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
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
I've been keeping a monthly tally of my movie watching for four years now (see 2011, 2012, 2013). These lists have always been loose, with no real goals or rules: last year, arbitrarily, I decided to watch 100 new (to me) movies, but this year I didn't care about reaching or exceeding that number. I still tend to focus this list on films that are new to me, but a few months into the year, I started to note when I rewatched a movie or TV series, something I haven't done in the past. (As to why I'm also including TV series I rewatched, it just felt right.) I wound up watching fewer movies in 2014 than I did in 2013, and I attribute the dip to a number of things: general burnout, professional existential issues, and the fact that I stopped writing for the website where I'd spent nine years providing reviews and essays. I also started to feel more tired than ever about being an unwitting part of the marketing and award cycle that blows through town every year and makes a ruin of the construction we spent the past 12 months fixing up. Movies mean so much more than that. You can see the ebb and flow in my annual tallies:
2011: 79 movies (new to me) 2012: 69 movies 2013: 104 movies 2014: 79 movies
If I reviewed a film on the list or wrote about it on this site, I'll link to that. Additionally, if I had something else to note, I'll include that below.
As for the current availability of the movies listed below, I'll quote myself from last year: "Titles come and go online, so Can I Stream It? and Instantwatcher are great resources to let you know how to get your hands on a film. And don’t fall into the trap of thinking that streaming is the only way to see movies. Netflix still has a robust disc rental service (for now), and it’s worth the extra couple bucks a month."
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014) Clean and Sober (1988): I was inspired to check this out after hearing Michael Keaton interviewed on WTF With Marc Maron. It's a fantastic, unflinching, often daringly honest portrayal of the cycle of addiction and self-destruction, with some wonderful work by Keaton in his first dramatic role. Up until this he'd been a comic performer, and he'd even done stand-up for a while, but he's a great fit for the role. His character is one who's tried for years to get by on charm to hide his disease, and Keaton's skill with mania and moods are perfect here. Standout moment: when he calls his mother late at night to ask for money so he can score. He's anxious, eager, hopeful, embarrassed, repulsed at his deeds, determined to continue. And it all happens in a lengthy take that focuses on Keaton. Casting By (2013): Casting is a fascinating part of the production process in film and television. This is a decent little documentary mostly about Marion Dougherty, whose career spanned decades and covered classic movies and major stars. It dips a little into hagiography, but it's still a nice look at a part of the business that doesn't get talked about that often in detail. Europa Report (2013): A solid found-footage thriller that relies on claustrophobia and nice tension in its tale of inevitably doomed space exploration.
The Monuments Men (2014) A Hard Day's Night (1964): My wife's a huge Beatles fan, and though I love their music, too, I'd never seen any of their movies until this. It's ridiculously fun — goofy, effervescent, iconic — and it boasts some of the best pop music of the century. Non-Stop (2014) 30 for 30: The Price of Gold (2014): I haven't spent much time with ESPN's 30 for 30 series, but this documentary about the Tonya Harding incident was riveting.
That Guy Dick Miller (2014): Mediocre talking-head doc about character actor Dick Miller, whose colorful career deserves something a bit more introspective. In a Q&A after the SXSW screening I attended, the director explained that the film started out as a DVD featurette that expanded over time. Sad to say, the featurette version would've likely been better. Premature (2014) For Those in Peril (2014): Eerie, slow-moving fable come to life. I nodded off. Boyhood (2014): There's a lot to like, and even plenty to love, in Richard Linklater's gimmick-reliant film, which follows one young boy over 12 actual years as he grows from age 6 to 18. It's got a loose, warm, welcoming air, and Linklater's skilled enough at this point to know when to hold back and let the vibe take over. Some of the supporting cast (including Linklater's real-life daughter) is weak, though, adding to the experimental and unpolished feel. Interestingly, the most compelling arc isn't the main character's, but his father's, played by Ethan Hawke. The boy grows from aimless child into a slightly less aimless young man, his whole life in front of him, which is natural for a young person. (Who, at 18, is anything but a blank slate?) But his father goes from deadbeat dad with delusions of local music stardom to remarried conservative with his feet on the ground, and there are moments when he watches his son age that you can watch his own awareness of his forgotten dreams resurface on his face. The father's the one to watch. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) The Seven-Year Itch (1955): Worth seeing for its place in film history, though it fell short of enjoyable. Noah (2014)
Nine to Five (1980): I always enjoy catching up on pop classics that I just barely missed. This came out two years before I was born, and though I grew up knowing about its place in movie history, I never got around to seeing it until this year. As funny and entertaining as I'd hoped. Jodorowsky’s Dune (2014): An engaging documentary about surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky's failed attempt to adapt the novel Dune into a trippy lovefest. There's likely some invention going on in Jodorowsky's recollections, but it's a fun ride, and his vision for the movie is something else. Pacific Rim (2013) The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) Rewatches: The Rocketeer: This is one of my favorite childhood movies, and one I turn to when I'm sick or run down or just need a break. It brims with the spirit of adventure, and it's got style to spare. Kid/family movies like this do not happen much these days. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: Still the best of the series thanks to what, in retrospect, seems like a no-brainer: graft the legacy of seafaring exploration onto interstellar voyages, and anchor the whole thing in a fear of mortality. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock: A prime example of mid-1980s sci-fi: a lot of ideas, not a lot of money, and a final product that gets the job done in a fine but often forgettable way. Hampered by being part of a trilogy. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home: Fascinating to rewatch as an adult for its marked departure from everything that came before. This is the moment the series made a blatant play for families, and the film is softer and goofier than everything that came before. (Two movies earlier, Kirk was reckoning with his long-lost son and the death of his best friend; now he's bopping around the Bay Area spouting one-liners.) Still fun, though.
Beverly Hills Cop (1984): It was a staggeringly huge hit for a reason. Milius (2013) Heathers (1989): One of the great things about watching landmark comedies years later is going in with the memory of the all the movies that came after. The influence of Heathers on teen comedies is impossible to measure — it's dark, biting, sad, nihilistic; you know, for kids — and it holds up years later. High school is hell, and this movie is Dante. The Improv: 50 Years Behind the Brick Wall (2013): Irritatingly weak and ill-formed. The buzz of seeing major comics talk about their early days is dulled by the film's total lack of insight and direction. Ender's Game (2013) Veronica Mars (2014) Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) In a World ... (2013): One of the best movies I saw all year. If we got comedies like this every quarter, the world would be a wonderful place. Rewatches: Sports Night (series): This is one of the first shows I ever really loved, and I watched it eagerly as it aired during my junior and senior years of high school (September 1998 to May 2000). I've turned to it again over the years (including during a wicked bout of depression), and for all its obvious and clumsy flaws, there's still something sweet and earnest and almost noble about it. Out of Sight: My favorite Soderbergh film, by a mile. Ocean's Twelve: Not nearly as frustrating as I found it initially. It's growing on me.
Bringing Up Baby (1938): Grant and Hepburn make this look effortless. They glide. The Great Muppet Caper (1981): I don't know how I never saw this as a child. We were more of a Disney family, I guess. Stagecoach (1939): The moment John Wayne swaggers onto the screen could be one of the most stirring I've ever seen, Western or otherwise. A great, exciting film. The Maltese Falcon (1941): Iconic for about a hundred reasons, all of them correct. Barton Fink (1991): Haunting, surreal, unnerving, and perfect in its way. Snowpiercer (2014): A couple of unintentionally hilarious moments aside (it's very hard to make a tearful speech about post-apocalyptic cannibalism sound believable), it's a solid thriller and tight little movie. It chugs along like, well, you know. Just remember: left or right? Rewatches: Glengarry Glen Ross: I'm a sucker for Mamet's machine gun, at least when it's this good. The Paper Chase Adaptation: I first saw this when it came out and I was in college, and I hadn't returned to it in a while. The haunting sorrow of the creative process is heartbreaking. Memento: It's still a great movie: rock-solid story, style, and execution. And though it was only Nolan's second movie, so much of his style was already in place. (It was also the beginning of a gorgeous partnership with d.p. Wally Pfister.) It's relentlessly paced, but never hectic; adherent to its central gimmick, but structured in a way that doles out information right on the beats you'd expect from a conventional movie. Nolan's non-hero movies tend to be about the puzzles we design for ourselves and the things we pretend not to know: a magician's secrets, a husband's obsessions, a thief's choices. Memento is a little bit like seeing his m.o. distilled to its essence. Every performer is perfect, too. Absolutely worth revisiting.
Silverado (1985): There's an earnestness and lack of irony here that's sadly uncommon for movies. Video Games: The Movie (2014) The Lego Movie (2014): Almost shouldn't work, but it does. Sex Tape (2014) Under the Skin (2014): Unforgettable, though not in a pleasant way. Foreign Correspondent (1940): Gorgeous shots, fantastic suspense, and inventive effects. Better than almost any other movie I saw this year. The Immigrant (2014): There's a classical, straightforward feeling to James Gray's latest that's appealingly honest in its execution. Rich, grimy world-building at its best, and one of the best final shots in recent memory. Rewatches: The Hunt for Red October: Perennial comfort food. Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Season 1): One of my favorite comedies on the air right now. The West Wing (selected episodes, Seasons 3-4)
Witness (1985): One of the movies for adults that are so hard to find today. About Alex (2014) The Big Chill (1983) Man Hunt (1941): Some of the period loopiness doesn't hold up — watching two people fall deeply in love after meeting once, all while the man is an abrasive weirdo, is becoming the hardest fantasy to entertain on screen — but it's got some solid suspense sequences and a predictably entertaining performance by George Sanders. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) The Trip to Italy (2014) The Wolverine (2013): These movies don't even have rules anymore. Bonnie and Clyde (1967): Blisteringly subversive, from the action to the sexuality. That it even got made is amazing. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948): Nature, greed, and the lengths men will travel to turn a dream into a nightmare. Far darker and more adventurous than I'd expected it to be. To Have and Have Not (1944): The moment where Lauren Bacall starts dancing almost knocked me out of my chair. Heaven Can Wait (1943): Endlessly charming. Rewatches: Vanilla Sky: I like this a little more now than I did when it came out. It's prickly and weird, but a lot of that's because it's such a straight remake of Abre los ojos that Cameron Crowe doesn't quite know what to do with it. Scrubs (selected episodes, Seasons 1-4): There are problems here, looking back: some of the jokes are a little homophobic, and the show's early fantasy sequences actually became reality at one point, so the execution got a little weird. But it reminds me of being in my 20s and struggling with life and hanging out with my roommate watching this show on cable. It's a touchstone to a different part of me. The Dark Knight Rises: This is not a perfect movie. Parts of it are even kind of dumb. But it's still somehow watchable thanks to its bombast and scope. The Master Rounders: Sophomore year of college, a friend and I would watch the last act of the movie — pretty much from the Turkish baths to the end — and then amble down to the cafeteria for dinner. We probably did it once a week at one point.
Auntie Mame (1958): Mid-century films based on plays didn't always know how to handle the transition — see The Music Man’s straightforward fade-outs and freezes, as if no one wanted to bother making a specifically film-centric story — but Auntie Mame overcomes those bumps on the strength of Rosalind Russell's performance. A great example of 1950s Hollywood dazzle. I Am Road Comic (2014): There's a great documentary to be made about the working life of a comic, traveling from club to club to cobble together a living. This is not that documentary. Videodrome (1983): The ravages of age: the fictional show on the Videodrome network is tamer than the run of torture porn that played cineplexes in the 2000s. What's Up, Doc? (1972): A breezy ode to screwball, but also interesting for its perspective on nostalgia. Today's filmmakers are doing odes to the movies of the 1970s and 1980s. Years from now, we'll get flashbacks to the '00s. Bird People (2014) Spellbound (1945): Seventy years old, and as twisty and tight as the day the print was struck. They Came Together (2014): Not as strong a spoof as Wet Hot American Summer, but there were still a few moments I had to pause because I was laughing so hard. Gaslight (1944): Trivia: the American version from 1944 (the one I saw) was the second movie made from the stage play source material, following a 1940 British version. It's got some decent suspense — and of course is fun to watch purely for the historical perspective of seeing something that was so popular it created a new slang term — but it suffers from the same problem that plagues a lot of middling thrillers, namely, the bad guy acts incredibly suspicious and weird the entire time. There's never any doubt he's messing with his wife's sanity, but rather than focus on the strain at hand or the power play that drives him to do this, director George Cukor sticks closer to the "What on earth could be going on?" style of teasing the viewer, which come on. The Equalizer (2014) Gone Girl: Pretty good. Rewatches: Forrest Gump The Wire (Seasons 1-3): I hadn't watched The Wire since the first time I worked through the series sometime around 2007-2008. It (unsurprisingly) still holds up, and if anything, it feels richer and stronger for having stayed so powerful. Primer
Rudderless (2014) Fury (2014) Bernie (2012): Texas forever. Before I Go to Sleep (2014) Rewatches: The Wire (Seasons 4-5): The corner boys are still heartbreaking. Scott Templeton, less so. Galaxy Quest: Warm, entertaining, funny, wistful; most impressively, parodic without being mean. I return to it regularly.
Shadow of the Vampire (2000): A bonkers but effective mix of behind-the-scenes moviemaking drama and unsettling horror film. Not to be confused with Alyssa Milano's Embrace of the Vampire, important to young boys for completely different reasons. Interstellar (2014) A Most Wanted Man (2014): A little too restrained — there's slow, and then there's trapped in amber — but it's still rewarding in many places for the way it deviates from action-driven spy stories. Foxcatcher (2014): Basing your movie on true events does not excuse you from crafting a narrative. 22 Jump Street (2014): The perfect blend of self-awareness and silliness. The Babadook (2014) Rewatches: There Will Be Blood: Still the ultimate American horror story. Saturday Night: How did it take someone 35 years to come up with the idea of making a documentary about assembling an episode of Saturday Night Live? And how weird is it that that someone is James Franco?
Owning Mahowny (2003): I'll never not miss Philip Seymour Hoffman. A Most Violent Year (2014): While it's usually risky to try and force any kind of theme upon a given year of movies, it's true that many movies this year dealt with capitalism as the ultimate villain. The story here sounds small at first — a man who owns a heating-oil company has to fend off heated competition — but the drama turns out to be surprisingly compelling as he struggles to keep his life together. Nightcrawler (2014): See above. Jake Gyllenhaal's portrayal of a sociopathic creep is riveting, but the film's real villain is the sensationalism of modern media. Listen Up Philip (2014): A brutal, if brave, portrait of an artist as a self-destructive young man. Inherent Vice (2014): Paul Thomas Anderson's gift for balancing humor and melancholy could be his strongest suit. American Sniper (2014): See Foxcatcher above. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014): Critics operating in bad faith deserve to be pilloried. I liked a lot about this. Chef (2014): Writer-director Jon Favreau's narrative about a famous guy who quits the big time to rediscover his passions is, one assumes, pulled directly from his own life (he did a pair of Iron Man movies before this), and the heart shows. It's small-stakes, easygoing, warm-spirited moviemaking, and I enjoyed every minute. Rewatches: Scrubs (Seasons 6-8) Scrooged The Grand Budapest Hotel
By the Numbers
Total films seen: 79 Documentaries: 8 Animated films: 1 Foreign (non-U.S.) films: 4 Movies released in 2014: 41 Movies released before 2014: 38 Movies released before 2000: 25 Movies released before 1950: 10 Of the ten highest grossers of the year (as of Dec. 31), I saw: 3 Number of 2014 releases I reviewed: 16 Favorites (in no particular order): The Grand Budapest Hotel, Inherent Vice, Foreign Correspondent, In a World, Clean and Sober, A Hard Day's Night, Beverly Hills Cop, Stagecoach, The Immigrant, Heaven Can Wait, Bird People, Fury, The Babadook, Chef
Most of these are (unsurprisingly) film-related, though there are some that dig into books or television. With limited exceptions, these are features, interviews, or essays, not film reviews. (I also cheated and included some videos.) And of course, this is just a list of things I happened to read and enjoy this year, and not a remotely comprehensive account of every great thing that was produced in the past 12 months.
"Don't Worry About the End of Film," Richard Brody, The New Yorker
"Rep Diary: A Time for Burning," Jared Eisenstat, Film Comment
"Six Things Romantic Comedies Can Learn from Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said," Alexander Huls, Movies.com
"A Crossroads for Independent Cinema," Sky Dylan-Robbins, The New Yorker
"Remembering Rain Man: The $350 Million Movie That Hollywood Wouldn’t Touch Today," Matt Patches, Grantland
"Child's Play: The Degeneration of Blockbusters," Alexander Huls, RogerEbert.com
"As Indies Explode, an Appeal for Sanity," Manohla Dargis, The New York Times
"How Netflix Reverse Engineered Hollywood," Alexis C. Madrigal, The Atlantic
"Film Preservation 2.0," Matthew Dessem, The Dissolve
"In Conversation: Saturday Night Live’s Lorne Michaels," Lane Brown, Vulture
"Entertainment Weekly wants you to write for it for free. Don't do it.," Scott Meslow, The Week
"Designing for The Grand Budapest Hotel," Annie Atkins, Creative Review
"The Joys of Dated Cinema," Peter Labuza and Abbey Bender, To Be Cont'd
"Mad Men Creator Matthew Weiner On the One Thing About Internet Criticism He Doesn’t Like," Katey Rich, Vanity Fair
"Who Killed the Romantic Comedy?," Amy Nicholson, LA Weekly
"The Score," Michael Heilemann, Kitbashed
"Days of Future Present," David Fear, The Dissolve
"The Execution of Private Slovik, 40 Years Later," Chris Walsh, Los Angeles Review of Books
"Louis C.K. Is America's Undisputed King of Comedy," Andrew Corsello, GQ
"How Hollywood Killed Death," Alexander Huls, The New York Times Magazine
"Coming Detractions," Joe Hill, Joe Hill's Thrills
"How (and why) to fight television culture's amnesia," Brandon Nowalk, The A.V. Club
"Why The Conversation Should Be Required Viewing at the NSA," Alexander Huls, The Atlantic
"William Faulkner's Hollywood Odyssey," John Meroney, Garden & Gun
"The Fear of the New," Richard Brody, The New Yorker
"The Shawshank Residuals," Russell Adams, The Wall Street Journal
"Are We at Peak Superhero?," Mark Harris, Grantland
"How YouTube and Internet Journalism Destroyed Tom Cruise, Our Last Real Movie Star," Amy Nicholson, LA Weekly
"West Wing Uncensored: Aaron Sorkin, Rob Lowe, More Look Back on Early Fears, Long Hours, Contract Battles and the Real Reason for Those Departures," Lacey Rose, Michael O'Connell, Marc Bernardin, The Hollywood Reporter
"What Is a Cinemascore?," Eric D. Snider, Film.com
"John Oliver, Charming Scold," Ian Crouch, The New Yorker
"The Great Flood," Donald Wilson, Film Comment
"Harvey Weinstein and the saga of Snowpiercer," Ty Burr, The Boston Globe
"Steadicam progress: the career of Paul Thomas Anderson in five shots," Kevin B. Lee, Sight & Sound
"The Leftovers, Our Town, and the Brutal Power of Ordinary Details," Tom Perotta, The Atlantic
"Do the Right Thing Turns 25, and BAM Hosts the Block Party," Michelle Orange, The Village Voice
"Shaka, When the Walls Fell," Ian Bogost, The Atlantic
"George Saunders's Humor," George Saunders, The New Yorker
"The Freaks and Geeks Series Bible," Paul Feig, Slate
Gordon Willis Interview, Steven Soderbergh, Extension 765
"The Summer Movie Season is dead," David Ehrlich, The Dissolve
"Bombast: The Punishment Continues," Nick Pinkerton, Film Comment
"The 100-Year-Old Who Taught Garbo to Waltz," Matt Weinstock, Los Angeles Review of Books
"Maleficent Could Be So Good. If Only She Were Allowed To Be Bad.," Jessica Goldstein, ThinkProgress
"Has modern technology killed the spy thriller?," Charles Cumming, The Guardian
"Joe Swanberg (Happy Christmas) Talks Jake Kasdan’s Sex Tape," Joe Swanberg, The Talkhouse
"Six million people are still getting Netflix’s red envelopes in the mail," Dan Frommer, Quartz
"Moonrise Kingdom: Wes in Wonderland," David Bordwell, Observations on Film Art
"Moment to Moment," Nathan Heller, The New Yorker
"James Garner, 1928-2014," Glenn Kenny, Some Came Running
"When Eyes Wide Shut Failed To Save The NC-17," Scott Mendelson, Forbes
"I Killed At the Movies," Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, The A.V. Club
"Writers Can Do Anything," William T. Vollman, The Atlantic
"Shelving to Save a Book's Life," Susan Coll, The Atlantic
"This Is the End," Wesley Morris, Grantland
"Love Is Strange MPAA Rating Controversy," Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune
"Zip, zero, Zeitgeist," David Bordwell, Observations on Film Art
"Different Rules Apply," Matt Zoller Seitz, RogerEbert.com
"Let's Be Real," Wesley Morris, Grantland
"What It Was Like to Do Surprise Improv With Robin Williams," Chris Gethard, Vulture
"This Is the End: James Gray on Apocalypse Now," James Gray, Rolling Stone
"Fifteen Years Later: Tom Cruise and Magnolia," Amy Nicholson, Grantland
"The Scourge of 'Relatability,'" Rebecca Mead, The New Yorker
"Death of Film/Decay of Cinema at 15: A Conversation With Godfrey Cheshire," Matt Zoller Seitz and Godfrey Cheshire, RogerEbert.com
"Why I'm Not Watching the Inherent Vice Trailer," Sam Adams, Criticwire
"Last Week Tonight Does Real Journalism, No Matter What John Oliver Says," Asawin Suebsaeng, The Daily Beast
"The story behind the things actors pick up and hold on Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Alias, and more," Chris Call, The A.V. Club
"Gilding the Small Screen: or, 'Is it just me or did TV get good all of a sudden?,'" Javier Grillo-Marxuach, Los Angeles Review of Books
"Raiders," Steven Soderbergh, Extension 765
"The Death of Adulthood in American Culture," A.O. Scott, The New York Times
"Cinematic Cuts Exploit How Your Brain Edits What You See," Greg Miller, Wired
"Film, Digitality, and Cultural Divides," B. Ruby Rich, Film Quarterly
"'Am I being catfished?': An author confronts her number one online critic," Kathleen Hale, The Guardian
"David Lynch: 'Stories Should Have the Suffering,'" David Lynch, The Talks
"Do We Read Differently at Different Ages?," Daniel Mendelsohn and Pankaj Mishra, The New York Times
"Some Thoughts on the Planned Return of Twin Peaks," Ian Crouch, The New Yorker
"Star Wars Producer Blasts Star Wars Myths," Chris Taylor, Mashable
"White People Problems," Briallen Hopper, Killing the Buddha
"'The Novel Is Like a Room'—an Interview with Karl Ove Knausgaard," Kyle Buckley, Hazlitt
"Bread, circuses, and Oscar buzz," David Bordwell, Observations on Film Art
"E-Book Mingles Love and Product Placement," Alexandra Alter, The New York Times
"Selma Star David Oyelowo Gets Frank About Race in Hollywood," Nigel M. Smith, Indiewire
"Don't Write for Awards," Emily St. John Mandel, The Atlantic
"The Year After the Year of Racial Cinema," Noah Gittell, RogerEbert.com
"In an All-Digital Future, It’s the New Movies That Will Be in Trouble," Bilge Ebiri, Vulture
"The Birdcage," Mark Harris, Grantland
"Great Writing Is Humble," Peter Stamm, The Atlantic
"How the Death of Mid-Budget Cinema Left a Generation of Iconic Filmmakers MIA," Jason Bailey, Flavorwire
This is the third year in which I've kept a running monthly tally of the movies I see instead of just adding them to the master list. (Here are the round-ups for 2011 and 2012.) The movies that make the list are those that are new to me. I can see the merit of keeping a log of everything I see, including movies I've seen before, but one of the reasons I maintain these annual lists is to inspire me to keep seeking out new stories, new voices, and new movie-watching experiences. There are plenty of times I've watched personal favorites or comfort-food movies on Blu-ray or cable, but for this round-up, I want to focus on the discoveries I made. By that measure, I saw 79 films in 2011 and 68 in 2012. Respectable numbers, for sure — averaging more than one movie a week — especially considering that I don't do this for a full-time living. But my total for 2013 was 104, a major jump, and I'm happy with that number. I made more of an effort in 2013 to seek out and explore movies I'd missed or never heard of, and somewhere along the way I realized I could probably break 100 for the year if I tried. It was an arbitrary goal, and nothing would happen if I made it or missed it, but it motivated me to keep watching new or old or different movies, so I might set a similar goal for 2014.
A big chunk of the movies I saw this year were from before 2013, too. In 2012, I saw 49 new releases out of a total of 68 films, which means 72% of the stuff I saw was new. In 2011, I saw 50 new releases out of 79 films, so the new releases were about 63% of the total. In 2013, I saw 54 new releases out of 104 total films, which means about 52% of what I saw was new, and 48% percent was from last year or earlier. I'm really happy not only that I was able to see more movies this year than in the past couple years, but that so many of them were older releases. There's so much out there.
A final note on availability: Titles come and go online, so Can I Stream It? and Instantwatcher are great resources to let you know how to get your hands on a film. And don't fall into the trap of thinking that streaming is the only way to see movies. Netflix still has a robust disc rental service (for now), and it's worth the extra couple bucks a month.
The Naked City (1948): This is a fantastic noir that makes wonderful use of narration and tone. The closing line — “There are 8 million stories in the naked city; this has been one of them.” — became famous, and was used as the backbone of the two TV series that followed. The heart of the film is a crime story, but it’s got enough flourish to function as a broader look at the city. It’s gorgeously shot, too. The Long Goodbye (1973): Phenomenal. Elliott Gould plays Philip Marlowe as a man resignedly out of time — when a cop asks where he’s from, Marlowe answers, “I’m from a long time ago” — and hits just the right balance of cool and earnestness. Brilliant screenplay from Leigh Brackett, and typically perfect direction from Robert Altman. Witness for the Prosecution (1957): Based on an Agatha Christie play, the movie’s anchored by three amazing performances: Charles Laughton as an aging lawyer, Tyrone Power as a man accused of murder, and Marlene Dietrich as the accused man’s tricky wife. Fantastic plotting, wonderful acting, and great twists. Another reminder that Billy Wilder was one of the best directors in history. The Stranger (1946): Amazingly dark and intense. Orson Welles plays a Nazi war criminal hiding out in the U.S., hunted by feds led by Edward G. Robinson. The film’s famous for being the first Hollywood movie to show footage of concentration camps. Wonderful movie. Across 110th Street (1972): Not bad. The execution is pretty wobbly, but there’s some good stuff here about generational conflict and baked-in racism in New York in the early 1970s. I kept wanting to call Yaphet Kotto “G.” Gangster Squad (2013) Appointment With Danger (1951): Just OK. Some fun dialogue, but the noir is pretty lite. Alan Ladd's got some charm, though. The Lady Vanishes (1938): Fantastic. Just fantastic. Wonderful comedy, great suspense, amazing cast, and stellar direction from Hitchcock. I can see myself buying this to watch again and again. The Last Stand (2013) Sleep, My Love (1948): A tight, enjoyable noir from Douglas Sirk. Claudette Colbert plays a woman who thinks she’s going crazy, and Don Ameche is amazingly evil as her husband who (obviously) plays a major role in her decaying mental state. It’s also got a great supporting turn from Robert Cummings, who was a dependable player in comedies and dramas for decades. Trivia: Cummings originally played Juror Number Eight in the live 1954 teleplay of Twelve Angry Men, and he won an Emmy for the role. Henry Fonda played the character in the 1957 film version. His Girl Friday (1940): Fantastic energy and performances, topped off with stunning direction and editing. It’s a screwball classic for a reason. It’s also got a bracingly dark undertone, especially when dealing with how emotionally deadening journalism can be as a career. Stand Up Guys (2013) The Kennel Murder Case (1933): Cute mystery.
Side Effects (2013) A Good Day to Die Hard (2013) Pitch Perfect (2012): A sweet, fun comedy that’s essentially Bring It On for acappella nerds. A few scenes were too juvenile to laugh at — making a snow angel in a slick of vomit isn’t fun to watch — but overall it’s an entertaining movie and a nice vehicle for Anna Kendrick, who’s been great since Rocket Science. Kendrick is also apparently in the Twilight movies, which I didn’t know until I checked out her filmography on IMDb. In my mind, it’s just Rocket Science, Up in the Air, the problematic Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and now this. I like my version of things better. The Lady Eve (1941): Fantastic, funny, and sexy as hell. It’s actually amazing to see the level of sexuality and innuendo Preston Sturges gets away with here, since 1941 was smack in the middle of the stupefyingly dumb Hays Code era, which legislated puritanical morality into movies in the early 20th century as a way to dodge local censors. The first draft of the script was nixed because of “the definite suggestion of a sex affair between [the] two leads.” Such rules forced filmmakers to bend over backward sometimes, but few could pull off such contortions like Sturges. The fact that he made this and Sullivan’s Travels within 12 months is astonishing. The Odd Couple (1968): Another one of those I never got around to seeing until now. Jack Lemmon’s been a favorite of mine for a while — he’s better at body language in comedy and drama than anybody else you can name — but I was surprised at how great Walter Matthau was. Not that I expected less. Rather, I’d gone in figuring him to be the standard slob and straight man to Lemmon’s neurotic divorcee, but he turned out to be much more interesting and nuanced than that. The character’s prickly but sad, and Matthau plays it beautifully. This story’s also the source of all those sitcom scenes in which the dialogue between two men is mapped onto a traditionalist male-female relationship (one’s upset when the other’s late for dinner, etc.), but those scenes really work here, probably because it’s not trying to ape anything. The movie’s also shot really well, too, and despite the klieg-light vibe that was still prevalent in the late 1960s, d.p. Robert B. Hauser makes great use of the frame. A great comedy, and nice to look at, too.
Anatomy of a Murder (1959): A fantastic drama and legal thriller, and especially notable for the way Jimmy Stewart’s character cares more about winning than telling the truth. Amazing performances, and the Criterion release has wonderful extras. Much Ado About Nothing (2013) We Cause Scenes (2013): My first night of SXSW, I arrived earlier than I'd planned, so I had time to check out a movie with some friends. We Cause Scenes is cute but forgettable, a documentary about Improv Everywhere and their history with staging public scenes/pranks/happenings. It's basically a prolonged interview with the founder, which makes the story feel one-sided and a little hagiographical. A Teacher (2013): A colleague strongly advised me to skip this one, and I should have listened. Turgid, overwrought, and suffocating, it's a drama about a female teacher sleeping with a male student and going through some kind of general existential crisis in the process. The Bounceback (2013): This comedy about two exes trying to get over each other had some cute moments, but it mostly feels like B-roll commissioned by the Austin Chamber of Commerce. I think the reason it premiered at the Paramount Theater at SXSW, instead of a smaller venue, was simply to show some love to the city. Upstream Color (2013): A truly great and challenging and interesting film. Writer-director Shane Carruth's first film since 2004's Primer, this movie deals with trippy sci-fi ideas and bizarre love stories in amazing ways. Carruth's got a synthetic approach to filmmaking — rather than work linearly, he jumps between stories so quickly that you let them wash over you until everything clicks into place. I want to spend some more time with this one. Before Midnight (2013) Mud (2013): A smart, warm movie about boys and friendship. Matthew McConaughey is great. It’s so easy to make coming-of-age movies feel cliched or dumb, but this one avoids easy outs. Awful Nice (2013): This was my Turkey Bowl moment at SXSW 2013: the surprising comedy that won me over. It’s a road trip movie about two sparring brothers who fix up an old family cabin, but the acting and the characters make it special. Go for Sisters (2013): Some good stuff here from John Sayles, but overall a little slow and ponderous. Don Jon (2013) The Place Beyond the Pines (2013) Dial M for Murder (1954): A solid thriller from Hitchcock. Not as great as some of his others, but some great scene work.
Trance (2013) Kramer vs. Kramer (1979): There’s usually a winter/spring lull where I can see more movies at home via Netflix or Blu-ray, and 2013 was no exception. This always happens. I’m fired up by a new year and the idea of seeing more movies that I’ve always meant to see, but a few months in, I find myself hemmed in by work and other obligations, and my movie-watching declines a little. I only saw four movies in April, but I was paid to review three of them. I’m glad, then, that my one excursion into cinematic history for the month was with Kramer vs. Kramer. All I knew going in was that it was about divorce, but I’d expected it to be about the custody battle. That’s in it, but I had no idea the film would really be about a man (Dustin Hoffman) whose wife (Meryl Streep) leaves him, at which point he has to juggle work and fatherhood. It’s very late-1970s, but in a good way — everyone says “analyst” instead of “therapist,” and it’s clearly new ground for a dad to be so touchy-feely. The performances are wonderful, though, and you’re reminded of what made Hoffman such a star. Trivia: Hoffman won an Oscar for best actor here after a string of nominations, and he used his acceptance speech to attack the very premise of one actor being better than another. It’s amazing to see. (Though the speech didn’t stop him from accepting the Oscar, or the one he got for Rain Man almost a decade later.) To the Wonder (2013) Oblivion (2013)
The Great Gatsby (2013) Big Trouble in Little China (1986): A weird, hallucinatory movie. I didn’t hate it, but it did leave me wondering why so many people love it. My guess is it’s because they grew up with it. If you see this for the first time as a boy, it’ll probably stick with you as a nostalgic adventure. If not, well, there’s a little less on offer. District 9 (2009): I finally got around to seeing this, and I’m so glad I did. It’s a reminder that great sci-fi is all about characters, not effects. The effects here (CG and physical) are either slight or cheap-looking, but they totally work because the story’s so good. Gymkata (1985): Hilariously bad (which is why my friends and I watched it). Sometimes the movie goes for minutes on end with no dialogue, just gymnastics-fighting. A Face in the Crowd (1957): One of things I love about watching older movies is the way it reminds you that people have been making electric, challenging movies for far longer than you’ve been alive. It’s so, so easy to only see current movies, but more than that, to think that current movies are the only ones that can really speak to the human condition as we understand it. It’s a kind of generational prejudice that everyone deals with, no matter how old they are. I fight it all the time. Movies like A Face in the Crowd are the best way to combat that attitude. It’s a searing look at media manipulation and the politics of persuasion, and it features an amazing lead performance from Andy Griffith as an ex-con turned folksy radio star who becomes enamored of his own power. It was produced and directed by Elia Kazan, but it hasn’t held onto the public or critical imagination the way some of his other projects have, like A Streetcar Named Desire or On the Waterfront. It’s every bit the classic those are, though, and it’s definitely worth seeking out.
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013): Not nearly as enjoyable or fun as its 2009 predecessor. It’s too long, overly dour, needlessly complicated (everybody wants to be The Dark Knight), and worst of all, it tries to remake Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. It’s not just that Wrath of Khan is a good film that didn’t need to be remade, but that the whole point of this rebooted universe was to get new stories featuring slightly different versions of the characters we used to know. What’s the point in riffing on Khan? Frances Ha (2013): Although Noah Baumbach’s debut, 1995’s Kicking and Screaming, remains a wonderful and bittersweet look at post-grad life, much of his filmography throughout the 2000s was just plain bitter. I can’t stand the acid hate of Margot at the Wedding or the lumbering dissociation of The Squid and the Whale, nor the bitter shot he injected into The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. I was happily surprised, then, to discover that Frances Ha was a funny, wistful, moving story about a woman coming into her own in the wasteland of young adulthood. Credit star and co-writer Greta Gerwig for the film’s successes. She’s perfect in the role, equally sympathetic and bull-headed. Mr. Mom (1983): One of those 1980s cable classics that I just never saw. Sometimes movies just slip by you. It’s a kick to watch this now; 30 years on, nobody’d really blink at a stay-at-home dad (well, Jimmy Fallon might), but even with dated gender politics the film still holds up thanks to its cast and verve. The Bling Ring (2013) World War Z (2013) White House Down (2013)
The Way Way Back (2013) Jack Reacher (2012): A surprisingly solid action-drama, and worth watching for the way it emphasizes story and motive instead of just brainless explosions and chases. I’ve never read any of the Jack Reacher books, but I know from the almost endless complaints online that Tom Cruise is much smaller than the fictional Jack Reacher was written to be. But writer-director Christopher McQuarrie (who wrote The Usual Suspects) has put together a strong movie, and Cruise’s cool persona is a nice fit for the genre. Ruby Sparks (2012): A frank and engaging look at the creative process, romantic delusion, and the dangers of trying to keep our partners boxed in. Zoe Kazan, who stars as Ruby, wrote the script, and it’s a pointed, funny, moving deconstruction of manic pixie dream girls and juvenile wish fulfillment. Definitely worth seeking out. Brubaker (1980): The structure here’s a little wobbly — Robert Redford says maybe five words in the first half hour — but the meat of the story, about a warden (Redford) trying to reform a corrupt and abusive prison, is great. It’s got what feels like every character actor from the 1970s and 1980s in it, too, as well as a brief appearance by a fantastically young and skinny Morgan Freeman. (Though Freeman was already 43 when the film came out.) Redford’s made so many interesting film choices in his career, and I always find his movies worthwhile. Night Train to Munich (1940): Modest. There’s a lot to like here, at least on paper: spy drama, tense chases on a train, Rex Harrison as a swaggering British agent. But the plot chokes on everything it tries to do, and the titular night train doesn’t show up until the final act. The climactic chase scene through the mountains has so much energy that you realize how dull the rest of the film was. No Way Out (1987): A great movie. It’s a little slow to start, and very much of its cinematic era (the love scene has its own terrible ballad written by Paul Anka and Michael McDonald), but around the half-hour mark it just explodes. The rest of the film is a fantastic ride based on a manhunt, a love triangle, and Cold War paranoia. Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman are dependably great here, but Will Patton really brings the heat as a cunning and ruthless political operative.
The Women (1939): Part of the allure of The Women is the gimmick of its production: there’s not a single man on screen, in any role, during the film. But the film’s not some trick or exercise, and its casting and execution isn’t a distraction, but a way to underscore the focus on the lives and fluctuating relationships of a loose collection of friends (and enemies) in New York City. George Cukor’s direction is fantastic, and the entire cast is perfect, especially Norma Shearer and Rosalind Russell. Trivia: Some of the jokes from the original play had to be cut or rewritten to meet the standards of the Production Code. Suspicion (1941): I didn’t plan to watch three Joan Fontaine classics in a row (starting with The Women and continuing with this and Rebecca), but those are the kind of happy accidents that come when you explore old movies and follow rabbit trails from one to another. Suspicion is a wonderful suspense picture, but it’s also surprisingly soft in the middle, and a little duplicitous. If you suspect someone of harboring a secret, they aren’t going to start acting any differently just because of your belief. You might interpret their actions in a new light, but they won’t just start lurking in shadows, rubbing their hands together menacingly, and drifting off in the middle of conversations. It’s a bit of a cheat, even in a film, to push a character’s purported evil so hard and then reverse course just to manipulate the viewer. Still, the film’s well worth watching, and Harry Stradling’s cinematography is breathtaking. Rebecca (1940): This was fantastic. Moody, grim, weird, sexual, psychotic, and totally gripping. I attempted to read the book a few years ago, but I couldn’t quite lock in, so I moved on. (Which was disappointing simply because I’d spent so much time looking for a copy of the book that didn’t look like a cheap romance novel.) Hitchcock’s direction and control are masterful here, and the gothic aura is unforgettable. Lovelace (2013) The World's End (2013): The third film in Edgar Wright’s loosely related “Cornetto trilogy” is wonderful, sad, funny, and as engaging as you’d expect. It strains a little more than the others to make some of its points, though. Shaun of the Dead remains the tightest and funniest of the lot. Gone With the Wind (1939): For years, I’d resisted watching Gone With the Wind. I knew its place in movie history (most popular movie of all time), and I knew its trivia (first Oscar for a black performer), but it just never interested me. Yet I felt a sense of duty to give it a chance, and to see what it was about. Part of the fun and challenge of exploring older movies is not ruling them out categorically just because you think you know what they’ll be. So in that sense, I’m glad I watched Gone With the Wind. The scope and craft are evident, even if the final film feels a little too slickly produced and drained of any particular directorial voice. What’s weird, though, is the way the film is touted (usually in its own posters, like this or this) as a period romance, when in actuality it’s a dark drama about two terrible people who shouldn’t be together and who wind up destroying each other’s lives and just about everyone else’s around them. That’s not a bad premise for a story, either; the disconnect comes when the film’s style and tone treat these people as somewhat likeable rogues or admirable heroes for doing what they do. Scarlett O’Hara’s ruthless drive to survive means she’s willing to steal a suitor away from her sister just so she can marry into money, and this is one of those points the film just kind of glosses over in its rush to cram as much of Margaret Mitchell’s novel as possible into the confines of the movie screen. And even with the benefit of historical context and the reminder that films from different eras and localities are liable to seem shocking by today’s standards, it’s tough to watch a film that so blatantly peddles Lost Cause politics in the middle of its melodrama. There are some great performances here — Vivien Leigh has some astonishing moments — but the film’s weird tonal issues kept throwing me. It’s as if it didn’t want to admit how gruesome it really was.
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994): I've still got a few lamentable gaps in my Coen brothers viewing, so I was glad to rent this. It’s the kind of rapid-fire, stylized, magical-realist stuff that’s very much in the Coens’ 1990s style. Jayne Mansfield’s Car (2013) Blow Out (1981): DePalma’s spiritual successor to Antonioni’s Blow-Up is every bit a classic, from DePalma’s tongue-in-cheek jabs at his own critics with the movie-within-a-movie opening to the exhilarating suspense and chases. Quick, brutal, smart, and convincing. Thrillers like this are all too rare. A Single Shot (2013) The Living Daylights (1987): I’m not a big Bond fan. I’ve seen most of the Connery-era entries and a few others — my first was Pierce Brosnan’s debut in the role, GoldenEye — but for the most part I find them overplotted, overlong, and never as good as their opening sequences suggest they’ll be. The Living Daylights, though, turned out to be better than average. Part of it was Timothy Dalton’s performance: he seems slightly embarrassed by the corny sexcapades and way more interested in being a killer spy. It’s also a reasonably solid adventure story. The final act is about 20 minutes too long, but it’s still more fun to watch than some of the series’ less exciting entries. Weirdest part: an anti-Soviet action movie from the 1980s means the Mujahideen are sidekicks and heroes, which wouldn’t exactly make the cut post-9/11. We cycle through stock villains blindly, based on whoever we’re supposed to hate at the moment. Your Sister's Sister (2011): A great, refreshing, honest little film. Aside from the opening scene (set at a party) and a few shots in a small town, the whole thing is just three people: Mark Duplass, Emily Blunt, and Rosemarie DeWitt. The romantic and dramatic tension is organic and believable, and after some summer misfires, it felt great to watch a movie with recognizably human characters.
Gravity (2013) This Is the End (2013): Broad comedies like this can play really well in a theater, and had I seen it on the big screen instead of on Blu-ray, I might’ve liked it more simply because of the communal experience. But watching it by myself on a weekend afternoon, I was able to see its flaws and strengths more clearly. It feels a little weak, stapled together from random ideas. Captain Phillips (2013) The Kings of Summer (2013): A strong, moving, often funny coming-of-age story. It occasionally tips its hand, though, shifting from jokes that make sense for the characters (funny interactions, lines, fights, etc.) to jokes that are a little broader and wall-breaking, as if to say to the viewer “Isn’t this a funny, wacky thing we’re doing?” When the film stays rooted in its own world, though, it’s fantastic. Running Scared (1986): A great buddy-cop movie that I was happy to discover. The comedy’s funny, the action’s serious, and the leads have good chemistry. A well-assembled piece of Hollywood product. 12 Years a Slave (2013) Call Northside 777 (1948): Call Northside 777 is based on a true story, and out of a desire to respect the facts of the case, the filmmakers opt for a heavily narrated, plodding, methodical reconstruction. It feels almost like a documentary or re-enactment, minus the drama. At 1 hour 51 minutes, it’s also easily 20 minutes too long. Had the underlying story been turned into an actual propulsive narrative, the finished product might’ve been better. Monkey Business (1952): Cute, harmless, enjoyable screwball comedy from Howard Hawks. There’s not a lot to it — scientist Cary Grant and wife Ginger Rogers drink a youth formula and act like kids and teenagers — but it’s fun, witty, and briskly directed. Well worth my time. The Counselor (2013) The Last Days of Disco (1998): It took me a little while to warm up to Whit Stillman, but I really enjoy him now. I think a big part of it was my inability to see the bigger picture when I was younger. His films are about insecure young people looking for a sense of identity, and when you’re actually one of those people, watching a movie about it can be grating. (His characters are tough to love, too.) But I really connected with this movie, and I was able to see the honesty and care with which Stillman explored the lives of these myopic recent graduates. Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
Iron Man 3 (2013): I never saw Iron Man 2, but I still wanted to see Iron Man 3. Maybe it was a sense of duty to see what happened in the year’s highest grossing movie, or just a desire to catch up with that particular corner of pop culture. So I rented the Blu-ray through Netflix. It was not completely terrible — Shane Black’s voice did manage to come through on occasion — but it suffered from the problems that plague most superhero movies. It was overplotted, hammy, and inherently duplicitous about its story. I don’t mean any twists or reveals about bad guys. I mean plots that flirt with the idea that Tony Stark might hang up his flying boots, as if we don’t all know that Marvel is gonna milk this cow as long as they can, or deus ex machina moments where Tony can suddenly call upon dozens of auto-piloting Iron Man suits to come to his rescue. What was missing was a real sense of danger and adventure. The first Iron Man film is still the best, and not accidentally is about one guy, in one suit, trying to stop a bigger guy in a bigger suit. It’s about a character’s struggle to find himself. This third go-round felt like a chore for the filmmakers. Smoke Signals (1998): Warm, funny, wistful, and a great change of pace from superhero movies. It’s also got some wonderful edits that work on multiple levels. An adult character will open a door, but a match cut to the other side of the door shows the kid version walking through, and suddenly we’re in the past. Or there’s the way the camera will slowly pan away from the young versions of the characters to pick up the action with their adult selves. Stuff like this is low-cost and effective, but it also underscores the film’s focus on the way memory bleeds backward and forward through our lives, so we’re always living in two places. The only misfire: a terrible wig given to one of the main characters after he cuts his own late in the film. It became impossible not to stare at it. It was hilariously bad. Manhattan (1979): After watching this, I realized it was already on my running list of every movie I’ve ever seen. But I had few (if any) memories of the film, and watching it again felt like seeing it for the first time. There was only one real moment of deja vu where I came close to remembering the film, and it was when Isaac is listing his favorite things about life. I trust myself and the list enough to know that I must’ve seen it before, sometime, but I really couldn’t recall the film. So it occupies a weird space between a fresh screening and a rewatch. Nebraska (2013) Breaking Away (1979): One of the best things about this film — written and directed by Peter Yates, a workhorse throughout the 1970s and 1980s whose varied c.v. includes The Friends of Eddie Coyle to Krull — is its resistance to certain plot twists or gimmicks that would strain the already potent drama that comes with growing up. For instance, young Dave’s tension with his dad feels natural, lived-in, and prickly on both sides; there’s no melodramatic ultimatum. They simply live and learn about each other. It’s a fun, very 1970s coming-of-age story, and the climactic bicycle race is fantastic. Fandango (1985): Another coming-of-age tale, this one starring Kevin Costner and written and directed by Kevin Reynolds. (Reynolds would go on to direct Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Waterworld, as well as the 2012 miniseries Hatfields & McCoys.) It’s a sweet, occasionally clunky, endearing road trip movie about a band of friends who go for one last adventure right after they graduate college, before a couple of them have to ship out to Vietnam. Trivia: the film started as a short about Reynolds’ alma mater, Baylor, but the school was changed to UT in the feature version. The film got almost no play when it opened in 1985, either, grossing less than $100,000 on a $4 million budget. Cinema Paradiso (1988): A rangy, heartbreaking movie about the power of film and the way love and youth conspire to haunt us all. I liked the film very much, and I was fascinated to learn that the version people watch is actually a shorter version than director Giuseppe Tornatore originally released. The short version cuts about half an hour out of the film, including a more bitter subplot that changes the meaning of some of the film’s final moments. I prefer the shorter cut. Stories We Tell (2013): A great documentary about the way we construct meaning from the stories in our lives, and how nobody ever remembers what really happened. For a longer look, go here. Prizzi's Honor (1985): A good film and pleasantly dark comedy, but not as winning as I’d hoped it would be. Muscle Shoals (2013): The music recorded at Fame Studios in the 1960s and 1970s is part of American pop culture history, and this documentary about the studio’s birth and growth is a great look at the music business. Short Term 12 (2013): I missed this at SXSW earlier in the year, and I was so glad I had a chance to catch up with it. It’s a small but searing story about emotionally damaged kids living at a foster-care facility. Brie Larson is wonderful, but the kids are just as outstanding. Keith Stanfield in particular blew me away. Enough Said (2013): I felt relief wash over me a few minutes after I started this movie. “Oh yeah,” I thought. “Movies about real people do exist.” Nicole Holofcener’s film is many things — funny, insightful, honest, bittersweet — but most of all it’s a reminder that there are creators and storytellers out there who know how to make films about recognizably real people, and who understand how to explore the interactions of relatable human beings. Sometimes, in the midst of the summer movie season, it can be hard to remember what those movies are like. Brooklyn Castle (2012): There’s nothing earth-shaking in this documentary, but it’s still a warm and interesting look at lower-income students who stand out by doing something most kids don’t do at any level: kick ass at chess. It sacrifices some narrative power for messaging purposes (this is one of those documentaries that ends with a website and call to action on screen), but it’s still worth the journey. The House I Live In (2012): Eugene Jarecki’s Why We Fight was a brutal and riveting look at the military-industrial complex, and he brings that same curiosity and acumen to his examination of the modern criminal justice system and its failed war on drugs. He explores poverty, class, American history, and the way drugs are ritually criminalized to penalize certain groups. It’s engaging stuff, if also a bit horrifying. The Broken Circle Breakdown (2013): I loved the way this film used Americana music, with its roots in mourning and family, to explore tragedy for its characters. Some of the most heartbreaking performances (musical and otherwise) I’d seen all year. It's as moving and sorrowful and loving as anything I've seen in a long time. I talk more about the film and its use of bluegrass music here.
American Hustle (2013) The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) Out of the Furnace (2013) Frozen (2013): One of Disney’s best in quite a while. I didn’t like Tangled that much: it felt derivative and flat, with forgettable music and recycled storylines. But Frozen was charming and entertaining throughout, and it was anchored by better vocalists (like Idina Menzel) and much more memorable songs. I bought the soundtrack the day after I saw the movie. I can’t remember the last time I’ve done that. Fruitvale Station (2013): Well-made and appropriately heartbreaking, though I think the film loses something by veering into documentary/messaging mode toward the end. Michael B. Jordan is fantastic, though. Monsters University (2013): Fair. It’s a cute enough riff on Animal House, but less original and entertaining than the first film. It’s hard to do a prequel where the stakes really matter. Saving Mr. Banks (2013) Man of Steel (2013): Hilariously maudlin. Superman doesn’t even look like he’s having that much fun when he learns to fly. There’s a refreshing premise here — Superman’s introduction to the world is as an alien who might be just as dangerous as the other ones that just showed up, so he has to earn the trust of the military — but director Zack Snyder is still trying to shoot generic ads that call themselves movies. (From a distance, Man of Steel looks like a Levi’s commercial that takes place entirely at sunset.) It’s also at least 45 minutes too long, and the final battle is plastic, ugly, and drowning in CGI. Plus the romantic plotline is so tacked-on it’s embarrassing. Live and Let Die (1973): Amazingly kooky. Bond’s riff on blaxploitation was probably already tone-deaf when it hit screens 40 years ago, and it’s only grown weirder since. When the film isn’t embarrassing, it’s just strange: there’s a huge chase sequence featuring shot after shot of boats jumping roads and cars, almost entirely devoid of music. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013): A great, moody, darkly comic, sympathetic portrait of an artist forever on the fringes of success and happiness. I wrote more about it here. August: Osage County (2013) Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay (2012): I was drawn to Ricky Jay before I even knew who he was: the first thing I knew him to be was the voice of the narrator in Magnolia. When I discovered he was a world-class sleight-of-hand artist, I was hooked. This documentary is a good look at the magicians who influenced his professional life, and it covers some of the same ground as this wonderful 1993 New Yorker piece. It's a breezy but entertaining look at the guy, and probably as deep as you can get into someone who steadfastly refuses to discuss almost all aspects of his personal life before age 18. The Trip (2010): A bittersweet look at middle age, careers, ego, and mortality, told through jokes and some improv between a couple of brilliant performers. (This is the feature film version released internationally, which was cut down from a six-episode series that aired on the BBC.) Not Fade Away (2012): A shaggy but endearing coming-of-age story about college kids trying to make their rock band hang together in the 1960s. I was gratified to see that writer-director David Chase (in his first feature) didn't try to shoehorn his characters into Forrest Gump situations; nobody here is going to accidentally wind up teaching Mick Jagger how to sing, or something. Some parts don't work as well as others, but overall it's a good little movie. It's always a pleasure to rediscover recent releases that seemed to come and go with little fanfare; this one came out in the final weeks of 2012, never played more than 600 theaters, and grossed only $610,000. Here's to hoping more people seek it out.
By the Numbers
Total films seen: 104 Documentaries: 4 Animated films: 2 Movies released in 2013: 54 Movies released before 2013: 50 Movies released before 2000: 40 Movies released before 1950: 13 Of the ten highest grossers of the year (as of Dec. 31), I saw: 6 Number of 2013 releases I reviewed: 31 Favorites (in no particular order): The Long Goodbye, The Lady Vanishes, The Lady Eve, Mud, A Face in the Crowd, Frances Ha, No Way Out, Rebecca, The Kings of Summer, Short Term 12, The Broken Circle Breakdown, Inside Llewyn Davis, Frozen, The Women
I wrote a while back about rewatchability, and the difference between great movies and those you want to spend more time with. Over at Pajiba, the staff voted on the titles we considered to be the most rewatchable of the year. I think awards and wrap-up lists are usually pointless, but the goal of this one is totally different, and rather than a ranked order of 10 films, I feel like we've come up with 10 solid picks that are only numbered out of formality. In other words, the ranking reflects a title's popularity among us, not a declaration of worth.
My list is slightly different than the staff-sourced consensus, but not by much. Here's what I had:
It's a solid list. Click here for the full thing.
Like last year, I kept a running tally in 2012 of all the movies I saw. These movies were all new to me, though, so the list omits things like Saturday-afternoon cable surfing or rewatching favorite films after buying them on Blu-ray. As usual, most of the movies I saw in theaters were those I was paid to see for review purposes. My wife and I caught a matinee of Safe House in February, for instance, that was just for us, but I rarely make it to the theater these days outside of review screenings or film festivals. As such, my total for the year is much smaller than it is for some of my friends in the critic business. Part of this is because they're reviewing movies full-time (or part-time for multiple outlets), and part of it's because I only attend one festival a year for a few days. But it's also because I happily pass on many, many movies. I see the films I'm assigned to review and those I genuinely want to see, but I don't have any desire to see a new release just because it's out. As friend and fellow critic Will Goss put it, "I've paid my dues in catching mediocrity just to confirm that it exists." I skipped a lot of 2012 movies because I just wasn't interested, and I'm long past wanting to beat myself up for it.
One area I would like to improve in 2013 is the amount of older or classic films I see. In 2011, about a third of the movies I saw weren't released that year, but in 2012, that figure dropped to about 28%. I'd like to devote some more time in 2013 to movies released in the past few years or before. I love seeing new movies and looking for great new stories, but there are hours and hours of classics (or even just good new-ish movies) I've yet to see. I don't want to let those pass me by. As someone once said, "If you eat mince all day, you won't know steak when you see it." I saw a lot of really mediocre 2012 movies, and I regret not being able to balance them with great ones from years past.
For streaming/online availability, check here. Now on with the count:
January Captain America (2011): Not great, but really good. What made it work so well was the unironic, straight-ahead spin Joe Johnston (director of The Rocketeer, which I love) brought to things. Haywire (2012) The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement (2004): Sometimes my wife hides the remote. The Grey (2012)
February Safe House (2012): If you're doing laundry, this is good background noise. Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace 3D (1999/2012) Winter’s Bone (2010): I wanted something bleak. We'd already lost one of the little kittens we rescued, and I think I watched this right after we lost a second. I just wanted to get away from things for a while, but I couldn't bear anything bright. It's a fantastic film, too. Wanderlust (2012): I saw this to review but didn't write it up. I can't remember why, either, but I likely wound up having a low-grade meltdown over the film's thick-headed resistance to reason, narrative, and humor. Not good things for a comedy. Midnight in Paris (2011): Woody Allen's always worked best for me when he's reined in, and I liked the focus here on what's a high-concept but remarkably simple premise: lovelorn guy in bad relationship keeps accidentally traveling back in time. Beautiful photography, great script, and a sweet message. Gambit (1966): This was a fun one, but it's also an example of how a premise can override execution. The first chunk of the film (50-year-old spoiler alert) turns out to be an imagined fantasy sequence of how Michael Caine's character wants his planned heist to go, and the rest of the film is the actual heist (with many more complications). Caine and Shirley Maclaine are great together, though. It's a bumpy ride that ends a little abruptly, but still worth taking.
March John Carter (2012) The Cabin in the Woods (2012): Fun and scary, but just a little overweight from the meta-ironies. Fat Kid Rules the World (2012) The Imposter (2012): A fantastic/fantastical documentary about identity theft and delusion. Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) The Aggression Scale (2012): This was my first screening of the day one morning at SXSW. A fest official introducing the film warned us that people had had to leave the midnight premiere the night before, which seemed to imply graphic violence and intense situations. About an hour in, though, I realized they'd probably left out of boredom. SXSW 2012 was my fourth time at the festival, and my least enjoyable trip to date. Part of it had to do with being overextended (I was one of only two people covering it for Pajiba, and we couldn't begin to review everything we wanted to), but part of it was that I just drew a bad hand and saw some bad movies. I peaked on the first day with Fat Kid Rules the World. Hunky Dory (2012): I almost never fall asleep in movies. I fell asleep here. The Do-Deca-Pentathlon (2012): A cute and pretty enjoyable comedy from the Duplass brothers. A number of critics reviewing it said it was a step backward from their slightly more conventional-feeling comedies like Cyrus and Jeff, Who Lives at Home, but those reviews neglected to note that Do-Deca was made a couple years before those and is only now seeing release. Worth checking out. John Dies At the End (2012) Somebody Up There Likes Me (2012) Hugo (2011): A great little movie, and a wonderful tribute to cinema's roots.
April The Muppets (2011): Great comedy, great story, great energy, killer songs. Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011): Five minutes in, I was rooting for the apes to rise up and kill the humans. I've never had an easy time with animal cruelty on film, and becoming a vegetarian for ethical reasons has only heightened my response. It's a solid blockbuster, but tough to watch. Get the Gringo (2012) Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol (2011): This is the kind of slick, star-driven action movie that feels more like a great 1990s throwback than anything else. Tom Cruise shows his age, but damn if he can't still run up buildings like nobody else.
May The Apartment (1960): One of the best movies ever made, and a reminder that Billy Wilder will always be considered one of the best directors to ever step behind a camera. Funny, sweet, sad, honest. Beautifully acted by everyone, too. The Avengers (2012): Lots of fun after a rocky start. It felt like a nice payoff to the first five movies in the series, though. Joss Whedon crushed it. Payback: Straight Up — The Director’s Cut (1999/2006): I really liked Payback when I saw it in high school, and I'd always meant to revisit the film with the director's cut. This is one of those instances where the director's cut is a genuinely new experience, too: writer-director Brian Helgeland's original film had its ending rewritten by Mel Gibson and Icon when the director wouldn't budge from his grimmer, more 1970s-flavored vision. The director's cut is a very good movie, and also notable for making use of a rich color palette that was leached from the original release. Men in Black 3 (2012) Moonrise Kingdom (2012) Prometheus (2012)
June Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950): I took suggestions on Twitter one evening about what I should stream from Netflix, and this won out. (Well, it got two votes from two different people, and every other suggestion only had one vote.) It's a tight little noir with some wonderful suspense/double-cross sequences. It's short, too. Worth your time. Magic Mike (2012)
July The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) 21 Jump Street (2012): The perfect balance of hilarious and weird. Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum are great together, though Tatum's the real powerhouse. Whenever I come across it on cable, I have to stop and watch. The Dark Knight Rises (2012) Jeff, Who Lives at Home (2012): A shaggy, sweet-natured comedy from the Duplasses. Jason Segel sells the movie like no one else could. In Time (2011): Chalk it up to a nerdy, indoorsy childhood, but I've always got a soft spot for sci-fi flicks like this one. It's got a great style and decent idea, but the final product is a little weak.
August The Bourne Legacy (2012) My Favorite Year (1982): Peter O'Toole got a Best Actor nomination for this slight but enjoyable comedy about a washed-up actor and a rising TV writer in the 1950s. The writer is played by an impossibly young Mark Linn-Baker. Lockout (2012): I rented this specifically for its hoped-for (and verified) ability to make me forget about work at the end of a long week. Sometimes, you just want to watch a grizzled ex-CIA op rescue a pretty lady from a jail in space. Awesome, goofy, highly rewatchable. The Myth of the American Sleepover (2011): One of the best and most authentic movies about being a teenager I've ever seen. It stars actual teens, too, which makes it so much more affecting (or, at times, horrifying) than mainstream movies. Goon (2012): A fantastic, gleefully coarse comedy with a real heart. Seann William Scott is perfect as a simple hockey player who's only recruited for his fighting ability. Seriously, one of the best comedies I've seen in a while. Celeste and Jesse Forever (2012) Premium Rush (2012) Lawless (2012)
September Sleepwalk With Me (2012): A bit of a grind. Part of it is that I like Mike Birbiglia's comedy, which means I'm familiar with all these jokes. But part of is that the structure of a comedy bit or even a one-man show is a lot harder to play out cinematically. What works as emotional closure after 50 minutes of anecdotes doesn't have the same punch on screen. Thief (1981): Michael Mann's feature debut is a gorgeous representation of his style. It's slick streets, busted neon, tough cons, and synth music. James Caan is amazing, too. The War Room (1993): A very stripped-down doc about the 1992 presidential election. I appreciated the fly-on-the-wall approach to meetings and strategy sessions, but I'd have liked a little more contextualization. Cold Weather (2011): A smart little indie film that finds wonderfully organic ways to redefine itself as it goes, from relationship drama to awkward comedy to genuine mystery. It ends far too suddenly, though. End of Watch (2012) The Master (2012) Looper (2012)
November Lincoln (2012) The Innkeepers (2012): Great, creepy, atmospheric horror movie that relies on actual terror instead of cheap jumps. Nice build-up, killer finale. Argo (2012): Very good film, especially when you consider how Ben Affleck was able to balance drama and comedy in one massive story. It takes skill to make a film that contains both the harrowing sequence in which the American embassy is overtaken and the montages of John Goodman and Alan Arkin's characters mounting a fake movie. Arbitrage (2012): Dry and somewhat forgettable. Richard Gere has nice energy and is well-cast as a typical Wall Street jerk, but there's not much else hre. Skyfall (2012): Some good ideas and scenes, but overall, it feels like several movies randomly jammed together. The best Bond of the Craig era is still, by far, Casino Royale. ParaNorman (2012): I enjoyed this one. It's got a good story and great style, and I was surprised at how dark it was. I don't remember kids' horror being this grim when I was a kid, but then, I think I've got a softer perspective now. I'm sure the things we saw, whether aimed at us or not, were plenty horrific. Killing Them Softly (2012)
December Zero Dark Thirty (2012) Les Miserables (2012): The film adaptation of the popular musical is good-to-great, though Russell Crowe's voice isn't nearly strong enough. I think the film also errs a little too much on the side of those who are already familiar with the stage version: whole characters go unnamed here, and the movie often feels compressed against its will. Still, the music is good, and the performances are fantastic. It was such a wise choice to let the singers play things small instead of theatrically nailing their lines to the back of the hall. Film is an intimate medium, and the best way to take advantage of its power is to let someone sing softly, humbly, their voice cracking with real emotion. Anne Hathaway is outstanding. Wreck-It Ralph (2012): A good movie, which means it's a masterpiece compared with Disney's recent non-Pixar output. John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman are perfectly cast, and the story's moving without feeling hokey. Bonus: plenty of nostalgia blasts for gamers. (My favorite was this shout-out.) The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) This Is 40 (2012): Many people have made the joke that the title should be This Is 40 Minutes Too Long. That's because many people are right. Judd Apatow's latest comedy is his shaggiest and least effective yet, largely because he gives up even the pretense of story or tension and opts for disconnected scenes and a celebration of toxic people. Marital strife is a fantastic thing to make a movie about, but only if I can make myself care, even a little, about the people involved. Promised Land (2012)
By the numbers: Total films seen: 68 Documentaries: 2 Animated films: 2 Movies released in 2012: 49 Movies released before 2012: 19 Movies released before 2000: 8 Of the ten highest grossers of the year, I saw: 5 Number of 2012 releases I reviewed: 29 Favorites: The Apartment (best movie I saw all year), Moonrise Kingdom, Zero Dark Thirty, Looper, Goon, Wreck-It Ralph, Argo, Midnight in Paris
I've kept a running list of every movie I've ever seen (or as near as I can recall) for years now, but 2011 was the first time I charted my monthly movie-viewing habits with the same approach I take to my nightly reading. There aren't too many firm conclusions to be drawn in terms of scheduled viewing or preferred genre, though it's interesting to note that my paid reviews drive most of my screenings. I rarely get to the theater for something I'm not reviewing, mostly because I can't stand the graceless and selfish attitudes in which most theater audiences seem to revel. In 2011, it was June by the time I went to a theater to see something for pure consumption, not review, purposes. Also, the only movies I saw in September were ones I was paid to see. All told, I saw 79 films in 2011. That only counts those films I hadn't seen before, too; repeat viewings of previous releases or cable favorites aren't included in the final tally. I've included links below to those films I've reviewed, and any other thoughts that have come up for those I haven't.
January The King’s Speech (2010): Sweet, small, and easy-going. Not the most magnificent movie ever made, but entertaining. Restrepo (2010): An absolutely riveting war documentary that captures the sisyphean nature of battle in all its horror. Casino Jack (2010): A decent turn from Kevin Spacey, but mostly forgettable. Casino Jack and the United States of Money (2010): The documentary that inspired the feature film is a little better, but too overstuffed. The Extra Man (2010): Genuinely awful and off-putting. Unfunny and awkward at every turn. The Green Hornet (2011) La Moustache (2005): Nice existential thriller from France about a man who shaves his mustache and promptly begins to question his sanity when his wife tells him he never had one. Pleasingly ambiguous.
February Unknown (2011) Easy A (2010): Solid, smart comedy that wouldn't be half of what it is without Emma Stone in the title role. Cedar Rapids (2011) Waking Sleeping Beauty (2010): A great documentary about the modern Disney renaissance, which included their releases from 1989-1994 (basically The Little Mermaid to The Lion King). It makes you realize just how much heart the creatives there used to have, and why Pixar saved the company. Crazy Heart (2009): I missed this award contender from the end of 2009, and I was glad to finally catch up with it. Great music, great performances.
March The Adjustment Bureau (2011) Despicable Me (2010): Cute, if insubstantial. Steve Carell has some surprisingly moving scenes, though. Red Riding Hood (2011) Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times (2011): A fascinating look behind the scenes at the Times, albeit one that doesn't quite know how to handle the industry's self-immolation. New Jerusalem (2011): An actor's piece, through and through. Well-observed, but very slow. Turkey Bowl (2011) A Bag of Hammers (2011): I walked out. Too sloppy and cute by half. Wuss (2011): One of those festival entries you only see at festivals, for good reason. Can't even remember what happens. The Other F Word (and here) (2011) Sound of My Voice (2011): Amazing movie. Great story, wonderful cast. When it finally earns a theatrical release, I'll go see it again. Undefeated (2011) Buck (2011) How to Train Your Dragon (2010): DreamWorks isn't up to Pixar's level, but films like this (and Kung Fu Panda) are solid family movies. I Am Comic (2010): I checked this out because I'm a comedy nerd. It's average. There are more penetrating comic docs out there, but it's worth visiting if you're a completist or collector.
April Devil in a Blue Dress (1995): This movie's less than 20 years old, but it feels like it might as well be from another planet. It's a nuanced adult drama, but not preachy or self-serious. It's got adventure and mystery, but it's not a remake or ironic meta-narrative. It's just a solid movie. Well worth seeking out. Your Highness (2011) Tron: Legacy (2010): Worth not a single cent more than the 99 I paid to rent it from Redbox. Maybe less. Gun Fight (2011): Riveting if depressing documentary about gun control and modern crime. It might not move you from one side of the fence to the other, but it's still got some fascinating moments. Fast Five(2011)
May Everything Must Go (2011) Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949): Sometimes, my wife and I will stay in on a Friday night, order some food, and watch whatever old movie happens to be on TCM. One friday night in May, it was Take Me Out to the Ball Game, a 1949 musical starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra as baseball players who fall in love with Esther Williams, who just swims around. Ideal escapism. The Tree of Life(2011)
June Beginners (2011) Submarine (2011): A great, bittersweet coming-of-age story. Bridesmaids(2011): Like most comedies bearing the Apatow imprimatur, this one's about 20 minutes too long, and so many of the scenes go absolutely nowhere. Yet it's worth it just to see Melissa McCarthy throw herself into a manic role and come out the other side. She's practically in her own movie (a better one).
July The Night of the Hunter (1955): Stunning, gorgeous, haunting, and totally unforgettable. One of the two best non-2011 movies I saw during the year. The sad part is that it was so ahead of its time that audiences in 1955 didn't bite, and Charles Laughton never directed again. It was also screenwriter James Agee's last movie made while he was alive. Horrible Bosses (2011) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011) Adam (2009): Tolerable in a direct-to-cable kind of way. Meek’s Cutoff (2011): Proof that you have to be Terrence Malick to get away with abandoning a traditional narrative. Night Moves (1975): Wonderful neo-noir from the 1970s, which means it's all about infidelity and depression and being stuck between two equally unpleasant outcomes. Amazing work from Gene Hackman, as always. Super 8 (2011): J.J. Abrams' film was written off as Spielberg Lite by a lot of people, but that's unfair both to Abrams and to Spielberg (who served as executive producer). It's really a solid story about the end of childhood, set against an admittedly splendiferous and Spielbergian backdrop about alien invaders. The film's biggest fault is actually that it doesn't acknowledge its own era's culture in the right ways. It's set in 1979, which means these movie-mad kids should be hip-deep in Star Wars talk (and that the nerdy movie buff who leads their film crew should be able to speak Close Encounters at the drop of a hat). By pretending those movies don't exist, Super 8 tries to live in their universe instead of exploring its own. Cowboys & Aliens (2011) X-Men: First Class (2011): I saw this at the $1.50 theater, which was a perfect price for the experience. Fun, and better than Ratner's X-Men, but still a little weak. I would, though, watch an entire miniseries about a young Magneto hunting former Nazis.
August The Change-Up (2011) Source Code (2011): Soft even by pop-sci-fi standards, Source Code is a fun movie for Saturday afternoons with low expectations. The mechanics of the time travel aren't internally consistent, but still, not a bad way to spend a couple hours. Animal Kingdom (2010): A gripping crime drama that doesn't pull any punches. People start dying almost immediately, and the ones you like the most are in the most danger. Fright Night (2011) Our Idiot Brother (2011) Good News (1947): This is the 1947 version of the 1927 stage musical that was also put on film in 1930. (The next time someone complains about Hollywood's modern obsession with remakes, send them to Google.) Peter Lawford and June Allyson flirt and sing. It's a pleasant Friday night. It Should Happen to You (1954): George Cukor's film is billed as a romantic comedy, but it's got a heart of sad loneliness. Judy Holliday stars as a deluded woman who uses her savings to rent a billboard in the heart of New York City and plaster her name on it in hopes of becoming famous. The film's a shrewd, heartbreaking look at love and human nature. Bonus: It's the first on-screen appearance of Jack Lemmon. Forbidden Planet (1956): Total classic. The animation's pretty good for 1956, too. Kiss Me Kate (1953): Like having a really bad fever dream.
October Dream House (2011) The Ides of March (2011) S.W.A.T. (2003): I wanted a laundry-day action movie, and I got one. Of course, I got hung up for a while on the fact that the movie was based on the TV show of the same name, and that characters in the movie shared names with their TV show counterparts but also referenced the show, watched it, and could sing the theme song. Basically, an ontological mindfuck. Pretty explosions, though. Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop (2011): Spoiler alert: high-strung entertainers mostly look like dicks after they get fired. Conan O'Brien comes off like a mostly benevolent dictator in this doc about the comedy tour he mounted after he quit The Tonight Show. Catfish (2010): Fake or not? (Fake.) Great story, though. Anonymous (2011) The Black Room (1935): The story and twist aren't really strong enough to support even a 70-minute running time, but Boris Karloff does great work playing dueling twins.
November A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas (2011) J. Edgar (2011) The Descendants (2011) Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey (2011): Thoroughly moving and sweet, if a bit one-sided. The documentary focuses on puppeteer Kevin Clash, who plays Elmo on "Sesame Street," but it glosses over his other projects as well as some of the darker aspects of the way the show plays into modern consumer nightmares. (Never has "Tickle Me Elmo" been so casually dismissed.) A Dangerous Method (2011): Great performances from the cast, and bracing (if aloof) filmmaking from David Cronenberg. Margin Call (2011): A smart drama about the 2008 recession that feels a bit too much like it was made for cable. (Blame the small cast and few extras.) Similarly, some of the structure was a bit too new-viewer-friendly, as when the head of the firm asked to have his junior analyst explain the market like the old man was a child. I've got a feeling that a CEO in that position would probably have a pretty good grasp on liquidity. The Artist (2011): Sweet, moving, and thoroughly engrossing, not to mention one of the most likable love stories in a long time.
December Young Adult (2011) The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (U.S.) (2011) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) Moneyball (2011): Not bad, not great. Brad Pitt does good work, but the rest of the film is flat. Tootsie (1982): As entertaining and funny as you'd expect an American classic to be. Great story, great performances, and a gap in my personal viewing history I'm very happy to have finally filled.
Random Data: Total: 79 Documentaries: 11 Movies released before 2011: 26 (about 33% of the total) Movies released before 2000: 10 Of the 10 highest grossers of 2011, number I saw: 2