Each year I enjoy the opportunity to seek out older films that I’ve never seen. In the process, I discover some gems that I feel grateful to have uncovered. For me, this historical work is important, as it reminds me that there is much out there sitting on the shelves of Netflix’s warehouse, or worse, are simply unavailable. The films on this list share a common concern for truthful portrayals of humanity, craftsmanship marked by beauty, and/or an appreciation for the good.
Six Discoveries from Years Past:
- Nightjohn (1996, dir. Burnett): Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Burnett was working for Disney on this film, and so the standard feel-good sentimentality caveats are in order. Despite (or maybe because of) those limitations, Burnett manages to imbue this with real heart and humanity. The story centers upon an enslaved man, John, arriving at a new plantation. Unbeknownst to the plantation owner, John has an especially rare skill: he knows how to read. He begins to teach a 12-year old girl, Sarny, in secret, because such an action is punishable by death. To Burnett’s credit, the people on screen come across as actual human beings (including the white villains, but especially the black leads) rather than stereotypes, and Burnett manages to direct our attention to a variety of themes: literacy, freedom, feminism, power, etc. As John tells Sarny, “Words are freedom.” In that spirit, films can be as well.
- Pickup on South Street (1953, dir. Fuller): Fantastic storytelling in this crime drama. The camerawork is distinctive without being flashy. And it includes the wonderful Thelma Ritter, who’s as good as she ever was in this film.
- She’s Gotta Have It (1986, dir. Lee): Formally, so good. Loved the mirroring of the opening shot with the closing. The interspersing of New York photographs hearkened back to Allen’s Manhattan, helping to develop the film’s sense of place. And the exquisite dolly shot that has become Lee’s trademark didn’t disappoint. The film is challenging in its characterization of Nola–an independent woman (a positive, for sure) who takes a reckless and destructive approach to relationships.
- Chimes at Midnight (1965, dir. Welles): Striking imagery and a fabulous characterization from Welles undergird both the comedy and the tragedy of this tale of Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff. As usual, Welles’ camera never ceases to find an interesting angle from which to shoot, moving in for extreme close-ups or shooting wide in a cavernous palace or on a barren hillside. And the battle scene feels quite modern, creating a sense of chaos that seems appropriate to the moment.
- Silver Lode (1954, dir. Dwan): After Dan Ballard is arrested by Marshalls on charges of murder and theft, the accused simply refuses to tell anyone what actually happened, because he knows no one would believe him. Though he had lived for years in the community, once labelled with false charges, he becomes persona non grata. This underscores the film’s McCarthy-era echoes, while giving them a sense of humanity, prompting us to ask ourselves whether we would join the mobs gathering to oppose “the bad guy” or if we would take a more measured approach and listen to reason. The only one willing to listen in Dwan’s world is the whore. . . sounds about right.
- White Heat (1949, dir. Walsh): A well-paced thriller in which every character of significance tries to scheme or manipulate someone else. This fundamental human disconnection reveals an underlying lack of humanity at its end, portrayed ferociously and tragically by Cagney.