- March was mostly rewatches, and mostly for comfort. I got to show Kat Fargo (1996) and The Wind Rises (2013) for the first time, and The Matrix (1999) for her first time in decades. They helped. A little. But I don’t have much that is new to say about any of them.
- Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears (2020): This was the one new movie we watched together, after much anticipation and delay—we had actually planned to see it in a theater in San Francisco the day we ended up scrambling out. Kat got me into Miss Fisher fandom years ago, and its gentle episodic nature and mildly puzzling setting have been a balm for many ails. The movie is clearly an indulgence for the cast, crew and fans: it does its job of seeing through some long-burning fuses and putting hundreds and hundreds of dollars of special effects up on the screen. But it is pretty much only an indulgence, I’m afraid! Trying to do Budget Indiana Jones while keeping focus on your white characters does not earn you catharsis in 2020.
- 2046 (2004): That was a lot of numbers in a row. When I heard that the sequel to In the Mood for Love (2000) was a science fiction movie, I was pretty excited, and I do like the way this story connected its genres with blurry lines and ambiguity—it feels like the kind of “slipstream” fiction that I associate with Kelly Link and Jonathan Lethem. But its effects and costumes seem chintzy to me in the futuristic sections, enough so that they’re jarring next to the rich, languid way Wong Kar-Wai dresses everyone and everything in his period drama. The rich, languid camerawork is still in welcome supply, though. And it’s a treat to see Zhang Ziyi doing better work than I’ve seen her allowed to do outside Crouching Tiger.
- Funny Girl (1968): Kat requested some Barbra Streisand musicals via my DVD Dot Com subscription, which made me realize that even though I really liked my mom’s Streisand albums at the peak of my theater-kid arc, I had never actually seen one of her movies. I didn’t even know that “People” or “Don’t Rain on My Parade” were from this. I also didn’t know it was long enough to require an actual, on-screen intermission. I enjoyed the simple, straightforward way the story was rooted in Fanny Brice’s Jewish identity, and it amused me how anachronistic Streisand’s costuming later in the film became, when she’s supposed to be glamming it up in the Jazz Age while wearing Day-Glo Mod dresses.
Your Name. aka Kimi no Na wa (2016): A couple years ago, when lo-fi chill hip-hop beats to relax study to 24/7 were starting to hit their stride, I began noticing a particular wistful, hazy-gold anime-style aesthetic emerge in the cover images my Youtube algorithm thought I should click. I took it for a trend in the zeitgeist from outside my usual sphere of awareness—I haven’t watched much anime, and it would have tied right in with the other strains of millennial nostalgia that have been making people lots of money for a few years now. I don’t think I was wrong on either count. But I do now think most of that visual influence came straight from this movie, which turns out to have beaten Spirited Away (2001) for the Japanese box office record. Its character design seemed very standard to me and its color palette is easy to copy, but the detail and effort in its animation are extraordinary, and a delight to watch.
I actually don’t want to tell you anything more than that, if you could see yourself watching it. I don’t usually care about spoilers, but I knew absolutely nothing about this going in and found myself thrilled with discovery as a result. It’s a story about youth in Japan, it’s bittersweet, and seriously, they took on a number of technical animation challenges and nailed them. Maybe I’m a sap for saying this, but on a first watch, this was instant all-time top ten material.
Hi. I relaunched Sext Exchange, my twitter game from 2014, as a game you can play by text message or Whatsapp. I am almost at the point where the source code is cleaned up to release, for once. It’s overengineered for what it does but I’m proud of it. Anyway, email or text me if you want the number. I love you.
Hi, we’re alive and fine. My privilege is as evident as ever, as my daily routine of isolation with Kat resembles what Maria called “an extended snow day,” mostly but not entirely without snow. I hurt for the sick and grieving; I worry for the essential and vulnerable; I watch Bon Appetit and experiment with vegan baking; I do my internet job and I watch out my window and wait. Here are some things that have held my interest in the last little while.
- As mentioned in asides, I read too much about menswear online and off these days. My favorite habit is to bargain-hunt for clothes from Japan on eBay, prance around the living room in them to aggravate Kat, and then secret them away so I can buy more. But the emergent result is that I’ve learned a lot about things I might have disdained ten years ago. I don’t have any special interest in James Bond, for instance, but Matt Spaiser’s blog about the tailoring of the films has taught me a ton about men’s fashion in the last sixty years. His post on how Cary Grant’s suit in North by Northwest (1959) went on to influence Bond’s costuming is a great example of the dry clarity of his writing.
- It seems like I’ve never written about Porpentine Charity Heartscape here before, which is strange, as her work has loomed large in my view and admiration for… seven years? Eight? Her work in writing and game design blends the sweet, the filthy, the transgender and transhuman, the pure and the skin-crawlingly cute in a way I find singular in every sense. If that sentence doesn’t hint at some content warnings, then I hope this one does. But that boundary is very much worth braving if you are so emotionally equipped. Her recent story “Dirty Wi-Fi” on Strange Horizons is a good introduction to her prose and perspective.
Despite my limited dabbling in microelectronics, I can’t follow many of the technical specifics in this review of process and call for aid on a final, perfect Super Nintendo emulator. But the SNES was a system that still informs my design and aesthetic sensibilities, twenty-seven years later, and I respect the author’s work very much. The most striking quote to me:
“I can tell you why this is important to me: it’s my life’s work, and I don’t want to have to say I came this close to finishing without getting the last piece of it right. I’m getting older, and I won’t be around forever. I want this final piece solved.”
What an extraordinary thing it seems, to me, to know what your life’s work is. I hope one day I do.
Movies! Remember them? Sometimes, you’d go into a big room and watch them be huge in the dark.
- Three Days of the Condor (1975): Talking about this movie before I’d finished it, on the phone with Leonard and Sumana, they mentioned it as worth comparing to Mikey and Nicky (1975). That one was a high-profile 70s movie directed by a woman, and this is a high-profile 70s movie directed by a man. They were right: the difference is distinct. I didn’t exactly enjoy Mikey, but it was unflinching. This movie is clever, but its view of human nature is occluded by certain ideas about Men and Heroism, and its camera direction didn’t seem to show much imagination to me. The costuming was really good, though. A lot of fun coats.
Bound (1996): It’s a bit goofy in its atmosphere, but this movie (which I’d never seen before) has so much more visual imagination than almost anything else out there. Even other well-regarded noir! Having viewed The Matrix (1999) through a new (queer) lens also gives me double vision about this one, and not just because a lot of this is clearly practice for that: monochrome wardrobes, overhead pan shots, even some of the exact score cues. It still has the texture of a 90s movie, though, where The Matrix was the first thing I watched that really anticipated the look of the next century. And helped create it, for that matter.
Kat had the insight that if you looked at this film as something created by two men, it must have seemed voyeuristic; knowing that it’s a movie made by two trans lesbian women, its cinematic gaze seems much more like a form of longing.
Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019): Speaking of longing! And visual imagination! I thought this movie was extraordinary, in part because it hit me right at the level of “my very expensive college education has prepared me to interpret this art,” but mostly because it’s just fucking great. I thought the trailer had betrayed its entire plot and was delighted to learn I was wrong. Céline Sciamma demonstrates great command of a lot of particular things that I’ve learned to appreciate in the last year and change. It’s sparing in its use of music (three instances, all diegetic), and its silent long takes aren’t showy, they’re there to give you and the actor the chance to stay with the moment and register its emotion. It uses voiceover only twice, in a way that makes sense, and sets the expectation for its use early so that when it returns it doesn’t kick you out of your immersion. Even its color grading is deft, including some use of the infamous orange and teal that works because this is a movie about fire and the sea.
Kat and I watched this on a double date with friends Morgan and Hannah, and all four of us chatted excitedly over each other on the ride home, trading things we noticed about its stance on absent men and wavering class divisions and its apparent concept of a (white) feminist utopia. It even has a tacit, subtle comment on what it means for someone’s clothes to have pockets. Portrait isn’t perfect, but it’s going to take a lot for anything else to knock it out of the top slot in my movies of the year.
On Thursday, amid rising feelings of unease, Kat and I traveled to San Francisco for a wedding; by Friday we knew it was a mistake, but there we were. It was good to see her family, not least because we finally got to talk wedding plans in person. But we’d planned to fly back Tuesday night after some time touring the Santa Cruz boardwalk and a movie premiere with friends in SF. Instead, we scrambled out on Monday at lunchtime, just ahead of a shelter-in-place recommendation. We both feel fine, though there’s no way to know what damage we have silently transmitted. We’re trying to limit it, going forward, by ceasing social contact for the next two weeks.
The weekend was, as Sumana says, an inflection point, at least in the perception of much of the country and the information we consume. Anyone at ease made me jumpy, and anyone jumpy made me… also jumpy. On Monday, as we tried to fill up our returning rental car, the pump behind us started gushing gasoline onto the concrete. As I ran inside to tell the clerk to shut it off, I expected the world to shrink its shutter angle and go full shakycam. It didn’t; some people yelled at each other and then they cleaned up the mess. We were all fine, but no one was easy. By April I don’t know how much the pace of change will continue to inflect, or how much this will have already settled as an uneasy new normal. Last Thursday my view of the world was different, and Lemon, it’s not even Wednesday.
- Like A Boss (2020): At a contractual-requirement-fulfilling 83 minutes, this film appears to take place inside a Good Place-style neighborhood, where all events and personas revolve around a critical test of the protagonists’ moral character, which I believe they failed.
Little Women (2019): I have no history at all with the story. This took two acts before it got me, but it got me! I think there’s an interesting comparison to make here against Burning (2018), another adaptation with glorious set dressing and costuming that takes a solid 80 minutes to pick up. I got antsy in the first part of this movie and not in that one, and I think it comes down to the fact that Burning gives you so much time to look at things in quiet, and LW has almost every minute heavily scored. Trust your actors’ faces a little more, composer Alexandre Desplat!
That said, the movie does trust its cast in general to convey time jumps and ages without much assistance from CGI or even makeup. I found that interesting, but I admit it got a lot easier to parse the different periods once Saoirse Ronan got her hair cut. Gerwig, at a director Q&A with Mike Leigh, mentioned that they wanted to make the past a little glowy without going all the way into color-coded grading. And if the choices were teal and orange vs creepy de-aging CGI vs “ah fuck it,” then I will take option three.
I found that Q&A by way of a path that started with Kat sending me this New Yorker article about the costuming in the film, which would, not long after that piece was published, win the movie’s sole Oscar. Learning that Gerwig is a huge Mike Leigh fan puts a pretty interesting lens on both Lady Bird (2017) and Frances Ha (2012).
- Carol (2015): I’m going to write steampunk fanfic about this movie. I loved that it put its characters through hard things without sadism, and though the color and grain were pretty consciously presentational at times, finding out afterward about their roots in Saul Leiter’s photography made me feel very fond of it. I don’t know if Sofia Coppola was influenced by Leiter’s work for Lost in Translation (2003), my second-most-problematic fave, but they evoke the same feelings in me.
- High School Musical 2 (2007): I’m told this is the best one.
- Special mention: The Good Place (2016-2020): Hey Leonard and Sumana, do you want to have another phone call about this? I am very interested to discuss how your season-two predictions shook out.
- Fantasia (1940): Rewatch with chemical enhancement, but instead of having some sort of transcendent trip, I ended up really focusing and finding wonder in the interstitial animations. I knew the Nine Old Men (despite the obstacle of the sexism embedded in that nickname) did untouchable work on the fantasy sequences, but I can basically understand how you model, storyboard, keyframe and tween those drawings. I have no idea how they created a character out of a sound wave and drew it, with the technology available to them in the late 1930s. Maybe they rotoscoped an oscilloscope? Did they even have oscilloscopes in 1938?! I’m writing this on an airplane, so I can’t look it up now, and therefore will never know!
- High School Musical (2006): The second film in the Zac Efron Basketball Typecasting Saga. Kat, one of its proponents, could not explain to my satisfaction why—in a movie about hesitating to sing or disagreeing with an individual’s choice to sing—all humans expressed their emotions and plans by singing. There’s a heightened reality to teen movies as a genre, and there’s a heightened reality to musicals, and when they overlap… hmm, as I type this I remember that Kat also loves Josie and the Pussycats (2001), School of Rock (2003), Reefer Madness (2005), and the song and dance sequence in Love, Simon (2018). The puzzle begins to piece itself together…………
- Blindspotting (2018): Now, see, this I was not expecting to be a musical. But I think it is! Specifically, a clipping. musical. From the trailer and reviews, I thought I was in for a street-level psychological thriller about the personal effects of police violence; that’s in here, but it’s also a meditation about masculinity—both fragile and loving—and race and community and women’s ambitions and the aftermath of incarceration and a deep love mixed with sorrow for a gentrifying Oakland. And when its principals’ feelings build up too much, they burst out into rap, which sounds like Hamilton but is not at all like Hamilton, despite starring Daveed Diggs. Hip-hop contains multitudes, and the songs here are not excursions into heightened reality: they’re reflections of how the constraints of men’s roles and their role models carve narrow channels through which they can express things to each other. This wasn’t always an easy movie to watch, but I loved it.
- Candyman (1992): It’s been years since I read the stunning Chicago Reader story that unpacked the origins of this movie, and now I live here, in the birthplace of the Chicago Reader! So I was glad Kat’s roommate Lauren let me join their movie night and watch this. I enjoyed it and also did not think it lived up to its origin. Virginia Madsen and Tony Todd give it their all, though. Interesting trivia: this movie features prominent 90s singer-actor Vanessa Williams, who is not prominent 90s singer-actor Vanessa Williams.
- War Walk: The Star of Sky Riser (2019): You can say this shit, JJ, but you sure can’t write it. I tried to go into this with low expectations, and that might have worked if this hadn’t chosen the working title of Takesy-Backsies: The Motion Picture. There is evidence in this very blog of my strident defense of the quite-bad prequels, but this is the one that broke me. I was a Star Wars fan for twenty-five years. I guess now I’m free!
Do The Right Thing (1989): I started this movie, then watched the above movie, then finished this one; I’m deciding to count this one as “last” so I get to be glad I didn’t end the year on a disappointed note. I’d never seen a Spike Lee joint before! I am aware of criticism of his treatment of women on screen, and it wasn’t hard to see the evidence here: this is a story that ends up saying as much about the hazards of masculinity as it does about race, and I don’t know if that was intentional. But it’s richly photographed and full of great performances. I didn’t know it was Rosie Perez’s first movie! Her work in the opening sequence alone—set to “Fight the Power,” which I also didn’t know was written for this movie—is something that could have fed a full story. But she didn’t get even a slight story of her own here.
After we finished it, Kat pulled up Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” and said “see?!” She was right to recognize it as an influence, and I wonder if it might have been used as a temp track. But the score of the movie (composed by Lee’s father!) is one of its best and strongest choices, lending an old-fashioned expansive feel to a story that takes place in one block on one day.
So the end count for 2019 was something in the hundred and teens; discounting rewatches, I hit exactly 101, which seems appropriate. I don’t think I’ll watch as many movies this year, in part because I want to replace that time with reading a freaking book or two. But I do plan to keep writing little things about the ones I watch, here or on my Letterboxd account. Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you… at the mailbox where I get Netflix DVDs mailed to me now because I gave up on their streaming offerings entirely!
- Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007): This was fine! I laughed most at the running drug gag. Casting Tim Meadows is always going to endear your movie to me, as recently evidenced by Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016), that other music biopic spoof that had way more attention paid to its songs than its composition or editing. I think maybe there’s a sense that when people make a movie along these lines, they feel they have something to prove with the soundtrack but not about the form of the film itself? Or maybe they just realize that people are more likely to get up and walk out during a mediocre song than they are during an indifferent sequence of identically lit shots.
- Parasite (2019): Hbbgngbghghnnhhhhh. Beautiful and intense. I was less scared to watch this (emotionally) than I was of the two Jordan Peele movies I saw this year, and I think I was wrong.
- Charlie’s Angels (2019): The thing about the Fast and Furious movies, which are accreting their own genre as such things do, is that their original unsteady weaving across tone and essence for four films wasn’t a bug, it was a feature. You can’t redeem the ludicrous if you don’t have something to redeem. I can’t blame Elizabeth Banks for wanting to make a Fast and Furious movie, because making a Fast and Furious movie looks fun as hell! And making women the stars rather than the costars is an improvement the FF series would be well served to try out. But even though Kristen Stewart tries her best, this movie doesn’t sell its own stakes, doesn’t engage with its own queer potential, and doesn’t make any sense. It’s hard to win me over without doing at least one.
- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000): Rewatch, for about the forty-first time, because Kat had never seen it. I’d never quite realized what she pointed out afterward: the Young Woman Adventurer genre of late-twentieth-century YA lit, with its cool swords and self-actualization, is what primed me to fall so hard for this movie in the first place. It falls right into place with Tamora Pierce, Robin McKinley, and Cynthia Voigt.
- That Thing You Do! (1996): When I confessed that I was watching this for the first time, the entire population of Peach yelled my name followed by several exclamation marks, in unison. I liked it very much, but I can’t possibly offer a better review than my friend Elisabeth did nine years ago.
- 17 Again (2009): The first of two movies I watched in the span of two weeks in which Zac Efron, at a solid three inches shorter than me, plays a high school basketball star. Considering that there is a concrete number in the title of this film, it really can’t seem to handle the arithmetic of its own plot. Even the film’s own Wikipedia entry can’t consistently decide if Matthew Perry is supposed to be 35 or 37!
Knives Out (2019): Well obviously this was going to be my movie of the year. I’ve been on the RJ train for a few stops now. The thread I’m starting to see through most of Johnson’s movies is a desire to challenge his audience within the bounds of genre, because he likes surprises and he likes genre. Given the opportunity, he’ll subvert your expectations about plot rather than transgressing or calling out the bounds of the category; he challenges himself to offer perspective on the rules of the story without breaking them. “No deconstruction” is maybe his core constraint. Knives Out, even though it switches genres each time there’s an act break, is still very much an Agatha Christie-style mystery made by someone who loves Agatha Christie and wants to do right by her memory.
The other thing Johnson has to do every time is include one thing just to fuck with me. Here I am in an April flashback, grumbling tipsily into my telephone…
… about exactly the accent Daniel Craig sports for the entirety of this film. The thing is, I know Daniel Craig can do a believable American regional accent, because his West Virginia twang in Logan Lucky (2017) was solid! That makes the grievous offense of Benoit Blanc even more baffling.
I have only one operating theory about what led to this dialectic horror, and it’s not a strong one, but I like it anyway. If Blanc has a manner of speaking that… mostly… equates to a Louisiana drawl, and has a French name, it hints that his ancestors were Acadian: descendants of European colonists and indigenous people who were deported from their homes in a cruel forced migration, but into the United States, rather than out. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that this would draw a subtle line between Craig’s Blanc and Ana de Armas’s Marta Cabrera.
No Retreat, No Surrender (1986): An awful movie and the centerpiece of one of my favorite nights this year. I’ve had a fondness for Mystery Science Theater 3000 since I first became aware of it, back in the Comedy Channel days, but I was never a dedicated fan until late 2018. That’s when I started relying on marijuana and puppet wisecracks to deal with the loneliness and insomnia that came with the fourth year of my long-distance relationship.
There is a younger version of Brendan—one to whom this very blog regrettably attests—who would have some choice words for a self who turned to substances for emotional problems. Present Brendan has more than a few choice words for that guy in return. But there’s no need to start 2020 by airing our dirty laundry. The point is, I had a temporary problem with making the time when I felt down pass in a more pleasant way, and I am glad the law and some remarkably cheerful sales experts allowed me to solve it. It worked! And now I live in Chicago and I get to sleep safe-and-soundly next to my fiancée every night.
The hitch was that my very first experience with THC, years ago, had put me off it for most of the intervening period, because it made time pass much more slowly. I had never experienced chemically induced time dilation—except anesthesia, I guess—and even now that I’m more seasoned it can still wig me out.
And then I discovered the solution to my solution’s problem: the steady schedule of the Satellite of Love is the gentlest way to reassure oneself that time continues to pass, at both the hourly and the yearly scale. I watched a lot of MST3K while hovering gently above my couch, and it helped relieve my brain of the duty of relitigating the 2016 election when I woke up to pee at 3 am. It doesn’t hurt that I can now relate to the idea of making bots as an isolation coping mechanism.
All of which is to say that I count myself a devoted if not expert fan of the series these days and it was a happy coincidence that their live show came through Milwaukee the week after I arrived in Chicago.
It was pretty perfect. The only TV diasporant aboard was Joel, and this was purportedly his last live tour, but there was some good video action from Mary Jo Pehl and Rebecca Hanson, and I liked the rest of the cast very much. There were welcome surprises in the fictional basis of the show, too, like (spoilers!) GPC succeeding Gypsy so nobody has to say a word that hurts people anymore, and the hint that Emily Marsh (as Emily Crenshaw) might succeed Jonah Ray as host.
If I counted all the episodes of MST3K as “movies” in my list this year, it would be a lot longer, but also inaccurate because I invariably drift off before it ends. But this one got my full attention—and sobriety, as I had to drive to Milwaukee and back that night—and I was rewarded for it. It’s a different, effervescent, and engaging experience to be present in the room where it happens. I say that like I’m surprised about it even though I got a degree in live theater.
All right, sorry for being a pothead who talks about his cult basic cable entertainment for like eight paragraphs. One thing that dovetails with this entry is that I’ve noticed my favorite jokes in MST3K aren’t of the “insert a line” or “compare unexpected reference” variety—they’re the wry or exasperated bits pointing out fundamental filmmaking mistakes. Bonus points if Crow name-checks Roger Corman in a way that almost sounds fond.
Okay! It’s 2020 now and the world is frightening but it’s not allowed to go anywhere until I finish writing up my December post! Tune in very soon to find out the truth: did Brendan complete his goal of watching a hundred movies this year? A sentence in your near future will reveal the answer! Yes! Was that extra emphasis or a spoiler? Tune in very soon to find out the truth: wait I already said that!