I still have a lot of watching to do before I can come up with a Best of 2008 list, but I'm reasonably comfortable in putting together this list of the best old movies that I saw for the first time this year. I'm especially proud to say thank you to the people at the New Beverly, the Silent Theater, the American Cinematheque, and the UCLA Archives, where I saw a lot of these.
First, in chronological order, the runners-up, numbers 11-20:
Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophuls, 1948)
Ugetsu (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953)
Mon Oncle (Jacques Tati, 1958)
The Exiles (Kent Mackenzie, 1961)
Youth of the Beast (Seijun Suzuki, 1963)
The Dirty Dozen (Robert Aldrich, 1967)
Don't Torture a Duckling (Lucio Fulci, 1972)
Horror Express (Eugenio Martin, 1973) (watch this from 7:00 to 7:20 please)
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (Joseph Sargent, 1974)
The Human Tornado (Cliff Roquemore, 1976)
And the top ten, also in chronological order:
The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Fritz Lang, 1933) On one level, Lang's film is a critique of the nascent Nazi party taking control of Germany around him, but on another, more fundamental level, it's simply an insane adventure film, with some of the great director's most amazing images and sequences. My favorite image is this mind-boggling bit of nightmare fodder here.
The Earrings of Madame De... (Max Ophuls, 1953) An amazing, lush dissection of the social power networks of love and lust.
Sansho the Bailiff (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954) Sansho is the bad guy in this movie, a corrupt local Japanese magistrate who causes an immense amount of heartbreak and tragedy for an aristocratic family caught up in the tragedy of war. A total heartbreaker.
Mamma Roma (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1962) Pasolini's best film that doesn't involve coprophagy, this features Anna Magnani at her most volcanic and powerful.
Playtime (Jacques Tati, 1967) This is probably the supreme masterpiece on this list, an expansive vision of the place of man in modern consumerist society - and incredibly funny at the same time.
The Young Girls of Rochefort (Jacques Demy, 1967) A totally joyous, purely entertaining meta-musical filmed in glorious color with songs by Michel Legrand.
Klute (Alan J. Pakula, 1971) The best, most uncompromising Pakula movie I've seen, another modernist vision of society corrupted by money and techology, with an amazing performance from Jane Fonda.
Land of Silence and Darkness (Werner Herzog, 1972) This documentary about the lives of people who are both deaf and blind is all about the final scene, in which a profoundly isolated man, in the background of a shot, bumps into a tree and proceeds to spend a few minutes communing with the universe.
Cannibal Holocaust (Ruggero Deodato, 1980) Yeah, this is an Italian exploitation movie, but don't rush to judgment based on that. It's also a brutal critique of colonialism and one of the most purely misanthropic movies ever made. This one goes all the way.
Rosetta (Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne, 1999) It's easy to make a movie that critiques capitalism and modern life, not quite so easy to do so in a film centered on a mostly unlikeable female protagonist. The ending is absolutely astounding, a Polanski-esque black joke transformed into something transcendental.
And finally, the five most memorable bad movies I saw this year:
The Children (Max Kalmanowicz, 1980) A nuclear vapor leak causes all the children in a local town to become bloodthirsty zombies, only stoppable when the adults chop off their hands. An excerpt is here.
Mystics in Bali (H. Tjuy Djalil, 1981) In Indonesia, a young woman is researching tribal customs and she becomes the newest victim of the local witch, which means that at night, her head and internal organs lift off of her body to fly around and attack the local populace. See the best parts here.
Raw Force (Edward Murphy, 1982) Three guys from the Burbank Karate Club go on a cruise to east Asia and wind up battling a group of wicked monks and reanimated kung-fu zombies. Also featuring prostitutes, cannibalism, and jade smuggling.
The Carrier (Nathan J. White, 1988) I can't say enough about this movie, which feels like a completely personal, heartfelt expression of an utterly lunatic vision. A young man manages to infect his small town with a curious disease: anytime he touches an object, it becomes infected, and anytime someone else touches it, they start screaming and melting. Small animals can be used to detect the infection, resulting in an insane climactic scene in which two paranoid sects fight a battle for the local cats ("Cats or Death!" one tribal leader bellows) Seriously, look at this trailer and tell me it's not amazing.
Project: Metalbeast (Alessandro DeGaetano, 1995) Pretty bad, but this one involves a werewolf, frozen for decades by Barry Bostwick, which becomes the subject of a government experiment in 'metal skin' for defense purposes, which then results in (surprise) a werewolf with bullet-proof skin. What more do you need?