- The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006): Second in a series of “bittersweet, moving anime movies about adolescent feelings as crystallized through a speculative fiction device which I watched with Kat and her friends Courtney and Kailey, which activity has delivered some of my favorite moments in the last few months.” Not quite the technical or emotional haymaker of Your Name. (2016), but why only compare it to the first movie in the series of “bittersweet, moving anime movies about adolescent feelings as crystallized through a speculative fiction device which I watched with Kat and her friends Courtney and Kailey, which activity has delivered some of my favorite moments in the last few months?” I wish I’d known about this movie a decade ago, when it became clear that the entire genre of Teen Movies had given way to the juggernaut of Young Adult Adaptations—two ways of telling a story with the same target audience but very different ways of getting there. I think this story draws a bridge between those approaches pretty well. The animation style is interesting: I’d bet it made heavy use of rotoscoping, there’s some frame-stretching every time they go to slow-mo, and the lighting on most of the characters is quite flat, all of which are ways to save money in production. But assuming that was a budget decision, I think it was a smart one, because it looks more stylized than cheap.
- A Whisker Away (2020): See this is what I was talking about with “a particular wistful, hazy-gold anime-style aesthetic” back in my review of Your Name. Third in a series of “bittersweet, moving anime movies about adolescent feelings as crystallized through a speculative fiction device which I watched with Kat and her friends Courtney and Kailey, which activity has delivered some of my favorite moments in the last few months” but also the one that skews youngest—more a middle grade story than a YA story, if that makes sense. It didn’t get me quite as much as the others, and I had some difficulty tracking the pace of events, but the plot threw me some good curveballs! I wish it had been distributed under a direct translation of its Japanese title, Wanting to Cry, I Pretend to Be a Cat.
- Cowboy Bebop: The Movie (2001): Same animation-watching crew, same country of origin, but quite different otherwise. Kat led me through the entirety of Cowboy Bebop: The Series back in the spring, a formative influence on her and on many of my friends which I’d never glanced at before. I liked it very much and I wish I’d watched it sooner, and yes, yes, Lisa et al, you were right to pester me about it. That said, I’m glad I got to watch this outside the context of its original release in September of 2001.
The movie amounts to an extra-long episode of the series with more money involved, and since it came out after the series ended—and was set partway through its chronology—it’s quite episodic. I was glad of the chance to hang out with all the characters again after the series conclusion, but that separation flattened its emotional impact. My least favorite TV trope is when the writers introduce their new OC, demand that we get emotionally involved in their story by having the whole recurring cast just react to them, and then heap pathos on whatever happens to them, from which we learn nothing about the main cast, and after which the guest is never mentioned again. It’s not exactly a Mary Sue—just a boring device that is invariably going to happen when you’re a writers’ room working on an episodic show. (This also happens a lot when you’re playing a tabletop RPG with the kind of DM who’s more interested in telling their own story than hearing yours.)
Anyway, this movie isn’t that, but its place in the canon means it can’t quite avoid touching the trope with one toe. But I had a great time watching it! The fight animation looks great, the backgrounds have a beautiful depth, and I got to hear Kat clap and cackle when Spike says “I love the kind of woman that can kick my ass.”
- To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995): Mmmaybe the first film focused on queer characters that I watched? Much like Paris is Burning (1990)—from which I’d bet it directly lifted its opening scene—it now seems clear that there is a missed opportunity here; RuPaul is the only actual drag queen with a (brief) speaking role. But I was glad to learn from this touching retrospective on how the film got made that its creation included and involved gay people, at least. And because of that I think it holds up pretty well. Mitch Kohn writes “the film itself may not have sparked much if any social change,” and indeed I don’t know about “sparked.” But it’s in part because of this movie that I grew up in small-town Kentucky perceiving drag as something fun and attractive, not menacing. I’m grateful for that, and fond of this.
- Notting Hill (1999): Caroline Siede’s AV Club series on romantic comedies, one per year, has been reliably great and insightful; after reading the linked article about Notting Hill I found myself nostalgic and talked Kat into watching it with me. She had never seen it; I remembered it fondly, but unlike To Wong Foo, the surface sheen is gone for me here.
During my most intense phase of teenage longing for heartache fiction, I was ready to project a lot of subtlety onto work that didn’t actually have much to offer. Even a few years later, I had figured out that ridiculous movies like In Love and War (1996) or Bed of Roses (1996) were not worth the feelings I had assigned to them—though While You Were Sleeping (1995) is still one for the ages. I don’t think WYWS is shot remarkably better than Notting Hill—though it does have a better score—and I don’t think Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts lack for chemistry and charm.
But one of a few things that has happened between my initial viewing of Notting Hill and the present day is that its writer, Richard Curtis, directed Love Actually (2003), which I have been made to watch several times and which I dislike more with each repetition. The similarities in stagy dialogue and artificial stakes are obvious now, and are more than enough to sink this movie for me. Its bravura long take introduced me to Bill Withers, though, once upon a time, and it is one bit that’s still worth watching.
- Shaolin and Wu Tang (1983): Man, it has been a very long time since I wrote about movies! One thing I started doing back in May is subscribing to a series of live-streamed movies through 36 Cinema, which is a spinoff from 36 Chambers, which as you might guess is a Wu-Tang production—specifically, one created by RZA and a startup marketing dude named Mustafa Shaikh. A link to the livestream costs ten bucks, but you’re not just watching the movie, you’re listening to live commentary from a couple of charming experts. For the first few, that was RZA himself, accompanied by Dan Halsted! You probably don’t know who that is, but he has made cameos in movie roundups of days past, because he’s the guy with the huge celluloid collection who programs and presents Kung Fu Movie Night at the Hollywood Theater in Portland.
I found this combination irresistible: two nerds who not only have decades of history with the genre, but have done a lot of work in their respective ways to honor it and introduce it to new audiences. They named appearances by veteran actors and talked about production history; Dan told stories about finding stacks of film reels in disused auditoriums and RZA pointed out different styles of kung fu in action. I learned a lot! Despite that, my full notes on the film read as follows: “this movie rules.”
- Shogun Assassin (1980): Same situation as above, except this time my notes read, in toto, “this movie rules so hard.” It actually comprises the opening of one Lone Wolf And Cub movie and the remainder of another in the same series, but it works really well! (And it was originally distributed by Roger Corman!) Because it’s a samurai movie, of course, not a kung fu movie, there’s lots of standing still while blood fountains out of people rather than intricately matching choreography. I never got into Lone Wolf or any of its various adaptations—I have a hard time with impassive, impenetrable protagonists, inasmuch as Ogami functions as a protagonist at all. But the use of film as a medium—composition, color grading, bold editing, even vignetting—is superb.
- 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.
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.
- 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!
Girlfight (2000): Beating out Gimme The Loot (2012) for the title of “oldest cheap indie movie about hard-luck kids of color in the outer boroughs getting into scrapes, anchored by a charismatic young woman lead, which I have been vaguely meaning to watch since seeing something about it a long time ago,” I’m pretty sure I saw the trailer for this before watching The Way of the Gun (2000) with Jon and Ken in college. And then in 2019 I biked around the corner and rented it! Hail and farewell, Movie Madness!
I don’t know if I’d exactly recommend it but I really enjoyed it, because of who I am as a person, and because this is a movie someone really wanted to make with care and effort. It doesn’t escape the borders of the novice-boxer story template—it even has a love interest named Adrian—nor does it do justice to its side thread about family, domestic abuse and grief. And there’s a queerness that’s trying really hard to squeeze in around the edges of the whole thing, which the movie should have opened up to, and didn’t.
But man, Michelle Rodriguez is one of the most magnetic screen performers on Earth, and gambling on her really paid off here. It was not only her first starring role, it was her first acting job ever! She’s perfect for it. There are some great character actors in here too; I immediately recognized Paul Calderón, who plays her dad, from his scene theft in Out of Sight (1998).
The Ice Storm (1998): I act like I’m a big Ang Lee fan, but the numbers say that I’ve seen two of his movies (Eat Drink Man Woman  and The Incredible Hulk ) once each and one of them (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon ) like forty times. Having now finally watched this, his most heavily cast-stacked movie and among the most heavily so stacked movies ever, I think I can say: I still like Ang Lee, though I have little interest in his newer work. I still like Kevin Kline, too, who’s not exactly the lead but does really get to put his particular gift to use: he can convey masculine hollowness and fragility with unusual dimension, and with what seems like personal humility.
Watching this beautifully made film made me a little depressed, because it uses its distance from a particular time and age cohort to be excoriating about the failures its subjects were too arrogant or afraid to anticipate. “Wow, what a huge failure that I did not see coming” is a consistent theme of my own reflective writing, so you can see how I might project a bit there. Anyway most of the clothes were accurately awful but I’d still wear everything Tobey Maguire does.
The Driver (1978): Watched while packing, which I think was a good choice. This is a movie where a man drives and is cool, and another man is mad about it. You can feel free to look at the boxes you’re packing during the driving/mad parts. I picked it up because I’d heard it referenced as an influence on Drive (2010), which I still love; I can see the connection now, but its plot was quite different, and actually a bit closer to that of Baby Driver (2017). With regard to that, I’m not sure if this is a deliberate Easter egg or not: in this movie, the protagonist (credited The Driver) and another character named The Kid are enemies. But in Drive, the protagonist goes by both those names.
The World’s End (2013): Speaking of Baby Driver, I watched this while packing too. It was the only Edgar Wright movie I hadn’t seen. There’s some meat here in terms of an attempt to thematically unify the three Cornetto movies, and a potential rabbit hole to go down about the influence they bear from the Hitchhiker’s Guide trilogy: the latter arose from an idea Douglas Adams had about finding a new way to destroy the world on the radio every week, and each Cornetto movie is about British culture in confrontation with the destruction of a way of life. But back at the beginning of that sentence when I said “meat,” I backspaced over “interesting stuff,” because I myself don’t find it that interesting and I couldn’t relate to this movie very much. It’s a nadir for Wright’s narrative space for women and I really don’t care about aggressive masculine drinking as an activity. I did at least enjoy being able to trace Wright’s technical advancement across the movies, because he really is getting more deft with each film. But oh boy, does the climax play differently after a certain 2016 referendum than it did before.
Avengers: Endgame (2019): I don’t have anything new to say here, I’m just glancing at an emergent theme among “put this on while packing” movies and then looking at myself a bit askance.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002): Watched with Kat, AFTER a round of packing. I’d never seen it before, as it came out after I’d given up on romantic comedies, and it was very sweet. It reminded me a lot of While You Were Sleeping (1995), the pinnacle of the genre, and not just in its Chicago setting! This is kind of about what that movie would have seemed like from the perspective of Bill Pullman’s character, in terms of the weight a large family brings to a budding relationship. In fact, this one plays a structural game with the genre: there’s no real will-they-won’t-they between the protagonist and the romantic interest, because all the plot tension is about whether she and her family will compromise for each other in the end.
Anyway I liked it very much, but man, the editing of this movie is the goofiest part. It seemed at times like someone had just installed their first copy of Final Cut and wanted to try out every cut-transition effect in alphabetical order.
Grandmother’s Gold (2018): The first movie I watched as a resident of Chicago! Last year Kat introduced me to the extraordinary web series The Gay and Wondrous Life of Caleb Gallo, a delirious expression of pure auteur vision that an old tumblr friend described as “millennial opera.” That rings completely true while also underselling how weird and funny it is. Its creator, Brian Jordan Alvarez, has made many other videos, including a couple of negative-budget features like this one.
The best part of the movie is that it’s mundane sci-fi about technological regression, which then sideslips into cosmological fantasy, all done in a blithe and goofy way. And the fact that it’s YouTube-exclusive leads to an interesting emergent property: Alvarez can put all the famous pop music he wants on his movie’s soundtrack without paying for it, and lean on the platform’s licensing to keep from getting sued or taken down. Overall this is a project for diehard fans, though.
- Pokémon Detective Pikachu (2019): Watched with Kat under certain influences, which was not a bad way to do it. I do not recommend this movie if matters like “the scale and logic of these events and creatures makes no sense” will bother you, but it has fun with itself, and in all honesty, I thought it executed on its premise with some similar notes but better than A Wrinkle in Time (2018).
- Duck Butter (2018): Also watched with Kat, who avowed that it was a decent depiction of lesbian dating on fast forward. It’s a very sexy (and also frank-to-the-point-of-unsexy) movie, and I enjoyed it! I got a little tired of the handheld camera and lens flare, a very pretty aesthetic that I prefer in measured doses. It’s always a treat to see Alia Shawkat and Mae Whitman hanging out, though. In what was either a goof or a very goofy in-joke, Kumail Nanjiani has a tiny role as an actor listed in the credits as “Jake” who… I think in the movie… then played a character named Kumail?
- Magic Mike XXL (2015): Rewatch, and in a proper ecstatic group setting, for this is holy writ.
- Bringing Up Baby (1938): Another movie I cannot recommend if “the logic of these creatures and events” etc etc, and I found it hard to buy any real chemistry between noted iconic beautiful bisexual people Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. Also there’s a scene between an actual terrier and an actual leopard that I cannot imagine the forerunners of the ASPCA were happy about. Not my favorite screwball or my favorite Grant, though I did enjoy how much he looked like a 21st-century avant-garde fashion icon in the scene where he’s running around in jodhpurs and tails.
- Mikey and Nicky (1976): Now, see, THERE is the darkness I could feel trying to creep in the seams of A New Leaf (1971). I can’t say I enjoyed watching a number of these scenes—the sexual coercion, physical abuse and race-baiting by the title characters is a hell of a choice to make—but then, this is a movie whose tagline was “don’t expect to like ’em.” Indeed I did not, tagline! But I did like seeing that May’s technical directing had advanced to a striking degree in the years between her first film and her third. The mini-doc on its creation on the Criterion disc stressed again and again that despite the fluid, improvised feeling of the rapport between John Cassavetes and Peter Falk (and May’s own background in improv), every line between them was in May’s script, and even their spontaneous interactions were under her direction. That is impressive, and almost as impressive is the story about how May got fired from her own movie but (saith Wikipedia) “succeeded in getting herself rehired by hiding two reels of the negative until the studio gave in.” I have no desire to watch this movie again, but if I had to choose between it and the following entry, I’d take this one.
Being There (1979): Man, this movie. It’s beautifully photographed and well acted and it’s not for me. I posted on Peach (yes, Peach) after I watched it that it seemed like the most old-school Republican movie I had ever seen, and got immediately questioned on that by my movie-watching friends. I will concede that director Hal Ashby and star Peter Sellers were by no means conservative voters. I didn’t miss the satire of the political and media classes woven through it, which I am certain would later influence Armando Iannucci: the shallow characters’ hunger for a novel face and twistable platitudes, and their projection of political guile or sexual prowess onto the blank canvas of a simple man.
But the shape of the actual narrative is at odds with that intent. The protagonist—well, the focus character, this movie has no protagonist—is simultaneously a naif and a cypher who spends exactly one day outside the lap of megawealth in his life. But he’s not an antihero, and the camera loves him. A lot of the plot is taken up with mourning the passing of Melvyn Douglas’s titan of industry, and the mourning is impossible for me not to read as genuine! I think that in 1979, before Reagan, this movie would have carried a lot of nostalgia for an era of bipartisan harmony between rich white men. I placed it next to the preceding movie because I think “don’t expect to like ’em” applies again for me here. The suits Sellers wears here have aged beautifully, but that central takeaway has not.
- Enter the Dragon (1973): Rewatch, as the conclusion to the Portland Intermittent Hong Kong Kung Fu Movie Club. When I last watched it in 2012, I was struck by how directly some of my old favorite nineties movies had lifted its scenes or sequences; this time I was struck by what a joy seems present behind the frame, despite the grim attitude of its story and its central character. In this case, neither all of the movie’s scenes nor all of its suits have aged well, but the sense that they knew they were making something special here persists.
Burning (2018): This is an adaptation of a Murakami short story, and I’m not particularly a Murakami fan; it is also a thriller that takes a solid eighty minutes—the length of some entire feature films—before the plot gets going. The full movie is 148 minutes long! But I was interested enough in the costuming and set dressing, which are meticulous and subtle, to stick with it and enjoy it. The core cast is fantastic, particularly Steven Yeun, and I was very glad that the frequently absent score kept from hammering home any of its ambiguous points.
For another take on Murakami that I really enjoyed, which does use music but lets you interpret the visuals, I recommend LeVar Burton reading “The Second Bakery Attack.”
- A Room with a View (1985): I’m pretty sure this is the first Merchant Ivory production I’ve watched, and I only sort of liked it. I have seen few movies about such a trivial and silly cast of characters, which is maybe part of the point, but I appreciated Maggie Smith and Judi Dench and Daniel Day-Lewis bringing some deft and unspoken dimension to their stock types. I was going to say “understated” there but then I backspaced over it because, you know, Daniel Day-Lewis. This movie has great costumes and some of the shots are just gorgeously composed, especially in the first act! But as far as rich people having flings in Italy go, I prefer The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999). I don’t know why I’m imagining being forced to choose between movies so many times in this roundup. Maybe because I’m writing this during my last week of opportunity to get things from Movie Madness?
- North by Northwest (1959): I don’t know if you’ve heard of this movie, but it’s pretty good. I didn’t enjoy Mad Men very much, but I think if I’d been familiar with Cary Grant’s character here, I might have felt a little more fondness for it. The thrill of a grasped reference goes both ways, too: when Hitchcock lingered on a long shot of Grant blinking down an empty stretch of road, I got to hammer my thigh and go “plane! plane! plane!” with great glee.
Speaking of a long journey that involves both Mount Rushmore and Chicago, this is the last roundup I will begin drafting in Portland! I am on track to get pretty few movies on the list in October, but I am hoping to follow this with at least one entry like those from my original road trip out west eleven and a half absurd years ago.
Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (2019): A motion picture I can only describe, and I apologize for this, as “nut-slammingly stupid.” It’s the Michael Scarn ripoff of itself. It’s as fascistic as a third-grader’s hypermasculine playground fantasy, lacking even the level of self-reflection I can credit to Predator (1989), and nudely calculated for maximum financial return; the frame might as well be stamped at the bottom with A SIGNIFICANT PROFIT SHARE BROUGHT TO YOU BY DWAYNE JOHNSON’S SEVEN BUCKS PRODUCTIONS®. Plus there’s an early set piece where the characters triumphantly pull off the exact same stunt that kills Johnson’s character in The Other Guys (2010).
I cannot justify why I paid first-run ticket price to see this movie, except that of course I did, it has “Fast” and/or “Furious” in the title. It does not live up to the best of its parents, but there are moments in the third act when Johnson’s proclivities almost transcend their setting. I can get behind inserting tough matriarchs and a badass Siva Tau into every movie you make! But nothing else here rises above the cash-extracting function of a boot stamping on a human testicle forever.
Gimme the Loot (2012): I cannot remember to take last night’s leftovers out of the fridge for lunch most days, but I skimmed a review of this mildly buzzy indie film before Barack Obama was reelected and my brain has been bothering me about seeing it ever since. So I biked around the corner and rented it! Thanks, Movie Madness.
Recommended, if not revelatory, especially if you like stories about graffiti dorks. Tashiana Washington (as Sophia) is a standout, and I appreciated that the director relied on her charisma without sexualizing her. This is the kind of movie where the characters’ schemes are well awry before they are even conceived, much less executed, and I sometimes have a hard time with that! I enjoy a bale of haywire, and it’s one thing if I don’t feel sympathy for the schemers—eg my delight in anticipating disaster on Arrested Development—but when I can guess how things are going to go and have to wait and wait for the characters to get there and feel bad, I end up wanting to crawl out of my skin. It’s like Leonard’s zap zap zap on the scale of ten minutes instead of two. Anyway this movie toes that line a little but pulls it out.
High and Low (1963): This was a pretty nuts-and-boltsy, unshowy police procedural with all its emotional fireworks loaded front and back. I continue to enjoy the sheer execution of Kurosawa’s movies and I will once again show you a photograph I took of my television to illustrate why.
There are like fifty people in this shot. When I look at it, my eyes jump to four or five of them: the man in sunglasses in the foreground, plus the two men on the left and the two men in captains’ hats on the right watching him (the suspect and the cops following him, respectively). One of the boat hat dudes has his face partially covered and one might not parse him at first, but the gist of “here’s our guy and here’s his tail” comes across immediately. The effect is even more pronounced when it’s moving instead of still.
Some of this is angle work and blocking, because the eye tends to look at people with their full faces turned toward you. Some of it is lighting—most of the other people have shadowed faces, and theirs are subtly spotlit. That must have been fucking complicated, but I can at least imagine how you’d do it.
What took me days to figure out is the focus. All of those guys are nice and crisp, in their various positions, so the depth of field isn’t super tight. There are some people way in the back who are blurry, and that makes sense too. But then there are people like the dancer in sunglasses just above the boat hats. He’s blurry, and he’s closer to the lens than the cop in the Hawaiian shirt. That does not make physical sense! Lenses do not work that way! In 2019 this would be trivial to throw at a computer, but there was no cheating in 1963.
I finally determined that they didn’t do selective lens-smearing or tilt-shift or rear projection or anything like that—they just hung a super thin scrim between those mirrored columns, pulling out an old theater trick to subtly dial down the contrast and focus and brightness in the back. That must have made the lighting even more complicated, because you have to light a scrim from an angle to get that gauzy effect, but they did it and it worked! All because Kurosawa (and his cinematographers, Asakazu Nakai and Takao Saitô) cared about making this shot read fast and well.
- The Invincible Armour (1977): This is a classic martial arts movie that uses shots of an egg exploding in a closed fist to illustrate the destruction of a man’s scrotum. Kind of dismayed at the theme emerging this month.
- Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005): This is a funny one. I never watched it because I bore it a grudge when it came out; I was still mad about the cancellation of a 90s Scott Bakula-Maria Bello tv show of the same name and similar concept, which my family fervently loved (and which does not hold up to a rewatch). The movie turns out to be quite stylish and slickly executed—once again, exactly what I should learn to expect from Doug Liman—but it’s supposed to have two protagonists and instead has zero. I think it’s trying to react to the idea promulgated in many, many movies that upper-middle-class suburban life is a decaying illusion by asserting that, no, Crate & Barrel heterosexuality is cool and rad, sunglasses emoji? I did not find its argument compelling.
- The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999): Whereas this movie about sociopathic romance I found very compelling indeed. I rented it for the costuming (because, sigh, I have been reading too many blogs about menswear) and was surprised at how erotic I found it, including but not limited to the part where Jude Law gets his dick out. The cast is full of ringers, the costuming is indeed incredible, and I loved how the lighting moves from deliciously sun-drenched to deliciously lurid. I haven’t read the original Patricia Highsmith book, but now I want to; if it’s also about the murderous violence of the closet and the way it twists people into mimesis by robbing them of themselves, then the movie delivers that really well.
- Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (1978): This is a classic martial arts movie—the first starring Jackie Chan!—in which… welp. Baby Jackie is great, of course, and the movie was directed by Yuen Woo-Ping, which means the choreography is excellent but actual shots and editing are all cribbed pretty indifferently from the 70s Hong Kong stylebook. The real delight is Yuen’s actual dad playing the spry old teacher, who steals every scene without repentance.
- Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996): God dammit, I love Hou Hsiao-Hsien. I have only a vague idea of what happened in this movie, though the subtitling was fine. It is not a spoiler to say that the final shot, which goes on for at least a minute, is literally “a distant car gets stuck in a ditch (maybe??).” But Hou has such a gift for keeping my eyes interested and engaged even when nothing apparent is happening! Hell yes long slow wide shots of inscrutable people who aren’t even in frame half the time!! Fuck me up!!!!
- Maidentrip (2013): Lucy requested to watch this documentary about a teenage girl sailing around the world alone (albeit, one gradually figures out, sometimes with a week or a month of time off between stops) and it’s warm and cheering. Spoiler: she succeeds and does not die, but don’t google what happened to her boat later if you want to stay cheered. I enjoyed the movie, and learning about some funny sailing rituals that appear in it; I think the most extraordinary thing about it is that it was primarily self-filmed. There’s plenty of insert and pickup footage, but mostly this is a movie a teenage girl shot herself, about herself, without apology. In the background is the other thing that struck me, which is that her parents accepted and enabled their kid going out of their lives for a year. She’s a visibly different person by the end! It’s hard for me to imagine having that kind of independence as a young person, but even harder to think of yielding to it at such a formative time in one’s daughter’s life.
Minding the Gap (2018): I wasn’t intending to watch two self-shot documentaries about young people in a row, but I stumbled onto this (on Hulu!) and got drawn in. It’s an extraordinary movie, one of those I feel most motivated to recommend in my entire 2019 list.
It was really affecting to me to figure out the nature of the film as I watched it, but I don’t want to recommend it without a content warning: this is a movie about abusive fathers, and the people their sons become. That makes it sound like it’s hard to watch, but while certainly some of it is difficult to sit with, it’s never cruel to the audience. Most of the film is charming, goofy, and evocative, with gorgeous bursts of wordless beauty and arresting glimpses into consequence, or into the challenges its creator faced. And the musical conclusion pierced me right through.
The other thing is that this is a skateboard movie. I never had a skateboard when I was young, though I adopted some distinctly skateresque clothing choices. I didn’t have the opportunity to learn to skate, really, but even if I had I know I wouldn’t have had the patience or the grace. I admire it very much as a skill. It’s not as if skate videos are a new phenomenon, but Bing Liu is a good enough at those alone to grab your attention. I was impressed by Point Break (1991) getting its surf shots through a crew of seasoned professionals who got paid presumably well to risk their necks. The skating sequences in this movie were shot by one kid. One kid.
Destroy All Monsters (1968): Despite its awesome title, clear potential, stellar production crew and mighty budget, I’m afraid, my friends, that this movie is not very good. The traditional way to make a kaiju movie bad is to skimp on the expensive monster effects sequences by putting in lots of plotty stuff focusing on concerned humans no one cares about. This movie clearly spent gobs of money on effects shots, but almost none of them include the frickin monsters! There are ten minutes of slow, majestic rocket landings for every minute of monster screen time, which means this movie shorts both them and the audience. This is a movie featuring Mothra where Mothra NEVER TURNS INTO A MOTH.
There are great moments, including a shot of the Arc de Triomphe being demolished while a reporter declares “ze Arc has fallen… and soon, Paree!!” and also Godzilla contemptuously slapping down Ghidorah’s head like a deflated basketball. And if there are too many shots of miniature vehicles, at least the minis work is advanced and great! But while I only know a tiny bit about the movie’s production history, it’s very clear it came from people who were just done with giant monsters after fourteen years. I just realized as I typed this that it’s an Avengers movie. Of course it was doomed.
In conclusion, at no point in this motion picture does anyone shout “destroy all monsters!” or indeed make any attempt to destroy all monsters, and on that, your honor, the offense rests.
Spider-Man: Far From: Home (20:19): You can probably skip down to Yojimbo (1961), this part is a nerd trap and I’m still caught in it. Also it’s full of spoilers, if you care about that.
This purports to be a movie about the consequences of Tony Stark’s death, but even more present are the ghosts Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, who created Spider-Man together and both died in 2018. Whatever any given audience thinks of Lee, the people behind the Marvel Spider-Man movies were clearly big fans; the license plate and wrestling poster Easter eggs alone are indication of that, and the big hallucinatory illusion sequence in the second act is a big ol’ fanvid drawn straight from the Lee/Romita on-page experiments of the early 70s. I think it does Doctor Strange, another Lee/Ditko creation, better than Doctor Strange (2016) did. Sooo when you include a subplot about disgruntled people whose work was subsumed or absorbed to promote one man’s self-made aura of genius, it’s hard not to see another side of that too. There might be a movie out there that can sell me on the idea that the correspondence was deliberate, but as much as I enjoyed it, Far From Home is not that.
There’s a lot going on in the movie thematically and none of it quite gels. Is this a movie about people needing to move on? That topic keeps coming up but never gets an emotional climax. Is it a movie about how drones are bad? It’s certainly not the first Marvel film to express that unease, but why does it go unremarked that Tony Stark apparently built a global pinpoint-assassination system just like the one Steve Rogers was willing to die to destroy in The Winter Soldier (2014)? Is it a movie about whether Peter Parker—who, in current comics canon, operates a multinational tech corp in very Starkian fashion—is meant to step into his dead mentor’s role? Kind of, but that shouldn’t even be a question the MCU has to ask, because the MCU already has an established born leader and tech wunderkind for its next phase of superheroes. Their names are T’Challa and Shuri!
Is it a teen road movie? No, it backgrounds all of that in favor of very expensive-looking effects sequences. Is it a love story? Almost, almost. Tom Holland and Zendaya have about three scenes together, and they’re electric! Those two people are very good at acting! You have to have something special to actually sell me on a Peter/MJ romance in two thousand damn nineteen, and they did, but in true Sirius Black fashion, we barely get to glimpse the good stuff before it’s gone. A big flaw in the movie is how it continues the timeworn MCU tradition of failing to foreground its women; it needs not only more Zendaya, but more Cobie Smulders, and any at all of Jennifer Connelly, and more Marisa Tomei. How are you going to make a movie set in Venice with Marisa Tomei and ghost Robert Downey Junior in it and not even throw in a sly reference to Only You (1994)?
Anyway, since I started drafting this post the movie made a billion dollars, so Marvel/Columbia/Sony are probably pretty happy with Jon Watts and his directorial choices overall. I just liked Homecoming so much, and thought this showed such potential to be a movie specifically suited to my tastes, that I have a hard time not wrestling with the things it wasted and missed. NERD TRAP OVER.
Yojimbo (1961): Man, just look at this.
There are eight people in this shot, where one of the contenders for town boss is receiving Toshiro Mifune’s ronin and wheedling for his services. I didn’t do anything special to grab this frame—I just paused my player and took a photo of the TV with my phone, like a monster.
For the majority of people, color is a critical component of the way we separate shapes from each other, figure out what to pay attention to, and—like it or not—assess others. This image has no color dimension. But because its costume design is brilliant, my eyes immediately parse each person in the shot, and it’s even easy to grasp their ranks: the boss and his wife have the most ornate clothing, the ronin wears simple solids, and the background lieutenants each get a distinguishable but undistracting pattern. Because it’s blocked well, I know right away that Mifune is the center of the scene, with everyone else’s attitude cheated toward him. I happened to catch a frame where most of the lieutenants are looking down as they settle in, but the three principal characters always have their faces in full view or profile, so your brain can follow the conversation between them without the need to reverse between close-ups.
It’s fun to be able to break that out after the fact, and it’s even more fun to get picked up and carried along by it in motion. There’s all kinds of STUFF in Kurosawa movies: moving weather, moving fabric, bold expressions and exaggerated gestures and all kinds of people on the screen. Heck with minimalism! It’s great when the frame is busy, as long you can do it in a way that works for the viewer instead of against them. Anyway this movie is good and cool.
- The Old Man and the Gun (2018): I guess it could just be the Robert Redford fan in me speaking, but I certainly enjoyed this Robert Redford movie about movie star Robert Redford. It’s full of winks, but I was surprised to learn that casting Sissy Spacek opposite him was not one of them. They’d never been in a movie together before! They have wonderful chemistry, and I would have liked more of that instead of Casey Affleck’s dogged-mopey subplot, although his family was cute. When in doubt, always replace Casey Affleck with Sissy Spacek. Call that “the ek-eck rule.”
- Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010): This is a movie against which one critic’s epithet of “Uncle Bong Hit” can be… fairly applied. Also I really enjoyed it. The first shot in which the camera moves at all is fifty minutes in, and I’m not sure there was a single shot that lasted less than ten seconds in the whole thing; the median edit seemed somewhere around two minutes. It probably goes without saying that the only music is diegetic. Imagine those being your constraints. Imagine having that much confidence in your composition!
- Happy-Go-Lucky (2008): After talking a big game about my admiration for Sally Hawkins I decided I had to back it up by watching her breakout role, which is also my first Mike Leigh movie. Hawkins is extraordinary as expected. I knew that Leigh’s process of rehearse-improvise-rehearse-THEN write-THEN film was a whole unique thing; I did not know that the rehearsal process for this movie would have been happening while I lived in London in 2007. (I recognized zero locations aside from Hyde Park, but London is big and I lived south of the Thames.) This movie takes its time to get going, and anyone less charming than Hawkins in the lead could have grated a bit, but it’s lovely. Who else is going to make a movie that amounts to “a kind person politely and successfully asserts boundaries against hostile men, the end?”
- The Iron Monkey (1977): There are about forty movies called Iron Monkey and this is not the one directed by Yuen Woo-Ping, it’s one that was alternately titled Monkey Fist Vs. Eagle Claw and screened for the Hollywood’s monthly Kung Fu Theater night. Aside from the part where it shows a CHILD GETTING STRANGLED ON SCREEN in the first act, it’s pretty much what you’re there for.
Predator (1987): I love Alien (1979) and that franchise has long been a point of comparison against this one, so I decided to watch this. I didn’t like it. All right, John McTiernan, I hear your latter-day argument that this movie has some satirical intent behind it: the scene in which the bulging shout-men clear-cut an acre of rainforest using infinite bullets actually does trample right past power fantasy into grand display of impotence. It is goofy, but what does it end up saying by the end? That when the mechanized instruments of murder fail you, you must turn to… less mechanized instruments of murder? That beneath the ugly mask of sport hunting is… a face that is also ugly? I don’t buy it! This movie wants to stab its cake and shoot it too.
My favorite part was the special effects, which I think have now crossed a line from “dated” into “gloriously retro.” I spent most of the runtime thinking about the ways in which the Predator is shown to be a peerless hunter of men, to wit:
- outnumbered and outgunned at all times
- water-soluble camouflage
- glowing blood for convenient tracking
- slow-moving, light-up bullets for easy location in a firefight
- bound by strict rules of chivalry
- cannot chew food
- legally blind
- frequently sleepy
Damn, Arnold, you really skinned your teeth on that one.
Point Break (1991): See, with this one I can give credence to a certain archness of regard! Among Kathryn Bigelow’s other movies, I have only seen The Hurt Locker (2008), but that alone gave me reason to think she had a more nuanced understanding of masculinity than the other John McTiernan movie I have seen (Die Hard ).
Contemporaneous reviews of this movie seem to have missed the homoerotic frisson that overlays the entire thing, not to mention the way the film keeps rolling its eyes at the incompetence of the FBI characters and the surfer gang’s bullshit philosophy. This is a movie shot by someone who had already watched many men’s eyes glaze over as they stopped listening because they believed they had something more important to say. The silent camera, in fact, plays with everyone here like a superior dance partner, and that’s one thing the reviews did notice—technically, the surfing and skydiving and chase sequences must have been fucking hard to shoot! There was no bullshitting with CGI in 1991, and no infinite digital storage either. For every perfect curl we get to see someone riding through in slow motion, someone else was doing the same thing, holding a camera, with a limited amount of celluloid film in a canister, backwards.
I loved this movie even though it had almost zero women in it. And having watched it, I’m now convinced that Bigelow invented the so-called Sorkin walk and talk!
- Perfect Blue (1997): It’s 1:30 in the morning and I really want to finish this roundup because it’s also almost September! This movie has sexual violence in it. It is really interesting to compare to Paprika (2006), not only for to see how far Satoshi Kon and Madhouse came as animators in ten years, but to see Kon developing what between them amounts to a career-length treatise on the Kuleshov Effect.
- High Flying Bird (2019): This movie was aaalmost ruined for me by an airbnb TV with motion smoothing turned on that I could not disable. It’s also one of two movies I watched this month that were shot on iPhones, and despite the fact that I love this cast (André Holland! Zazie Beats! Melvin Gregg from American Vandal!!) and this playwright (Tarell Alvin McCraney!!!) and of course this director, it was not the one I preferred. I enjoyed its subtle conceit about the long work of revolution, and its performances, but the decision to shoot everything in extreme wide angle with a single anamorphic lens is hard to handle. You can strap a telephoto onto an iPhone too, Steven! I really think at this point in his career that Soderbergh enjoys being able to execute what he wants very, very fast—they self-funded and shot a feature film on location in something like thirty days—and the result is not sloppy, but its spontaneity in form is a little at odds with its deliberate function.
- Tangerine (2015): See, now, this is how you shoot a movie on a phone. Grainy, artificially warm, hectic, rife with bad decisions, full of characters who see the world through this exact same lens, and fun as hell. There is homophobia in this movie and use of the n-word by white people, but it is not sexually violent, which was a relief to me. It’s on Hulu! Text me if you want my password.