1. Il demonio (Brunello Rondi, 1963)
Daliah Levi’s beauty is only matched by her great talent, as she devotes herself with burning passion (and contortionist abilities!) to the demanding role of a peasant woman, Purificazione, whose unrequited love for an engaged man, Antonio (Frank Wolff), turns her into a witch... at least, in the eyes of other villagers. Her repressed libido (quite possibly joined by madness) is mistaken for a demonic possession by the patriarchal, narrow-minded and extremely superstitious environment, so even she falls under the spell of mob-mentality believing that evil resides within her soul. Approaching the subject from a combined perspective, as an artist, intellectual, ethnographer and mystic, Brunello Rondi shrouds the story in a fine veil of ambiguity, and delivers an astounding and deeply unsettling psychological drama of immense, hypnotizing aural and visual power. The film’s cultural authenticity is derived from the cast populated by numerous non-professionals, as well as from the shooting location – the hill village of Montescaglioso in the southern Italy.
2. Eltávozott nap / The Girl (Márta Mészáros, 1968)
(read my review HERE)
3. East of Eden (Elia Kazan, 1955)
A masterfully directed, emotionally stirring, oft-breathtakingly beautiful classic that had me fall head over heels every time the camera was subtly and ever so slightly tilted to signify that something was wrong, and made me wish that at least one of the three multiplex venues in my hometown were a cinematheque.
“Guess we’re all a little afraid of what we love.”
And the one that gradually awakens the feeling of fear in a besotted young sailor, Johnny (portrayed by 25-yo Dennis Hopper), is a beautiful and mysterious young woman, Mora (perfectly cast Linda Lawson), who may also be a real mermaid and not only a fake sideshow attraction. (Superstitious Slavs well-familiar with their mythology would be alarmed by the girl’s name alone.) The leading duo is so magnetic that one can’t be bothered by weaker supporting performances (nor by a rubber octopus in a nightmare sequence), and besides, the opening jazz club scene that just oozes with vintage coolness puts you under the spell to be continually strengthened by beautiful B&W imagery and some strong ‘Twilight Zone’ vibes. Night Tide is quite an impressive B-movie that marks a feature debut for Curtis Harrington who previously collaborated with American artist Cameron on an experimental documentary The Wormwood Star (1956).
5. Princess (Herman Wuyts, 1969)
The first and, thanks to the prevailing conservatism of the time, the last feature by Belgian filmmaker Herman Wuyts (1927-1986) is a droll, provocative, mischievously playful mélange of romance, exploitation, slapstick, James Bond parody, New Wave shenanigans, and satire on celebrity culture. It follows a simple plot about a freelance photographer, Mark, who sets out to make a series of commercial photo novels based on his writer buddy Walter’s failed book, starring his British sweetheart, Margie, and featuring gratuitous nudity, over-the-top shoot-outs and numerous car chases often ending in explosions. (And let’s not forget a foamy scene involving a blonde-wigged gang of all-female baddies in skimpy outfits swapping bang-bang for some kiss-kiss!) The popularity of the project has its downfalls, of course, jeopardizing both the couple’s relationship, with Margie feeling abused, and the friendship between Walter and Mark who lets success go to his head. As for Wuyts, he is remarkably assured in directing his tongue-in-cheek vision, presenting us with a twisted version of reality in a hyper-stylized fashion that pushes his creative editing to the forefront. Supported by seductive B&W cinematography and eclectic score worthy of the film’s genre-bending nature, he achieves a fine balance of (pop) art and (pulp) entertainment. Also worth mentioning is that the writing credits include the name of Harry Kümel of Malpertuis and Daughters of Darkness fame.
6. Unter den Brücken / Under the Bridges (Helmut Käutner, 1946)
Filmed during the final days of WWII, but not released until 1950, Helmut Käutner’s romantic drama comes across as an anomaly of sorts – a delightful piece of cinema created in an alternate universe where all that senseless destruction of the 1940’s had never happened. A simple, yet universal and timeless story involving a couple of bargee friends and a young woman they both fall for contains not a single hint of propaganda, pulling focus on the transformative power of love, and expressing hopefulness all the while keeping maudlin sentimentality at bay. Part of its magic lies in utterly charming performances by Hannelore Schroth, Carl Raddatz and Gustav Knuth whose sympathetic, well-rounded characters exist in a bubble of their emotions which imbues the film with a sense of highly subjective reality. Unpretentiously poetic and compassionately intelligent, Under the Bridges is also packed with quite a number of visually striking shots some of which wouldn’t feel out of place in a noir masterpiece.
7. La cripta e l'incubo / Crypt of the Vampire (Camillo Mastrocinque, 1964)
An old castle owned by Cristopher Lee’s count protagonist, beautiful ladies in fluttering white nightgowns, an entrancing B&W cinematography, a darkly haunting score and a witch’s curse make for a wonderfully atmospheric piece of Italian gothic pulp laced with occult elements, as well as subtle lesbian undertones, and most probably inspired by Mario Bava’s Black Sunday (originally, La maschera del demonio).
8. Danza Macabra / Castle of Blood (Antonio Margheriti & Sergio Corbucci, 1964)
A haunted castle infested with cobwebs, and brimming with candlesticks and squaky doors is just a perfect setting for a pulpy, psychosexual, highly atmospheric, and gorgeously chiaroscuro gothic horror starring Barbara Steele and Margrete Robsahm as a phantasmal beauty duo with quite a past and Georges Rivière as a young journalist who accepts a palace-related wager after a short conversation with E.A. Poe (because you can’t spell poetic without Poe).
9. Dementia (John Parker & Bruno VeSota, 1955)
Flowing like (and following the logic of) a fever dream, Dementia can be described as a proto-Lynchian B-movie told or rather, shown from the distorted perspective of a young (murderous?) gamin descending into madness. Made on a tight budget with a largely non-professional cast, this offbeat/experimental horror-noir - an allegory of patriarchal repression – is virtually a continuous stream of expressive nocturnal imagery soaked in the blackest of shadows, and wonderfully complemented by an intense score of darkly avant-garde pieces tinged with eerily ethereal vocalizations that take a smoky jazz turn in the final act. It may not be exemplary in the acting department, but it still stands as one of the most cinematically articulate features of its time.
10. Ercole al centro della Terra / Hercules in the Haunted World (Mario Bava, 1961)
A bit heavy on exposition, and wooden when it comes to the central performance (by bodybuilder turned actor Reg Park), Hercules in the Haunted World more than compensates with an incessant and relentless barrage of dazzling imagery whose beauty owes a lot to Bava’s elaborate (and largely influential!) lighting schemes™. Both shot and directed with an unmistakable sense of larger-than-life fantasy, as well as strong love for gothic horror, this sword-and-sandal epic is not perfect, but it does provokes the envy of Olympian gods, burning itself into your memory and rekindling your imagination.
“I find it hard to differentiate myself from my work. I thrive on this confusion.”
Far From the Apple Tree has been on my list of highly anticipated films for quite a while, which is why I was overwhelmed with joy to find it finally available at Vimeo on Demand platform. On a purely cinematic level, it is one of the most exciting and stylish hybrids of art/experimental film and (meta?) psychological drama/horror, exploring one’s own identity, creators’ (umbilical) connection to their creations, as well as the thin line between art and witchcraft. By virtue of Grant McFee’s bold, clever and playful use of various formats, including 35mm, 16mm, 8mm, home processing, betamax, Pixelvision and Red, it boasts dazzling, dreamlike visuals which are perfectly complemented by the equally oneiric, ethereal music score composed by Rose McDowall & Shawn Pinchbeck, and highly comparable to the brilliant collaboration between Julee Cruise, Angelo Badalamenti and David Lynch.
According to the author, it is majorly influenced by Valerie and Her Week of Wonders – one of the finest offerings of Czechoslovak New Wave movement, but it’s easy to spot some other sources from which it may have taken its cues, such as hauntology, the Bluebeard tale, Argento’s Suspiria, Sokurov-like anamorphic distortions, and Lynchian brand of surrealism. However, Far From the Apple Tree is far from being a mere homage – it ably interweaves all of the familiar (and mystery!) elements into a refreshing cine-cocktail that adds a bit of cool to a hot summer day. Oozing with dense, increasingly ominous atmosphere, the film puts the viewer in the shoes of a troubled heroine, Judith (Sorcha Groundsell’s nuanced, subtly magnetic performance), and pulls you down the rabbit hole of her deteriorating mind. Also memorable is Victoria Liddelle in the role of a prominent, yet extremely secretive artist, Roberta Roslyn, who takes Judith under her wing, and whose intentions remain a puzzle in a constant collision of reality and fantasy.
2. Hogtown (Daniel Nearing, 2014)
(read my review HERE)
A delightful tribute to Jules et Jim and The Dreamers, this playful, bittersweet, multilingual drama exudes delicate sensuality, understated poignancy, controlled spontaneity, and the restlessness of youth, as it lifts your spirit to the love-intoxicated, enjoy-the-moment heights of a seemingly unbreakable ménage à trois that finds a common ground in art, sex, political protest and, generally speaking, views on life. Anchored in Cvetko’s freewheeling direction and irresistible cinematography of soft grays, fairly diversified soundtrack, and breakout performances by Cristina Rambaldi, Neyssan Falahi and Mattia Minasi, Show Me What You Got is a gently shaped piece of cinematic illusion which, once it dissolves, engraves itself in your heart. Every generation needs a film like this one.
On my Facebook page, I wrote several entries on Rashidi’s most ambitious (and longest) film to date, and HERE you can read my impression on its first 2 out of 19 hours.
Set in a morally gray zone where the thin line between heroes and anti-heroes is often blurred if not erased, Major Grom: Plague Doctor is an impressive piece of (post?)postmodern cinema that at once heavily relies on conventions of the action / superhero flicks, and subconsciously deconstructs them through unobtrusive meta-filmic ‘maneuvers’. Politically incorrect towards both the corrupt system and its increasingly violent opposition, it compels the viewer to think beyond the extremely limiting ‘choosing the side’ frame, and reflects upon the themes of (blind) justice, inequality and social media, proudly wearing its many influences – including the James Bond and Lethal Weapon series, Nolan’s Batman trilogy, V for Vendetta and Joker, to name a few – on its sleeve. It boasts high production values by virtue of which Saint Petersburg shines in its full (classical) glory, yet it doesn’t shy away from depicting the city’s underbelly as well, and delivers a good deal of memorable set-pieces that rival Hollywood offerings. Maxim Zhukov’s handsome cinematography and Roman Selivyorstov’s broad-ranging score provide the glossy veneer, and set the right mood for each scene, whereby the entire cast headed by charismatic Tikhon Zhiznevskiy (boldly objectified on a couple of occasions) does a fine job in imbuing their archetypal characters with believable humanity.
7. How the Sky Will Melt (Matthew Wade, 2015)
Feature-length films shot on Super 8 are extremely rare beasts these days, which makes How the Sky Will Melt quite a special feat, particularly given its half-dreamed delirium quality (and winks to David Lynch here and there). The hyper-grainy aesthetics provided by the ‘outmoded’ format are not merely a gimmick – on the contrary, they actually make you believe that you are watching a lost, dusted off artifact from the past. Strengthening this illusion is the great, throwback-to-the-80’s production and costume design by Sara Lynch (also jumping into the lead role), as well as the sinister synth-heavy score composed by Wade himself, and most probably inspired by the work of John Carpenter.
Meandering in a limbo-like zone between a deadpan existential drama (of a paranoid rock musician, Gwen) and increasingly weird sci-fi mystery bordering time-and-space-distorting horror (involving a man who falls from the sky and insists on being fed with colors), this quirky piece of underground cinema is nothing short of an acquired taste. Initially, it lingers on the small town banalities, providing only the slightest of hints that something strange may be going on, and then it boldly takes some unexpected, mind-fucking turns, messing with the chronology of bizarre events. Speaking of which, all that happens on-screen could be nothing more than a (distorted) reflection of augmented reality witnessed through retro-futuristic goggles that operate on audio-cassettes, and are often used by the mentally and emotionally troubled protagonist. But, who knows – maybe quails do lay RGB eggs?
8. American Satan (Ash Avildsen, 2017)
Think of the cheesiest sex, drugs & (modern) rock’n’roll story inspired by the timeless Faust legend, add Malcolm McDowell as a Mephistophelian figure who goes by the name of Mr. Capricorn, and Bill Duke as a guardian angel sharing inspirational quotes such as “perception is not reality / it’s what you feel, not what you see”, and you got yourself a nice little cine-provocation called American Satan. But, you know what? Sometimes ‘cheesy’ proves to be more fun than ‘classy’, and Ash Avildsen’s thrilling drama shows some great style as well along the way, with cleverly used lighting providing a number of hellishly good imagery. The film’s title refers to the debut album for a fictitious band, The Relentless, whose rise and fall tracks a familiar path of groupie orgies, heroine abuse and all the counterculture-surrounding controversy, yet there’s a lot of energy to keep you invested in the increasingly crazy goings-on that may or may not be puppet-mastered by the Devil. Personally, I wish the music were louder and cockier, with more edge to it, but it’s just a minor quibble... Oh, and I almost forgot to mention Denise Richards playing mom to The Relentless’ frontman Johnny Faust (portrayed by Black Veil Brides’ singer Andy Biersack), as well as the fact that Avildsen is the son of Rocky and The Karate Kid director.
The film is available at TUBI.
After Abraham Linkoln gets his throat ripped by werewolf Benedict Arnold, Martha Washington performs an unplugged cover of The Bangles’ Eternal Flame at his funeral where it’s easy to spot John F. Kennedy and Rambo amongst the mourners (as well as an electric guitar that is a gift from Mozart himself). She persuades her future husband, chainsaw-wielding George Washington, to lead the revolution and make Abe’s dream come true, so he joins forces with beer-lovin’ bro Samuel Adams of Delta Iota Chi (i.e. ΔIX) fraternity, scientist Thomas Edison who is a Chinese immigrant woman almost burned at the stake, fast-and-furious jockey Paul Revere whose horse speaks with a Spanish accent, and chief Geronimo (or just Geronimo), introduced in a Lorenzo-Lamas-starring-the-Renegade-series style. Together, they will try to stop the tea-infused British-ization led by extremely obese King James whose pet is a flesh-eating soccer-ball named Manchester. Add to that a great number of anachronisms often reflected in pop-culture references ranging from Star Wars to Robocop to Magic Mike, wrap it all up in irreverently crude humor (that doesn’t always hit the mark) and some superbly animated, blood-soaked action sequences, and you got yourself a self-ironic or rather, self-consciously silly satire of American heritage. Appearing as if written during an alcohol-soaked college party, America: The Motion Picture pulls no punches and spares no one in poking fun at the USA birth, coming across as one of the most over-the-top and anarchic animated features in recent memory.
Visually reminiscent of Roy Andersson’s Living Trilogy, Hannah Dörr’s feature debut is a wry and bone-dry crime-comedy which revolves around a bizarre case of decapitations committed by horse-riding Huns in modern-day Anröchte, with a surreal scene that could be an absurd reference to Smurfs easily outweirding the plot. It goes without saying that this German cine-oddity is an acquired taste.
2. Inherent (Nicolai G. H. Johansen, 2021)
Up-and-coming young actress Sandra Guldberg Kampp portrays a mysterious teenage girl living in a remote farmhouse, together with a sinister, blood-drinking creature/entity whose true identity remains attached to a missing piece of a Philip Ridley-esque coming-of-age drama/horror puzzle. What sets this short apart from other vampire-themed films is the complete absence of dialogue which allows us to immerse ourselves in Sebastian Bjerregaard’s quaintly beautiful 16mm cinematography and Toke Brorson Odin’s eerily foreboding soundscapes whose synergy creates a dense, haunting atmosphere. Nicolai G.H. Johansen is a name to watch out for.
3. The Windshield Wiper (Alberto Mielgo, 2021)
A highly enjoyable, gorgeously animated meditation on (various kinds of) love.
(Quinzaine des Réalisateurs 2021)
(Quinzaine des Réalisateurs 2021)
4. Cerulia (Sofìa Carrillo, 2017)
Mexican filmmaker Sofía Carrillo needs no introduction. All of her intricately made stop-motion pieces, including Cerulia, are fascinating gothic phantasies exploring innermost worlds...
5. Noir-soleil (Marie Larrivé, 2021)
Noir-soleil is a deeply melancholic piece of expressive, painterly animation which tells the story of estranged father and daughter who are brought together by a ghost or rather (washed-ashore) body from the past. In the author’s own words, it takes compositional cues from the paintings of Edvard Munch, and ‘pays tribute to the particular painful beauty that exists in the words that are not said and the secrets that will never be revealed’. Both the actors’ voices and Marie Larrivé’s direction exudes calmness, with the painstaking technique she employs resulting in frames of arresting visual power.
6. The Vandal (Eddie Alcazar, 2021)
An expressive, darkly atmospheric tribute to classic Hollywood presented in ‘meta-scope’ - a grungy blend of live-action and stop-motion - starring Bill Duke of Predator fame and featuring Harry ‘Twin Peaks Andy’ Goaz in one of the supporting roles. (Quinzaine des Réalisateurs 2021)
7. The Mermaid (Thomaz Labanca, 2016)
A spiritual, dialogue-free predecessor to Guilermo Del Toro’s (inferior) fantasy drama The Shape of Water.
8. Lethes (Eduardo Brito, 2021)
A highly atmospheric mystery drama, playing as a part of Curtas Vila do Conde 2021 program at Festival Scope, until August 6.
9. Puting Paalam / White Funeral (Sari Raissa Lluch Dalena, 1997)
Inspired by passages from the Old Testament books, White Funeral incorporates performance art, modern dance, stop-motion animation and, quite possibly, bits of local folklore into a surreal, dialogue-free narrative of life, death and rebirth depicted from the perspective of Bride / Harlot / Prophetess who is portrayed by pioneering independent Filipina dancer Myra Beltran. Largely set in a desert surrounded by verdant hills, the film boasts some stunningly composed frames captured on grainy 16mm, as well as a stirring, unpredictable score in which ambient / ritualesque / avant-garde / neofolk pieces make way for Vivaldi’s sweeping choral works, providing the viewer with a unique experience.
10. Mythology of Memory (Justin Brown, 2021)
An oneiric piece of found footage reconstruction.
HONORABLE MENTION for animated series
HONORABLE MENTION for animated series
Masters of the Universe: Revelation (Kevin Smith, 2021)
There are pretty good reasons why there’s ‘Revelation’, yet no ‘He-Man’ present in the title of the popular (and my personal favorite) 80’s animated franchise revival. The first episode pays a great, loving homage to the original series, and in a peculiar way, the following episodes continue to do so, through specific humor, occasionally rhyming lines, and the admirable reimagination of the beloved characters and phantasmagorical setting. However, before you know it, the creators subvert your expectations relentlessly, taking the story into a new, darker direction, suggesting that the show had to grow up together with the fans who will either embrace the (brilliantly!) bold changes, or curse Kevin Smith for the rest of their lives, stubbornly clinging onto nostalgia. Without revealing any spoiler details, I will say that Smith & co. got me fully immersed into the borderline-apocalyptic adventure that keeps the (last ember of) magic alive, and deepens the Masters of the Universe mythology in a way that brings to mind an ancient odyssey by way of a ‘planetary romance’, as the beautiful artwork, stellar voice-acting and lavish orchestral score provide the epic feeling. So, for the love of Grayskull, release the second season as soon as possible!