Ten years ago, following up on a meme of the times, I looked at "Twelve movies you haven't seen that you should have seen and are embarrassed to admit you have missed." Over the last ten years, I have managed to see all 12 (links provided when I could hunt them down ... a reminder that you can see every movie I ever wrote about on the blog here):
If I were to redo this meme, using the same methodology as before (basically, what movies from They Shoot Pictures, Don't They I haven't seen, ranked from the top), this is what I'd find. If I'm still around in ten years, I'll check again:
Once Upon a Time in America
The Mother and the Whore
Hiroshima mon amour
Letter from an Unknown Woman
A Brighter Summer Day
A Day in the Country
Rome, Open City
Ali: Fear Eats the Soul
Histoire(s) du cinéma
Come and See
Ten years ago, I also listed the top 12 American movies I hadn't seen. Here is an updated version of that (the ones in bold are repeats from ten years ago):
Once Upon a Time in America, Letter from an Unknown Woman, The Crowd, Only Angels Have Wings, Meshes of the Afternoon, Love Streams, Lost Highway, Stranger Than Paradise, Man of Aran, Heaven's Gate, Chelsea Girls, The Dead.
Finally, since this is easier than it was ten years ago, the top 12 movies from the 21st century I haven't seen:
Russian Ark, Werckmeister Harmonies, The Turin Horse, Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks, Inland Empire, Zhantai, Silent Light, Syndromes and a Century, Good Bye Dragon Inn, Holy Motors, Songs from the Second Floor, Still Life.
On November 1, 2016, I was welcomed to the new streaming service, Filmstruck, with an email that began, "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship". I signed up for them because Criterion moved their streaming catalog there from Hulu. I spend a lot of my media time in the cloud these days ... I stream movies and TV shows from Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, along with using Comcast On Demand. And, of course, for music there is Spotify. I buy the occasional album to help lesser-known artists, but even that is digital ... I've barely bought an actual CD in a long time.
In the early days of DVDs, I overdid it. I would join clubs that offered 13 movies for $1 with a small promise of buying more ... I worked the system so I was getting lots of movies for very little money, oftentimes buying 16, closing my account, and buying another 16 the next day. Because of this I have hundreds of DVDs, most of which sit on the shelf because 1) you can't watch all of them every day, and 2) I'll get lazy and rewatch DVDs I own on a streaming service. I still buy Blu-rays, though, since the quality is better than streaming (although since I've long since accepted the low-fi of MP3s, I don't know why I care). Apparently I buy more Criterion Blu-rays than I realize ... last week they gave me a $50 gift certificate for being a loyal customer. I just watched a Criterion Blu-ray the other day, Memories of Underdevelopment.
Today, it was announced that FilmStruck is closing at the end of next month, just over two years from when it started. It's easy to describe what FilmStruck offered that other services do not. I currently have 84 movies on my FilmStruck watch list. Here is the decade breakdown for those films:
That's 66 out of 84 between 1930-1979. Without doing any more close readings of my various watchlists, I'm going to guess that they have very few movies from before 1980. (OK, I just eyeballed my Netflix watchlist, and there are no pre-21st century movies on the list.) FilmStruck served a niche. FilmStruck was also nicely curated. The TCM section is good, but the Criterion Channel rises above and beyond: "Ten Minutes or Less" (shorts on a variety of film-related topics), "Adventures in Moviegoing" (noteworthy artists share their favorite movies), "Observations on Film Art" (scholars discuss topics in their field of expertise), "Tuesday's Short + Feature" (self-explanatory), "Friday Night Double Feature" (same), and "Split Screen" (a TV series on indie film).
I have a lot of places to look for movies. I have TCM and a DVR, for example. I also have a lot of Criterion discs to hold me over until Criterion finds a new streaming home. But I will miss FilmStruck. As will others ... here are a few reactions on Twitter:
"FUCK. Like... I went into @FilmStruck a little under the weather and before taping anything received a homemade fennel and pea shoot soup, like... these were flesh and blood people who really, truly cared about the work they were doing and the people who made and appreciated film." -- Barry Jenkins
"FilmStruck was too good to last. I see it sadly floating away from the charred wasteland that is 2018, Lorax style." -- Rian Johnson
"Terrible, terrible, terrible. The service barely got a chance to find its footing before the suits pulled the plug." -- Farran Nosferatu
"This is very disappointing news. Here's hoping that the Criterion Channel finds a new home soon, and Warner Bros. finds a cultural conscience about making its library of old films--the largest and most significant in Hollywood--more easily available." -- Mark Harris
"Another thing I will say: @FilmStruck actively took the time to highlight films made by women, people of color, minorities, and countries often not represented at all by other streaming services. We need to be programming and curating diversely." -- Michelle Buchman
"Warner pulling the plug on FilmStruck after just two years does not bode well at all for the future of film—or music—catalog on streaming services. And if streaming is exclusively focused on the present, where will we learn about our cultural past?" -- Stephen Thomas Erlewine
"We will find a way to bring it back- We will!" -- Guillermo del Toro
I keep thinking I'm going to get to a year where I have nothing to say about any of the chosen songs. But there is at least one here that was so massive even I, at 56 years old, knew it. I also keep waiting for the year when I haven't seen any of the artists in concert. I guess as long as Bruce Springsteen keeps showing up, that won't happen, but there is one other act here that I have actually seen twice.
Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, "Empire State of Mind". How big was this one? Let's ask Wikipedia: "A critical success, 'Empire State of Mind' was included in multiple critics' top 10 list of the best songs of 2009; including Rolling Stone magazine and The New York Times. It was also nominated for three Grammy Awards, winning Best Rap Song and Best Rap/Sung Collaboration. The song achieved commercial success worldwide. It peaked within the top 10 in many countries including the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, France, Italy and Sweden. In the US, the song topped the Billboard Hot 100 for five consecutive weeks, becoming Jay-Z's first number-one single on the chart as a lead artist. It appeared in 2009 year-end charts in Italy, Australia and the US, where it was also the last number one hit of the 2000s. As of June 2014, the single has sold over 5.5 million copies in the United States."
Animal Collective, "My Girls". One of the dozen (at least) tracks sampled for Beyoncé's Lemonade.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, "Zero". Almost as ubiquitous as "Empire", but it didn't make it into my own sheltered existence. Featured in everything from Ugly Betty and Gossip Girl to a Tony Hawk video game.
Fuck Buttons, "Surf Solar". Hard to argue with their name, if nothing else.
Florence + the Machine, "Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)". Here's a band where I know they are important (this track comes from their successful debut album) but I couldn't tell you a thing about them.
Sonic Youth, "What We Know". This is the band I've seen twice, the second being in 2009.
The Roots, "How I Got Over". 2009 marks the first year The Roots worked as Jimmy Fallon's house band, first on Late Night and later on The Tonight Show, immediately becoming arguably the coolest house band in late-night history.
Bruce Springsteen, "Wrecking Ball". The album of the same name contained some of Bruce's angriest lyrics, but this title track was written as a tribute to a football stadium. Not to be confused with the Miley Cyrus song.
Spotify playlist, with a substitute for "Empire State of Mind" since Jay-Z doesn't do Spotify.
Bonus: an inspired version of Miley's "Wrecking Ball":
For some reason, we've seen Bruce Springsteen a lot of times in October. I've seen him 36 times, which by the averages means we should have seen him 3 times in October. But the first two times we saw him were in October, and there was the road trip in October of 1980 where we saw him five times in a week. In total, we have seen him 16 times in October.
Since it's October 25, I'll play the Throwback Thursday game and look at the three times we saw him on October 25.
First was 1980 in Portland, the first day of our 1980 Road Trip. It was our 6th Bruce concert, and the only time we've seen him outside of California. That was the year Mount St. Helens erupted, and while the most damage was done in May, in mid-October there were more eruptions. In honor of this event, Bruce played "On Top of Old Smokey" for the first and only time in his career. Here is the audio from the entire show ... "On Top of Old Smokey" comes at 1:28:35:
Our second Bruce/October 25 show came 19 years later, in 1999. This was the Reunion Tour ... we saw three shows in Oakland, the first of which came on the 25th. Not much is easily found from that show, so here is "Light of Day" from the second night, including a touch of Moby Grape's "Omaha":
Our third, and thus far last, Bruce on October 25 show came in 2007.10-25-07. I saw "Our", but in fact, Robin didn't go to this one, the first time I was there without her ... she went with me the next night. One advantage was that I was in the pit for the show on the 25th ... Robin doesn't do pit. Here is a photo of me and my friend Tom at that show:
This was the only one of these three shows that came after I started this blog, so:
Day for Night is full of love for movie making, with a charm that can barely be resisted. It is of special interest to people in the business ... my cousin, who worked for years as a grip, said it is very truthful about what a director has to deal with during the making of a movie. It is about a subject dear to Truffaut's heart ... it is no accident that he plays a movie director in the film. On the TCM website, David Sterritt says it "may be the most beloved film ever made about filmmaking." It won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and was nominated for director, original screenplay, and supporting actress (Valentina Cortese). It is #411 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.
Day for Night is also excellent at showing the familial camaraderie of cast and crew, as they come together for months of working together in close quarters. There are instant friendships that will likely end once the film is finished, there are casual sexual encounters that aren't taken too seriously by anyone, and, at least in Truffaut's world, there is an acceptance of your fellow workers, all part of a great enterprise.
Crucially, though, as the movie's director Ferrand says, "Making a film is like a stagecoach ride in the old west. When you start, you are hoping for a pleasant trip. By the halfway point, you just hope to survive." This acceptance of compromise seems harmless, but it helps explain why Meet Pamela, the movie being made in Day for Night, is such a trifle. Because in Day for Night, the process of making a movie is reward enough ... you don't need to produce excellence to make that process worthwhile. We in the audience don't care about Meet Pamela because Truffaut doesn't care about it. It's just an excuse to show the joy of filmmaking. But, as Kael wrote, "I don't share Truffaut's fond regard for the kind of moviemaking that 'Meet Pamela' represents. I ask for the extraordinary from films, while Truffaut, who finds moviemaking itself extraordinary, is often content to make films for everyday."
Like most people, I was caught up in the pleasures Truffaut offers here. Day for Night isn't as good as his first features (The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player, and especially Jules and Jim), but that's not a standard anyone can reach every time they start a new movie. And I understand Kael's resistance, but I'm willing to care a little less about the extraordinary when the representation of the everyday is as enticing as it is in Day for Night (if a film about making a film can ever be every day).
Famously, one person found Day for Night to be a travesty of making movies: Truffaut's old friend Jean-Luc Godard. In Day for Night, Truffaut shows his love for a fairly traditional form of cinema. Despite the low budget for Meet Pamela, much of what the movie shows us relates to Hollywood movie making, as exemplified perhaps by the crane shot in the above clip. This is a long way from the guerrilla stylings of Godard and Truffaut in their earliest days, and Godard was frustrated by this.
As with Kael, I understand Godard's resistance. But Day for Night remains a pleasure, nonetheless. Still, I'd point to Jacqueline Bisset as the best example of what Kael and Godard might have been saying. As always, Bisset is phenomenally beautiful in Day for Night. And she's a decent actress. But she doesn't rise above her beauty ... she is not Catherine Deneuve or Jeanne Moreau. Jules and Jim would be a much different movie with Bisset ... for one thing, she lacks the mystery that Moreau brings to the movie. Day for Night, and Bisset, are pleasurable. Jules and Jim, and Moreau, are extraordinary.
"Bright Wall/Dark Room is an online magazine devoted to looking at what happens when we bring our whole selves to the movies. It’s about the relationship between films and individual human beings, between cinema and the business of being alive. Whether we’re watching in a theater or a living room, we’re each just a brain in a body looking at a bright wall in a dark room. BW/DR is where we go to talk about what happened there."
Bright Wall/Dark Room is a subscription site, and for $5 or more a month, you will receive four personalized movie recommendations every month. These appear to come from actual humans rather than algorithms. My first four recommendations came in, and I chose The Lost City of Z as the first recommendation to dive into. It's a good recommendation, since I might not have found it otherwise. It did poorly at the box office, and did generally well with critics (it's #933 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century), but it's not a standout in either case. I'd seen a couple of James Gray's earlier films (We Own the Night, which didn't do much for me, and Two Lovers, a romance I liked OK), but nothing to bring him to my current attention. The star was Charlie Hunnam, who has been in some movies I liked but who I know mostly from Sons of Anarchy. In short, there was nothing about The Lost City of Z to turn me away, but neither had it caught my attention until BW/DR suggested it. So, as I say, the perfect recommendation.
To get the obvious out of the way, the movie is a biopic about British characters, so the title is pronounced "The Lost City of ZED". No big deal, but it was startling the first time I heard it. It's the story of a British soldier and explorer Percy Fawcett at the turn of the 20th century who goes looking for a lost city in the Amazon. In Bright Wall/Dark Room, Joel Mayward frames his response to the film in terms of family. When Percy goes to the Amazon, he leaves his family behind for years. Percy finds himself in the search, but while he loves his family, they are never enough to keep him home when the Lost City is still waiting to be found. Sienna Miller does a fine job as Percy's wife Nina, and Gray takes care to show how Nina is of her times, a feminist married to a man who claims to be at her side in the battle for equality. But this is Percy's story, not Nina's, and ultimately, Nina takes a back seat. The character is treated with respect, but there is never a feeling that her story will equal Percy's.
Gray is not afraid of showing the darker side of Percy. His obsessions do harm his relations with his family, but while, as Mayward notes, Percy "listens to and believes in the voices and visions of those often not given a platform in his society—women, children, the working class, and people of color. Still, the film is no hagiography, as Fawcett’s dreams of progress border on mirage in his inability to address his own privilege." His obsessions color his views of others; his obsessions are his life, which interferes with a true understanding of others.
Still, Percy is not treated like a crazed man. Just think of Klaus Kinski in Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God to see how far such a hero might go. Gray is not Herzog, Percy is not Aguirre, and The Lost City of Z, for all its beauty and thoughtfulness, is not the kind of film that would allow craziness to take over.
It's time to end the pretense that I know much about these songs. I turned 55 in 2008, and the only ones of the following ten songs that had an impression on me were the Bruce song and "That's Not My Name". So I present these without comment, which will mostly be the default the rest of the year, as I use Music Friday to catch up on music I missed.
I recommend The Babadook on a regular basis, especially as Halloween approaches, as I find it a superior horror film. I first saw it the year after it came out, and I'll mostly cut-and-paste what I said about it at the time:
The Babadook is an Australian horror film, the first feature from director/writer Jennifer Kent (an ex-actor). ... You could watch it as a standard horror film about a monster that comes from a book, and it definitely works on that level. But it is also ripe for detailed analysis, particularly from a feminist angle. ... The main character isn’t the titular monster, nor is it the frightened and disturbed young boy who initially seems to be its target. No, this is a movie about a mother’s grief, and [Essie] Davis plays the entire spectrum from holding-it-together to flat-out-losing-it in a moving and believable way. Kent’s eye is remarkable for a first-time director (with excellent work from Polish cinematographer Radek Ladczuk and book designer Alex Juhasz). She also worked hard to draw a strong performance from young newcomer Noah Wiseman, while also doing her best to avoid exploiting the child during emotionally intense scenes. The Babadook is better than a simple plot description might suggest, and I recommend it to most people (as the IMDB notes, it includes “Definite trigger warnings for anyone who had a violent or abusive relationship with parents”, so I can’t recommend it to everyone).
I was reminded of this movie a few months ago when I saw Hereditary. Both films are about grief, with strong performances by the lead actress. I prefer The Babadook, but your mileage may vary.
(A quick note about requests: I welcome them! Sometimes it takes me a very long time to get to them ... today's movie was recommended a year-and-a-half ago. But I keep track, and eventually, I watch them.)
The Man Who Knew Infinity is a historical drama about Srinivasa Ramanujan, an Indian mathematician who is invited to Cambridge around the time of World War I by G.H. Hardy, an eminent English mathematician. For whatever reason (the film accepts Ramanujan's statement that his work is revealed to him by a Hindu goddess), Ramanujan's work is unlike much of what has come before, so unique that he is years ahead of the standard for the field. As Ramanujan's mentor, Hardy helps him advance through the barriers set up at Cambridge for an unlettered scholar from India. Eventually, Ramanujan is accepted, he returns to his wife in India, and continues working on mathematics until his death at age 32 from complications due to dysentery early in life (the film seems to suggest it's tuberculosis ... not sure why).
The film is efficient and inspiring in the way of the better biographical dramas. Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons are fine. I didn't know anything about the subject in advance, and now I do (even if that knowledge remains superficial). But the movie is about a mathematician who worked almost completely outside the box, and it would have been better if, like the mathematician, it had stepped outside the usual. Instead, it was about Ramanujan, but it was directed as if Hardy was behind the camera. (And the framing of the film, as the recollections of Hardy, emphasizes this.) I would have preferred a movie that did a lesser job of explaining the math to me and a better job of getting inside the mind of such a unique person.