1. Playing With Fire (1975)- Oh Godard, what hath you wrought? But seriously, director-writer Alain Robbe Grillet was doing this type of cinematic playfulness long before Godard. As the renowned writer of "Last Year At Marienbad", Robbe-Grillet's directorial output is quite.... risky. I've been able to track down several of his films lately (hardly released on home video, surviving in scratchy VHS prints), and "Playing With Fire" seemed about as good as any a place to start. Starring Phillipe Noiret as a rich man who has his daughter (possibly?) kidnapped, Jean Louis Trintignant shows up as the detective who tries to track her down. No one can be trusted, though, as actors appear as one character, then re-appear as someone else later. This theater of doubles becomes increasingly confusing.... people speak directly to the camera analyzing the screenplay so far.... sounds and screeching tires serve as cuts and no one is ever really in any danger. It's all mildly amusing and recommended for surreal 70's French avant gardism.
2. Wild Rovers (1971)- Strong comedy/western from Blake Edwards that tries to reinvent the genre through two no name cowhands (Ryan O Neal and William Holden) who suddenly decide to escape their boring life by robbing a bank. How they go about it in unassuming fashion sticks to the light heartedness of Edwards' obsessions. There is an especially gruesome and shocking outburst of violence towards the end that magnifies the ruthlessness of the Old West... just so we don't forget.
3. Closed Circuit (2013)- Eric Bana and the lovely, delicious Rebecca Hall are two lawyers caught up in British terrorism and government conspiracies. Filmmaker John Crowley, who previously directed the wonderful indie "Boy A", generates zero intensity in this placid, paint-by-numbers thriller. It honestly feels like a film that's been sitting on the shelf for 8-9 years.
4. Antiviral (2012)- Yes, Brandon Cronenberg could easily be mistaken for his father in this, his debut film. So many of the themes are prevalent, yet "Antiviral" lacks the oomph of papa's work. I honestly have to ask... has the charge to satirize and dive bomb our nauseating obsession with reality and reality-driven television become a lame obsession of its own? Here, a young doctor (played by Caeb Landry Jones) works at the mysterious Lucas Clinic where people pay to have the illnesses of their favorite stars injected into their own bodies. Black marketeering, shady guys in all black suits and lots of spit-up blood become the economy. Brandon Cronenberg frames all of this against solid white interiors or non-descript Canadian streets (again making daddy proud) but I found the whole effort a colossal bore. And as the lead, Landy Jones is such an alienating, weaselly character I was never rooting for him. If that was Cronenberg's intention, then kudos.
5. Sapphire (1959)- Basil Dearden loves him some controversy. Sometimes it works- as in his thriller about homosexuality with "Victim"- but other times it doesn't. Sadly, "Sapphire" is one of those. A young girl is murdered and the film tracks the investigation as two detectives learns she was half-black and the sticky subject of racism comes into play. Unlike his previous films, Dearden allows too much stiff upper British lip to come into play, effectively watering down the spicy aspects of his story. I still give him and his production company credit for tackling taboo subjects in the late 50's and early 60's.
6. Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles (2010)- Utterly fascinating documentary about this urban mystery. Like a great mystery novel, this documentary doggedly pursues all aspects of it, raises some debatable suspects and sheds light on the unmistakable possibilities that exist in the obsessive human mind when we latch onto something so strongly. There's some discussion on whether this whole film is made up or not, and it only reinforces the rabbit holes of the mystery. Just great stuff.
7. A Band Called Death (2013)- Another highly compulsive documentary that also, could be, the documentation of an urban myth... this time the idea that three African American brothers in Detroit during the early 70's may be the first and most unknown influential punk band ever. Just watching this film floods one with emotions, first as it shows how something so good could get lost so easily, and then secondly as the brothers music is discovered in an attic and resurrected on adoring modern day crowds. One of the best viewing moments of the year for me.
8. The World's End (2013)- With all the hype of Edgar Wright's third collaboration with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, there had to be some let down. "The World's End" tries to do for weird space invasion films what their other efforts did for genre films like zombies and 70's buddy cops, but doesn't come close. Sadly, the first half drags quite a bit and the character's various transformations from start to finish aren't believable. The tendency has always been there, and director Wright seems to be conforming to the straight-on fanboy filmmaker rather than the go-for-broke agitator that created such honest humor in "Hot Fuzz" and "Shaun of the Dead".