Check out previous installments here.
2022 was a long, dreary year that overstayed its welcome many times over and we’re glad to see the back of it. But it had its highlights. Dean fell in love with James Whale and Claude Rains, fell back in love with superheroes and finally got 2001: A Space Odyssey after seeing it on the big screen. Ciara got Cruisepilled by Top Gun: Maverick, Bazpilled by Elvis and Brian Trenchard-Smithpilled by the films of Brian Trenchard-Smith. We saw My Chemical Romance live (!!!) and Dean accidentally bought two tickets to Michael Flatley’s Blackbird, which isn’t good, but is funny. Ciara watched all the Fast and Furious movies in February and Dean watched a bunch of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff films in October.
We released a load of really good episodes of our podcast, The Sundae Presents, and published excellent essays on Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road and Anglophilia, the death of the Queen and Herman’s Hermits by guest contributors Jennifer O’Callaghan and Will Shaw. We appeared individually on The 250 podcast to talk about It Happened One Night and Modern Times, and together to talk about The Conversation. Ciara got published a bunch of different places and Dean genuinely came up with around 200 original superhero and supervillains just for fun.
We’ll have our piece to say about the films released this year when we do the Sundae Film Awards in March, but suffice it to say, despite the bright spots, now more than ever, we’ve found our greatest joy in cinema past. Eras when the medium seemed full of potential instead of peril. This year, we’ve watched films famous and infamous, forgotten and forsaken, celebrated and slandered, from around the world and across time. Over a hundred for Dean, and over four hundred for Ciara. These are just some of our very favourites, and we highly recommend all of them.
Dean: “It should be impossible for a film as legendary as Nosferatu to live up to the hype, but it exceeds it all the same, and does so with ease. In the immediate afterglow of watching it for the first time, I called it ‘as immaculate a film as exists on this Earth’, and I feel no different all these months later. I love its radiant cinematography, gorgeous production design and stunning lighting. I love its take on the Dracula story. I love how long it takes for anyone to begin to suspect Count Orlok is a vampire even though he looks like that the entire time.
That’s a joke, but it’s also true: the film ratchets up the tension so slowly and deliberately, it feels like a child toying with an ant it’s going to kill, but not yet. The sadistic pacing makes each escalation hit twice as hard, and it also makes you root for the ants. It is genuinely still scary as hell literally one hundred years later, because it taps into primal feelings of the eerie and uncanny to craft images that don’t just disturb the senses, but the sensibility. They radiate menace directly into the deep, dark parts of our lizard-brain that retain ancient instincts about things that go bump in the night. Max Schreck reaches through and beyond gothic horror in his performance as Orlok to touch the eldritch, the least human a human man has ever seemed on camera. It truly is a symphony of horror.”
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
Ciara: “This time last year, while exalting 1927’s 7th Heaven, I lamented talkies as the death of cinema. Well, good news everyone: it’s 1930, and Lewis Milestone has saved the movies. He figured out that by post-syncing the sound, you can have your cake and eat it too: all that visual prowess that was lost in the transition to sound and all the immersive power of relentless, relentless sounds of war.
All Quiet on the Western Front is emphatically, obviously, thrillingly still one of the greatest films ever made. We see these boys, filled with patriotic lies about going on a noble adventure to defend the fatherland, go through so much. It’s the most violent film made until 1967: a shot of two hands, the rest of the body blown away, lasts maybe half a second, but sears itself onto your memory. But it’s not just the violence that’s painful: Paul goes on leave and no-one back home understands a goddamn thing, talk about the push into Paris when they can barely hold the line, and Paul goes back to the front early not because he could ever want to be there, but because he can’t stand to be anywhere else. And watching, we have the horrible, unavoidable foreknowledge that Germany will lose the war. It’s all for nothing.
You can see in All Quiet on the Western Front the seeds of every great war movie that followed: Paths of Glory and Saving Private Ryan and Hacksaw Ridge in the huge, horrifying battle scenes, Full Metal Jacket in their dehumanising training, The Deer Hunter in their wide-eyed innocence going in and their broken bodies and mutilated souls coming home, M*A*S*H’s wry humour, Casualties of War’s hopeless fury. But All Quiet on the Western Front did it all, did it first, and did it better.”
The Mummy (1932)
Dean: “I decided to watch a bunch of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff films on a whim this October. I’m usually bad at committing to these themed film-watching projects, but I watched thirteen of them, it was the best programming decision I made all year and I highly recommend you do the same. Both were fantastic actors who starred in some of the most influential films ever made, and I could have picked a dozen others to shout out. But in the end, it had to be The Mummy for one simple reason.
Imagine a monster movie mummy in your head. Wrapped top-to-tail in bandages, lumbering around arms outstretched, killing mindlessly and groaning wordlessly. It’s one of the most famous figures in film history, and you won’t see a second of it in The Mummy.
The Mummy isn’t a monster movie at all, it’s a supernatural romantic drama, ancestor to Interview with the Vampire and maybe as good. It features an amazing pair of lead performers in Karloff as Imhotep, an immortal sorcerer freed by British archaeologists from a tomb where he was buried alive, and Zita Johann in the dual role of Imhotep’s dead lover and the women he believes is her reincarnation. And it has some of the best dialogue in all gothic fiction: I gasped at ‘until you are ready to face moments of horror for an eternity of love’.
It also has one of my favourite background gags ever, when Imhotep tells a British character that his dislike of being touched is ‘an Eastern prejudice’ and the Egyptian guard standing behind them raises his eyebrow. Simple, possibly unintentional, very effective. That’s cinema, baby.”
Sullivan’s Travels (1941)
Ciara: “Sullivan’s Travels is screwball comedy king Preston Sturges’s pocket epic of the class struggle. John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is a film director who, despite his success making comedies like Ants in Your Plants of 1939, longs to make a big, ‘important’ drama about the problems in the world: O Brother, Where Art Thou?, which the Coen Brothers would borrow as a title decades later. Sullivan decides to shuck off the trappings of wealth and fame and live as a tramp as research. He wants to learn what it’s like for the proletariat, but it’s tough going when the studio send a bus of staff to follow you for your safety. Along the way, he meets Veronica Lake, a struggling actress spitting rapid-fire wit, who buys him breakfast since she thinks he’s homeless. (When she finds out the truth, she pushes him into his swimming pool.)
But what starts off as pretty ineffective class tourism ends up with him actually at the bottom of society: an amnesiac prisoner serving hard labour. The kind of guy that the pastor of a poor black church in the 1940s describes as the less fortunate. And here, at the bottom, he doesn’t learn what to put in his big important drama – he learns why comedy matters. The black churchgoers and the prisoners watch a Disney cartoon, and they laugh their asses off. My heart sang. It’s beautiful. ‘There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh,’ Sullivan says at the film’s end, ‘Did you know that’s all some people have? It isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan.’”
Dean: “Alfred Hitchcock started shooting Notorious less than two months after the end of World War II and it came out less than a year after Japan surrendered. You can tell. The whole film is suffused with an atmosphere of profound, intense exhaustion, like everyone is outraged to have to do anything at all after everything they’ve just been through. Why fight for anything? But they do fight. For country, for love. For the principles of National Socialism, presumably.
While the plot is ostensibly about stopping Nazis living in exile in Brazil from obtaining the means to build a nuclear weapon, Notorious is really about an even more interesting scenario: what if three of the most beautiful people ever recorded on film were in a love triangle? Cary Grant is the spook who recruits Ingrid Bergman, daughter of a German-American Nazi, to befriend, then seduce her father’s friend, Claude Rains. But Grant and Bergman fall in love! It’s a romantic thriller with a big red circle around the word ‘romantic’, and ‘thriller’ is underlined so hard the pen has torn the page. It’s tense, exciting, romantic, erotic and achingly bleak all at once.
Something I particularly loved about it was the choice to portray the Nazi secret society as ruthlessly in punishing security breaches, creating real peril for Rains’ character when he begins to suspect something is up, complicating the stakes and prolonging the game of chicken between its leads.”
Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Dean: “I’m always happier to watch a film on a big screen in a dark room with other people than any other way, but I am particularly glad I got to see this masterpiece as the Good Lord intended. It’s one of the most colourful films I’ve ever seen, not in the variety of its colours, but in their richness and depth. They feel supernaturally potent. Bewitching. It was also very different from the idea of it in my head, though not as much as The Mummy.
For some reason, I thought it was a motorcycle film, but it’s a car film. My mistake. I was also under the impression that James Dean’s titular rebel was some troublemaking punk, pulling petty crimes to pass the time as much as anything. But Jim Stark isn’t John Bender, he’s Holden Caulfield, a sensitive and empathetic boy who’s depressingly aware at too young an age how hollow the world’s bullshit is. Rebel Without a Cause isn’t a sneering description of an aimless thug, it’s an aching description of a romantic without anything to pledge his heart to, like ‘patriot without a country’.
Jim is a rebel because he befriends weird loner nerd Plato (Sal Mineo) and risks his life to protect him instead of bullying him. Jim is a rebel because he calls out his parents’ hypocrisies, delusions and lies instead of silently swallowing them. Jim is a rebel because he wants to make the world a better place instead of just pursuing his self-interest. He just doesn’t have anything to rebel for. Watch it on the big screen if you can, but definitely watch it.”
Hollywood or Bust (1956)
Ciara: “Hollywood or Bust was the last film Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis made together, and the first Martin and Lewis movie I watched. I could feel my brain buzzing while watching, a future obsession taking shape that I have so far managed to stave off indulging. I’m hyped to go full completionist, but still vaguely sure that Hollywood or Bust is the best thing they ever did together. It’s perfect.
It’s a classic ‘two people get stuck together, one of whom is there under false pretences’ film. Jerry Lewis is a gay autistic – whether the movie knows it or not – and Dean Martin is a scam artist who learns to love him. Lewis wins a 1956 Chrysler New Yorker convertible in a cinema’s raffle, Martin forges a second winning ticket, the cinema declares them both winners, and they drive across the country so Lewis can meet Anita Ekberg – if Martin doesn’t steal the car first. The two of them, of course, have off the charts chemistry, to the point where I was not particularly surprised that in real life, Jerry and Dean were psychically connected. I sorta believe it.
I’m not sure whether the critical consensus has caught up to Martin and Lewis yet – at least outside of France – but Hollywood or Bust is fucking hilarious. A rollicking good time. Please allow me to unilaterally award Mr. Bascomb with an honorary Palme Dog for when he drives the car.”
King and Country (1964)
Dean: “I got on the Joseph Losey train a couple of years ago and never got off. King and Country was the third film I watched this year, back in the first week of January, and it’s stuck with me ever since. It’s a legal drama set in the trenches of the First World War. Arthur Hamp (Tom Courtenay) is accused of desertion after he puts down his gun and just starts walking away in the middle of a battle. He is defended in his court martial by Captain Hargreaves (Dirk Bogarde), a strict by-the-book officer who initially lacks any sympathy whatsoever for his client, but ends up pleading desperately for his life.
Bogarde continues to live up to his reputation as one of my favourite actors, but Courtenay has the film in the palm of his hand, an impressive feat for someone who spends far, far more time silently reacting to a trial about whether to kill him than participating in it. It’s based on a play and the dialogue has a stagey quality – especially with the formalities of a trial – but it just heightens the contrast between all the high-falutin’ talk of duty and honour and the grim barbaric reality of both Hamp’s potential execution and the war itself. You never forget for a second that the injustice of the trial is happening inside one of the most disgusting moral abominations in history, a pointless war that left tens of millions of real men like Arthur Hamp dead in the muck. As great a courtroom drama as a war film, and among the best of either.”
Cheyenne Autumn (1964)
Ciara: “The only reason Cheyenne Autumn isn’t considered one of John Ford’s masterpieces, I’m convinced, is American audiences’ and critics’ unwillingness – then and now – to take on what it has to say. When a German soldier repeatedly says he’s just following orders as he corrals the Cheyenne into a warehouse without food or heat, it’s hard to miss the point. Which is: directly comparing the US government’s treatment of the Cheyenne to the crimes of the Nazis. They are committing genocide, after all.
White people, in Cheyenne Autumn and so many of Ford’s westerns, is explicitly a group of all different kinds of people, in a way that exposes the myth of white supremacy: white people is itself a myth, it’s Poles and Irish and Scottish and Germans and Quakers and Mormons, but the fiction that they’re ‘white’ is needed to oppress and dispossess and kill Native Americans. But it’s a myth that makes itself true – that creates guys who ‘always wanted to kill an Indian’ and scalps him for good measure, creates men who slaughter legions of buffalo just for their hides.
Ford talked about Cheyenne Autumn as his apology to Native Americans, but for me, it feels like the culmination of their portrayal in his work, decades in the making, finally unconstrained by political strictures. Fort Apache, Wagon Master, The Searchers: it’s all led here. To a chronicle of the Northern Cheyenne Exodus, to Little Wolf (Ricardo Montalbán) and Dull Knife (Gilbert Roland) leading their people out of the Indian reservation in Oklahoma and north to their ancestral homeland. The section people hate, with Jimmy Stewart as Wyatt Earp, underlines that this story you’ve never seen before has been playing out in the background of every Wyatt Earp western you’ve watched. The movie you’d normally be watching in the middle of the horror that cinema has averted its eyes from. It’s Ford’s last western, and it never flinches.”
Hi, Mom! (1970)
Ciara: “I watched a lot of Brian De Palma films this year – Brian De Palmarch! – but didn’t have much interest in his early comedies, not least because no one ever talks about them. But guess what? Hi, Mom! is the best thing he’s ever made. It gave me that rare thrill, of getting to witness a bold, original comic vision realised: as off the wall as Freddy Got Fingered yet as on the pulse as Dr. Strangelove, as gag-dense as a Marx Brothers movie yet as freewheeling as Borat. But comparisons all feel useless, because ultimately the only thing it’s like is itself. And, I guess, Greetings.
Robert De Niro reprises his role from Greetings, his first major role: Jon the peeping tom has returned home from the Vietnam War. His attempts to make it as a pornographer are spoiled when the camera tilts while he’s having sex with the neighbour he’s been spying on. Then he joins an experimental theatre troupe, and it gets really wild. The ‘Be Black, Baby’ section – which documents the troupe’s theatre show – is the best thing De Palma has ever directed and possibly the best thing I’ve ever seen, and that’s before you get to the perfect, incredibly perfect punchline: the audience raving about it. I freaked out laughing.
Don’t even get me started on the title drop. Hi, Mom! forever.”
Dersu Uzala (1975)
Ciara: “Dersu Uzala started life as Russian explorer Vladimir Arsenyev’s memoir of his journeys in the Russian Far East in the 1910s, with native trapper Dersu Uzala acting as their guide. Akira Kurosawa wanted to adapt Dersu Uzala in the 1930s, but since he wanted to make it in the taiga region in Russia, nothing came of it. Forty years, a suicide attempt and a Soviet adaptation later, the Soviet Union gave him the access and the funds to make it. They wanted his long-time collaborator Toshiro Mifune to play Dersu, but Kurosawa insisted on Maxim Munzuk, co-founder of the Tuvan national theatre.
It is, quite possibly, the for-real actual best film ever made. Thanks to that sweet Soviet cash, Kurosawa made it rain colours: after decades in black-and-white, he made every colour rich in beauty and meaning. It’s very much a film of two halves, two expeditions five years apart. In that first half, the rank-and-file are smug, racist idiots while the captain has this instant, abiding respect for Dersu: for his knowledge, his intellect, his kindness. The friendship they form is so beautiful: a totally unexpected once-in-a-lifetime connection between these two men of such different backgrounds. In the second half, all the soldiers respect Dersu, and it’s obvious without saying that the captain must have told them about Dersu all the time, his every nerve ending longing to see him again. And when they do meet again, it is the loveliest moment in all of cinema. I could practically feel their hug.
We know from the start of the film that a village will be built over Dersu’s grave. The trees that mark it will be torn up. The wilful destruction of nature, of a way of life, of this brilliant man’s memory. Dersu’s a genius, but not the kind that the world that’s being built respects or thinks that it needs. But Kurosawa marks his grave, even if it took him forty years to get there.”
Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
Ciara: “I watched a bunch of video nasties this year, and I watched Cannibal Holocaust with an air of obligation, an unappealing film made worth watching by its infamy. But it is genuinely, sincerely a fantastic piece of art. Not (just) great trash, but something rich and deep and harrowing. It’s an extreme film, emphatically not for everyone, but if it is for you, it’s incredible. The violence is brutal and disturbing, so realistic that director Ruggero Deodato was brought up on murder charges, dropped when the actors were, of course, alive. But it’s necessary to what the film’s about: how the violence of the ostensible ‘savages’ is proof of their savagery, while the violence of the ‘civilised’ is made acceptable by their claims to civilisation.
An American film crew go missing while making a documentary about cannibalistic tribes in the Amazon. We follow Monroe, an anthropologist, as he leads a rescue mission. The first half of the film is his team’s search; the second is his reviewing the footage they found, which a TV station wants to broadcast. It’s an elegant structure that throws into sharp relief the film’s ideas about colonialism, capitalism, the media, and how all three relate. The closing line – Monroe wondering ‘who the real cannibals are’ – should be lame and on the nose, but it hits like a ton of bricks.
While putting this list together, Ruggero Deodato passed away. Do yourself a favour and remember him by his masterpiece.”
A Stranger Is Watching (1982)
Dean: “A Stranger Is Watching is one of the purest, simplest, most unadorned Reagan-era urban crime / stranger danger / serial killer paranoia fantasies ever rendered on screen, until it narrows its focus on and escalates the tension of the predicament of our endangered heroes so much that its story feels like little more than a pretext for pure delight in the execution of a formally perfect slow burn thriller. I mean that as high praise. Early on, its minimalism can momentarily tip into merely boring, but the longer it goes on, the more it shifts from tense but basic to thrilling and vivid. I spent a long time during and after thinking about whether I felt it was portraying this suburban Republican’s nightmare of crime sincerely or satirically. I think the safest bet is that it’s at least a sardonic take, self-aware but very dry, not doing a meta thing, just thoughtfully tongue-in-cheek about itself.
At the start of the film, the titular stranger (Rip Torn) rapes and murders a woman in front of her daughter (Shawn von Schreiber). Three years later, he comes back for the daughter and takes her father’s new girlfriend (Kate Mulgrew) too. I was shocked to see this is von Screiber’s sole film credit, because she gives a terrific performance, one of the best child performances I’ve seen in a while. Mulgrew and Torn are great too, especially all the layers Torn brings to the villain: sinisterly anonymous everyman, specifically characterised wacko, competent and well-prepared but not a self-styled mastermind. He’s the ultimate super-predator: a motiveless serial killer rapist kidnapper and aspiring child murderer who’s in it for the love of the game.”
Quiz Show (1994)
Dean: “I decided earlier this year I wanted to watch more stuff from 1994, the year I was born, just to see what else came out around the same time I did, so I sat down and watched Quiz Show. Directed by Robert Redford, it’s a dramatization of the real-life investigation of rigged TV game shows carried out by the US government in the late 1950s. John Turturro plays Herb Stempel, the working-class Jewish underdog champion of quiz show Twenty-One forced to take a dive to Charles Van Doren, an upper-class WASP played by Ralph Fiennes. It should go without saying that Turturro and Fiennes are both brilliant, but even better is Rob Morrow as Richard Goodwin, the government lawyer who gets a whiff of something fishy and refuses to let go.
Quiz Show is a story not about con men, but a con system, about complicity and complacency, and it’s also very funny. But my favourite thing is how it uses the set design of Twenty-One, with each contestant in a soundproof box wearing headphones, able to hear the host but not each other. It’s a vivid visual metaphor for how Van Doren is able to live with his fraud for so long: he maintains a bubble of plausible deniability around himself, not just to protect himself legally, but so he gets to stay wilfully ignorant about the consequences. It reminds me in different ways of The Informant! and The Report, and features a great ensemble of character actors, especially David Paymer and Hank Azaria as the producers of Twenty-One and Martin Scorsese as a sleazy Geritol executive.”
Ciara: “Tom Cruise plays Andrew Tate twenty years ahead of schedule. William H. Macy is Quiz Kid Donnie Smith, still living on having won a quiz show thirty years ago, spending thousands of dollars he doesn’t have on braces he doesn’t need to impress a bartender who barely knows he’s alive, but who also has braces. John C. Reilly reprises the comedy cop character he created for COPS parody sketches, and get this: he’s the heart of the movie.
Magnolia is about cancer, and child abuse, and an interventionist God who sends plagues that are somehow blessings. It’s set in a world where everybody listens to Aimee Mann, except for Quiz Kid Donnie Smith, who listens to ‘Dreams’ by Gabrielle.
It rules. Five stars.”
Jackass Number Two (2006)
Dean: “I wasn’t a snob about Jackass when I was young, but it didn’t particularly appeal to me. But then I grew up and became very enthusiastic about slapstick and stunts. As the release of Jackass Forever approached this year, I became sufficiently hyped by other people’s excitement that I watched the previous three films before I saw Jackass Forever in the cinema. They’re all good, and so is Jackass Forever. But Jackass Number Two, the last of the group’s output to be shot on commercial-grade standard-definition cameras, is one of the best American films of this century so far.
One of the most reasonable misapprehensions most people have about film is that it’s a narrative medium. I don’t begrudge them that misunderstanding, but it makes me very happy that Jackass has helped so many people enjoy the pure cinematic delight of bodies in motion across frames for their own sake. Just in bike-based stunts alone, we have Knoxville and Dunn trying to do BMX tricks on penny farthings, Danger Ehren trying to ride a minibike around a tiny loop, and Knoxville and Pontius trying to jump a lake with rocket bikes. It’s deliriously fun from start to finish.
But it’s in the final three segments that Jackass Number Two reaches its most transcendent heights. First, Johnny Knoxville rides a rocket like he’s actual Wile E. Coyote. Then Terror Taxi puts Ehren through surely still the worst ordeal of his life, even though he nearly got eaten by a bear in Jackass Forever. Finally, the whole film ends with a massive musical sequence as eight guys who really, really can’t sing nevertheless sing and dance to ‘The Best of Times’ from La Cage Aux Folles. What more could you possibly want?”
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
Ciara: “It seems like I should have seen this a million years ago, but God, was I happy to see it now. I loved it with all my heart and lungs and spleen. The film is melancholic and beguiling, framed by this lovely, hypnotic narration, even as the two boys at its centre are crash-bang-kiss-or-kill. It has a guarded quality – a story full of unspoken things that is willing always to sit in the unspoken, denying the tension-release of finally saying it out loud. A clandestine heart you can see and feel in its inarticulation, because of the nature of cinema.
Like so many great westerns, it’s elegiac: right from the start, this is the dying days of the James Gang. Even when he’s alive, Jesse James becomes a ghost – his depression consumes him more and more until he essentially commits suicide by Robert Ford. And then Bob has to spend the rest of his life living with what he’s done. At first by making it his money-maker, looking for admiration and reward – otherwise, what was it for? He wants it to be proof of his courage, but knows it’s the opposite.
I mean it as the most full-throated praise when I call The Assassination of Jesse James a feature-length adaptation of ‘Stan’ by Eminem: Bob’s intense, parasocial adoration of Jesse, with its barely sublimated homoeroticism, exploding into rage and violence and a rejection of his object of affection that is still full of yearning. He reads Jesse a newspaper clipping about how handsome he is and pathetically recites all he and Jesse have ‘in common’. But like Slim Shady, Jesse James isn’t real: not the legend of boyhood adventure books, not the Jesse James that Bob has longed for. He wholly loves a man who’s less than half real. And then he kills him.”