Film Journal: October 2020

Ham On Rye

In the tradition of “Marty Mondays”, I did the same for Marlon Riggs this month when his oeuvre became available on The Criterion Channel. A black, gay film essayist who died of AIDS in 1994, I was first aware of Riggs a few years later as a Film Studies grad student. I remember watching the first few minutes of a bootleg VHS of Tongues Untied borrowed from the Harvard Film Archive (where I was an intern) before putting it aside, overwhelmed by my master’s thesis and all the other stuff I was required to watch.

My present overview of his work has been mostly chronological (and will extend into November), though I started with Tongues. An hour-long examination of what it means to be black and gay in the 1980s, it’s arty, layered and inviting, equally adept at exuding sly humor and heartfelt pain. Obviously more personal than his (admittedly solid) television documentaries Ethnic Notions and Color Adjustment, it’s as essential as anything from the New Queer Cinema canon while somewhat standing apart from it.

Best new-ish titles this month include Sundance hit doc Dick Johnson is Dead, Josh Melrod’s impressive shot-in-Vermont micro indie Major Arcana, Canadian stage play adaptation Mouthpiece (a return-to-form for director Patricia Rozema) and odd streaming sensation The Vast of Night (like a Spielberg film written by Amy Sherman-Palladino and directed by Andrew Bujalski.) However, the one I can’t get out of my head is Ham On Rye, Tyler Taormina’s audacious, dreamlike debut feature where a cadre of suburban teens meet up for a party at a local deli—to say anything else would lessen the impact it has when it takes an unexpected turn and transforms into something I haven’t really seen before.

More re-watches than usual, mostly because of the season: Young Frankenstein and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (of which The Vast of Night lovingly references) remain all-time favorites, with mid-tier Burton both better (Sleepy Hollow) and lesser (Dark Shadows) than I recall. It was also a kick to see Tsai Ming-liang’s first feature after so many years–it’s definitely an impetus to eventually re-watch them all (for who knows when his new one Days will be available to screen or stream at-large.)

Best first-time watch, however, was Harry and Tonto, recorded off of TCM. I wrote on Letterboxd, “It’s the greatest Hal Ashby film Ashby never made.” While not as special as, say, Harold and Maude, it’s both a great showcase for Art Carney and a neat cross-country time capsule of mid-70s America as illuminating as, well, The United States of America. A touch sentimental but never sappy, it confronts aging and change with honesty and grace.

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

Mouthpiece (Patricia Rozema, 2018) 8
The Heiress (William Wyler, 1949) 7
The Boys In The Band (Joe Mantello, 2020) 8
Tongues Untied (Marlon Riggs, 1989) 9
Little Fugitive (Ray Ashley, Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin, 1953) 7
Residue (Merawi Gerima, 2020) 5
Queen Bee (Ranald MacDougall, 1955) 6
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)* 7
The Vast Of Night (Andrew Patterson, 2019) 7
Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977)* 10
Dick Johnson Is Dead (Kirsten Johnson, 2020) 8
Mother (Albert Brooks, 1996) 7
Major Arcana (Josh Melrod, 2018) 7
No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman, 2015) 5
Harry and Tonto (Paul Mazursky, 1974) 9
Palm Springs (Max Barbakow, 2020) 6
Ethnic Notions (Riggs, 1986) 7
Affirmations (Riggs, 1990) 7
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010)* 9
The Way I See It (Dawn Porter, 2020) 4
The Trip To Greece (Michael Winterbottom, 2020) 6
Rebels Of The Neon God (Tsai Ming-liang, 1992)* 8
Sleepy Hollow (Tim Burton, 1999)* 6
Young Frankenstein (Mel Brooks, 1974)* 10
Color Adjustment (Riggs, 1992) 7
The Devil’s Backbone (Guillermo del Toro, 2001) 7
Ham On Rye (Tyler Taormina, 2019) 9
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman, 1978)* 8
Experimenter (Michael Almereyda, 2015) 6
Dark Shadows (Burton, 2012)* 6

DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD

Death is still one of the greatest taboos. On the whole, we don’t talk about it simply because we fear it and for good reason—it will happen to each and every one of us and no one knows what follows. To ponder the oncoming death of a loved one is even more daunting; to capture that person’s decline on film is too much for most to bear. Which is why, a minute into this, the instance an air conditioner unit falls out of a window right onto Dick Johnson’s head on the sidewalk below like a 16-ton weight out of Monty Python is so jolting, no matter what the film’s title promises.

If you know exactly what Dick Johnson Is Dead is about before going into it, you might laugh out loud like I did at that moment. Or, it may take seconds until the subsequent reveal that it’s just a prank, that the director, Johnson’s daughter Kirsten, has fashioned the film as a way of coping with the inevitable: Octogenarian Dick, a retired, widowed psychologist, is slowing down and entering the December of his life. Throughout, Kirsten stages one fake death of her father after another, ranging from crude sight gags such as the A/C unit to more high-concept spectacles, sun as entering the gates of heaven, complete with costume changes, dance sequences and camera trickery—they often resemble something David Lynch would’ve made in a particularly jocular mood. Happily, for his daughter and for us, the affable Dick is game for seemingly anything (would your father agree to the process of installing an intricate apparatus that allows a considerable amount of fake blood to seemingly shoot out of his neck?)

Kirsten’s previous feature Cameraperson recalibrated the longtime cinematographer as an essayist on the order of Agnes Varda or Ross McElwee; here, she delves into even more personal, thornier territory, documenting the final years of her father’s life, facing and dissecting head-on what it means to inch closer to the end of life both for her subject and herself. The fake death sequences provide levity but also open up a dialogue between what we can imagine the act of dying and its aftermath to be like versus what actually happens, i.e. what we can’t possibly fully comprehend. Through this push-and-pull, death is rendered less taboo without becoming trivialized, but its mystery also remains intact and not fully reconcilable.

At the film’s tricky, decidedly meta-conclusion, Kirsten seems to finally, fully confront and elegize her father’s demise while further blurring the difference between what we perceive and what we’re actually witnessing. When the reveal comes, it’s a kicker on par with suddenly seeing an appliance crashing down from the sky right towards your own head. Grade: A-

(Dick Johnson Is Dead is streaming on Netflix.)

Film Journal: September 2020

House Of Hummingbird

So, Toronto International Film Festival—was hoping to attend in person for the first time in six years, but that obviously couldn’t happen. Fortunately, I secured through work an industry pass allowing me to “virtually” attend, streaming from my Macbook an official selection of fifty features. Despite numerous titles frustratingly being unavailable because of my type of pass or country of residence, I still managed to catch 22 features over eight days—the most I’ve ever seen in that short of a stretch, except perhaps when I was a Film Studies grad student.

Needless to say, the real “TIFF” experience is not fully present this way, as half the fun consists of live Q&As, standing in lines, exploring Toronto and scouring the streets for cheap eats between screenings. Still, I’m grateful for even this version of it. My favorite film of the fest was predictably Nomadland and it’s no small thrill that it’s seemingly most other people’s as well. No close second-or-third place contenders, but I was delightfully surprised by Shiva Baby, No Ordinary Man, Limbo, 76 Days and Spring Blossom, and disappointed by Enemies Of The State, Pieces of a Woman and to a lesser extent, Summer of 85. My rankings and reviews are available here.

As for the rest of the month, the best newish title was House of Hummingbird, a South Korean coming-of-age drama that’s a little like Koreeda by way of Mike Leigh, but director Kim Bora clearly has her own voice. The new Charlie Kaufman boasts a great, intimate ensemble and the chances it takes mostly pay off, but it’s a lesser film than Synecdoche, New Yorkor Anomalisa because there is such a thing as being too abstract.

Paused the chronological Egoyan re-watch to take in later work Adoration before it left Criterion Channel—possibly still his best of this century (which isn’t saying much.) A lot of re-watches lately, in fact: Beau Travail (in 4K restoration, looks superb even on a laptop), Staying Vertical (gradually ascending up my best of the ‘10s list), The Gleaners and I (Varda Forever), Support The Girls (let’s all scream!) and Hard Eight, PTA’s least essential feature, but still worth a watch if mostly for a touching lead performance from a never-better Philip Baker Hall.

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

Arizona Dream (Emir Kusturica, 1993) 7
Ghost Tropic (Bas Devos, 2019) 7
Hard Eight (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1996)* 8
A Five Star Life (Maria Sole Tognazzi, 2013) 6
Nomad: In The Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin (Werner Herzog, 2019) 6
Beau Travail (Claire Denis, 1999)* 10
I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman, 2020) 8

Toronto International Film Festival:
One Night In Miami (Regina King, 2020) 7
The Disciple (Chaitanya Tamhane, 2020) 7
Shiva Baby (Emma Seligman, 2020) 9
No Ordinary Man (Chase Joynt, Aisling Chin-Yee, 2020) 8
Gaza Mon Amour (Tarzan and Arab Nasser, 2020) 6
Enemies Of The State (Sonia Kennebeck, 2020) 5
Limbo (Ben Sharrock, 2020) 8
Pieces of a Woman (Kornel Mundruczo, 2020) 4
Nomadland (Chloe Zhao, 2020) 10
New Order (Michel Franco, 2020) 7
76 Days (Hao Wu, Weixi Chen, 2020) 8
Summer of 85 (Francois Ozon, 2020) 6
MLK/FBI (Sam Pollard, 2020) 6
Concrete Cowboy (Ricky Staub, 2020) 6
Wildfire (Cathy Brady, 2020) 6
Bandar Band (Manijeh Hekmat, 2020) 4
Fauna (Nicolas Pereda, 2020) 6
Fireball: Visitors From Darker Worlds (Herzog, Clive Oppenheimer, 2020) 7
The Water Man (David Oyelowo, 2020) 7
I Am Greta (Nathan Grossman, 2020) 6
Spring Blossom (Suzanne Lindon, 2020) 8
Another Round (Thomas Vinterberg, 2020) 9

House of Hummingbird (Kim Bora, 2018) 9
Adoration (Atom Egoyan, 2008)* 7
Taxi (Jafar Panahi, 2015) 7
A Fistful of Dollars (Sergio Leone, 1964) 7
Studio 54 (Matt Tyrnauer, 2018) 5
Staying Vertical (Alain Guiraudie, 2016)* 10
Support The Girls (Andrew Bujalksi, 2018)* 9
Defending Your Life (Albert Brooks, 1991) 8
The Gleaners and I (Agnes Varda, 2020)* 9
Gregory Go Boom (Janicza Bravo, 2013) 6

Film Journal: August 2020

Bacurau

If you’re looking for something as nearly tuned into the modern world and its growing socio-economic divide as last year’s Parasite, have I got a new film for you. Bacurau, the latest from the Brazilian director of my second favorite movie of 2016, had a brief, mostly virtual digital cinema run just as COVID started shutting everything down earlier this year. Now available to stream on The Criterion Channel (and rent elsewhere), it’s a visionary take on an established genre (best not known going into it.) As it unfolds, a fervent chaos burrows deeper and deeper into both its narrative and moral code, surfacing in often thrilling ways: a drunken rant at a funeral, an unexpectedly brutal death, a certain ‘80s pop song appearing out of nowhere but recalibrating the mood perfectly. I’ve seen two new movies I’ve loved more in 2020, but won’t be surprised if a second viewing pushes this to the top.

In addition to continuing my Egoyan re-watch (The Adjuster, a leap forward in style/budget/concept, even if it’s hard to care about most of its quirky characters; Calendar, a formalist hoot and the type of low budget/experimental film I wish he made more of), I revisited for the first time in two decades Kiarostami’s “Koker Trilogy”, which was filmed in a rural Iranian village over about six or seven years. Not really conceived of as a trilogy, it nonetheless tracks his move from neorealism to meta-comment on narrative and filmmaking itself. He did the latter better elsewhere (Close-Up, Taste of Cherry), but the first of the three films, Where Is My Friend’s House? remains his peak regarding the former (and it also has what is still one of my favorite final shots ever.)

Apart from Bacurau, best first-time watches included my first Mia Hansen-Løve film (which takes its time but eventually arrives at a lovely place, in no small part due to Isabelle Huppert’s always reassuring presence), Shirley Valentine (Pauline Collins such a winning heroine in this) and Mr. SOUL!, a stellar doc about a forgotten early public television show/host you should know. Also liked Walk Hard (no one rips a sink outta a wall like John C. Reilly), Hollywood Shuffle (Robert Townsend could’ve been the black Christopher Guest), Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (young Paul Newman my god!) and Amy Seimetz’s first feature, which manages to be more Floridian than even The Florida Project.

Films viewed in August in chronological order, with director, year of release and my rating (out of 10)

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga (David Dobkin, 2020) 5
Where Is My Friend’s House? (Abbas Kiarostami, 1987)* 10
Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (Jake Kasdan, 2007) 7
Things To Come (Mia Hansen-Love 2016) 8
Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (Richard Brooks, 1958) 7
Bed and Board (Francois Truffaut, 1970) 6
Hollywood Shuffle (Robert Townsend, 1987) 7
Life, and Nothing More… (Kiarostami, 1992)* 9
Shirley Valentine (Lewis Gilbert, 1989) 8
Sun Don’t Shine (Amy Seimetz, 2012) 7
The Adjuster (Atom Egoyan, 1991)* 7
High Heels (Pedro Almodovar, 1991) 6
Picnic At Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975)* 9
Lola (Jacques Demy, 1961) 7
Through the Olive Trees (Kiarostami, 1994)* 7
Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel, 2012) 4
Bacurau (Kleber Mendonca Filho, Juliano Dornelles, 2019) 9
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004)* 8
I Used To Go Here (Kris Rey, 2020) 6
Calendar (Egoyan, 1993)* 8
Burning Ghost (Stephane Batut, 2019) 5
The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, 2013) 7
Safety Not Guaranteed (Colin Trevorrow, 2012)* 6
Epicentro (Hubert Sauper, 2020) 7
Mr. SOUL! (Sam Pollard, Melissa Haizlip, 2018) 8

250 Films

For this blog’s 250th post, here are 250 films I adore, in alphabetical order by title. All-time-favorite lists are always subject to change; it’s a good bet that I’ve forgotten a title or two more worthy of inclusion than a title or two here. I couldn’t even begin to rank all of these, but know that the directors with the most entries (five each) are Robert Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson–extra impressive for the latter, who has to date directed only eight features (and I would re-watch the three that didn’t make the list in a heartbeat.)

Title Director Year
2001: A Space Odyssey Kubrick, Stanley 1968
25th Hour Lee, Spike 2002
3 Women Altman, Robert 1977
35 Shots of Rum Denis, Claire 2008
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days Mungiu, Cristian 2007
49 Up Apted, Michael 2005
A Christmas Story Clark, Bob 1983
A Hard Day’s Night Lester, Richard 1964
A History of Violence Cronenberg, David 2005
A Matter of Life and Death Powell, Michael and Emeric Pressburger 1946
A Serious Man Coen, Joel and Ethan 2009
A Woman Under the Influence Cassavetes, John 1974
Ace in the Hole Wilder, Billy 1951
Airplane! Zucker, Abrahams, Zucker 1980
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul Fassbinder, Rainer Werner 1974
All About Eve Mankiewicz, Joseph L. 1950
All About My Mother Almodovar, Pedro 1999
All That Jazz Fosse, Bob 1979
All the President’s Men Pakula, Alan J. 1976
Amélie Jeunet, Jean-Pierre 2001
American Splendor Berman, Shari Springer and Robert Pulcini 2003
Annie Hall Allen, Woody 1977
Aquarius Filho, Kleber Mendonca 2016
Army of Shadows Melville, Jean-Pierre 1969
Au Hasard Balthazar Bresson, Robert 1966
Away from Her Polley, Sarah 2006
Back to the Future Zemeckis, Robert 1985
Beasts of the Southern Wild Zeitlin, Benh 2012
Beau Travail Denis, Claire 1999
Beetlejuice Burton, Tim 1988
Before Sunset Linklater, Richard 2004
Being John Malkovich Jonze, Spike 1999
Best in Show Guest, Christopher 2000
Best Worst Movie Stephenson, Michael Paul 2009
Bigger Than Life Ray, Nicholas 1956
Black Narcissus Powell, Michael and Emeric Pressburger 1947
Blue Velvet Lynch, David 1986
Bonnie and Clyde Penn, Arthur 1967
Boogie Nights Anderson, Paul Thomas 1997
Boyhood Linklater, Richard 2014
Brand Upon the Brain! Maddin, Guy 2006
Brazil Gilliam, Terry 1985
Brief Encounter Lean, David 1945
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia Sam Peckinpah 1974
Bringing Up Baby Hawks, Howard 1938
Burning Lee, Chang-dong 2018
C.R.A.Z.Y. Vallee, Jean-Marc 2005
Cabaret Fosse, Bob 1972
Caché Haneke, Michael 2005
Call Me by Your Name Guadagnino, Luca 2017
Can You Ever Forgive Me? Heller, Marielle 2018
Carol Haynes, Todd 2015
Casablanca Curtiz, Michael 1942
Celine and Julie Go Boating Rivette, Jacques 1974
Cemetery of Splendour Weerasethakul, Apichatpong 2015
Children of Men Cuaron, Alfonso 2006
Clean Assayas, Olivier 2004
Close-Up Kiarostami, Abbas 1990
Clue Lynn, Jonathan 1985
Day for Night Truffaut, Francois 1973
Day Night Day Night Loktev, Julia 2006
Dig! Timoner, Ondi 2004
Do the Right Thing Lee, Spike 1989
Dogtooth Lanthimos, Yorgos 2009
Dogville Von Trier, Lars 2003
Donnie Darko Kelly, Richard 2001
Double Dare Micheli, Amanda 2004
Double Indemnity Wilder, Billy 1944
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb Kubrick, Stanley 1964
Drive Refn, Nicholas Winding 2011
Duck Season Eimbcke, Fernando 2004
Duck Soup McCarey, Leo 1933
Ed Wood Burton, Tim 1994
Election Payne, Alexander 1999
End of the Century Castro, Lucio 2019
Exit Through the Gift Shop Banksy 2010
Exotica Egoyan, Atom 1994
F for Fake Welle, Orson 1973
Faces Places Varda, Agnes and JR 2017
Far from Heaven Haynes, Todd 2002
Fargo Coen, Joel and Ethan 1996
First Cow Reichardt, Kelly 2019
First Reformed Schrader, Paul 2017
Flirting with Disaster Russell, David O. 1996
Frances Ha Baumbach, Noah 2012
Freaks Browning, Tod 1932
Get Out Peele, Jordan 2017
Ghost World Zwigoff, Terry 2001
Gleaners and I, The Varda, Agnes 2000
Good Time Safdie, Benny and Josh 2017
GoodFellas Scorsese, Martin 1990
Gosford Park Altman, Robert 2001
Grey Gardens Maysles, Albert & David, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer 1975
Grizzly Man Herzog, Werner 2005
Groundhog Day Ramis, Harold 1993
Hairspray Waters, John 1988
Happiness Solondz, Todd 1998
Harold and Maude Ashby, Hal 1971
Hedwig and the Angry Inch Mitchell, John Cameron 2001
High and Low Kurosawa, Akira 1963
High Hopes Leigh, Mike 1988
Holy Motors Carax, Leos 2012
House Obayashi, Nobuhiko 1977
How to Survive a Plague France, David 2012
I Killed My Mother Dolan, Xavier 2009
I Like Killing Flies Mahurin, Matt 2004
I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing Rozema, Patricia 1987
Ikiru Kurosawa, Akira 1952
In the Loop Iannucci, Armando 2009
In the Mood for Love Kar-Wai, Wong 2000
Inside Llewyn Davis Coen, Joel and Ethan 2013
Judy Berlin Mendelsohn, Eric 1999
Knives Out Johnson, Rian 2019
Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter Zellner, David 2014
Laura Preminger, Otto 1944
Let the Right One In Alfredson, Tomas 2008
Life Is Sweet Leigh, Mike 1990
Limey, The Soderberg, Steven 1999
Living End, The Araki, Gregg 1992
Local Hero Forsyth, Bill 1983
Los Angeles Plays Itself Andersen, Thom 2003
Lost in Translation Coppola, Sofia 2003
Love Streams Cassavetes, John 1984
Magnolia Anderson, Paul Thomas 1999
Man on Wire Marsh, James 2008
Manhattan Allen, Woody 1979
Marwencol Malmberg, Jeff 2010
McCabe & Mrs. Miller Altman, Robert 1971
Me and You and Everyone We Know July, Miranda 2005
Melvin and Howard Demme, Jonathan 1980
Meshes of the Afternoon Deren, Maya, Alexander Hammid 1943
Metropolis Lang, Fritz 1927
Minding the Gap Liu, Bing 2018
Monty Python and the Holy Grail Gilliam, Terry and Terry Jones 1975
Moonlight Jenkins, Barry 2016
Moonrise Kingdom Anderson, Wes 2012
Morvern Callar Ramsay, Lynne 2002
Mulholland Drive Lynch, David 2001
My Winnipeg Maddin, Guy 2007
Mysterious Skin Araki, Gregg 2004
Nashville Altman, Robert 1975
Nine to Five Higgins, Colin 1980
North by Northwest Hitchcock, Alfred 1959
Not One Less Yimou, Zhang 1999
On the Waterfront Kazan, Elia 1954
Oslo, August 31st Trier, Joachim 2011
Our Song McKay, Jim 2000
Parasite Joon-ho, Bong 2019
Paris Is Burning Livingston, Jennie 1990
Paterson Jarmusch, Jim 2016
Peeping Tom Powell, Michael 1960
Persona Bergman, Ingmar 1966
Phantom of the Paradise De Palma, Brian 1974
Phantom Thread Anderson, Paul Thomas 2017
PlayTime Tati, Jacques 1967
Portrait of a Lady on Fire Sciamma, Celine 2019
Pulp Fiction Tarantino, Quentin 1994
Red Desert Antonioni, Michelangelo 1964
Reprise Trier, Joachim 2006
Roma Cuaron, Alfonso 2018
Rosemary’s Baby Polanski, Roman 1968
Rushmore Anderson, Wes 1998
Safe Haynes, Todd 1995
Salesman Maysles, Albert & David, Charlotte Zerwin 1969
Scenes from a Marriage Bergman, Ingmar 1974
Scorpio Rising Anger, Kenneth 1964
Sherman’s March McElwee, Ross 1985
Shoplifters Koreeda, Hirokazu 2018
Sideways Payne, Alexander 2004
Singin’ in the Rain Donen, Stanley, Gene Kelly 1952
Sleeper Allen, Woody 1973
Songs from the Second Floor Andersson, Roy 2000
Spirited Away Miyazaki, Hayao 2001
Stalker Tarkovsky, Andrei 1979
Staying Vertical Guiraudie, Alain 2016
Still Walking Koreeda, Hirokazu 2008
Stop Making Sense Demme, Jonathan 1984
Stories We Tell Polley, Sarah 2012
Stranger Than Paradise Jarmusch, Jim 1984
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans Murnau, F.W. 1927
Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story Haynes, Todd 1988
Suspiria Argento, Dario 1977
Sword of Trust Shelton, Lynn 2019
Synecdoche, New York Kaufman, Charlie 2008
Talk to Her Almodovar, Pedro 2002
Targets Bogdanovich, Peter 1968
The 400 Blows Truffaut, Francois 1959
The Act of Killing Oppenheimer, Joshua 2012
The Apartment Wilder, Billy 1960
The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans Herzog, Werner 2009
The Best Years of Our Lives Wyler, William 1946
The Birds Hitchcock, Alfred 1963
The Case of the Grinning Cat Marker, Chris 2004
The Decalogue Kieslowski, Krzysztof 1989
The Duke of Burgundy Strickland, Peter 2014
The Garden Jarman, Derek 1990
The Godfather Coppola, Francis Ford 1972
The Graduate Nichols, Mike 1967
The Happiness of the Katakuris Miike, Takashi 2001
The Host Joon-ho, Bong 2006
The Hurt Locker Bigelow, Kathryn 2008
The Innocents Clayton, Jack 1961
The King of Comedy Scorsese, Martin 1982
The Last Days of Disco Stillman, Whit 1998
The Last of England Jarman, Derek 1987
The Last Picture Show Bogdanovich, Peter 1971
The Long Day Closes Davies, Terence 1992
The Long Goodbye Altman, Robert 1973
The Manchurian Candidate Frankenheimer, John 1962
The Master Anderson, Paul Thomas 2012
The Night of the Hunter Laughton, Charles 1955
The Passion of Joan of Arc Dreyer, Carl 1928
The Piano Campion, Jane 1993
The Red Shoes Powell, Michael and Emeric Pressburger 1948
The Return Zvyagintsev, Andrey 2003
The Royal Tenenbaums Anderson, Wes 2001
The Shining Kubrick, Stanley 1980
The Shop Around the Corner Lubitsch, Ernst 1940
The Squid and the Whale Baumbach, Noah 2005
The Sweet Hereafter Egoyan, Atom 1997
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three Sargent, Joseph 1974
The Thin Man Van Dyke, W.S. 1934
The Triplets of Belleville Chomet, Sylvain 2003
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg Demy, Jacques 1964
The Visitor McCarthy, Tom 2007
The Wind Will Carry Us Kiarostami, Abbas 1999
The Wizard of Oz Fleming, Victor 1939
There Will Be Blood Anderson, Paul Thomas 2007
Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould Girard, Francois 1993
This Is Spinal Tap Reiner, Rob 1984
To Be or Not to Be Lubitsch, Ernst 1942
To Kill a Mockingbird Mulligan, Robert 1962
To Live Yimou, Zhang 1994
Tokyo Story Ozu, Yasujiro 1953
Tootsie Pollack, Sydney 1982
Trainspotting Boyle, Danny 1996
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives Weerasethakul, Apichatpong 2010
Under the Skin Glazer, Jonathan 2013
Vertigo Hitchcock, Alfred 1958
Volver Almodovar, Pedro 2006
Waiting for Guffman Guest, Christopher 1996
Waking Life Linklater, Richard 2001
What Time Is It There? Ming-Liang, Tsai 2001
Where Is My Friend’s House? Kiarostami, Abbas 1987
Wild Reeds Techine, Andre 1994
Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown Almodovar, Pedro 1988
Written on the Wind Sirk, Douglas 1956
Y Tu Mamá También Cuaron, Alfonso 2001
Yi Yi Yang, Edward 2000
Young Frankenstein Brooks, Mel 1974

Film Journal: July 2020

Speaking Parts

With The Criterion Channel now streaming Atom Egoyan’s first seven features (plus an eighth, actually his eleventh), I decided to start rewatching them in order—my first viewings of all except for Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter in over twenty years. So far, Next of Kin is as unique and assured a debut as I remember, Family Viewing a more ambitious but less resonant follow-up (before this rewatch, I barely recalled anything about it) and Speaking Parts less frustrating and infinitely more layered this time around. Having a blast doing this, so expect more deep chronological dives into directors’ filmographies in the future.

Got to see two early Miranda July shorts on Criterion as well (in July! That didn’t occur to me until after the fact.) Both are inessential compared to her first feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know (which could also use a rewatch) although it’s genuinely interesting to see July run through numerous ideas (particularly in Nest of Tens) that she would fully realize (albeit in mutated forms) in Me and You…

My highest rating of the month goes to The Living End, which I hadn’t seen since 1997 when it nearly changed my life in terms of queer depiction/representation, its frank approach to gay sex and desire and Araki’s DIY spirit. It holds up far better than expected thanks to how well it captures an ultra-specific zeitgeist and also for its daring, humanizing ending. Also revisited My Own Private Idaho, an invaluable record of River Phoenix’s presence (and Gus Van Sant’s talent before he pivoted to the mainstream) and The Age of Innocence, one of Scorsese’s most improbable, successful adaptations.

As for new movies, I checked out two at PIFF’s reimagined-for-streaming edition of their annual festival. Black Bear is, in some ways, a riff on Mulholland Drive-style duality without David Lynch’s genius or flair for the bizarre, but it becomes its own thing by the end, with Aubrey Plaza here nearly as good as Naomi Watts was there. Stage Mother is far more conventional and sentimental, but entertaining and affecting thanks to great work from Jacki Weaver.

Got to a few things that were on my watchlist forever: The Sheltering Sky (as odd as you’d expect from a Bertolucci/Malkovich/Winger pairing), Kramer Vs. Kramer (Hoffman’s iconic, but I prefer Baumbach’s homage/update Marriage Story), Gaslight (the best Bergman?), two from Godard’s peak period (neither of which compel like Band of Outsiders or Pierrot le Fou) and Jacques Demy’s Model Shop, a provocative time capsule of Los Angeles, 1968 reflecting back a metropolis both tarnished and sinister even a year before the Manson Murders.

Films viewed in July in chronological order, with director, year of release and my rating (out of 10)

David Holzman’s Diary (Jim McBride, 1967) 6
Golden Eighties (Chantal Akerman, 1986) 8
Next Of Kin (Atom Egoyan, 1984)* 8
The Queen of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield, 2012)* 7
Disclosure (Sam Feder, 2020) 6
The Amateurist (Miranda July, 1998) 5
The Sheltering Sky (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1990) 8
The Living End (Gregg Araki, 1992)* 9
Mucho Mucho Amor (Kareem Tabsch, Cristina Costantini, 2020) 7
The Married Woman (Jean-Luc Godard, 1964) 7
Edie (Simon Hunter, 2017) 6
Nostalgia For The Light (Patricio Guzman, 2010) 6
Family Viewing (Egoyan, 1987)* 7
The Boy With Green Hair (Joseph Losey, 1948) 6
Stage Mother (Thom Fitzgerald, 2020) 7
Black Bear (Lawrence Michael Levine, 2020) 8
Kramer Vs. Kramer (Robert Benton, 1979) 7
Nest of Tens (July, 2000) 6
My Own Private Idaho (Gus Van Sant, 1991)* 8
Gaslight (George Cukor, 1944) 7
Yes, God, Yes (Karen Maine, 2019) 7
A.C.O.D. (Stuart Zicherman, 2013) 4
The Age of Innocence (Martin Scorsese, 1993)* 8
Made In U.S.A (Godard, 1966) 6
Tchoupitoulas (Turner Ross, Bill Ross IV, 2012) 7
Speaking Parts (Egoyan, 1989)* 8
Model Shop (Jacques Demy, 1969) 8

Film Journal: June 2020

“Think Pink!” from The Garden

This month, I decided I’d tackle all five of the Martin Scorsese shorts just made available for streaming on The Criterion Channel; viewing one per week, “Marty Mondays” became one of my few constants in this uncertain time. Italianamerican is far and away the standout of the five, thanks primarily to the charisma and moxie of Marty’s mother (a given if you’ve ever seen Goodfellas), with American Boy (an extended interview with a real character) and The Big Shave (brief, experimental Vietnam protest) also worth a look.

In fact, 2/3 of the titles below are from Criterion Channel, which certainly makes streaming more fun in the time of COVID. I can only imagine what I could’ve gotten out of it had it existed 22 years ago when I was a film student and renting 4-6 tapes a week from the Allston Videosmith. Why, I wouldn’t have had to wait decades to see that one Gregg Araki feature that didn’t seem to be available anywhere (maybe due to that title?) or The United States of America, which finally proved to me that Structuralist Cinema need not always be boring but is occasionally breathtaking.

On Criterion, I also checked out two works by previously-unknown-to-me Khalik Allah, whom, while not always as riveting as you wish he could be, is doing something unlike any other filmmaker right now. I was less taken with Chloe Zhao’s first feature and recent European arthouse flicks such as Synonyms and Zombi Child than I was by Mark Cousins’ sweet coda to his epic The Story of Film series, one of two decent Orson Welles docs I took in. Also, I’m beginning to think Luis Bunuel just isn’t my thing (apart from loving Belle Du Jour when I saw it decades ago.)

Not too many new films: I was annoyed while watching Josephine Decker’s Shirley, which initially felt stilted and precocious until I got to the end and understood the full scope of what she was doing, subverting the biopic in a way I hadn’t seen before; it might end up on my year-end top ten list. Tommaso certainly won’t, despite another intricate Willem Dafoe performance (Ferrara destroys most of the goodwill Dafoe accumulates with a batshit insane last ten minutes.) Leslie Woodhead’s Ella Fitzgerald doc won’t make a best-of list either, but any fan of its subject will find a lot to love in it.

This month’s re-watches provided my highest ratings: what remains my favorite Fassbinder film, what could end up my favorite Soderbergh film, and The Garden, one of three Jarman features I wrote my master’s thesis on. Unavailable digitally in the US until last year, I hadn’t seen it in nearly twenty. It’s challenging and imperfect but also wildly inventive and aesthetically pure—rarely has a filmmaker ever put so much of himself onscreen without censorship or pretense. So happy my fellow Americans can now see it without having to seek out a VHS copy.

Films viewed in June in chronological order, with director, year of release and my rating (out of 10)

What’s A Nice Girl Like You Doing In A Place Like This? (Martin Scorsese, 1963) 6
The United States of America (Bette Gordon and James Benning, 1975) 9
Songs My Brothers Taught Me (Chloe Zhao, 2015) 6
They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (Morgan Neville, 2018) 7
Totally Fucked Up (Gregg Araki, 1993) 8
Shirley (Josephine Decker, 2020) 8
Tommaso (Abel Ferrara, 2019) 5
The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunne, 1996) 7
It’s Not Just You, Murray! (Scorsese, 1964) 5
Urban Rashomon (Khalik Allah, 2013) 8
Tristana (Luis Bunuel, 1970) 6
Synonyms (Nadav Lapid, 2019) 6
Ali: Fear Eats The Soul (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1974)* 10
The Garden (Derek Jarman, 1990)* 10
Bonjour Tristesse (Otto Preminger, 1958) 7
The Big Shave (Scorsese, 1967) 7
Field Niggas (Allah, 2015) 7
Phase IV (Saul Bass, 1974) 5
Ninja III: The Domination (Sam Firstenberg, 1984) 6
Zombi Child (Bertrand Bonello, 2019) 5
Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee, 2020) 7
Italianamerican (Scorsese, 1974) 8
L’Age d’Or (Bunuel, 1930) 6
The Eyes Of Orson Welles (Mark Cousins, 2018) 8
The Land Of Steady Habits (Nicole Holofcener, 2018) 6
Blow The Man Down (Daniel Krudy and Bridget Savage Cole, 2019) 6
Ella Fitzgerald: Just One Of Those Things (Leslie Woodhead, 2019) 7
The Limey (Steven Soderbergh, 1999)* 9
American Boy: A Profile of Steven Prince (Scorsese, 1978) 7
Valley of The Dolls (Mark Robson, 1967)* 5

Film Journal: May 2020

High and Low

Cinemas remain closed, but there’s no shortage of new movies available to stream online, whether through Netflix or Hulu or your local indie theatre’s website (like this one.) I saw a number of titles this way that might’ve had a traditional theatrical release, pre-pandemic. The best included Driveways, an earnest but whip-smart coming-of-age film featuring Brian Dennehy’s last performance (start the posthumous Oscar campaign now—it’s a superb farewell); Straight Up, which puts a novel, modern, undeniably queer spin on the screwball rom-com; and The Painter and The Thief, a documentary about an unlikely friendship, assembled like a gradually completed puzzle.

As for the rest of the new: cult French auteur/techno musician Quentin Dupieux returns with Deerskin, another transgressive weird-o-rama, but it has an ace in the hole with lead Jean Dujardin fully committing to such absurdity; On A Magical Night (a much different French film) is somehow simultaneously enchanting and irritating whenever it’s not boring. Alan Yang’s Tigertail is half a great picture (specifically, the flashbacks) with cinematography I would’ve liked to have seen in a theatre (these days, wouldn’t we all?) but less dull than docs that are well-intended (A Secret Love) or entertaining if wildly misshapen (This One’s For The Ladies.)

Two masterworks viewed for the first time: High and Low, an Akira Kurosawa kidnapping thriller that cannily spends its first hour in a single setting, then gradually expands both its physical and emotional spheres until it culminates in one of the most exciting extended sequences I’ve ever seen (even more so than the admirable, silent, thirty-minute heist in Rififi); and The Best Years Of Our Lives, as much a film about the year it was made as you’re ever likely to find in classic Hollywood, and made immortal by non-professional actor Harold Russell’s genuine, endearing performance.

Other great discoveries: It’s Always Fair Weather, which deserves to be as well-known as On The Town (if not Singin’ In The Rain); Taipei Story, an earlier film from the director of Yi Yi and a rare acting showcase for fellow Taiwanese auteur Hou Hsiao-hsien; and Targets, Peter Bogdanovich’s first feature and startling in how ahead of its time it was, and also in how perfectly it captured it.

As for re-watches, Images holds up about as well as Mauvais Sang, both of ‘em benefiting from their leads; slightly better than either is Orlando, which might still be the quintessential Tilda Swinton vehicle. As for Moonrise Kingdom, it remains Wes Anderson’s best of the past decade-and-a-half (we’ll see how The French Dispatch measures up, hopefully this October.)

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

The Out-of-Towners (Arthur Hiller, 1970)* 7
A Secret Love (Chris Bolan, 2020) 6
Tigertail (Alan Yang, 2020) 7
Targets (Peter Bogdanovich, 1968) 9
This One’s For The Ladies (Gene Graham, 2018) 5
Taipei Story (Edward Yang, 1985) 8
Tomboy (Celine Sciamma, 2011) 9
49th Parallel (Michael Powell, 1941) 8
Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, 1954)* 9
Deerskin (Quentin Dupieux, 2019) 7
It’s Always Fair Weather (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1955) 9
Private Life (Tamara Jenkins, 2018) 8
Orlando (Sally Potter, 1992)* 8
High and Low (Akira Kurosawa, 1963) 10
Straight Up (James Sweeney, 2019) 8
It Felt Like Love (Eliza Hittman, 2013) 6
Driveways (Andrew Ahn, 2019) 8
Rififi (Jules Dassin, 1955) 7
Stolen Kisses (Francois Truffaut, 1968) 7
Images (Robert Altman, 1972)* 7
On A Magical Night (Christophe Honore, 2019) 6
Losing Ground (Kathleen Collins, 1982) 8
Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, 2012)* 10
Waiting For Guffman (Christopher Guest, 1996)* 9
Mauvais Sang (Leos Carax, 1986)* 7
The Painter and The Thief (Benjamin Ree, 2020) 8
The Best Years Of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946) 10
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (Alexandra Dean, 2017) 7

Film Journal: April 2020

Day For Night

Honestly, few films I’ve viewed in this second month of quarantine have provided as much pleasure as the first two seasons of Succession, which I binged after HBO made it and a few other shows temporarily free to non-subscribers. Epic, hilarious, nasty and blatantly (and effectively) Shakespearean, it’s both a balm to and a mirror of these times.

Still, as I work through my various streaming queues, a few close contenders emerge. Day For Night, the first post-Jules and Jim Truffaut I’ve seen is one of the great movies-about-movies in part because it delves so deeply into process without seeming too inside-baseball; it also reactivated my interest in the Antoine Doinel films, so Antoine and Colette, the first one after The 400 Blows is a trifle by design (thirty minutes, part of a multi-director anthology), but Truffaut’s perfectly suited for crafting trifles with heft and weight.

Also pretty good: that long-unreleased Orson Welles film on Netflix, which is a mess at first but eventually stumbles upon the genius you’d expect from the man; a Mike Leigh short that neatly condenses material for a feature-length film into a compact frame; Fleck/Boden’s best effort since Half-Nelson; Beineix’s ultra-stylish-and-just-as-moving early ‘80s thriller (which I tried watching once years before but must’ve dozed off pretty early into it, because I didn’t remember a thing about it); and, a relatively late Powell/Pressburger flick that’s unlike anything else they did and, simultaneously, something that could come from no one else.

I last saw Scenes From A Marriage more than two decades ago in a film class and it remains my favorite Bergman (television origins and all) for its surgical focus, wringing so much thought and emotion out of such bare essentials. Stories We Tell, which I rewatched for a work project, also remains the most innovative documentary from the past decade, while Klute also holds up nicely though this time I was more in thrall to Gordon Willis’ cinematography than Jane Fonda’s admittedly iconic performance.

Biggest letdowns included Hale County This Morning This Evening, especially after all the raves it received at the end of 2018 (“Pretty but aimless” is my three-word review) and Kinetta, an early film from the director of Dogtooth and The Favourite (a case of not-quite-there-yet.) As for most notable What-Did-I-Just-Watch titles, Greener Grass is silly but almost enchantingly weird at times for its commitment to such weirdness, while Bunny Lake Is Missing starts off as Hitchcock before turning into proto-Haneke in the last half hour—if you think of Keir Dullea as something of an automaton based on 2001: A Space Odyssey, well, this will irrevocably change that.

Films viewed in April in chronological order, with director, year of release and my rating (out of 10.)

The Booksellers (D.W. Young, 2019) 6
Hale County This Morning, This Evening (RaMell Ross, 2018) 4
Welcome To L.A. (Alan Rudolph, 1976) 5
The Small Back Room (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1949) 8
Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts (Nicholas Zeig-Owens, 2019) 7
The Short & Curlies (Mike Leigh, 1987) 8
The Hunger (Tony Scott, 1983) 7
Day For Night (Francois Truffaut, 1973) 9
The Queen (Frank Simon, 1968) 6
Isn’t It Romantic (Todd Strauss-Schulson, 2019) 5
Mississippi Grind (Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, 2015) 8
Scenes From A Marriage (Ingmar Bergman, 1974)* 10
Sissy-Boy Slap-Party (Guy Maddin, 2004)* 8
Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, 2012)* 10
The Wonders (Alice Rohrwacher, 2014) 6
The Last Waltz (Martin Scorsese, 1978) 7
Kinetta (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2005) 5
Klute (Alan J. Pakula, 1971)* 8
The Sapphires (Wayne Blair, 2012) 6
Cinema Verite (Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, 2011) 5
Bunny Lake Is Missing (Otto Preminger, 1965) 8
Antoine and Colette (Truffaut, 1962) 7
The Other Side Of The Wind (Orson Welles, 2018) 8
Circus of Books (Rachel Mason, 2019) 6
Hector and The Search For Happiness (Peter Chelsom, 2014) 3
Diva (Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1981) 8
Greener Grass (Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe, 2019) 6

Film Journal: March 2020

First Cow

I used to post monthly reports collecting thoughts (no matter how succinct) about every film I watched. While I still write individual reviews (which can be found on Letterboxd), I thought I’d start doing a monthly summation here as well—at least as long as the COVID-19 pandemic continues and I have time to watch close to twice as much stuff as usual.

Four of the first ten titles here were viewed for Chlotrudis Awards (where I managed to see all but four of the nominated films.) The keeper in this bunch was The Art of Self-Defense, a love-it-or-hate-it indie whose dry, bordering on absurd humor was right up my alley (see also Lemon.) Thankfully, First Cow was one of the last movies I got to see in a theatre before the mass shutdowns (snuck in to the second-to-last screening—full disclosure, I work at an indie cinema); more than a month on, I’m so grateful for this, as Kelly Reichardt’s latest might be her best: applying considerably high narrative/emotional stakes to such richly detailed “slow” filmmaking, it’s also a fine portrait of friendship between two men (a concept still very much a rarity in 2020.)

Most of what follows was viewed on The Criterion Channel, Hulu and Amazon Prime, though not everything—most notably, The Green Fog, which is streaming for free on Vimeo and essential for fans of Guy Maddin and Vertigo (a guaranteed crossover?). Criterion, in particular is an invaluable resource for filling in the cracks in my extensive moviegoing, from Malle’s wistful but never foolish depiction of an anachronism in a changing world to the delightfully anarchic but compulsively watchable Daisies. Also revisited The Swimmer, which I absolutely hated sixteen years ago. Now, in my mid-40s and having consumed seven seasons of Mad Men, I sort of get it, admiring its innate weirdness rather than being repulsed by it.

Also nice to finally see a proper presentation of Teorema (first viewing long ago was a poorly dubbed 16mm print-to-VHS), A Place In The Sun (on my watchlist forever, and maybe my favorite Clift performance, if not the best film he was ever in), first features from the directors of Toni Erdmann and It Follows, and most of all, Glitterbug, a montage of Jarman’s Super 8 work I’ve owned for over a decade (as part of the Glitterbox set) but never got around to seeing until now. Thank you, pandemic?

Films viewed in March in chronological order, with director, year of release and my rating (out of 10.) *Denotes I’ve seen this title before.

Emma. (Autumn de Wilde, 2020) 6
Auggie (Matt Kane, 2019) 3
Wendy (Benh Zeitlin, 2020) 4
The Art of Self-Defense (Riley Stearns, 2019) 8
Horse Girl (Jeff Baena, 2020) 5
A Moment In Love (Shirley Jackson, 1956) 7
The Times of Bill Cunningham (Mark Bozek, 2018) 5
First Cow (Kelly Reichardt, 2019) 9
Little Woods (Nia DaCosta, 2018) 7
Rafiki (Wanuri Kahiu, 2018) 6
Atlantic City (Louis Malle, 1980) 8
Teorema (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1968)* 8
The Myth of the American Sleepover (David Robert Mitchell, 2010) 7
Le Bonheur (Agnes Varda, 1965) 8
Bullfight (Jackson, 1955) 6
The Green Fog (Evan Johnson, Galen Johnson, Guy Maddin, 2017) 8
The Swimmer (Frank Perry, 1968)* 7
Cold Case Hammerskjold (Mads Brugger, 2019) 7
Ad Astra (James Gray, 2019) 6
The Forest For The Trees (Maren Ade, 2003) 8
The Falling (Carol Morley, 2014) 6
A Place In The Sun (George Stevens, 1951) 8
The Skeleton Twins (Craig Johnson, 2014)* 7
Daisies (Vera Chytilova, 1966) 9
Bisbee ’17 (Robert Greene, 2018) 8
Glitterbug (Derek Jarman, 1994) 9