By this time in December, the usual onslaught of critics’ polls and nomination lists has given movie lovers a feeling of consensus about what was unmissable over the past twelve months. We were curious about the oddities, rarities, and repertory discoveries that tend to get left out of this year-end picture, so we asked a few of our contributors to share some favorites that were a little more off the beaten path—films, artists, books, or other cinema-related artifacts that took them by surprise and have stuck with them since. Here’s what they came up with.
Ashley Clark, film programmer and critic
In March, acting on a recommendation from the website Screen Slate—an increasingly essential resource in this rep coverage–starved age—I took myself to Manhattan’s Electronic Arts Intermix to see a shorts program by a grandly named video and performance artist whose work had hitherto escaped my notice: Ulysses S. Jenkins. The L.A.-based Jenkins was an early adopter of consumer-grade video cameras and used this emergent technology to conjure idiosyncratic portraits of African-American life that challenged dominant—that is to say largely racist and reductive—depictions. “Idiosyncratic,” it must be said, barely begins to describe the pick of the program, Two-Zone Transfer (1979), a discombobulating fever dream starring Jenkins and friends (including artist Kerry James Marshall), and involving blackface and minstrel imagery, hideous rubber masks (Richard Nixon!), religious preaching, an indefatigable smoke machine, and an ecstatic yet uncomfortably attenuated dance to a James Brown song. Two-Zone Transfer is an anxiously personal take on black cultural representation and artistic production, and an early point on a continuum of caustic, thematically-related fare like Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2000) and this year’s essential HBO show Random Acts of Flyness. It was my revelation of the year.
Farran Smith Nehme, critic
My favorite film discovery of 2018 came courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art and its series of restorations from Republic Pictures. The penny-pinching studio boss Herbert Yates was reluctant to pay the fees required for processing Technicolor. The solution: Trucolor, the three-strip version of which adds considerably to the strangeness of Johnny Guitar and Fair Wind to Java. The Trucolor I fell in love with is the two-strip process, used to fantastic effect in R. G. Springsteen’s 1949 western Hellfire, a tale of a gunfighter turned Bible-toting preacher that renders good vs. evil as blue vs. orange. The landscape bakes in brown and umber; the azure eyes of Marie Windsor glitter as her character stalks and shoots the man who done her wrong. Carefully restored by Paramount Pictures and The Film Foundation, Republic’s two-strip Trucolor offers a different dreamlike vision of pre-1960 Hollywood.
Girish Shambu, critic
This year, very belatedly, I discovered bell hooks’s classic collection of film essays and interviews, Reel to Real: Race, Class and Sex at the Movies(1996). Hooks, a formidable cultural critic and feminist theorist, is also a brilliantly lucid and forceful writer. The last couple of years have witnessed a radical shift in film culture, with issues of representation demanding to be taken as seriously as those of aesthetics. Hooks’s writing feels thrillingly prescient in this regard. Her sharp and detailed critiques of indie icons such as Pulp Fiction, Hoop Dreams, and She’s Gotta Have It were out of step with the critical acclaim surrounding these movies at the time. But it is now time for hooks’s work—with its firm belief in movies as both a source of great pleasure and a pedagogical tool—to find a large popular audience.
Caitlin Kuhwald, artist
The Great Lie (1941) is a strange little film about two women, one of whom is pregnant with a baby by the other’s husband. After he (George Brent) is presumed dead, the wife (Bette Davis) looks over the pregnant woman (Mary Astor) as she gives birth and raises the baby as her own, only to discover months later that the husband is in fact alive. The wife initially doesn’t tell him the baby isn’t hers.
I came across this film while listening to the podcast You Must Remember This and its episode on Mary Astor. I was thrilled to discover that she was amazing at playing a poisonously vile woman. She is a joy to detest. The movie is clearly designed to get around the Code with the insane plot twists that surround the pregnancy out of wedlock, which ends up making for an odd-feeling film. But the performances by both women are superb. Definitely worth a watch for them alone.
Jonathan Keogh, editor
Karel Zeman was a new name to me this year. Had Georges Méliès directed both Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness, they would be something like Zeman’s back-to-back productions of The Outrageous Baron Munchausen (1961) and Bláznova kronika (1964). Fun houses of early special effects that marry live action with animation, these films are a never-ending explosion of imagination. And Zeman’s catalogue is clearly embedded in the left side of the brains of Gilliam, Burton, and many others like them.
Fábio Andrade, critic and filmmaker
Last September, the department of Cinema Studies at NYU held its ninth annual Experimental Lecture, focused on M. M. Serra. I was familiar with Serra’s work in the Film-Maker’s Cooperative, but I had yet to see her films, which cover a vast range of materials and styles—from found footage to reenactment, from documentary to performance—in their kaleidoscopic exploration of the body. Much of her work is available on Vimeo, and I recommend starting here. Her lecture that night was an enactment of an ethos, inscribing filmmaking into a broader practice of archival excavation, creative interaction, intellectual elaboration, cinephilia, preservation, distribution, and exhibition, and moving seamlessly from self-reflection to self-projection. Serra closed the evening with a surprise screening of Barbara Rubin’s Christmas on Earth (1963), with a dual 16 mm projection. The projectionists interacted with the film, coloring it in real time and holding filters in front of the light beam, and reanimating Rubin’s daring approach to the body and the camera as a unique cinematic orgy. The reality of cinema as a chain of bodily interactions never felt this palpable.
Sheila O’Malley, critic
Dan Callahan’s third book, The Art of American Screen Acting, 1912–1960, analyzes the work of twenty stars, from Lillian Gish to James Dean, in an attempt to counteract the near-omnipresent idea that the Method made actors better. Callahan is on a very short list of critics who know how to write about the craft of acting, and this book is a feast of information, anecdotes, and observation. Try to read it and not immediately pop in Camille again to look for the expression on Garbo’s face when she glances up at Lionel Barrymore, a moment Callahan pulls out for analysis. His exploration of the charisma of Louise Brooks is revelatory and helps contextualize her. And the chapter on Marlene Dietrich, whom he calls “postmodern,” is masterful since Dietrich’s work is notoriously tough to discuss. Callahan finds a way. But the pièce de résistance is the exuberant chapter on Charles Laughton, whom he compares to Meryl Streep “at her spooky best.” Callahan has a great feel for the perfect anecdote to illustrate his ideas: “When Brecht asked Laughton why he acted, or had acted, Laughton replied, ‘Because people don’t know what they’re like and I think I can show them.’” This book was one of the essential reads of 2018.
Greg Ruth, artist
The invocation of folklore, fables, and myth in film is certainly nothing new, but what the Estonian director Rainer Sarnet pulls off in November is. Mythical worlds existing within our own always serves to throw our reality into relief by showing us what it isn’t. In November, myth is integral to the fabric of a small Estonian village as it claws its way to survival during an endless winter. The gorgeously lush cinematography frames and buttresses the bizarre magic, which intermingles with the story of a potent love triangle. The myths interact with this unfolding human drama to reach a new and uncomfortable state where everything and nothing are real. It’s a film not so much about fables but about what it feels like to live in a world where they are real . . . and knock on your door.
Imogen Sara Smith, critic
Fragment of an Empire (1929) is many things: an uncommonly nuanced piece of Soviet propaganda, a virtuosic showcase for montage editing, and a tender account of the gradual healing of a mind shattered by war. I was stunned to discover this little-known masterpiece by Fridrikh Ermler, which has been reconstructed and restored by Gosfilmofond and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, where I saw it in June. Fiodor Nikitin stars as a simple man who spends a decade after World War I as a shell-shocked amnesiac, until a glimpse of a woman on a passing train sparks a confused rush of returning memories. He makes his way back to St. Petersburg, now Leningrad, a disoriented Rip Van Winkle who struggles to make sense of the new society and the principles of communism. The hero’s thought processes are rendered in a fluid and propulsive language of images, from disturbing, nightmarish visions of war to an ecstatic celebration of labor. This is cinema at its purest.
Geoffrey O’Brien, critic
Refugees from a war zone are being transported downriver toward the south to help bring in the wine harvest. The year was 1918. The river was real, the barge was real, and for all I know some of the extras were authentic refugees. The war was certainly real, still going strong in the early autumn as Louis Feuillade shot his four-part serial Vendémiaire. It was a melodrama punctuated with bravado touches worthy of the director of Fantômas , as a pair of sinister Germans infiltrate the camp of the migrant workers, but just as much a document that seems to be breathing the very air of those last months of the war. When the refugees reached their destination it was the world of Feuillade’s own childhood among the vineyards of Hérault. All this I was watching a hundred years later in a world of wars, in a country (Italy) where refugees were being kept at bay by a newly elected government. There are moments when the separate realities of the screen world and its spectators seem to collide like the waters of the Rhône slapping against the side of the barge.