Usually I post a list of my favourite new-to-me films on Facebook for personal archiving reasons, but this year I’m going to take advantage of Femina Ridens to hold forth at even more tedious length on movies that meant a lot to me in 2015. This is partly to share a collection of films that I recommend (and would love to talk further about with people), and partly so that I, with my sieve-like memory, don’t forget what I’ve watched and why it was important. This is a long list (31 movies), but I stopped cutting at the point when it felt too painful to remove any of these films. Here they are, in chronological order:
Erdgeist/Earth Spirit (Leopold Jessner, 1923)
This film is an adaptation of the same Wedekind play that Pabst turned into Pandora’s Box in 1929. Like every woman who once had a Louise Brooks bob, I love Pandora’s Box (though I think Diary of a Lost Girl is the far superior Brooks/Pabst collaboration), but I’m here to tell you that Asta Nielsen as Lulu is a revelation. Die Asta creates an expressionist succubus who dominates both the screen and the milquetoast men who join her on it; rather than the shining empty vessel of femininity we see in Pabst’s version, this Lulu is a galaxy-bending black hole.
Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (Fred Niblo, 1925)
I laughed, I cried, I ogled Ramon Novarro’s thighs, my jaw literally dropped and I clutched imaginary pearls during the chariot race, and I barely restrained myself from yelling “MAKE OUT” every time Francis X. Bushman and Novarro appeared in the same shot (guys, it’s canon).
The Sign of the Cross (Cecil B. DeMille, 1932)
Speaking of classical excess, here we find one of its most lurid Hollywood expressions. Cecil B. DeMille loved him a Roman orgy, and I’m prepared to say that the chaos of blood, sex, bread, and circuses he mounts in the final act of this glorious piece of trash is his crowning achievement in that arena.
I Am Suzanne! (Rowland V. Lee, 1933)
An utterly, magnificently bizarre pre-code film starring Lilian Harvey (darling of the Weimar screen) and about a million puppets, one of which replaces her as the object of her creepy puppeteer boyfriend’s affections. Also, there’s a number with a giant dancing snowman.
Oramunde (Emlen Etting, 1933)
You can watch this short, perfect film here.
Good Dame (Marion Gering, 1934)
I love Fredric March and Sylvia Sidney more than I can say, and their earlier collaboration Merrily We Go To Hell is one of my all-time favourite films, so it’s no surprise that I adore this. Here March is a fast-talking carny con man and Sidney is a stranded and down-on-her-luck chorine; the love they find together is a bright spot in the midst of some of the Depression’s most grinding grime.
Maskerade (Willi Forst, 1934)
I don’t think it’s actually possible to put into words how beautiful, joyful, and warm this movie is, so I won’t even try.
Hands Across The Table (Mitchell Leisen, 1935)
I love screwball comedies but it feels like there are 10 completely tedious ones out there for every gem. This one makes up for its delinquent brethren by being snappy, hilarious, gorgeously photographed, and super hot.
Roberta (William A. Seiter, 1935)
For a long time I ignored 30s Hollywood movies made after 1934 because I thought that all the films made after the Hays Code came into effect just had to be boring, square, and scrubbed of the interesting women that led pre-code movies. Pre-codes are wonderful and I hold many of them dear, but as I’ve watched more 30s films I’ve realized two things that should have already been obvious to me: a) just because something is risqué doesn’t mean it’s interesting, good, or good for women (just check out any of the many pre-code movies that punish or exploit their female characters’ bad behaviour) and b) there are so many amazing films from the last half of the decade that this stance had kept me from seeing! Roberta is one, and it’s a dream.
U samogo sinego morya/By The Bluest of Seas (Boris Barnet, 1936)
I’ve been a fan of Boris Barnet’s silent films (Miss Mend, The Girl with the Hat Box, and The House on Trubnaya) for a long time, but hadn’t seen any of his sound films until this one. It’s a movie that defies the supposed boundaries between sound and silent film, drama and comedy, realism and stylization, and it’s all so beautiful it hurts my heart.
Daughter of Shanghai (Robert Florey, 1937)
Anna May Wong is (as anyone who has ever seen her in anything knows) incredible, but because of the racism that structured the film industry in Hollywood and beyond, most of her work was limited to stereotyped characters, often in secondary roles. It is such a gift to see her in this film as a complex lead character (one on a mission to avenge her father’s death!) largely absent the tired, racist tropes Wong was usually required to rise above with her skill and artistry. She’s so amazing here that it makes you grieve, all over again, the opportunities she should have had.
Dem Khazns Zundyl/The Cantor’s Son (Ilya Motyleff & Sidney Goldin, 1937)
A sublime Yiddish musical featuring Moishe Oysher and Florence Weiss. I’ve loved their music for years, and seeing them perform here is electric. The movie’s animating dream of returning to a European Jewish homeland is unbearably moving given the destruction and genocide soon to be visited upon it.
Mǎlù tiānshǐ/Street Angel (Yuán Mùzhī, 1937)
Another musical: here a bittersweet love story featuring the amazing Zhou Xuan (and some of her signature songs, like Song of the Four Seasons and The Wandering Songstress). Zhao Huishen haunts the movie like a tragic expressionist ghost. I can’t believe it’s the only movie she ever made.
Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942)
A movie that cares about women the rest of the world has thrown away like garbage.
The Constant Nymph (Edmund Goulding, 1943)
Originally I wasn’t sure what I thought about this movie because the plot is creepy, focusing as it does on the thwarted romance between a young teenager (Joan Fontaine) and a much older family friend (Charles Boyer), but I can’t stop thinking about Fontaine’s performance here. I used to be terribly annoyed by Fontaine, but now I realize that that’s because she plays, too well, women who are neurotic, ill, passive, vulnerable: that is, women who are the opposite of the Strong Female Characters we are supposed to admire. Now I love her for this. I’m always willing to suspend disbelief when an older actress plays a young person, but I have never seen someone older completely inhabit teenagerhood and teenage desire like Fontaine does here (she was 26!!!).
Allotment Wives (William Nigh, 1945)
One of Kay Francis’s 1940s films (Wife Wanted) was on my favourites list last year, and Allotment Wives makes me more sorry than ever that her career didn’t have the longevity of those of her peers Joan Crawford, Barbara Stanwyck, and Bette Davis. Kay Francis was a perfect noir star. Kay Francis should have played Philip Marlowe! Ok I just had to lie down for a minute to recover from that thought but back to Allotment Wives: it’s basically a gangster movie in which all of the important players are women and all the driving emotional connections are between female colleagues and family members, with Kay Francis as the morally murky head honcho.
Brief Encounter (David Lean, 1945)
I am pretty obsessed with films about doomed love, and this is one of the greatest of all time. Any recommendations you have along this line are appreciated; I asked for some after watching Brief Encounter, and many of the suggestions I received appear on this list.
Levoton veri/Restless Blood (Teuvo Tulio, 1946)
A masterpiece!!! This is such a forgotten jewel. I truly think this is one of the best melodramas ever made. I first heard of it on this impeccable list of overlooked melodramas, and after I watched it I was so worked up about it that I wanted to hand copies of the film out to random people on the street (which I’m sure they would have appreciated). Perfectly directed, completely gorgeous, and anchored by an incredible performance from Regina Linnanheimo. Restless Blood is standing in on this list for all of the other Teuvo Tulio films I watched this year, because they’re all amazing (though this is my favourite).
Portrait of Jennie (William Dieterle, 1948)
I’ve written here before about how much this movie meant to me when I saw it at the Nitrate Picture Show this spring. Since then that memory has only become more dear to me, as one of the most beautiful and moving experiences I’ve ever had with a film. Though one of the writeups afterwards called me an obnoxious “Twitter dweeb” and “smarmy nerd” for naming this experience lifechanging, I mean no smarm or showboating when I say again that it was.
Flamingo Road (Michael Curtiz, 1949)
A noirish vehicle for Joan Crawford, who stars as a woman made strong (but not steely; just resignedly and of necessity a fucking boss) by dealing with a lifetime of weak men. The film as a whole is about women trying to survive, make a place in a world, and defy a system in which they are supposed to be the secondary pawns moved around by men moved around by more important men. It’s so deeply affirming to watch Crawford and Gladys George, two glorious, gorgeous, and powerful women in their 40s, be given the space and dignity to be complex people onscreen.
La Trampa (Carlos Hugo Christensen, 1949)
Carlos Hugo Chistensen is another new-to-me director from the overlooked auteurs of melodrama list at the essential giallolooks. In addition to loving La Trampa‘s claustophobic, hothouse atmosphere and Zully Moreno’s nervous turn as one of Bluebeard’s wives, I am obsessed with the appearance (and then radical disappearance) of a lesbian ghost in this movie – alive/not alive, textual/banished from the text, she is a schism at the heart of this nightmare of heterosexuality.
Puce Moment (Kenneth Anger, 1949)
I can’t believe hadn’t seen this movie until this year…it’s like looking at my most beautiful daydreams being reflected back to me onscreen, with added sparkle and perfumed mystery.
There’s Always Tomorrow (Douglas Sirk, 1956)
I saw this at the Lightbox as part of TIFF’s Barbara Stanwyck series, and it was so bleak and soulcrushing that I left the theatre feeling physically ill! (Yes, this is a recommendation.) Plus, since Double Indemnity was one of my first favourite old movies, I loved seeing Stanwyck and MacMurray together again in this very different story.
Le Notti Bianche/White Nights (Luchino Visconti, 1957)
This was one of the recommendations I got after asking for great films about doomed love (this one was from Maddy!) and it’s so perfect. Even just looking at this screenshot is RIPPING MY GODDAMN HEART OUT!!!
Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (Jacques Demy, 1967)
Another one where even I’m like “how have you not seen this before?” In addition to the other things that are great about this movie (aka everything) I didn’t realize that Gene Kelly and Danielle Darrieux were in it and screamed when they appeared. Now every time I’m worried that my slip is showing I wish that Gene Kelly would show up to inform me.
Gimme Shelter (Albert Maysles, David Maysles, & Charlotte Zwerin, 1970)
I have to be real with you, I don’t give a fuck about the Rolling Stones (they mostly sound like Blueshammer to me, and I don’t find any of them attractive enough to make up for it) but I love this movie because it’s not really about them; instead it’s the most terrifying document of a collapsing culture’s apocalyptic bacchanalia.
Wanda (Barbara Loden, 1970)
Tragically, Barbara Loden only made one film, but Wanda is more important and more of a treasure than the 30-film oeuvres of countless directors. It’s a crime film and road trip picture that follows a female drifter rather than the archetypal rambling man or noir antihero. The fact that it’s obscure and little-seen is a true injustice.
Morgiana (Juraj Herz, 1972)
Morgiana offers you the most ornate kind of gothic excess, a stylization so extreme that the film chokes itself in tightening Baroque curlicues and drowns in piles of intricate lace. Top this off with Iva Janzurová’s bravura performances in dual starring roles and the titular cat (complete with numerous cats-eye views!) and I couldn’t love this any more.
Don (Chandra Barot, 1978)
This would easily make the list on the strength of its musical numbers alone but the numbers are only one part of Don‘s total brilliance. Amitabh Bachchan kills it in a dual role and Zeenat Aman is the slickest badass imaginable (just look at her on that poster!); both of them wear the shit out of a parade of magnificent 70s ensembles in a film that brings the best of melodrama, crime, and musical films together for a glorious 3 hours. Plus, I watched this with Maaike, which pushed the joy of the whole experience over the top.
Legitima defensa/Self-defense (Marie Louise Alemann, 1980)
I’ve left a post that Maddy and I are co-writing about the Marie Louise Alemann program at TIFF languishing for months in drafts (sorry Maddy), but someday you will read a more detailed explanation of why I love this short film. For now I’ll say that it’s one of the most profound and unsettling negotiations of being exposed to perpetual surveillance (both as a woman and as the subject of a repressive political regime) that I’ve seen.
Bunty Aur Babli (Shaad Ali, 2005)
This is another movie I watched with Maaike, and another experience that felt like mainlining joy. The capering road-trip romance between grifters Rakesh and Vimmi reminded me of 30s movies like It Happened One Night, but unlike the often uneven partnerships in 30s films, this was one of the best relationships I’ve seen depicted on film in ages.
That’s it for this year! Thanks for reading to the end of this ridiculously long post. A full list of everything I’ve watched is available here if you just can’t get enough.