I’m continuing the series of observations on films I’ve seen this year, setting a challenge of watching ten films per decade (counting the silent era from 1915-1929 as one decade) in the calendar year, and allowing for special attention to recent films with additional goals of ten films from 2016, seventeen from 2017, and eighteen from 2018.
For this entry, I also set sub-challenges of five films in a foreign language (French), five films from the same genre (went with two: science fiction and period fantasy) and ten Criterion films, while trying to make sure that I had seen at least two films in each time period. I thought about doing a five films with the same actor subchallenge with Casey Affleck, since he’s been in some acclaimed films I haven’t seen, but with the last entry, I did focus a lot on newer stuff thanks to all the Oscarbait in theaters, so it makes sense to stick with subchallengers that fit older material.
The films I saw were…
Movie #31/ New Movie #21/ 2000s Movie #5/ Documentary #2: Tall: The American Skyscraper and Louis Sullivan
For whatever reason, this has been playing at the Metrograph, an independent movie theater for over a month, with no signs of stopping. My mom’s an architect, and my dad’s a history buff with an interesting in urban planning, so this documentary about an architectural rivalry seemed like something worth checking out. It leaves a slightly better impression a month later than when I first saw it, since the divisions covered are illuminating, even if there are flaws in the storytelling.
Movie #32/ 1960s Movie #1/ Criterion Edition #2/ French Film #1: Band of Outsiders
Like The Graduate, this is probably one of the definitive films about early adulthood. It’s a very striking film about aimless wannabe criminals who aren’t all that competent, or nice, but do seem believable. It remains entertaining as all hell.
Movie #33/ 1940s Movie #1/ Criterion Edition #3: Sullivan’s Travels
A witty comedy about a wealthy artist trying to understand the simple everyday man with a star turn by Veronica Lake as a struggling actress who offers a dose of reality to the lead. The third act features a great twist, and resolution, which is a big part of why the film succeeds so much today.
Movie #34/ New Movie #22/ 1930s Movie #1/ Russian Movie #1: Earth
This guy thinks it’s one of the best movies ever made. I would not go that far. It has some striking visuals and storytelling although it is a bit difficult to divorce the film from its initial purpose of propaganda for one of the worst causes in human history (the Soviet collectivization of farms which led to the Ukrainian famine.)
Movie #35/ 2010s Movie #9/ Science Fiction Film #1: Avengers: Age of Ultron
It’s a slightly arbitrary distinction that I’m counting a film with an evil robot AI as sci-fi and Captain America: Civil War as not, even with the overlap in characters. The sequel that was so difficult that it chased Joss Whedon away from Marvel has plenty to recommend it, with some interesting team dynamics and questions about culpability and human potential, as well as seeds for future films (divisions between the Avengers heading into Civil War, prophecies about Thanos, early references to Wakanda).
Movie #36/ New Movie #23/ 2017 Movie #11/ Tom Cruise Film #6 : American Made
A solid fun film about a hard-partying American (with a perhaps slightly more intense than usual lead performance by Tom Cruise) who gets involved in a messy international conflict on behalf of the US, and later gets betrayed by them.
Movie #37/ 2000s Movie #6/ Criterion Edition #4/ Period Fantasy #1: Pan’s Labyrinth
A beautiful film that works on multiple levels, as a fantasy involving the reincarnation of a lost princess, and as a story about a girl caught between rebels and family in Franco’s Spain. Probably still Del Toro’s best (not a slight on his other work).
Movie #38/ New Movie #22/ 2018 Movie #2/ Science Fiction Film #2: Annihilation
Alex Garland’s Ex Machina follow-up is pretty accessible as far as sci-fi mindfuck films go, as a team of female scientists go into a zone where things get weird in interesting ways, although there are some lost opportunities (upon arriving in the zone the next thing they know it’s several days later, a point that has implications that aren’t explored.)
Movie #39/ 1960s Movie #2/ Criterion Edition #5/ French Film #2: Breathless
Godard’s debut has a film-obsessed minor criminal haphazardly flee authorities and hang out with a girlfriend. Simultaneously enjoyable, and worth examination in terms of technical daring and overall significance.
Movie #40/ New Movie #23/ Silent Movie #1: The Haunted Castle
An early Murnau silent mystery demonstrates how essential sound is to drawing room mysteries. There are some nice sets and camerawork, but the work is largely primitive, with performances that are often over the top, although there are some satisfying twists at the end.
Movie #41/ 1930s Movie #2/ Criterion Edition #6: Pygmalion
Smart script by George Bernard Shaw that very faithfully adapts his play with intense performances by Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard.
Movie #42/ New Movie #24/ 2018 Movie #3: The Death of Stalin
Interesting mix of Veep style absurdity (by the former showrunner) in a totalitarian dictatorship, where people get killed for stupid reasons. It blends several genres well, especially as it shifts from the ridiculousness of people who don’t know what to do after Stalin’s death, to a violent coup. Simon Russel Beale’s Beria is a nasty villain, going from comically opportunistic to so grotesque that you end up rooting for Buscemi’s Khrushchev in the later power struggle.
Movie #43/ 1930s Movie #3/ Criterion Edition #7/ French Film #3: The Rules of the Game
The reputation of the film might be slightly exaggerated, as it’s regularly considered one of the five best films ever made, though it is quite well-made and interesting, and suggests potential greater rewards the next time I watch it. At the very least, it’s an excellent country house farce with a cast of unique personalities, all of whom seem to have lives outside the film.
Movie #44/ New Movie #25/ 2017 Movie #12/ Estonian Film #2/ Period Fantasy #2: November
This might have the lowest box office of any film I’ve seen in an American theater (at least that went into mainstream release) which is a bit disappointing as it is rather decent. The cinematography is gorgeous, and they capture the milieu quite well of 19th Century peasants who live in a world in which magic is real and kinda nasty, starting with a Day of the Dead celebration in which deceased relatives pop up.
Movie #45/ 2016 Movie #1: Captain America: Civil War
As a comic book geek, I’m probably going to enjoy this more than most, just due to how well the Russo brothers balance characters from at least seven film series in a conflict that features superheroes fighting one another as part of a believable mix of differing motives, manipulation and tragic misunderstandings. It’s not the most accessible MCU film, but it may be my favorite.
Movie #46/ New Movie #26/ 1990s Movie #4/ Science Fiction Film #3: Total Recall
This is an interesting 90s sci-fi film with great effects and set designs, and a fun narrative that works on two levels, with all of the experiences of Schwarzenegger’s seemingly brainwashed lead, as well as the alternate explanation.
Movie #47/ New Movie #27/ 2017 Movie #13: Jumanji- Welcome to the Jungle
One of the biggest hits of the last year is simply a lot of fun. The idea of teens inhabiting video game characters played by Kevin Hart, Jack Black, Karen Gillen and Dwayne Johnson gives the stars a chance to give a very different type of performance. The villain’s not that great, although they set up the rules and well, and the team dynamics are decent.
Movie #48/ New Movie #28/ Silent Movie #2/ Criterion Film #8: Häxan/ The Witch
In terms of genre, it’s weird to categorize, perhaps because this was made at a time before these things were defined. It could be plausibly described as a documentary, or horror, or anthology of historical pieces, but it’s a satisfying exploration of the myths of witchcraft and the effects, with some impressive early set designs.
Movie #49/ 1950s Movie #1/ Criterion Edition #9/ Swedish Film #1/ Period Fantasy #4: The Seventh Seal
It’s weird to think that Bergman made this at the same time as Wild Strawberries, a decent but quite different type of film. He captures the medieval era well, with the memorable death fantasy sequences raising interesting questions about man’s search for meaning. The ensemble is distinctive and memorable, with Bibi Anderson and Max Von Sydow demonstrating why they’d go to international stardom.
Movie #50/ New Movie #29/ 1960s Movie #3/ Period Fantasy #5: The Masque of Red Death
This Corman Poe adaptation generally has impressive production values (they were able to use sets from other British prestige pictures) and a villain (a Satanic Italian prince) that fits Vincent Price’s scene-chewing persona, with memorable visuals and a good mix of characters.
Movie #51/ New Movie #30/ 2010s Movie #10/ Documentary #2/ Estonian Film #3: Disco and Atomic War
I close out my first challenge (10 films from 2010-2015) with the one Estonian film on Fandor: a documentary about the efforts of Estonians to access Finnish television when they were part of the Soviet Union. The stories about this are satisfying, with terrific examples of human ingenuity and the local results of various international policies, while there are larger questions about free expression and the use of soft power, even if the film is quite pro with both.
Movie #52/ New Movie #31/ 2016 Movie #2/ Animated Film #4: Moana
Another reminder why Pixar continues to be so dominant. The film succeeds on pretty much every level, with a well-realized world (inspired by Polynesian mythology, which isn’t that well-represented in film), excellent songs and a strong central narrative of a stubborn princess trying to explore the world and a flawed demigod forced to take big risks. It does seem quite similar to Pixar’s Coco (which they had to be working on at the same time) in terms of the conflict between the lead and their parents, although they go in different enough directions that both can remain quite satisfying.
Movie #53/ 1940s Movie #2: The Magnificent Ambersons
Welles’ Citizen Kane follow-up has some excellent storytelling, and is surprisingly sympathetic to the lead: a spoiled brat from a rich family struggling with the pace of change. The film captures the power of memories quite well.
Movie #54/ 1950s Movie #2/ Criterion Edition #10/ French Film #4: Rififi
A combination of elements makes this one of the best crime films ever. The 30 minute silent robbery sequence is exceptional, the payoff to careful planning that seems believable enough that career criminals have used it as a reference guide. But it goes in some interesting turns after that, as the original crew is drawn organically into a new conflict.
Movie #55/ 1990s Movie #5: Bowfinger
This was at the Metrograph theater as part of a retrospective on Terrence Stamp, who pops up as the leader of a scientology style cult. It’s a very funny satire of Hollywood with a hapless film crew trying to make a sci-fi film with the world’s biggest star without letting him know he’s actually in it.
Movie #56/ New Movie #32/ 2018 Movie #4/ Science Fiction Film #4: Ready Player One
Spielberg’s a great director, although on a meta level, an odd choice to direct a film about people influenced by his generation. The storytelling is generally pretty good (not a shocker with arguably the best director ever) in the high stakes hunt for easter eggs in a VR world.
Movie #57/ 1970s Movie #3/ Estonian Film #4/ Science Fiction Film #5: The Dead Alpinist’s Hotel
I watched the Estonian sci-fi film again on youtube, now that I know where the mystery was going. There are two distinct parts in the film. The first hour has a good sense of atmosphere and mystery as a detective tries to piece together a conspiracy in a secluded mountain hotel. It takes a sci-fi turn, and explores interesting questions of duty and morality, leading to a satisfying conclusion.
Movie #58/ 1960s Movie #4/ Criterion Edition #11/ French Film #5: Jules et Jim
The French New Wave film about a love triangle where the two men might love one another more than the girl is inventive with freewheeling techniques that maintain the emotional core. It starts with them as young Bohemians, but covers the effects of time, changing affections and the first world war (one of the men is French; the other Austrian.) I’m not sure any movie’s been better at depicting the ups and downs of a relationship.
Movie #59/ 1980s Movie #3: Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Fun noir pastiche in a world in which cartoon characters are real, and trying to make a living like everybody else. The central story is satisfying, and it really excels in the little moments, as clever as the original cartoons.
Movie #60/ New Movie #33/ 1940s Movie #3: The Stranger
Welles’ most successful box office hit has impressive cinematography and suspense (You might watch it and think it’s Hitchcock, but it’s not bad Hitchcock) and a daring narrative, as his lead hero is an unrepentant Nazi about to get married to the daughter of a Supreme Court justice.
Best of the batch: Rififi
The best film I hadn’t seen before is Moana, I suppose.
My reviews have been pretty positive in these two entries (the majority are 8/10 or higher) so I should mention that. I suppose a key factor is selection bias. I’ll pick films that have good reputations, that have received or been nominated for major awards, which tends to weed out the amateurish and the ambitious failures. I watched a Roger Corman film, but it was one of the better-regarded.
I’d imagine a major difference for professional critics is they’ve got to see everything. The main films I saw that didn’t have fantastic reputations were The Greatest Showman (and I liked the soundtrack before I watched it so I was primed to enjoy it), Kingsmen- The Golden Circle (a sequel to a film I liked), Cruel Intentions, Get Me Roger Stone (a documentary on politics by people with impressive credentials), Tall: The Story of the American Skyscraper, and November. I have enjoyed some films with mixed reputations (The New World) which may also skew results a bit.
There’s material I’m not inclined to like (The 50 Shades Sequel, the Karl Marx biopic at 54 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, various poorly received Netflix projects, the Clint Eastwood film with amateur actors, the Helen Mirren ghost story at 15 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) that I haven’t bothered seeing. It might be helpful for me to recalibrate with some crappy movies, or take more risks with material that might be terrible and might be fascinating or both, but there are too many alternatives available, with Moviepass, streaming services and reasonable cheap DVDs/ Blu-rays. Why watch a Nicholas Sparks pastiche (a type of film that isn’t for me) when there are MCU films I haven’t rewatched, an Indian crime epic has 96% on Rotten Tomatoes, the Kanopy streaming service has seven Fritz Lang films, I have a backlog of criterion blu-rays from various sales, and I can’t say whether Casey Affleck or Denzel Washington deserved the Best Actor Academy Award since I still haven’t seen Fences or Manchester By the Sea (which I should probably remedy in the next entry)?