This is a continuation of observations on films I’ve seen this year. For this group, I added four sub-challenges: five movies by female directors, five Russian movies, five Shakespeare adaptations and five movies that were nominated for Academy Awards last year. With theaters shut down due to Covid, I didn’t see as many of those as I usually do.
Movie #101/ New Movie #71/ Russian Film #1: Alexander Nevsky (Criterion DVD)
The medieval certainly has an epic scale, and is effective propaganda. It’s probably worth analyzing more for the historical context than its worth as a traditional film. There are some interesting choices, like how Nevsky disappears for big parts of the narrative. The villains are lacking in personality, which makes the fight scenes less meaningful, even if they are legendary.
Movie #102/ New Movie #72/ Female Director #1: La Pointe-Courte (Criterion DVD)
This was arguably the first French new wave film, and it remains stylistically daring, with interesting cuts and cinematography decisions. It’s great use of an interesting location, where people prepare for jousting on boats and a river by someone’s house needs to be crossed. It shows a small community that isn’t happy with bureaucrats, a conservative message for a French new wave film. The argument between the couple is longer and nastier than I expected, going from intellectual to personal quickly. It’s a great example on a particular type of film, showing the difference between the visitors and the locals, and the many stories in a small town over one weekend.
Movie #103/ New Movie #73: Walkabout (Criterion DVD)
It’s a beautifully shot film about a clash of cultures, and two young siblings trying to survive. It’s a great sense of something that film excels at conveying: the difficulties of communication. I’m disappointed in how it ends, but this is not due to a defect of the film. I understand what happens; I’d have preferred something different due to an appreciation of the characters.
Movie #104/ New Movie #74/ Female Director #2: Zola (Movie Theater)
This film was interesting in how it depicts very modern facets of communication (text messages, twitter posts) in a crazy story about people in a very different culture than the one we usually see in film, also getting to the different codes of the leads. I could believe that these people exist outside of the film, and there are some interesting tricks with unreliable narrators. It ends a bit anticlimactically. I’d have liked to see more of a later reckoning, like what happened to the people involved after their crazy story went viral.
Movie #105: Chungking Express (Movie Theater)
Wong Kar Wai has some fantastic tricks when it comes to editing, and he makes some brilliant and deliberate choices in telling the stories of two cops, like the more confident one being the traffic cop who never has to take anyone down. It’s two stories that work well together, a neonoir in the perspective of someone who doesn’t know what’s going on, and a more traditional (but exceptional) romantic comedy. This grew on me, as I didn’t care for it as much the first time I saw it (partly due to the twist in the middle making this a different film than what I expected.)
Movie #106/ New Movie #75: Cruella (Movie Theater)
It really comes across as a knockoff of Joker (period piece about the origin of a famous villain with similar soundtrack decisions) which is likely unfair because it had to be in production before that one came out. I don’t envy directors and writers who have to tell an edgy Disney story, but it is fun and it gets into a conflict which may sanitize the character, but has meaning- whether to embrace the dark side. I’m still trying to figure out how Cruella got so much attention in the fashion industry without any customers, and whether Disney will one day make a prequel with a more sympathetic take on the Baroness.
Movie #107/ New Movie #76/ Russian Film #2: Major Grom- Plague Doctor (Netflix)
It’s an odd superhero film about an extraordinary cop taking on a vigilante. It’s interesting in what it says about Russia, with a populace on the verge of rebellion, and a message that they just need a tough guy who can break all the rules. The main story is generic (the riots seem to be like Bane, a CEO is a lot like Mark Zuckerberg, there’s a Marvel end-credit sequence) and some narrative tricks get in the way of making the film understandable.
Movie #108/ Shakespeare Film #1: Ran (Amazon Prime)
Like Bergman, there’s something off about seeing a Kurosawa film in color, even if he uses it to great effect. The medieval source material (merged with a Japanese legend) translates well to the samurai era, and there is the new element of the betrayed king dealing with the consequences of terrible things he’s done in the past in order to gain and maintain power. There is a new great villain in the evil daughter-in-law, over the top but with motives that fit the context.
Movie #109/ New Movie #77/ Nominees #1/ Female Director #3: Nomadland (DVD)
This is a fully realized take on a (largely involuntary) lifestyle/ class that’s rarely seen in major American films. Even indies typically skew younger. It’s really good at showing the dignity of the marginalized. It’s often lovely but shows a way of living that is hard. It’s a fantastic character study: Frances McDormand’s lead is a tough complex woman even if these circumstances, showing both a need for community and self-sufficiency, as she’s learning the ropes. This is a rare type of film: modern neorealist with excellent production values, where you gasp when a character accidentally breaks something, because you know how meaningful it is.
Movie #110/ New Movie #78/ Nominees #2: Shaun the Sheep: Farmageddon (Netflix)
It’s charming enough, with some good gags. My problem is that I can appreciate wordless or silent animated films, but it only so far.
Movie #111/ New Movie #79: Fallen Angels (Movie Theater)
A companion to Chungking Express, it still has really nice cinematography but goes too far in the contrast between the narratives, as well as the increasingly eccentric cast.
Movie #112/ Shakespeare Film #2: Chimes at Midnight (Criterion DVD)
The Welles Falstaff-centric adaptation of (mainly) Henry IV Part 1 is imperfect; he liked ADR too much, the narrative is less effective when he combines events in multiple plays, and he had to compromise to get A-listers Jeanne Moreau and John Gieguld for limited shoots. But he is exceptional as one of Shakespeare’s best characters, and he gets to a central conflict of the different paternal influences on the future Henry V pretty well.
Movie #113/ New Movie #80: Monte Cristo Part 2 (Youtube)
The revenge continues in satisfying fashion. Trademarks include opulent settings, and reaction shots of large crowds to big news. There are some good character moments, like the resolution to a duel, although some moments are underplayed, like the main character’s romance. This is one of the most ordinary-looking leads I can think of in early cinema, and that’s quite fitting for a story of someone mysterious and underestimated.
Movie #114/ Russian Film #3/ Shakespeare Film #3: King Lear (1971) (DVD)
Kozintsev’s King Lear is beautifully shot. Jüri Järvet is a quieter Lear than I’m used to, ibe who doesn’t dominate the narrative, which works for this film and the director’s themes of focusing on the political turmoil of Shakespeare.
Movie #115/ New Movie #81/ Russian Film #4/ Shakespeare Film #4: Hamlet (1964)(DVD)
Kozintsev’s Russian adaptation works really well, fitting Hamlet’s brooding and mood swings. As with Lear, there’s an interesting sense of political turmoil, that the recent death of the king has left the situation in Denmark unstable. The inevitable confrontation is legitimately sad, and it sells the big moments. The Facets DVD is imperfect, sometimes pixelated with a translation that seems to skip some stuff (this isn’t just Hamlet, it was an adaptation by Boris Pasternak.) But this is still a good adaptation of one of the best stories.
Movie #116/ New Movie #82/ Oscar Nominee #3: Minari (DVD)
It’s paced in an interesting way, casual but with a narrative force that slowly develops. It does a great job of showing the differences of the family members affected by the dad’s dream, and the sense of being outsiders in a weird environment, still quite different from the cliches. It’s rare to see the struggles of ordinary people depicted so well in film.
Movie #117/ New Movie #83/ Oscar Nominee #4: Hilbilly Elegy (Netflix)
I’m kinda pissed off at critics for hating this so much; that seems to be clearly political. It has a distinctive ethos in the struggles of a kid growing up in a weird family that is flawed, but more complex than the caricatures. The JD Vances are overshadowed by better performances from Glenn Close and Amy Adams, although that’s more about their talents than a problem with the film. It is odd to see the eras where I grew up as cultural touchstones in flashbacks.
Movie #118/ New Movie #84/ Female Director #4: La Pelle/ The Skin (DVD)
It’s a bit distracting to see Italian dubbing for American characters in a story that’s supposed to highlight American ignorance and bravado. It’s light on plot, showing the horrors after a country loses a war, and it’s interesting to see what Americans look like from the outside, in a perspective that recognizes complexity, even if it is often way over the top (IE- the revelation of what hundreds of soldiers are lining up to see.)
Movie #120/ New Movie #85/ Russian Film #5: Ivan the Terrible Part 1 (Criterion DVD)
Eisenstein’s biopic on one of Stalin’s role models looks nice, but it’s often boring. It’s a bit like Alexander Nevsky in that the requirements of propaganda make the narrative less satisfying.
Movie #121/ New Movie #86/ Shakespeare Film #5: Macbeth (1971) (DVD)
Polanski’s version (produced by Playboy) conveys a sense of a man grappling with ambition and destiny. The medieval setting feels lived in. I can see why lead John Finch was in such high demand at the time (studios offered him James Bond; he was the lead in a Hitchcock film the year after this.) He shows a Macbeth who is believable in the role, while not comfortable with what he does. This is more like a supervillain origin story. It was controversial at the time, but now tamer than Game of Thrones.
Movie #122/ New Movie #87: Chopping Mall (Amazing Prime)
Sometimes this story of teens VS robots plays with expectations about slasher films, as they recognize how stupid it is to go separate and go alone. And it has fun with consumer culture. But it doesn’t make the end result good.
Movie #123/ New Movie #88: Bamboozled (DVD)
This was an odd film to watch as I wasn’t sure where Spike Lee was going and whether I’d ultimately find it to be a good film. He touched a lot of third rails. Some stuff is dated, especially a particular type of early digital filmmaking, but much of it is quite prescient about controversies of representation and blackface. Some of it is genius, although the lead is annoyingly inscrutable, which makes his story less interesting.
Movie #124: Blast of Silence (Criterion DVD)
This is a weirdly positioned noir, bordering between the end of the original noir era and 1960s Independent New York cinema verite. It’s distinctive with cool shots, a Christmas setting (very fitting), second person narration and a lead who is out of his element in the big city.
Movie #125/ New Movie #89/ Oscar Nominee #5/ Female Director #5: Crip Camp (Netflix)
It’s a well-told story where the directors benefit from having decades of material to explore the lives of disabled Americans who had meaningful experiences in a summer camp, and reconnected through activism. The film gets into the process of what they do in interesting ways, even if I disagree with some of it (hunger strikes did not seem productive.) It certainly shows the many reasons they had for sit-ins and other protests (a desire to live ordinary lives, a sense of purpose and their loving community.)