The Year in Review is Not Just About New Movies; 13 Older Films I Discovered in 2013

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Discoveries of 2013

It’s late December, and that means two things: your sudden panicked realization that you haven’t completed your holiday shopping, and movie lists. And like every December, FSR is devoting numerous posts to the very best and worst (but mostly best) that 2013 had to offer at the movies. But as movie fans, we don’t only see movies that were released in the year we see them – we might dig into classics and curiosities via online streaming, repertory showings, or simple chance encounters.

Year-end lists may summarize the breadth of movies released in theaters throughout the calendar year, but they don’t necessarily reflect the yearly consumption of a dedicated movie fan. To many movie lovers, going to a movie theater can be surprisingly rare, and watching movies follows less of a calendar schedule and works a bit more like time travel: one day you’re in 2013, and the next you’re in 1950s Hollywood, followed by a brief stint in 1980s central Florida, and then back to 2013 again. Furthermore, several distributors (Drafthouse, Milestone, Janus) are increasingly devoting their energy not to releasing new movies, but to reviving under-seen gems.

For some of you, 2013 may have had little to do with your movie experience in 2013. So I’ve concocted an alternative year-end list: the 13 (er, 14) most memorable movies I saw in 2013 that weren’t actually released this year. Not necessarily the best, but the movies that most surprised me – the movies that reminded me that no matter how many you’ve seen, there’s still another worthwhile surprise out there.

But rather than navel-gaze at my own cinephilia, I want to hear from you: what are the most memorable non-2013 movie discoveries you made this year?

Grand Hotel

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Before Wes Anderson’s Eastern Europe-set homage dominates the cultural conversation in March, make sure to check out the film its title comes from. Based on the Broadway play by William A. Drake and the novel by Vicki Baum, Edmund Goulding’s 1932 Best Picture-winner boasts some of the biggest stars of Depression-era Hollywood (Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery) as a motley crew of empty socialites and desperate thieves who endure life-changing encounters at the hotel. The film revolutionized interior shooting styles and mixed comedy and drama in ways that few films had before, making it one of early sound Hollywood’s most prescient and lasting works.

Available via Amazon Instant, iTunes, Netflix by disc, and probably your local public library.

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The Bad and the Beautiful and In a Lonely Place

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If you were to judge by Singin’ in the Rain alone, you’d think that Hollywood had a pretty positive view of itself during the 1950s. Not so in Vincente Minelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful, a passionate, noirish melodrama that spins the tell of a ruthless producer (Kirk Douglas, as fine as he’s ever been) who brought success to the lives of a writer, a director, and an actress by ruining them. Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place explores even darker tinseltown territory, which sees the process of writing as a descent into self-destructive obsession as Dixon Steele’s (Humphrey Bogart) lurid fantasies begin to merge with reality.

Both titles are available via Amazon Instant, iTunes, and Netflix by disc.

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Miami Connection

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Drafthouse Films, in Jacob Hall’s words, “won” 2013 in part by releasing a cavalcade of older films deserving of appreciation by a new audience. While their recent re-releases of The Visitor and Ms. 45 definitely deserve your attention, their repackaging of the little-known 1987 martial arts schlockterpiece Miami Connection should be high on your priority list if you haven’t yet seen this earnest and wonderful yarn of lost orphans, ’80s pop rivalries, biker bar segues, and bloody ninja battles, all of which take place in…Orlando.

Available via Amazon Instant, iTunes, and Netflix Instant.

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People Will Talk

Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1951 film People Will Talk is easily one of the strangest A-list productions to have ever come out of the studio era. While advertised as another Cary Grant screwball comedy, People Will Talk is instead a dialogue-heavy drama (based on a play by Curt Goetz) that tackles head-on an array of heavy subjects including unwanted pregnancy, abortion, doctors’ codes of ethics, and manslaughter. At one point cutting to an orchestra full of medical students as if such a thing didn’t require any explanation, People Will Talk demonstrates with its every twist and turn that it is a very rare type of classical Hollywood film: one that is strange, surprising, difficult to categorize, and utterly unpredictable.

Available via Amazon Instant, iTunes, and Netflix by disc.

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Los Angeles Plays Itself

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Are there any clear distinctions between Los Angeles the city and the Los Angeles that’s been used for narrative settings and location shoots throughout the history of the American film industry? Thom Anderson’s 2003 encyclopedic video essay explores this gap with incredible insight and bone-dry wit, as only a true Angeleno could, and along the way makes a compelling case that Los Angeles might be the richest, most fascinating city in the United States. Just don’t tell Hollywood.

Available via YouTube.

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The Boys in the Band

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William Friedkin’s 1970 adaptation of Matt Crowley’s 1970 off-Broadway play was the first major movie in the US to depict an ensemble of gay characters. A time capsule of pre-Stonewall affluent gay life in NYC, The Boys in the Band uses an incredibly long and eventful birthday party as a stage for de-homogenizing queer identity and exploring an array of serious topics ranging from self-loathing to alcoholism. Maintaining the same cast of the original stage version and realized through Friedkin’s expert framing, The Boys in the Band is not only a historically significant gem but an all-too-rare type of stage-to-screen adaptation: both purely cinematic and thoroughly theatrical at the same time.

Available via Amazon Instant and Netflix by disc.

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The Parallax View

As John Frankenheimer is the master of the American paranoid political thriller of the ’60s, Alan J. Pakula is to the ’70s, and this unrelenting tale of an intrepid journalist who gets in too deep with a corporatized assassination plot might be his best work. Gorgeously shot by Godfather cinematographer Gordon Willis and featuring Warren Beatty at the top of his movie star game, The Parallax View is not only an expertly crafted thriller, but an all-too-necessary reminder of a time that Hollywood used to take risks. Watch this sequence alone and tell me you aren’t hooked.

Available via Amazon Instant (free for Prime members) and iTunes.

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‘Round Midnight

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If Inside Llewyn Davis is cinema’s most accomplished character study with a folk soundtrack, Bertrand Tavernier’s ‘Round Midnight did the same for jazz back in 1986. Real-life jazz saxophonist Dexter Gordon plays Dale Turner (in a role for which he was nominated for an Oscar), an alcoholic night owl of Paris who offers his biggest fan Francis (Francois Cluzet) sage advice in laconic, meditative tones between drinks and incredible sax solos. The rare music movie that allows the tunes to become a living, breathing character, no other film about jazz quite captures the feeling of floating through the infinite smoke-hazed fantasyland of a big city late at night.

Available via Amazon Instant, iTunes, and Netflix by disc.

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The Sting

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A film that I should have seen long ago, George Roy Hill’s massive 1973 hit (and Best Picture winner) shows that even the bad boys of New Hollywood were capable of Old Hollywood entertainment. A totally engrossing and eminently watchable caper from start to finish, The Sting has aged, but only in the exact right way: as further evidence that they just don’t make ’em like they used to. And in a year in which Robert Redford captivated us by never saying more than a few words in All is Lost, a visit to his older work is a useful reminder that decades-spanning movie stardom is earned, never given.

Available via Amazon Instant, iTunes, and Netflix by disc.

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Decasia

Bill Morrison’s Decasia – an experimental, carefully manipulated assemblage of decayed film stock accompanied with a score by Michael Gordon that will haunt your dreams – was chosen for preservation this past week by the National Film Board. Beyond the clear irony of this selection, it’s also quite timely, as now is perhaps one of the most urgent of times to get acquainted with film as an object. With an industry moving exponentially to digital and with studios shutting down their libraries, Decasia (beyond its existence as an absolutely mesmerizing film) provides a vital meeting between the viewer and the increasingly foreign materiality of film itself.

Available via Amazon Instant and Netflix by disc.

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Die Hard

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I’m putting it in print: in the twenty-five years that have lapsed between 1988 and 2013, I had never seen John McTiernan’s original Die Hard from beginning to end. I decided to rectify that oversight in February, when I marathon’d the first three Die Hards in anticipation of A Good Day to Die Hard (still haven’t seen Live Free… and I’m not rushing to). Of course, once I saw John McClane’s fifth outing as a snarky, f-bomb-laying modern cowboy, I wished I’d spent those two lost hours watching the original, and self-evidently great, action classic yet again.

Available nearly everywhere, but you’ve probably already seen it.

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The Telephone Book

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I would say Nelson Lyon’s recently rediscovered lightning-paced cult favorite is the best porn parody ever made, but that would categorize a movie that is truly defiant of any coherent description. Realized with idiosyncratic humor and impeccably composed visuals, The Telephone Book both embraces and mocks the era of free love and sexual transcendence with gleefully anarchistic abandon. I could struggle to describe this film some more, but instead you should stop whatever you’re doing right now and watch it. Just make sure to close the door.

Available via Netflix Instant.

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Portrait of Jason

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NYC-based ballerina-turned-documentarian Shirley Clarke is best known for her stark portraits of hip subcultures and offbeat outsiders. And no subject was more aligned with Clarke’s obsessions than Aaron Payne, also known as Jason Holliday: a lifetime hustler, full-time performer, and openly gay African-American who bore his soul over drinks and laughs for Clarke during one endless night in 1966. Many beloved documentaries this year (including Stories We Tell and The Act of Killing) explored the blurry line between what we typically think to be clear distinctions between reality and fiction, between performance and event. But Portrait of Jason shows that this line has never been definite, even when you’re doing something as deceivingly simple as looking at somebody in front of you.

The restored Portrait of Jason was released theatrically this year and will be released commercially on DVD and Blu-ray by Milestone Films sometime in 2014.

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What were some of your favorite discoveries of 2013?

More Best of 2013