This has been a fun project for me this year. I got to see a lot of films that I previously didn't have access to, and I was reminded how much I love some films I hadn't seen in a while. As streaming libraries continue to build, and as we head toward Patton Oswalt's futureworld of ETEWAF, the novelty of "Hey! You can stream that!" won't be as exciting, so the ongoing need for a column like this is...iffy. But aside from all the porn, the best thing about the internet for me has been sharing what I love with other people who love it. Talking movies online has brought me in contact with amazing people on both ends of the movie food chain. So whether it's via another twelve of these or some other project, I'll find a way to keep the conversation going in 2014.
MYSTERIOUS SKIN - Movie nerds love to talk about Joseph Gordon-Levitt these days. I mean, a LOT. Is it because you guys grew up alongside him? I've got a few years on him, so he wasn't really on my radar all that much during his kid years. (Not that any child actors ever were; I think I had a Little Rascals phase as a kid, but I never really identified with kids in movies, for whatever reason. I have dear friends who are super into Shirley Temple, and I know a lot of grown men who use Home Alone to contextualize way too much of their film education. It's an imprinting thing, maybe? Planet of the Apes and monster movies took up all that real estate in my head, I guess. So, yeah, lots of dudes like Joseph Gordon-Levitt, which makes it weird that I never hear anyone talking about this extraordinary film from 2005. It follows two young boys and the paths their lives take after being sexually assaulted by their little league coach. One boy's (Gordon-Levitt) defense mechanisms and emerging sexuality (complete with a budding crush on his handsome coach) allow him to reconstruct the memory of his abuse in an idealized romantic light; the other straight-up reinvents his sexual trauma as an alien abduction. Both boys' reactions shape their disparate, though no less heartbreaking, paths in life. Not only is JGL flat-out GREAT here, but this is the film where I finally came around on Greg Araki. The affectation and posturing of his early work is gone and he reveals himself to be a pretty masterful storyteller of painful, authentic, human drama.
DEATH WATCH - Like Mysterious Skin above, I don't hear contemporary film fans talk about director Bertrand Tavernier too much. That's a shame, because he's got some real gems under his belt (including Coup de Torchon, a clever adaptation of my absolute favorite Jim Thompson novel Pop. 1280). On Netflix you can find Death Watch, a 1980 science fiction story about a young television cameraman (Harvey Keitel) who volunteers to have a video camera placed in his head so he can film the last days of a terminally ill young woman (Romy Schneider), without her knowledge, for a television show. They didn't have the term "reality series" back then, but turning actual human misery into entertainment sure didn't get LESS relevant over the years. I love these older, heady sci-fi films that rely on concepts and ideas over special effects and spectacle. It's been exciting to see that kind of science fiction return recently, in films like Moon and Coherence (now making festival rounds; you should make an effort to catch that when it's available.)
THE STEEL HELMET - One of my favorite things about The Twilight Zone was whenever I'd come upon a Rod Serling-penned episode that presented his real-life wartime experiences through TZ's cracked, monochrome mirror. The purple prose, the two-fisted dialogue, the fuller's earth on the actor's faces. Serling worked though his issues on the tube, and there's that same whiff of art therapy in Sam Fuller's war films. None of them feel closer to Serling's dispatches than The Steel Helmet, a 1951 feature about a rag-tag (and racially diverse) platoon holed up in a Buddhist temple, fending off North Korea and their own hatred for each other as best they can. It feels tiny and contained like a Twilight Zone episode, with similar flavors of morality and cinematography to boot. Oh, and there's a child Asian sidekick named "Short Round" which, I learned here, is Army speak for "a bullet that doesn't go all the way."
THE ONION FIELD - Joseph Wambaugh (another name I don't hear much anymore) was a popular crime novelist/screenwriter in Hollywood back in the '70s. The film adaptation of his book The Choirboys was a TV staple, and his hand guided or influenced TV cop shows like The Blue Knight and Police Story. 1979's The Onion Field, a true crime drama about a murdered cop and the psychological aftermath experienced by his partner, felt at the time positioned to be the '70s equivalent of In Cold Blood. I wonder if Badlands had already filled that role, or if by the end of the '70s audiences wanted their thrills a little less low-key, or maybe less cop-sympathetic? Whatever the reason, this one has slipped through the cracks. It's long but rewarding, and features "holy shit they're young" turns by James Woods (going a little early Cagney here), John Savage and Ted Danson.
BREAKDOWN - It would surprise me if you haven't seen this one yet; it feels like it's been on one HBO channel or another in perpetuity since its 1997 release. But can we use it here to remind everyone just how great Kurt Russell is in merely serviceable films, and even sometimes not very good ones? It's true. If awards season recognized true achievements, and presupposing you don't really believe that the same 20 movies happen to contain all the best acting, editing, sound design, costumes and music every year, Kurt Russell would have nominations (if not statues) for his gripping yet thankless work in everything from Dark Blue to Miracle to, yes, Breakdown. With another cast, Breakdown would still be an enjoyable little potboiler about all my worst yuppie beta male nightmares come to life. But it's full of fucking movie stars, and what I wouldn't give today to get five more movies of Kurt Russell and J.T. Walsh squaring off against each other. It's riveting! It's riveting because of the actors. I love it. I love Kurt. I'm not fully on the Fast & Furious train like the rest of you, but oh yes I will be seeing The One With Kurt Russell In It theatrically.