Dan's Favourite Movie Discoveries of 2018
This year was an interesting one. Though I watched more movies than ever before, I also wrote about less of them–actually, I wrote almost nothing (unless you count my Letterboxd entries.) A few times over the year, I would look back on analysis I had written in the past of cult gems and wonder how I even did it. How is ̶b̶a̶b̶b̶y̶ essay formed?
Anyway, this can be a new start for me–a way to dip my toes back into at least expanding upon my thoughts beyond "lol I loved this." I watched a lot of great movies from 2018, but the movies that stick out in my mind are the ones that were new to me. Whether that means I saw them for the first time, or I'm revisiting something I haven't seen since I was so young it may as well be a fresh viewing. Here's a handful of 'em that maybe you'll enjoy too!
C.H.O.M.P.S. (1979, directed by Don Chaffey)
This first pick is important for two reasons: first of all, I saw C.H.O.M.P.S. a month or two after meeting Carlo via Letterboxd. Which not only led me to his Discord, where I fell in with a bevvy of similarly minded and very wonderful movie fanatics, but also to helping out with the Back Row podcast!
Secondly, C.H.O.M.P.S. was important because it reminds me what can happen when you let your guard down and are willing to meet a movie halfway. I had only ever heard of C.H.O.M.P.S. in relation to being "one of the worst movies." But, you know what? It's great! Co-written and co-produced by Joe Barbera of Hanna-Barbera, C.H.O.M.P.S. is not only a live-action cartoon, but it’s completely bananas. It follows a robot watch dog who is constantly busting through walls, ripping off the roofs of cars, knocking cars over, and thwarting some bumbling maroons.
I came for cartoonish robot-dog antics, and I got what I paid for. Unbelievably lame and goofy in the exact kind of way that I was game for. What else you would expect from this kind of movie? It’s thoroughly entertaining, silly garbage, and every time C.H.O.M.P.S. knocked someone over, barked the sounds of gunfire (!!?!!) or busted through a fence in slow motion, I was very happy.
RoboCop 3 (1993, Fred Dekker)
Here's one I may be alone on, but over the years I've heard nothing but negative things about RoboCop 3. Hell, even Fred Dekker had such a bad time on the film he basically left Hollywood until just recently. Sure, Peter Weller doesn't return here and the movie is nothing compared to either the satirical bite of the original or the darkly mean humor of the second, but this is basically the cinematic equivalent of picking up a few comics from the dollar bin and flipping through on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
Sudden Fury (1975, Brian Damude)
It's easy to feel spoiled nowadays when there are multiple BluRay companies digging through cinematic detritus to find and release forgotten gems. It's almost as easy to be overwhelmed with options–which of these releases is the one for me? That said, there's nothing like the thrill of discovery and we're in a golden age right now as far as I'm concerned. When I was growing up, movies like Sudden Fury were relegated to fuzzy JPEGs on internet forums or imported VHS tapes. Now I can sit down and watch it in high-def.
Sudden Fury gets mentioned often as a Canadian take on Blood Simple, and it's a pretty apt way to frame the film. Here's a beauty Hitchcockian suspense picture, framed in rural Canada and taking place in the land of back roads, barns, rivers, autumnal collared shirts and bell bottoms. Oh, and one very important bucket of water. The movie follows one unhappily married couple who, after an argument about a sketchy land deal, get into a car accident. The wife, Janet, is seriously injured and the husband, Fred, sees this as his chance to flee the scene and be rid of his argumentative wife. What he wasn't planning one, was the introduction of a good samaritan who saves Janet, setting off a spiraling suspense yarn that culminates in a really terrific finale.
The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag (1992, Allan Moyle)
The feeling of revisiting a movie you watched over and over as a kid, only to realize "why was I into this in the first place?" is one that am very interested in. Sometimes, it can be easily explained–I loved the movie Noises Off… as a kid, and revisiting it (though it's not exactly a kids movie) it's easy to see that I likely just enjoyed all the running around, falling over and slamming doors that the theatre-based farce employs. Then there's movies like The Gun in Betty Lou's Handbag. What kept this movie fresh in my mind as a film I enjoyed as a child, when aside from the poster there's not much here for a kid?
As you can tell, this is not at all the movie the poster makes it out to be. Though it takes a while for the pieces to fall into place, this was firmly in my wheelhouse. The movie is part comedy, part thriller, part noir, part screwball–yeah, you could say this thing jumps from tone to tone alright. But the whole experience is grounded by Penelope Ann Miller, who plays a shy librarian that ends up with a murder charge all because she wants more attention from her husband and the local community who ignore her. Throughout the movie, Miller has so many little wonderful moments peppered into her performance.
Much like I Love You To Death, another first-watch for me last year, this is a movie that you watch and understand why it has the reception it does because it’s so peculiar and singular. One gets the sense that maybe there was a bumpy road from script to screen, the kind of movie where certain edges were sanded down because no one was sure how the material would land. Despite this, there's a lot of quirks and a sense of ambition that shine through the oft-skewed final product. This won't be for everyone, but I found more than enough to dig into here.
Primal Scream (1987, William J. Murray)
Primal Scream is a low-budget, high-ambition sci-fi/detective noir film from southern New Jersey about the mining of an element ("Hellfire") which is making people suffer combustive, ashy deaths. Sweet.
Every frame of this one oozes charm and you feel the sense of "use what we can" excitement they must have had when building these "futuristic" set-dressings; making hand-made space ships, coming up with perspective shots, or executing goofy looking (but in the best way) effects. I’m pretty sure the texture of the walls in one scene had been created by using a toy Millennium Falcon as a pattern? I love it. There’s nothing about Primal Scream that, erm, screams anything but sincerity.
Should you watch this? I dunno, do you get off on this nerdy home-made kind of shit? I do, and it carried me through what for average viewers would just be some dumb old movie that was languishing on VHS for years. Another one that cements how exciting it is that forgotten regional films can land on BluRay in 2018 and get a second life.
Frederick Wiseman & Kanopy (Uh, a buncha years and a buncha movies on one great subscription service)
Okay, so this isn't so much the discovery of a movie as it was a year-long discovery of a career through the discovery of a service. Stick with me here: I had seen Titicut Follies before last year, but what really drove me to Frederick Wiseman's work was my subscription to Kanopy. Yes, yes another subscription to one of mannnnny streaming services, but if you aren't already in the know: Kanopy works through your library card. Support your local libraries, people! Kanopy has a wonderful mix of documentaries, arthouse, cult cinema, and mainstream works–almost like what you'd want Netflix to be, honestly.
Well, one of my favourite things in 2018 to do was curl up with a good three-plus hour long Wiseman epic with Emma (who is a documentary fanatic and was as unfamiliar with Wiseman's whole career as I was). Over the year, we only ended up getting to about eight of his works (on top of the aforementioned Follies) - Blind, Zoo, Juvenile Court, Public Housing, Basic Training, Hospital, At Berkeley, and High School. If you're unfamiliar as well, the jist of Wiseman is most of his works focus on an institution, and then follows the ins and outs of the innerworkings of said institution.
Wiseman's eye makes Blind one of his most affecting portraits; watching as students from the Alabama School for Blind and Deaf learn to navigate anything from a staircase to cooking in the kitchen. Counting dollar bills or sports like wrestling and trampoline can be suspenseful, uplifting, beautiful or inspiring. Absolutely incredible.
Zoo has to be one of Wiseman's bleakest and most disturbing, yet it's also one of the most pure, formally. Major portions of the movie are dialogue-less–almost none of Wiseman's classic long-form round table discussions here, just hyper-focused on process. The process of moving animals, process of food prep, process of autopsy, process of fighting back against feral dogs attacking their animals, and more in often horrifically graphic detail.
The film may offer easy juxtapositions, but they remain effective; we’re shown sunny days and fanny-pack clad visitors gawking and imitating the animals, as behind the scenes horrors occur unseen. It’s especially affecting alongside two bookends where elephants are forced to perform for audiences (first general admission, and finally at a black tie affair where fancy ice sculptures melt as plates and garbage piles up). I'd like to call Zoo one of Wiseman's most essential, but it will just be too much for many viewers. Regardless, it's one of his most important works.
One user on letterboxd calls Basic Training something of a sequel to High School and I cannot agree more–especially considering how that film ends with a letter from a former student who is heading off to the war in Vietnam. Now, you basically watch as teens/young adults are stripped down to their core and turned into soldiers who will not question orders or rebel in any way. It's frightening, but elsewhere, like most of Wiseman's work I've seen so far, there are moments of humanity, humor, and pretty much any kind of emotion you can think of. At around 90 minutes it's a shorter work comparatively, but still pretty phenomenal.
There's many others that I won't get into here, but if you have a Kanopy subscription it's a great rabbit hole to dive into. Again, go to your library! Get a card! Subscribe to Kanopy, it's free! Yay!