I cared less about movies in 2017 than any year since I first fell in love with them. That feels weird to write, and even weirder to know is true, but there's not much sense lying about it. Since 2011, I've kept a running log of the movies I see throughout the year, both the ones that are new to me and those that I just felt like rewatching. My new-to-me tallies for the past few years:
Last year, though, that number dropped by more than half: in 2017, I saw just 31 movies that were new to me.
Part of this can be easily explained: I used to write reviews of new releases almost every week, which meant that without even trying I'd wind up seeing north of 50 new movies in a year. Add to that the movies that I sought out on my own time, and you can see how the numbers can grow even more.[footnote]I hit 104 in 2013 because I saw my total climbing and decided, almost arbitrarily, to see if I could log more than 100 for the year.[/footnote] But since I don't cover new releases like I used to, I'm not automatically exposed to as many movies as I was just a few years ago.
The bigger part of it, though, is just personal evolution. I still love movies, but most of the ones that come out I either don't care to see or don't feel any urgency about seeing. Yes, the viewing experience of the modern theater is part of this—the days of people silencing their phones and/or not talking during the show are long gone, if they were ever here—but it's more than that. I just don't feel the pull for some of these things like I used to.
In 2015, Karina Longworth—former film critic and one-time Film Editor and chief critic at LA Weekly—said the following about her shift away from film criticism and into the research and storytelling that would animate her podcast, You Must Remember This:
I don’t think I’m cut out to be the type of film critic—and, really, I don’t know how you’d be any other type of film critic—who sees every movie and has an opinion about them. I was seeing on average seven movies a week. As a person who is very interested in contemporary film, there are probably 25 to 30 movies in a year that I am legitimately, personally interested in. And so I was obviously seeing quite a few more films than that.
I found it very overwhelming. And I just wasn’t satisfied. I felt like there had to be different ways to talk about movies—there had to be different ways to get audiences engaged.
I think about that all the time. I still love the power of fiction, and I've written pieces about movies in the past year that I'm proud of, like this one on David Lynch and this one on the intersection of movies and video games. But I don't think that the traditional mode of what we collectively recognize as "film criticism" is satisfying for me anymore, and that's informed my movie-going habits accordingly. I'm not upset about any of this, either. I just think it's worth thinking about.
Boogie Nights (1999): A perfect movie. Mark Wahlberg will never in a million years recapture the mix of innocence, arrogance, and doom that he brings to Dirk Diggler.
A Serious Man (2009): I rewatch the goy's teeth every few weeks.
Sing Street (2016): What a fantastic, wonderful, uplifting movie. Killer soundtrack, too. Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016): Brazenly, inventively awful. The first movie in the series was a fun action-thriller, but this ponderous sequel felt like punishment. Cold in July (2014): Slick, twisty neo-noir. It Follows (2014): Brutally effective horror precisely because it relies upon the suspension of disbelief we bring to movies. Objectively, we know we're just watching someone running from nothing, but in the world of the fiction, we know they're fleeing from something only they can see. It's like watching a perfect magic trick.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008): Still one of the most entertaining romantic comedies of the modern era.
Mulholland Drive (2001): I love everything about this movie.
X-Men: Apocalypse (2016): No. The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994): Guy Pearce is, predictably, amazing. They should do a real-time sequel in 2019.
Blade Runner (1982): When I first saw this, sometime in high school, Roy Batty came across as a legit villain. Now, though, he's just boundlessly sad. He has just enough awareness to know he will die very soon, and the movie is about him doing everything he can to save himself before dying anyway.
The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (2004): This plays a little stronger now than it did when it arrived, thanks to the way Wes Anderson's filmography has become more nuanced and affecting in its portrayal of prickly characters who don't know how to process their grief. Still, it's a bitter film, and not that pleasant.
All the President’s Men (1976): Writing is incredibly boring to watch. It's just research, drafting, editing, rewriting, voices swirling silently in someone's head. Hence, Alan Pakula's amazing direction on All the President's Men (shot by the inestimable Gordon Willis) is all the more stunning because it makes phone calls look thrilling. It's still the best journalism movie ever made.
Begin Again (2013): A romantic drama that actually ends in a surprising way, and gives each of its characters agency. Akira (1988): Stunning to watch, deeply fucked up, and unforgettable. Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016): Ricky Baker for life. Affliction (1998): Nick Nolte is a powerhouse here. It's such a stunning, wrenching movie, with such a seemingly small story (small-town cop wrestles with personal issues) that becomes this universal look at how we're all fighting to escape the shadows cast by our parents. Midnight Special (2016): This was ... not good. Phoenix (2015): I love the high-concept premise—a woman who survives a concentration camp undergoes life-saving reconstructive surgery, such that her husband doesn't recognize her when she returns to him—and the directions the story takes are outstanding. It's also got one of the best endings I've ever seen. Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 (2017): Joss Whedon was a talented but by no means household name when he directed The Avengers. That film's massive success seemed to sever something in him, and he spoke openly about the pressure he faced and felt while helming the second Avengers movie. He even quit social media for a while after the second one came out. It's understandable. You make a hit, and suddenly the pressure is on to make it happen again but even bigger, and so you ramp up the scale and tone, and you wind up forgetting to tell an interesting story. Anyway, that's James Gunn and Guardians Vol. 2. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992): Absolutely mesmerizing.
Crimson Tide (1995): Such a weird mess, but quintessentially '90s.
The Mighty Ducks (1992): Ditto.
Doctor Strange (2016): I liked this more than I thought I would, though it suffers from the same thing all Marvel movies do: it hits you with effects and insanity full-force right away, so there's nowhere to go after that. Kill List (2012): Incredibly well made, and the elliptical approach to storytelling makes the core conceit (two hitmen working various jobs) feel more real. But it's not fun to watch, and the hard turns into different genres don't totally work. Wonder Woman (2017): Great. Baby Driver (2017): Also great.
Dunkirk (2017): Christopher Nolan's patriotism is beautifully rendered, and of course he finds a way to tell the story of Dunkirk evacuation in his own way, shuffling between three overlapping stories intersecting at different times.
Dune (1984): An amazing mess of a movie. David Lynch never should have agreed to this, and they never should have tried to squeeze so much of the book into the final product.
The Yards (2000): A wonderful crime drama from James Gray, who makes outstanding movies every few years that people sadly seem to overlook.
Score: A Film Music Documentary (2017): A huge disappointment. No through-line, no insight, no knowledge. If anything, it's just an excuse to trot out John Williams's greatest hits. (He only appears in archival footage, too.)
Blade Runner 2049 (2017): It's not just that it's overlong, though that's definitely a problem. It's that, for me, there's no real thrill or magic in seeing an unrequested sequel done entirely in the style of a much earlier film. Blade Runner was a mash-up of cyberpunk and noir that became its own thing, but 2049 feels like an ice-cold copy. Spielberg (2017): Solid documentary.
Get Out (2017): There's a reason everyone says this is one of the best movies of the year. Free Fire (2017): I finally found a Ben Wheatley film that I liked. Downsizing (2017): There are three movies here: a satire of modern technology; a dark political comedy about immigration; and a dramedy about the end of the world. Any one of the three would be fine. Together, though, they smother each other.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005): Sadly, not nearly as fun as I'd remembered it being. It feels very much like a clumsy adaptation, i.e., it only seems to make sense if you know the story already.
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001): Holds up beautifully.
I, Tonya (2017): Look, you can watch Goodfellas all you want, but you'll never be able to make your own version. The Post (2017): Great story, direction, cast, all that. Spielberg is a machine for stuff like this. Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017): A fantastic movie. It's refreshing, zippy, different, and rock-solid in its determination not to re-create the rhythms and characters of the original series. We already had a hotshot pilot; now we get one learning the value of retreat. We already had a beneficent old teacher and an eager pupil; now we get a conflicted apostate and a confused young student. We already had someone born to a family of legacy; now we have someone who came from nowhere to find themselves in the middle of everything. The jokes work, the characters work, and it moves like a freight train. Just wonderful. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017): Not even bad enough to be entertaining. Just boring. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017): Searing, raw, excellent. It's a movie about people who don't know how to process their grief, so they turn to vengeance, anger, and self-harm. The Oscar should have its name changed to the Frances McDormand.
By the Numbers
Total films seen (new to me): 31 Documentaries: 2 Foreign (non-English-language[footnote]As opposed to, say, a British film, which is technically foreign for U.S. viewers but not what comes to mind when you think "foreign film."[/footnote]) films: 2 Movies released in 2017: 15 Movies released before 2017: 16 Movies released before 2000: 2 Movies released before 1950: 0 Of the ten highest grossers of the year (as of Dec. 31), I saw: 3
Favorites (in alphabetical order):
Affliction Get Out Phoenix Sing Street Star Wars: The Last Jedi Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
There are no "old" movies really—only movies you have already seen and ones you haven't.
When he wrote that, Peter Bogdanovich was talking about the experience of screening a group of silent Lubitsch films for the first time, and the dawning realization he had that films have a kind of eternal life that's based not in the year they were made but in the life of each individual viewer, whenever that person happens to see the movie. It's a good reminder that no one has seen every movie, and that there's always some new gem to discover. Additionally, there's no point in feeling embarrassed at not yet having seen a movie that you're "supposed" to have seen by now; rather, that just means you get to experience something new.
My new-to-me tallies for the past few years:
Another benefit of assembling an annual list like this is it reminds me of what was happening in my life throughout the year. The period in February when I watched (or rewatched) so many movies was when I was sick in bed with an awful virus that was going around; the glut of rematches in June, when I was traveling on a family vacation to Italy and had a lot of time to kill on the plane; the fact that I didn't watch any new movies in September because I was busy spending time with a new dog; impromptu rewatches on empty afternoons wound up inspiring lengthy essays. It's like seeing the ripples and remembering the feel of the stone.
The Ties That Bind (2015): This documentary came packaged with the deluxe reissue of The River, Bruce Springsteen’s 1980 masterpiece. It’s a pleasant if superficial look at the making of the record, very much in the vein of marketing as opposed to insight. Still, the Boss is the Boss. Seven Samurai (1954): My first Kurosawa. I waited until I had a free Sunday afternoon to spend with the movie, since it runs 3 hours 27 minutes (just a few past The Godfather: Part II), and I didn’t want my first experience of the film to be broken into fragmented screenings on successive days. It’s a beautiful, rich, sad film, and I was struck by so many things, not least of which is how its length never felt burdensome. Kurosawa is totally in command here. Joe Versus the Volcano (1990): I was born in 1982, which means adult-oriented movies that came out in my childhood were a part of the background of my growing up even if I never experienced them directly. Watching them is like being nostalgic for a time I never knew, in a way. I’ve seen every movie Tom Hanks made in the 1990s, but his 1980s output is just an inch or two on the other side of the fence, so I have yet to see most of it.[footnote]The exception being 1988’s Big, which I saw when I was probably around the same age as the child Tom Hanks plays. (You get it.) It remains the most lighthearted movie ever made about child abduction and possible slavery.[/footnote] Joe Versus the Volcano is a great example of a film “everyone” had seen but I had never gotten around to screening, and it was, as had been foretold, wonderful. It’s a storybook fable, built on larger-than-life art and light and ideas.
- The Godfather: Part II (1974): Sadder and more sweeping than its predecessor, and still brilliant. I go back and forth every couple of years on which is the better film. Right now I’m on the side of the original.
- Intolerable Cruelty (2003): I hadn’t seen it since its 2003 release, and I liked it much more than I remembered. Breezy, bittersweet farce, with an expert cast. It doesn’t have the psychological depth of the Coens’ most ambitious work, no, nor does it have the fizz of their best comedies. But it’s still witty and brisk and delightful, and it feels wrong to grade it on an unforgiving curve out of spite.
- Amadeus (1984): A perfect movie, or (if your philosophy doesn’t allow for such) as close to the idea of perfect as a movie can get. The grand damnation of Salieri’s longing is among the most potent things ever put on film.
Hail, Caesar! (2016): The Coens are arguably among the best American filmmakers of all time, and certainly of their generation. Nothing else looks or sounds like their work. What’s striking isn’t just their mastery of different style—drama, comedy, slapstick, absurdity, black humor—but that they always seem to find a way to use those different tones to ask the same question: What does it mean to be human? Their heroes are always reckoning with their place in a cold world, whether it’s Ulysses Everett McGill trying to get one over on the system or Llewyn Davis wondering why no one hears his music the way he does. Hail, Caesar! is a goofy, silly fantasia about 1950s Hollywood that asks existential questions through the actions of a studio producer as he spends a day putting out fires and wondering whether he’s still suited to the job. It manages to both regard movies with a wary eye (knowing they’re just products put together by an often uninterested team) while also revering them as mythical objects, dreams made manifest. Funny, smart, searching. Deadpool (2016): Christopher Nolan’s success means that every successive superhero movie has aped his Batman films’ style (brooding, grim) without copying anything else (interesting stories, good casts, smart structure, sense of adventure). Deadpool is the antidote to all that: brash, snotty, gruesome, silly, and metatextual to the hilt. It’s fun, most of all, and it has the feeling of someone finally cracking a window and letting some fresh air into a house that’s grown dark and stale. I have no idea if it’ll hold up on repeat viewings, but not every movie is meant to. Watching it, I was finally able to relax and try to enjoy a superhero movie, something I hadn't been able to do in years. Chi-Raq (2015): Everything about it works: the sense of visual style, the dialogue in verse, the powerful soundtrack, the propulsive anger and sadness, the sense of a man and nation reeling. A perfect companion piece to Do the Right Thing. The Witch (2016): Every shot is gorgeous in some way, and the film is a potent blend of supernatural horror (there really is something evil in the woods) and psychological breakdowns (the pressure of being stranded in an unexplored country, away from society, means that the family is already just one bad turn away from full internal revolt). The suspense and horror elements evoke other genre classics—I found myself more than once thinking of Alien, The Shining, The Thing—but it also feels completely like its own unsettling beast. The cast is fantastic, and the kids in particular are great; it's so hard to find believable child actors, and the boy and girl who anchor the story are some of the best I've seen in a long while. It stands up to different readings, too, or at any rate it's smart enough to know it can be cut many ways: an examination of fanaticism, the spiritual price of conquest, the bloody entrance into womanhood. And on top of that, it's got some of the most genuinely unsettling and riveting horror moments you could want. Even in the bright light of the morning after, I found myself wanting to go back to those woods. Dope (2015): There’s a lot to like here, and I liked a lot of it. It’s a little shaggy, and the two sidekicks could’ve been combined into one person without losing anything (even their names, Diggy and Jib, ran together in my head; I could never keep them straight). But young Malcolm’s awkward, criminal coming-of-age mostly plays like a hip-hop Risky Business, and when it works, it snaps with energy. Win Win (2011): Some movies have what I think of as “Fake First Act Syndrome,” where the things we see and hear in the opening minutes turn out to be narratively pointless and tonally inconsistent with what follows in the “real” movie. Win Win has that problem in a major way: cutesy kid dialogue, a general aimlessness, a situation where Chekhov’s gun is loaded but will never be fired. Once it picks up, though, it’s a nice little family dramedy. The ending is bittersweet and nicely understated, though, which makes up for a lot. What We Do in the Shadows (2015): It’s hard to do a mockumentary these days without feeling self-congratulatory or too cool for the room: the format has been done to death, especially through TV comedy, and it can be easy to simply assume the presence of humor. But What We Do in the Shadows is hilarious and weird and perfect because it wholly commits to a dopey premise—a group of vampires share a dingy apartment in New Zealand—and focuses on the minutiae of awkward roommate relationships. Bonus: Rhys Darby, as a werewolf, almost walks away with the whole thing. Missing (1982): My first Costa-Gavras. Jack Lemmon is one of my favorite actors: subtle, sharp, able to move gracefully through emotionally nuanced moments. He is, as could be predicted, wonderful here as a father searching for his missing son, and he moves carefully and expertly through a defined emotional arc: he starts out cold and angry, untrusting and resentful of his daughter-in-law, only to emerge human and broken, united with her in sorrow as they learn the truth about what happened to his son. (Smart costume choices reinforce this: Lemmon starts off in suits and hats, eventually transitioning to an open-collar look with no tie.) It’s a powerful film, as well as a chance for someone like me to find an entry point into a chapter of history (in this case, the 1973 coup in Chile) with which he’s unfamiliar. World of Tomorrow (2015): Don Hertzfeldt is Pixar for adults. Calvary (2014): A grim, uncomfortable, mercurial movie—I almost stopped it halfway through because I felt worn down—but nevertheless a powerful one. It hums with raw anger at the sexual crimes of the Catholic church, even as it also argues for the need of a noble, honest clergy. I’m glad I watched it, and I never want to see it again. A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014): At least ten times better than you’d guess from just hearing “Liam Neeson cop thriller.” It’s a solid, smart pulp story with great style, and I was so grateful that the narrative wasn’t as conventional as it could have been. Bullitt (1968): The iconic car chase here is as good as reputed, and I found myself thinking of how much better that scene is than the entirety of Mad Max: Fury Road because it’s got genuine narrative purpose and it involves a character we care about. It’s not just about the visual kineticism of the scene, but about the story that drives that scene. Anyway. The film itself is good, too, the kind of moody, what-am-I-doing cop drama that feels very much of a piece with late-1960s disillusionment. Bullitt gets the bad guy and isn’t even happy about it. The Seven-Ups (1973): A decent little cops-and-robbers flick, in which Roy Scheider leads an NYPD task force that focuses on major crimes. Worth it for the rained-out, grimy, barren New York landscapes.
- Brick (2005): Brick holds up really well after more than a decade, though the speed with which Joseph Gordon-Levitt chews through Rian Johnson’s dialogue makes for a more than a few muddy scenes. I’m also more aware as I get older of just how incongruous and weird it is to cast twentysomethings as high schoolers. Gordon-Levitt was 24 the year Brick came out, and while I understand the casting—he’s not a huge guy, and he looks youngish—all you have to do is compare him here with how he looked in 10 Things I Hate About You, released when he was 18, to see how adult and angular he’d become.
- Waitress (2007): If I had a penny for everything I loved about this movie, I would have many pennies. It’s endearingly clunky in places—some odd editing and lighting, plus a mangled eyeline match-up in one scene that makes for a confusing shot-reverse-shot—but the writing and acting are so warm and wonderful that such small sins are easily forgiven. It’s direct and clear about the nature of regret, and it evokes life’s pain and pleasure in wonderful ways.
- Batman (1989): One of the weirdest aspects of the movie is the way Batman’s existence is just kind of assumed. Not that this should’ve been an origin story. Rather, the inherent weirdness of a guy dressing up and giving himself a superhero name, just to fight crime, is glossed over. It’s dealt with a little better in Batman Begins, but still. The whole premise is nuts when you think about it. Keaton’s good at brooding, though, and Nicholson’s Cesar-Romero-meets-Dahmer thing is definitely iconic. But all these years later, I think the score might be the best thing about it.
- Batman Begins (2005)
The Last Witch Hunter (2015): Blockbuster culture makes it feel like every movie is either a bank-breaking Marvel adventure, an award-bait drama, or an indie where the cast worked for whatever they could get. Movies like The Last Witch Hunter feel like a throwback to twenty years ago, when generic-feeling fantasy-action movies could come and go in theaters a little more freely. It’s not a great movie, but it is, in its own way, good: it’s slick, poppy, adventurous, wisely comic, and just the right amount of self-serious. The ending even leaves open the possibility for sequels that we know will never come. Man Up (2015): “Romantic comedy” is a label that calls to mind a certain style of movie, but taken at face value—a romantic story built around humor—there’s a lot more leeway than we tend to remember. Man Up is a genuine romantic comedy: funny, swooning, charming, entertaining. It doesn’t feel designed to be timeless, but to give someone an hour and a half of simple pleasure. That’s a power movies have that too often gets overlooked. High Society (1956): A cute if somewhat unnecessary musical remake of The Philadelphia Story. Bing Crosby is entirely on autopilot, but he’s charming enough to make it work. Trivia: Grace Kelly’s final movie before becoming Princess of Monaco. Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of “Inside Llewyn Davis” (2013): I already loved Inside Llewyn Davis and its soundtrack, but this concert also introduced me to new bands (like this one and this one). Perfect for watching or just having on in the background. People Will Talk (1951): There’s a bizarre undercurrent of mysticism in this film that’s never addressed, and that makes it such a curiosity. The story itself is fragmented and odd: it follows a doctor played by Cary Grant as he defends himself from charges of professional misconduct by a colleague who suspects his certifications are fake, while Grant’s character also falls in love with an unmarried pregnant woman, lies to her about her pregnancy, then reveals after they wed that she’s been pregnant all along. (At no point does anything seem to make much sense.) But the weirdest bits involve Grant’s character’s involvement with his taciturn manservant, who turns out to be a former felon convicted to hang and who somehow survived the hanging and was being examined as a cadaver when he awoke. The subtext is also probably a jab at HUAC. Genuinely insane.
- The Dark Knight (2008)
- Burn After Reading (2008): My theory is that Coen dramas are heralded upon release, while their comedies grow in stature over time. Burn After Reading is a sharp, quick, pitch-black comedy that feels miles away from, say, No Country for Old Men, and its tonal fluctuations make it a tougher meal to digest. It’s better than you probably remember, though.
- Tropic Thunder (2008): One of the best Hollywood movies about Hollywood of the current era.
Creed (2015): I cheered aloud while watching. When’s the last time that happened? Frantic (1988): The answer to a mystery is always disappointing because it blows away the pleasantly disorienting fog in which we’ve found ourselves, leaving behind nothing but the sharp edges of ordinary objects. Frantic, about a man looking for his wife after she abruptly goes missing from their Paris hotel, does not escape this fate. That’s not to say it’s bad—it’s quite good—but that it’s two movies in one. The first is a nauseating, gripping mystery rooted in paranoia and futility; the second is a conspiracy thriller. The transition is handled pretty well, but the film’s strongest section is its first third or so, when we’re left to walk with Harrison Ford as he searches for his wife, unable to even put into words what’s happening to him. (Related: the films of David Lynch are so haunting and unclassifiable in part because he never provides answers to his mysteries, or at least concrete or discernible ones.) Brief Encounter (1945): “David Lean movie” is synonymous with “epic,” but he does an outstanding job directing this small-scale heartbreaker based on a Noel Coward play. Interestingly, Todd Haynes’ Carol copied the structure and several major scenes from Brief Encounter, right down to hand gestures. This makes Carol less impressive in retrospect.
- Wonder Boys (2000): The movie that introduced me to Michael Chabon, and still a smart, expertly cast ensemble dramedy.
- Network (1976): I propose that "Getting Networked" be adopted to mean "when a movie's predictions about the future come true, esp. to a disturbing degree."
- All the President’s Men (1976): I made an inadvertent double-bill of “fatigued reflections of Watergate-era life in 1976” by revisiting this and Network so close to each other.
- Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015): There’s almost nothing original here, though I’m not certain that’s bad. It’s an incredibly fun and entertaining film, and I have to imagine that at the top level, if/when faced with the ultimatum between making the new Star Wars movie enjoyable or totally fresh, those in charge opted to make it enjoyable. The prequel trilogy was so dour and odd—mired in goopy dialogue and nonsense plots, shot with a dull green-screen aesthetic that made everything look flat and blandly lit—that, more than prove its ingenuity, Star Wars needed to assert that it could be a good time for the first time in more than 30 years. It succeeded. The Force Awakens has almost a thankless task to accomplish: gently brush away memories and plots put forth in the prequel trilogy, move things back to characters and ideas people know and remember, set the stage for larger stories to come. That it does all this with a smile and genuine flash is a real feat.
High-Rise (2016): A genuinely unpleasant film. From the outset, there’s no attempt made to isolate the tenants of the titular high-rise from the outside world, whether through environmental circumstance or psychological dissociation, so it never makes sense that they’d all stay holed up in the building as the power goes out and residents begin to turn on each other in broad-strokes class warfare. If there’s no global apocalypse keeping them indoors, what drives them? What good can such broad allegory achieve? Where’s the story? Bridge of Spies (2015): Spielberg (like Scorsese) is so good at his type of movie that it’s easy to overlook the skill on display. It’s the curse of greatness. There’s a lot to like here—the dependable performance by Tom Hanks, the stark lighting and exposures that have marked Spielberg’s work since the turn of the century—but it’s also notable for its muted and nuanced approach to international conflicts. Spielberg’s focus here isn’t the war that’s inspired so many of his movies, but its aftermath, and that sense of confusion and moral stumbling is mirrored in everything from Hanks’ battle as negotiator to the scaled-down, ugly look of the towns. There’s no grandeur here, not even the beauty of horror. Just mud and walls and people who don’t know what to do. Dark Passage (1947): A little too reliant on coincidence even for a period noir, but still enjoyably dark. The Guest (2014): Riffing on 1980s tropes does not a thriller make. The first third of the film—in which Dan Stevens’ troubled vet worms his way into the lives of a former combat buddy—is easily the best and most troubling. By the time the real plot is revealed (something about super soldiers), I’d checked out. Gilda (1946): Overpowering in its sexuality and sadness. One of best I’ve seen in a long time. To Catch a Thief (1955): Movie stars always play a variation of their basic screen persona—e.g., Tom Cruise is always Tom Cruise—and Cary Grant is the absolute pinnacle of that idea. He never even changes his haircut. Why would anyone want him to? Trivia: Grace Kelly’s final film with Hitchcock. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015): They should make a movie like this every year. The Nice Guys (2016): They should make five movies like this every year. I completely understand why it bombed, though: twisty plot, frantic set-up, and a budget of $50 million when it should have been less than half that. Still, I love this movie and am glad that it, at least, saw the light of day. A Room With a View (1986): Beautifully shot and incredibly pleasing romance, and doubled as research ahead of a two-week vacation to Italy. MVP: Daniel Day-Lewis as the baxter.
- Spy (2015): Melissa McCarthy's comic persona, the identity that she basically reworks for each movie, is consistently endearing.
- John Grisham’s The Rainmaker (1997): I am fascinated by this movie. It's so bad and dull, so plain weird, it feels like it's from another universe.
- Groundhog Day (1993): A perfect movie.
Dressed to Kill (1980): Brian De Palma’s ambling Hitchcock riff is very much of its time re: gender identity politics, but the suspense, sexuality, and filmmaking are still some of the best around. Trivia: De Palma was nominated for a Golden Raspberry, or “Razzie,” for Worst Director for Dressed to Kill, because the Razzies are idiotic. They Look Like People (2016): A fantastically tense play on Invasion of the Body Snatchers, built around an unreliable narrator who may or may not be experiencing psychological problems. It’s got some fantastic suspense, but it’s also worth watching to see just how well a movie can be made for no money. A good example is the “hospital” scene, which conveys the boredom of three people sitting in a hospital waiting room without actually showing the hospital. Rather, the three actors sit next to each other in chairs against a wall, while audio cues of PA addresses merge into each other. So smartly done. The Wood (1999): I have had the hook from the song in the trailer—Ahmad’s “Back in the Day”—stuck in my head since I was 17. I finally got a chance to sit down with this via Netflix, having already seen director Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope, and I loved it. One of the best portrayals of modern male friendship in the movies. That Touch of Mink (1962): So light it almost floats away, but Cary Grant is, predictably, charming to the extreme. Took me half an hour to realize the female lead was worried about sleeping with someone before marriage. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962): There’s a compelling grimness and sadness here that contrasts nicely with the stereotypically “grand” idea of the Western that director John Ford had himself helped to popularize. Jimmy Stewart is fair, but John Wayne is wonderful as the taciturn cowboy doomed to lose his love.
- Eyes Wide Shut (1999): I hadn’t revisited this in years, and it’s so much stronger and stranger than I remembered. I think I love it now.
- Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005): One of the many films I had a chance to revisit thanks to long plane rides as I traveled to and from Italy for a vacation. Still one of my all-time favorites.
- There Will Be Blood (2007): Daniel Plainview’s heartbreak stood out so much this time. He was always a dark, driven man—he adopted H.W. just to have a living prop with which to engender sympathy from clients—but the betrayal of his false brother really starts to send him over the edge.
- MacGruber (2010): My wife will never understand my love for this movie. But that’s just KFBR392 KFBR392 KFBR392
- Zodiac (2007): The script here is so good. It resists every urge to streamline things or present a more familiar cops-and-killer plotline. I think it’s Fincher’s Americana masterpiece.
- The Wolf of Wall Street (2013): A noxious, unrelenting film that has totally grown on me since I saw it. It’s tough to watch because it’s Goodfellas where no one gets punished. Most movies actually show the bad guys suffering for their sins in some way, even Scorsese’s mob tales. [footnote]Maybe even especially these; his latent Catholicism is strong, plus in Hollywood, the villain usually has to pay.[/footnote] Jordan Bellfort is Scorsese’s most unsettling villain precisely because he’s still walking around free.
- Waiting for Guffman (1996): Guest’s best.
- The Usual Suspects (1995): The rare case where the villain gets away with it because the audience was duped all along. I grew up with this movie—I was 13 the year it came out, and I saw it at some point in high school and just absorbed it through my pores—and I can always turn to it as comfort food.
- Up (2009): Still some of the tightest, most emotional storytelling Pixar has ever done. The emotions and metaphors are so perfectly in sync—Carl is literally tethered to his old life—that it seems to have been sent to their studio from beyond.
- Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011): Falls into that class of films like Syriana, where the plot is understandable at any given moment but becomes much harder to synthesize or summarize afterward. Pleasantly gloomy, in a 1970s-revival kind of way.
- Tender Mercies (1983)
The Program (2015): A by-the-book story about Lance Armstrong’s doping scandal that suffers from the problem that plagues many biopics: namely, it operates with the understanding that we already know the real story (or most of it), so it doesn’t work that hard to make the characters seem real or to make the emotional beats land with any sense. AKA the Foxcatcher Problem. The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989): Going in, I was worried this would devolve into a love triangle—two brothers and the woman who comes between them—but, blessedly, it’s not that. It’s so much richer and sadder and more wonderful. The mercurial interplay between the Bridges brothers is fantastic, and script is outstanding. (The line “We were always small time, but we were never clowns” cuts clean and deep.) Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953): It’s known more than anything for its now-iconic performance of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” but there’s so much more here, including great comic performances from Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe. All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2013): When a movie sits unreleased on the shelf for years, it’s usually for a good reason.
- The Sting (1973): My dad introduced me to this when I was in middle school, and watching it reminds me of childhood. It’s stunning that Redford and Newman only costarred twice.
- Jackie Brown (1997): My favorite Tarantino, and one of his best. It’s an example of his ability to bring his own style to a story without going overboard or getting in his own way.
- Interstellar (2014): I revisited this in hopes it might’ve gotten better since its release, but no dice. The visuals and score are still rousing, and there are some great ideas here about human adventure. But the actual drama is oddly handled, the emotional arguments feel written by someone who has never had emotions before (love bends gravity across wormholes, basically), and the dialogue is among the worst in any Christopher Nolan movie. The people here speak in aphorisms and lectures. No one actually talks to each other.
- The Hunt for Red October (1990)
- Ocean’s Eleven (2001): Smart, slick, and still entertaining.
- The American President (1995): It’s not just weird that Martin Sheen, who would play the president on The West Wing four years later, plays the president’s chief of staff here; it’s that he’s so strong that the movie doesn’t quite know what to do. I think it’s why The West Wing gave its own president and chief such different personalities.
- Wayne’s World (1993): You quote it more than you realize.
- Patriot Games (1992): The best of Harrison Ford’s Jack Ryan movies.
- Ocean’s Thirteen (2007): The weakest in the series, not least because the awkward dialogue never persuasively sells the absence of the female leads from the previous films. Moreover, it feels too much like a retread of the first one, and it lacks the twisty playfulness that made Ocean’s Twelve such a great sequel.
- The Aviator (2004): Staggeringly dull. It suffers the common biopic problem (the story doesn’t stand on its own), and the acting and plotting are loose and unengaging. Almost a textbook case of hollow award bait.
- Clear and Present Danger (1994): Nothing like an action movie that ends with congressional testimony.
- The Firm (1993): Amazon Prime is the new TNT.
- Good Night, and Good Luck (2005): How to do historical fiction right. Killer cast, and Clooney’s smart enough to get out of his own way.
- Mission: Impossible (1996): Absolutely holds up.
Don't Bother to Knock (1952): Marilyn Monroe chews the walls a little, but you feel bad for her. Teacher’s Pet (1958): Doris Day is a journalism teacher, Clark Gable is a chauvinist reporter, you get it. After the Thin Man (1936): After rewatching The Thin Man (still brilliant), I decided to watch its five sequels, which I’d never seen before. This one’s cute and pleasant, and it features Jimmy Stewart in one of his first roles. My Man Godfrey (1936): Absolutely wonderful. Hilarious, brisk, smart, warm-hearted. Makes me want to sit down and watch everything William Powell ever did. I Married a Witch (1942): A nice little diversion, like catching a matinee. Mr. Holmes (2015): It took me at least two sittings to power through this. I didn’t know it was possible to make Sherlock Holmes this boring, especially when he’s played by Ian McKellen, but there you go. Another Thin Man (1939): The introduction of Nick and Nora’s son was perhaps inevitable, but the movies never knew what to do with him. This one’s fun mostly to see a young Sheldon Leonard. Adam’s Rib (1949): Oddly bitter and intractable, especially given the presence of director George Cukor. Casting Hepburn and Tracy as married attorneys who face off in court is a fine idea, they’re just never sold as a realistic couple. (I know.) Love & Friendship (2016): Pitch perfect. Kate Beckinsale is exactly right for the beautiful, conniving, ultimately undone heroine. Shadow of the Thin Man (1941): Another so-so outing, though worth seeing for the completionist. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016): The Lonely Island guys seem destined to make weird comedies that vanish on release but are regarded as cult brilliance down the line. MacGruber fit the bill, as did Hot Rod before it.[footnote]I haven't come around on Hot Rod, but I adore MacGruber.[/footnote] Popstar is hilarious and weird and often insane, and it’s amazing it even got made.
- Ronin (1998): Some of the best dialogue in any action movie.
- The Thin Man (1934)
- Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2003): Way too much style over substance.
- Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation (2015): Still a great popcorn action movie.
- The Insider (1999): Not as sexy as Heat or other Michael Mann movies, but every bit as brilliant. Might be his best work.
- Insomnia (2002): Christopher Nolan’s style is already forming here. It’s a solid cop thriller.
- Michael Clayton (2007): This screenplay is music. I could listen to just the audio track and be moved. An absolutely amazing movie that just grows more on me over time.
- Inception (2010): Hyped to the moon and back when it came out, since it was Nolan’s first original, non-remake, non-adaptation. And it’s still good.
The Thin Man Goes Home (1945): The Nick and Nora series rebounds. The Beatles: Eight Days a Week—The Touring Years (2016): Somewhat toothless and bland, but worth it just for the footage of the band’s live performances. Repo Man (1984): Easily one of the weirdest movies I’ve seen in awhile. Favorite touch: the post-apocalyptic “food” cans. The Gambler (1974): James Caan is so good he makes you feel sympathy for a guy who extorts his own mother to finance his gambling addiction. Very 1970s (no clear transitions or establishing shots, a sense of general dread and defeat in the air) in the best way.
- Quiz Show (1994): I saw this when it came out, though I was only 12 at the time, making it one of the rare “adult” dramas I saw at that age. It’s stayed with me ever since, and I go back often. It feels sadly overlooked these days.
- The Witch (2016): Just as unsettling the second time.
Song of the Thin Man (1947): One of the great things about the Nick and Nora series is how it charted developments in pop culture during a key era in American history. The series ran from 1934 to 1947, and you see the changes in music, clothes, hair, attitudes, etc. This is a fitting send-off, since it’s in large part about Nick and Nora getting older and no longer being the cool kids. Double Wedding (1937): One of the 14 movies William Powell and Myrna Loy made together, and fantastic. Twist I didn’t see coming: no one actually gets married. Hell or High Water (2016): Some of the dialogue is a bit on the nose, but it’s a strong movie. Kind of like No Country for Old Men with the edges sanded down. Don't Think Twice (2016): A major leap for Mike Birbiglia as a director, since it was written for the screen and not adapted from his standup. O.J.: Made in America (2016): One of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen. It would’ve been so easy for the filmmakers to just spend a few minutes sketching out a backstory, but they go all the way back to the civil rights movements of the 1960s and progress from there. It becomes breathtaking look at race, class, and fame in America. Manchester by the Sea (2016): Devastating and great.
- The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
- The Color of Money (1986)
Nocturnal Animals (2016): A very good movie wrapped in a very bad one. Almost weird to think they’re all one piece. La La Land (2016): A staggering failure. 1) Why would you make a musical with people who can’t sing? 2) Why would you spend a movie working toward narrative completion only to crap out, as if afraid of commitment? 3) Why are you afraid of sincerity? Arrival (2016): Beautiful, brilliant, intelligent science fiction. One of my favorites of the year. A perfect movie. Jackie (2016): I was never able to lock in and see Natalie Portman as the character. I just felt like I was watching someone do an odd impression for 100 minutes. Stylistically, she's the closest of the cast to their real-life counterparts, but that winds up making it feel even more like a gimmick. Peter Sarsgaard is a bizarre choice for Bobby, and not even hair and makeup (including what looks like an oral prosthesis to give him more of an overbite) make him look like Bobby, but he winds up feeling like a real person simply because he doesn't come across as somebody riffing on a known figure. Similarly, John Carroll Lynch plays LBJ, and he doesn't look much like him at all (certainly not even as much as Bryan Cranston did in All the Way), but with just a few gestures and hints of an accent, he gets the job done. Perversely, although the film is designed to (in part) humanize Jackie, I wound up feeling bad for Natalie Portman. She just seemed trapped by the size and tone of the role. If she'd been herself just a bit more, she would have been Jackie through and through. Moonlight (2016): One of the most beautiful, powerful movies I’ve seen. Gorgeous in every way. The kind of movie that makes you use words like “masterpiece.” Rogue One (2016): Total shitshow. More here. Moana (2016): Really cute and fun. A couple of the jokes veer into DreamWorks territory (“When you use a bird to write, it’s called tweeting”), a reminder that this is a Disney Animation Studios movie, not a Pixar one. But overall, it’s really enjoyable. Fantastic music, too.
- Hail, Caesar! (2016)
- White Christmas (1954): Becoming a Christmas Eve tradition for me.
- The Nice Guys (2016)
By the Numbers
Total films seen: 70[footnote]To keep things easy, these numbers only cover films that were new to me, not rewatches.[/footnote] Documentaries: 4 Animated films: 2 Foreign (non-English-language[footnote]As opposed to, say, a British film, which is technically foreign for U.S. viewers but not what comes to mind when you think "foreign film."[/footnote]) films: 1 Movies released in 2016: 20[footnote]29% of the total[/footnote] Movies released before 2016: 50[footnote]71% of the total[/footnote] Movies released before 2000: 32[footnote]46% of the total[/footnote] Movies released before 1950: 12[footnote]17% of the total[/footnote] Of the ten highest grossers of the year (as of Dec. 31), I saw: 2
Favorites (in alphabetical order):
Arrival Creed The Fabulous Baker Boys Gilda Moonlight My Man Godfrey The Nice Guys O.J.: Made in America What We Do in the Shadows The Wood
• If the thought-sucking monster was able to determine that Bodhi, the pilot, was telling the truth about defecting from the Empire, then why did Saw Gerrera still suspect that Jyn and others had been sent to kill him? Wouldn't he have learned the truth from the monster? What exactly did the monster do to the pilot? • Was that a giant statue of a Jedi collapsed into the sands outside Jedha? Was Jedha a home for Jedi? Is the name "Jedha" supposed to signify that? Are the Jedi viewed as legends? Rogue One takes place about 20 years after the events depicted in Revenge of the Sith. Have the Jedi been turned into mere rumors in that time? How could a force that served as "the guardians of peace and justice" for "over a thousand generations" become so forgotten so quickly?[footnote]Come to think of it, how could they slip back into rumor again 30 years later, by the time of The Force Awakens?[/footnote]
• What was the point of staging a prologue to set up Galen Erso's flight from the Empire and Jyn's subsequent abandonment if those events would just be repeated in visuals and dialogue later in the film?
• Why does Darth Vader live by himself in a tower above a river of lava on what's apparently an otherwise barren planet? Isn't he a pretty important figure to the Empire? What's more, how could the film so drastically misjudge the tone and place of his character? At the outset of Star Wars, Vader is an imposing commander but essentially a lackey of Grand Moff Tarkin. Other Imperial commanders openly mock him and his belief in the Force, as well as his confidence in the Death Star. Tarkin's able to command him with ease. Vader's role as someone to fear and cower before wasn't increased until The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, as he took a greater role in overseeing the Imperial's efforts against the rebels.
Darth Vader's first appearance in Star Wars is a menacing one, and his strength is made clear when he lifts a man up by the throat with one hand. But his displays of what could be called "Force power" are limited: he chokes a disrespectful Imperial commander (only to be called off by Tarkin), he engages in a brief lightsaber duel with his old master, and he proves to be a decent pilot who senses the Force in Luke Skywalker. In Rogue One, though, Vader is cartoonishly powerful, smashing through things and throwing people with the Force in a way he never does again. How are we to reconcile this swift-moving, hotheaded villain with the one who will emerge minutes later into the opening of the first Star Wars? Did no one involved with making Rogue One stop to think that this kind of thing would be jarring? Or did they simply not care? Even when he uses the Force to choke someone here, it's not to make a point (e.g., that the Force is real and should be respected), it's just to be petty. And he caps it off with two puns in one sentence, growling, "Do not choke on your aspirations." Who is this even supposed to be?
• Not a single thing here feels original or interesting. That's not to say there wasn't potential to tell an interesting story about a suicide mission during a war, and there's plenty of cinematic precedent (The Dirty Dozen, etc.). But there hasn't been a Star Wars film that pushes the narrative forward and is also creatively original since The Empire Strikes Back.
• Alan Tudyk's role as the droid K-2SO is a sad bastardization of his role as Wash, the comedic pilot from the short-lived series Firefly and its follow-up film, Serenity. It stinks of desperation, with bad jokes shoved in at odd moments, as if the filmmakers are afraid of people sitting still for 60 consecutive seconds and having their own thoughts.
• What's the importance or significance of the crystal Jen's mother gives her as a child? This is, apparently, a kyber crystal, which Jyn expositionally tells another character are used to power[footnote]Somehow.[/footnote] lightsabers. Kyber crystals are also the fuel the Empire is harvesting for the Death Star's laser. But what does any of that have to do with the necklace? Jyn's mother tells her to trust the Force, and the blind aspiring Jedi seems to sense the necklace on Jyn's person; does the necklace have some kind of, I don't know, Force resonance or something? Why does Jyn have it? What does it add to the narrative? What would be missing from the narrative if the necklace didn't exist?
• The blind aspiring Jedi is named Chirrut. His helper/friend is named Baze. I had to look both of those names up after the movie, because I had no idea what they were from the film. That's a problem.
Why was no effort made to make any of the characters feel remotely real, even as stock archetypes? The names of all Rogue One characters mentioned in this post have been checked against IMDb because I remembered almost none of them, even before the credits rolled.
• The hologram message Galen leaves for Jyn is almost a hilariously rushed exposition dump. You can see Mads Mikkelsen working to spit out everything before his time is up. That's a big problem with Rogue One: it relies more on people telling you something happened than on you being able to see it happen. Saw and Jyn's discussion of their time together has the same false ring. Are we to understand that he abandoned her? They were in some army together? How did that abandonment play into Jyn's father issues?
• There are so many desperate, cloying attempts to remind people of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back that it feels as if some basic law of storytelling has been violated. The ugly, angry guy from the Mos Eisley cantina shows up here to bump into someone and threaten them. The hatch Jyn lifts herself through is copied from the Millennium Falcon, specifically a shot at the end of Empire.
• Genuinely interesting idea left thoroughly unexplored: Galen Erso's decision to become a collaborator with the Empire so that he could build a weakness into the Death Star, and what it means to make a moral judgment to become an accomplice in the murder of millions in hopes of saving billions. Can you imagine that weight? More importantly, can you imagine an intelligent thriller that reckons with that weight?
• It's tough to feel any of the suspense the movie clearly wants you to feel, since we already know the plans are going to be successfully stolen and transmitted to the rebels. The mounting number of complications (hook up that thing! now climb that thing! move that other thing!) are just kicking the can down the road in an attempt to draw out the sequences and make it feel more robust. When the ending isn't in doubt, the story has to be about the people, and what they're experiencing. That was almost nonexistent.
• Why on earth is Peter Cushing, who died in 1994, resurrected via CGI for this film? Could no one think of a story that didn't involve his Tarkin character? Did no one stop to think about the oddness of having a CGI human walking around through the frame? The franchise is, obviously, no stranger to special effects, and its human actors have been talking to puppets, green screens, and CGI creations for 40 years now. But there's a vast difference between an alien created by animation and that animation's attempts to want us to believe that the human being standing before our eyes is a real one, not a ghastly cartoon. Who in their right mind thought this was a good idea? How on earth can disbelief be suspended this much? Similarly, why was that abominable treatment used to render a young Carrie Fisher? Did no one, at any point, understand how uncomfortable and weird and sad this would look?
• Was there, at some point, a better movie here? While movie trailers are never wholly representative of the movies themselves, and while it's common for trailers to include things that don't make the final cut, the discrepancy between the trailer's description of the plot and characters and the film's depiction of same is jarring. The trailer featured, among other things, the shot of Jyn in a stormtrooper outfit in a tunnel designed to evoke The Empire Strikes Back; the TIE fighter rising up to meet her as she walked across scaffolding; Saw's lines about "what will you become"; the whole "I rebel" thing. Things seemed to be fundamentally different at some point. Director Gareth Edwards has also said that the film's reshoots more than tripled the number of effects shots, which would track with a corporate desire to bludgeon people into acceptance of a franchise instead of offering them a potentially challenging but rewarding story.
• The film's decision to end in the minutes before the beginning of the first Star Wars film—indeed, to essentially staple its plot onto that one—is another potentially interesting idea that feels cheap and manipulative. This is a film, after all, that relies heavily at every turn on reminding viewers about older movies. By grafting itself onto the film that started it all, it's essentially trying to borrow that film's iconography and staying power, instead of finding some for its own. It is not an accident that so many people enjoyed that sequence: it was a re-enactment of something they already liked.
For Musings, I take a look at the trilogy of Jack Ryan movies from the early 1990s, and how they reflected the global politics and action aesthetics of the time. I can now happily check "Get paid to write about The Hunt for Red October" off my bucket list. Dr. Ryan: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Kremlin
For Musings, I wrote about Tender Mercies and The Apostle, in an attempt to examine the intangibility of belief and the challenge of convincingly portraying on film something that looks and feels differently for everyone who experiences it. “Sing It the Way You Feel It”: Forgiveness and Faith in Tender Mercies
For Musings, I wrote about Samson Raphaelson, a playwright and screenwriter most notable for his nine-film collaboration with Ernst Lubitsch. I discovered Raphaelson after watching the Criterion release of 1943's Heaven Can Wait, which featured among its extras a thirty-minute PBS documentary about Raphaelson, who was then in his 80s. He came at the screen a man possessed, shaking his hands and extolling the virtue in screenplays of human characteristics above all else. To say I fell somewhat in love would not be inaccurate. He wrote a book called The Human Nature of Playwriting[footnote]Available on Kindle.[/footnote], drawn from a course he taught in 1948, that's just as illuminating. The Craftsman's Hands: How Samson Raphaelson Shaped Classic Hollywood
• When we talk about this movie, we're really talking about Heath Ledger. He died in January 2008, six months before The Dark Knight came out, and though he also appeared posthumously in 2009's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, it's The Dark Knight that's considered his true final role.[footnote]Ledger died during production of Parnassus, which resulted in a rewrite that saw Ledger's character played by multiple actors, including Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, and Jude Law.[/footnote] His death at such a young age — he was 28 — gave the film's nihilistic horror an unearthly sheen; it felt, in a sense, like it was his role as the Joker that had taken him away. He's absolutely stunning in the part, too, in a way that makes everyone else look drab and stilted by comparison. As a character (often historically but especially, and more importantly, within the specific world of The Dark Knight), the Joker is effective because he's willing to go farther than others to achieve his goals. He has no regard for human life or society's structures. He murders with glee. Ledger is smart and strong enough to be able to play this insanity as straight as possible. He occasionally bursts into ugly, shrieking laughter, but more often than not he just smacks his lips and blinks a few times and gets on with it. His performance is anchored in a sense of commitment: this Joker, this unnamed and unnameable killer, believes wholeheartedly in the righteousness and purpose of his destructive causes. There's a look in his eyes as he cavorts around town that says he can't believe he's getting away everything, and that he thinks his opponents are laughably dumb. It's Ledger's performance that makes the movie, and his acknowledged absence from today's world that makes it so haunting. • If Batman Begins spawned imitators who aped that film's grim tone and heady self-seriousness, The Dark Knight was responsible for popularizing an even more frustrating trend: the villain's ludicrously complicated plot. Partly this is because The Dark Knight, as a whole, has a much more sprawling plot than the first film. I am writing this the day after rewatching the movie, and honestly I'm still having trouble coming up with a tidy summary. Here's what I came up with:
Gotham's mobsters pool their money to avoid it being seized by Batman and the cops, and their accountant — a CEO of a Chinese company — absconds with a money to keep it secure. Batman captures the businessman and puts him in police custody, but the mob wants him, too, so they hire the Joker to get him and reclaim their money. Along the way, the gangsters realize that employing a sociopath of the Joker's caliber was probably not the wisest course of action, and the Joker starts to consolidate power so that he can provide Gotham City with "a better class of criminal." Essentially, Batman's job is to help the cops and D.A. Harvey Dent preserve a semblance of law and order, while the Joker wreaks havoc to his own end.
I think it's pretty accurate, though I feel like it's still incorrect on some level I can't identify. The movie is more of an experience than a story, like a pop version of Malick.
• Now, this is admittedly a little hairier than the plot to Batman Begins, and one far more reliant on the nebulous conflict between opposing points of view than on action motivated by belief. It also features a series of fantastically executed action set pieces that turn out to be part of a plan for the Joker to allow himself to be kidnapped so that he can then break out of the police station with the Chinese businessman he's been hired to hunt, a plan that sails right past Rube Goldberg and into all-new realms of luck-fueled machinations. The story manages to hang together because of director Christopher Nolan's energy and sense of pace, but many action movies that followed failed in their attempts to cook up similarly complex plots. Skyfall and Star Trek Into Darkness come to mind: both featured villains who acted out ridiculous, billion-piece plans that made almost no sense.
• The film's convoluted plot does turn out to hold water, but it also works because it's a structural reflection of the emotional chaos caused by the Joker. This is, after all, a villain whose m.o. is to destroy social order just to see if he can. Batman Begins took story pieces — a toxic hallucinogen, a conspiracy to poison the water supply, a stolen piece of military equipment — and threaded them together in a loose mystery. It was Batman's job to solve the mystery and, then, to stop the villains from carrying out their plan. The Dark Knight inverts this: the Joker's goal is clear from the start, and he even telegraphs his moves by leaving notes in which he names his successive victims. It's anti-mystery. Batman's job isn't to solve the puzzle, but to realize he might not be able to stop it. Indeed, while the first film ends with the death of the villain[footnote]Eleven-year-old spoiler alert, I guess, but if you've read this far into a blog post about Batman movies and didn't know what happened in them, you have only yourself to blame.[/footnote], this one ends with the Joker surviving after delivering a speech about how he and Batman are "destined to do this forever."
• The Dark Knight is demonstrably bigger in scale than Batman Begins — tons of location shooting, multiple scenes filmed in IMAX, a larger plot — but it's also, in its way, less organized and less believable. Part of what makes Batman Begins so strong is its sense of what it is and what story it wants to tell. The Dark Knight, though, is a moodier meditation on the nature of good and evil, and its a bit shaggier as a result. Still great in many ways, and good in many others. But not quite as finely tuned as its predecessor.
• The Dark Knight makes a big deal out of Batman's "one rule," which is that he refuses to kill. The screenplay hammers this pretty hard, in more than few lines of clumsy dialogue that make the subtext into just plain old text. Yet Batman Begins ends with Batman essentially murdering Ra's al Ghul. They're locked in a fistfight aboard a runaway elevated train when Ra's al Ghul realizes that he's been had and that the train is about to go flying off the track. Batman looks at him and says, "I won't kill you, but I don't have to save you," then opens his cape and flies away. Boom, train careens into the ground, Ra's al Ghul is presumably crushed to a thin paste. Pretending this somehow qualifies as not killing someone is a cheap move. One of the points of the movie was about Batman realizing the lengths he would need to go to win against a truly committed opponent. His finishing move here is like saying, "I'm gonna hand you this lit stick of dynamite and let you try to extinguish the fuse." Maybe the guy has a chance to survive, but who are we kidding?
• The dialogue is often weak here. Characters tend to speak in the kind of aphoristic non sequiturs that litter modern action movies. It's English, but it's not dialogue, and rarely recognizable as a conversation. The scene in which the Joker visits a disfigured Harvey Dent and tells him to just go out there and start killing people makes almost zero sense on any level: narrative, emotional, linguistic, you name it. Rather, it feels like one of those things that had to happen to let Dent fully transform into Two-Face and go on a brief murder rampage before being subdued by Batman.[footnote]Not just subdued, either: killed! Two-Face falls to his death as Batman saves Gordon's kid. Batman can rig a variety of life-saving ropes and wires when facing off against the cops, and he can fall from a skyscraper and land on a taxi and survive, but he can't toss a line around Two-Face? Come on.[/footnote] Some of the actors are better at handling these lines than others. Michael Caine is king — Alfred's story about the crazy bandit who just wanted "to watch the world burn" is perfect — and Maggie Gyllenhaal is good at it, too. But it's much more a film of visuals and ideas than Batman Begins, which seemed to have a better handle on actual character.
• This is also when Bale's voice, when in costume as Batman, was amplified with much more rumble and bass than was present in Batman Begins. In the first film, he speaks with a bit more of a growl, sometimes whispered, to disguise his voice and appear intimidating. Here, though, the postproduction manipulation of his voice is unmistakable, and often overdone. Watching the first and second films back to back really highlights the oddness of the change.
• Some of the visuals, though: damn. There are some fantastic compositions here, and they're paired with smart soundtrack choices that highlight a few spare instruments or sometimes drop the music altogether. Some of the most memorable things about the movie are what feel like stolen moments — Ledger sticking his head out the window of a cop car as it careens down the street is one of those perfect bits of movie poetry.
• The sequences shot in IMAX are, as would be expected with a filmmaker as skilled as Nolan, stunning. He and d.p. Wally Pfister make expert use of the altered aspect ratio to emphasize the verticality of the frame, packing the images with tall buildings and steep drops. They're the rare visual gimmick that live up to the hype.
• The opening sequence, in which the Joker and his (soon-to-be-executed) crew commit a bank heist, remains one of the most exciting things Nolan has ever done. It is relentless, energetic, captivating, terrifying, and the perfect way to set the tone of the film to follow. It's also a clear indication that, whatever the film's location shoots and visual attempts at reality might attest, we're in a land of high fantasy. The Joker's getaway vehicle is a school bus that drives through a bank wall and merges with a line of other buses going past, while cop cars speed in the opposite direction. It's a great visual punch line, but it also requires ignoring the questions that such an event would raise. Why didn't the guy driving the bus behind the Joker's say anything when a bus drove out of a bank and joined their queue? Did he just not notice the hole in the side of the building? (And what kind of gas was in the grenade that the Joker shoved into the mouth of the bank manager?) Tonally, though, it is flawless. Ledger's introduction when he removes his mask, coupled with the way his dialogue is amplified on lower registers over the film's soundtrack, is staggering.
• One of the ways in which Batman Begins made its story feel somewhat more organic was the way it downplayed the use of character nicknames. Batman was often called "the Batman," a reference to character history and a way to turn him into an object: the vigilante, the freak, the Batman. It was as much an identifier as a name. Ditto the way that "Scarecrow" was not used much, and certainly not as a way to address Dr. Crane, even when he donned his burlap mask. Yet The Dark Knight reaches a little harder for these names, notably with the way it makes Dent's "Two-Face" a nickname referring to his battered reputation among cops he'd investigated for corruption. When he loses half the skin on his face, the name becomes a kind of sick joke. It just feels forced. The Dark Knight Rises backed off a little in this area: Selina Kyle was a cat burglar, and her goggles, when propped upon her head, looked like cat ears, but "Catwoman" wasn't getting bandied about.
• The Dark Knight is a pitch-perfect continuation of the tone and style Nolan started refining in Batman Begins, and its effect on the superhero movies that followed is impossible to ignore. But many of those movies — your Marvel sequels, your YA adaptations — have imitated the film's dark tone without being able to replicate any of the other elements that made it work. This is a grim film, but it's also about redemption. It's about heroes, but also about the inevitability of losing. It's bulky, but it makes room for character development. It employs tragedy, but never falsely manipulates. And it has at its center one of the best and most vivid performances ever done in a superhero movie, one so good that it makes everyone else look poorer by comparison. The movie might not be perfect, but Ledger is perfect in it, and that's ultimately what makes the film.
• This is the movie where what we think of as Christopher Nolan's style began to solidify itself. It was his third time working with director of photography Wally Pfister, and his first time working with editor Lee Smith and composer Hans Zimmer. All three would provide crucial elements of Nolan's work. It's easier to see like this:[supsystic-tables id='3']
Filmmaking is, ultimately, a collaborative enterprise, and Nolan's major movies are defined by the efforts of this core team. Batman Begins has a beautiful, burnished look, with amber-soaked visuals that rely on narrow depth-of-field and crisp edges. It's also cut incredibly fast: with more than 2,800 shots, its average shot length is just 2.8 seconds. These rapid cuts start right at the beginning, too. It's Nolan's way of cramming the maximum amount of information into a cinematic moment, relying as much on intimation and vibe as on actual depiction. And all those visuals are set against the thrumming, chord-hammering score. Zimmer's composition is markedly different from, say, Danny Elfman's rousing theme from Tim Burton's 1989 version. It's not about melody, but atmosphere. The "Batman theme" here, such as it is, is just a minor chord held in a crescendo, then a shift to major as the crescendo peaks. Quick, sharp, moody: this is Nolan finding his pop voice.
• The script's structure has grown on me over the years. When I first saw it, it felt too clumsily tripartite: staring with Bruce Wayne and Ra's al Ghul, then making it about Dr. Crane/Scarecrow, then shifting back to Ra's al Ghul seemed off in some way. Clunky, like grinding a transmission to find the right gear. But I realize now that I was bringing too much expectation and outside knowledge into the film. To a certain degree, I was expecting both a clear announcement of the villain and a typical kind of superhero movie. What's more, since this was Nolan's first time working with this kind of structure, it was my first time learning how he makes movies. It feels much smoother now in part because I'm more used to Nolan's approach. Memento's approach to storytelling helped put Nolan on the map, but that film is still fairly straightforward: scenes playing in alternate order, one timeline moving forward and the other moving backward, until they meet in the middle. Batman Begins, though, is much more temporally fluid: it starts with Bruce Wayne as a child, then jumps forward to reveal we were watching an adult Bruce dream about himself, then weaves in more flashbacks as Bruce leaves prison and begins his training with Ra's al Ghul. The first time I saw it, the first third of the film felt so much like an extended prologue that I was a little jarred by later developments. Now, though, its easier to see how assured Nolan is of how he wants to tell the story. The high points even broadcast the plot in a neon that my eyes didn't notice a decade ago: Bruce's training is about being forced to confront his fears by powerful, ruthless men who traffic in psychotropic hallucinogens. When Dr. Crane shows up using the same methods and referring grimly to his unnamed employer, who else could he be talking about but Ra's al Ghul?
• The script also has some shameless moments of blockbuster pandering. A civilian, dazed by the sight of the tank-like Batmobile scrambling by, actually does a double-take at his coffee cup. This is a cartoon-level gag, one step above cutting to a reaction shot of a dog covering its eyes. Jim Gordon is also impressed by the Batmobile, saying, "I've gotta get me one of those!" These are the kinds of moments that can't feel authentic because they exist outside the movie's reality. They reference a specific kind of historical gag and reference, and they're meant to act as winks to the audience to remind them how much fun they're having. It's like the "woman inherits the earth" riff in Jurassic Park. It exists for no other reason than to remind people they're watching a movie.
• One of the film's strengths, though, is the degree to which it manages to stand on its own while also realizing — and acting accordingly — that it cannot help but be the latest link in a pop culture chain stretching back to the 1930s. It does a good job at establishing Bruce Wayne's trauma, obsession, and general emotional instability, all of which are necessary to make the leap from "sad orphan" to "man willing to design and wear a bat costume to fight crime as a ninja." This is why it takes so much screen time for Batman to appear (and why, in Bruce's first outings as a nighttime vigilante, he's dressed in a balaclava and rappelling gear). By the time Batman shows up, we're invested.
Yet the film can also only make sense if you go in knowing who or what Batman is, or at the very least have an understanding of the basics: Bruce Wayne is orphaned rich boy turned crimefighter, his enemies are usually insane people like the Joker, it all takes place in Gotham City, etc. Batman is one of the oldest and most enduring comic book heroes in pop culture, and even a film like Batman Begins that retells the origin story in its own manner is going to rely on that collective cultural history in ways it might not even realize. If you had never heard of Batman at all, the film would mostly work, though some of the narrative and aesthetic choices would be odd. E.g., when young Bruce's parents are killed, he's comforted at the police station by a mustachioed young officer for a surprising amount of time. The officer's captain enters and addresses him by name — "Gordon" — as the soundtrack briefly swells to highlight the moment. For this to make any cinematic sense, you have to know that Batman works closely with an older Gordon when he's police commissioner in comic books, TV series, and other movies. That is the only way this scene, the way it's done here, can matter. And that's not necessarily a bad thing, either. It's just a sign of how hard it is to make "fresh" movies when you're working with a story that, at the time of the film's release, had been part of American entertainment for more than 65 years.
• Katie Holmes is a lot better in this movie than people probably give her credit for being. Rachel Dawes has plenty to do: Bruce Wayne's childhood friend, a crusading lawyer determined to take on organized crime, and a motivating force for Bruce to examine his own life and motivations. She's the one who shames Bruce when he admits to planning to kill the man who shot his parents, and she's the one who tells him that actions speak loudest when it comes to social change. Holmes is good, too: sharp, engaging, a nice physical and emotional counterpoint to Christian Bale. [footnote]She was good in some of her earlier work, too, including Go and Wonder Boys, as well as Thank You For Smoking, which came out the same year as The Dark Knight.[/footnote] But Holmes got engaged to Tom Cruise the same month Batman Begins hit theaters, and that was pretty much it from her, in a serious way, for years. She didn't reprise the Rachel role in The Dark Knight, instead appearing in that year in Mad Money, which tanked. She was in a couple more movies, but she didn't divorce Cruise until 2012. Watching Batman Begins is like watching an old home movie of someone who would later be kidnapped, blithely going about their day, with no idea of what lies in store.
• The soundtrack and sound design are so crucial here (and in all of Nolan's movies) at making small moments feel unsettling and packed with possible horror. When Crane visits Falcone in prison, he asks him rhetorically, "Have you seen my mask?" Falcone narrows his eyes as the soundtrack hums with a low pulse — quiet, gut-level — and it's more than enough to make whatever's about to come feel like it will be terrible. Cf. the sound design of any scene in The Dark Knight where the Joker interrogates someone.
• Batman Begins — and Nolan's Batman trilogy in toto — changed the shape of superhero movies. It was grayer and more serious than, say, Spider-Man or Fantastic Four, and its success led to legions of imitators that aped its grim tone but didn't have the story or directorial skill to match it. Modern Marvel movies are now basically just plodding ripoffs of Nolan: thundering, laborious, complicated, not much fun. And for all the trauma on display here, it's still a movie that knows how to have fun. The Batmobile chase scene is undeniably fun, and there's a prickly thrill in watching Bruce Wayne learn how to outfit himself and become a dark warrior.
• The film is packed with the kind of stunning images that still feel surprising in a superhero movie, and were that much more startling when the film was released. The awful monster Crane sees in Batman's face when he hallucinates; the red-eyed demon Batman appears to be when he flies over a crowd of people infected by the hallucinogenic toxin; the scene in which Batman interrogates the crooked cop by hanging him by an ankle and raising and lowering him several stories at a time. No other hero movie looks like Nolan's do.
For Musings, I take a look at Sunshine, a sweeping historical drama that stars Ralph Fiennes in three lead roles across three generations: grandfather, father, son. Before rewatching the film for this piece, I'd only seen it once. I rented it on a whim in the fall of 2000, when I was a freshman at college. The video store down the street[footnote]Actual VHS tapes.[/footnote] offered one free catalog rental every day in a different genre: comedy, drama, horror, family, etc. I went all the time, always on the lookout. I hadn't heard of Sunshine or its writer-director, István Szabó, before then, and I'd only seen Ralph Fiennes a few years earlier in Quiz Show.[footnote]I would see Schindler's List later in 2000, and The English Patient sometime in the next year.[/footnote] But the film rocked me back and stayed with me, and I would find myself thinking of it regularly for years. I wanted to revisit it with older eyes, and I was happy to find it's still beautiful, sad, operatic, and ultimately big-hearted.
I don't watch as many movies as I used to. It's not that I love them any less: I still think film is one of our best and most powerful art forms, capable of saying so much more about us than we even realize or intend. But for the past couple years, I've felt less interested in staying current with new releases, and with the inevitable pop-cultural #hottakes that accompany them, and more focused on watching what I really want to watch. I went weeks in 2015 only watching one or two movies, and spent whole months just working through classics. In general, I didn't catch up with most 2015 releases until the end of the year, and before mid-November, I'd seen almost no 2015 releases. My tally of first-time viewings reflects the change. Beyond that, though, I also spent more time this year revisiting films I hadn't seen in a while, seeing how they've changed in the intervening years, or seeing how I've changed. My new-to-me tallies for the past few years:
I used to think I needed to hit a certain number, or a certain kind of number, but now I realize that the natural ebb and flow is more comfortable. Gorge and break, skim and stop; explore as a result of your own drive.
Whiplash (2014): Writer-director Damien Chazelle focuses on the physical tools needed to bring music to life: the sticks, the horns, the stands, the folders, the sweat. It’s shot and cut within an inch of its life, and it almost shakes with energy. Pillow Talk (1959): From a historical standpoint, it’s fascinating and uncomfortable to watch a closeted gay man play a character who at one point makes fun of closeted gay men. This comes with the territory, though. Watching older movies always means experiencing them through your own time, as well as the time in which they were made. (Another example: Pillow Talk came out five years before the Civil Rights Act was passed.) It’s easy to see why the movie was a hit, though. Rock Hudson is staggeringly charismatic, and Doris Day’s energy is perfect. Black Sea (2015): On paper, it has the elements for pulpy, thrilling entertainment: a submarine, a band of rogues, and a hunt for forgotten Nazi gold. And indeed, the first two-thirds of the movie are tight and propulsive, as greed and fear drive the characters to play off each other in desperate ways. But the home stretch finds certain characters swapping personalities and motivations, and they cease to be people and instead become interchangeable devices for plot mechanics, after which it’s a bumpy ride to the finish line. Rewatches: — The Critic (selected episodes): The first season is better than the second — the animation is a little tighter, and the stories have a little more bite — but it’s still an enjoyable series to revisit. It’s also supremely weird to rewatch as an adult who has worked in a freelance capacity as a film critic for more than ten years. Jay’s struggles to reconcile his tastes with others’, and his general insecurity, are arrows that hit somewhat close to the center of the target. — Singin' in the Rain: The older I get, the fonder I grow of musicals. They’re such a pure cinematic form, blending fantasy and reality in ways that no other genre can. There’s so much beauty here, too, in what has to be one of the best musicals and one of the best movies ever made. The energy, the love story, the Hollywood satire, the music and movement: every bit of it is gorgeous. — L.A. Confidential: It’s fitting that Curtis Hanson’s period piece about Hollywood crime is itself a throwback to big, brassy Hollywood movies. What really popped for me this time around was the score: bombastic, moody, driving, exactly the kind of thing you don’t get much these days. And even with so many good performances on screen, Guy Pearce’s always stands out. Ed Exley has to be power-hungry but also uneasy with himself, cocky but insecure; he imagines that he’s holding it together, even though he knows that people can probably see through his act. He has to carry himself with a certain confidence even as he knows he’s acting. There are wonderful layers to the character that Pearce brings out, and he’s so good and subtle that it’s easy to overlook him in favor of the equally impressive but flashier work of Kevin Spacey and Russell Crowe. Hanson never lets the energy falter, either, especially as the movie gathers speed and enters the home stretch. — Casino: It takes a lot of work and skill to make something this big feel so breezy. Editor Thelma Schoonmaker cuts this thing within an inch of its life: the movements are rapid but never dislocating. What they are is a kind of purposeful disorientation, so that watching the movie starts to mimic the queasy feeling of being in an actual casino, surrounded by vice and unable to find the exit. Scorsese’s second collaboration with Nicholas Pileggi is probably bound to forever live in the shadow of their first one, Goodfellas, but Casino is still stunning all on its own. What makes the film so charged is the way Ace and Nicky are fated to come into conflict, driven to overreach by their own hubris (Ace picks fights with the local government, Nicky crosses the bosses).
Hairspray (1988): I came to this after seeing the musical, which made for some interesting dissonance. Although this is the original film, I find myself almost unwittingly thinking of it as an "alternate" story to the musical's "true" one. I also just enjoyed the musical more, thanks largely to the cast. (Divine has presence, but still seemed too aware of the camera.) The China Syndrome (1979): One of the standout thrillers reflecting the bleak 1970s back on itself, anchored by a typically memorable and multi-faceted performance from Jack Lemmon. He has to walk so many wires with his character here: smart enough to do his job, but also smart enough to realize when things are going bad; canny enough to reach out to the reporter (Jane Fonda), but also honest enough to try and flirt with her. He's tangible in a way few actors are. The One I Love (2014): It's amazing the depth and distance that quality writing, directing, and acting can create in a movie that only has three characters. Godzilla (2014) (half-finished): Laughably inept. As the lead, Aaron Taylor-Johnson seems unable to express any single recognizable emotion. His own father dies right in front of him, and he resorts to running his hands through his hair; five minutes later, it's as if it never happened. A clumsy, overplotted blockbuster that uses effects as an excuse to string together boring plot points, with no consideration of acting, writing, or narrative thrust. I turned it off around the one-hour mark because I didn't want to waste a second hour of my life on it. The Two Faces of January (2014): I could probably watch Oscar Isaac do anything. Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (2015): Never underestimate the power of evil to manipulate the desperate. Rewatches: — The Hunt for Red October — Get Shorty: One of the more enjoyable movies about the movies, in part because its idea of "the movies" resides in a pleasant alternate universe that broke from ours sometime in the 1960s. Shlocky monster horror is mainstream, superheroes are unseen, and YA franchises don't even exist.
Life Itself (2014): The best moments were those that touched on Roger Ebert as a man at war with himself: aware of his limitations and vices, working to live with them. Sinatra: All or Nothing at All (2015): This Alex Gibney doc doesn’t hit nearly as hard as his Going Clear did, but that’s the price you pay for access to estate materials. Nicely structured, though, weaving through Sinatra’s “farewell” concert and looping out to different parts of his life. We Own the Night (2007): This was only my second James Gray film (after the stellar The Immigrant), and it was fantastic. It's a solidly built drama about crime and family, and a blend of classic and modern style. Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show (2014): The inadvertent comedy of the redundant title was the first sign that there wouldn’t be much worth exploring here. Far too pat. X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014): They’re really determined to keep making these. Marnie (1964): Sexually bizarre, but a great thriller. That applies to a lot of Hitchcock. Strangers on a Train (1951): Told you. Rewatches: — Wag the Dog: A movie this dark was never going to be widely accepted. But its strength comes in part from its willingness to follow through on the awful conceit of its story: that people determined to fabricate a war to save a presidency wouldn't hesitate to eliminate anyone who would threaten their operation. — Jerry Maguire: Absolutely holds up.
Elizabethtown (2005): Better than its reputation; weaker than its predecessors. Ex Machina (2015): Chilling, gripping science fiction with a genuine head on its shoulders. Oscar Isaac has now ascended to the level of treasured national resource. We Bought a Zoo (2011): Doesn’t even feel like a Cameron Crowe movie. It’s weird and almost unsettling that the same guy who did Say Anything… did this. The Rundown (2003) Rewatches: — Wet Hot American Summer: A+ for comedy, Beth. — Best in Show: Guest's second best.
An American in Paris (1951): Gene Kelly was superhuman. The plot's not as memorable as some of his other musicals, but the ballet in the final act is every bit the masterpiece. Rewatches: — Nightcrawler: Queasy and beautiful. Makes total sense that writer-director Dan Gilroy's brother Tony did Michael Clayton. That's an ideal double-bill. — High Fidelity: Cusack is the perfect hesitant shitheel.
The Way of the Gun (2000): A little overly “gritty” in that late-1990s kind of way, but still engaging. Black Rock (2013): A great, grim, quick little thriller. It works in part because it starts so innocuously, and twists so suddenly into horror. Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation (2015): The ideal summer entertainment. Light, slick, funny, bracing. Rewatches: — Mission: Impossible: Almost twenty years on, and still a tight, winning action movie. The set pieces feel almost small compared with where the series (and action cinema in general) has gone, but they've lost none of their punch.
Hard Boiled (1992): Worth it for some wonderfully choreographed action, especially in the climax. The End of the Tour (2015): It’s hard to watch a movie like this if you’re a fan of its real-life subject, David Foster Wallace (which I am). Jason Segel does a good job at seeming like a real person, though — quiet, insecure — as opposed to a collection of tics meant to forecast tragedy. Yet that’s ultimately what makes the film so odd and, in its way, unfair. It’d be one thing to tell a fictional story about an aspiring writer worming his way into the life of his more talented idol, and Jesse Eisenberg makes for a perfect Salieri figure. But so much of the film feels predicated upon the viewer’s knowledge of true events, including Wallace’s suicide, that the film skips over characters, plots, and even consequences in the service of a general air of “inspiration” in its final moments. For instance, Eisenberg’s David Lipsky wants to write an article about Wallace, but we never find out if it runs; he wants to grow as a writer, but we never found it if he does; we also don’t even learn the circumstances that led him to publish his book about the days he spent with Wallace. In other words, it feels too falsely manipulative, unwilling to stay loyal to its nature as a story and too eager to trade on the viewer’s knowledge of what would eventually happen to Wallace. Hurricane of Fun: The Making of Wet Hot (2015): A fun but aimless collection of behind-the-scenes footage. Less a documentary than a loose assemblage of clips. The Drop (2014): Tom Hardy should always have a dog as a costar. The Thin Blue Line (1988): Throws you into the deep end and then gets in with you. Trouble in Paradise (1932): Lighter than air and sexy as hell. Witty, warm, exciting; almost everything you could want in a movie. Rewatches: — Night Moves — Inside Man: One of Lee's best. — That Thing You Do: A comfort-food mainstay. — Croupier — Edge of Tomorrow: I can't stop watching this movie.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015): I didn’t see the clothed emperor so many of my colleagues did here. It’s got plenty of energy, sure, but the characters are so empty (especially Max) that the story is meaningless, and the resulting product is essentially an exercise in impressive stuntwork. Exporting Raymond (2010): There’s a good idea in here somewhere, but the problem is that the film’s subject, Phil Rosenthal, is also its director. As such, the central story (investigating what happens when an American TV show is remade for a foreign audience) is a little shapeless. One Hour With You (1932): Maurice Chevalier getting away with everything he could in the final days before the Code. Twilight (1998): The plot turns are telegraphed almost in neon, but it’s still alluring to see Newman, Garner, and Hackman in their latter days. Rewatches: — Awful Nice: Not as strong as I remember it being from a SXSW screening a couple years back, but not bad. — Junebug — Mulholland Dr.: I love this movie.
The Smiling Lieutenant (1931): Another pre-Code Chevalier from Lubitsch, and cute enough, though not as winning as One Hour With You. Lost Highway (1997): David Lynch scares the hell out of me, and I love it. (See also.) The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946): A surprisingly twisty noir — it feels like it has seven acts — with great work from John Garfield and the stunning Lana Turner. Bonus: Hume Cronyn almost walks away with the show. On the Town (1949): Effervescent, beautiful, crackling. One of my favorite viewing experiences of the year. Laura (1944): “Have you ever been in love?” “A doll in Washington Heights once got a fox fur out of me.” That’s when I knew I’d found something. Anchors Aweigh (1945): The first Sinatra-Kelly pairing (which would prompt their reunion in On the Town), and while it’s a little flabby, it’s still gorgeous to look at. Kathryn Grayson is about as exciting as a wet sock, and her period-style warbling doesn’t age well, but Sinatra and Kelly are still great. How to Marry a Millionaire (1953): Fantastic and slick in that 1950s Hollywood way. You can practically smell American empire through the frame. The Amityville Horror (1979): Could be summarized: "Strange things happen and then everybody gets away just fine." Weirdly anticlimactic. Rewatches: — The Departed: DiCaprio is so good here, so on edge, that he walks away with the movie. — The Prestige: One of Nolan's absolute best, if not the peak.
The Haunting (1963): Nothing but smart editing and sound design, yet it’s more terrifying than most modern thrillers. M (1931): Eerie, unnerving, fantastic. Spy (2015): Melissa McCarthy has settled into a nice groove: she knows what she wants to do, and what she's good at doing. The Watcher in the Woods (1980): My wife grew up watching this, and it is bonkers. It starts out as a ghost story but then says "Maybe aliens?" Carol (2015): Todd Haynes is a methodical filmmaker with a modest output — he's only made six features in 24 years — and that sense of care and focus are evident here. Carol is a quiet film about repression and fear, relying on glances, body language, and the hope of the unknown to communicate its characters' longing for love. Steve Jobs (2015): Aaron Sorkin's script is effervescent, but the film as a whole doesn't quite hang together. Spotlight (2015): Tom McCarthy's another filmmaker who traditionally focuses on small, interpersonal moments, which makes him a good fit for the journalistic grind of Spotlight. It's such a solid, strong film that its real skill and power won't be recognized for a few years. Trainwreck (2015): Judd Apatow's films now seem hidebound to follow a formula he stumbled across a decade back: lots of improvised riffs, some stray plots that go nowhere, and running times that are about 30 minutes overweight. (When a potentially breezy rom-com like Trainwreck clocks in at just over two hours, something's gotta go.) There's still a good deal to enjoy here, though, especially Bill Hader's chemistry with Amy Schumer. I was a little late to the party, watching the film a few months after it came out, but even so I was struck by how tone-deaf and immature some critics' reactions were to the film re: what they viewed as its conservative or regressive bias. Schumer's character, by the end, decides to grow up a little: she cuts back on the boozing and opts to risk heartbreak for a real relationship. This is a pretty common arc, especially for an Apatow movie, which are all about people deciding to get their acts together. It's not inherently conservative[footnote]Whatever this even means to the different critics hurling it at the film like it's the biggest rock they can find.[/footnote] or retrograde for a character to have an awakening of sorts and pursue change in the name of a higher good; that's most drama. It doesn't become oppressive just because the protagonist is a woman. Results (2015): A shaggy, warm, engaging romantic dramedy. The low budget and run-and-gun attitude shine through in the best way. Rewatches: — Bull Durham: A perfect film. — Magnolia — It Should Happen to You
Joy (2015): A soupy mess. Jennifer Lawrence, charismatic as she may be, doesn't have the age or range to play a grown woman with the kind of history David O. Russell wants her to have. Russell's determination to keep making the same film over and over — a cranked-up version of 1970s histrionics — is old now. I pine for the days of Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees. The Hateful Eight (2015): A brutal, riveting drawing-room horror story. The first 90 minutes are the tightest, most suspenseful filmmaking Tarantino's done; the second 90, when all hell breaks loose, is just as rewarding. Best of Enemies (2015): A well-meaning but small-feeling doc about the rivalry between Vidal and Buckley. Two titans seem weirdly shrunk. The Big Short (2015): One of the best American movies of the year. Punchy and full-throated, like an angry civics lesson from a history teacher too tired to pretend the world's worth saving. Inside Out (2015): A flat-out masterpiece. The characters and story are perfect, and the emotionally nuanced message — about the necessity of sadness and grief, and the way all memories are made of a mix of feelings — is one of Pixar's most powerful. Sicario (2015): Great photography. Bad everything else. The Revenant (2015): See above. Trumbo (2015): See above. The Good Dinosaur (2015): See above. Brooklyn (2015): A wonderful film. Too often the end of the year brings dramas that traffic in the worst of the human condition, and while those stories are worth telling, they can induce a Pavlovian response. More than halfway into Brooklyn, I kept expecting someone to get raped, or have a medically risky abortion, or run over a friend with their car, or contract polio, or who knows what. But this isn't that film. Rather, it's a beautiful drama that digs into the life of a young woman who emigrates from Ireland to the U.S. in the 1950s. By focusing on these "small" stakes, the film feels universal in its observations of family. Bonus: my favorite ending scene/shot of the year. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015): It took 35 years, but somebody finally made an entertaining Star Wars movie again. The Martian (2015): Entertaining, meat-and-potatoes adventure. The book is a mess, but that makes it perfect fodder for a movie adaptation. There's no style or insight to be shed in the process of translating it to the screen. Rewatches: — Sunshine: Not the Danny Boyle film, but the 1999 drama by Istvan Szabo. I rented it from the video store in the fall of 2000, on a whim, and it stayed with me. I revisited it for the first time since then, and I found it even more moving. — The Godfather: What's left to say? The American dream as operatic tragedy. — White Christmas: My father and sister loved this movie when I was young, but it took me years to appreciate it. — Star Wars: I was born in 1982, and am therefore of the generation that still refers to the first film simply as "Star Wars." — The Empire Strikes Back: The best, most beautiful, most impressive film in the series.
By the Numbers
Total films seen: 64[footnote]To keep things easy, these numbers only cover films that were new to me, not rewatches.[/footnote] Documentaries: 6 Animated films: 2 Foreign (non-U.S.) films: 1[footnote]Ugh. What a terribly low number.[/footnote] Movies released in 2015: 26 Movies released before 2015: 38 Movies released before 2000: 22 Movies released before 1950: 8 Of the ten highest grossers of the year (as of Dec. 31), I saw: 3
Favorites (in no particular order): Brooklyn, Laura, On the Town, Trouble in Paradise, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Drop, The Rundown, The Big Short, Carol, Spotlight, Ex Machina
For Musings, I take a look at It Should Happen to You, a bittersweet dramedy from 1954 that pretty much predicted Kim Kardashian: I’ll Help You Be Popular: It Should Happen to You and the Thirst for Fame
When Paul Thomas Anderson sat down for an interview with Marc Maron in January, he said of his 1999 film Magnolia that, if he were making it today, it would be a great deal shorter. The film runs just over three hours, and though Anderson didn't disown the film at all, he did talk about what drove him to make it the way he did. His father — actor, announcer, and radio personality Ernie Anderson — died in February 1997, a few months before the release of Anderson's Boogie Nights, and Anderson spoke to Maron about the degree to which Magnolia was a way for him to process his grief. It's very much a film of and about mourning: Anderson, not yet 30, was wrestling with the death of his father, and the film that came out of that is wounded, frenetic, and restless with emotion. There's very little release in the film. Rather, initial set-ups will build to emotional intensity and hold it, often cutting between multiple story lines caught at similarly fraught moments, scored to swirling music that never lets up. It's raw, is what it is: uncomfortable, yearning, rocking back and forth. It's the work of a young man working through something big. It's no surprise that he'd tell that story differently now. More than fifteen years have passed, and Anderson's evolved both as a filmmaker and as a person. But that's precisely why Magnolia is so important the way it is. Art is many things, but among them it's a snapshot of the artist at that moment in time. Here is how they decide to tell the story; here is what they value; here is what they revere or disdain. Of course Anderson at 45 wouldn't make the same Magnolia as Anderson at 30. That's the whole point. It's a work by a gifted artist at that instant in their life. A year on either side, and the final product would be different. Magnolia is the howl over a hospital bed, the thump of the first clod of dirt hitting the coffin lid, the sweat on the pallbearer's palms. It's a reckoning, and it's made from inside the pain. A film made with the benefit of distance provided by time wouldn't necessarily be bad (Anderson hasn't made a bad film yet), but it would necessarily be different. The monologue about regret still has blood on the page:
The film runs thick with the themes of parent-child relationships, forgiveness, loneliness, and reconciliation. There are two elderly, cancer-ridden fathers who have destroyed their relationships with their children; a third abusive father who exploits his son; a has-been pining after an unrequited love; a divorced cop struggling to do what's right; and adult children, stunted by abuse, who have to learn how to live. When Anderson talked to Maron, he said there are parts of the film, possibly entire plots, he'd do away with now, and the film does indeed sprawl. But that sprawl is part of what makes the film rewarding. It's a movie made by a guy trying to feel everything at once, then trying to understand it and get it down on paper. It's obsessed with coincidence and chance, with the intersection of mercy and grace, with the way we can make mistake after mistake but still find the opportunity to make up for it. The performances are uniformly stellar, the individual stories land with weight and power, and the film still has the power to stir in the viewer the same awe and fear it evoked all those years ago. Watching it fifteen years later, you're struck not by how long it is, but by how short; not by how much is in it, but by the shadows of the world just outside the frame.
My latest piece for Musings is about Croupier. I feel lucky to have actually caught this in the theater when it was released. It was my introduction to Clive Owen, and for years after, I thought first of Croupier whenever I saw him. He's fantastic in it.