I'll probably watch a few more movies this year, but unless one is an all-time classic, these will likely remain the best movies I watched in 2021. All of them get my highest 10/10 rating. Sorted by release date:
Several times during The Sit-In, we are reminded that the week when Harry Belafonte hosted The Tonight Show was largely buried in the history of television. Yoruba Richen, who directed and co-wrote the documentary, emphasizes this because she believes Belafonte's hosting stint was an important moment in television ... she wants to ensure that it is forgotten no longer. She succeeds ... The Sit-In will be there for anyone who wants to discover (or rediscover) the week that was. It's a noble, even necessary, endeavor.
And Richen does what she can with the existing material. But here she is let down, which is unfortunate for her audience. First, she explains that in the 1960s, networks like NBC regularly recorded over tapes, so that, in the case of Belafonte on The Tonight Show, only segments from two of his five episodes exist today. So a look at the guest lists for his episodes is impressive, but we only get a handful of those guests. The truncated list remains impressive ... The Sit-In features Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (who tells a joke!), Bobby Kennedy, Paul Newman, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Nipsey Russell, and others. But a lot of the brief (75 minutes) running time of The Sit-In consists of interviews with people who express surprise that these episodes existed at all. I'm always glad to hear from Questlove and Whoopi Goldberg, but their contributions to The Sit-In are extended beyond usefulness. Understandably, given the absence of much footage from the event, but it becomes a bit repetitious.
Richen does a good job of placing the episodes in the context of 1968, and ultimately, The Sit-In is a helpful, if incomplete, addition to our understanding of our history. It's not a classic, but you take what you can get.
Medium Cool is legendary for a reason. Haskell Wexler used documentary techniques to tell a fictional story, and knew where to go and what to do with the camera. He may not have been able to predict just how crazy it would get in Chicago in August of 1968, but he knew it was a place to be, and that something could happen.
Robert Forster plays a news cameraperson, John Cassellis, who ends up on the streets of Chicago and learns something about how the people on those streets perceive the work he and his fellow journalists do. Part of him maintains a distance from the story, but he's too smart to avoid some of the implications. It's a key moment for John when he finds out his network lets the cops and the FBI see his footage.
Meanwhile, the entire Medium Cool project confronts the boundaries between fiction and documentary. Verna Bloom, a professional actor from New England in her first movie, is so convincing as a woman who has moved to Chicago from West Virginia that some people thought she was an amateur. Bloom has talked about the odd dual nature of her performance ... Wexler had her walking around during the police riots on the streets, and Bloom is both doing her job as an actor and experiencing the violence in reality. It is these documentary-style scenes that lift Medium Cool above the norm, as the plot is serviceable but no more, and some of the larger political points are muddled. But as the riots take hold, Medium Cool is gripping in ways that surpass the usual film.
The ending is weak ... it feels out of place, like something out of a more traditional Hollywood movie. But the last shot, of Wexler pointing a camera at us as the crowd chants "The whole world's watching!" is the perfect summation.
OK, someone explain this to me. Shame is (at least) the 17th film by Ingmar Bergman I have seen. I have yet to see a bad one, so the expectations are great. But after watching Shame for the first time, I was embarrassed that I had never gotten around to it before. It is, to my mind, one of a handful of the greatest films of Bergman's career, and thus, one of the great films in cinema history. But apparently, not a lot of people agree with me. Bergman has 14 films on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time ... none of them are Shame (it finished at #1279). In the recent TSPDT users poll, Bergman received votes from 853 of the 1983 participants, the 6th-most of any director, and more than such directors as Wong Kar-wai, Welles, and Godard. 21 Bergman films received votes ... 12 of them got more votes than Shame, which got only 6. At the time of its release, noted critic Andrew Sarris wrote in the Village Voice that Shame was "completely worthless as a work of art."
OK, taste preferences and all that. But I'm dumbfounded nonetheless. Here I was so happy to fill in this blind spot in my filmgoing, and after the fact I find I wasn't alone in my blind spot. Except now that I've seen it, for me it is a blind spot no longer, and I am here to say that Shame is a great film.
Shame is a war movie, but at first it feels like an abstract war movie. Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann play an unsettled married couple who are living on an isolated island, only marginally aware of the war going on in the world outside of their lives. Bergman never explains who is fighting, or what they are fighting over. What he does show is the impact of war on even the non-participants. The couple is isolated, but not isolated enough ... eventually, the war comes to them. They must confront their own inner beings, and they aren't very pleased with themselves. Gradually, Shame becomes just brutal to watch (in its way, it's as hard to experience as Ichikawa's Fires on the Plain). We never do learn what the war is about, which is why it feels abstract, but what the war does to the characters is not abstract, but rather unsparingly real.
In the midst of all this, Liv Ullmann gives one of her greatest performances. Shame was left out when it came to Oscar nominations, but surely Ullmann deserved some attention. (Next January, she will finally get her first Oscar, an honorary award.) Ullmann comes face to face with her fellow actors, and with the audience (thanks to frequent close-ups), and she is never less than brilliant.
Ten Years After, Fillmore West, July 1968. If memory serves, this was when Bill Graham switched from the Fillmore to the Carousel Ballroom, changing the name of the latter. Paul Butterfield was the headliner, Fleetwood Mac with Peter Green the opener ... in between was Ten Years After. This was a year before Woodstock, and two years before the movie of that festival turned Alvin Lee and company into big stars. We were there to see Butterfield, but it was Ten Years After that left the biggest impression at the time ... the next month they released their second album, the live Undead, which I bought immediately and played over and over. Here, bass player Leo Lyons reminisces about that 1968 tour ... if his memories differ from mine, believe him, he clearly is working from notes! (Addendum: I left a comment about the show I attended, and Leo replied, saying he remembered the gig!)
Here is the iconic Woodstock performance:
Lucinda Williams, Concord Pavilion, Fillmore Auditorium, Warfield, Berkeley Community Theater, 1998-2004? I'm pretty sure I'm missing at least one show here, from before 1998. We were fans since her self-titled album from 1988, but didn't get around to seeing her live for a few years. Definitely someone my wife and I loved equally. Here is the song that, more than any, made us love her back in '88. Not bad for a song without a chorus:
And here is a favorite of mine that my wife hates ... it didn't help in her case that in concert, Lucinda stretched it out for a lonnnnng time if you know the song, it is recognizable from the opening notes, which for me means "oh boy, I can settle back, this is going to be a good one" and for my wife means "oh shit, here comes that song that never fucking ends":
Amanda Feilding, aka Lady Neidpath, is a long-time advocate of drug reform in England. In 2018, Wired said that "If LSD is having its renaissance, Feilding is its Michelangelo." Feilding is now 78 years old, and still on the job.
She is the mother of Cosmo Feilding-Mellen, who directed and co-wrote The Sunshine Makers, about two men who in the 1960s were the creators of Orange Sunshine acid. The film takes you back ... if you lived through those times, you'll suffer a large hit of nostalgia. And I learned a little about those two men, Nicholas Sand and Tim Scully, who are not as famous as Leary and Kesey (not to mention Owsley Stanley, who was so famous, his name was synonymous with high-quality LSD). All of this makes The Sunshine Makers sound right up my alley.
But the movie feels like a missed opportunity. It's hard to know just how much Feilding-Mellen had to work with. He fills his movie with a collage of modern-day interviews, footage from the 60s, and what seems to be home movies that Sand and Scully took. Honestly, it's possible the only "real" thing in the movie is the interviews ... a lot of the scenes of drug busts and the like feel more like the kinds of re-creations you see on reality crime shows than they look like actual footage. To some extent, this fit with what the film is presenting, not a history of the times as much as a look at Sand and Scully. As I say, I learned something about them, and Orange Sunshine was a big deal. But, as someone who not only lived through this time but also lived in the area where much of the story takes place, I think the focus on Orange Sunshine may misrepresent the times. Yes, there was "brand-name" LSD, but by the time I joined the party (which admittedly was in 1969-72, which was just after the heyday of Sunshine), you could get acid that you were told was "Owsley" or "Orange Sunshine", but the actual product, even if it started in those forms, was usually cut with other ingredients, especially speed.
What I really wanted from Orange Sunshine was a sociological look at drug culture in the 60s. But that's not the movie we get. The center of the story is the friendship and partnership of Sand and Scully ... the ambience is secondary. What Feilding-Mellen gives us is not without interest. It just wasn't what I wanted to see.
I kept thinking of Magic Trip, the documentary from Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood, who took the endless footage of the Merry Pranksters' famous bus trip to New York and back and somehow gave it some coherence without losing the anarchic spirit of the film the Pranksters shot. Like Feilding-Mellen, they were working with less-than-ideal resources, but they miraculously turned it into a movie that not only told the story of the bus trip but hinted at the larger meaning of the Pranksters. It's far from a perfect movie, but I fear it's what I hoped to get out of The Sunshine Makers. I was probably expecting the wrong thing.
Fleetwood Mac, Fillmore West, July 1968; Oakland Coliseum, August 1975. I saw them twice, once in each of their most notable permutations: the Peter Green band of the 60s, and the Buckingham/Nicks version of the 70s and beyond. It is hard to imagine two more different groups.
The Fillmore West show saw the band opening for Paul Butterfield and Ten Years After. My memories of the show, 50+ years later, are mostly about Alvin Lee, and the potty mouth of Jeremy Spencer. Here's a clean version of one of Spencer's spotlight numbers:
"Oh Well" was a popular Peter Green song that originally had two parts. The second part, beautiful as it is, rarely turns up. But the newer versions of Fleetwood Mac still trot it out.
"Albatross" was another Green composition, with that same "Part 2" feel to it:
Finally, Green was a masterful blues guitarist, someone who impressed the likes of B.B. King. Here is my choice for his best blues:
The second time I saw the band was with the musicians we all know and love today. They were touring behind their first album with Nicks and Buckingham, which had come out shortly before my concert. This was another Day on the Green special, and Fleetwood Mac were fourth-billed on a five-band show (Robin Trower, Dave Mason, Peter Frampton, Fleetwood Mac, Gary Wright). I used to think of Stevie Nicks as a weak link, but I was wrong.
HAIM is often compared to Fleetwood Mac, which refers to the pop sounds of their records. So I find it ironic that one of their big covers in concert was this:
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is simultaneously excellent and disappointing. Aaron Sorkin's magic touch with dialogue turns up here, which is always a good thing. He knows how to construct a courtroom drama. Some of the casting is inspired (Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman). It's an important story, and it has relevance today.
Some of the best writing I've seen about the film comes from Rennie Davis, one of the 7, on his Facebook page. He wrote enough that it took three posts to get it all out.
He begins by thanking the creators. "Any support we can give to today’s generation standing up to self-serving government authority is my reason for promoting this film." But he thinks that other than Hoffman, Sorkin doesn't really get the characters right. "I encourage all my FB friends to see the movie for its remarkable impact, but I can still wish the producers had realized the best movie possible could only be made by conveying the story just as it happened. Creating fictional characters that never existed to create a drama that moves apart from the actual event will always fall short of the real humor, inspiration and courage of the Chicago 8 defendants." And he adds:
Understanding that the Sorkin film was never intended to be a replica of the actual trial is a good way to watch the Trial of the Chicago 7. That way you feel no need to knit pick its inaccuracies. Netflix told me I should think of the movie as a painting rather than a picture. Okay. That's another way to see it.
I write these three posts so my FB friends can remember what actually happened in Chicago and that putting government on trial is needed again today.
Sorkin foregrounds some characters at the expense of others. My wife pointed out that Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin were the ones most of us knew at the time, along with Bobby Seale. But even if that is true, all of the defendants were important. John Froines and Lee Wiener were barely in the film. Tom Hayden was presented as the one who contested the ideas of the others, to the extent that he comes across in a negative way compared to them. He rises to the occasion in the end, but it's puzzling why he was shown this way in the first place.
As the film ends, we get an update on what happened to the real people in the trial. Following that, we learn about the eventual future lives of the people. We read about Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, and Tom Hayden. But the others apparently weren't important enough for even that little part of their story.
So yes, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is gripping, and the overall presentation is close enough to make the events matter to those who weren't alive, while allowing older viewers a nostalgic look at their past. It's not a replica. I was engrossed from beginning to end, but yeah, I could have used a bit more replica.