1981: Feeling Like A Woman, Looking Like A Man

The peak year for post-punk, 1981 even had its own theme song of sorts in Kim Wilde’s immortal “Kids In America”. It came from the synth-end of that spectrum, along with other such newfangled artists as Depeche Mode, OMD and Soft Cell (not to mention then-veterans Kraftwerk); from the guitar-end, you had The English Beat, Pretenders, The Go-Go’s, even the good ol’ Ramones. More often than not, however, post-punk encompassed a canny blend of the two, an in-between space that collected oddballs from Romeo Void (with Deborah Iyall wailing “I might like you better if we slept together” over and over again into the void) to Adam & The Ants, whose “Prince Charming” is surely one of the oddest UK number one hits of the 80s.

On that note, Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” is easily the oddest UK number two hit ever, a free-form, spoken word proto-AMSR tone poem spread out over eight minutes. As a six-year-old in Wisconsin, I didn’t hear it until I was in my twenties. My favorite song at the time was undoubtedly the famous-orchestral-flourishes-over-a-drum-machine-beat medley “Hooked On Classics”; I remember becoming ecstatic whenever it came on the radio and I fully appreciated its recent appearance in the gay sex montage in the first episode of It’s A Sin.

Most of the stuff I knew at the time came from Solid Gold and my parents’ preferred soft rock station; while I have a nagging respect for some of it, you won’t see the likes of Air Supply, Christopher Cross or even Rick Springfield here. But Kim Carnes’ husky voice (and slap-happy music video) for “Bette Davis Eyes” endures, as does Lindsey Buckingham’s “Trouble” (he had no good reason to keep such gibberish in the intro, but I’m thankful he did) and ABBA’s startling, verging-on-new-wave “The Visitors” (Who are these “Visitors”? Immigrant hordes? Alien invaders? Mere figments of the singer’s imagination?)

This is the year hip-hop begins to seep (however slowly) into pop culture. Although I didn’t include Blondie’s “Rapture” (too obvious, opting for Debbie Harry’s flimsier but kookier solo effort) or Grandmaster Flash, I did make room for the soon-to-be heavily-sampled ESG and Tom Tom Club, plus Frankie Smith’s novelty crossover and Gil Scott-Heron’s epic proto-rap Reagan takedown. Inevitably, my attention shifts over to post-disco anthems by Taana Gardner, Was (Not Was) and former disco diva herself Grace Jones—Nightclubbing, her gender-bending (and genre-bending) apotheosis has steadily grown into one of my favorite albums since first hearing it just four years ago, with slinky, sultry “Walking In The Rain” a perfect leadoff track.

My 1981 Playlist:

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

24 Frames: Monty Python and The Holy Grail

Introducing 24 Frames, a new project where I write about movies—not necessarily my all-time favorites (although many of them will be) but those that had a significant impact on the way I watched and perceived movies in general. Aiming for a blend of film criticism and memoir with these, just as I occasionally did for music on 100 Albums. Essays will appear in chronological order of when I first viewed a film. Also, spoilers are guaranteed in each of these essays.

*****

Growing up, movies were just another leisure activity for me, as commonplace as walks in the park, visits to museums or Sunday drives out of the city. Going to “See a Show” (as my dad often called it) meant very little other than a social activity to partake in with friends and family until I hit my twenties.

Which is not to say I didn’t have any memorable childhood moviegoing experiences. From Disney’s Pinocchio, my first time in a cinema at age four (I have no actual memory of this, but my mom often mentioned it, never failing to note how scared I was) through roughly my early teens, like any good parents, my folks kept watch over what I saw. At ten, Back To The Future was entirely acceptable, even if the incest-leaning subplot between Marty and his mother was completely over my head (I did feel a little embarrassed watching with my parents the scene where Lea Thompson shows a bit of skin in the car with Michael J. Fox.)

Still, five years later, my mom forbid me to see the racy, R-rated Rob Lowe/James Spader thriller Bad Influence after my buddy Mike had won two tickets to it in a radio contest. By then, I was going out to the movies with friends instead of exclusively with my parents. Mike and I never tried to get into R-rated stuff, but we’d watch such things as The Addams Family or Joe Versus the Volcano (I rarely missed a Tom Hanks film in that post-Dragnet, pre-Philadelphia period) at pretty much the same places I went to see Harry and The Hendersons or Return To Oz with my parents a few years before.

However, I had to go beyond the local multiplexes or, in fact, any theater to stumble across a movie that, for the first time, expanded my idea of what one could be and also feel like it was somehow made just for me. This happened during a classmate’s birthday party at her split-level suburban home. It was less a “Sweet Sixteen” than a decidedly casual gathering—no getting-to-know-you icebreakers or games, just the usual opening of gifts, cutting of the cake and unfettered socializing.

After cake, the birthday girl wanted to watch a movie. Squealing with glee, she put her tape of Monty Python and The Holy Grail (which I’ll shorten to Holy Grail from here on) into the VCR. About twenty of us congregated into the family room as it began. I’d heard of but wasn’t too well versed in this old British comedy troupe, having watched Monty Python’s Flying Circus on MTV occasionally for a minute or two while flipping through channels.

I had no expectations when the film’s title first appeared in white on a black screen accompanied by a loud, dramatic minor chord on the soundtrack. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the title again at the bottom of the screen in tiny letters. Something was off—it was in a foreign language which I didn’t yet recognize to be a sort of pidgin Swedish. This continued, unexplained for the next few frames of the credits roll, although it was soon obviously clear the subtitles weren’t matching up with their English counterparts. Under various crew member names, the subtitles consisted of such incongruities as, “Wi nøt trei a høliday in Sweden this yër?”and “Including the majestik møøse” (the latter under a string of credits arranged in the form a note erroneously “Signed RICHARD M. NIXON”.)

Then, the increasingly suspenseful score dwindled to a stop as if someone turned off the record player. Credits in a different font read, “We apologise for the fault in the subtitles. Those responsible have been sacked”; unfamiliar with that British colloquialism, I pictured someone getting hit in the head with a giant literal sack, not unlike the fake 16-ton weight that occasionally fell from the sky on characters on Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

The credits resumed, sans subtitles, seemingly normal until they definitely were not, becoming increasingly moose-centric: “Møøse trained to mix concrete and sign complicated insurance forms (by) JURGEN WIGG”, for instance. Soon enough, the score stopped again, followed by an additional insert informing us of more people getting sacked and a notice that “The credits have been completed in an entirely different style at great expense and at the last minute”—in this case, on a yellow flicker screen with celebratory Mariachi music, many mentions of llamas (including directorial credits to a few) and, at the very end, one at the bottom for the film’s actual directors (and Python members) Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones, kissed by a feisty “OLE!” on the soundtrack.

I had never before laughed so wildly at an opening credits sequence. It did what one was supposed to do while also frequently inciting total anarchy, not only spoofing the idea of mismatched subtitles but also breaking the so-called fourth wall, acting as if the credits were being constructed on the spot as the audience viewed them. Was the entire movie going to be like this? It certainly drew me in.

After a title card (ENGLAND, 932 A.D.) in a ridiculously ostentatious font, King Arthur (Graham Chapman) and his trusty assistant Patsy (Gilliam) arrive at a castle, not riding horses but banging two coconuts together to emulate the sound of their hooves (a solution to the expense and hassle of filming with actual horses.) The castle’s unnamed Lookout wonders where they had possibly found coconuts in England; it is suggested an African swallow could’ve carried them over and a back-and-forth ensues about swallows, their weight and air velocity, etc. Arthur and Patsy, bored, move on, coconuts at the ready.

Holy Grail initially feels like little more than a series of Medieval-centric sketches that could easily slot into the troupe’s TV show (which had aired its fourth and final season the same year.) A man (Eric Idle) strolls through a peasant village pushing his cart, collecting bodies (“Bring out yer dead!”) with a methodical nonchalance as if it were just an ordinary trash day. Arthur and Patsy briefly pass through and in the next scene, the former has an argument with an anachronistic, Marxism-spouting peasant (Michael Palin). They “ride” on into the forest and meet The Black Knight, who challenges Arthur’s authority with a duel, refusing to back down as the latter proceeds to hack off all his limbs. A line of marching, chanting monks methodically whack their own heads in unison with enormous books while Sir Bedevere (Jones) listens to an angry mob of men grasping at straws to prove that a young woman is actually a witch, to which Arthur joins the conversation.

It’s not until Bedevere and Arthur meet that the film’s narrative starts taking shape. We hear from an offscreen narrator about how they assemble the Knights of the Round Table (via a cutaway to “The Book of The Film”); following a brief musical interlude regarding the castle Camelot (done in the style of a rousing, Gilbert and Sullivan-esque number), a deliberately hastily-animated (by Gilliam) God appears from the heavens and informs Arthur and his knights of their heavenly quest, which is to find the film’s titular sacred object. From there, the episodic structure returns as knights individually split off to seek the Grail, only for them all to reunite in the final third to confront such obstacles as a killer rabbit, The Bridge of Death and a castle curiously guarded by some discourteous Frenchmen.

As with their TV show, Python loves a good running gag for the sake of a punchline and Holy Grail is chock full of them: numerous variations on the phrases “I’m not quite yet dead” and “I’m getting better!”; a fey Prince whom continually threatens to break into song, only for his father to plead to the camera to literally stop the swelling music; Arthur’s inability to count to three (substituting the word “five” only to be immediately corrected by one of his crew, “Three, sir!”); even the opening debate regarding swallows gets a callback when we first see Bedevere (attempting to release an actual swallow with a coconut tied to its leg), and later when it turns up the subject of one of the questions the Gatekeeper (Gilliam again) asks in order to allow passage over the Bridge of Death.

Motifs like these are common in comedies—just consult the work of Mel Brooks, whose Young Frankenstein, made around the same time as Holy Grail, features Gene Wilder’s titular character, an operatic tyrant not all that far removed from Chapman’s Arthur. But Holy Grail is more than just gags for the sake of being funny—as it goes on, it further deconstructs the very idea of itself, going all the way back to those opening credits. No matter how invested one becomes in the plot (and all the little side-plots) or the characters, the film keeps viewers aware that it’s only a movie (not unlike Patsy sniffing at Camelot in his sole line of dialogue, “It’s only a model”) and that none of it is real—a big risk for any movie to take considering it’s a medium that usually relies on an audience’s suspension of disbelief.

In addition to the aforementioned “The Book of The Film”, Holy Grail exhibits such self-awareness by referring to one sequence as “Scene 24” (I haven’t counted to see whether it actually is the 24th scene onscreen), stopping the action when a character pauses, looks at the camera as says, mid-scene, “Do you think this scene should’ve been cut?” (in fact, this part was cut and I didn’t see it reinstated until the film was first released on DVD) or an animated stretch where the cast is chased by a grotesque monster until the narrator tells us, “Suddenly, the animator suffered a fatal heart attack!” (cut to Gilliam drawing at his desk and quickly keeling over), continuing, “The cartoon peril was no more; the quest for the Holy Grail could continue.”

Holy Grail’s riskiest, most outlandish conceit arrives roughly a half-hour in when it cuts to an elderly man in contemporary scholarly clothes referred to as “A FAMOUS HISTORIAN.” As he excitedly lectures the camera about Arthur and the quest for the Grail, a knight on a horse (possibly Sir Lancelot (John Cleese)), face concealed gallops into the frame and slashes the poor sod’s throat, leaving the scene of the crime as quickly as he arrived. A grieving woman runs into the frame over to the slain body and cries out, “Frank!”

The film resumes as if this was just a silly aberration, but we’re far from done with the incident. About fifteen minutes pass before the grieving woman reappears along with two policeman, looking over the slain Frank. Later, the policemen and a detective, searching through the forest, overhear an explosion that is the killer rabbit getting obliterated by the Holy Hand Grenade. These dialogue-free scenes are so brief you might miss them; still, we know something is up late in the film when Arthur suddenly wonders where Lancelot has disappeared to and we cut to the latter arrested and detained, being searched as he stands, submissive, with his hands on a police car.

This strange counter-narrative doesn’t fully pay off until the final scene when, Arthur having assembled an army of hundreds (seemingly out of thin air) to storm a castle rumored to be holding the Grail, leads their charge only for the siren-blaring police car to cut them off. The grieving woman from earlier walks towards him and tells the police, “Yes, they’re the ones, I’m sure!” The detective leads Arthur into the back of a paddy wagon, a blanket put over his head. A policeman with a megaphone breaks up the more disappointed-than-disgruntled army and then implores the cameraman to stop filming (“Alright Sonny, that’s enough!”), putting his hand up against the lens. Everything goes white and then fades to black. Jaunty organ music plays on a blank screen for nearly three minutes. The End.

That first watch, I recall feeling more bewildered than disappointed at such an absurd ending. Admittedly, my attention had wavered in and out through the film’s duration; given its purposely episodic structure, I wonder if that was partially by design. I’d see it again six months later when it happened to air on a local UHF channel one evening. Of course, this broadcast was heavily edited for TV, not only cutting out naughty words and excessive gore, but changing the ending from a blank screen to a replay of the opening credits (at least the incongruous organ music was intact!) Eventually, Comedy Central would air a cut closer to the theatrical version that I’d watch again and again until the DVD arrived a decade later.

Even after I saw it numerous times, I still lazily dismissed the film’s ending, thinking it sort of… fell apart, not even making an effort to conclude its narrative in a satisfying way—just one of many unconventionally fun and different things about it. Even after earning a master’s degree in Film Studies, I clung to this opinion, and why not? To paraphrase Arthur’s concluding thoughts on Camelot after that whirlwind production number, “Holy Grail? It is a silly film.”

Of course, one of Monty Python’s greatest achievements was not only indulging in silliness but also taking it seriously—at least to the point before getting pretentious about it. While Holy Grail’s ending is not nearly one of the film’s funniest moments, it is one of its boldest. By allowing the modern day figures to not only intrude the action but literally bring the film to a close is a near-genius move. Think you’ve been watching a satirical goof about Medieval England? Well, how about something where a bunch of men film themselves dressed up as figures from Medieval England, assuming the roles of fictional characters, wreaking havoc, doing whatever they want until, after ninety minutes, they’re finally forced to stop?

The more one considers the implications of this, the more layers Holy Grail accumulates. One could think, “Yes, you’re watching a film. Of course, none of it’s real. Perhaps these people onscreen are delusional—this guy in the crown actually thinks he’s a King, the git!” And yet, such transparency doesn’t obscure the notion Holy Grail remains an entertaining comedy and an enjoyable spoof, not to mention a perfectly silly film.

While it took years for me to appreciate the movie and its ending on all of those levels, not long after that first viewing I did start taping Monty Python’s Flying Circus reruns whenever I could and eventually watched their other four feature films (I appreciated them all but have never felt as connected to any of them as Holy Grail); it also pointed the way towards humor more unconventional and intricate than what I previously knew, indirectly leading to Mystery Science Theater 3000, George Carlin’s stand-up and even old Beatles albums, whose wit and wordplay I hadn’t fully detected when I’d heard their hits on the radio as a kid.

Holy Grail didn’t turn me into a cineaste; on that first viewing, I responded more to the content than the form. But it was an early peak, an opening, a faint suggestion that movies offered much more than I had previously thought.

Essay #1 of 24 Frames.

 Go ahead to #2: The Piano.

Charles River Esplanade, 1998

For my 23rd birthday, I received a new point-and-shoot film camera. Having moved to Boston without a camera six months before, I headed out the following Sunday to make good use of my gift.

I walked all over central Boston: Back Bay, Beacon Hill, The North End and Government Center; I spent the most time going up and down the Charles River Esplanade, most famously home to the Hatch Memorial Shell, a concert venue.

From there, I crossed the Longfellow Bridge from Boston to Cambridge, the Red Line T rushing by in the middle of it.

It was chilly crossing the bridge, but worth it for the stunning views of the Back Bay skyline, then and now flanked by the tall, gleaming John Hancock Tower and the slightly shorter Prudential Center.

On the Cambridge side of the Charles, I passed MIT and took a short detour to see the campus’ renowned Great Dome up close.

I crossed the Charles back into Boston along the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge; I’ve walked it from one side to the other in either direction many times since then.

As I made my way back to my Allston apartment, I walked past the George Sherman Union at Boston University…

…and also along one of the footbridges over Storrow Drive that connects the Esplanade with the rest of the city.

Camera in tow, I returned to the Esplanade on Easter Sunday some six weeks later.

Spring was in bloom, but the air was still cool. The park wasn’t empty, but it wasn’t exactly crowded, either.

I took so many walks that first year in Boston, getting to know the lay of the land mostly by foot.

I made some friends through school, but I had to learn to be on my own. I thrived most doing so when I was not confined to my small apartment but out in the world.

I was lonely, but it was an important experience to have. In time, I understood what it meant to be independent, that I didn’t always have to rely on others to feel valued or whole.

In the years to come, I’d often forget that feeling, reverting back to a fear of being alone, equating it with a lack of fulfillment.  However, I eventually grew to appreciate having that time to myself, whether via a long walk from the Public Garden all the way down to the Waterfront or a simple stroll in my own neighborhood. With smartphones, I rarely carry a camera with me anymore, except on special excursions where I bring my Sony DSLR. Still, even with my phone, I often take pictures of the simplest and occasionally most profound things I’ll spot while walking around my city.

1984: Love Never Ends

Having recently read Michaelangelo Matos’ Can’t Slow Down, a thorough assessment of how 1984 was an especially important year for pop music, it’s an ideal time for me to post my own list of favorites from that year (also, it happens to be the most recent year I have yet to cover on this blog.)

Given that 1984 produced Purple Rain, Born In The USA, Private Dancer, Make It Big, Let It Be (Replacements, not The Beatles, naturally), Zen Arcade and This Is Spinal Tap (which I couldn’t resist including a track from here), I don’t need to further the argument for this year being special. Even beyond LPs, 1984 was flush with classic hit singles, from Chaka Khan’s transformative Prince cover to the beginning of Madonna’s world-conquering run to era-defining anthems by Thompson Twins and General Public to, well, “Weird Al” Yankovic capturing the zeitgeist with his so-obvious-it’s-almost-brilliant Michael Jackson parody.

As with any year, the stuff that missed Billboard entirely but lingered on in the collective unconscious is just as noteworthy. Nine years old at the time, I didn’t even hear these selections from The Smiths, Echo & The Bunnymen, Bronski Beat, The Nails and Hoodoo Gurus until at least a decade later when I was a college student and the local Alternative Rock station aired their daily “Retro Flashback Lunch” hour dedicated to post-punk new wave gems.

However, it’s in the margins where ’84 truly fascinates. Billy Bragg’s electric but spare folk music sits next to Kirsty MacColl’s big pop cover of one of his songs. Rubber Rodeo reinterprets the Pretenders’ jumpy rock with a western twang. Cocteau Twins seem to beam out from their own planet with a sugary wall of sound and pleasantly indecipherable vocals. Everything But The Girl subsists on their own jazz-and-bossa-nova-suffused plane. XTC continues to make perfect pop music while defying nearly everything the rest of the world describes as such.

If I had to pick one song that obviously sums up the year, it’d be “Sexcrime (1984)” by the Eurythmics, but it’s not on Spotify so I’ll go with a sweet techno-pop movie theme (about a love triangle between a man, woman and computer!) from the lead singer of The Human League and the electronic music pioneer whom seven years before gave us Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”.

My 1984 playlist:

Films Watched, January 2021

Housekeeping

For me, January is usually a mad rush of consuming recent titles from my watchlist before submitting my Chlotrudis Awards nominations; despite the pandemic, this year was no exception. In fact, my number of eligible films seen was the highest it has been since 2006, which makes sense given I’ve viewed over 300 titles at home since things first shut down last March.

The best of this year’s recently-watched bounty: Kajillionaire (Miranda July, Richard Jenkins, Evan Rachel Wood playing a character named “Old Dolio”—what’s not to like?), Sorry We Missed You (never thought Ken Loach would seem more essential than Mike Leigh at this phase of their careers), Beanpole (Russian miserabilism, beautifully shot and not without humor), The Planters (Wes Anderson-ian in the best ways) and She Dies Tomorrow, which, while imperfect, is at least an original (and timely) take on apocalyptic dread. Also, two titles worth subscribing to Apple TV for: Wolfwalkers, a stirring Irish animated epic and Boys State, an engrossing doc that’s a complete microcosm of modern American politics in male teen Texan form.

A subscription to HBO Max (for Wonder Woman 1984, natch) enabled me to catch Bad Education (if this is the template for Hugh Jackman’s post-Wolverine career, more, please) and much buzzed-about docs on The Bee Gees and Jane Fonda; meanwhile, a deal on a subscription to MUBI, a very different streaming service, gave me an excuse to finally watch The Holy Mountain (exhausting but often inspired madness) and Terrorizers (an Edward Yang film that’s more technically accomplished but less emotionally satisfying than Taipei Story from the previous year) and revisit Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives. The latter, which I hadn’t seen in over 20 years, naturally led to breaking out my Blu-ray of The Long Day Closes (last watched about 7 years ago.) One of the most groundbreaking filmmakers of the last half-century, and a reminder that I want to revisit his third feature, The Neon Bible, also on MUBI.

Revisited an above-average amount of films this month, most notably two mid-70s features from John Cassavetes: A Woman Under The Influence (still his masterwork) and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, a deep-dive into a very particular Sunset Strip sleaze, tempered by the director’s most heartfelt and elaborate commentary on being part of a cast and putting on a show. From roughly the same period, also watched Chinatown for the first time this century, which holds up nicely as a blend of classic and New Hollywood sensibilities. Gillian Armstrong’s inexplicable New Wave musical Starstruck remains a curio, while Bill Forsyth’s good, underseen adaptation of Marilynne Robinson’s great novel Housekeeping should be as renown and beloved as Local Hero.

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

Midnight Family (Luke Lorentzen, 2019) 6
Death to 2020 (Al Campbell, Alice Mathias, 2020) 3
A Woman Under The Influence (John Cassavetes, 1974)* 10
Bridesmaids (Paul Feig, 2011)* 8
Sorry We Missed You (Ken Loach, 2019) 8
Princess Mononoke (Hayao Miyazaki, 1997) 8
She Dies Tomorrow (Amy Seimetz, 2020) 7
The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend A Broken Heart (Frank Marshall, 2020) 7
Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa, 2019) 6
Make Way For Tomorrow (Leo McCarey, 1937) 8
Kajillionaire (Miranda July, 2020) 8
Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974)* 10
Mamma Mia!: Here We Go Again (Ol Parker, 2018) 3
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (George C. Wolfe, 2020) 6
Beanpole (Kantemir Balagov, 2019) 8
Un Flic (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1972) 6
Wolfwalkers (Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart, 2020) 8
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (Cassavetes, 1976)* 8
Time (Garrett Bradley, 2020) 7
The Holy Mountain (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1973) 8
Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind (Martha Kehoe, Joan Tosoni, 2019) 6
Boys State (Amanda McBaine, Jesse Moss, 2020) 8
Housekeeping (Bill Forsyth, 1987)* 9
Cuties (Maimouna Doucoure, 2020) 6
Bad Education (Cory Finley, 2019) 8
The Forty-Year-Old Version (Radha Blank, 2020) 6
The Planters (Alexandra Kotcheff, Hannah Leder, 2019) 8
Red, White and Blue (Steve McQueen, 2020) 8
Terrorizers (Edward Yang, 1986) 6
Starstruck (Gillian Armstrong, 1982)* 7
Distant Voices, Still Lives (Terence Davies, 1988)* 8
The Long Day Closes (Davies, 1992)* 10
Jane Fonda In Five Acts (Susan Lacy, 2018) 7
Let Them All Talk (Steven Soderbergh, 2020) 6

Favorite Films of 2020

As always, “2020” is relative. Many of these titles have a copyright date of 2019 (a few even go back to 2018!) My #1 film received its initial theatrical release in 2019 but did not play my town until last February; likewise, most people won’t get to see my #3 film until it hits VOD and Hulu this February, although I had the fortune to view it at virtual TIFF last September. With exhibition presently and continually being redefined due to COVID, think of this as a list of the best new movies of the past year, including those that I could not have seen any earlier.

1. PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE
Celine Sciamma’s exquisite 18th century romance between two women, an artist (Noémie Merlant) and her subject (Adèle Haenel) gains so much power from taking the slow burn route, deploying all of its accoutrements sparingly, letting the connection between its two leads develop organically so that when it first reaches a crescendo in the astonishing feast scene midway through, one can’t help but be fully engaged in their fate. And, as that actual fate becomes apparent, it’s near-impossible not to feel and absorb the mad rush of emotions practically emanating from the screen, culminating in a simple but profound, powerful final shot.

2. SOUND OF METAL
Ruben, a noise-rock drummer (Riz Ahmed) loses his hearing—a succinct, seemingly clear-cut premise that director/co-writer Darius Marder (in an astonishing feature debut) expands and permutates into a far-reaching but compellingly interior study of losing control and the lengths we’ll go in order to retain it. Anchored by Ahmed’s terrific, immersive performance and buoyed by Paul Raci as his unsentimental counselor, Sound of Metal is a journey whose depth you would rarely find in a studio film; it’s also one of the best ever movies about addiction.

3. NOMADLAND
If anything, an advance on Chloe Zhao’s last film, The Rider, and not necessarily because she’s now working with an Oscar-winning actress (though McDormand is the best possible one for this type of project.) Nomadland retains the earlier film’s willingness to observe and illuminate rather than judge or persuade. Lyrical but not pretty, sorrowful but not miserable, reflective but not static, it may take place in 2012, but it fully embodies an era of American life that’s still with us and continues to unfold.

4. FIRST COW
This has a gentle, gestating narrative that requires patience, but it also rewards those who become invested in the fate of a 19th century cook (John Magaro) and a Chinese immigrant (Orion Lee) as they become unlikely friends and form an impromptu business partnership. What they build is forever precariously hanging by a string due to the titular animal that makes their potential fortune possible. By applying such high stakes to such richly detailed “slow” cinema, First Cow ends up filmmaker Kelly Reichardt’s most fully realized effort in years, possibly ever.

5. BLOODY NOSE, EMPTY POCKETS
The Ross Brothers nearly outdo themselves with their latest documentary, a fly-on-the-wall account of the last day of business for a Las Vegas dive bar. Initially resembling a Frederick Wiseman-directed, much seedier version of Cheers, it eventually reveals the all-too-human behavior of the bar’s assorted patrons, for good and for ill. To divulge anything more would spoil what the Ross’s are actually up to here; I will note that, watching this on November 3rd, it confirmed for me the character and compassion that I know my country is capable of.

6. BACURAU
Defying categorization, this references a variety of classic films but gradually reveals itself as a neo-take on one particular genre (it’s best to come into it not knowing what that is.) A fervent chaos surfaces in often thrilling ways–a drunken speech at a funeral, an unexpectedly brutal death, a certain 80s pop song on the soundtrack (also too good to give away here.) Bold, slightly erratic, gorgeous and, of all things, nearly as tuned into the modern world and its growing social-economic divide as Parasite.

7. AND THEN WE DANCED
This Georgian import focuses on Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani), an aspiring competitive dancer who falls for a new nonconformist male member of his troupe. It owes a lot to Call Me By Your Name, from the intense flirtation that develops between the two to Merab’s sympathetic faux-girlfriend. Fortunately, And Then We Danced easily transcends homage, not only by nature of telling its particular story in a culture where it is still highly taboo, but also in its Georgian dance sequences and in particular, that rapturous finale.

8. DAVID BYRNE’S AMERICAN UTOPIA
Initially thought this was going to be a lesser Stop Making Sense; while any kind of concert ex-Talking Heads frontman Byrne attempts will always live in its shadow, by the end of this, I was overcome by the same adrenaline rush I felt the first time I saw the Demme film. The humaneness and goodwill on display here may or may not resonate as effectively when viewed ten or twenty years from now; presently, it feels immense, a celebration of rhythm as the great unifier.

9. HAM ON RYE
A group of teens converge for a party at a local deli, and that’s arguably the only conventional aspect of Tyler Taormina’s auspicious debut feature. Simultaneously comforting and unnerving, it’s a fully-formed world both carefully resembling and greatly diverging from our own. Nearly as unique as (and far less upsetting than), say, Blue Velvet, it builds towards a ritualistic sequence that filled me with joy while also leaving me with so many questions (What was in those sandwiches? Is this what happens to Mormons?)

10. HOUSE OF HUMMINGBIRD
A working class study blessed by both a great lead performance from Ji-hu Park and writer/director Bora Kim’s nuanced, humanistic approach. Set in the ‘90s, it follows a teenage girl going through some ordinary but substantial issues with her family, friends and school—kind of like a South Korean Eighth Grade, only set in pre-internet/social media times. Mixing Mike Leigh-style class critique and Ozu-esque domestic drama with great finesse, this belongs on a short list of essential coming-of-age films.

11. BOYS STATE
This documentary about a conference of a thousand teenage boys from Texas who come together in state capital Austin to build a mock government complete with elected officials is thrillingly a total microcosm of the current American political climate.

12. COLLECTIVE
Can’t remember the last film (or documentary, no less) where I gasped or whispered “wow…” out loud so many times. This alarming level of corruption took place in Romania, but it could also all too easily happen here (and arguably has.)

13. NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS
As for scenes that explain the title of a curiously-titled film, this is one of the best–certainly the most harrowing and effective in recent memory.

14. WOLFWALKERS
A gorgeous, 2D-drawn fantasy set in 17th century Kilkenny, centered around a conflict between the townspeople and a wolfpack. Forgive me for being sappy, but it genuinely warmed my heart like little else I’ve seen in the past year.

15. KAJILLIONAIRE
Give Miranda July credit for continuing to follow her own peculiar path and not succumb to working-for-hire or diluting her quirks for a mass audience. With a novel hook and a great ensemble, it even resonates in ways one can hardly predict at the onset.

16. STRAIGHT UP
Name-dropping Gilmore Girls in the first fifteen minutes reveals director/writer/actor James Sweeney’s core aesthetic, but he both conceives of and (with his cast) delivers the rapid-fire dialogue superbly without it coming off as secondhand.

17. ANOTHER ROUND
This latest Vinterberg/Mikkelsen pairing nimbly shifts between humor, satire and despair—a funny, sad, engaging and fully dimensional study of male mid-life crises.

18. BLACK BEAR
Aubrey Plaza in this film is not as amazing as Naomi Watts in Mulholland Dr, but she’s really, really close.

19. LOVERS ROCK
So much pure, unadulterated joy in this–certainly more than in any other McQueen film I’ve seen.

20. MR. SOUL!
Stellar, entertaining doc about an old public television show you probably don’t know but should. Ellis Haizlip is an unsung hero of his time; this gives him his due.

ALSO RECOMMENDED:

76 DAYS
BAD EDUCATION
BEANPOLE
CAT IN THE WALL
CITY HALL
CRIP CAMP
DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD
DRIVEWAYS
I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS
MOUTHPIECE
THE PAINTER AND THE THIEF
THE PLANTERS
RED, WHITE & BLUE
SORRY WE MISSED YOU
TIME
THE VAST OF NIGHT

Ten Tropical Trips

2011 – St. John

Ten years ago this month, I took my first trip to the Caribbean. Steve, whom I would marry in 2013, suggested it for a winter vacation. I’d never been outside continental North America at that point; the Virgin Islands (and in particular, St. John) were a revelation.

2012 – Curaçao

The following year, we went further south to Curaçao, in the Lesser Antilles, 65 km north of Venezuela. The snorkeling and beaches weren’t as fine as St. John’s, but being in the Dutch Caribbean felt even more exotic than the US Virgin Islands.

2013 – Key West

Seven months before our wedding, we stayed within the continental US, but just barely, driving from the Miami airport all the way to the edge of the Florida Keys.

2014 – Naples, Florida

Having honeymooned in Santa Fe, we resumed our annual winter vacation in the more affordable locale of Sanibel Island, Florida, with day trips to nearby Naples and Fort Myers.

2015 – Turks and Caicos, Chalk Sound

However, we longed to return to the Caribbean, so the following year brought us to Turks and Caicos, where we spent a week on the island of Providenciales, featuring the otherworldly hues of Chalk Sound.

2016 – Cozumel, Mexico

We’d been wanting to check out Mexico for some time; the week we spent in Playa Del Carmen was crowded, noisy and burnt by the sun, but the afternoon boat ride to Cozumel Island was pretty chill.

2017 – Punta Cana, Dominican Republic

Always seeking out new locales to explore in the Caribbean, we made it to the Dominican Republic a week after the 2017 Presidential Inauguration–dark times temporarily alleviated by Punta Cana’s beaches.

2018 – Aruba

We went to another of the Lesser Antilles, Aruba, in 2018. Steve had gone there with his folks a few times as a child; it was pretty (particularly the beaches and the trade winds soaring through them) but a little overdeveloped for our tastes.

2019 – Turks and Caicos, Iguana Island

We had such a great time in Turks and Caicos that we returned four years later; this second trip’s highlight was a snorkeling expedition to Iguana Island (which indeed did have quite a few of its namesake, though not in this pic.)

2020 – Punta Cana, Dominican Republic

Last year, before the pandemic shut everything down, we went back to Punta Cana, this time to Bavaro Beach. Obviously, we are staying put in frozen New England this January. Although I long for another tropical excursion, I feel lucky I’ve been able to have ten of ’em so far. In the meantime, I can always turn up the heat at home, craft a few frozen cocktails and dream.

Favorite First Viewings of Older Films in 2020

Thanks to the pandemic, I watched more movies in 2020 than in any other year since… maybe 1998, when I was a Film Studies grad student? (I didn’t log my watched films back then.) Here are the top ten older films (pre-2019) that I saw for the first time.

1. THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES
While I’m not one to see every last Academy Award for Best Picture winner, I always meant to get to this one from 1946; turns out it’s extraordinary, both as classic Hollywood cinema and also as a relatively nuanced record of a particular moment as it was occurring.  I couldn’t name a contemporary equivalent (maybe Parasite, although it comes from a very different place) and don’t expect to anytime soon.

2. HIGH AND LOW
I was worried during the first hour that the film would never leave Gondo’s house, but now see how shrewdly it sets up a slow burn that reverberates as it expands towards other settings. That late bravura sequence in the nightclub/flophouse is one of the most meticulous and thrilling I’ve ever seen (and the final scene one of the more brutally honest ones as well.)

3. TARGETS
Was not expecting this as the first feature from the director of The Last Picture Show. Bracingly ahead of its time while also possibly one of the most incisive records of it. A flop upon its release, I can understand why lead Tim O’Kelly didn’t have much of a career afterwards; his stoic, controlled performance should be more celebrated.

4. HARRY AND TONTO
Art Carney fully deserved his Oscar for his work in this lovely little road movie which feels like the best Hal Ashby picture Ashby never directed. Also, the first of two titles in this top ten featuring a young Melanie Mayron!

5. DAY FOR NIGHT
Previously, I’d seen no Truffaut beyond Jules and Jim, so this was a revelation – can spot traces to come of everyone from Robert Altman to Wes Anderson, and yet there’s little precedent for what he achieved at the time: a meta-comment on his profession that’s equal parts love letter and sharp critique.

6. THE FILMS OF MARLON RIGGS
All his works are essential, but I’ll single out Tongues Untied (he had me at “The Institute of Snap!Thology”), and Black Is… Black Ain’t, which, like everything else of his explores cultural identity through a personal lens, made more urgent by his oncoming death (with multiple scenes filmed from his hospital bed.) Over a quarter century later, Riggs’ messages, thoughts, yearnings and assessments retain their vitality.

7. GIRLFRIENDS
The other film featuring young Melanie Mayron; here, as the lead in Claudia Weill’s trailblazing cult indie gem, she’s the anti-Manic Pixie Dream Girl and I love her for it; also, look out for bearded Bob Balaban and young Christopher Guest (whom I can’t watch without thinking of the Nigel Tufnel to come.)

8. IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER
Not as essential as Singin’ In The Rain, but what is? My god, there’s so much to love here: the tour de force opening sequence, a splendid Cyd Charisse (given a real juicy role, as opposed to her Singin’ cameo), a dollop of early live television satire and a climactic slapstick brawl, among other delights.

9. COCO
Might be my favorite animated feature since The Incredibles or even Spirited Away. Visually stunning (the world’s been waiting for a family-friendly Day of the Dead-themed film) and emotionally satisfying to boot.

10. DAISIES
Delightful chaotic/anarchic nonsense from 1960s Czechoslovakia and, at 76 minutes, totally digestible even if you’re not well-versed in experimental cinema. Not that someone would ever be foolish enough to attempt a remake, but casting Natasha Leggero and Riki Lindhome in one could be perfection.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:
Atlantic City, Autumn Leaves, Bad Day At Black Rock, Diva, The Forest For The Trees, Golden Eighties, Glitterbug, The Green Fog, Italianamerican, Le Bonheur, Losing Ground, Mad Max: Fury Road, Mississippi Grind, Model Shop, Modern Romance, The Other Side Of The Wind, A Place In The Sun, Remember The Night, The Sheltering Sky, Shirley Valentine, Smooth Talk, Taipei Story, Taxi, Things To Come, Totally Fucked Up, Urban Rashomon

BEST RE-WATCHES:
Ali: Fear Eats The Soul, Beau Travail, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, The Duke of Burgundy, Frances Ha, The Garden, The Gleaners and I, Holiday, Johnny Guitar, Moonrise Kingdom, Oslo August 31, Scenes From a Marriage, Staying Vertical, Stories We Tell, Young Frankenstein

Film Journal: December 2020

Tesla

Normally, we’d be at the height of Awards Season; instead, the cinema landscape’s still in limbo, with a selective assortment of VOD and streaming titles battling it out. Sound of Metal, one of my favorites of the year, would’ve surely received a buzz-building theatrical release in any other year instead of going straight to Amazon Prime, right? (Right?) Well, as the past few years of Netflix interference have shown, no matter the venue, Riz Ahmed’s intuitive, elaborate performance would still receive deserved across-the-board critical accolades.

Small Axe is a different story, as it further blurs the movie/TV line as an anthology series made for Amazon but with each of its five feature-length installments standing on their own. I made a point to see Lovers Rock because it’s by far the most acclaimed (and also the shortest), and I’ll get to the other four, if not within the next few weeks before I post my year-end list—even without cinemas, there’s no shortage of good stuff to watch, from the alarming, mesmerizing Romanian doc Collective to Brexit-informed London immigrant drama Cat In The Wall, plus titles that played VOD earlier in the year like the superlative Georgian Call Me By Your Name-inspired And Then We Danced or the Mexican subculture study I’m No Longer Here.

As usual for the season, I spent the week leading up to Christmas watching holiday-themed flicks, including the month’s only two re-watches, Going My Way and Holiday, the latter more of a New Year’s Eve film that excels chiefly by the charm of its cast. Among the discoveries, The Holly and The Ivy, a 1952 British film that anticipates the kitchen sink realism later in the decade more than it revels in the romanticism of the prior one and Remember The Night, a Preston Sturges-written, pre-Double Indemnity pairing up of Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck that’s far less cookie-cutter than you’d expect for the era.

Biggest misses included the almost universally reviled Wonder Woman 1984 (which makes Stranger Things look like Blue Velvet) and David Lynch’s Lost Highway, the first of his films to leave me cold. On the other hand, a few pleasant surprises: legendary new wave rock flop Times Square, which feels more like a butchered-by-its-studio art film than an exploitation film; Coco, easily my favorite Pixar since Ratatouille and The Incredibles; Possessed, more proof of Joan Crawford’s acting prowess; Family Plot, more evidence as to why Barbara Harris should’ve been a far more prominent ‘70s screwball icon; and Tesla, which didn’t go as far as it could’ve in the revisionist/deliberately anachronistic department, but I will not soon forget an insular, deeply in character Ethan Hawke-as-Tesla performing a karaoke version of a certain Tears For Fears song.

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

The Twentieth Century (Matthew Rankin, 2019) 7
Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges, 1955) 8
I’m No Longer Here (Fernando Frias, 2019) 7
Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda (Stephen Nomura Schible, 2017) 6
Sound of Metal (Darius Marder, 2019) 10
Collective (Alexander Nanau, 2019) 9
Dressed to Kill (Brian De Palma, 1980) 7
Family Plot (Alfred Hitchcock, 1976) 7
The Social Dilemma (Jeff Orlowski, 2020) 5
Guest of Honour (Atom Egoyan, 2019) 7
Lost Highway (David Lynch, 1997) 5
Wander Darkly (Tara Miele, 2020) 6
Tesla (Michael Almereyda, 2020) 7
Christmas Survival (James Dearden, 2018) 4
Small Axe: Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen, 2020) 8
Words on Bathroom Walls (Thor Freudenthal, 2020) 7
Remember the Night (Mitchell Leisen, 1940) 8
Sleepless in Seattle (Nora Ephron, 1993) 6
The Holly and the Ivy (George More O’Ferrall, 1952) 7
Possessed (Curtis Bernhardt, 1947) 7
Holiday (George Cukor, 1938)* 9
Holiday Affair (Don Hartman, 1949) 7
Going My Way (Leo McCarey, 1944)* 6
Wonder Woman 1984 (Patty Jenkins, 2020) 4
Coco (Lee Unkrich, 2017) 8
Hot Fuzz (Edgar Wright, 2007) 8
And Then We Danced (Levan Akin, 2019) 9
Times Square (Allan Moyle, 1980) 7
Cat In The Wall (Vesela Kazakova, Mina Mileva, 2019) 8