What I Saw Last Year: Best Documentaries 2017



















It’s hard to single these out, but the five films above are my top picks of the fifteen titles on this list.

Note: I wrote on nine of these titles last July in “The Year So Far: Documentaries.” I’ve copied those entries here, with some revisions.


78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene (Alexandre O. Philippe, director)  As with Kent Jones’ excellent Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015), this film is for film buffs in general and Hitchcock fans in particular. 78/52: Hitchcock’s Shower Scene breaks down, in obsessive detail, one of the most iconic scenes in movies: the shower scene where Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) gets brutally murdered. Everybody knows this scene even if they’ve never seen Psycho (1960) — if such a thing is possible. It’s embedded in a collective memory that transcends movies. As a followup to the glossy, user-friendly North by Northwest (1959), Psycho came as a big shock. This scene in particular was a hot jolt to what audiences had come to expect in a movie. As far as I know, killing off your ostensible heroine — especially one played by a Hollywood star — less than halfway through the story hadn’t been done before. It was very disorienting. The shower scene, which lasts 45 seconds, is made up of 78 camera set ups and 52 cuts. In 92 minutes, 78/52 looks at this scene and how it came to be from every possible angle. Thirty-nine directors, editors, sound engineers, authors and scholars weigh in with insights and trivia on the importance of the scene. Some of these people seem more justified in being in this documentary than others, but that doesn’t detract from the overall effect. I especially enjoyed learning that 27 varieties of melons were tested to find just the right sound of a knife tearing into human flesh. A cassavas was the winner. After seeing 78/52, I went home and watched a Blu-ray of Psycho. Had to do it.

 Abacas: Small Enough to Jail (Steve James, director)   Abacas Federal Savings Bank, a family-owned community bank in New York City’s Chinatown, was the 2600th in size among U.S. banks, and was also the only financial institution criminally indicted in the aftermath of the 2008 meltdown. The ensuing court case lasted five years and cost $10 million dollars, but it was a rare instance where the little guy wins. Steve James has had a long, distinguished career, with films such as Hoop Dreams (1994), Stevie (2002), and Life Itself (2014 — in which film critic Roger Ebert talks about his life with movies and the devastating illness that didn’t seem to slow him down much). James was also a producer, series editor, and segment director of the astounding multi-part television series The New Americans (2004). A strong sense of humanity and respect for his subjects is reflected in all of his films. Abacas: Small Enough to Jail is no exception.

 City of Ghosts (Matthew Heineman, director)  Follows a number of citizen journalists who exhibit unbelievable courage in transmitting accounts of life in Raqqa, a Syrian city under ISIS domination. Their lives are at risk, even for those who have left Syria for other European countries. Seeing City of Ghosts made me realize I don’t have all that much to complain about in my life. This film makes a good companion piece to Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested’s Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of Isis. 

 David Lynch: The Art Life (Jon Hguyen, Rick Barnes & Olivia Neergaard-Holm, directors)  I hadn’t known (or had forgotten) that David Lynch started out as a painter. Examples of his early work indicate a clear, if twisted, path to his films. The Art Life feels very intimate. We see Lynch in his home in the Hollywood Hills as he speaks in voice-over or directly to the camera about his early life as a painter and how he eventually segued into film. He’s very casual, yet quite precise. I loved listening to his voice and the way he expresses himself. The Art Life only takes us up to Eraserhead (1977),  but it provides a context for thinking about his subsequent work in film and television. If you have any interest in David Lynch, you have to see this, especially in light of his mind-blowing revival of Twin Peaks on Showtime. Trust me.

 Dawson City: Frozen Time (Bill Morrison, director)  My previous post on this film can be accessed here.

 Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (Frederick Wiseman, director)  Frederick Wiseman is one of the greatest American documentary filmmakers, living or dead. His recent films, which include At Berkeley (2013), National Gallery (2014), In Jackson Heights (2015), and Ex Libris: The New York Public Library, are as good as anything he’s ever done. He’s 88 and still producing great work. His films tend to be long; the titles just mentioned range from three to four hours each, with not a wasted minute among them. Starting with Titicut Follies (1967), Wiseman’s subjects have been social institutions. A glance at his filmography bears this out. Ex Libris is no exception. True to his style, there’s no narration, no one is identified with an on-screen title. He puts us in the middle of things and let’s us figure it out. Ex Libris is a must-see for anyone who loves books, libraries, and reading (our current president is obviously excused). We are taken to different library branches in the city, sit in on board meetings, attend events, and get an overall sense of how the organization operates. This includes a fascinating look at how books are sorted after being returned. Books in the stacks are but a small part of the NYPL today, which includes expanding educational and community outreach programs. A scene of seniors sitting in a circle who take turns getting up to dance nearly brought me to tears. It’s a wonderful film.

 Faces Places (Agnès Varda & JR, directors)  Agnès Varda, an important figure in French cinema, has been making documentary and narrative features since 1955. Like Frederick Wiseman, she’s been at it a long time. She’ll be 90 this May, and shows no sign of slowing down. For Faces Places, she teamed up with a young French photographer/urban artist who goes by the name of JR. They travel the countryside taking very large format photos of people, which are then put on the sides of buildings, train cars, tanker trucks, and just about anything that has a large surface. Their relationship is simply wonderful, as are the people they meet along the way. Faces Places seems to engage everyone who sees it. It is life-affirming and filled with an optimistic spirit. Plus there’s the suspense of wondering if Agnès will ever persuade JR to remove the dark glasses he never takes off. Varda is amazing. I had an unexpected opportunity to meet her at a small press conference during last year’s annual Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series at Lincoln Center. She didn’t have a film in the series, but was in town and showed up apparently just to hang out. Before the press conference started, Varda came around to each of us in the front row to ask who we were and shake hands. It took me a moment to realize who she was. I was able to talk with her a bit afterwards. I feel this was all reflective of her open curiosity for everyone in the world around her. Faces Places is ample evidence of that.

Gilbert (Neil Berkeley, director)  Not so long ago I wouldn’t have had any interest in seeing a film about Gilbert Gottfried, a comedian I’d always found grating and annoying. Then in 2016, we saw a film about Holocaust humor called The Last Laugh, directed by Ferne Pearlstein. Gottfried was interviewed in the film, which gave me a totally different take on him. Several months after that, we attended a screening of Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy at Film Forum that Gottfried was introducing. Again, I really liked the guy. A brief conversation with him in the lobby only reinforced that feeling. Last July, Gilbert was shown at the Traverse City Film Festival in Michiganwhere we were visiting friends and seeing movies. Gottfried, his wife Dara, and director Neil Berkeley were there for a Q&A after the screening. I loved Gilbert. Neil Berkeley had what seemed like unlimited access to Gilbert’s life at home and on tour. When he’s not “on,” Gilbert is very quiet, shy and thoughtful. He also has a few quirks. At one point, Dara pulls suitcases out from under their bed that are completely filled with all the shampoos, lotions, etc. that Gilbert obsessively takes from every hotel he stays in when on the road. There are hundreds of these items. It’s just a thing he does. The film has many clips, archival and current, of Gilbert performing in clubs and hotels. We learn how Gilbert and Dara met, and meet their two children (Gilbert Gottfried has kids!). Gilbert is an inside look at someone most people only know from his performing persona. He has an aggressive, profoundly profane style on stage that’s not to everyone’s liking. He clearly likes “crossing the line,” and has gotten into more than a little trouble for it, but I don’t think there’s a mean-spirited bone in his body. Now that I see him differently than I once did, I enjoy Gottfried immensely. Check him out on YouTube.

I didn’t realize until recently that Gilbert‘s director Neil Berkeley had also made Beauty Is Embarrassing (2012), a film that’s a total kick from start to finish. You can access what I wrote about it here.

The interview in the video below is preceded by the same trailer that’s above. After that, the interview itself begins.

 Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of Isis (Sebastian Junger & Nick Quested, directors)  I hadn’t seen this truly powerful film until recently, after a friend urged me to watch it before finalizing this list. For someone as ignorant as I’ve been of what’s been going on over there, except in the most general sense, Hell on Earth is quite a wake-up call. This film puts us right in the middle of things, and provides context for the chaos. It’s largely a story of survival. We follow a Syrian family in a refugee camp in Turkey as they try to find a smuggler to take them to Greece. At one point the father and his kids are looking at videos they’d taken on their smart phone. “We are watching our memories,” he says. The al-Assad regime, along with Isis, has wrought a staggering toll on the people. An on-screen title states the following:

“More than half of the Syrian population has been displaced, and more than one million Syrian refugees live in Europe. To date, an estimated 400,000 Syrians have died during the civil war.”

Sebastian Junger narrates the film in voice-over. Near the end we hear this: “Any reasonable person would flee the kind of fighting that we’ve seen in Syria. They’d happily risk their lives to be smuggled across the border. They collect by the millions in neighboring countries, even living in squalid refugee camps. Eventually they’d make their way to the West to look for a better life for their children. People say, ‘Look, it’s not our problem.’ Okay, it’s not your problem, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be affected by it. You could say that you don’t actually care about human suffering, but the truth is that all violence and misery eventually affect the entire world. In that sense, there is no escaping the fact that we are all part of the human race. There is no escaping the fact that borders become irrelevant once people start dying and societies begin to collapse.”

This is heavy stuff. It’s not easy to watch because it really puts you up against it. Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of Isis isn’t “entertaining,” but it is a great film. Everyone should see it.

Mr. Gaga: A True Story of Love and Dance (Tomer Heymann, director)  I hadn’t heard of Ohad Naharin before seeing this film, but I definitely know about him now. His percussive choreography is incredibly exciting to see. He speaks eloquently in the film of his early life and how he came to be who he is. Mr. Gaga is powerful and often quite moving.

Obit (Vanessa Gould, director)  This fascinating film profiles several obituary writers at The New York Times and examines how they do what they do. The process is laid out from start to finish. We saw Obit at Film Forum last April on its opening day. I’d seen it the week before at a press screening, but I knew my wife Nancy, being a writer and editor, would love it. The director and two of the subjects in the film, Bruce Weber and Jeff Roth, were there for a Q&A after. This always adds a lot to anything you’ve just seen, and this was no exception. In the film, Bruce Weber is seen as he works throughout the day to finish an obit on time. Jeff Roth oversees the Times‘ morgue where thousands of clippings and photographs are archived, ready to be accessed as necessary. Roth is a live-wire presence in the film, and just as entertaining in person. Something I found especially interesting is that when a celebrity dies unexpectedly, such as Michael Jackson, and an obit hasn’t already been prepared in advance, as it normally is for luminaries of a certain age, the obit reporters have to work against the clock to artfully write the summation of a person’s life in a matter of hours.

Quest (Jonathan Olshefski, director)  We saw Quest last March at last year’s New Directors/New Films series and loved it. It’s a tremendously important social document. Jonathan Olshefski filmed the Rainey family in North Philadelphia over a ten-year period. The result is an intimate study of human beings through good times and bad. When we saw Quest, Olshefski went on stage after the screening and asked the Raineys to join him. It turned out the entire family had been sitting in the row directly in front of us. Considering the feeling the film generated for these people, this was quite a kick.

Here is a review of Quest from Slant Magazine, followed by an interview with the director at the Sundance Film Festival and another interview in Filmmaker Magazine that tell how the film came to be.

Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan (Linda Saffire & Adam Schlesinger, directors)  Just as I hadn’t been aware of Mr. Gaga‘s Ohad Naharin, I also knew nothing about Wendy Whelan until I started seeing trailers for this film, despite the fact that she had been the prima ballerina for the New York City Ballet for decades. She’s truly inspiring as the film follows her through a surgery that could end her career, and the challenges of transitioning from ballet to contemporary dance. As with some other films on this list, Restless Creature feels very intimate. Whelan is surprisingly open as she talks about her fears and anxieties. These are feelings we all experience to varying degrees. To hear someone who’s the best at what she does talking about this brings us closer to her.

 Spielberg (Susan Lacy, director)  Two and a half hours might seem long for a film about a movie director, but Steven Spielberg‘s career more than justifies it. He’s had an astonishing number of hits. Audiences have almost always embraced his films. Critics, I think, were more suspicious and skeptical of someone who kept quickly cranking out what seemed to be glossy entertainments. He more or less invented the modern blockbuster with Jaws (1975), then followed that with Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). He strove for something more “serious” with The Color Purple (1985), and really got there with Schindler’s List (1993). It’s bizarre to think that he made that film the same year as Jurassic Park. Then came Saving Private Ryan (1998), Munich (2005), and Lincoln (2012), with a lot of films in between. Spielberg gives an excellent sense of the immense impact he’s had on popular culture and the world of film. It’s hard to imagine the landscape without him. Spielberg makes me want to see the films again. His career isn’t close to over yet.

Who’s Gonna Love Me Now? (Barak Heymann & Tomer Heymann, directors)  What links many of the films here is a strong sense of humanity. This film has that in abundance. The Heymann Brothers are excellent filmmakers, as their earlier film on this list, Mr. Gaga, will attest. Who’s Gonna Love Me Now? is a wonderful story of love, identity, and acceptance, but what really sets it apart is that the process of making the film influenced the outcome. If the Heymann brothers had not made this film, Saar Maoz’s story would not have gone the way it did. The title poses a question that engages us even before we know what it means in context. When we hear it asked in the film, it’s a punch to the heart.

Below are two trailers for the film. Even though there’s some overlap, I think they’re different enough to justify including them here.


The following titles are available for streaming from Amazon:

Abacas: Small Enough to Jail

City of Ghosts

David Lynch: The Art Life

Dawson City: Frozen Time


Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of Isis


Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan

The following titles are available for streaming from Netflix:

Mr. Gaga: A True Story of Love and Dance

Who’s Gonna Love Me Now?

Faces Places is still in theaters. As of this writing, it’s showing here in NYC at the Quad on West 13th Street.


That’s all for now. Next up: Best TV & Cable for 2017 – Ted Hicks












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Best Feature Films Supplemental: Interviews, Press Conferences & More

For those who want to take a deeper dive into some of the films on my Best Features list, here is a selection of interviews, press conferences, and more. Many of these films were shown at last fall’s New York Film Festival before being released theatrically. – Ted Hicks


Call Me by Your Name




A Ghost Story 

A statement by director David Lowery can be accessed here.


Lady Bird


Last Flag Flying


Loving Vincent


The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)




The Shape of Water

“Show the Monster” — an article on Guillermo del Toro by Daniel Zalewski published in the February 7, 2011 issue of the New Yorker can be accessed here. It gives a good look inside del Toro’s head. Note that this predates The Shape of Water.


The Square





Posted in Books, Fiction, Film, Home Video, TV & Cable | 3 Comments

What I Saw Last Year: Best Feature Films 2017



















Wind River is my top pick for the year, with A Ghost Story as a close second. They’re quite different, but they really got to me. I had a deeper emotional response to these two films than all the others. These are the ones that mean the most to me. That’s saying something, because I think all the films on this list are excellent, each in their own way. The Shape of Water, Call Me by Your Name, and Dunkirk, especially, are singular achievements. The films that stood out for me last year, out of the 339 I saw, are listed below, in alphabetical order (except for two). There’s no way I can stick to a traditional Top 10 list. For me it’s more like Top 30, and even then I have to allow for a few more. This post took on a life of its own.

Note: I wrote about seven of these titles last July in “The Year So Far: Feature Films.” I’ve copied those entries here, with slight revisions.


The Big Sick (Michael Showalter, director)  Looks and sounds like a rom-com at the outset, but becomes something much deeper and more authentic by the end. The film is written by Kumail Nanjiami and his wife Emily Gordon, based on their real-life romance. Nanjiami plays a version of himself and Emily is played by Zoe Kazan. Anyone who’s followed Nanjiami on HBO’s Silicon Valley knows how special he is. A stellar Holly Hunter and Ray Romano play Emily’s parents who rush to Chicago when she falls ill. The Big Sick is very funny and very moving as it looks at family relationships and the messiness of falling in love, as well as the dynamics of being a Pakistani in today’s America.

Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, director)  The original Blade Runner (1982) has such iconic status that attempting a follow-up is a high-risk venture, even for a director as skilled as Villeneuve. I think the new film succeeds more than it doesn’t. It’s long, nearly 2 hours 45 minutes, but I saw it twice — the second time in IMAX — and didn’t feel the length. This is a film that really justifies the IMAX format. The sequel has a number of clever connections to the original. Ryan Gosling is a terrific actor, and it’s great seeing Harrison Ford back as Rick Deckard. But as powerful as it is at times, nothing here quite compares to Rutgar Hauer’s “Time to die” moment in the rain from the first film. If you’ve seen it, you know what I mean.

Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino, director)  This film has a very lush texture, as you would expect from the director of I Am Love, the film he made with Tilda Swinton in 2009. The feel of a sensuous summer in the sun at a country estate in northern Italy is sharply conveyed. Armie Hammer plays a graduate student from the States in Italy to assist Michael Stuhlbarg, a professor of antiquities. Timothée Chalamet as Elio, Stuhlbarg’s son, falls in love with Hammer over the course of the summer. A conversation Elio has with his father near the end of the film is a stunning high point. Chalamet was also in Hostiles and Lady Bird in 2017; Stuhlbarg was in The Shape of Water, The Post, and the third season of Fargo on FX.

Coco (Lee Unkrich & Adrian Molina, co-directors)  This film gave me a huge amount of pleasure. I had a smile on my face throughout. Setting the story in the context of Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebration certainly helped. Pixar is the greatest.

Columbus (Kogonada, director & writer)  John Cho is Jin, a Korean translator who has come to Columbus, Indiana, where his father, an architecture scholar, has fallen ill. Hayley Lu Richardson is Casey, a high school graduate living with her mother, a recovering drug addict. Jin and Haley meet by chance and become friends during the next several weeks. They have a series of fascinating conversations, usually in the context of visiting  architectual landmarks in the city. Haley is a self-styled expert on these buildings and their history. It was news to me, but Columbus is the site of many buildings and structures designed by famous architects. In this, the film has a documentary aspect. The buildings are there, they exist in the real world, they’re not merely background. The architecture is crucial to the story and crucial to the characters. I found this aspect really interesting. It doesn’t hurt that John Cho — Harold in the Harold and Kumar films and Sulu in three Star Trek films since 2009 — and Haley Lu Richardson — who I don’t recall seeing before — are very appealing and engaging actors. They make me care about what happens to them.

Downsizing (Alexander Payne, director & co-writer)  The advertising for this might make you think it’s a comedy. It certainly has comedic elements, inherent in the premise of shrinking people as a way of dealing with overpopulation, but that’s just part of it. Payne, whose films include Nebraska (2013) and Descendants (2015), is great at creating quirky, oddball characters. That’s true here, but Downsizing also resonates with many issues today, such as immigration and class divisions. There’s even a wall!

Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan, director & writer)  Seeing this in IMAX is an overwhelming experience. I’m sure it will work in any format, though probably less so on your phone. I’ve seen it twice. The first time I was thrown by Nolan’s use of time in telling the story. One segment takes place over a week, another during a day, and the third in one hour. He cuts in and out of these throughout until the end, when they all more or less come together. I came out impressed by the production, the sound and visual, but not sure if I liked it very much, or understood why he was doing what he was doing. That was last July. When Dunkirk returned to the IMAX screen at the Lincoln Square multiplex in the fall, I saw it again. This time I was blown away, much more so than before. I was able to focus on the film without trying to figure out where I was in it. The final image of a Spitfire fighter burning on the beach is exquisitely beautiful and moving.

Foxtrot (Samuel Maoz, director & writer)  A couple in Tel-Aviv are told that their son has been killed while stationed at an army outpost. Later they receive some different news. Then the film shifts to the outpost location. I saw this film at a press screening prior to a week’s Oscar-qualifying run in December and really liked it. It opens for a limited release on March 2nd. Foxtrot is different, insightful, and very human.

Get Out (Jordan Peele, director & writer)  Jordan Peele (of Key & Peele) has done something extraordinary and cleverly subversive here. In the guise of sci-fi horror films such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Stepford Wives, he’s given us a study of race relations as deep and insightful as the documentaries I Am Not Your Negro, O.J.: Made in America, and 13th.

A Ghost Story (David Lowery, director & writer)  This is one of the saddest films I’ve ever seen. At the beginning we see Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara in and around their house on land that might be in Texas. They’re married and in love. She wants to move; he doesn’t. Then he dies. And is resurrected as the classic kid’s idea of a ghost, as someone in a sheet with two blank eye holes, the least-expensive Halloween costume ever. The ghost stays in the house, haunting it, silently watching Mara dealing with grief as her life goes on. He remains in the house after she moves out and as a succession of  families move in. The film is a strong evocation of loss, loneliness, existence, and time. That’s a heavy load for a film to carry, but I think A Ghost Story more than does it. The film suggests why ghosts might hang around at all, why objects in haunted houses suddenly fly off shelves, and gives new meaning to the expression “giving up the ghost.” This shouldn’t work at all, but it does. Or maybe it doesn’t, I don’t know. You’ll either go with it or reject it entirely. It’s hard to describe the effect it had on me. A Ghost Story left me feeling lonely and alone, but also exhilarated. At dinner the day I saw it, I was telling my wife Nancy about the final moment in the film and I got choked up trying to get it out. I didn’t expect this, but I can’t ignore something that provokes a reaction this strong. Maybe I identified too much with the ghost. Hah. You might wonder why someone should want to go through that. The answer is because it’s beautiful. Maybe I’ll see it again and it won’t work at all. But I strongly doubt it. *** I was right. I saw A Ghost Story again a few weeks ago and it’s still great. The only reservation I had this time is a scene at a party where someone is presuming to explain the existential absurdity of existence. It’s jarring because it takes place in what is otherwise a very quiet movie, and also because this guy is such a pompous windbag. Don’t know why this didn’t bother me the first time, but it didn’t.

Happy End (Michael Haneke, director & writer)  Everyone has secrets in this film. Jean-Louis Trintignant plays Georges Laurent, patriarch of an affluent bourgeois family that owns a construction company. Isabelle Huppert is his daughter Anne; Mathieu Kassovitz is his son Thomas, recently remarried; Fantine Harduin is Eve, Thomas’ 13-year-old daughter who may have poisoned her mother; Franz Rogowski is Pierre, Georges’ unpredictable and violent son. Characters and their actions in Haneke’s films are often seen coldly with a clinical eye. My favorite film of his is The White Ribbon (2009). Happy End can be seen, in a way, as a sequel to his Oscar-winning Amour. It can also be seen as a comedy, but one laced with acid. I liked this a lot.

Hostiles (Scott Cooper, director & writer)  Anyone looking for a traditional Western might have a problem with Hostiles. It’s unsentimental and brutal, much in the way of Robert Aldrich’s great film with Burt Lancaster, Ulzana’s Raid (1972). There’s nothing light about it. I quite liked it. Christian Bale plays a dour U.S. Cavalry officer ordered in 1892 to escort a dying Cheyenne war chief (Wes Studi) and his family to their tribal land in Montana. Bale would sooner kill Studi than carry out this order. Along the way he picks up a woman (Rosamund Pike, perhaps a bit too beautiful for the setting and circumstances, but effective) whose husband and children have been killed in an attack by a Commanche war party on their homestead. The story plays out in some predictable ways and others not so predicatable. This is Scott Cooper’s fourth feature since Crazy Heart (2009), which featured Jeff Bridges in an Oscar-winning role.

In the Fade (Fatih Akin, director & writer)  I’ve liked Fatih Akin’s films ever since seeing Head-On in 2004 and The Edge of Heaven in 2007. He’s a Turkish director who tells stories of people caught up between cultures and countries. In the Fade is ostensibly a thriller. Diane Kruger gives a totally committed performance as a woman determined to see justice done after her husband and young son are killed in a bombing by neo-Nazis. It may be a cliché to describe something as “gripping,” but that definitely applies here.

Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig, director & writer)  Terrific coming-of-age story written and directed by Greta Gerwig. She’s received a lot attention for her work on this film, and deservedly so. Though I’d seen Saoirse Ronan in The Lovely Bones (2009) and Hanna (2011), it was with Brooklyn (2015) that I really took notice of her. She’s excellent here as Lady Bird McPherson, a high school senior in Sacramento, unsure of what to do with her life. Laurie Metcalf is also very strong as Lady Bird’s flinty mother. Tracy Letts is truly wonderful as her father. He’s always effective, but this is a character unlike any I’ve seen him play before.

Lady MacBeth (William Oldroyd, director)  This is a nasty little film that I liked a lot. I’ve seen it twice so far; once at a press screening and again when it was screened in last year’s New Directors/New Films series. A plot synopsis from IMDB sets it up more concisely than I probably could: “Rural England, 1865. Katherine is stifled by her loveless marriage to a bitter man twice her age, whose family are cold and unforgiving. When she embarks on a passionate affair with a young worker on her husband’s estate, a force is unleashed inside her, so powerful that she will stop at nothing to get what she wants.” Set in a desolate landscape, the film has echos of Wuthering Heights, but with a fairly modern sensibility. Florence Pugh’s Katherine is smarter and deadlier than anyone around her, determined to survive no matter what.

Last Flag Flying (Richard Linklater, director & writer)  Linklater is a director who has worked to do something different in his films. He hit the scene with his no-budget indie Slacker in 1991. With his Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight trilogy (1995/2004/2013) he followed the relationship of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delphy, with each film taking place during a 24-hour period. He used a new method of rotoscoping in his animation features, Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006). Most significantly, in Boyhood (2014), Linklater filmed the same actors over 12 years to tell the story of a boy as he grows from age 7 to 19. No one had made a film like this before, and is unlikely to again. Last Flag Flying is more traditional, but no less effective for that. In a sort-of sequel to The Last Detail, Steve Carell is a man who seeks out Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne, who he served with in Vietnam, to help him bury his son, a Marine who was killed in Iraq. This is a more subdued character for Carell than he usually plays, less exaggerated and more realistic. It’s a journey, a road movie, comical at times, but quite moving by the end.

Logan (James Mangold, director)  Hugh Jackman is the title character, aka Wolverine, from Marvel Comics. He’s played this character many times before in X-Men and Wolverine films. But this one is different, a superhero movie that’s not really a superhero movie. It’s R-rated, down and dirty, and very violent. Logan shows the bloody consequences of violent actions that are played for thrills in conventional PG-13 action films where it’s more about the body count than it is about the bodies. This one feels real, even if it’s not. There’s more at stake. Life, death, redemption. Not everyone walks away.

Loving Vincent (Darota Kobiela & Hugh Welchman, co-directors)  A young man investigates the last days of Van Gogh’s life in an effort to determine the circumstances of his death. This is the first fully painted animation feature, and it feels unique. One hundred artists worked to hand paint each frame of the film in the style of Van Gogh. The trailer below gives a sense of the look and feel of the film. Loving Vincent is emotionally involving and quite beautiful.

Margorie Prime (Michael Almereyda, director)  In the near future, technology exists that enables a deceased loved one to be resurrected as a hologram. Lois Smith plays a widow in the early stages of Alzheimer’s who has chosen a younger version of her husband, played by Jon Hamm. He’s been programmed with memories and has the ability to learn more. Geena Davis and Matthew Robbins play Smith’s daughter and son-in-law. This film has a gentle touch as it deals with loss and acceptance.

Maudie (Aisling Walsh, director)  I didn’t know before seeing this that Maude Lewis was an actual person who became a well-known Canadian folk artist in the 1940s and 50s. Sally Hawkins is simply wonderful in the title role, as is Ethan Hawke as the lonely, extremely gruff (to put it mildly) fishmonger who becomes Maude’s initially unwilling companion. They’re an odd couple if there ever was one. This is a film with a lot of human feeling, but not maudlin or sentimentalized. It earns the emotional response you’re likely to have for it.

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (Noah Baumbach, director & writer)  Noah Baumbach’s films often have a literary feel. This one is no exception, most obviously in the title. It’s refreshing that Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller are playing more realistic characters than they usually do. Dustin Hoffman is excellent as their father, Harold, an embittered artist who feels he’s never gotten his due. The entire cast is very good. The film is funny, but I wouldn’t call it a comedy. There’s real pain beneath the surface.

Mudbound (Dee Rees, director)  Based on a novel by Hillary Jordan, Mudbound tells the story of two young veterans, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel (Jason Mitchell), who return home after the end of World War II to rural Mississippi. Ronsel’s father Hap is a tenant farmer on Jamie’s brother’s farm. Jamie is white, Ronsel is black. They warily become friends and have to deal with pervasive racism and their own wartime trauma. Besides Hedlund and Mitchell, the excellent cast includes Jason Clarke as Jamie’s brother Harold, Carey Mulligan as Harold’s wife Laura, Jonathan Banks as their virulent racist father, Rob Morgan and Mary J. Blige as Ronsel’s parents, Hap and Florence. An interesting feature is that the characters take turns doing voice-over narration. This lends a novelistic feel to the film. Mudbound is epic in scope, from scenes of incredible hardships on the farm to flashbacks of the war with Jamie as an Air Corps pilot and Ronsel as an army tank commander who falls in love with a young French woman. Mudbound has received an astonishing number of award nominations — 76 by my count — in various categories from many regional and national organizations. Among those, cinematographer Rachel Morrison is the first woman to be nominated for an Oscar in that category, which is significant.

On the Beach at Night Alone (Hong Sang-soo, director & writer)  This is a mesmerizing film about a young Korean actress and the married film director she previously had an affair with. That the film’s lead actress, Kim Min-hee, and the film’s director, Hong Sang-soo, actually had an affair adds an interesting meta-level. Details are revealed slowly. A more complete picture begins to emerge, the way images appeared on Polaroid film. Not everything is clear by the end, and that’s okay. I saw it a second time with my wife, who hadn’t seen it. Afterwards she had a lot of questions. We talked about it the entire trip home, discussing the whats and whys and maybes of what we’d seen. Anything that can provoke that much discussion has something going on. Whatever else, On the Beach at Night Alone is the most poetic title I’ve heard of for a long time. As befits the film.

The Other Side of Hope (Aki Kaurismäki, director & writer)  All the Kaurismäki films I’ve seen are about immigrants to one degree or another. As with Fatih Akin, Kaurismäki’s characters are caught up in countries and cultures. Khaled is a Syrian refugee who stowed away on a freighter to Helsinki, where he applies for asylum. Waldemar Wikström is a frustrated traveling salesman who uses poker winnings to open a restaurant. With immigration officials on his trail, Khaled is taken in by Waldemar. Kaurismäki’s films often involve makeshift communities made up of oddballs and outsiders. There’s always music in his films, such as bands of street musicians playing rock and roll that the film pauses to watch. Before we saw this film, Nancy and I had seen an earlier film, The Man without a Past (2002), at Film Forum, which we really liked. Then The Other Side of Hope opened and we loved it. In short order we’d watched La vie de bohème (1990) and Le Havre (2011) on Amazon. His films have a deadpan quality similar to those of Jim Jarmusch. Kaurismäki is a singular director, a humanist all the way.

Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson, director & writer)  Anderson is nothing if not ambitious, as he’s shown with Magnolia (1999), There Will Be Blood (2007), and The Master (2012). He creates incredibly detailed worlds that have texture and heightened reality. Daniel Day-Lewis is Reynolds Woodcock, a famous clothing designer in London during the 1950s. His performance is extraordinary, as you’d expect. The actor has said that this is it, he’s retiring from film acting. If so, it will be a loss. Leslie Manville is excellent as his sister, Cyril, as is Vicky Krieps as Alma, Woodcock’s muse and lover. I’d not heard of Krieps before and was impressed by how she more than holds her own with Day-Lewis. Music is very important in this film.  The score by Jonny Greenwood is used in nearly 70 per cent of Phantom Thread, 90 minutes out of 130. That’s a lot, and it works. Sound is also used in a subjective way, as in a breakfast scene where the sound of Krieps buttering toast and pouring tea is heightened to show how much it irritates Day-Lewis. There’s also a Hitchcock vibe to some of the story. Pay attention to the mushrooms from the woods. I wasn’t sure what I felt about Phantom Thread the first time I saw it, but I loved it the second time around.

The Post (Steven Spielberg, director)  It was only yesterday that I realized The Post wasn’t on this list. It’s a good film, but not a great one. The story of the Washington Post’s role in publishing the Pentagon Papers is a timely one, but I think All the President’s Men and Spotlight are better newspaper films. Still, it deserves to be here because of its pedigree. Spielberg has long since proven his worth as a director. Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks always deliver the goods. Tracy Letts and Bob Odenkirk are standouts in an excellent supporting cast.

The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro, director & co-writer)  With 13 Oscar nominations, this is obviously a heavyweight contender. We saw it opening day with Del Toro, Octavia Spenser, Doug Jones (who plays the amphibian man), and Michael Stuhlbarg there for an interview after. This was special. Appearances by filmmakers and cast members always add a lot to the experience. I saw it again a week later. It was just as strong, or stronger, the second time around. Del Toro has said that the initial inspiration for this film came from the scene in The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) when the Gill Man is swimming beneath Julie Adams, matching her movements. It’s a sensuous, erotic moment. The Shape of Water is basically the story of a mute cleaning woman who falls in love with a Gill Man. In 1962, in the midst of the Cold War, a humanoid amphibian creature has been captured and brought from the Amazon by a tightly-wound Michael Shannon (excellent as usual) to a NASA lab in Baltimore for study. Sally Hawkins is wonderful in her Oscar-nominated role, as are Octavia Spenser, Richard F. Jenkins, and Michael Stuhlbarg. Del Toro brings a unique and innovative vision to all of his best films. From his first film, Cronos (1993), to Devil’s Background (2001), and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), he’s proven his ability to amaze, delight, and creep us out. He shows us things we haven’t seen, or even thought of before. The Shape of Water, from its poetic title to the deeply moving score by Alexandre Desplat, is a beautiful fairy tale that feels very real.

The Square (Reuben Östlund, director & writer)  You have to see this one to believe it. I thought it was great, but I’ve been apprehensive of seeing it again. I wrote that last year’s Toni Erdmann was my top pick of 2016, but when I saw it again a couple of months later, I had a negative reaction. Both films are very unusual, so I’m concerned that The Square might not work a second time. Of course, it received the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, but you never know. That said, I was really knocked out when we saw it at the New York Film Festival. Östlund is a rather confrontational filmmaker. He puts us in situations that make us uncomfortable, that throw us off balance. He certainly did that in his last film, Force Majeure (2014).  Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian describes The Square as “…high-wire cinema.” Claes Bang plays Christian, the chief curator of a contemporary art museum in Stockholm. Early in the film his wallet and mobile phone are stolen in a crowded square near the museum. His efforts to retrieve his property result in humiliation, chaos, and damage. Elizabeth Moss is Anne, a journalist who Christian has a brief involvement with. His night in her apartment is marked by a large chimpanzee that appears without explanation in the next room. From the bedroom, Christian watches as the ape crosses to a couch, where it sits and begins examining an art print. This is later followed by a post-sex tug of war over possession of a used condom. The high point is a formal dinner for wealthy museum patrons in which a performance artist pretending to be an ape freaks everyone out with his threatening behavior. The atmosphere in this scene is one of escalating fear and danger. After writing this, I realize I definitely have to see it again.

My previous post on Force Majeure may be accessed here.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonough, director & writer)  This film has gotten a lot of attention, mainly due to the performance of Frances McDormand as a mother who puts up billboards demanding that the police do more to solve the rape and murder of her daughter months before. Her character is foul-mouthed and unrelenting in her determination to see justice done. She’s incredibly entertaining to watch, though the grief that drives her is underneath it all. The terrific cast includes Woody Harrelson, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes, Clarke Peterson, and Sam Rockwell, who really scores in this one.

Wind River (Taylor Sheridan, director & writer)  As I indicated before, this is my favorite film of the year. Seeing it a third time last November made me certain of how good it is. My previous post on this film can be accessed here.

Wonder Woman (Patty Jenkins, director)  Enormously successful at the box-office, and for good reason. Wonder Woman is a knockout. It may not carry the real-world weight that Logan aspires to, but it’s pretty great, and raises the bar for the superhero (or superheroine) genre. This is largely due to the casting of Gal Gadot as Diana Prince, aka Wonder Woman. She’s a stunning, dynamic presence. The climactic showdown is a special-effects blowout we’ve seen many times before, but the film works like gangbusters in spite of that.

Wonderstruck (Todd Haynes, director)  This film, based on Brian Selznick’s illustrated novel, has a magical, almost fairy-tale quality. There are two interconnected storylines, set 50 years apart. In Minnesota in 1977, 12-year-old Ben, obsessed with finding out who his father was, loses his hearing in a freak thunderstorm accident. Following clues, he strikes out for New York City. In Hoboken, New Jersey in 1927, 12-year-old Rose, apparently deaf since birth, runs away to New York in search of her mother, a silent film star. Ben and Rose’s stories are interwoven throughout the film and finally converge at the end when all is revealed. Wonderstruck is a wonderful movie. Todd Haynes, working with his long-time cinematographer Ed Lachman, has created an incredibly detailed world. There’s a sense of discovery in every scene. The cast includes Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams, with Oakes Fegley as Ben and Millicent Simmons as Rose.


No Redeeming Social Value Category

These are extremely violent, stylish films that you’ll either find appalling or think they’re great. I know where I stand.

Blade of the Immortal (Takashi Miike, director)  Japanese director Miike has directed 100 theatrical, video and TV productions since 1991, and he’s only 57. Audition (1999), a phenomenally disturbing film, was the first one of his that I saw. I’ve never quite worked up the nerve to see it again. He makes gangster films, horror, samurai, children’s films, teen dramas, and more. The “hero” of Blade of the Immortal is a wandering samurai who has been cursed with immortality. The kicker is that while he can’t be killed, he can still suffer grievous bodily damage and pain until his body repairs itself, which it does quickly, but still. He wants to die, but hasn’t figured out how to do that yet.

The Villainess (Byung-gil Jung, director & co-writer)  A young woman trained to be an assassin by a secret organization develops her own agenda and proceeds to wreak havoc. This has a La Femme Nikita vibe pushed beyond the limit. Where else are you going to see a sword fight on motorcycles? The protagonist is in the tradition of other films in recent years that featured extremely lethal women, such as Hanna, Haywire, and Electric Blonde. I’m not sure if these qualify as examples of female empowerment, but it’s refreshing to see the tables turned.


The following titles are available to stream from Netflix:

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)


 The following titles are available to stream from Amazon:

The Big Sick

Blade of the Immortal



A Ghost Story

Lady Macbeth

Last Flag Flying

Marjorie Prime

The Square

Wind River



That’s all for now. Whew! – Ted Hicks

Posted in Books, Film, Film posters, Home Video, Streaming, TV & Cable | 4 Comments

“Small Town Crime” – John Hawkes takes the wheel

Small Town Crime is a nasty neo-noir with an off-kilter sense of humor that tells the story of an alcoholic ex-cop as he tries to redeem himself by solving the brutal murder of a young woman left for dead by the side of the road. I was totally unaware of this film until I read Manhola Dargis’ review in the New York Times last Friday morning. She had some reservations, but I’m generally drawn to this type of film. When I saw that John Hawkes was in it, I got even more interested. Then I watched the trailer and that sealed the deal.

There’s nothing particularly new here, but it’s all in the telling, and Small Town Crime goes off-road enough to make it more than interesting. This isn’t a great film, but I liked it a lot. It honors genre conventions, but messes with them, too. A key factor is the casting of John Hawkes as the tarnished hero, Mike Kendall. Hawkes is a terrific actor. I’d seen him before, but he really got my attention as Sol Starr in the great HBO series Deadwood (2004-2006). His feature films include Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), Winter’s Bone (2010), playing a Manson-like cult leader in Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), in The Sessions (2012) as a 37-year-0ld poet paralyzed from the neck down by polio who hires a sex-surrogate to help him lose his virginity, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017). He’s one of those actors who always feels authentic.

Mike’s drinking is taken as a given in the film. He’s totally unapologetic about it, even going out of his way to tell a job interviewer about his “drinking problem.” Which he does after having been offered the job. Needless to say, he doesn’t get it. Everyone in his life seems to know. You don’t get the sense he has any intention of cutting back. Early in the film, Mike comes to face down in the middle of a field littered with trash. When he manages to get to his feet, you can tell he’s wondering where the hell he is, and you know this isn’t the first time.

The rest of the cast is equally good. Octavia Spenser and Anthony Anderson play Mike’s sister and brother-in-law. Wait — sister? For a while I thought they weren’t going to explain it, but we eventually find out that Mike was adopted into Kelly’s family. It’s an intriguing detail. Robert Forster plays the grandfather of Kristy, the murdered woman. She’d had a troubled life, and had been a prostitute. Clifton Collins Jr. plays Mood, who was Kristy’s pimp, or “manager,” as he likes to call himself. Collins is oddly likable in the role. Mike, passing himself off as a private investigator named Jack Winter, convinces Forster to hire him to find Kristy’s killer. Both Forster and Collins end up standing with Mike in the inevitable shootout that climaxes the film.

Another piece of sharp casting in the film is the black Chevy Nova that Mike drives throughout, laying rubber whenever possible. This car has a lot of personality.

I forget exactly how blood ended up splattered on the passenger-side window, but there must have been a reason.

Small Town Crime was written and directed by the brothers Eshom and Ian Nelms. I’m sure they were influenced here by Quentin Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, and especially Elmore Leonard, but how many films of this type haven’t been? I’ve not seen their two previous features, Lost on Purpose (2013) and Waffle Street (2015), but based on this one, I’m interested. Small Town Crime is in the tradition of other  blunt and brutal neo-noirs that have appeared in recent years. These include Cold in July (2014), The Drop (2014), The American Side (2016), and Sweet Virginia (2017). I’m sure there are many more, but these are the ones that come to mind.











I was surprised to find so many different posters online for Small Town Crime. It’s interesting to see the approaches that were taken. Here’s the one that was on display in the theater, so I guess this is what they’re going with. The others are below that.










Small Town Crime is currently playing at just one theater here, the City Cinemas Village East on Second Avenue and 12th Street. There’s frequent turnover at that theater, so it may not be there long. It’s also available for streaming via Direct TV and YouTube Movies.

All of the films referenced in this post are available for rental or streaming on either Amazon or Netflix.

An article on Small Town Crime and John Hawkes’ career by Mary Kaye Schilling in Newsweek online can be accessed here.

A piece in the NYT Sunday magazine on John Hawkes and his performance in The Sessions can be accessed here.

Finally, here’s a conversation with the cast of Small Town Crime.


Next up: My recaps of the best feature films, documentaries, and TV & cable shows for 2017. – Ted Hicks

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Here Comes Another One – Happy New Year! (Fingers Crossed)

As I write this, it’s a brisk 16 degrees above zero on the last day of the year here in New York City. 2017 was seemingly a scenario for an end-of-days disaster movie, with hurricane after hurricane and one mass shooting after another, punctuated by daily insults to our sensibilities Tweeted by a former reality-show host from his Oval Office sandbox. It’s not easy dealing with all of this.

But there were a lot of good films to help us out. One can only hope that 2018 will bring films half as good as Wind River, The Square, A Ghost Story, and The Shape of Water, among many others.

Tonight we’re seeing Happy End, Michael Haneke’s new film at Film Forum. He’s a great director, as evidenced by Amour (2012) and The White Ribbon (2009), to name but two.


The following clip is a montage of scenes from Universal horror films. It was initially designed as a promo for Universal’s proposed “Dark Universe” films, which would be reboots of these classic films. If The Mummy with Tom Cruise from earlier this year is any indication, they should drop these plans immediately. It rightfully tanked, so we may be spared. But I love this clip and am including it here for no particular reason other than it makes me feel really good.



Stay tuned for recaps of my favorite feature films, documentaries, and TV & cable shows for 2017. In the meantime, here’s Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton to take us out in exquisitely joyous fashion. Happy New Year! – Ted Hicks

Posted in Film, Film posters, Home Video, TV & Cable | 6 Comments

Ladies and Gentlemen, Robby the Robot!

On November 21, 2017, there was an auction of movie memorabilia called “Out of this World,” sponsored by Turner Classic Movies. It was held at Bonhams, an art-auction house here in New York City. The centerpiece was the original Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet (1956). In addition to Robby, there were film posters, lobby cards, scripts, costumes, and other artifacts from a wide range of classic movies. As soon as I heard about the auction, I checked for preview dates, because I had to see this. I went the day before the auction and took photos of whatever caught my attention, including the one below of Robby.

As it turned out, Robby sold for a record $5.375 million, the most ever paid for a movie prop or costume. Marilyn Monroe’s white dress from The Seven-Year Itch and the Batmobile from the 1966 television series had tied for the previous record of $4.6 million each.

In 1957, Robby was featured as himself in MGM’s The Invisible Boy. I haven’t seen this film, but from what I’ve read, despite the depiction above, Robby is actually a good guy who helps defeat an evil super-computer. He became a science fiction icon in subsequent years — the most recognizable robot in the world — appearing in TV shows and  commercials. Robby even has his own IMDb page listing his many credits.

Here is Robby’s entrance in Forbidden Planet.

Below are a few of Robby’s TV appearances: The Perry Como Show, Hazel (in which Robby suffers the indignity of wearing a maid’s cap and apron), Mork & Mindy, and a commercial for Charmin bathroom tissue.


Besides posters, there were also costumes, such as the Superman suit George Reeves wore in Superman and the Mole Men (1951), as well as film scripts (many of them directors personal copies with notes and annotations). Many of the posters on display were part of another TCM auction of vintage movie posters held the day before. Illustrations and information regarding all of the items in both collections may be seen in these catalogs: “Out of This World!” and “Vintage Movie Posters.”


Here is a selection of the photos I took at the auction preview. Some of these are quite stunning.

Note the credit for Ted Healy and His Stooges in the poster above for Dancing Lady (1933). I believe this was an early film appearance of Larry, Moe, and Curly, aka The Three Stooges.






















































I lucked into this shot of two posters mounted in a corner of one of the galleries. Pretty neat, huh. Not a bad one to end with.


On second thought, I think I’ll give Robby the last word. – Ted Hicks

Posted in Books, Comics, Fiction, Film, Film posters, Streaming, TV & Cable | 8 Comments

My Movie Life: The Early Years, Part 4 – 1955 & 1956


In retrospect, the most important film I saw in 1955 was Blackboard Junglewritten and directed by Richard Brooks, adapted from a novel by Evan Hunter. Hunter later wrote the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963). Under the name Ed McBain he wrote the popular 87th Precinct crime novels. As Richard Marsten he wrote Danger: Dinosaurs!, published in 1953 in the John C. Winston series of science-fiction books for young readers, which I burned through in our school library in ’55 or ’56. It was my favorite book from the series. Several years ago I purchased a copy from a used-book seller at 62 times the original purchase price, but it was worth it.











Blackboard Jungle stars Glenn Ford as a new teacher in an all-boys vocational high school in New York City. The cast includes Anne Francis as Ford’s wife, with Sidney Poitier, Vic Morrow, Paul Mazursky, and Jamie Farr as students. This was Poitier’s fifth feature film, Morrow and Farr’s first. Vic Morrow went on to appear in the television series Combat!. He was killed in 1982 at age 53 in a controversial helicopter accident while filming a scene for Twilight Zone: The Movie. Jamie Farr became well-known as the cross-dressing Corporal Klinger in the TV series M*A*S*H. Paul Mazursky became an excellent director and screenwriter, with features such as Harry and Tonto (1974); Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976); An Unmarried Woman (1978).

In the following scene, Richard Kiley plays a teacher whose prized collection of jazz records is destroyed by students led by Vic Morrow. Given the condescending way he speaks to them, one can almost understand why.

While Blackboard Jungle is a powerful look at juvenile delinquency in the classroom in the 1950s, its true significance for me then, as it is now, was its controversial use of “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and His Comets under the opening credits.  This was reportedly the first rock song ever used in a Hollywood feature. It made a lot of people — adults, not young people — very nervous and caused quite a stir. Rock ‘n’ roll, for many, was the devil’s music, promoting sex and — God forbid — race-mixing. Combining “Rock Around the Clock” with a movie about violent juvenile delinquents in an inner-city high school was too much to handle. Many communities tried to ban the film for fear it would incite delinquency. At the urging of Clare Booth Luce, then Ambassador to Italy, Blackboard Jungle was withdrawn as the U.S. entry to that year’s Venice Film Festival.

I didn’t know any of this at the time. To me it was a powerful story kicked off by an incredible song I could relate to. Try to imagine hearing this in a movie theater for the first time in 1955. This was something new. It felt like a seismic shift, and it was. I knew something had changed.

(Bosley Crowther’s review of Blackboard Jungle in the New York Times doesn’t even mention “Rock Around the Clock.” It’s like he wasn’t geared to hear it.) _________________________________________________________

My mom’s mother and step-father lived in Saginaw, Michigan. We would visit every year or so, an 800-mile trip by train or car. When we were there in the summer of ’55, I saw in the newspaper that This Island Earth was about to open in a theater downtown. I knew about this film and was desperate to see it. I knew it wouldn’t get to our local theater for several months, so the thought of seeing it here had me very wound up. The only problem was that the film was opening the night before we were due to head back to Iowa. My parents said I couldn’t possibly see a movie the last night we’d be there. This seemed totally unfair to me; they didn’t understand how important this was. This Island Earth was in color and everything, and promised to be fantastic. Then my grandmother took me aside and calmly talked me down. I resigned myself to my fate and knew I’d eventually see the movie back home at the Vista Theater, but this was a cruel disappointment. I mean, just look at this ad:

So I finally saw it and was thrilled. My disappointment in Michigan was forgotten (well, obviously not entirely). In the movie, scientists are being recruited by aliens with bulging foreheads to help prevent the pending destruction of their home planet, Metaluna. The first three-quarters of the film is terrific. This Island Earth takes its time setting things up. It has mystery and alien presence. But once scientists Rex Reason and Faith Domergue are taken aboard a spacecraft bound for Metaluna, events become very rushed. Worse still, the special effects at this juncture are very tacky. The Metalunan mutant that appears on the ship is pretty cool, though, as can be seen below in an illustration by Basil Gogos, who did many great covers for the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland. Okay, the mutant is a big humanoid bug wearing pants, with pincers for hands and an exposed, bulging brain. I can’t remember if its function was ever explained.


I think it was on this same trip to Michigan that I bought a copy of Dracula in the Modern Library edition seen here. This was a serious artifact for me to acquire. I avidly read the first section, Jonathan Harker’s diary. But I found the rest of it difficult and tedious, comprised as it was of various journal entries and seemingly inconsequential newspaper clippings. I re-read Harker’s diary several times, but it was years before I was able to read and appreciate the entire book. I have never been able to get through Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, however. Maybe someday.



I wrote at the end of Part 1 that I basically liked every movie I saw when I was a kid. I think I already knew, though, that some films were better than others. But it wasn’t until I saw Chief Crazy Horse that something really bothered me. As was the norm at this time, the major Native American roles were portrayed by white actors, so Victor Mature played the Sioux Indian warrior, Crazy Horse. Okay, no problem, but the entire film builds up to Custer’s last stand at the Little Big Horn, and when it finally gets there, the camera tilts up to the sky. We just look at the clouds while we hear the fighting on the soundtrack. To me, this was a huge cheat. Some might see it as a bold choice, but I suspect the filmmakers simply didn’t have the money to actually shoot the battle itself. I don’t know if this is when I became critically aware, but it was a start.


Deserts in the Southwest were frequent settings for science-fiction films of the 1950s, such as Them! and It Came from Outer Space. Tarantula is no exception. The result of experiments involving a radioactive super-nutrient (of course), a spider the size of a golden retriever gets loose from the research lab and terrorizes the desert countryside as it continues to grow. Oddly enough, a gigantic tarantula stomping houses and killing cattle is the least interesting thing in the film. Three scientists, led by Leo G. Carroll, have been infected by the super-nutrient, resulting in advanced stages of acromegaly and finally death in a matter of days. This is probably more compelling and frightening because it’s  more human than a 100-foot tall spider. Tarantula was directed by Jack Arnold, who made a number of effective science-fiction films in the 50s, including It Came from Outer Space (1953), The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Revenge of the Creature (1955), and my favorite, The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). Working in television, he went on to direct episodes of Peter Gunn, Dr. Kildare, Rawhide, Gilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch, and Love Boat. An interesting career.

Tarantula was also the second film appearance of Clint Eastwood, then a contract player at the studio, Universal-International. In the scene below, he plays a jet pilot leading the attack on the spider as it advances on a town. Clint wears a helmet and oxygen mask, but he’s still easily recognizable.


The first incarnation of Walt Disney’s Disneyland was from 1954 to 1958, and that’s when I was watching it. I couldn’t miss an episode. Davy Crockett hit the scene in ’55, and I was as obsessed as any other kid. I loved the three-episode series, especially the last one, Davy Crockett at the Alamo. All three were edited into a single feature released later in the year, Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier. Disney exploited the merchandising of the Crockett craze to the limit. I didn’t have a coonskin cap (too old for that), but did get the comic books.










Here are some of the other films I saw that year.











































Violent Saturday is a film that has stayed with me. I saw it again a few years ago and it holds up well. It’s a good example of a narrative with multiple characters and plot lines that converge at the end. There have been many films with this type of structure since. Violent Saturday is set in a small mining town in Arizona where a group of men have come to rob the local bank. Victor Mature made a lot of sword and sandal films such as Samson and Delilah, The Robe, and Demetrius and the Gladiators. He could chew the scenery with the best of them, but when he was well cast, as he was here and in Kiss of Death (1947), he could be quite good. He plays an executive in the mining company who stands up to the criminals at the end. Violent Saturday was directed by the underrated Richard Fleischer, who made good films in a variety of genres, including Armored Car Robbery (1950), The Narrow Margin (1952), Barrabas (1961), The Boston Strangler (1968), and Soylent Green (1973).



Fewer films in 1956 made a lasting impression on me than in some of the previous years, but Attack! and Invasion of the Body Snatchers definitely did. They’re as good today as they were then. Attack!, directed by Robert Aldrich, is a brutal war film that has lost none of its corrosive power. It concerns a company of army soldiers fighting in Belgium in 1944. Jack Palance is Lt. Joe Costa, a platoon leader; Eddie Albert is Capt. Erskine Cooney, the incompetent and cowardly company commander; Lee Marvin is Lt. Col. Clyde Bartlett, the battalion commander. Costa hates Cooney, whose incompetence has already caused the deaths of several men. When the Battle of the Bulge begins, Cooney’s company is ordered to take the village of La Nelle. Afraid, Cooney opts to first send Costa to lead a reconnaissance patrol into the town. Things go badly and Costa is determined to make Cooney pay. Made on a low budget without Defense Department cooperation, Attack! is blunt and bitter. I was knocked out by it as a 12-year-old, and still am.


Even those who haven’t seen Invasion of the Body Snatchers are probably familiar with the term “pod people.” It’s become part of our language. The film, directed by Don Siegel, has a potent concept. Aliens progressively take over the human population of a small California town, replacing people with exact duplicates grown in large seed pods. You become convinced that your wife or husband or friend is not that person, even though they look and sound exactly like that person. Kevin McCarthy, in a career-defining role, plays the doctor who first dismisses those who come to him with their fears, but slowly becomes convinced with a horrible certainty that it is true. Siegel wanted to end the film with Kevin McCarthy shouting “You’re next! You’re next!” into the camera, but the studio imposed a more positive, upbeat ending. Despite that, it’s McCarthy’s desperate warning that stays with you. Invasion of the Body Snatchers has been remade several times, though the 1978 version directed by Philip Kaufman is the only decent one. I’ve seen the original many times. It always works for me. Jack Finney’s novel is also excellent. I still have the Dell paperback copy seen above. It’s a great film, well made and well acted by all, and much more subtle than the following trailer would have you believe.


Here are other films I saw in 1956.







The electronic music under the main titles of Forbidden Planet is appropriately other-worldly.

And for those living in New York City, the original Robby the Robot from the film will be auctioned off next Tuesday, November 21 as part of a TCM “Out of This World” auction at Bonhams on Madison Avenue. Previews are this Friday through next Tuesday morning.


Even though I wouldn’t have seen it at the time, the French poster below is too good not to include.











These two films were directed by the same man, Fred F. Sears, but they couldn’t be more different. Earth vs. the Flying Saucers has excellent stop-motion work by the justly-revered Ray Harryhausen, and it’s always fun seeing landmarks in Washington D.C. being destroyed, but otherwise it’s not very good. I think I knew that even then. The Werewolf has the distinction of scaring me so much I had to leave the theater before it was over. It might be that there was something a little too real about it. Werewolves are traditionally supernatural creatures governed by specific genre rules (full moon, wolfsbane, “Even a man who is pure in heart…”, yadda yadda) but this was wasn’t that at all. In it, a stranger from a car accident is injected with an experimental drug containing irradiated wolf’s blood by two scientists trying to find a cure for radiation poisoning. This has the result of transforming this poor guy into a werewolf. Of course it does. Not much real about that, I know. So what was it? The film is set in a small town near the mountains somewhere in the Northwest during the winter. There’s a scene that takes place in the alley outside a seedy bar where the protagonist in werewolf form, though we don’t see him, is attacking a man. All we see are their legs and feet thrashing about, and sounds of struggle, groaning, growling. I found this really upsetting. Maybe it was too easy for me to imagine that anybody could be attacked like this, though probably not by a werewolf. I think the film, up to the point where I left, was too close to the everyday. And with one exception, I didn’t know anyone in this film. It was like they weren’t actors. Whatever was going on with me, I left shortly after this scene. I finally saw The Werewolf on television a couple of years ago. It’s no masterpiece, but there’s still something uncomfortable about it.


Like everyone else in this country, I first saw Godzilla in the Americanized version with Raymond Burr edited into the storyline. It was years before I saw the original Japanese film, Gojira, released in 1954. For the American market, all references to atom bomb testing being responsible for the creation of Godzilla were removed. When the Japanese made Gojira, less than ten years had passed since the atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The firebombing of Tokyo was still a recent memory. The original film is dark and disturbing. But yes, it has a giant dinosaur destroying entire cities, so that’s the same.


And of course I saw The Ten Commandments. I’m sure I was suitably impressed. This is a film that renders criticism almost moot. It’s been shown on television every Easter since forever. I think you just have to surrender to it in all its cheesy, overblown, overacted glory. Whatever else, Yul Brynner is great as Rameses. I always remember his delivery of the line, “His God is God.”


Time to lower the curtain on this. These were my formative movie-going years. Early on I developed a love of science-fiction and horror, films of the fantastic. I also saw Westerns, war films, period epics, knights-in-armor, you name it. None of these films took place on an Iowa farm. I didn’t see a foreign film until I started college in 1962. That’s just the way it was. I think I’m still that kid in a lot of ways, waiting in expectation as the theater lights go down and the screen lights up.


This series is dedicated to my mom, who took me to the movies and started me on this path, and to the Vista Theater in Storm Lake, Iowa, where most of this happened. – Ted Hicks

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