When the ball drops and 2021 turns into 2022, some very good films will disappear from The Criterion Channel (but not forever; many of them will return after a few months). If you don’t subscribe to Criterion, you can start a 14-day free trial.
Here are some of the movies that you might want to stream before the year ends.
A His Girl Friday (1940)
Director Howard Hawks turned Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s hit play The Front Page into a love triangle by making ace reporter Hildy Johnson a woman (Rosalind Russell), and scheming editor Walter Burns her soon-to-be ex-husband (Cary Grant). And so was born one of the funniest screwball comedies of them all–with some of the fastest dialog ever recorded. And as a side bit, there’s some serious drama thrown in about an impending execution.
A Spartacus (1960)
This very fictionalized version of the famous Roman slave revolt is simply the most powerful, intelligent, and coherent toga epic from the golden age of toga epics. And yes, I know that sounds like weak praise, but it isn’t. Stanley Kubrick’s only work as a director-for-hire doesn’t give us the glory of Rome, concentrating instead on the horror, cruelty, and exploitation of an empire. Star and Executive Producer Kirk Douglas gave Dalton Trumbo a well-deserved screen credit, which helped end the blacklist.
A Bride of Frankenstein (1935)
You spend more time scared for the monster than of it in James Whales’ masterpiece. Boris Karloff plays the nameless creature as a child in a too-large body, the ultimate outcast torn between his need for love and his anger at the society that rejects him. With Colin Clive as the mad scientist, Ernest Thesiger as a delightfully over-the-top madder scientist, and Elsa Lanchester as both Mary Shelley and the monster’s mate (although, technically speaking, Valerie Hobson plays the real Bride of Frankenstein).
A The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
Three down-on-their-luck Yankees (Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt, and the director’s father, Walter Huston) prospect for gold in Mexico. They find and stake out a profitable mine before discovering that they don’t really trust each other. Writer/director John Huston, working from B. Traven’s novel, turned a rousing adventure story into a morality play about the corruption of greed, much of it shot in the remote part of Mexico where the story takes place.
A Sons of the Desert (1934)
Feature films weren’t Laurel and Hardy’s strong point; something about their humor worked best in the short form. But Sons of the Desert is an exception that proves the rule (another one being Blockheads). This simple tale of two married men trying to have a good time away from their wives is loose, absurd, and very, very funny.
A- It Happened One Night (1934)
Frank Capra’s breakthrough hit foreshadowed the screwball comedies of the late 30s and 40s. Like them, it’s a romantic comedy that crosses class lines–in this case an heiress falling in love with a newspaper reporter. And as one would expect from a Hollywood movie made in 1933 (and released early in ’34), it takes poverty seriously. People are desperate and often hungry. It lacks the fast pace and over-the-top comedy of the screwballs to come, but it has a warmth and humanity that they lacked. You can read my full article.
A- Living in Oblivion (1995)
Few movies about movies are as funny as Tom DiCillo’s low-budget comedy about making a low-budget drama. Steve Buscemi stars as a director who should probably consider a career change. He doesn’t do well under pressure, his screenplay is filled with clichés, and he couldn’t coax a decent performance out of Meryl Streep. Peter Dinklage is hilarious in his first film appearance. Read my report.
A- Detective Story (1951)
Kirk Douglas gives an excellent performance as a police detective with a very strict moral code…at least when it comes to other people’s conduct. He hates anyone who breaks any law – except, of course, when he illegally beats up a suspect. The plot involves an illegal abortion, although Hollywood censors kept that word from being spoken. Lee Grant brings sweetness and comedy to the movie as a first-time shoplifter. She won an Oscar nomination for her role, but the blacklist kept her off the big screen again until 1967. Directed by William Wyler.
B+ The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)
The same year he made The Band Wagon, Vincente Minnelli used a Citizen Kane-like multiple flashback structure to tell the story of a talented, outwardly nice Hollywood producer who only seems evil when you get to know him (Kirk Douglas). As realistic as any you can find about how Hollywood changes and corrupts those who serve it.
B+ East of Eden (1955)
James Dean electrified the screen and became a star and a legend in this John Steinbeck adaptation. He plays an alienated teenager at odds with his strict and religious father and his ever-so-upright younger brother. An updating of the Cain and Abel story set in early 20th-century rural California, Eden occasionally steers towards the over-dramatic, but for the most part it’s an effective story about a generation gap, made a decade before that term was coined.
B+ The Love Parade (1929)
Ernst Lubitsch manages to avoid the stiff visuals that mar almost all early talkies (this was his first), and it was even a musical. Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald are adorable as royal lovers who find matrimony problematic. As good as the stars are, Lupino Lane and Lillian Roth (later the ingenue in Animal Crackers) steal the show as a working-class couple falling in love through song and dance. The basic plot involves a beautiful queen and her new Prince Consort, who finds life boring when his only job is husband. And yes, the movie gets more and more sexist as it goes along.
B+ Cluny Brown (1946)
Ernst Lubitsch’s last completed film takes a very funny swipe at British rigidity while also celebrating England’s role in stopping Hitler (the movie is set in 1938). Jennifer Jones plays the title character, a plumber’s niece who would rather fix a pipe than just about anything. Of course, it’s not proper for a young woman to repair sinks, so her uncle sets her up as a maid in a wealthy home. Charles Boyer plays a Czech refugee who sees nothing wrong with a woman plumber.
B The Invisible Man (1933)
A lesser effort by director James Whale – Universal’s early 1930s “King of Horror.” But this H. G. Wells adaptation provides plenty of pleasures. Claude Rains, in his first film role, gives a distinctive voice to the unseen title character–a scientist whose invisibility has turned him into a megalomaniac. The story is full of holes and absurdities–even if he can’t be seen, a naked man running around the English countryside at night has some serious disadvantages–but it’s fun.
B The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)
This early Hollywood musical isn’t Lubitsch at his best, but it’s still an enjoyable romp. Maurice Chevalier plays the title character, who is, of course, irresistible to women. He falls for a beautiful violinist (Claudette Colbert), but then a spoiled and virginal princess (Miriam Hopkins, in her first work with Lubitsch) falls for him even though he doesn’t love her. Everyone is charming, funny, and often singing.
B Don’t Look Now (1973)
Nicolas Roeg at his most conventional and commercial, and it’s still pretty weird. Don’t Look Now is a horror film, and a fun one – sort of. Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie star as a British couple in Venice trying to get over their daughter’s sudden, accidental death (well, the husband is obviously American, but that’s never discussed). It’s all about ESP, seeing dead loved ones, and predicting the ghastly future. The film contains what just might be cinema’s longest and most graphic sex scene between major stars – and it feels just thrown in.
B Island of Lost Souls
This early Paramount horror film, based on a story by H.G. Wells, relies almost entirely on its atmosphere. You’ve got fog, an alcoholic ship captain, the strange island of the title, and a group of creatures that are half-men/half-animal. And, of course, there’s Charles Laughton as the most courteous mad doctor in the history of Hollywood mad doctors. And then, of course, there’s the Panther Woman. A short and entertaining horror movie.
C+ The Vikings (1958)
An entertaining medieval action movie with Vikings vs. British, Vikings vs. Vikings, and British vs. British. There are good and bad people on both sides, but the movie is weighted clearly towards the seagoing pillagers. After all, the Vikings are more fun. The movie spends way too much time on scenery and ships at sea, to the point where even Jack Cardiff’s beautiful photography gets boring. Kirk Douglas produced and starred. The cast also includes Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, and a very boisterous Ernest Borgnine.
C+ Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
Set in a previously-unexplored tributary of the Amazon that looks suspiciously like the Universal back lot, Creature follows a small group of scientists, a colorful local fisherman, and the obligatory beautiful woman, as they search for fossils and find something stranger–a sort of man-fish hybrid that doesn’t appear to be particularly well-adapted for anything. Perhaps that explains why he’s all alone; his species is well on the way to extinction.
Long ago recommendations
I’ve seen, and liked, all the films below, but not recently enough for me to write about them.
- The Black Cat (1934)
- Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean
- The Day of the Jackal (1973)
- Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970)
- From Here to Eternity (1953)
- The Last Seduction (1994)
- The Mummy (1932)
- The Raven (1935)
- Reversal of Fortune (1990)
- Smoke (1982)
- To Die For (1995)
- The Wolf Man (1941)
You can see all the films that will go away with the year by clicking here.