In Brief: Alfred Hitchcock's first American film, Rebecca (1940), is also his only film to win a Best Picture Oscar. That's understandable because it's the least idiosyncratic, most mainstream crowd-pleaser Hitchcock ever made. It's a finely-crafted adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier's novel that was designed — more by producer David O. Selznick than Hitchcock — to please the legions of fans of the book. Hitchcock himself told François Truffaut, "It's not a Hitchcock picture," and, to some degree, that's true, but it's a very good film all the same.
In Brief: The Asheville Film Society starts 2014 with the first film of a two film-tribute to Peter O'Toole. First up is Richard Rush's The Stunt Man (1980), for which O'Toole received his sixth Best Actor Oscar nomination. Here, O'Toole plays a slightly crazy movie director — a captivating blend of angel and devil whose motives aren't always clear even to himself — making an anti-war film on location with an unexpected assist from a young fugitive from the law. It is one of the actor's most beautifully modulated performances and it's housed in one of his very best films.
The Story: James Thurber's short story gets turned into a sprawling nerd-empowerment fantasy in this latest big-screen treatment. The Lowdown: It's good to look at and is certainly well-made, but it all ends up feeling like a vanity project for director-star Ben Stiller. Plus, it's rather boring.
In Brief: This movie from the waning years of Hammer Films isn't great, but it's still one of its better later-era works — despite the fact that it's not really a mummy picture in the usual sense. Instead, it's a tale of an evil Egyptian queen who is reincarnated in the lookalike daughter of the professor who discovered her secret tomb. It doesn't always make sense, but it has a pleasing early '70s quality — and a terrific supporting cast.
The Story: A group of disgraced samurai set out to avenge the death of their master. The Lowdown: A mix of samurai-movie basics and occasional fantasy elements that combine to make a boring, unmemorable flick.
The Story: Two ex-boxers in their 60s renew a 30-year-old rivalry in the ring. The Lowdown: A one-note comedy and a half-baked melodrama that’s too long and too dumb.
In Brief: Though compromised by too many production numbers, too much plot and too much "humanizing" of the boys, A Day at the Races (1937) is the last really good movie the Marx Brothers made. Individual sequences are nearly as good as the best things they ever did. Groucho's Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush is one of his best creations — despite the studio's efforts to tone him down. Plus, one of the musical numbers is pure gold.
The Story: Buffoonish, loud-mouthed news anchor Ron Burgundy tries to rebuild his reputation on a cable news channel. The Lowdown: A generally unfunny rehash of the first Anchorman that only occasionally works when it’s being satirical.
The Story: Runt dinosaur proves himself a hero, becomes leader of the pack and gets the girl, thereby convincing ennui-ridden teen that dinosaurs are cool or something. The Lowdown: If you like looking at computer-generated dinosaurs, this may be your movie, but anyone past the age of 4 is likely to be bored stiff by the lame plot and even lamer dialogue.
The Story: Fact-based black comedy about junk-bond broker Jordan Belfort. The Lowdown: Brilliant filmmaking, terrific performances and a strong screenplay come together to provide a bitterly funny indictment of wanton greed. This is no-holds-barred filmmaking.
The Story: The life of Nelson Mandela, from young activist to prisoner to president of South Africa. The Lowdown: A run-of-the-mill biopic, with all the problems that entails, which doesn’t shy away from the pricklier aspects of Mandela’s life but fails to properly illustrate his importance.
In Brief: It can be argued that Peter Bogdanovich's first film, Targets, isn't really a horror picture. But if it isn't, then it's a film about how real life had outdistanced the kind of horror being shown in movies. It follows two stories that will ultimately intersect — one about an aging horror star (Boris Karloff) retiring from the screen, and one about a clean-cut young man blandly deciding to go on a shooting spree for no apparent reason. It may be uncomfortably more timely in 2013 than it was in 1968.
The Story: Vaguely fact-based (Abscam) comedy drama about not-very-bright people trying to out-con each other. The Lowdown: Funny, cynical and even a little demented, David O. Russell's latest boasts incredible turns from its high-powered cast, a genuine sense of the late 1970s and a pop soundtrack to die for.
The Story: Highly colored version of Disney getting the rights to make Mary Poppins. The Lowdown: Realistic? Hardly. Factual? Only in its barest outline. First class entertainment? Oh, my, yes. And Emma Thompson is superb.
The Story: Hobbit Bilbo Baggins and his dwarf companions travel through Middle Earth to breach the lair of a deadly dragon. The Lowdown: Yet another overlong Tolkien adaptation, this one suffers from a sense of corner-cutting and a lack emotional center or any real dramatic arc.
The Story: Madea goes to rural Alabama with her friend Eileen for Christmas. Supposedly funny things happen. The Lowdown: Thoroughly dispiriting and often just mean-spirited Madea film represents another step back for Tyler Perry. This will not keep it from making a healthy profit.
The Story: A delusional old man insists on traveling to Lincoln, Neb., to claim his "winnings" in a contest he hasn't actually won. The Lowdown: A sometimes unpleasant look at small-town life that's nicely balanced by a warmly human — and sometimes very funny — take on family relations and how little we know of each other. Another awards-season keeper.
In Brief: Critically savaged at the time of its release in 1977 for being excessively gory and in shockingly bad taste, Michael Winner's The Sentinel has managed to become, well, almost respectable in the intervening years. Almost. It no longer seems that excessive (which may not be a good thing), even though its central premise of the entrance to hell being in a Brooklyn apartment building is still pretty silly. Now, its glossy professionalism and its undeniably creepy atmosphere are what stand out. No matter how dumb its premise seems, while the movie's on the screen, it's deliciously unsettling.
In Brief: World Cinema closes out 2013 (they return on Jan. 10) with an encore screening of Victor Erice's acclaimed The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), a story about a fanciful little girl in an isolated Spanish town in 1940, who is deeply affected by seeing the 1931 Frankenstein -- to the degree that she believes that a Loyalist soldier hiding in a barn is the Monster.
The Story: After the murder of his brother, a steelworker sets out for revenge. The Lowdown: A generally humorless piece of awards-bait that — despite a pulpy foundation — is just too self-serious to be entertaining.
In Brief: The definitive Ebeneezer Scrooge — Alastair Sim — in the definitive film version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol is this year's Christmas film from the Asheville Film Society. Really, what else needs to be said about this film? If you've never seen it, you're missing a big slice of Christmas.