Films Seen in 2020 Part 3

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This is a continuation of observations on movies I’ve watched. My goal for the year is to see ten movies from every decade (counting the Silent Era and 1920s as one decade.) And I’ve added a few mini-goals to this batch. I wanted 15 films from the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They Top 1,000, five films with Jack Nicholson (partly because I wanted to check out more of the Criterion BBS box set), five films by Howard Hawks, five more films by John Ford, five films with John Wayne (there will be overlap with the last two), five films with performances that won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, five films about World War 2, and five directorial debuts. I ended up pulling this off in May.

Movie #61/ New Movie #35/ 1990s Movie #5/ Best Supporting Actor Winner #1: City Slickers
Jack Palanche is excellent as the last of the old breed, a contrast with Billy Crystal’s city guy. The “one thing” lesson may not be great advice, but it’s an iconic moment. It was a fun film about the midlife crisis of a man who hasn’t gotten to be the hero in a western.
8/10

Movie #62/ New Movie #36/ 1980s Movie #3/ TSPDT List #1: Zelig
Woody Allen’s mockumentary of a human chameleon is stylistically different from his usual work, but there are some great gags and absurd twists.
8/10

Movie #63/ 1930s Movie #9/ John Ford Film #7/ John Wayne Film #1/ Criterion Edition #9/ TSPDT List #2/ Best Supporting Actor Winner #2: Stagecoach
Thomas Mitchell is decent in his Oscar-winning turn as a drunkard doctor forced to show his mettle. John Wayne is a movie star from his introduction 18 minutes in, so we don’t mind the second climax to give his story a resolution after the stagecoach reaches its destination. It’s an easy concept for a great movie, with a group of unlikely companions travelling together through dangerous territory, but executed very well.
10/10

Movie #64/ New Movie #37/ 1970s Movie #7/ Directorial Debut #1/ Jack Nicholson Film #0/ Criterion Edition #10: Drive, He Said
Jack Nicholson’s directorial debut provides an interesting capsule of the 1960s college atmosphere. The main story about a young athlete wondering what to do going forward is okay, although overshadowed by the complete breakdown of his best friend, a guy trying to avoid the draft by taking as many pills as possible.
7/10

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Movie #65/ New Film #38/ 1960s Movie #7/ Czech Film #2/ Criterion Edition #11/ TSPDT List #3: Daisies
The highest ranked Czech film on the They Shoot Pictures Don’t They Top 1,000 and BBC’s sixth best movie directed by a woman is a strange, experimental cartoon with mostly real people. A brief read of any article about it shows that the critique of culture and consumption is well-thought out, but it isn’t some impenetrable avant-garde nonsense; it’s also weird and fun nonsense.
9/10

Movie #66/ New Movie #39/ 1980s Movie #4/ Criterion Edition #12/ Finnish Film #3: Ariel
Aki Kaurismäki’s crime drama ends up being more cheerful than Match Factory Girl, which was ostensible a comedy. He has a weird approach of putting droll blue-collar Finns into films we’ve otherwise seen before, which does have satisfying results.
8/10

Movie #67/ 2000s Movie #4/ Directorial Debut #2: Primer
In this film, we can see both the low budget and the amount of thought writer/ director Shane Carruth put into his work. There are some compromises (a largely offscreen car chase, a pivotal event that occurs off-camera) that make a movie that already has a convoluted time-travel plot tougher to understand, but it is also satisfying in the depiction of ordinary people coming up a discovery with tremendous potential and risk. It works both because of their relationship, and the sense that this is how scientists stumbling on to something major would act.
9/10

Movie #68/ New Film #40/ 1960s Movie #8/ TSPDT List #4/ World War 2 Film #1/ French Film #4/ Criterion Edition #13: Army of Shadows
This movie wasn’t released in the United States until 2006 because French critics had trashed it for depicting De Gaulle in a positive light, which is an absurd criticism for a film about the struggles and shortcomings of the French resistance. It’s an excellent, powerful take about the reality of Nazi-occupied France.
10/10

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Movie #69/ New Movie #41/ 1950s Movie #5/ Howard Hawks Film #1/ TSPDT List #5: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
Marilyn Monroe at her loveliest, Jane Russell as her loyal but different-minded best friend, iconic musical numbers, and a script that isn’t quite on the level of the best of Wilder, Lubitsch and Sturges, but close enough.
9/10

Movie #70/ New Movie #42/ 1980s Movie #5: Wild Style
I checked this out because it played a part in Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop Family Tree. It’s worth seeing more as a time capsule of the hip hop scene before it became a dominant cultural force, than for the story. There are some shortcomings for production values and performances, which makes it tough to appreciate the films’ internal logic. Lead Lee Quiñones is authentic when talking about what the art means for him (since he was a top graffiti artist), and the musical performances are excellent.
7/10

Movie #71/ 1940s Movie #4/ Howard Hawks Film #2/ TSPDT List #6: The Big Sleep
A depiction of the life the New Yorkers of City Slickers wanted to live for a little while. It’s an atypical western that earns the conflict between John Wayne’s tough as nails cattle boss and Montgomery Clift as his adopted son.
10/10

Movie #72/ 1980s Movie #6/ Jack Nicholson Film #1/: Batman
This is a strangely paced superhero film, largely introducing Batman from the perspective of two reporters, so that it’s not actually confirmed that Bruce Wayne is Batman until about halfway through. The production design is amazing, Keaton is affable, and Nicholson’s Joker is a lot of fun, but the movie is a bit of a mess with some strange internal logic at times.
7/10

Movie #73/ 1940s Movie #5/ Howard Hawks Film #3/ John Wayne Film #2/ TSPDT List #7/ Criterion Edition #14: Red River
A depiction of the life the New Yorkers of City Slickers wanted to live for a little while. It’s an atypical western that earns the conflict between John Wayne’s tough as nails cattle boss and Montgomery Clift as his adopted son.
10/10

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Movie #74/ New Film #43/ 1970s Movie #8/ Jack Nicholson Film #2/ Criterion Edition #15: The King of Marvin Gardens
This isn’t the first BBS film saved by its depiction of a particular location at an interesting time (Atlantic City between its boardwalk heyday and the advent of legal gambling.) There are some solid performances from a subdued Nicholson, an unhinged Ellen Burstyn, and Bruce Dern’s manic con artist. It doesn’t always work, but it is often powerful.
7/10

Movie #75/ New Movie #44/ John Ford Film #8/ Silent Movie #5: Four Sons
I’ve thought that early Ford did the kind of movies that Capra would do better, but upon further reflection, this is also the kind of material that Ford will do better (How Green is My Valley, The Quiet Man.) This is a flawed but enjoyable film about the immigrant experience in the early 20th Century United States, and the losses in World War One.
7/10

Movie #76/ New Film #45/ 1960s Movie #9/ TSPDT List #8: Shadows of our Forgotten Ancestors
Sergei Parajanov had a primitive take on young love in a Ukranian Hutsul village, which fit the setting, with an exploration of what happens after an intense young man loses the love of his life, and tries to go on living.
9/10

Movie #77/ 1980s Movie #7/ Jack Nicholson Film #3/ Best Supporting Actor Winner #3/ Directorial Debut #3: Terms of Endearment
James Brooks’ confident debut as a director has a smart script about an intense but messy mother/ daughter relationship over the course of a pivotal decade, with terrific performances, netting two well-deserved acting Oscars, and two further acting nominations. He takes stories that could be in a melodrama (a housewife feeling underappreciated, affairs, the turn at the end) but adds goofiness and joy.
9/10

Movie #78/ New Movie #46/ John Wayne Film #3/ World War 2 Film #2/ 1940s Movie #6: Sands of Iwo Jima
This was the film that got John Wayne his sole Oscar nomination from his first thirty years of stardom, and I can see why it went over so well. His performance as a tough sergeant is the highlight, and there is some complexity to it beyond the standard cliches. He is strict, and we certainly get a sense of a nice guy underneath, but he is also flawed and self-aware. The rest of the film isn’t bad; a World War Two movie with more grit than you would anticipate from the late 1940s.
8/10

Movie #79/ 1930s Movie #10/ Howard Hawks Film #4/ Criterion Edition #16/ TSPDT List #9: Only Angels Have Wings
I bought this film a few years back based on a critic’s argument that it was the best Hollywood film of 1939. I still wouldn’t go that far, but it is an exceptional drama of the people involved in a dangerous profession.
10/10

Movie #80/ New Movie #47/ John Ford Film #9/ World War 2 Film #3/ 1950s Movie #6: When Willie Comes Marching Home
There’s a tonal inconsistency to this World War 2 comedy about a likable guy who wants to go to war, but can’t earn the respect of his neighbors because he’s stuck in town, training the real soldiers. The central conflict is a bit hard to accept, and doesn’t really gel when he’s finally offered a dangerous mission in Europe. There’s a lot of charm, but the stakes are often just too low.
7/10

Movie #81/ New Movie #48/ John Ford Film #10/ 1940s Movie #7: Tobacco Road
Fox thought this comedy about a poor family would be a bigger hit than The Grapes of Wrath. While it compromised on the source material, it is rare how this movie depicts the truly poor, often at their most pathetic and selfish. Even if it toned down the play it is based on, it is daring in the depiction of the grotesques.
7/10

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Movie #82/ New Film #49/ 1960s Movie #10/ Directorial Debut #4/ World War 2 Film #4: It Happened Here
I had been familiar with Kevin Brownlow as a film preservationist (he was largely responsible for restoring Abel Gance’s Napoleon to its five-hour length) so it was a little weird to discover that he had been responsible for an alternate history independent film Mark Kermode had recommended. It does convey the sense of an ordinary person trying to live a normal life in an England occupied by the Nazis, a powerful concept handled matter of factly.
8/10

Movie #83/ 1970s Movie #9/ Criterion Edition #17/ TSPDT List #10/ Best Supporting Actor Winner #4: The Last Picture Show
This is connected to a lot of films I’ve seen this month. It’s a BBS film, and I’m seeing plenty of those as part of the box set. There’s a plot point about characters in the film watching Red River. There are some similarities between Curly and Sam the Lion (actors from Westerns in previous generations playing a mentor figure who seems to be from a different dying era, with a key scene where they recall a lost love and end up winning Oscars.) It’s one of the highlights of the new Hollywood of the 1970s, depicting the end of an earlier era, with one hell of a cast showing the stories of teenagers becoming adults.
10/10

Movie #84/ New Movie #50/ 2019 Film #9/ World War 2 Film #5: Ashes in the Snow
It’s  a bit distracting that this film is in English. I get that a lot of films about events in Europe in modern memory are in English (Schindler’s List as the ultimate example) but those have the advantage of an all-star cast which isn’t the case here. It’s not all that different from Holocaust dramas, although it depicts a different form of mass murder, with mass deportations of the Baltic nations, an event that is significant to me as it is something that happened to some of my ancestors. There was an anecdote about Crazy Rich Asians that might apply here. A white filmgoer said that it was derivative of romantic comedies, and Asian-American viewers yelled back that they wanted to see themselves in these stories. And there is something about seeing the stories of our ancestors, even if the actual execution of it is just okay.
7/10

Movie #85/ 1960s Movie #11/ Jack Nicholson Film #4/ Criterion Edition #18/ TSPDT List #11/ Directorial Debut #5: Easy Rider
When this film came out, it was daring by speaking to the concerns and interests of a younger generation. It’s impossible to convey that to a modern audience, although what it loses by all the imitations it gains by its effectiveness as a time capsule, covering two young dopes, travelling the United States, sometimes finding friendly faces and sometimes facing opposition. The situations may occasionally be extreme, but it’s not always what you expect.
10/10

Movie #86/ New Movie #51/ Silent Movie #6/ TSPDT List #12: Spies
Fritz Lang’s silent espionage saga is sometimes slow and convoluted, but often quite clever with some astounding silent action sequences, and some decent twists in a clash between a spy network and the authorites.
8/10

Movie #87/ 1970s Movie #10/ Jack Nicholson Film #5/ Criterion Edition #19/ TSPDT List #13: Five Easy Pieces
As with Easy Rider, it’s difficult to appreciate the impact of Nicholson’s Robert Dupea on younger audiences in the early 70s who saw themselves represented on film. This is still quite satisfying as the depiction of a truly alienated man. I’m not sure Nicholson’s ever been more sensitive (while still deeply flawed), although the film is more than just a showcase for him, given the variety of kooks he interacts with.
9/10

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Movie #88/ New Movie #52/ 1950s Movie #7/ John Ford Film #11/ John Wayne Film #4: Horse Soldiers
The sole Ford/ Wayne collaboration in a ten film John Wayne DVD set isn’t one of their better efforts. Wayne’s tough Civil War colonel seems derivative of a few of his other performances, without the nuance of Sands of Iwo Jima or the fire of Red River. It’s Ford, so there are some great sequences, but it’s also Golden Age of Hollywood, so the South is given more credit than they deserve.
7/10

Movie #89/ 1940s Film #8/ Supporting Actor Winner #5/ TSPDT List #14: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
This Huston/ Bogart collaboration feels more like a noir than a Golden Age of Hollywood adventure. Honestly, Bogart is darker and more despicable here than he is in any  noir, in a story of down on their luck prospectors who very quickly get comfortable with the idea of killing strangers in order to maintain their wealth.
10/10

Movie #90/ New Movie #52/ 1970s Movie #11/ John Wayne Film #5: The Shootist
Wayne took this role after many others had turned it down, which seems a bit surprising, since no one else could have played this particular version of the story so well. He sells the performance of a dying legendary gunslinger in a movie that conveys the changes in the old west quite well; the West has gotten more crowded, and been changed with the arrival of modern amenities. It’s Don Siegel, so it’s not subtle, although there are great supporting performances by Jimmy Stewart (who sells the idea of a deep shared history), Lauren Bacall and Ron Howard, as a slightly older version of the kid in Shane. The villains aren’t great, but they’re okay. I don’t necessarily buy the reaction of the town.
8/10

Movie #91/ 1940s Movie #9/ Howard Hawks Film #5/ TSPDT List #15: His Girl Friday
This might have the fastest dialogue of any movie ever. It’s a great showcase for Hawks and one of the definitive Cary Grant performances as a charming but manipulative newspaper man trying to get his ex-wife/ best reporter back.
9/10

One common thread in the directorial debuts, and films from New Hollywood and the Czech New Wave, is the importance of new stories. The five Howard Hawks films showed his range, although there are some commonalities, including the material he gets from the specifics from a character’s job, be they cattle rustlers, gold prospectors, or gold diggers, typically facing intense life and death consequences. John Wayne didn’t have tremendous range, but I’m not sure anyone else has been better as the ultimate alpha male.

You could make a case that World War 2 is the best setting for film, an international conflict largely between good and evil, that has room for jingoistic stories, films about being on the wrong side, nuanced material about good people questioning whether they or those around them are going too far, and the stories of ordinary people affected by the consequences.

About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. You can email me at mistermets@gmail.com
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