I've said it before and I'll say it again: Top Ten Lists bore me to tears.
Yes, I know. I already gave you my own seventeen favorite films from '17, rendering me a total hypocrite. But it simply wouldn't do to just gift y'all a collection of my favorite '17 films, because I undoubtedly viewed many, many more from the archive, hoping to catch a glimpse of greatness that's been hiding in the vault, under a sheen of pure silliness (or scum). In case you forgot, I answered the question as to what a "face melter" is last year, on the first of what is now becoming an annual tradition. However, here's a refresher (with one minor adjustment):
An elemental filmic experience – the kind of work that leaves you dead on the floor and wanting more. I don’t really have set criteria for how I rate this stuff, as my selections are mostly based off of pure, visceral gut reaction. Which movies made me cry out in shock or revulsion the most? Which movies used the camera in a way I’d never witnessed before? Which movies compensated for their lack of budget by placing every stuntman on set in death’s careening path? Which movie featured Roy Scheider shearing the roof off a car by crashing it into the back of a semi?
This year's ten was difficult to discern, as it felt like there were incredible first-time viewings sprinkled onto the entire calendar, making it tough to pick. But enough of me and any extraneous build-up, onto the madness:
#10. Wolf Guy: Enraged Lycanthrope  (d. Kazuhiko Yamaguchi, w. Fumio Kônami)
While the title Wolf Guy: Enraged Lycanthrope is a lot to live up to, Kazuhiko Yamaguchi (Sister Street Fight ['74]) works his ass off to give us three movies in one, all of which amalgamate into a psychedelic mash-up of scummy Pinky sexuality and grimy yakuza bloodshed. Sonny Chiba's caught in the center of a convoluted conspiracy involving nefarious record producers, underworld money men, and a gang-raped netherworld demon out for revenge on all who did her wrong while she possessed a mortal form. Though Chiba's the titular animal man, he never once transforms into a wolf, which is a shame. However, he does get to kill multiple bad dudes, sometimes with nothing more than the mundane contents of his pockets. Even the nastiest werewolf doesn't own that unique talent.
While the narrative borders on becoming incomprehensible at times, Wolf Guy is a must watch for anyone who has a brain and love for the wildest cinema we've ever produced as human beings. The fact that Fumio Kônami - a co-writer on both Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion ('72) and Female Prisoner Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 ('72) - penned what's arguably Chiba's weirdest back alley adventure explains the uncomfortable carnal undercurrent that runs through the whole of this otherworldly freak out. Accenting the whole thing is a hazy David Gilmour-esque guitar score that disarms the audience, as the she-demon's marauding tiger force descends into the underworld, mauling both gangsters and glam rockers alike. This is a gorgeous cinematic experience that's honestly tough to describe, so you should just seek out Arrow's restoration and let the grainy, 35mm haze wash over you.
#9. The Park Is Mine  (d. Steven Hilliard Stern, w. Lyle Gorch)
Despite debuting on HBO as a “Premiere Film” in ‘85 (it’d hit Canadian theaters in January ’86), The Park is Mine is pure Canuxploitation, complete with a national pedigree. Producer Denis Héroux was knee-deep in Maple Leaf B-Moviemaking, fashioning a sizable erotic hit out of Valérie (’69). Héroux would go on to direct the Richard Speck-inspired Naked Massacre (’76), co-founded Alliance Films, and received an Oscar nomination for Louis Malle’s Atlantic City (’80). He knew his way around a movie set, and wasn’t afraid to flex his weirdest muscles by putting together bizarre risks like the Cro-Mag epic Quest for Fire (’81). The Park is Mine is essentially his Canux Rambo, with Toronto standing in for New York, and Tommy Lee Jones (who’d already come home to war once in John Flynn’s immortal Rolling Thunder) sporting a Yankees cap and aviators instead of a red bandana.
Yet there’s also an outsider’s view of American heroism that becomes critical and allows us to view Jones' rebel (not to mention see through his squinting eyes) as a foreigner in his own land. The country he fought for in Vietnam no longer exists, and his lack of a discernible value inside of its economic systems only enrages him further. So he fights back, but does so in the fashion of an aggressive conscientious objector, never wanting to hurt anybody (the solider even switches out cartridges so that he’s usually firing blanks), but willing to defend himself if attacked. The same year John Rambo would make over $150 million at the American box office with his second First Blood, screenwriter Lyle Gortch transformed Stephen Peters’ novel into an inversion of the character. This isn’t a one-man army, but rather one man looking to mobilize a country that didn’t recognize the fact that they required motivation in the first place.
#8. Vision Quest  (d. Harold Becker, w. Darryl Ponicsan)
It’d be easy to label Vision Quest a simple sports picture, as it’s certainly structured to fit a particular formula. High school wrestling rat Louden Swain (a pre-Full Metal Jacket Matthew Modine) has two goals: to beat the 168-lb. state champ, and win the heart of his first real infatuation (Linda Fiorentino, fresh out of drama school). Standing in his way is the perfectly named bleacher brute, Shute (Frank Jasper). At eighteen, Shute’s already a living legend, lugging logs up football stadium stairs and mocking his aspiring opponent, calling him a “bleeder” (courtesy of the kid’s leaky nostrils). Meanwhile, Louden’s lady love is a drifter heading anywhere but here, and hoping to make a name for herself as an artist. She doesn’t have time for this puppy dog love, but we know the wrestler’s going to push himself until he’s pinned both on the mat and the bed, respectively.
“It ain’t the six minutes, but what happens in those six minutes.” The advice Louden receives from a friend regarding the importance of his match with Shute could stand in for the movie’s overall outlook. Ostensibly, each existence is formulaic, much like Vision Quest’s general sports template: you’re born, you struggle, there are triumphs, tears, love, loss and then, in the end, we all fade into eternity’s forgotten memories. However, in these brief instances of being are the chances to bring ourselves and others true happiness, marks made in ways we don’t often realize as they’re occurring. Whether it’s standing up for a stranger when it's clear someone else is trying to take advantage of their good nature (resulting in a bloody nose for said swindler), a blaze of athletic glory that inspires all those who witness it (and may not possess the physical strength to claim a similar victory), or a tender kiss in the dark from a once-secret admirer, the details scribbled in-between our mortal lines are what distinguish each and every life from one another. This guiding philosophy lends Becker’s movie an affecting quaintness and sets it apart from its coming of age peers. If only for six minutes, we can become giants to those who call us friends and lovers, and that’s really all we can ask for during our time on Earth.
#7. The Killing Of America  (d. Sheldon Renan, w. Leonard Schrader & Chieko Schrader)
An American Mondo documentary; Paul Schrader's brother Leonard profiles a fascist state via a litany of cruel footage, which escalates to near apocalyptic levels of brutality against innocent lives. Post Trump, the new cliche regarding searing older works that cover America's incurable societal woes (racism, abuse of power, predatory behavior) is that they're "more relevant now than they were then", but that certainly applies here. Every minute of The Killing of America is a searing indictment, shoving fear and violence down your throat for an hour-and-a-half, while offering zero suggestions for how to change our evil ways (because if Schrader and Renan are to be believed, there are none).
The nature of Mondo filmmaking is such that most of the works can easily slide into becoming what they're working to condemn - just look at something like Africa, Blood and Guts ('66) and Farewell Uncle Tom ('71) for the best examples. The Killing of America is no different, glorifying the very atrocities and weaponizing the electric current of cruelty it conducts, shocking the viewer into submission by the time the credits actually roll. Thank God Severin Films has unleashed this work of wanton nastiness back into the wild, as some of the footage cobbled together seems like it was cut from Fox News or MSNBC in '17 instead of local broadcasts in '81, lending the nonetheless dated work an air of superficial timeliness.
#6. King of the Kickboxers  (d. Lucas Lowe, w. Keith W. Strandberg)
Seasonal Film Corp. helped bring the work of many Hong Kong legends to the United States - Jackie Chan, Tsui Hark, Sammo Hung (just to name a few) - but near the end of their prolific run (that spanned the mid-'70s to early-'90s), they started making kickboxing movies, like their brethren at B-Movie factory Cannon Films. SFC had a string of No Retreat, No Surrender ('86) films - the first of which featured Jean-Claude Van Damme as its Communist nemesis - which were fairly standard Rocky ('76) riffs, only with as many kicks thrown as fists. Corey Yuen (Yes, Madam! ['85]) both helped with the choreography in this series, as well as handling directing duties, with a few entries being rebranded in order to further the franchise.
King of the Kickboxers (a/k/a No Retreat, No Surrender 3: Blood Brothers) has more in common with the backyard pulp intensity of Patrick Donahue's Parole Violators ('94) than it does with anything Seasonal ever put out before. The story - revolving around an undercover cop (Loren Avedon) going deep to hunt his brother's killer in an underworld that produces martial arts snuff films - is utterly bonkers, bouncing from one expertly choreographed fight scene to the next with a psycho white melodrama acting as the sinew holding these sequences together. Every line is screamed, and Billy Blanks plays the hulking murderous bad guy. It's trash action bliss, meant to completely massacre you and anyone else you invite over to watch a battered VHS tape (because good luck finding it on a cheap DVD). This is some woefully underseen bone-snapping savagery.
#5. Anyab (a/k/a Fangs)  (d. Mohammed Shebl, w. Hassn Abd Raboo, Tarek Sharara & Mohammed Shebl)
On one hand, Anyab is an Egyptian rip off of The Rocky Horror Picture Show ('75), only with more laser beams and disco breakdowns (that stretch on into eternity). Instead of Tim Curry's transvestite Frank N. Furter acting as our guide, a coven of witches leads the way through this dark underbelly of the universe, all of whom feel the need to fuck our two helpless, horny heroes, whilst gyrating to whatever Abba-esque beat is playing over the scene. On the other hand, Anyab grows into something far stranger than your average knock-off picture. Under the bugnuts costumes, numerous horror references (one character actually wears a Rocky t-shirt at one point), and blaring drum and bass rhythm is a running social commentary on the state of Egypt's working class. Not exactly your usual Friday night disco chat.
Be it rampant teenage unemployment, or a strike against impoverished classes, Anyab digs its heels into packaging a mature critique into its pure entertainment, not content to be just a cheap cash-in while still embracing its own inherent camp value. We've all seen this movie before: a pair of lovers' car breaks down, a haunted home becoming their refuge from the gloomy outside world. Yet Anyab takes them (and us) on a journey that's almost like Egyptian Reading Rainbow dusted with PCP, with the most cantankerous librarian hemming and hawing at these clueless kids as they traverse an entire people's woes. Essential viewing for those who like to see pop cultures collide with reckless ambition and abandon.
#4. Cutter's Way  (d. Ivan Passer, w. Jeffrey Alan Fiskin)
Blistering and bleak, from afar Cutter's Way resembles a buddy noir, before those types of films became all the rage during the '80s. Adapted from Newton Thornberg's novel Cutter & Bone, Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges) - an impossibly beautiful gigolo whose sex addiction numbs any semblance of thought or need for introspection - spends his days with Alex Cutter (John Heard): a one-eyed, maimed booze hound of a Vietnam Vet. Stuck in the middle is Cutter's wife Mo (Lisa Eichhorn), who douses her once glittering dreams in poison while waiting for Cutter's unholy crusade of profanity and self-medication to die down. Spoiler alert: it never does, as Ivan Passer has crafted a picture about a broken post-Watergate America that doesn't give a shit about anyone in the streets, especially some poor girl getting stuffed in a trash can by shadowy oil man J.J. Cord (Stephen Elliott).
"He's responsible," Cutter hollers at Bone at one point while the two try and play detective, "for everything. Him and all the motherfuckers in the world just like him. They're all the same." Suddenly, it becomes clear what Passer is getting at. These two aren't righteous heroes, but average Joes trying to game the system, tripping down a rabbit hole of blackmail, violence and self-sacrifice. Had Cutter's Way been made in '76, it'd feel right at home amongst the New Hollywood works of pop protest, howling at a government that'd lied and sent many American boys off to die for a war they didn't understand, just to keep the mechanisms of the military industrial complex greased. Since this is an '81 release (which barely made it into theaters), Passer's picture instead feels like a last gasp of the unheard, hoping to make any sort of change in their current status, as the gutter is no place for anyone to spend the rest of their life.
#3. The Swimmer  (d. Frank Perry, w. Eleanor Perry)
The Swimmer is fifty years old, and had it been made as a period piece in '17 (say, by Matthew Weiner with Jon Hamm in the titular role), we would be heralding it as one of the defining masterpieces of the year, so full of cultural insight and devastating emotion that you want the reels to run again once the picture stops playing on the projector. Instead, what we're left with is a movie whose timelessness transcends the obvious era in which it was made. Coming at the tail end of the '50s/'60s Madison Avenue heyday, Neddy Merrill (Burt Lancaster) - an aging country club lothario - decides to "swim home", hopping from pool to pool as he crosses the county. On the surface, he's a wheeler and dealer, the talk of his neighborhood, who's appeared in one filled out ex-babysitter's (Janet Landgard) fantasies, and can charm his way into any party. But what Frank and Eleanor Perry - adapting John Cheever's 13-page New Yorker story into a 90-minute feature - are doing is having him swim through a past he cannot leave behind, toward a present that is bombed out and lonely.
Just as Cutter's Way ('81) gave us two anti-heroes, tormented by a history that's basically acted as their own personal prisons, The Swimmer delivers a protagonist whose addiction to his own vanity and status will never allow him to admit what a nightmarish failure he's become. Lancaster perfectly embodies Ned with his leathery skin, athlete's body and gorgeous smile, acting like a Don Draper precursor, well after a fall left him with nothing. Every sunny scene is punctuated with strange melancholy, as we sit on edge, waiting for a big reveal that tells us why every host side-eyes his arrival at their beautiful bodies of water. Though he was born fifty years ago, Neddy Merrill could stand in for anyone wholly afraid that they've bottomed out completely, the creeping dread of extinction filling this dinosaur's brain as he continues to try and cleanse the stink of disaster from his skin, one chlorine-blasted oasis at a time. An existential masterpiece.
#2. Top Of The Heap  (d. & w. Christopher St. John)
There are few tragedies in the history of exploitation cinema more heartbreaking than the career of Christopher St. John. Following supporting roles in Blaxploitation staples like Shaft (’71), St. John put an ad in the trades that he was seeking funding for a film he’d written and wanted to direct. Joe Solomon and The Fanfare Corporation stepped forward and financed the project to the tune of $1 million, and the performer put up his own earnings from the aforementioned Richard Roundtree classic in order to get production moving forward. Shot fast and cheap, Top of the Heap was the result – a mixture of Blax cop movie and avant-garde surrealist mental meltdown.
Top of the Heap was selected to compete in the 22nd Berlin Film Festival, where it showed for a whole week and was nominated for the Golden Bear (which it lost to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Canterbury Tales). Playing to near unanimous praise, it was selected for the Cannes Film Festival, but its producers declined the invitation. To them, the movie was a sloppy mess – never fully committing to the Blax aesthetic they thought they’d invested in. Sure, Top of the Heap contains several of the subgenre’s sensational conventions: a shootout, car chases, hustlers snorting blow, two explicit sex scenes, and a soulful JJ Johnson title track. But these elements are juxtaposed next to disorienting images of a black police officer (St. John) dreaming that he’s both the first black astronaut in space, and a stand-in for JFK during his infamous, life-ending trip to Dallas. In short, this was a movie that had something to say, and Fanfare wasn't entirely comfortable with its dollars being the ink with which St. John scribbled his fiery manifesto.
Christopher St. John delivers an insider’s look at the black experience of '60s and '70s America – raw, uncut and loaded with primal rage. This isn’t a work of Blaxploitation, but rather its direct refutation - a middle finger to the white producers who thought they could milk his or any other artist’s unique perspective for filmic blood money. Only one man from one era could’ve made this movie, and the system he was fighting against fucked Christopher St. John over and left him in the gutter to die. His is one of the great tragic downfalls in cinema history; the epitome of showbiz Jim Crow mentality. St. John’s sole completed feature delivered a potent POV that’s upsetting, confrontational and could never be duplicated. Welcome to outer space, where ground control doesn’t care if you drift off into the oblivion of your own imagination.
#1. The Seven-Ups  (d. Philip D'Antoni, w. Albert Ruben & Alexander Jacobs)
The Seven-Ups ('73) is the only movie Philip D'Antoni - producer of both Bullitt ('68) and The French Connection ('71) - ever directed, and that's a crying shame. There's a genuine energy and affection for both the structures and people of New York City constantly present in his sole feature, signaling that D'Antoni could've easily had a long, distinguished career helming crime procedurals that delved into grey police department morality. Every shot of The Seven-Ups is frigid and distant, as we watch Buddy (Roy Scheider) - a driven leader of the titular detective unit - delve deeper into the soulful corruption of his Old World neighborhood. Were this helmed by Umberto Lenzi or Fernando de Leo, the film would feel right at home in the Roma Poliziotteschi canon that dissected Italy's ethical decay from street level.
Yet beyond these dilapidated station offices and Italian funeral homes (in which bad men take their nefarious meetings) are the lumpy actors who lend The Seven-Ups an even greater sense of authenticity. Scheider is essentially playing a variation on The French Connection's Detective Russo (who was also named Buddy), only he's no longer learning lessons from Popeye Doyle, but getting up close and personal with the mugs who're impersonating cops and plotting a series a mob kidnappings around the Five Boroughs. Any repetition or similarities between the two performances are instantly forgiven, due to the fact that Scheider is just so goddamn charismatic - that leathery visage, broken nose, and sinewy frame sliding into a turtleneck as if the thread had been invented for the man himself.
The real highlight of The Seven-Ups is a near thirty-minute set piece, where we follow a botched kidnapping of one of Buddy's team (Ken Kercheval's Ansel), that leads to the film's second car wash heist, and then a high speed chase that is arguably superior to William Friedkin's earliest claim to big screen fame. Buddy is in hot pursuit of two goons (nightmare-faced Richard Lynch and stunt driver extraordinaire Bill Hickman, in his final role), who weave through the city and then dump onto the highway, as D'Antoni's picture eschews the actual geography of New York's main concrete veins (going from the GW Bridge to the Taconic State Parkway to Jersey's Palisades Interstate) in favor of multi-enviroment, adrenaline-juiced thrill ride where we genuinely fear for the safety of all involved (just look at how terrified Lynch is in the passenger seat). Buddy's hunt ends in one of the better moments of twisted steel in cinematic history (that was designed to pay tribute to the tragic death of Jayne Mansfield); a moment of destruction so abrupt and shocking it made this writer's entire theater gasp before breaking out into applause.