Every year is a great year for discovery as a classic film fan. Inevitably, my list of favorites only grows longer (and more difficult to rank) as I explore the filmographies of my favorite stars, writers, and directors — and discover new obsessions. To keep things simple, I’ve narrowed my list of favorite discoveries in 2018 down to twenty films. Without further ado…
A Matter of Life and Death (1946), directed by Powell & Pressburger
A new all-time favorite, and my absolute best discovery of the year. This film — beautifully crafted by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger — tells the story of an airman who survives a plane crash without a parachute. He soon finds love with the American radio operator who talked him through the crash. When the powers that be in the afterlife realize he never should have survived, however, they send an angel to collect him. Can love save him, and keep him Earth-bound?
Man’s Castle (1933), directed by Frank Borzage
The story of a young woman who finds love and begins to hope for a better life… until her new beau turns out to be a rough-edged criminal who threatens to leave her every other second. Loretta Young breaks my heart in this film! She brings an emotional depth to it and really endears the audience to her character, which left me thinking about the film for several days after watching. It has its strange and wild moments, but Man’s Castle cemented its spot on my favorite discoveries list early on in the year, thanks to Loretta’s performance.
History is Made at Night (1937), directed by Frank Borzage
Charles Boyer and Jean Arthur sparkle in this romance between a woman who desperately wants to divorce her husband, and the man who saves her from her marriage… by pretending to kidnap her! It may sound very screwball, but History is Made at Night does its share of heartstring-tugging, too.
Framed (1947), directed by Richard Wallace
Glenn Ford is Mike Lambert, an unlucky man who lands in the wrong town, has a truck accident, and makes a quick enemy in the form of Jeff Cunningham (Edgar Buchanan) — whose car he hit. In that town, he meets Paula (Janis Carter), a woman who at first appears to want to help him, but has ulterior motives. I’m a big fan of Ford, but Janis Carter really stole this film for me — her character is purely wicked and incredibly smart. The film, on the whole, is well-paced and tons of fun to watch.
Yield to the Night (1956), directed by J. Lee Thompson
Diana Dors gives an unexpected, psychologically complex performance in this film as a woman sentenced to death row. This is another film that just had to land a spot on my favorites list because I spent so much time thinking about it after watching. It has touches of noir, but at its core is an exploration of life, death, crime, and remorse. Severely underrated!
Lucky Partners (1940), directed by Lewis Milestone
Oh, how I love a Ginger Rogers rom-com! This one is a delight. Ginger co-stars with Ronald Colman, playing strangers who decide to share a sweepstakes ticket, vowing to go traveling together if they win. The problem? She’s engaged to another man… and the travel they’re planning is a fake honeymoon!
I, Tonya (2017), directed by Craig Gillespie
I always spend January and February playing catch-up on the previous year’s films; this was one that I managed to catch at the theater with my sister in early 2018. We both loved it, and it’s entered our re-watch/constant quotation rotation. I can’t tell you how much time we’ve spent imitating Paul Walter Hauser’s scene-stealing portrayal of Shawn.
Planet of the Vampires (1965), directed by Mario Bava
One of my favorite horror directors takes on another of my favorite genres — sci-fi! This film is everything you’d expect from hearing “Mario Bava, but in space.” It’s beautiful to look at and has a wonderfully eerie atmosphere.
Spirited Away (2001), directed by Hayao Miyazaki
I’ve been slowly (very slowly) exploring Miyazaki’s filmography and managed to catch this one on the big screen in 2018, which made the viewing experience all the more enjoyable. It’s stunning, as expected. Not much I can say about Miyazaki that hasn’t already been said. I’m sure he’ll be landing on my list again in 2019!
The Narrow Margin (1952), directed by Richard Fleischer
This hard-boiled noir is one I’ve meant to watch for a long time and finally got around to in 2018, thanks to TCM’s Noir Alley. It’s fast-paced, with not a moment wasted, and even somewhat surprised me with its twist!
Safe in Hell (1931), directed by William Wellman
This film is bleak and at times quite hard to watch — but important, and deserving of much more attention than it gets. It’s a pre-code story of a New Orleans prostitute who runs away to a criminal-filled, extradition-free island after hitting her sleazy former boss over the head with a bottle (in self-defense). Dorothy Mackaill gives a fantastic performance here — so good that I’ve blind-bought a couple more of her films to watch!
Sapphire (1959), directed by Basil Dearden
A startling and somewhat ahead-of-its-time mystery, Sapphire tells the story of a murder investigation. The victim is a mixed-race woman who had been passing as white — so, of course, the investigation uncovers plenty of bigotry within her social circle. The subject matter is handled quite sensitively by Dearden. Speaking of Dearden, he directed another film that nearly made this list, 1957’s The Smallest Show on Earth, so I really want to seek out more of his work in 2019!
Annihilation (2018), directed by Alex Garland
Alex Garland has officially joined my list of favorite film folks. Ex Machina was one of my very best new-release finds in recent years, and his follow-up is no sophomore slump. It’s bold and beautifully-made. (Barack Obama agrees!)
The Mole People (1956), directed by Virgil W. Vogel
A surprisingly serious creature-feature, The Mole People tells the story of an expedition seeking ancient Sumerian artifacts. Instead of artifacts, the adventurers find an entire underground society existing below the ruins of a Sumerian temple — a society with some problems and prejudices mirroring the modern world.
The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), directed by Jack Arnold
Jack Arnold is the best! Another director that’s become a favorite. This philosophically-minded science fiction story stars Grant Williams as a man who begins shrinking after exposure to a shimmering cloud of radiation, followed by exposure to an insecticide. He faces a media frenzy and new dangers — like the suddenly-enormous family cat — as he continues to shrink, with no cure in sight.
The Wicked Lady (1945), directed by Leslie Arliss
Margaret Lockwood kills it in this crazy story of a noblewoman who, bored with her life, takes to the highway and becomes a thief. Soon, she’s mixed up with a genuine criminal, the infamous Jackson (portrayed by James Mason) — and a competitive, potentially deadly romance follows.
The Breaking Point (1950), directed by Michael Curtiz
I bought this film blind from Criterion, and I’m so glad I did! Adapted from Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, this film stars John Garfield as a fisherman who gets mixed up in crime in an attempt to deal with his family’s financial problems. John Garfield is perfect for this role. But I’ll say no more, as I have a full review coming soon!
Bad Times at the El Royale (2018), directed by Drew Goddard
This film was basically made for me: stylish period piece, kitschy hotel, weird cult plot, Jon Hamm in a suit, AND Cynthia Erivo singing? Yes to everything. It’s nowhere near perfect, but it’s pulpy and beautiful and strange — which is all I wanted from it! I found it incredibly entertaining.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018), directed by Marielle Heller
Lee Israel’s story is fascinating and ooh boy, could I ever relate to her devotion to things no other living being cares about, haha. Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant give spectacular performances — and director Marielle Heller balances comedy and tragedy so perfectly.
The Tattered Wings (1955), directed by Keisuke Kinoshita
Unsurprisingly, as I continued my exploration of Keisuke Kinoshita’s filmography in 2018, I loved everything. The Tattered Wings was my favorite of the bunch. It’s a story of a soldier making a 10-day visit home before being transferred. He reunites with his family — and with the woman he loved before the war, who is soon to enter a miserable marriage. Scandal ensues, but Kinoshita handles it gently and thoughtfully rather than melodramatically.
You can find my full ranking of classic film discoveries from 2018 on Letterboxd. Honorable mentions for a few more of my favorite 2018 releases (listed alphabetically, since I haven’t yet cemented my 2018 ranking/still need to play catch-up on a few titles):
- Crazy Rich Asians
- First Man
- Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again
- Set It Up
- A Simple Favor
- A Quiet Place
- Vox Lux
What were your favorite film discoveries in 2018? Feel free to share in the comments and help me grow my 2019 to-watch list!