Saw some great documentaries this year, too: Harvard Beats Yale 29-29, Milius, Drew: The Man Behind the Posters, Dear Mr. Watterson, The Green Girl, Life Itself, and File 037's untitled doc on Johnny Quest, but I think my fave was Dana Brown's Step Into Liquid (2003), where he follows in his father's Endless Summer footsteps by highlighting surf culture around the globe, which only reinforced the long nurtured notion that I am a spiritual surfer trapped in a land-locked and gelatinous hayseed's body ... Anyhoo ... As great as all of those flicks already mentioned were, they didn't leave as big as impression as those listed below. And so, here are my personal Top Ten film discoveries for 2014 in no particular order.
I've already gushed about the distinct visual flare of Messiah of Evil (1973) but only focused on the two outstanding murder set-pieces. Well, guess what? The whole film is that visually trippy from beginning to end. A wonderful relic that's just itching to be gorged upon from a time when horror films were more about experimentation than plugging plot points into a rigor'd formula.
Ever have one of those days where it feels like you're ready to fight the good fight only to wind up tripping over your own intestines before expiring? If so, Have I got a movie for you! Super Ninjas (1982), which began life as Five Element Ninja, hits you right upside the head with a whole loaf of Shaw Brothers kung-fu whackadoodlery. Try to get your head around this: a Chinese sensei's martial artists beat a rival Japanese warlord's samurai. Samurai sends word to his brother, leader of an elite cadre of ninja, who possess the power of the elements (earth, wood, wind, water, and fire), before committing hari kari. Super Ninja and his brood wipe out the sensei and his men quite spectacularly, leaving one lone survivor to learn the skills he needs to be a Super-Dooper Ninja to exact his revenge, which he does, even more spectacularly. Now, I'm not the biggest fan of HK films, finding them to be a tad exhausting in the lather, rinse, repeat of their interchangeable plots, but this one is just so nucking futz. Staggeringly so. This display of eye-popping action, hilarious dubbing, grue, dismemberment, wire-fu, fists 'o' fury, and mad ninja gopher skills, had me Ctrl-Alt-Deleting my brain too many times to count. Truly amazing.
Finally took the plunge on Arrow this year, too, which soon found me crushing on Emily Bett Rickards and obsessing over Caity Lotz, which led me to The Pact (2012), where, after their abusive mother dies, two estranged sisters reluctantly agree to meet at the old homestead to settle the family estate. But when the younger sister (Lotz) arrives, the older sister seems to have vanished into thin air. And as more people inexplicable disappear inside the house, things take a supernatural twist when some seemingly malignant ectoplasm tries to force the surviving sister into a certain room. Now, I don't want to spoil some twists this film righteously earned, but, as our heroine digs into the mystery of the house and shakes a few skeletons out of her family tree, turns out that ghost isn't what it first appears to be. And then, Johnny Rico showed up. This was a great, no-budget thriller that I couldn't outguess and really surprised me. I love it when that happens.
Not to be confused with Universal's earlier 1934 version, which first paired Karloff and Lugosi, this incarnation of The Black Cat (1941) is a morbidly comic affair with Lugosi as a creepy groundskeeper (complete with Elmer Fudd outfit) constantly lurking around the mansion of an elderly crackpot and cat-enthusiast who dies under mysterious circumstances. Of course, this brings the heirs a running (Basil Rathbone and Alan Ladd among them), looking for their share of inheritance, which leads to the usual codicils, secret passages, and bumping-offs to increase the profit shares, leaving it up to a bumbling estate agent (Broderick Crawford!) to get to the bottom of things before anymore bodies turn up. Wow. This thing was just great. Wotta cast! One of the better whodunits I've come across in this genre, too; and, oh, if only Hugh Hubert provided the comedy relief in all of these classic creakers.
Hot-Rodding Beachniks, a roving gang of motorcycle hooligans, a jealousy-fueled love-triangle, goofy adults on the periphery played by famous and well-seasoned players, a goofy hang-out run by an even goofier owner, rumbles, riots, and, oh yeah, inexplicable musical interludes. For heavens sake even the action in the poster matches the action going on onscreen. Oh, holy crap. But I do believe that Dragstrip Riot (1958) is the Rosetta Stone when searching to unlock the cinematic fossil record, revealing the exact point when American International's morality-driven teenage-angst pictures switched gears into what would eventually become their Beach Party franchise.
When three disillusioned-with-life cogs (Robert Carradine, Melanie Griffith and Desi Arnaz Jr.) break from the wheel and head to the last frontier of Alaska, pursuing the last vestiges of the American dream of doing their own thing, alas, things do not go as planned in Joyride (1977). Soon robbed, fleeced, and facing a higher cost of living than expected, the only work to be found is on the pipeline via a crooked union steward who has the hots for Griffith. To make matters worse, when they do the right thing and disrupt the boss's embezzling racket, they're all fired and soon subsisting on dog food and, I kid you not, pissing contests to survive, trying to raise enough money to return to the lower 48. Things get so desperate they hatch a plan to rob the pipeline payroll, which eventually morphs into a kidnap and ransom caper that isn't quite as convoluted as it sounds. Pretty good slice of 1970s malaise and disillusionment, all told, even though the film felt like it lasted about half hour longer than it should have once the caper is pulled off, leaving everyone kinda flailing around. Still, I dug this movie a lot. The big surprise was Arnaz Jr.; he was really good. A lot better than I expected from Automan's second banana. Highly recommended.
Never, ever, not in a million years, would I have guessed this film would be that genuinely funny with that much emotional heft (-- especially with Nic Cage and Ryan Reynolds in the lead). After my first viewing of The Croods (2013), my sides were killing me and there was something in my eye. Love the production design, love the off-kilter nature, and the oddball flora and fauna of this fully-realized universe. So much so I immediately watched it again. And again. Aaaaaand again. RELEASE THE BABY!!!
I walked into Rituals (1977) expecting one thing and got something completely different when five doctors go on a hunting trip deep in the Canadian wilderness. Days from anywhere, they draw the wrath of someone lurking in the woods, who picks them off at leisure while these civilized men slowly devolve in front of our eyes into something that just might be able to survive these attacks as they're run ragged and survival instincts kick in. (I know I'll never look at Hal Holbrook the same way again.) Released in the States as The Creeper, I'm hesitant to call this a Deliverance knock-off because I don't want to poison the well, but, it is what it is. It's also really, really quite good and very disturbing on a primal level as far as these Canuxploitation cash-ins go. Just watch it. Trust me.
When an American diplomat is captured by the Viet Cong and taken into Laos for his eventual transfer to China(?), the CIA recruits The Devil's Advocates -- a quintet of surly Hell's Angels rejects, to get him back because of ... because of ... hrrrrmmmmm ... well, because of reasons. Apparently, most of these bikers are ex-servicemen, and after fleshing out their characters a bit, they Megaforce-ize their scooters and, soon enough, all hell breaks loose as this *ahem* 'clandestine mission' has all the sneaky subtlety of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. But! Things go south when they try to bust the prisoner out of the camp. Turns out the diplomat doesn't want to be rescued due to more of these 'reasons' as the film gets even dumber when we switch gears from gung-ho Fillipinosploitation action flick and director Jack Starrett brings out the clown-hammer of morality and mercilessly beats his production senseless until it's an anti-war screed. Again, The Losers (1970) is dumber than a bag of hammers; the mission and motivations make no sense whatsoever, but the sheer audacity of it, coupled with a fantastic cast (William Smith, Adam Roarke, Paul Koslo), and some incredible action set-pieces, makes this an exceptionally good time.
Toshio Masuda's The Perfect Game (Kanzenna yûgi 1958) is an extremely well-executed morality play about five young turks who concoct an elaborate scheme to defraud a bookie by rigging the results of a race. And while this set-up takes up almost half the movie, and you expect their perfect plan to fall apart, you realize we haven't gotten to the meat of the story yet when the plan goes off without a hitch. The problem: the bookie doesn't have enough money to cover the bet, which leads to a brutal second half where the bookie's sister is kidnapped as collateral until he makes good. Things, do not go well from here. And to say much more would spoil too much. Another outstanding Nikkatsu noir that I cannot recommend enough. Wow.
Up next, I even managed to catch enough new films in 2014 to do Top Ten list for that as well. Stay tuned, Boils and Ghouls.