We at MUBI think that celebrating the films of 2010 should be a celebration of film viewing in 2010. Since all film and video is "old" one way or another, we present Out of a Past, a small (re-) collection of some of our favorite of 2010's retrospective viewings.
This is a list of older movies I saw for the first time in 2010—not necessarily the best, but the ones that gave me the greatest sense of discovery. It’s a sad commentary on contemporary film culture that only five of the twelve films I mention are available on Netflix.
Routine Pleasures (Jean-Pierre Gorin, USA, 1986)
An essay film from the Godard’s former collaborator during his leftist Dziga Vertov Group days. The movie begins as a documentary about a group of model train enthusiasts in San Diego who have constructed an elaborate imaginary world with enormous and minutely detailed landscapes and a train schedule more complex than I’ve seen at any actual station. Then, halfway through the movie, Gorin starts talking about his friend Manny Farber and his paintings. With the same poetically irrational structure we’ve come to admire in Apichatpong Weerashetakul’s films, it becomes in the end less about the trains and the paintings and more about Gorin’s reflection on his own status as an exile living in a strange land.
Perfumed Nightmare (Kidlat Tahimik, Philippines, 1977)
Tahimik’s first film is an experimental essay film, an inverse anthropological take by a leftist from what we used to call the “Third World” about what we used to call the “First World.” Kidlat Tahimik stars as himself, a man from a poor rural village in the Philippines who travels to Paris and becomes disillusioned with the allegedly advanced capitalist world. Though it could easily have been a dry exercise in Marxist theorizing, Tahimik saves it with charm and goofy details—like his own fascination with Wernher von Braun and rocket ships, his passion for ostentatiously colorful jitneys, and his digression about local circumcision rituals. Also, Tahimik may have the best haircut in the history of cinema.
Bad Girls Go to Hell (Doris Wishman, USA, 1965)
I’d heard about Wishman for years from academic friends interested in sexploitation films, but I’d always been suspicious. I was afraid that the interest in her films stemmed from the same kind of hipster irony that made my generation embrace fake nostalgic t-shirts and laugh at the films of Frank Borzage. I was wrong. Wishman makes movies about working class women who try to forge independent lives in a world that is physically and economically dominated by brutal men. Many people would categorize her as an unintentional avant-gardist and that’s partly true. When she films a conversation between two people in Central Park, she’ll cut from one person speaking to the other person listening in an inordinately long take, then to the back of the first person’s head, then to a close-up of tree branches, then a pond, then a splotch of grass, then back to the first person speaking. Her post-synch dubbing has the creepy otherworldliness of listless ghosts mumbling in a lake-filled cavern. At the same time, though, her films remind me of Orson Welles’s Othello. Both filmmakers made similarly poetic stylistic decisions when confronted with similar financial and technical difficulties. Admittedly, Welles does seem more aware of why he’s doing what he’s doing, but Wishman’s films have the rustic charm and sincerity of the best folk artists.
The Mercenaries (Dark of the Sun) (Jack Cardiff, UK, 1968)
This was my favorite movie at the great William Lustig Presents series at Anthology Film Archives. Cardiff has been one of my favorite cinematographers for years, mostly for his use of color in The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. I knew that he directed some movies, too, but they never seemed to get much critical attention. This one is a great, straight-forward action picture starring Rod Taylor and Jim Brown (still the greatest running back in the history of the NFL) as mercenaries hired to recover diamonds in the interior of a civil-war torn African nation. Most of the movie takes place on a moving train, with a bunch of guys shooting guns and blowing shit up, and there’s a great sequence at the end where two men slug it out while tangled up in vines descending from the edge of a cliff. Loads of fun. And a despairing commentary on what had happened to the African independence movement.
She and He (Susumu Hani, Japan, 1963)
In the opening sequence, a housewife panics at the sight of a nearby fire. The canted angles and impressionistic lighting and editing capture her mental fragility. She lives in a cheap apartment complex on the city’s fringes and spends most of her days alone while her husband’s at work. As the film progresses, she befriends a junk dealer who lives in a shantytown nearby. As her attachment to the man, his adopted blind daughter, and his dog becomes more intense, her husband jealously tries to keep her from him. The housewife never develops a strong personality. She is an empty woman—much like the world itself, Hani seems to be saying—and yet we come to care for her. The junk seller’s determination to avoid a real job and a real home is a rebuke to the conformity and meaninglessness of modern life, embodied by the brutish hordes of children who attack each other, the housewife, and the man’s dog.
Henri Verneuil’s The Burglars (1971) is a French action picture starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Omar Sharif. If that isn’t enough, it has the best car chase ever—yes, better than The French Connection, released the same year.
I’m not a martial arts movie expert, but The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (Liu Chia-Liang, Hong Kong, 1978) is definitely the best kung fu movie I’ve ever seen.
I’m a huge Cassavetes fan, but I’d always avoided A Child is Waiting (1962) because it has the reputation of being a compromised Hollywood product. Forget about the reputation. This is a great movie. Yes, you could see Cassavetes struggling against its mainstream and melodramatic structure, but just as with the movies Douglas Sirk made for Ross Hunter, that tension itself becomes the subject of the film. Judy Garland is amazing.
Charles Laughton’s performance in Jean Renoir’s This Land is Mine (made for RKO in 1943) may be the most affecting acting job I saw in 2010.
Nothing but a Man (Michael Roemer, USA, 1964) is a beautifully sedate movie starring jazz great Abbey Lincoln and Ivan Dixon (later of Hogan’s Heroes) as a young couple in the South. By keeping the Civil Rights struggle in the background, the racial tension in the film becomes all the more poignant.
Visa de Censure No. X (Pierre Clementi, France, 1967-1975) has the best psychedelic superimpositions of any movie I’ve ever seen.
The woefully underrated Ritwik Ghatak’s A River Called Titas (India, 1973) was beautifully shot, mysterious, and moved in its own idiosyncratic storytelling pace.