A HARD DAY'S NIGHT
Made on a small budget in six weeks, the Beatles' first film has buckets of charm and delivers to the viewer a snapshot of a time when the Fab Four (and their fans) were wide-eyed and incandescent. Richard Lester directs the film on the strength of his previous "RUNNING, JUMPING & STANDING STILL" film featuring the Goons which was popular with the Fabs. The zany, frenetic film is part comedy, part documentary and part performance piece with the Beatles playing themselves on a train trip from Liverpool to a London TV gig. Constantly nagged by their manager, the Beatles also have their hands full not only with their screaming teenage fans but also with their grandpa (who is very clean) who is always getting into mischief.
P.L. Travers' mystical nanny gets the Disney treatment in possibly my favourite Disney flick ever. The Sherman brothers deliver a perfect soundtrack to accompany Julie Andrews' Oscar-winning title role and Dick Van Dyke's dodgy accent. Mistakenly viewed as sugary-sweet by those who don't know the film, Mary Poppins has a great deal of flint and vinegar in her nature and straightens out almost everyone's messed-up lives by the end of the film. An exemplary cast and marvelous sets of an England which no doubt never existed moves us from one memorable set piece to another; not the least of which is the breathtakingly thrilling rooftop dance sequence. A masterpiece.
MY FAIR LADY
Julie Andrews got screwed out of starring in this movie adaptation of her stage triumph -- so she went ahead and won the Oscar for her consolation role in MARY POPPINS. However, despite the fact that Audrey Hepburn couldn't sing (and Marni Nixon dubs her), MY FAIR LADY is another masterpiece of a musical with the perfect Lerner & Lowe score and a dream cast helmed by Rex Harrison's Oscar-winning performance.
ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS
With a name like that, you'd be forgiven for conjuring up images in your mind's eye of fifties B-pictures with bug-eyed aliens and lunar cat women. However, you'd be waaaay wrong! This very realistic (for 2/3rds of the picture, anyway) depiction of an astronaut crash-landing on the planet Mars and his struggles to survive in a landscape without practically any air to breathe, food to eat or water to drink is riveting. However, it's not just a nuts-and-bolts equivalent of an astronaut policier film; there are some haunting images as well including lead actor Paul Mantee's occasional hallucinations of his dead co-pilot (Adam West) coming to visit him in the night. And of course, like every good spacecraft in the early 60's, there's a little monkey along as Mantee's only companion. Until the towering savage Vic Lundin shows up as an escaped slave from his Martian overlords. This movie is so good that it was put out on DVD by Criterion, mateys!
Two powerhouse actors face each other on screen in this historical epic depicting the early friendship and subsequent deadly rivalry between King Henry II and Thomas a Becket. You don't get much bigger screen personalities than Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton and they're perfectly cast as the monarch and his carousing pal whom the King later invests as Archbishop of Canterbury. Believing Becket would do his bidding, Henry is chagrined to find out that this Archbishop has a mind of his own and things go downhill fast on the way to a murder in the cathedral.
Kaneto Shindo's beautifully shot film takes place in medieval Japan during an endless war. An old woman and her daughter-in-law inhabit a shack amidst a field of waving, undulating tall grass while waiting for her son to return from the wars. In desperate poverty, the women waylay and kill passing warriors so they can sell any valuables they have on them; their bodies unceremoniously dumped in a deep hole in the middle of the grassy expanse. A friend of the son teams up with the women but strife isn't far behind. And then there's the discovery of that odd mask . . . A truly haunting film.
MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH
Roger Corman meets Ingmar Bergman as AIP heads to England to film another Edgar Allan Poe adaptation which looks much more sumptuous than preceding entries in the series. Vincent Price is on hand as the decadent, Satanic Prince Prospero who gathers all the nobility into his castle to wait out the plague of "the red death" sweeping the countryside. Vinnie gives one of the greatest speeches of his career in the "What is terror?" scene and the hallway of rooms each of a different colour is an unforgettable set piece. Poe's short story "Hop-Frog" is added to the mix as well and the influence of Bergman's "THE SEVENTH SEAL" is very evident. Hazel Court is marvelous and Patrick Magee is hissable! Super-duper!
THE TOMB OF LIGEIA
Roger Corman's farewell to the AIP Poe cycle concludes with this often-overlooked but wonderful film about death and what's beyond it. Vinnie's late wife always said she could conquer death and she just might have done it. Also filmed in England, the movie benefits greatly from a great deal of exterior location shooting of English green grass and actual ruined abbeys. I'll always remember the first time I saw this film was on local horror TV host Stella's "SATURDAY NIGHT DEAD" show in the early 1980s and I was captivated. An elegiac, gothic treat!
Speaking of elegiac, gothic treats . . . we have the only Hammer Horror on my list. Admittedly let down a little in the special effects department (snakes, anyone), this film nevertheless is one of my favourite (if generally overlooked) Hammers starring the titans of terror Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee along with Shakespearean actor Richard Pasco vs one of the sisters of Medusa from Greek mythology. Hauntingly shot in a stately manner by Terence Fisher, I can watch this one again and again. . .until I turn to stone!
Michael Apted's monumental project begins with this documentary based on the old quote that if you give me the child until the age of 7, "I'll show you the man". A group of 7 year old British schoolchildren from different social and financial classes are interviewed. That's it. But it's one of the most fascinating social experiments I've ever seen because Apted went back and filmed the children every seven years since then -- and he's still doing it today. The latest installment "56 UP" was just released in 2012. For half a century now, we've gone back every 7 years to catch up with these children who are now 56 years old and the results each time are totally absorbing. But "SEVEN UP" is where it all began; it sets up the project and is a vivid snapshot of a time now half a century behind us.
CASTLE OF BLOOD
Barbara Steele floating around a dilapidated old haunted castle filmed in glorious black and white over there in Italy, of course. Oh yeah . . . and she's dead. Can there be a better description of heaven? Add Edgar Allan Poe to the mix? How 'bout that, then? The old wheeze of someone betting he can stay all night in a haunted house is the way we get inside the "castle of blood" where ghosts of all sorts relive past unjustices and seek out revenge. Sumptuous gothic horror!
AT MIDNIGHT I'LL TAKE YOUR SOUL!
There's a lot of horror on my list this year. Here we have the debut of the legendary Brazilian horror icon Zé do Caixão (known as "Coffin Joe" over here) played by the demonic José Mojica Marins. Coffin Joe blasphemes regularly, eats meat deliberately on Good Friday and searched endlessly for a woman to bear him a son. This is the first Brazilian horror movie and it's unlike any other film I've seen. There is an atmosphere to it which I am unable to describe other than that the film stock itself seems to be drenched in gothic horror you can almost taste while you're watching it.