Highlights of the TCM Film Festival 2021

Every year Turner Classic Movies hosts one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world under the bright lights and glamour of Hollywood. But thanks to the Global Bastard for a second year in a row the network hosted the TCM Film Festival through virtual means. This year cinephiles could catch all of the wonderful screenings and panels from either the traditional TCM channel or streaming through HBO Max. This means instead of spending a fortune and flying to California I could enjoy one of the best film festivals on the planet from the comfort of my couch in Memphis. Last year they threw the virtual festival together at the last minute, but this year the people at Turner Classic had the time and resources to give movie lovers something truly remarkable and here are some of the highlights.

West Side Story 60th Anniversary Cast Reunion: Robert Wise’s classic musical kicked off the TCM Film Festival this year as it celebrated six decades. On hand to help with the festivities were stars Rita Moreno, George Chakiris and Russ Tamblyn who gave fans a firsthand perspective on what it was like working on this masterpiece. This beloved spin on Romeo and Juliet is still just as fun and catchy as it was when it was released.

Mean Streets with intro by Martin Scorsese: Today films like Goodfellas, Raging Bull, The Aviator, The Departed and countless other have solidified Martin Scorsese as one of the greatest filmmakers in history. Despite this, the famed director has not forgotten his roots, that it all started with a low budget crime flick in 1973. In 2021, the Oscar winner got to remind cinephiles of just how good it was. Scorsese himself provided a brand new intro to the movie which helped launch the careers of not only himself but many of his frequent collaborators.

SF Sketchfest Presents Plan 9 From Outer Space Table Read: The disasterpiece which earned writer/director/producer Ed Wood his place of infamy in pop culture received a salute. An embarrassment of comic riches consisting of: Oscar Nunez, Bobcat Goldthwait, Bob Odenkirk, Laraine Newman, Jonah Ray, Baron Vaughn, Janet Varney, David Koechner, Maria Bamford, Paul F. Tompkins, Gary Anthony Williams, and Kat Aagesen, came together via Zoom to present a live reading of the screenplay of the Worst Movie Ever Made. Striking the perfect balance of comedic jabs while still being respectful of this cult classic made this a hilarious experience.

TCM Slumberground presents Grease 2: Every Friday, the TCM Slumberground team take to Youtube to discuss whatever cult film will be shown that week on the late night TCM Underground block. But at the TCM Film Festival the Slumbergrounders claimed a primetime slot and took fans to Rydell High for Grease….2!!!! While Grease 2 has a reputation as a much maligned sequel to a classic, there are plenty (me included) who love this flick even more than the original. Complete with catchy tunes and Michelle Pfeiffer naturally being a treasure if you have not seen this movie do yourself a favor and fix that.

Discoveries: As mentioned previously HBO Max gave the TCM Film Festival a whole new venue to utilize in 2021. One of the categories subscribers to the service got was Discoveries which shined a spotlight on a number of incredible films which deserve far more respect. This includes content like: Agnes Varda’s French New Wave masterpiece Cleo From 5 to 7, the 80’s punk rock documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, the underrated Humphrey Bogart vehicle Chain Lightning, a Jimmy Stewart drama about the rise of the Third Reich in The Mortal Storm, and what is hands down my personal favorite musical of all-time Once.

By Powell and Pressburger: No discussion about the history of British cinema would be complete without highlighting the accomplishments of duo Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Throughout the 1940’s they pioneered what was possible in the art of filmmaking by crafting some of the greatest movies in history. Under the HBO Max portion of the virtual festival we get not only many of the classics from Black Narcissus to The Red Shoes but also the documentary Remembering Powell and Pressburger chronicling their rise, fall, and revival.

Tex Avery: The King of Cartoons: When it comes to animation during the 1940’s, cartoonist Tex Avery singlehandedly revolutionized the art form. Contrasting the more prestigious cartoons being made by the likes of Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks, Avery gave audiences zany slapstick cartoons filled with madcap lunacy. At Warner Bros. he was one of the key talents involved in creating the Looney Tunes. Upon going to MGM, Tex Avery was allowed to cut loose and really flex his creative muscles. Fittingly airing on Saturday morning, the documentary Tex Avery: The King of Cartoons chronicles the life and career of this legendary talent.

Princess Tam Tam world premier: Singer, dancer, actress, artist, and civil rights activist Josephine Baker was not only one of the greatest entertainers of the early twentieth century, bust also broke down many color barriers in her way. In 1935 Baker starred in the French film Princess Tam Tam where she played a woman in Tunisia who is introduced to high society in Paris. Unfortunately despite her star power, a film featuring an African American woman as its star could not get past censors and aside from a single New York screening it was never shown in the US and eventually faded from memory. But this year, archivist rediscovered this film and gave it a solid restoration. Taking advantage of the virtual nature of this year’s film festival Princess Tam Tam was screened on television for the first time anywhere in the world,

The LA Rebellion: Another collection of films available under the HBO Max section shined a spotlight on the African American independent directors who emerged from UCLA starting in the 1960’s and going through the 1990’s. These brilliant and inventive filmmakers were game changers when it came to Black Cinema and their influence is still felt today. This collection includes the films Daughters of the Dust, Bless Their Little Hearts and To Sleep With Anger. In addition to this, TCM host and University of Chicago scholar Jacqueline Stewart sits down with directors Billy Woodberry and Charles Burnett about what it was like to be part of this movement.

They Won’t Believe Me restored: After being mentored by Alfred Hitchcock, Joan Harrison set out to carve her own path in the movie business as one of only two female producers during this era. One such film she spearheaded was the clever film noir They Won’t Believe Me. This film features an homme fatale rather than the traditional femme fatale, manipulating three women until it all comes back to get him. Sadly it was cut to ribbons by studio suits to make it a B-picture release where it faded to obscurity. But at this year’s film festival, Film Noir Foundation founder and Noir Alley host Eddie Muller had the privilege of introducing They Won’t Believe for the first time digitally remastered and with the 15 minutes originally edited out restored.

So This is Paris remastered: On the final night of the virtual festival Turner Classic screened an incredibly rare silent film directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Thanks to some incredible restoration work, this 95 year old film has never looked better allowing audiences to truly take in the dazzling visual language of Lubitsch’s work. This flick features all of the sexy coolness the legendary director is famed for as we see a doctor fall for a dancer, while his wife falls for the dancer’s partner. Not only did So This is Paris look incredible in this screening, but also benefitted from a new score from composer Ben Model.