Films Watched, May 2021

I planned on seeing 4-6 movies at this year’s virtual edition of IFF Boston; I ended up watching 13, enough for a separate post about the festival, I guess. Regardless, even with slim pickings due to the crazy year we’ve just had, I saw some gems. My favorite was Strawberry Mansion, a deeply surreal but charmingly handmade film where dreams and reality overlap and coalesce but with a sustained gentleness that sets it apart from the work of Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry. It led me to co-directors Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney’s previous film, Sylvio, a similarly unique study of viral fame and audience perceptions.

Other festival picks: The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet, an Argentinian tale which rivals Strawberry Mansion in its unique approach to narrative; I Was A Simple Man, a Hawaiian film about mortality that’s soothing and unsettling in equal measure; Luzzu, Maltese neorealism about adapting to and reconciling a changing world; and Holler, which attempts to do for industrial small town Ohio what Winter’s Bone did for the Ozarks and has fine performances from Jessica Barden and Becky Ann Baker (more ferocious than you’d ever expect from her work on Freaks and Geeks and Girls.)

I had to ramp up my Preston Sturges re-watch because all his films left Criterion Channel at the end of the month. While The Lady Eve (see my April 2021 entry) is still his peak, The Palm Beach Story, with its madcap travails and characters nicknamed “Captain McGlue” and “The Weinie King” is not too far behind. Sullivan’s Travels remains an interesting experiment more than a realized apotheosis; the later Eddie Bracken films aren’t perfect, but their wartime reverie connects more than the internal fantasies of Unfaithfully Yours (still better than I was expecting, thanks to a perfectly-cast Rex Harrison.)

The rest is typically all over the place: a new Roy Andersson film that, while pleasant, continues the diminishing returns of his last few features; The In-Laws, whose late scenes with Richard Libertini as a deranged dictator made me laugh harder than anything else I’ve seen during this goddamned pandemic; and Francis Ford Coppola’s cult passion project, which feels quaint in a “Let’s look back at the 40s in the 80s” way but gets by on Vittorio Storaro’s streamlined, transcendent camerawork.

It was a treat to see both Tom Noonan’s Sundance-winning, one-of-a-kind first date film What Happened Was… and Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H again after twenty-odd years. The former resonates far more deeply with me now (my own dating experience back then was pretty scant); the latter, while not on the level of McCabe & Ms. Miller or The Long Goodbye nonetheless feels almost casually miraculous a half-century on, not so much tapping into the zeitgeist as corralling it and formulating a new way to see and partake in it.

Films viewed in May in chronological order, with director, year of release and my rating (out of 10); starred titles are re-watches. Titles with a ^ are selections from IFF Boston 2021.)

Dolemite Is My Name (Craig Brewer, 2019) 7

The In-Laws (Arthur Hiller, 1979) 8

The Heart of The World (Guy Maddin, 2000)* 10

About Endlessness (Roy Andersson, 2019) 7

Sullivan’s Travels (Preston Sturges, 1941)* 8

High Society (Charles Walters, 1956) 5

What Happened Was… (Tom Noonan, 1994)* 9

Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996)* 10

The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be Quiet (Ana Katz, 2021)^ 8

A Reckoning In Boston (James Rutenbeck, 2021)^ 6

Holler (Nicole Riegel, 2020)^ 7

Thunder Force (Ben Falcone, 2021) 3

I Was a Simple Man (Christopher Makoto Yogi, 2021)^ 8

We’re All Going To The World’s Fair (Jane Schoenbrun, 2021)^ 5

The Palm Beach Story (Sturges, 1942)* 9

Dream Horse (Euros Lyn, 2020)^ 6

M*A*S*H (Robert Altman, 1970)* 8

Strawberry Mansion (Kentucker Audley, Albert Birney, 2021)^ 9

Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliche (Paul Sng, Celeste Bell, 2021)^ 6

Luzzu (Alex Camilleri, 2021)^ 8

Marvelous and The Black Hole (Kate Tsang, 2021)^ 6

Last Night in Rozzie (Sean Gannet, 2021)^ 6

The Woman In The Window (Joe Wright, 2021) 5

Weed & Wine (Rebecca Richman Cohen, 2020)^ 7

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Sturges, 1943)* 7

How It Ends (Zoe Lister-Jones, Daryl Wein, 2021)^ 4

Chinese Portrait (Wang Xiaoshuai, 2018) 7

Love Is Colder Than Death (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1969) 6

The Fall (Jonathan Glazer, 2019) 7

Fantastic Planet (Rene Laloux, 1973) 8

Hail The Conquering Hero (Sturges, 1944) 8

Sylvio (Audley, Birney, 2017) 8

Chungking Express (Wong Kar-wai, 1994)* 9

Unfaithfully Yours (Sturges, 1948) 7

The County (Grímur Hákonarson, 2019) 6

Tucker: The Man and His Dream (Francis Ford Coppola, 1988) 7

The Producers (Mel Brooks, 1967)* 8

Films Watched, April 2021

With respect to howlin’ wolf Frances McDormand in Nomadland (itself a deserving Best Picture winner) and all the other Oscar acting honorees this year, none of them gave as fierce and harrowing a performance as Jasna Đuričić in Quo Vadis, Aida? I would’ve also picked it for Best International Film over the affable if gimmicky Another Round—as a depiction of an interpreter desperately navigating the 1995 Bosnian genocide, it’s a nail biting, feel-bad movie that’s really good.

A few other significant discoveries this month: Sean Baker’s Starlet, which preceded Tangerine and affirmed his finesse with unknown actresses (including Ernest Hemingway’s great-granddaughter!) to be already fully intact; En El Septimo Día, a return-to-form (and feature-making) from Jim McKay, another director who excels with non and semi-professionals; The Treasure of The Sierra Madre, a classic I’d been meaning to see for years and well worth the wait (not least for Bogart at his most depraved); and The Watchmaker of St. Paul, my first Bertrand Tavernier (RIP) film and certainly not the last.

Re-watches offered few surprises except renewed confirmation that The Lady Eve might be my favorite Preston Sturges film (and the best screwball comedy ever next to Bringing Up Baby) and that Drugstore Cowboy (which I barely remembered from my last viewing decades ago) has Matt Dillon’s best, most sympathetic performance. Thrilled to see Shiva Baby receiving such a robust reception in its theatrical/VOD release—it was one of my faves at virtual TIFF last September, and I look forward to people discovering fellow newly released festival alums Limbo and The Disciple as well.

Somewhat let down by Sunset Song (the closest Davies has ever come to seeming banal) and a trio of inessential shorts that brought Maddin Mondays dribbling to a close (save for one Criterion is finally adding in May.) Really let down by The Staggering Girl, a high-pedigree pseudo-art-commercial with so much talent and so little substance. On the other hand, Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar delightfully turned out more acid trip-y than expected and underground queer classic Pink Narcissus, while dutifully rough around the edges, answered a question that had previously never occurred to me: “What if Kenneth Anger had an ass fetish?”

Films viewed in April in chronological order, with director, year of release and my rating (out of 10); starred titles are re-watches:

The Treasure of The Sierra Madre (John Huston, 1948) 9

En El Septimo Día (Jim McKay, 2017) 8

Cowboys (Anna Kerrigan, 2020) 6

The Hall Runner (Guy Maddin, 2014) 6

Sunset Song (Terence Davies, 2015) 6

Pink Narcissus (James Bidgood, 1971) 8

Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present (Matthew Akers, 2012) 7

To Live (Zhang Yimou, 1994)* 10

The Fever (Maya Da-Rin, 2019) 7

Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar (Josh Greenbaum, 2021) 7

Starlet (Sean Baker, 2012) 9

Lines of the Hand (Maddin, Evan Johnson, Galen Johnson, 2015) 5

Family Romance LLC (Werner Herzog, 2019) 6

Ashes (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2012) 7

Always Shine (Sophia Takal, 2016) 6

No Fear, No Die (Claire Denis, 1990) 7

Come Back To The 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (Robert Altman, 1982)* 8

Quo Vadis, Aida? (Jasmila Zbanic, 2020) 10

Pepi, Luci, Bom (Pedro Almodovar, 1980) 6

Spanky: To The Pier and Back (Maddin, 2008) 6

In The Soup (Alexandre Rockwell, 1992)* 7

Shanghai Express (Josef von Sternberg, 1932) 6

Days of Being Wild (Wong Kar-wai, 1990)* 8

The Watchmaker of St. Paul (Bertrand Tavernier, 1974) 8

Shiva Baby (Emma Seligman, 2020)* 9

The More You Ignore Me (Keith English, 2018) 5

Nenette and Boni (Claire Denis, 1996) 7

Drugstore Cowboy (Gus Van Sant, 1989)* 8

Blonde Venus (von Sternberg, 1932) 7

The Staggering Girl (Luca Guadagnino, 2019) 4

The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941)* 10

The Man Who Sold His Skin (Kaouther Ben Hania, 2020) 6

Films Watched, March 2021

A few 10s this month, including one first-time watch, A New Leaf. Elaine May’s 1971 directorial debut, it has the ideal casting of Walter Matthau as a middle-aged trust fund playboy who has spent all his money and must find a wealthy wife in order to continue his accustomed lifestyle. Enter May’s daffy heiress, a klutzy botanist who genuinely (and literally!) falls for Matthau’s scoundrel. I’d heard for years how great this acerbic neo-screwball comedy was; now streaming on Criterion Channel, it did not disappoint, from opening car gag to deliriously wet finale. It also coincided with my reading of Mark Harris’ great new Mike Nichols bio, which naturally delves into his professional relationship with May, who is also deserving of such an extensive overview.

With five of them falling in March, Maddin Mondays continued strong, split between four re-watches and three new-to-me shorts. Regarding the former, the two early-aughts features impress slightly less now, if only because they precede what would prove Maddin’s most fertile period (which My Dad is 100 Years Old definitely belongs to); The Forbidden Room, on the other hand, proves enriching to revisit, almost as if by design. As for those shorts, Only Dream Things is the prize and easily the closest the filmmaker has ever come to David Lynch-ian dreamscape fantasia.

Many terrific re-watches beyond Maddin this month, from the still-startling movie that killed Michael Powell’s career to Los Angeles Plays Itself, a three-hour-long film history lecture that hasn’t lost any of its power since I last viewed it sixteen years ago. More revelatory, however, was my first viewing of The Grand Budapest Hotel since its theatrical run in 2014. As with The Royal Tenenbaums, Wes Anderson’s jewel box perfection resonated more at home for me than it did on a very large screen; it’s now ahead of The Life Aquatic and Fantastic Mr. Fox (but still not Moonrise Kingdom) in my ranking of the director’s features.

Elsewhere, with his classic run of eight films in the ‘40s now streaming on Criterion, my Preston Sturges watch has begun with The Great McGinty and Christmas In July; a month-long subscription to Disney+ for WandaVision allowed me to catch up on some Pixar features, including a rewatch of The Incredibles in preparation for the slightly inferior but still very good sequel; the absolutely deranged The Legend of the Stardust Brothers, which I may watch again in April before my MUBI subscription runs out; and The Movie Orgy, a pioneering found footage collage curated by a young Joe Dante, four-plus hours of it currently available to stream on Archive.org and essential for connoisseurs of trashy 50s/60s movies and TV.

Films viewed in March in chronological order, with director, year of release and my rating (out of 10); starred titles are re-watches:

Only Dream Things (Guy Maddin, 2012) 8

A New Leaf (Elaine May, 1971) 10

The Mouse That Roared (Jack Arnold, 1959) 7

Sylvie’s Love (Eugene Ashe, 2020) 6

Los Angeles Plays Itself (Thom Andersen, 2003)* 10

The Great McGinty (Preston Sturges, 1940) 7

Black Bear (Lawrence Michael Levine, 2020)* 8

Soul (Pete Docter, Kemp Powers, 2020) 8

Keep An Eye Out (Quentin Dupieux, 2018) 7

Glorious (Maddin, 2008) 6

Dracula: Pages From a Virgin’s Diary (Maddin, 2002)* 7

The Rabbi Goes West (Gerald Peary, Amy Geller, 2019)**

The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973)* 9

Gutterbug (Andrew Gibson, 2019) 5

Stray (Elizabeth Lo, 2020) 6

The Last of Sheila (Herbert Ross, 1973) 8

Farewell Amor (Ekwa Msangi, 2020) 7

Coming 2 America (Craig Brewer, 2021) 5

Inside Out (Docter, 2015) 8

The Movie Orgy (Joe Dante, 1968) 9

The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993)* 9

Sinclair (Maddin, 2010) 6

The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004)* 9

Boy Meets Girl (Leos Carax, 1984) 7

The Quiet Man (John Ford, 1952) 7

Christmas In July (Sturges, 1940)* 8

Incredibles 2 (Bird, 2018) 8

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, 2014)* 10

My Dad Is 100 Years Old (Maddin, 2005)* 8

Cowards Bend The Knee (Maddin, 2003)* 7

The Legend of The Stardust Brothers (Makoto Tezuka, 1985) 8

Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960)* 10

The Inheritance (Ephraim Asili 2020) 6

Slim Aarons: The High Life (Fritz Mitchell, 2016) 4

As Tears Go By (Wong Kar-wai, 1988) 7

The Forbidden Room (Maddin, Evan Johnson, 2015)* 9

Bugsy Malone (Alan Parker, 1976) 7

The Color Wheel (Alex Ross Perry, 2011) 5

(**not rated, because I know the filmmakers personally!)

Films Watched, February 2021

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

I kicked off February with two Sundance titles (courtesy of this year’s virtual festival), both of them documentaries: Edgar Wright’s love letter to the longtime cult band Sparks, and an adaptation of Michael Davis’ excellent book about the creation of Sesame Street. The former is great for fans (I’m one) but perhaps a little alienating to everyone else, while the latter benefits from some fascinating, behind-the-scenes archival footage shot in the early ‘80s; it also helps that it chiefly sticks to an era I have a personal connection with (i.e.—pre-Elmo.)

I followed that two-fer with Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy. I hadn’t viewed Blue or Red since the late ‘90s, and I’d never seen White before, oddly enough. They really do serve as three distinct films not only focusing on different characters but also genres and settings. In short: Blue is painstakingly executed if occasionally dour, White is inventive if often weird and tonally all over the place and Red throws more than a few spinning plates in the air, only to bring the trilogy to a deeply affecting conclusion. Among other re-watches this month: Monty Python and the Holy Grail (classic anarchy, written about in further detail here), After Hours (Scorsese’s best comedy next to The King of Comedy), Solaris (good, if not as transcendent as Stalker) and The Neon Bible (ditto in relation to The Long Day Closes).

If January’s for getting caught up on titles to nominate for Chlotrudis, February’s for watching nominated titles I haven’t seen. Australian indie Babyteeth breathes life into the terminal ill teen romance trope while Peruvian period drama Song Without A Name somehow combines neorealism regarding impoverished indigenous people with a visual palette much closer to expressionism—it doesn’t make any sense on paper, but it’s an arresting contrast onscreen, anyway.

Following Marty (Scorsese) and Marlon (Riggs) Mondays, I’ve moved on to Guy Maddin, for whom Criterion added a treasure trove of features and recent shorts (the latter co-directed by Evan and Galen Johnson) to its lineup this month. Of the three I’ve viewed so far, last year’s Stump The Guesser is the most notable and accessible—like 2000’s five-minute The Heart of The World stretched out to twenty minutes but with an engaging narrative that surfaces through all the faux-antiquated graphics and ephemera.

Finally, a shout-out to my favorite first-time watch this month: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? felt remarkably modern for something set in 1932 and made in 1969, thanks primarily to Jane Fonda’s steel-eyed performance; her Gloria is easily the most irritable and jaded lead character I’ve ever seen in Hollywood cinema.

Films viewed in February in chronological order, with director, year of release and my rating (out of 10); starred titles are re-watches.

The Sparks Brothers (Edgar Wright, 2021) 7
Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street (Marilyn Agrelo, 2021) 8
Three Colors: Blue (Krzysztof Kieslowski, 1993)* 8
Three Colors: White (Kieslowski, 1994) 7
Three Colors: Red (Kieslowski, 1994)* 9
Marona’s Fantastic Tale (Anca Damian, 2019) 6
After Hours (Martin Scorsese, 1985)* 9
Two Of Us (Filippo Meneghetti, 2019) 8
Matthias & Maxime (Xavier Dolan, 2019) 7
The Rabbit Hunters (Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson, Galen Johnson, 2020) 7
The Tale (Jennifer Fox, 2018) 8
In The Name Of… (Malgorzata Szumowska, 2013) 5
Western (Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross, 2015) 7
Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky, 1972)* 8
Song Without A Name (Melina Leon, 2019) 8
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (Sydney Pollack, 1969) 9
Lucky Grandma (Sasie Sealy, 2019) 7
Stump The Guesser (Maddin, Johnson, Johnson, 2020) 8
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones, 1975)* 10
Growing Up Milwaukee (Tyshun Wardlaw, 2020) 6
Judas and the Black Messiah (Shaka King, 2021) 7
The Neon Bible (Terence Davies, 1995)* 7
Light From Light (Paul Harrill, 2019) 6
Recount (Jay Roach, 2008) 5
Mamma Mia! (Phyllida Lloyd, 2008)* 6
Babyteeth (Shannon Murphy, 2019) 8
Nobody Knows I’m Here (Gaspar Antillo, 2020) 4
Walker (Tsai Ming-liang, 2012) 7
Accidence (Maddin, Johnson, Johnson, 2018) 6
Tabu (F.W. Murnau, 1931) 8
I Care A Lot (J Blakeson, 2020) 6
Putney Swope (Robert Downey Sr., 1969) 8
No No Sleep (Tsai Ming-liang, 2015) 5
The Whistlers (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2019) 6
The Band Wagon (Vincente Minnelli, 1953) 7
Saint Frances (Alex Thompson, 2019) 7