Well, it’s the end of another year, so I wanted to take some time to talk about my favorite first-time-watches (mostly!) from the year that was 2021. These are the works I finally sat down to watch, the discoveries, and those pieces of entertainment goodness that sat on my watchlist forever. Here’s my way of saying… don’t make the same mistake I did!
Without further ado, here are my Top 20 Favorite Classic Entertainment Discoveries.
Middle of the Night (1959)
A big part of early 2021 was spent diving headfirst into a Kim Novak watch. While she’s very much one of those essential performers thanks to her roles in works like Vertigo, I couldn’t help but feel under-viewed as it relates to her filmography. However, as I continued to examine her work, I discovered how interesting so many of her movies are, many of which aren’t talked about to the same extent as some of the bigger titles.
Middle of the Night is a picture which I truthfully hadn’t heard about until I watched it this year. The movie then popped back up when it was revealed to be one of Novak’s favorites in her own filmography. It follows the story of a May/December romance between a widower (Fredric March) and a much younger secretary (Novak). The romantic drama is a well-crafted and sensitive work, coming very much out of the quieter, character-based features coming to prominence during the late 1950s. Fans of works like Marty and Bachelor Party should add this one to their lists.
The Swarm (1978)
I’m sweeping from one extreme to another with this one. Our first entry on this list was a deep, character drama while this one… not so much. Okay, in fairness, The Swarm has chronically made “Worst of” lists since its 1978 release. However, I don’t believe it’s quite that simple. One’s enjoyment of a motion picture is what you make of it. In fact, The Swarm started me on a quest to learn about other “good/bad” movies which took up most of my year.
The Swarm is exactly what it sounds like… a swarm of bees puts an all-star cast of characters in jeopardy (in action directed by Irwin Allen, of course!). The cast includes Michael Caine, Katharine Ross, Richard Widmark, Richard Chamberlain, Olivia de Havilland, Lee Grant, Bradford Dillman and Patty Duke (to name just a few).
Don’t expect a “good/good” movie here. The Swarm does have a reputation. However, as I sat down to watch this one, I had a heck of a lot of fun. Did it require a bit of an obnoxious Mystery Science Theater 3000 kind of watch, yes, but it was one the most fun experiences I had watching a film in 2021. If you like disaster films, or are part of the crowd that watches Svengoolie every week, make sure you check this one out.
Big Hand for the Little Lady (1966)
This was a new, new, new discovery for me during my much-publicized quest to watch as much of Kevin McCarthy’s filmography as I could find. As I watched this western I was stunned I had never heard of it. It follows a traveler (Henry Fonda) who becomes involved in an intense poker game. There’s a shockingly stacked cast, including Joanne Woodward, Jason Robards, Paul Ford, Burgess Meredith, and Charles Bickford.
Big Hand for the Little Lady (Also known as ‘Big Deal at Dodge City’) is a surprisingly funny comedy western, with a narrative that keeps viewers on their toes. The films come out of the bigger, studio pictures of the mid-sixties, so if you’re a fan of movies like The Great Race, add this one to your list.
What’s Up Doc? (1972)
While I’m a good little film student who knows who Peter Bogdanovich is, he’s a filmmaker whose work was always a bit of an embarrassing blindspot. This would be why I decided to jump into a first-time watch of a number of the titan’s works during the middle part of the year. This also admittedly stemmed from wanting to watch some Ryan O’Neal thanks to my Peyton Place deep-dive.
What’s Up, Doc was just… adorable. Coming from Bogdanovich and comedy minds like the immortal Buck Henry, the movie is a cartoonish romp following the mix-up of overnight bags. The cast is incredible with names like O’Neal, Barbara Streisand, Kenneth Mars, and the comedy treasure Madeline Kahn. I enjoyed myself far more than I was expecting to with this one, and it led to a watch of equally amazing films like Paper Moon. Tick these off your lists if you haven’t.
Trouble in Paradise (1932)
A big part of this year saw me trying to remedy some of my embarrassing blind spots. We all have them, you know. I’ve been more than public with my lack of expertise with pre-code cinema (that doesn’t include The Marx Brothers, that is). So, one day I stumbled onto Trouble in Paradise… and I can’t believe what I was missing.
Truthfully, my watch of this movie threw me into a summer of Herbert Marshall (I started out wanting to tick off some Kay Francis blindspots) Kids… I didn’t know just what I was missing! I mean, this is probably the peak of Marshall’s delightfulness. There is so much restrained raunchy sophistication. There’s a reason this picture made our opus of the Sexiest Classic Films. If you’re looking to get into pre-code, or somehow missed this one (like me!) remedy this immediately.
The Caine Mutiny (1954)
Full disclosure, Rich Little brought me to this movie. I spent most of 2020 deep-diving into the work of the impressionist and for much of the 1970s, his Humphrey Bogart impression from The Caine Mutiny was a common staple in his talk show appearances.
Take a look…
Anyway… The Caine Mutiny is one of a number of military dramas on-board ships which hit theaters during the mid-1950s. For me, this one ranks right along with Mister Roberts (and y’all know how I feel about that one). It follows the crew of a ship who come to discover that their new Skipper (Bogart) might not be in control of his faculties.
The Maze (1953)
The inclusion of The Maze begins a bit of a… fun… section. Full disclosure, the movies that follow were a part of my ‘good/bad’ summer. I’m not sure how I’m going to go into this one without spoiling the epically awesome ending, but I’m certainly going to try…
The Maze stars Kim’s perennial favorite Richard Carlson in a story about a man who abruptly breaks off his engagement when there is a death in his family. When his fiancee (Veronica Hurst) arrives at his family’s derelict Scottish ancestral home to figure out what is going on… she learns a lot more than she was expecting. Kids, I rewatched the ending to this movie twice to make sure what I thought I watched, was what I actually watched. It’s just… wow.
The Maze is a highly atmospheric thriller and the look of the picture doesn’t really even deserve a reputation as a “good/bad” movie. Plus, Richard Carlson. I need more people to talk about this movie with.
The Brain Eaters (1958)
My good/bad summer continued with this little gem. Decades of Elvira and Mystery Science Theater 3000 watching had taught me of this movie’s existence, but I’d never watched it. Well, my Peyton Place watch from last year also led me to… needing to see more Ed Nelson… and it just so happens, the strapping Dr. Michael Rossi began as an actor in Roger Corman’s stock company. (He’s billed as “Edwin Nelson” here).
The Brain Eaters was an experience… plain and simple. The Brain Eaters follows as residents of a small town begin to disappear after a strange artifact appears in the middle of the countryside. The movie is everything that you would expect, so obviously go into this with your priorities in line (this is coming from the lady who included Plan 9 from Outer Space on last year’s list). This one has all the good/bad delightfulness which made it a heck of a lot of fun to watch. Combine this with a very young Ed Nelson acting for the people in the cheap seats, a rare on-screen performance from TV writer Joanna Lee…. And a very early performance from Mister Spock himself (Leonard Nimoy). Yes… it is a delight.
If The Maze or The Swarm sound right up your alley, make sure you check out The Brain Eaters too.
The Crawling Hand (1963)
I think this is my last recommendation for… this kind of good/bad movie. If you listened to our episode discussing Shock Corridor, you may have already heard my call-out of this fun little gem. This film comes from director Herbert L. Strock a man whose work I fell in love with over 2021… a few of these could have made this list, including Gog, The Crawling Hand, The Magnetic Monster, and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein. As of right now, Strock is holding steady as my fifth most-watched filmmaker of 2021.
This film stars Peter Breck (of The Big Valley fame), Alan Hale Jr. (The Skipper!), and Allison Hayes in a story following the resulting chaos after an astronaut dies in space. It seems his hand managed to survive… everything… and begins to murder people on the ground.
Strock is like Roger Corman, low-budget filmmaking at its finest. The acting isn’t always the best, it might look a little funny in places, but you’re always in for a great experience. Even the worst good/bad movie has an awful lot of love behind it.
Brighton Rock (1948)
Brighton Rock is a picture I’ve always been aware of, but I only got around to it this year during a spin through some of the best and brightest films to come out of the United Kingdom. I tell you, as an 80s baby who grew up with Jurassic Park, watching Richard (Dickie!) Attenborough’s performance in this noir was an absolutely mind-blowing experience.
The film is a UK noir, set in the beach community of Brighton. The story follows Pinkie (Attenborough) a young gangster trying to cover his tracks after he commits murder. Besides Attenborough’s performance, audiences might also enjoy the heck out of seeing William Hartnell (better known to audiences as the First Doctor in Doctor Who).
This movie is a gritty, gorgeous noir directed by Roy Boulting and coming from a novel by Graham Greene. I found it to be a fascinating, emotional experience and this was a five-star watch for me.
Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
Purple Rose of Cairo was a movie that I was always fascinated to watch, but I’m pretty sure I had some preconceived notions which kept me from pressing play. And as I write this, I’m realizing this is the third appearance of a Peyton Place cast member on this list, if you’re keeping score.
Purple Rose of Cairo is an adorable work of nostalgic fantasy following a woman (Mia Farrow) who goes to the movies during The Great Depression. She’s stunned when the leading actor (Jeff Daniels) quite literally steps through the screen and they begin a romantic relationship.
Purple Rose of Cairo has all the rose-colored, vintage nostalgia goggles one could want. The 1980s and 1990s were the perfect era for looking at the early part of the twentieth century and this film shows this at its most beautiful. Woody Allen is at the peak of his powers here… if you’re one of the legions of fans of movies like Midnight in Paris, make sure you check this one out.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
Okay, we’re getting a bit late here. I know… just bear with me. Fast Times at Ridgemont High is another which I avoided for a long time, once again due to some pre-conceived notions which I am not proud of. I’m sorry, movie. I’m so, so, so sorry.
Somewhere in life, I had written off Fast Times at Ridgemont High as a “bro-ey” example of 1980s cinema in all its Sean Penn-ey goodness. However, I could not have been more wrong! Coming from director Amy Heckerling and writer Cameron Crowe, this movie crafted some of the best and most enjoyable examples of young women on-screen in 1980s cinema. Jennifer Jason Leigh and Phoebe Cates are delightful. They’re beautiful and they aren’t just objects to be used by the boys… they think about sex too. At the same time, Brian Backer personifies the boy I wanted to date in high school and Judge Reinhold appears in all his 1980s glory.
I was amazed at just how much fun I had with this one and I can’t wait to watch it again.
The Trouble with Angels (1966)
The Trouble with Angels follows Hayley Mills and June Harding as two young girls attending a religious boarding school. I had admittedly assumed this one had the danger of feeling like a saccharine family film, so I steered away from it for a long time. I should have known better… like I said, Ida Lupino directed it!
The Trouble with Angels follows the story of two young women and is also a buddy film. This is a work that deserves so much more love. In this work, we see not only productive examples of female friendship (where boys don’t even merit) but it also paints a beautiful picture of a young woman discovering just who she is. It’s hard to find narratives like this.
I have no good excuse for why I never watched this one! Thankfully, sitting down to speak with Hayley Mills this year finally forced me to press play… don’t make the same mistake I did.
Valley Girl (1983)
We’re drifting back to the 80s again… sorry, not sorry. Coming from director Martha Coolidge, Valley Girl is a delightful rom-com following a “Valley girl” (Deborah Foreman) who meets and falls in love with a punk-ey boy from the wrong side of the tracks (baby Nicolas Cage).
The movie is another fun example of an 80s rom-com that blew my mind this year (there were a few). Valley Girl presents characters who feel real and tell a compelling tale. This isn’t a new story… Romeo and Juliet, She’s All That, Beach Blanket Bingo… it’s always the same game. Boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, boy and girl have jerky friend and they fight before all is eventually right with the world. Valley Girls tells this story which crosses generations through the eyes of a woman behind the camera and brings a delightful fun 80s flair. Check this one out.
The Love God (1969)
This one is truthfully a surprise I even included it. I have a complex relationship with Don Knotts movies. He and I tend to have a love/hate relationship. However, as I watched The Love God, I fell in love with this unique and calculating story.
The Love God comes from writer/director Nat Hiken, best known for his work on television in shows like Car 54 Where Are You, and The Phil Silvers Show. The movie tells the story of Abner Peacock (Knotts) a well-meaning publisher of a bird-watching magazine. Due to circumstances beyond his control (and knowledge) his magazine is bought out by a pornography magnate (Edmond O’Brien) and turned into a dirty mag.
The Love God is a calculating take-down of the society that produced Playboy Magazine released less than 15 years after the magazine first hit newsstands. As the movie takes shape, editor Lisa (Anne Francis) changes Abner into a Hugh Hefner-type figure. This is a smart and savvy picture that ultimately hasn’t gotten the love it deserves… it was too smart for 1969.
I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978)
By all accounts, I should have watched I Wanna Hold Your Hand more than twenty years ago. I spent my preteen years absolutely obsessed with The Beatles and to be perfectly honest, this is basically Beatles fan fiction.
The movie follows four young girls in New Jersey who decide they’re going to head into Manhattan in 1964 when the Fab Four take the country by storm. The female cast is delightful, including names like Nancy Allen and Wendie Jo Sperber. This was a nostalgic hit for me. Even though I came of age more than thirty years after this film was set, I “felt seen” at a number of points. It is incredibly rare that we see girlhood celebrated on-screen and this shows how well it can work.
WKRP in Cincinatti (1978-1982)
Ultimately, the next two “discoveries” are both more accurately called re-discoveries, but I haven’t watched either of the next two series in more than twenty years… so that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
As I’ve mentioned before, my formative years were spent in front of Nick at Nite and all the classic TV goodness that implies. This year, I’ve been revisiting some of the nostalgic classics I haven’t watched in years and one of those is WKRP in Cincinnati.
The sitcom follows the colorful cast of characters who work at a small radio station in Cincinnati, including the somewhat addled DJ “Doctor” Johnny Fever (Howard Hesseman), Programming Director Andy Travis (Gary Sandy) the savvy secretary Jennifer (Loni Anderson), and newsman Les Nessman (Richard Sanders). The show of course begins as a standard sitcom, but over the course of four seasons morphed into one of the best written, cult-classics to cross the airwaves. It didn’t get nearly as many seasons as it deserved, but this is truly one of the classics.
Night Court (1984-1992)
I think this is as new as I get on this list. I remember watching this series when it aired, but this year is the first time I watched Night Court since its cancellation. As such, this is another re-discovery. I’ve been watching it over the last month or so, and it’s an absolute joy.
Rewatching this series with the benefit of age and perspective has completely changed Night Court for me. While I connected with the show from a more superficial level as a youngster (Harry Anderson is a yesterday, today, and forever favorite of mine), as I revisited the series I found myself captivated with the writing. The show comes from writer Reinhold Weege, a prominent presence in the Barney Miller writers room throughout the police comedy’s early seasons. Night Court shows a similar blend of characters and captures the same magic Barney Miller did in its early years.
And yes! This rare gem is now available to stream on Amazon! Stop by and watch it before it’s too late.
Up the Down Staircase (1967)
Over the autumn of 2021, I took a lot of time to revisit the work of one of my favorite directors, Robert Mulligan. I learned of his work in college when I studied Love with the Proper Stranger in film school. Over the years, his work has always spoken to me.
Up the Down Staircase is another of Mulligan’s pairings with producer (and eventual director) Alan J. Pakula. The story features Sandy Dennis as a teacher working at a struggling, New York City high school. We’ve seen this story before across the generations, from Blackboard Jungle to Stand and Deliver. This film however brings the added depth of Mulligan as a director and Dennis’ flawless performance.
If you’re a fan of a solid inspirational story (like these movies often are) in the hands of a solid, stalwart director, add this to your list.
The word for this movie is… zany. I’d long heard about Bluebeard but only was able to wrap my hot little hands around it in the year 2021. Edward Dmytryk directed this… quirky… little picture which stars Richard Burton, Virna Lisi, Raquel Welch, Joey Heatherton, Sybil Danning, and Nathalie Delon.
The story follows a World War I hero (Burton) who has a decidedly complicated personal life. The dashing soldier is a lady-killer… but he’s also a lady killer. Like, he has some major trouble keeping his ladies alive. This film is dark, macabre, and amazing. It conveys some of the delights of the good/bad horror movies on this list with the class of the late studio system thanks to the combined skill of Burton and Dmytryk.
If you can get your hands on this one (it’s a discovery to find it available), make sure you check it out.
Nightmare Alley (1947)
I’m working on this list during Noirvember, so I wanted to drop a movie that has been a painfully delayed first-time-watch, Nightmare Alley. The film will see a remake from Guillermo del Toro hitting theaters in December 2021 and I wanted to be caught up.
The film follows a young man (Tyrone Power) who is pulled into the seedy glamour of the carnival, sideshow circuit. He makes a name as a mentalist but soon finds himself struggling to maintain the illusion.
In my movie-watching history, Tyrone Power has been one of the actors to most captivate me, yet I’ve seen so few of his films. Watching Nightmare Alley, I was immediately taken with his against-type casting. Power sinks his teeth into the darkness of this plot and is having an absolute blast. It’s just a shame we didn’t get to see him tackle more roles of this versatility. Fans of noir should definitely add this to their lists.
I suppose Mr. Scolari isn’t a “discovery” per-se. His is a name I’ve been aware of, but up until this autumn, I’ve never really looked into his work. His October passing saw me thrown headfirst into a wave of nostalgia encompassing my formative years of the late 1980s and early 1990s. In this time, I’ve really been learning about Scolari as a performer, and as someone who largely defined him by Bosom Buddies, I wish I had done this deep-dive sooner. From Bosom Buddies to Newhart, to Evil and everything in between, he was a treasure and we didn’t deserve him. Take some time to watch some of his work.
With a few hours left in the year, I’ve topped 445 movies in my LetterBoxd diary and have been having an absolute blast. I’ve worked through some blind spots, indulged in more than a few actor deep-dives, and can’t wait to see where the next year takes us.
Here’s to 2022!
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