The Great Watchlist Purge of 2021: A Mid-Summer Progress Report
I’m at the six month mark in this year’s Great Watchlist Purge, my year-long effort to whittle down the self-imposed cinematic to-do list to something manageable. I started in mid-January with seventy-two films on the list. By mid-April, I had watched twenty-two of them and scrapped four, but had also added fifteen more . . . Heading into the second quarter, I was ahead on the scoreboard but my opponent (a catalogue of old and odd movies) was keeping pace with me.
As spring arrived, I had just over sixty movies in the watchlist and seemed to be running low on options for finding some of them. A good number were available to rent or buy as streaming titles on Prime, YouTube, or Apple TV, a handful were available on DVD from Netflix, but others were off the map, with only the trailer or a clip showing up in searches. At first, accessing something to watch was none too difficult— but it’s getting harder.
One problem I have is that I like indie films, quirky older movies, and cult classics. And by “indie,” I don’t mean corporate-sponsored films dressed up as independents, and by cult classics, I don’t mean The Breakfast Club or Mean Girls. I mean real independent films, really obscure films, the hidden gems . . . Some among those have been very hard to find, like the 1980s African-American dystopian film Born in Flames. Yet, I’ll be honest about one of the challenges in watching these kinds of films: some are either mediocre or just plain bad. The fact is that some films disappear into obscurity for a reason, and sitting through them is . . . well, not enjoyable. But I’m either watching them or scratching them.
As for decades, my list is very 1970s-heavy, so it has been hard to stray too far from the “Purple Decade.” During the first three months, eleven of the twenty-one films I watched were from the ’70s. In the remaining list, twenty-five of the sixty films – nearly half – were made during those years. (The next most prominent decade in this list is the ’80s with thirteen films.) This time, I have watched one from the 1960s, seven from the 1970s, four from the 1980s, two from the 1990s, two from the 2000s, and one from the 2010s.
Here are the seventeen that I’ve checked off the watchlist since mid-April:
Thomasine & Bushrod (1974)
Directed by Gordon Parks, Jr. and billed as a Bonnie & Clyde story, this film is different from most blaxploitation films, which are typically urban and set in the then-modern 1970s. This one is set in out West in the 1910s. Most of the usual blaxploitation scenario is there, though, including an obscenely cheesy love scene and the violent finale.
The Tenant (1976)
I went into this film with a slight prejudice against Roman Polanski, since his only other film that I had seen was The Fearless Vampire Killers, but I was going to give it a chance anyway. The Tenant is a thriller with a strong premise – a guy moves into an apartment that was recently vacated when a young woman committed suicide – though it was slow getting started. The first half-hour was kind of dull, then it begins to become clearer why those mundane facts mattered. The latter half of the film is tormented and bizarre. I had just gotten through watching Persona when I chose to watch this next, so it was odd to watch two identity-switching movies in a row.
This movie wasn’t bad at all. It contained many of the usual blaxploitation elements – afros, mustaches, sideburns, bell bottoms, gaudy wallpaper – but this one was a horror movie instead of a crime-based story. The exorcist was played by William Marshall, who was Blacula. The lead actress Carol Speed was in a bunch of blaxploitation films, like The Mack, Dynamite Brothers, and Disco Godfather. As a horror movie, Abby‘s demon possession wasn’t as scary as The Exorcist, which came out a few years earlier, but it still creeps me out when the demon voice replaces the person’s real voice.
The Magic Garden of Stanley Sweetheart (1970)
As a movie, it was a pretty typical ’60s zeitgeist thing— hippies and nudity and art and “let’s live free,” all that. That was probably pretty cool for the young folks when it was happening, but looking at as a middle-aged man in 2021, it was like, “Yeah, OK, I get it.” I added this to the list when I read that Joe Dallesandro was originally supposed to play Stanley, but he was replaced by a young Don Johnson. Dallesandro’s scowling seriousness would have made this a totally different film than it was with Johnson’s sweet, nice-boy demeanor.
It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books (1988)
Because it was Richard Linklater, I gave this movie more latitude than I would have otherwise. I’m a fan of Slacker, which came out two years after this one and which I saw in the ’90s as a teenage GenXer. I probably would have liked this film too, had I seen it when I was younger, given that it’s basically the semi-romantic wanderings of a lone young man.
The first few minutes of the film are odd and confusing, then the next half-hour is slow and dull, but about midway, the complexity started to show through. The second half is much more interesting than the first half, and the final half-hour is downright complex. I had read that Persona is one that compels multiple viewings, and I can see why. Long before David Lynch made Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, Bergman was doing the identity-switch thing here.
The Black Cat (1989)
This Italian horror film from the late ’80s was terrible — I mean terrible — and I like bad horror movies. The premise is that two filmmakers write a script about a forgotten goddess who then terrorizes the actress who wants to play her in that film. I had to watch an overdubbed version, which didn’t help, but there wasn’t much that could’ve helped this film. It was pretty stupid.
The Borrower (1991)
The movie begins as an alien story, then it becomes an urban action/sci-fi/police drama that centers on a super-killer criminal alien who is exiled to Earth. I think they might have been trying to make something like Terminator. We’ve got early ’90s Rae Dawn Chong, who we don’t hear much about anymore, lots of synth-pop/rock music, and some cheesy special effects. It wasn’t a bad movie, for what it was, but it certainly wasn’t great.
Fantastic Planet (1973)
This one was odd for sure . . . Animated and only about seventy minutes long, the story was a mixture of an anti-colonialist allegory and Terminator, with the whole thing overlain by ’70s porn music. Oh, and it’s in French.
Under Milk Wood (1971)
This was an odd situation. The film that I have in the watchlist is a live-action production starring Richard Burton, Liz Taylor, and Peter O’Toole, but what I got from Netflix’s DVD folks was an animated version with a voiceover by Burton. The version I watched was just under an hour runtime and had interesting animation, but it wasn’t the film I wanted.
This horror/thriller was harder to find, since it’s now listed under alternate title Kiss of the Beast. But when it showed up on Tubi, I got to rewatch it. I was a fan of Twin Peaks and Wild at Heart in the early ’90s, and both Sherilynn Fenn and Charlie Spalding were in this. Both actresses were as beautiful as I remembered, but the film was pretty weak. I remembered it being a decent monster movie, sort of a cross between Beauty and the Beast and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with some Vampire Circus and a twin twist. But, seeing it again thirty years later, it just wasn’t that good. Either my memory failed me or my standards have gotten higher.
Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2010)
The Evil Dead movies set the standard for gory comedies back in the ’80s. That was carried forward by Shaun of the Dead in the early 2000s. So, it was pretty easy to see this one coming. The movie was still pretty funny and might have been a cult classic, if it was a new concept. But it wasn’t.
Paris, Texas (1984)
This was a very, very good movie. Harry Dean Stanton is such a unique actor, and Wim Wenders makes great films. I love slow-spaced indies that allow the characters to be fleshed out and real, with all of the pauses and silences and mundane moments that come with real life. This movie also made me feel like David Lynch had watched it several times before making Wild at Heart. I’m just sorry that I waited so long to watch it.
My image of Charles Bukowski in film will always be Mickey Rourke’s portrayal in Barfly. Here, almost two decades after that movie, Matt Dillon does a good job with Bukowski. He’s got his mannerisms, and the film captures that vignette quality that Bukowski’s books have— this was a good movie. I think the problem here is that the writer’s time has passed. Younger people don’t seem to care about underground counterculture and also get easily offended, both of which would turn someone off to Charles Bukowski.
The Unnamable (1988)
I remembered seeing this movie jacket in the video rental store when I was younger, but it was never interesting enough to rent. I watched it and had the feeling that I’d seen it before, but could be wrong. It’s a classically 1980s horror film: set on a college campus, good looking co-eds, and a gratuitous sex scene, with characters being picked off one-by-one and a final half-hour that is one long violent foray. Not terribly impressive but feathered hair and the often-repeated scenario brought back memories.
Wendy and Lucy (2008)
This movie is very stark. Unfortunately, when I watched it, I wasn’t in the mood for blunt realism, but that’s what I got. Wendy and Lucy is solid portrayal of what happens to people with little cash and few resources who are just trying to get by. The main character gets caught up in a string of unfortunate situations, and it’s hard to watch her struggle.
Hi, Mom! (1970)
Before I started watching Hi, Mom! I thought it looked like a hippie mess. I was right. Brian de Palma made some great movies later – Scarface, The Untouchables, and Carlito’s Way – as did Robert DeNiro of course, but the two young guys were still working out the kinks at this point. It was a lot of rambling dialogue and barely strung together plot.
Lilith’s Awakening (2016)
I added this movie to the list since I typically like these slow-paced films that are categorized as “arthouse/horror,” and I also have an affinity for black-and-white when it’s handle well, like in The Addiction. This one definitely met those expectations, but it also seemed kind of homemade, like it was a film school project. The names were based on Dracula – Harker, Helsing, Renfield – but I didn’t see where there was much connection, since this vampire wandered out of the woods with an acoustic guitar. It also included an identity-switching component, like two other films I watched recently: Persona and The Tenant.
And here are the nine movies that I’ve cut since April. Last time, it was early in the process, so I only cut four. This time, I got more liberal in admitting what I’m probably not going to find or not going to watch.
After watching Hi, Mom! I decided to cut Greetings from the watchlist.
Mountain Cry (2015)
I searched for this movie but couldn’t find any way to watch it. It’s Chinese, and the reviews say that it’s beautifully filmed. Mountain Cry came up in a search of the term “haiku,” so I’m not going to spend any more time trying to find a movie that I don’t really know anything about.
The Vampires of Poverty (1978) and La mansion du Araucaima (1986)
I haven’t been able to find any way to watch these two by director Carlos Mayolo. Films out of Colombia in the late ’70s are a bit out of my wheelhouse anyway, but both look intriguing. Vampires of Poverty is fictional but made to look a documentary about the poor. The latter is about an actress who wanders off a film set and into a weird castle. In both cases, I would need both to find the movie and find ones with subtitles. Maybe one day I’ll run across them.
Mondo Candido (1975)
I read the novel Candide in graduate school and liked it, and I teach it sometimes in my twelfth grade English class. It’s a pretty wild story and could make a good movie. But this adaptation is Italian, and I’ll need subtitles.
Endless Poetry (2016)
Alejandro Jodorowsky is hit-or-miss for me. I liked The Holy Mountain and Santa Sangre but I didn’t finish El Topo. This movie about him is supposed to be done in his very strange style. I cut this one since I could tell that I wasn’t all that interested in watching more Jodorowsky.
Beginner’s Luck (2001) and Tykho Moon (1996)
I had to give up on these two movies, because I don’t believe I can find a way to watch either one. Amazon Prime says that Beginner’s Luck is available on Prime, but I get the message that it is “currently unavailable to watch in your location.” Tykho Moon is a European film based on a Japanese comic book, and I can’t seem to find even a foreign-language version to watch. I hadn’t really been interested in either film, but was mainly interested in Julia Delpy who I’ve liked since seeing Killing Zoe and Before Sunrise in the ’90s.
The Night They Robbed Big Bertha’s (1975)
I wasn’t able to find a way to watch this movie, but on YouTube, there were clips and also reviewers who shared a bit about it. After watching those, I decided that this movie looked so stupid that I was better off not wasting my time on it. My decision was aided by the fact that it has 2.5 stars (out of 10) on IMDb.
There are now twenty-seven films remaining from the original January list, which contained seventy-two. A handful of these are in my Netflix DVD cue, some are available to rent or buy on at least one streaming service, and a few seem pretty elusive.
Though I don’t know much about this movie, it sounds odd, but what caught my attention was that it was filmed in Alabama.
This movie caught my attention, because I am interested in Saint Francis.
Don’t Look Now (1973)
This movie came up as a suggestion after I rated the movie Deep Red. I like suspenseful movies and I like ’70s movies and I like Donald Sutherland, so I put it in the list.
The Panic in Needle Park (1971) and Dusty and Sweets McGee (1971)
These are from the early ’70s and are about hardcore drug users. I’m not sure that I’ll ever watch either of them, but I have them in the list in case I decide to.
In Bruges (2008)
I found this Colin Farrell action story about a hitman, when I was reading something that said it was a great film, and then also came across Bruges Le-Morte in a search when I typed ‘Bruges’ in the search bar to find the first movie.
Haiku Tunnel (2001)
This movie (and Mountain Cry) came up when I searched the term ‘haiku.’ It is an early 2000s indie comedy about doing temp work in an office. I remember it being one of the last GenX zeitgeist films, but coming out a bit too late.
The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1929)
I had never heard of this animated movie before seeing a reference to it on Twitter from an account that was disputing Fantasia‘s designation as the first full-length animated feature film. The clip attached to the tweet was interesting, and I want to see the whole film.
The River Rat (1984)
I found this film when I was trying to figure out what Martha Plimpton had been in. I tend to think of Plimpton as the nerdy friend she played in Goonies, but this one, which is set in Louisiana and has Tommy Lee Jones playing her dad, puts her in a different role.
The Mephisto Waltz (1971)
I’ve read about this movie but never seen it. I must say, the title is great, and it doesn’t hurt that Jacqueline Bisset is beautiful.
Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971)
This horror film came up alongside Deep Red, which I watched not long ago, after I rated two recent horror films: the disturbing Hagazussa and the less-heavy but still creepy Make-Out with Violence. Deep Red was good, so I want to watch this one, too.
Born in Flames (1983)
This movie looks cool but obscure. It’s an early ’80s dystopian film about life after a massive revolution. But it is almost impossible to find, so I was surprised to see a story on NPR about it recently.
Personal Problems (1980)
This one is also pretty obscure – complicated African-American lives in the early ’80s – and came up as a suggestion since I liked Ganja and Hess. The description says “partly improvised,” which means that the characters probably ramble a bit.
My Beautiful Laundrette (1985)
A young Daniel Day Lewis as the boyfriend of a Pakistani guy in England who opens a laundromat. This sounds like one of those quirky ’80s gems that you had to stumble on to know about.
American Splendor (2003)
Paul Giamatti back when he was still an indie film guy, before Sideways. I never did take the time to watch this movie, but I want to.
What the Peeper Saw (1972)
This Italian suspense-horror film is one from the creepy child sub-genre, like The Bad Seed.
A Tree. A Rock. A Cloud (2017)
I love Carson McCullers. That is all.
Smokey and the Outlaw Women (1978)
Even though this movie looks stupid and low budget, it also looks like a great example of mid- to late 1970s Southern kitsch, that goofy comedy sub-genre that spawned Smokey and the Bandit and The Dukes of Hazzard. I had this in the original list with The Night They Robbed Big Bertha’s, which I cut because it looked irredeemably bad.
Pierrot le Fou (1965)
Jean-Luc Godard in the ’60s. I wanted to see this after watching Contempt, with Brigitte Bardot, which was a beautiful and heartbreaking movie. The title means Pierre (or Peter) the madman.
The Devil Rides Out (1968)
Though I like old horror movies, I’m normally not a Christopher Lee fan. This movie is supposed to be better than most of his churned-out vampire movies. We’ll see . . .
Little Fauss and Big Halsey (1970)
Paul Newman movies from the late ’60s and early ’70s are among my all-time favorites. This one came out about the same time as Sometimes A Great Notion. Despite having seen Cool Hand Luke, Hud, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Long, Hot Summer numerous times each, I’d never heard of this movie until a few years ago.
Widespread Panic: Live from the Georgia Theatre (1991) and The Earth Will Swallow You (2002)
How has a guy who loves Widespread Panic never seen either of these early concert films? Ridiculous.
All the Right Noises (1970)
I found this story about a married theater manager who has an affair with a younger woman, when I looked up what movies Olivia Hussey had been in other than Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. It looks a little like Fatal Attraction, like the relationships goes well until it doesn’t.
The Girl Behind the White Picket Fence (2013)
I found this movie in a search for Udo Kier, who I’ve liked since seeing Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein and Dracula when I was in high school. The cinematic style of this one looks pretty cool, as does the story.
I noticed this film since it’s classified as horror, but what interests me more is the visual style of it. I’ve gotten to see clips from House and want to see the whole thing.
All the Colors of the Dark (1972)
I saw this movie in the mid-1980s when the USA Network used to have a program called Saturday Nightmares, which featured an obscure horror movie followed by two half-hour shows like Ray Bradbury Theater or The Twilight Zone. That weird old program turned me on 1960s and ’70s European horror movies, like this is one, Vampire Circus, and The Devil’s Nightmare. I haven’t seen this movie in a long time, but it’s time to rewatch it.
That was the original January list. These the nine films were added between January and April and are still in the list.
This Western came up as a suggestion at the same time as Zachariah. It’s a German Western, so we’ll see . . .
The Blood of a Poet (1930)
Jean Cocteau’s bohemian classic. I remember reading about this film in books that discussed Paris in the early twentieth century, but I never made any effort to watch it. I’m not as interested in European bohemians as I once was, but if the film is good, it won’t matter.
Landscape in the Mist (1988)
This Greek film about two orphans won high praise. I haven’t tried to find a subtitled version yet, it may be out of reach.
Phantom of the Paradise(1974)
I can’t tell what to make of this movie: Phantom of the Opera but with rock n roll in the mid-’70s?
Alone in the Dark (1982)
A good ol’ 1980s horror movie about escapees from an insane asylum. It should be terrible! I can’t wait!
The Hunger (1983)
I’d seen this movie before but thought I’d watch it again— a vampire movie with David Bowie, Catherine Deneuve (from Belle Du Jour), and Susan Sarandon (from Rocky Horror Picture Show).
Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971)
As I’ve already shared, I just like ’70s horror movies. We’ll see if this one is any good.
White Star (1983)
This biopic has Dennis Hopper playing Westbrook. I couldn’t not add it to the list!
The Spider Labyrinth (1988)
One of the reviewers under mentioned this Italian horror/thriller in his review of another movie. He had high praise for it. Once again, we’ll see what happens.
And finally, here are the ones I’ve added since April. I did better this time! During the first three months of the year, I added fifteen movies to watchlist. This time, only six. I went ahead and watched three, which are listed above. Believe it or not, all but one of the additions come not from the 1970s— but from the twenty-first century!
The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (2013)
This French thriller, which came up as a suggestion from All the Colors of the Dark, caught my eye with the wonderful artwork on its cover image. The title is also compelling, and those two factors led me to see what it was. It didn’t hurt that the description contained the phrase “surreal kaleidoscope.”
Frances Ferguson (2019)
This dark comedy looks really funny. It’s about a young female teacher who has gotten in trouble for having sex with a student, so it’s probably something that I (a teacher) shouldn’t find funny. But it looks like a good movie, so . . . whatever.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
This film came to my attention on one of the movie-related accounts that I follow on Twitter. Once I looked on IMDb to see what it is, the first “You Might Also Like” was Let the Right One In, which is a beautifully made vampire movie. Like Lillith’s Awakening, this film is also in black-and-white.