I wanted a complimentary photo of Natalie for this, but apparently she doesn’t smile much in Miracle on 34th Street, so Shirley Temple seemed a good alternative. Yesterday, I posted the worst films I reviewed in 2012, and today we’re looking at the best. The criteria are as follows: I had to have written a review of the film on this blog in 2012 (that eliminated the first few My Month with Marilyn posts); I had to be seeing them for the first time; the movies had to have received either an A or a B upon initial review; and they had to be movies I considered long-term favorites. The movies are ranked from lowest grade to highest, and considering a B+ film starts at twenty that shows how high the standards were in terms of quality. This list was far easier to write than the Worst Of, maybe because it was easier to find films I actually enjoyed watching. Remember, clicking a link will take you to my original review. Here we go!
Honorable Mentions (The films here all received B grades upon review, but didn’t have enough to make the top 20): My Favorite Wife, The Ex-Mrs. Bradford, Cactus Flower, Blithe Spirit, Father’s Little Dividend
20. Red Dust
Out of all the films I watched for the first time as part of my Jean Harlow Retrospective, Red Dust continues to be my favorite (my all-time love is still Libeled Lady). For a pre-Code, this is a racy story, and that should be the norm for the time period. Jean Harlow plays a prostitute, Clark Gable (PRE-CODE CLARK GABLE) plays a total jerk, and the sexual chemistry is turned up to 11. And I don’t blame that on the tropical setting. Warner Archive recently released this on DVD which makes me happy because I had a hell of a time finding it originally. Red Dust originally received a B+ from me.
Supernatural comedies were a highlight on the blog this year. I already listed Blithe Spirit as an honorable mention, and there’s another ghostly comedy further down on the list. Topper is a sweet movie about how wealthy people die, and increase their charm! Of courses, when the ghosts are Cary Grant and Constance Bennett how can you not expect charm?
18. Mildred Pierce
Mildred Pierce showcases that Joan Crawford wasn’t a silly caricature in a 1970s biopic, that’s for sure. The adaptation of James M. Cain‘s work is a classic piece of film noir without all the detective tropes you’ve come to assume. The story is about the struggles of a single mother, and how that can come to bite you in the ass. I do still hold on to the side message that if a woman loves her kids too much its detrimental to their development, but I won’t bring that up. Crawford is tough as nails, and Ann Blyth is a cold beauty as the duplicitous femme fatale, Veda.
I mentioned this to a reader in yesterday’s post that everyone seems to have a beach movie that’s a guilty pleasure. I actually watched Beach Blanket Bingo (which made my Worst Of…) as a direct result of watching Gidget. I despised the former film, but asked for, and received the complete Gidget box set. Yeah, I ended up really enjoying this movie. It’s a guilty pleasure that you can laugh at (they’re totally not surfing) and find to be surprisingly deep (it’s not just about a girl surfer). Not to mention, hellooooo Cliff Robertson!
A- territory kicks off with director Bob Fosse and his look at comic Lenny Bruce. Lenny isn’t my favorite Fosse film, and since this review I have seen all his directing efforts, but it shows how a fantastic performance can knock it out of the park. Dustin Hoffman and Valerie Perrine were astounding, and elevated this to A- level.
I’m hoping to rewatch this soon because I feel bad about how little I remember (it had to fight with the 200 other titles in my brain). I saw Gilda soon after this, and Rita Hayworth is as much a dynamo in that film as she was here. Her and Orson Welles exert a love/hate relationship where you expect someone to die by the end. The movie winds around itself, but never feels intentionally confusing. The fun house sequence also continues to be great!
14. Heaven Can Wait
Told you there’d be another supernatural comedy on this list. I’d originally checked this out for the stunning Gene Tierney, but I ended up being swept away by the humor of director Ernst Lubitsch. Lubitsch takes a character who is bad, but not malicious, and makes you love him more than anything. Don Ameche excels at playing the neglectful cad, and Tierney shows strong comedic timing as she cries and plays the voice of reason. The movie ends with a sweetly poignant message, and who knew the Devil could be such a nice guy?
My first reader recommendation and I thank them everyday for giving me such an amazing film to watch. Witness for the Prosecution could have been a staid courtroom procedural, but instead it becomes a down-and-dirty mystery with Charles Laughton as the detective. Laughton is the curmudgeon who makes you laugh while Marlene Dietrich never lets you know what she’s thinking as the defendant’s (Tyrone Power) wife. The script is classic Billy Wilder, filled with one-liners, and the ending gets props for actually surprising me. I still find myself watching the ending as if it were the first time.
12. Marathon Man
The last of the A- movies, and this is one I really need to purchase. Marathon Man came out during a time when hidden Nazis apparently made for compelling drama, and this film is all about compelling drama! Dustin Hoffman is good, but he’s got nothing on Laurence Olivier and Roy Scheider. The fights are brutal, particularly the latter’s, and after watching this you won’t want to go to the dentist for a while.
We’ve entered into the films that all scored A’s from me upon review! I recently got this for Christmas on Blu-Ray, and director Neil Jordan creates a dark fairy tale as only he can (the man did direct Interview with a Vampire). What I enjoy the most is not just the retelling of the Red Riding Hood story, but the frank sexuality that permeates it already. The film opens with our young heroine on the threshold between adolescence and childhood, and the wolves at her door are the older men desperate to corrupt her. That does make it a taste uncomfortable, particularly at the end, but it’s a beautiful movie that blends a sweet fairy tale with dark desire.
A young man’s fancy may turn to love in the spring, but as Billy Wilder shows it’s the summertime when men lose all control. In all honesty, I’d have probably included Gentlemen Prefer Blondes instead of this, but because that film was reviewed in 2011 it didn’t count. Regardless, The Seven Year Itch holds its own in humor. Tom Ewell plays a man left alone for the summer, and lusting after the woman (Monroe) who lives upstairs. Of course, Marilyn plays her dumb ditz to perfection. She’s totally cavalier about her demeanor, right down to declaring that her panties are in the freezer! Every line here is gold, and Marilyn has never been funnier.
9. After Hours
After Hours is a bizarre, surreal nod to The Wizard of Oz and other stories that involve a character being placed in unfamiliar surroundings. I’ve seen this a few times, post-review, and it gets better the more I watch. You never get the same interpretation twice, characters change, and the situation just makes for a more hilarious and claustrophobic film. This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I find this to be a top-notch work by Martin Scorsese.
What is there to say about Psycho? It’s the lone Hitchcock film that made this list, and I continue to see it blossom up the ranks of my top films. To me, it’s all about Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), and the actual filming on the Universal Studios backlot. Aside from the opening, the Bates Motel is the one distinct location in the movie and you never feel comfortable. I do think the Janet Leigh part is stronger than Vera Miles’, but the film is genius and I’d be crazy not to put it in the top ten.
My lone entry from my 25 Days of Christmas series is a screwball comedy that continues to bring a smile to my face. Yes, I understand that the message goes against my feminist sensibilities, but Barbara Stanwyck makes you forget all that as a magazine writer whose entire written life is a lie. I think what sold me the most is the script. When Stanwyck is given a new baby, after borrowing a fake baby the day before, and a character questions why it talks…and is a boy, Stanwyck’s delivery comes off as natural and plausible! I reviewed a Stanwyck film the Christmas before, and it didn’t hold a candle to this one. I recently got it in a box set, so thankfully this will become a Christmas tradition.
6. Stage Door
I listed The Women as one of my Dishonorable Mentions in yesterday’s article. Stage Door is what I wished that former film was. Stage Door presents a group of women acting in union with each other as a community. Sure, they are competing for male attention, but there’s a sense of camaraderie, honesty, and caring that’s established well before all of that, so you never feel like these women will step on each other’s throats to get a leg up. Add to that the cast of talent, both established and up-and-coming, and this is easily one of my favorite female-centric comedies.
Gimme Shelter has the distinction of being the only documentary on this list, and dammit do I really need to buy it! This is the ultimate fly on the wall story, placing the viewer not simply in the audience at Altamont Speedway, but in the studio with the Rolling Stones themselves. Hopefully, you know that the Altamont concert has a dark history behind it, and Gimme Shelter presents the tragedy in all its detail. Altamont marked the death knell for the 70s and its era of community and free love. One of the best documentaries ever made!
In my original review I wrote that The Bride of Frankenstein transcends the original, and that holds true. This is a beautiful sequel that fleshes out the story, increases the tension, and strengthens character motivations. It easily takes the groundwork established in Frankenstein and produces an epic story where you find yourself knowing all the characters, both large and small. It straddles the line between a horror movie, and a tragic drama. Again, I really should buy this!
Bad Day at Black Rock still gets me thinking about its plot; it’s that good! The story follows a man hoping to do penance, and stumbling onto a town with a dark and racist past. It’s the best Western mixed with the most fantastic film noir. Spencer Tracy showed me a different side of himself, and Robert Ryan is chilling as the evil overlord of the town. I’ll say this about the other two films above it, but I highly recommend watching this!
You knew this had to be high on my list. I mean without it we wouldn’t have the blog mascot, the lovely Ms. Veronica Lake! Thankfully, my mother got me this for Christmas and it’s a funny movie that focuses on why we go and enjoy the movies in the first place: to be entertained. Lake plays the girl who wants to be a star, but she’s lived a harsh life and appreciates what she’s given. Her relationship with McCrea is genuine, as it should considering they played opposite each other for so long, and it even has a Disney short in it!
1. Dark Victory
Out of all the films I considered, this was the lone A+ in the bunch. I’ve gotten criticism about not being consistent in my grading, but I know I don’t hand out A+’s to everything; the entire series of films between eleven and two were simply A’s. What sets Dark Victory apart from the bunch is how unexpected it was to me. Tear-jerkers never affect me to begin with, but since this was from 1939 I expected a lot of melodrama in place of emotion. Nope, Bette Davis restrains everyone’s performance. There’s nothing focused on other than Davis’ character and her impending death. Sure, Davis doesn’t waste away, but in the way she describes everything you feel what she feels. In her final moments, it’s beautiful and tragic. I think that’s what makes Dark Victory excel, that you feel and experience the tragedy alongside the character.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.