

11. Szamanka 
(Andrzej Zulawski, 1996)

The late Andrzej Zulawski here returned to the giddy conflation of internal and external apocalypse, metaphorical use of horror imagery and anxious urban atmospherics that defined his masterpiece ‘Possession’ (1982), telling the… well, it doesn’t seem quite right to call it a “tale”, exactly…. of a radically promiscuous young female student/runaway and an intense, chauvinistic university professor who rampage around Warsaw in ever widening circles of lust, destruction and personal immolation, ill-advisedly experimenting with the fossilised mushrooms dug up next to the mummified remains of an iron-age shaman whose spirit propels them on toward a strangely egotistical variety of total ego-annihilation.

As ever with Zulawski, the effect of watching ‘Szamanka’ is near-impossible to put into words, never mind trying to wrestle the director’s intent in making the film into some kind of easy, capsule synopsis. It’s simply something you need to experience for yourself. All I can say for now is that, whilst I confessed in my memorial post last February that not all of Zulawski’s films really work for me, the ideas, images and actors he found himself throwing about in characteristically unhinged fashion in this one certainly hit the right spot.

12. Night Train to Terror 
(John Carr / Phillip Marshak / Tom McGowan / Jay Schlossberg-Cohen / Gregg G. Tallas, 1985)

You fans of weird, world cinema may think you’ve seen it all, with your exhaustive library of lunatic Taiwanese fantast films, hair-raising Japanese pinku and psychotic SOV Mexican action flicks, but believe me – ‘Night Train to Terror’, with its generic title, none-more-bland poster art and inauspicious background as a 1985 American theatrical release, will break your brain and play ping-pong with the pieces.

We can begin by imagining what happened when a certain exiled-from-Hollywood producer (who allegedly made a living as a ‘beard’ for black-listed screenwriters back in the day) took three already pretty peculiar, unfinished Utah-shot horror films (allegedly co-financed, Ed Wood style, by the Mormon church), and attempted to turn a quick profit by cramming them together into an anthology picture.

In order to achieve this, he then hired a flamboyant New York musical theatre director, who, in the course of “patching things up” in the most insane manner imaginable, added a train-bound cosmic dialogue between God and Satan, a break-dancing new wave band who spend the entire film performing the same three chord song, masses of poorly-matched sleaze and gore footage, inexplicable plothole-covering voiceovers, and – hey, why not – a selection of rampaging Claymation monsters, presumably cooked up by some eager Harryhausen acolyte who happened to be passing.

The result, needless to say, is really quite extraordinary – a uniquely demented piece of commercial American folk art, it is a viewing experience that sometimes feels like watching the work of about five potentially gifted filmmakers being callously mashed into an unpalatable gruel, and the new wave band’s sole, sub-Huey Lewis hit echoing on endlessly through time and space. Someone REALLY needs to get working on a documentary about the production history behind this one, but in the meantime, I’d urge you to just buy a copy and go in blind. You won’t regret it.

13. Short Night of Glass Dolls 
(Aldo Lado, 1971)

Set in a shadowy, autumnal Prague, Lado’s unconventional, Kafka-esque giallo carries such an atmospheric weight the viewer almost feels crushed by it. Stationed very much at the more ‘serious’ end of the genre (alongside the likes of Avati’s ‘The House With Laughing Windows’ or Luigi Bazzoni’s ‘The Fifth Cord’), ‘Short Night..’ nonetheless shares the visceral impact of its more populist contemporaries, with unexpected shades of Poe weaved into the storyline to create a baroque, paranoid thriller that remains enthralling, unpredictable and genuinely horrifying to this day.

Really one of the best gialli I’ve seen, if indeed it can still sit comfortably in such a category. Having previously written Lado off as a bit of a hack on the basis of his later, more exploitational work, it might be time for a bit of a reassessment in 2017.

14. Invasion of the Body Snatchers 
(Philip Kaufman, 1978)

Yet more paranoia here, in what I’d personally rank as by far the best filmed version of this sci-fi perennial. Relocating a tale of human individuality under threat from conformity to a down-at-heel post-hippie San Francisco riddled with New Age humbug was a masterstroke, and, amid the eccentric technical mastery and perfect thriller pacing of Kaufman’s direction, one of the best things about Bodysnatchers ‘78 is that – as someone points out during the genial UK cult film luminaries panel discussion included on the blu-ray release – the oddball characters embodied by the (wonderful) cast are so endearing, one could happily watch a movie about their travails even if there wasn’t any bodysnatching going on.

From Donald Sutherland’s dishevelled city health inspector fighting a lonely war against unhygienic restaurateurs, to Jeff Goldblum’s frustrated poet and Veronica Cartwright as his mud-bath proprietor girlfriend, to his arch-rival Leonard Nimoy’s calmly manipulative, falconry glove-wearing self-help guru, the crew being hunted down by the pod-people here certainly present a striking contrast to the stiff-necked suburban WASPs usually invoked by such monster movie / alien takeover scenarios, and the resulting film plays out like an Altman/Rafelson style New Hollywood drama that’s crashed headfirst into a big budget, Spielberg-era blockbuster, executed in a delightful, best-of-both-worlds type manner that makes me dearly wish that more Hollywood producers had had the courage to attempt similar hybrids during the post-‘Star Wars’ bun-fest.

15. Dolemite 
(D'Urville Martin, 1975)

Rudy Ray Moore’s subsequent films may have been bigger, badder, weirder, more professional and more action packed than his debut, but, for me, this initial instalment in the “Dolemite quartet” has a certain something that proved impossible to recapture, regardless of the full strength insanity offered by the likes of ‘Petey Wheatstraw: The Devil’s Son in Law’ (1977) and ‘Avenging Disco Godfather’ (1979).

From the rambling, stoner pacing to the random diversions in which incomprehensible junkies try to hustle hamburgers, or in which Rudy stops to deliver one of his his ‘toasting’ routines to passers-by in supermarket parking lots – never mind the lugubrious fist-fights, theatrical entrances and poorly calibrated framing – there is a naïve charm here that is unbeatable.

It all creates the impression of a production in which no one involved could quite believe they were actually even making a film, let alone one people would still be watching over four decades later – an indelible classic both of DIY black pop culture (in that context, it would make a great double-bill with Sun Ra’s ‘Space is the Place’), and absurdist ‘party movie’ hilarity in equal measure.

Aside from its exquisite parade of period detail and sundry other virtues, the key to what makes ‘Dolemite’ such endless fun is of course the presence of Rudy Ray Moore himself. Whilst he may have learned to ‘play to the camera’ more effectively by the time he made his later movies – coming across as more energetic and conventionally charismatic as result - the befuddled, heavy-lidded inertia he manages to exude here, whilst ostensibly playing the baddest bad-ass who ever walked the earth, is little short of awe-inspiring.

In essence I suppose, the moment a sleepy-looking, tubby middle aged guy in full-on pimp gear marches in and announces, “I'm gonna let 'em know that Dolemite is my name, and fuckin' up motherfuckers is my game!” - you know you’re in for a good time.

16. The Premonition 
(Robert Allen Schnitzer, 1976)

Whilst I greatly enjoyed all three film included in the first volume of Arrow’s ‘American Horror Project’ in 2016 (Matt Cimber’s ‘The Witch Who Came From The Sea’ in particular would be riding high on this list were it not for the fact I’d seen it before), Robert Allen Schnitzer’s ‘The Premonition’ proved the most welcome surprise. Though saddled with a generic title and not-terribly-entertaining-sounding child abduction / psychic detection plot synopsis, this Louisiana-shot item turns out to be a sincerely crafted, thoughtful and professionally accomplished film that, for much of its running time, plays more like a Truffaut-esque human drama or a Hitchcock-via-DePalma thriller than a horror film, even whilst a combination of haunted atmospherics, familial psychic entanglements and nightmarish portrayals of mental illness keep it unapologetically within the genre.

Featuring an incredible performance from Richard Lynch as surely the most sympathetically portrayed psychotic fairground clown ever featured in a regional horror, a considerable amount of emotional clout and more than its fair share of unforgettable imagery, this one is really a keeper – a unique and unsettling film of precisely the kind that makes dredging the canals of horror worthwhile.

17. The Squeeze
(Michael Apted, 1977)

Although its basic plotline doesn’t add up to much more than a super-charged episode of ‘The Sweeney’, this modest UK crime flick from the future director of stuff like ‘Gorillas in the Mist’ and ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ unexpectedly hits like a fucking hammer, with Stacy Keach’s unflinching portrayal of a chronic alcoholic and David Hemming’s truly loathsome second tier villain pushing things way across the line of British cinema good taste.

Fully stocked with shivering, naked beatings, bloody shotgun wounds, leering sexual assault and small children locked in rat-infested coal cellars, ‘The Squeeze’ must count as one of the more relentlessly grim films in the ‘70s crime oeuvre (which is saying something), but, given the gut-wrenching situations it places its characters in, the story’s excesses never feel gratuitous, or (crucially) unreal.

Whilst continuity of characterisation is a bit rough in places and the by-the-numbers conclusion feels pretty rushed, a cast of fine actors on top form keep us glued to proceedings throughout, whilst ample local colour is provided by a wealth of authentically dispiriting three-day-week era London location work. The script teems with eminently quotable dialogue (including, but not limited to, frequent and spirited exclamations of the word “bollocks!”) and the whole thing positively reeks of a strain of salty geezerism so toxic it would turn Guy Ritchie’s hair white overnight - all helping to carve out a place for ‘The Squeeze’ alongside ‘The Long Good Friday’ and ‘Sitting Target’ in the very top rank of colour-era British crime movies.

18. The Fifth Cord 
(Luigi Bazzoni, 1971)

Although the mystery ostensibly being investigated by Franco Nero’s hard-drinking journalist in Luigi Bazzoni’s ‘The Fifth Cord’ is pretty bog-standard giallo business, the *real* story of the film is told almost entirely through the visuals, as the massed reflections and stark, angular lines of Bazzoni’s mise en scene and Vittorio Storaro’s breath-taking photography mirror, and in trun seem to influence, Nero’s fractured, trapped state of mind, as his character’s chauvinistic, lone wolf self-image is systematically pulled apart from every direction, and the on-going murders and mayhem fade almost to the level of a sideshow.

Seemingly a deliberate attempt to update the visual language of classic film noir for a cold, modernist 1970s, ‘The Fifth Cord’ is not merely one of the more artily abstract films in the giallo canon, but a beautiful, existentialist overhaul of the entire thriller genre - and an odd populist companion piece to Storaro’s earlier work on ‘The Confirmist’ - that impresses entirely upon its own terms.

19. The Murders in the Rue Morgue 
(Robert Florey, 1932)

One of the more luridly transgressive of Universal’s ‘30s horror titles, I believe it must have been this film that first instigated the long running tradition of American Edgar Allen Poe “adaptations” that have almost nothing whatsoever in common with their alleged source material.

Instead, Florey & co borrow heavily from ‘Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari’, pre-empt the grand guignal Parisian atmosphere that cinematographer Karl Freund would return to in his own Mad Love (1935), and somehow wind up offering us the unforgettable sight of Bela Lugosi tying kidnapped chorus girls to X-shaped wooden frames and injecting them with transfusions of gorilla blood. (In that respect, I must say that it’s nice to encounter a movie mad scientist who is actually entirely round the bend, performing “experiments” that are horrible, crazed and pointless, rather than some misunderstood genius with a poor grasp of professional ethics.)

Though perhaps not scaling the same heights of weird artistry as Whale, Ulmer or Freund’s own directorial efforts, Florey’s ‘..Rue Morgue’ is nonetheless a corker, and I think deserves a somewhat higher profile than it has thus far achieved vis-à-vis its role in pushing the boundaries of the kind of stuff weird little horror pictures could get away with.

20. Bone Tomahawk 
(S. Craig Zahler, 2015)

Definitely the most impressive of the nigh-on record-breaking six(!) contemporary films I watched during 2016, I previously set out my thoughts on S. Craig Zahler’s accomplished horror-western here.

Whilst its commercial potential may sadly have been somewhat undercut by the fact that the audience for a sincerely-rendered, old fashioned western probably doesn’t overlap all that much with the one liable to stay in their seats for the harrowingly sadistic ultra-violence showcased in the film’s final half hour, this is nonetheless a great movie that viewers willing to handle both sides of that equation owe it to themselves to see.

Worthy Runners-up:

21. Commando (Mark L. Lester, 1985)
22. Spasmo (Umberto Lenzi, 1974)
23. The Lady Vampire (Nobuo Nakagawa, 1959)
24. Kidnapped Coed (Frederick R. Friedel, 1975)
25. Black Mama, White Mama (Eddie Romero, 1973)
26. Thieves’ Highway (Jules Dassin, 1949)
27. The Leopard Man (Jacques Tourneur, 1943)
28. 3 Women (Robert Altman, 1977)
29. The Witch (Robert Eggers, 2016)
30. Crypt of the Living Dead / Hannah Queen of the Vampires
(Julio Salvador/Ray Danton, 1973)

Friday, 20 January 2017


As regular readers may have noted, I have not posted any new content here for over one month. I'm sorry about that. The reasons are, unfortunately, simple: my plans for posts over the festive period were lost in a tide of excess busy-ness, and January has similarly found me experiencing a chronic lack of any spare time whatsoever.

Rest assured though, I have many, many ideas brewing for things I would like to bring to Breakfast In The Ruins in 2017, so please hang on in there. Regular service will be resuming soon.

The screengrab above is taken from 'Los Monstruos del Terror' (aka 'Assignment: Terror' aka 'Dracula vs. Frankenstein' / Tulio Demicheli, 1970).