2021 was, I’m sure we can all agree, the most recent year in the Gregorian calendar. Though, that being said, Ciara now exclusively understands the passage of time through self-programmed film seasons (e.g. Soviet June-ion, Silent September, Shane Black Christmas) and Dean has lost track of linear time altogether. It was a year of surprises in film: Zack Snyder finally got to finish his four-hour superhero epic and Sylvester Stallone, for better or worse, finally got to cut the robot from Rocky IV. We started a podcast, The Sundae Presents, where we take turns showing each other favourite films of ours the other hasn’t seen (catch up now!). We published lots of good pieces, including the first guest contribution to our pop punk series. Ciara finished watching all the Nightmares on Elm Street (except the remake, obviously) and Dean watched every Gus Van Sant film, then immediately got super into pirate movies for some reason.
We’ll be looking back at our favourite films released in 2021 on Oscars weekend, which we guess is in March this year? This is a look back at some of the best films from other years that we watched for the first time, spanning eighty years of cinema from the earliest days of animation to the earliest days of Paul Verhoeven’s post-Hollywood career. At the risk of repeating ourselves, one of the few upsides to a year where staying inside was, at the very least, highly recommended was a lot of time to watch movies, and these represent less than five percent of them, so you know they come highly recommended. We’ve got Arthurian myth and silent romance and four films from the seventies, because we can’t pretend we don’t have a period bias. Check them out and stay tuned to The Sundae for more cold takes and fresh pods in 2022!
The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926)
Dean: “The Adventures of Prince Achmed is the oldest surviving animated feature film, and just the third animated feature film ever made. It adapts episodes from the One Thousand and One Nights into a story that is, to be honest, mostly just a pretext for the animation itself. Its director, Lotte Reiniger, spent three years animating it frame by frame through the silhouette animation technique she invented while people were still figuring out the principles of what we now call traditional animation.
The first time I watched Prince Achmed, I was most impressed with its magic effects, and to be clear, they are awesome. The evil sorcerer casts a spell and it’s animated with oil paint, later he and a witch fight, throwing fireballs and transforming into animals. The abstraction of the silhouettes lets their transformations be much smoother and faster than traditional animation, gives them a sense of immediacy and urgency. But the second time, it was the delicacy of its details that took my breath away. The gentle movement of two characters playing chess, the rippled reflections of legs on water when a group of fairies bathe in a lake. I love early animation because it’s experimental by nature, unbounded by conventions yet to exist. In an era where most animated films increasingly lack even the personality of a studio style, it is genuinely invigorating to watch something so full to bursting with imagination and wonder.”
7th Heaven (1927)
Ciara: “If I was around in the late twenties, I would one hundred percent have lamented talkies as the death of cinema. And you know what? I would have been right. I watched a lot of silent films this year, and by the time The Jazz Singer signed their death warrant in 1927, the infant artform of filmmaking had been cracked, ready to spin out into dozens of groundbreaking new directions. And then it was all abandoned because movies started talking, frequently not all that well. Cameras stopped moving so you could barely hear the Marx Brothers.
7th Heaven is a perfect example, one I appreciated all the more because I spent September watching silent films. It filled me with a rush of all that was sure to come and the heartbreak that it never came. Janet Gaynor, who won the first Best Actress Oscar for her performance in both this and Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, plays Diane, a sex worker trying to escape her abusive sister. Trying to avoid arrest, she meets Chico (Charles Farrell), a sewer worker, who pretends to be her husband to protect her from the police. To make the story stick, of course, she’ll have to stay with him in his attic apartment.
It’s a delightful romcom that turns into a heartbreaking war drama – it’s very funny, then very sad, and always deeply romantic. Intertitles are used minimally and elegantly, because the story is told visually, always. Both Gaynor and Farrell are fantastic in the leads: modern and vivid, like if 7th Heaven were made today they’d be no different. And I won’t spoil the ending, but it might be the most perfect ending of all film.
You can watch it on YouTube right now, so you have no excuse.”
The Invisible Man (1933)
Dean: “It’s kind of amazing how long James Whale resisted the label of horror director, given that he’s still one of the best to ever do it nearly a century later. The Invisible Man is the first of his films I’ve seen, the last film I watched in 2021, and the only film I watched for the first time on television this past year. My jaw dropped at its first major effects shot, which is funny, because it’s a shot in profile of the empty space where a man’s jaw is supposed to be. I figured I was strapping in for a classic effects-driven film, from the halcyon days when ‘effects-driven film’ didn’t mean a movie where a bunch of actors stood in an empty green space and pretended to interact with a horrible CGI robot. And the effects are brilliant, especially when Griffin unwraps his head bandages to scare the shit out of some villagers with the void beneath.
But, great as the effects are, it’s Claude Rains’ performance in the title role that truly dominates the film. I’d only seen him in Casablanca before, and I always thought he was fantastic as Louis, but his performance as Griffin is something else. We only meet Griffin after he’s turned invisible and his serum has already started to drive him mad, so it’s kind of incredible how Rains always makes his madness feel rooted in the character’s existing traits. His ambition, his romance, the simultaneous arrogance and self-hatred of the genius. His escalation from trickster to manipulator to cold-blooded killer is all the more chilling precisely because of the moments when you can feel his own humanity trying to pull him back from the edge. And he does it all without a face!”
Dean: “Godzilla is so famous, so iconic, so mythic a film that I just assumed it could never live up to the idea of it in my head. But I was completely wrong. It’s not only more beautiful and thrilling than I could have ever imagined, it’s funnier too. There’s a whole bit where a TV news reporter is reporting on Godzilla from a radio tower as Godzilla approaches it and kills him and his crew, and he just keeps reporting in a fast-talking newsman voice even as Godzilla’s jaws are closing around him, it’s hilarious. The monster suit looks way, way better than it has any right to, fleshy and textured, with real physical and visual weight to it, especially when Godzilla crosses the sea floor during the underwater climax. The main theme is brilliantly simple, maybe the best bit of score I’ve heard in a film ever.
I obviously knew about its anti-nuclear themes going in, but I didn’t realise how much of the film is literally debates about nuclear policy, how directly it addresses bomb tests, government cover-ups and the tensions of Japan’s post-war relationship with the US. If that sounds a bit dry and boring for a film about a monster destroying cities, it isn’t, it’s just a different kind of tense and dramatic, and some of the best scenes in the film happen exactly where its grimly realistic portrayal of nuclear politics meets the monster that melts steel with its breath. Godzilla’s attacks are a crisis for Japan and the world, but it’s one crisis among many in a world on the edge of nuclear self-immolation.”
Elevator to the Gallows (1958)
Ciara: “Louis Malle directed such a disparate array of my favourite films ever: My Dinner with Andre, Au revoir les enfants, and now added to that list, Elevator to the Gallows (AKA Lift to the Scaffold), his debut feature that feels like the work of a master in his prime, not a scrappy twenty-four-year-old.
It begins as a Dial M for Murder-style perfect murder gone awry. Julien Tavernier (Maurice Ronet) has schemed with his lover to kill her husband, a wealthy industrialist, so they can be together. A phone ringing at precisely the wrong moment sets off a chain reaction of events, splitting off in four directions. Tavernier’s lover tries to find him. The kids who stole his car end up in their own lovers-on-the-run movie. The police commissioner (a Columbo-esque Lino Ventura, the best Italian actor in France) is on the case of this wealthy industrialist’s murder. And Tavernier? The reason his lover can’t find him is that he’s trapped in a lift.
Tavernier spends most of the film stuck in a lift, yet it’s thrilling. That he might find a way out, that someone might find him, what he’ll say if they do: you’re on tenterhooks. The other strands are just as good, admittedly having more to work with. But it’s the way they come together that makes it a masterpiece. Suffice to say I punched the air and said, ‘He always gets his man!’ As if I’d watched these characters’ adventures for years, I knew them so well.”
Rio Bravo (1959)
Ciara: “When I heard that Quentin Tarantino shows girls Rio Bravo and if they don’t love it, he dumps them, I thought it was a bit much. But this is a wholly correct policy. How on earth could someone have a soul, a heart, a brain, and not fall head over heels for Rio Bravo?
Nominally a rebuttal to McCarthyism allegory High Noon, it’s a response that takes High Noon at totally face value and dares to ask: what if, instead of no-one offering to help, everyone did? I’m pretty sure it says nothing whatsoever about McCarthyism. It’s a hangout movie: immediately upon watching it I could see myself watching it over and over, relishing the time spent with these characters.
John Wayne plays John T. Chance, the town sheriff, who keeps getting pulled into a screwball comedy with Angie Dickinson. Chance arrests the brother of a powerful rancher for murder, and he and his ragtag bunch of misfits have to hold off the rancher’s gang until the US Marshall can arrive. Said misfits: Dude (Dean Martin), the town drunk and former sheriff’s deputy, wet-behind-the-ears gunslinger Colorado (Ricky Nelson), and Stumpy (Water Brennan), an old disabled man.
Dean Martin is incredible as Dude: if Dickinson is in a screwball, Martin is in a sensitive, moving addiction drama. Plus the film stops dead at one point for him to sing a song, and it’s amazing. Assault on Precinct 13 was based on Rio Bravo, but where Assault is stripped to its bones, Rio Bravo is full to bursting with colour and character and music and joy. Perfect fucking movie.”
Last Year at Marienbad (1961)
Dean: “Last Year at Marienbad ran so the Twin Peaks finale could also run. It’s the kind of film that makes me regret being so liberal with the term ‘dream logic’ in the past. A man and a woman meet in a place. He says they met a year ago in the Czech spa town of Marienbad (now Mariánské Lázně), had a brief but passionate affair, and agreed to meet a year later to make a final decision about the future of their relationship. She says she doesn’t remember him, or an affair, or Marienbad. Scenes play out between them, sometimes with a second man who may be the woman’s husband, but are they flashbacks or flashforwards, memories or fantasies, dreams or delusions? I have no idea, but I thoroughly enjoyed not finding out.
It’s an outrageously good-looking film, with gorgeous black-and-white cinematography through all sorts of beautiful old buildings and lots of deep, dark, rich shadows. Delphine Seyrig is appropriately mesmerising in the lead, the closest a film like this comes to a throughline. It’s not a horror film, but it is very spooky and unsettling. It makes vaulted ceilings feel claustrophobic and oppressive, as if all that space isn’t empty, but full of some unseen evil waiting to crush you. And the outdoor shots where only the people are casting shadows? Such a subtle thing, but it still gives me shivers when I think about it.”
Dean: “Macbeth was the first film Roman Polanski shot after his wife, Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Manson Family in 1969, and for a lot of people that seems to be the main reason to watch it, and to condemn it. I’m on the record (at length) as hating biographical criticism, and I can hardly think of a film done a greater disservice by the insistence on filtering it through the life of its director. Many critics at the time lambasted its blood-splattered interpretation of Shakespeare for cheapening the source material and exploiting the Tate-LaBianca murders, but I side more with Roger Ebert: ‘All those noble, tragic Macbeths… look like imposters now, and the king is revealed as a scared kid.’
Jon Finch plays Macbeth as a pathetic, snivelling little shit who practically needs his wife to hold the dagger for him. The cost he pays in blood for his ambition is not hidden tastefully, it’s painted across the bodies of the victims and the hands of the murderers. The bluntness of the violence is shocking and chilling all at once, and the sounds that accompany it – especially the screams during the sack of Castle Macduff – cut me to the bone. But his enemies aren’t heroic just because he’s villainous, and it doesn’t feel like justice, even for one with a grievance as awful as Macduff, when the blade finally finds its way back to Macbeth. It’s just more blood. Another link in some great chain of vengeance stretching back into ancient darkness. The final duel is sloppy, brutal, overlong and slightly slapstick in a way that feels both blackly comic and righteously contemptuous, like the end of Dawn of the Dead. It’s a nihilistic appraisal of a world where violence is the lingua franca of power, but just because it portrays violence as senseless doesn’t mean it portrays violence senselessly.”
Ciara: “You’ve probably heard that Badlands, Terence Malick’s directorial debut, is a great film: that it’s lyrical and majestic and transcendent and beautiful. Okay, but did you know it’s the funniest movie ever made? I’m in a bit of a ‘either I was crazy or the world was crazy; and I picked on the world’ situation on this one. The friend I watched it with said that I laughed more watching Badlands than any other person in history, but that just means every other person in history was missing out.
It’s a lovers-on-the-run movie, but it’s also the anti-lovers-on-the-run movie: Badlands realises how extremely not romantic it is to live in a treehouse with the serial killer who murdered your dad, even when he’s as thoroughly affable as Martin Sheen is as Kit, who everybody still really likes even as they take him to the electric chair. Holly (Sissy Spacek) thinks it’s all very romantic, but she’s fifteen, it’s 1958, and Kit looks like James Dean.
Because I enjoyed Badlands in a way that the lyrical-and-transcendent crowd don’t seem to, I worry it might seem like I’m making fun of it or something. But I think it’s a masterpiece. One that, like a lot of my favourite films – Fargo, Husbands, Gone Girl – can operate as a masterpiece watched as a comedy or a straight drama. And I’ll admit that the golden-hour shots of Montana are breathtakingly beautiful if you admit that Kit saying to Holly after they have sex for the first time that they should crush their hands with a big rock so they always remember what they did here today is hilarious.”
Ciara: “Robert Altman and I have a somewhat turbulent relationship. I found M*A*S*H pretty gross and unpleasant (not in a good way), and I hated his TV show Tanner ’88, which I’ve watched for some reason. I really like Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, but it’s my understanding that it’s considered a decidedly minor work and so didn’t bode well for jibing with Altman in the future. I figured Altman wasn’t my bag. Then I watched Nashville. And I get it now. I was lucky enough to see Nashville for the first time in the cinema, and even though I needed to go to the bathroom for a good hour of its 160-minute runtime, I couldn’t bear to leave and miss a single second.
Nashville is impossible to summarise because it’s all sprawl. It follows dozens of characters involved in the music business in Nashville in the days leading up to a rally for a US presidential candidate running for the Replacement Party. You’ve got the good old boy with the wondering eye, the folk singer leaving his trio to go solo, the campaign consultant, the woman making a BBC radio documentary. Lily Tomlin is so moving as a woman trapped in an unhappy marriage to a man who hasn’t learned sign language to communicate with his deaf children. Ronee Blakley is devastating as a country superstar whose mental health is on a precipice. Shelley Duvall is hilarious as a woman who returns to Nashville supposedly to visit her dying aunt and insists on being called LA Joan. Jeff Goldblum silently rides a tricycle. I couldn’t understand watching it why Karen Black wasn’t the biggest actress in the world. Elliott Gould plays himself and a guy at a party doesn’t recognise him.
Nashville is impossible to summarise because it’s everything. It’s everything you could want, it’s everything cinema can be.”
Watership Down (1978)
Ciara: “I would have sworn up and down that I had seen Watership Down when I was a kid, but seeing it this year, it turns out I just watched a lot of The Animals of Farthing Wood and crossed some wires in my memory. But I’m glad that I got to watch it for the first time as an adult, because I could appreciate it so much.
John Hubley was supposed to direct Watership Down but left shortly into production. This means that the opening he directed is fittingly in a totally different animation style to the rest of the film: it’s the creation myth of the rabbits, the story they tell themselves to make sense of their world, forging their society the way humans’ creation myths have for millennia. “If they catch you, they will kill you,” their god tells them, giving the rabbits the gifts of speed and cunning, “But first they have to catch you.” It sets the film apart instantly from so many talking animal pictures. Watership Down is a movie whose world is complete, as full as our own, even as it never gives more information that the audience can process.
The bulk of Watership Down is an exodus story: a premonition of danger causes a group of rabbits to flee their warren, in search of a new homeland. (The doubters that remain later die or flee.) The film echoes a legion of human horrors: this is a story about totalitarianism, freedom, violence, dictatorship, exile. A crush as rabbits tried to escape their burrow reminded me impossibly of Hillsborough. Above other human horrors, the rabbits’ suffering mirrors that of the Jewish people, from the Exodus from Egypt and their search for the promised land, to the Holocaust – a monstrous warren where rabbits are marked with numbers and not allowed see the sun is impossible not to see as a concentration camp. If any of this sounds like it might be in poor taste to have in a cartoon, it’s not. Watership Down is a remarkably sensitive, humanist film. It’s incredible. If you saw it as a kid, you have to watch it again. And if you’ve never seen it, that goes double.”
Dean: “I watched Excalibur because I’d already watched the other three films shot partly in Cahir Castle, in my hometown – Barry Lyndon, The Last Duel, The Green Knight – and I figured I should complete the set. It’s the film that shot there longest, and I grew up hearing about its filming almost like folklore: the excitement of staging the battles, the extras recruited from the town, the famous actors who got their first break in it, like Liam Neeson, Gabriel Byrne and Patrick Stewart. But I’d never heard anyone call it good or even interesting, in Cahir or anywhere else. I just assumed it was a pretty standard medieval fantasy film, and I thought I’d probably enjoy the schlock of it, but not much else.
Well, more fool me, because Excalibur fucking rules. The look of it has this gorgeous ethereal glow, intermittently punctuated by flashes of bright colour. It finds this impossible balance between taking the myths it’s based on seriously on their own terms and dryly deconstructing them, weaving half the Arthurian canon together into a single, sweeping epic with the breadth of Wagner and the wit of Shakespeare. It’s both a story of epochal change, the fading away of a wild and magical Britain as Christianity sweeps in behind it, and of trivial pursuits: the vanity, greed, lust and vengeance of the characters is all the more tragic because the stakes are so important, so foundational.
It’s a stacked ensemble, even with so many actors at the start of their careers, but if anyone steals the film, it’s Nicol Williamson as its morally corrupt, manipulative Merlin and Helen Mirren as Arthur’s vengeful witch sister, Morgana. Other characters take the lead in the events of the plot, but it’s their conflict that ultimately drives the film, and every scene they share sparks with tension and danger. I’m very pleased to announce that only five-star films shoot in Cahir Castle.”
Ciara: “I love Robert De Niro, I love Al Pacino, I love heists. I loved Heat, obviously. I put off watching it mostly because of it’s pretty hefty runtime, a rookie mistake. In a way I’m glad I waited, because I got way into Jean-Pierre Melville in 2020, and I could really appreciate Heat as Michael Mann’s Melville film: Alain Delon from Un Flic (admittedly played at 10,000 Watts by Al Pacino) faces off with Alain Delon in Le Samurai (De Niro). But in another, more accurate way, I’m annoyed that I haven’t gotten to spend a decade or two watching Heat every year. I could have watched Heat so many times by now, including after getting way to Melville.
De Niro is a professional thief. Pacino is the cop on his tail. Perfectly structured, they meet in the middle and pull back apart until the film’s final moments. But even though they’re so rarely on screen together, the other’s echo is insistent out of frame. They are separated almost always, but joined in their thoughts, their work, in this strange world of cops and robbers that separates them from other men and from women most of all. It’s a wall that separates Pacino’s cop from his wife and daughter. It’s a wall De Niro’s thief tries to maintain with his policy of never getting involved in something or someone he can’t leave in thirty seconds flat. This game, this secret world of their work, is the only thing either man knows how to do.
Plus Pacino gives the best possible delivery of the line ‘she’s got a great ass’ that you could imagine. He’s not over the top, he is the top.”
Office Killer (1997)
Dean: “Office Killer is a movie you’ve never heard of, the sole film directed by photographer Cindy Sherman. Carol Kane stars as Dorine, a middle-aged copy editor at a magazine who goes on a killing spree, opposite Jeanne Tripplehorn as the manager overseeing its downsizing and Molly Ringwald as the one person in the office who thinks there’s something fishy about her. Dorine lives a small, sad life, correcting typos at the magazine her late father founded by day and caring for her elderly mother by night. She doesn’t set out to be a killer – she kills her first victim accidentally – but once she finds the corpse in her basement makes pretty good company, she decides she wants the full set.
I totally get why this film was a flop on release: there’s never been a huge market for films with long, lingering shots of visibly rotting corpses. But I am absolutely baffled that it hasn’t developed a cult following. It’s a black comedy slasher about the American workplace with Carol Kane in huge coke bottle glasses and a fraying sweater as the killer, I feel insane even having to explain why it should be a cult film. It’s really funny and really dark, and the more it’s one, the more it’s the other. And Kane is amazing in it, one of the best performances in a long career where she has too often been sorely underappreciated. Dorine is a very silly character, and the film would still be good if Kane had played her broad, but instead she gives her these layers of emotion and complexity that just make it funnier when her solution to her problems is starting a permanent dinner party in her basement with her dead co-workers.”
The Notorious Bettie Page (2005)
Dean: “A while back, I was thinking about how weird it is that I’ve often seen American Psycho listed among the greatest films of this century so far, but almost never see anyone talk about other films by its director, Mary Harron. It seemed unlikely they could all just be bad, so I decided to watch them and find out. I still don’t understand why her other films are so overlooked, but now it isn’t just weird, it’s insane. Even her weaker efforts have lots of great, interesting filmmaking in them, and her best films are extraordinary.
The Notorious Bettie Page is one of her best, a lovely biopic of pinup icon Bettie Page from her childhood in rural Tennessee to her retirement from modelling. Gretchen Mol is so good as Bettie, it makes you wonder if she wasn’t put on earth just to play her. I usually hate this phrase, but she really does inhabit the role. Bettie feels so alive she could just walk off the screen, especially in the Florida scenes where the black-and-white of the rest of the film gives way to vivid, sun-kissed colour.
It has a fairly conventional biopic structure, but it resists every temptation to draw simple causal chains like the worst of its genre. Bettie was raised a Christian in the South, but her work isn’t a rebellion against sexual conservatism. She’s a survivor of abuse and rape, but her work isn’t a way to process her trauma, or some twisted reflection of it. Bettie is just Bettie, and the film respects her enough to let her be both conflicted and conspicuously unconflicted about what she does for a living in interesting ways.”
Black Book (2006)
Ciara: “I love Paul Verhoeven, but I’d only seen his American films before this, and mostly big, bombastic satires like RoboCop or Starship Troopers. Black Book is not like that. His return to the Netherlands with a Hollywood budget, Black Book is one part Hitchcock spy thriller, one part Spielberg historical drama, one part Army of Shadows-style unromantic portrait of anti-fascist resistance. With a sprinkling of Verhoeven pervert shit, of course: Spielberg wouldn’t have a scene where the protagonist bleaches her public hair.
Carice van Houten plays Rachel Stein, a Dutch Jewish woman in hiding in Nazi-occupied Netherlands. It is impossible to know who to trust, who is who they say they are. A double-cross leads to her whole family being gunned down by the Nazis. She ends up becoming a spy for the Dutch Resistance, disguising herself as an Aryan, working for and then seducing the SS Commander.
Black Book refuses to give its characters the kind of moral clarity hindsight gives its audience. Resistance to the Nazis is not motivated exclusively or primarily by sincerely-felt anti-fascist sentiment. There is terrible antisemitism within the Resistance – arguing with Rachel that ‘good Dutch people’ are as or more worth saving than ‘her’ Jews, who of course, are also good Dutch people – and once the Nazis are defeated, the Allied forces allow the Nazis to carry out their scheduled executions, not asking what these men are being executed for. This is what enables them to do fascist stuff right back when the war is won: Rachel is arrested as a Nazi, and she and the other prisoners are humiliated and tortured.
I loved Verhoeven before, but I didn’t know he could make films like this. Now I love him even more.”