50 favorite movies revisited

It's been nine years since I took part in a Facebook project where three of us chose our 5o Favorite Movies. (Here's a Letterboxd list of my choices.) Of course, I'd do a lot of different things now ... Tomorrow Never Dies didn't belong (I chose it because of Michelle Yeoh, but then she was in another of my choices later, so the 007 movie was unnecessary). And I was too devoted to older movies ... the most recent movie in my Top 20 was The Godfather Part II from 1974, and there were only 4 movies from the 21st century on the entire list.

So here are my favorite movies (as of this moment) for the years 2012-2020, the years after I made that 50 Favorites list. I'm have to think a few of these would make the list if I made it now.

2012: Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley)

2013: Before Midnight (Richard Linklater)

2014: Boyhood (Richard Linklater) (a pattern emerges!)

2015: Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller)

2016: Moonlight (Barry Jenkins)

2017: Faces Places (Agnès Varda and JR)

2018: Black Panther (Ryan Coogler)

2019: Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma)

2020: Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee)


chadwick boseman

This is what I wrote about Black Panther in 2018:

african-american directors series: black panther (ryan coogler, 2018)

I'm not sure I'm up to the task of writing about Black Panther, which is so much more than "just" another Marvel superhero movie. Just to address the Marvel-ness of it, I am marginally conversant with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I mostly like the movies I've seen ... well, I didn't think much of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, but the rest, sure, they're OK. But I usually only see them because my wife is a fan. Personally, I prefer some of the TV series, especially Agent Carter. So one thing that set Black Panther off from the rest is that I wanted to see it; I didn't wait to be dragged into the theater. And my desire was justified, because Black Panther works on its own as a movie, separate from Marvel mythology.

I was delighted to see how much Oakland love was in the movie. We saw it at a theater less than a mile from the Oakland border (in Emeryville, home of Pixar, who are always putting animated local landmarks in their films), and right at the beginning, when a title tells us we're in Oakland in 1992 while Too $hort's "In the Trunk" plays on the soundtrack, the crowd erupted in applause, a tangible example of how audiences see themselves on the screen when watching Black Panther. (It wasn't shot in Oakland ... I think Atlanta was the location ... but given that director/writer Ryan Coogler was born in Oakland, the visuals are on target.)

Black Panther serves its function as an origin story, and since we're told at the end that the character will be featured in Avengers: Infinity War later this year, it is clear that Marvel is in this for the long haul (it doesn't hurt that Black Panther is already one of the biggest grossing films in history). But Black Panther didn't leave me wanting to see Infinity War, even if my wife inevitably gets me to watch it. I suspect this is because, as I noted, Black Panther works as a movie ... it made me want to see the next Black Panther movie Coogler works on, which isn't the same as wanting to see Infinity War because Black Panther will be in it.

Much has been made of the political statements the film is making. Black Panther wears its political heart on its sleeve. The message of the movie is messy, which accounts for the various disparate explanations of what is going on. But you don't have to dig very deep to start the discussion.

I have read some convincing arguments that Black Panther is ultimately something less than revolutionary in its narrative (the plethora of black filmmakers and actors in the film is revolutionary in itself, of course). Much of the film's thrust involves deciding who will be King of Wakanda, and that decision is based more on hand-to-hand combat than on a reasoned confab on politics. Since Erik Killmonger, who proposes that Wakanda should be sharing its wealth to help liberate the oppressed all around the world, is presented as "The Villain", his revolutionary position is attached to a "bad guy". Supposedly, this taints the radical politics of Killmonger, and I understand why it seems that way.

But people have been rooting for the bad guy for a hundred years of movies. Jack Nicholson's Joker is evil compared to Michael Keaton's Batman, but Nicholson's acting in the film is much more enjoyable than Keaton's, and Batman is a bit of a fascist in that movie anyway, so I didn't have any trouble "rooting" for the Joker. It is true that Keaton's low-key approach to his character allows Nicholson to take over the film, but it is also true that without Nicholson, Burton's Batman would be even darker than it already is.

A comparison of Joker/Batman and Killmonger/Panther doesn't completely work. In Batman, not only does Nicholson dominate the movie, entertaining the audience in the process, but Batman is not a benign leader of men, but instead a fascist. In Black Panther, we are led to think of T'Challa as a good ruler ... he is easier to root for than Bruce Wayne. And while Nicholson overwhelms BatmanBlack Panther is full of strong characters (many of them women) and thrilling performances. One reason it's hard to root for Killmonger is that Chadwick Boseman is himself charismatic ... he makes us want to accept T'Challa's way.

Yet I would argue that Michael B. Jordan overcomes Boseman's excellence. I am a longtime fan of Jordan's, so I may be too biased. But he is so great as Killmonger that he breaks through the attempt to make the character into a villain. Yes, Killmonger is a sociopath, but ... OK, I know there is no "but" for some people, but like Nicholson's Joker, Jordan commands the screen with such intensity that I found myself rooting for him, despite the way in the end the film denounces Killmonger. It is like those 30s gangster movies, where the bad guy had to die in the last scene, but when you walked out of the theater you remembered the excitement of the film's first 85 minutes, not the required comeuppance.

Of course, those gangster movies weren't making explicit political arguments. It's a sign of the greatness of Black Panther that it is not only a great spectacle (we saw it in IMAX 2D, which I much prefer to 3D), but it inspires discussion after the fact.


i may destroy you

I've been trying to come to terms with Michaela Coel's astonishing series I May Destroy You, and I've realized I may never get there. Coel turned something from her own life (she was sexually assaulted) into a work of art that is unflinching. I May Destroy You is hard to watch ... Coel is not afraid to show humans at their worst as well as their best, and at times I feared for the future of the human race. But the discomfort you feel when watching the show reflects the very real trauma that Coel, and her fictional character, an author with writer's block named Arabella, have suffered. If we weren't uncomfortable, Coel would have failed.

Arabella's actions over the course of the season are often hard to explain, hard to accept. But, as with the show as a whole, Coel isn't just trying to get the audience to understand what she went through. More to the point, she is working her way through the experience, and yes, she hopes we understand, but she doesn't tailor her writing to please the audience. And there isn't going to be a direct line through which Arabella resolves her feelings, no matter that viewers might prefer that to be the case. She inches towards the finish, two steps forward one step back, and as she struggles, we struggle as well. But since she is willing to show Arabella as not just nice, we are angry with her as often as we are sympathetic. At times, we are angry and sympathetic at the same time.

I was hoping for some resolution at the end ... I don't think I was alone. Coel doesn't exactly resolve anything, but the final episode perfectly establishes why resolution isn't necessarily what Arabella (and thus the show) needs. Arabella goes through a series of what-if scenarios involving her attacker, and I admit, I got vicarious excitement from the scenario where she beat the man to a bloody pulp. But what matters is when Arabella accepts that while she will never erase or forget what happened, she can continue with her life, can finally refuse to be defined by her assault. In what can only be called a delightful turn, she is able to clear her writer's block and finish her book, at which time, we realize the series I May Destroy You reflects the book Arabella writes, and serves the purpose for Coel that it does for Arabella. Coel doesn't give us a by-the-numbers autobiography ... she goes deeper, showing us her emotional journey without needing to exactly match events in her life.

Coel is aided by a fine supporting cast, including Weruche Opia and Paapa Essiedu as Arabella's best friends. Both characters are as finely drawn as is Arabella, equally balanced between good and not-so-good behavior. Life is complicated in I May Destroy You, as are the characters.

I'm pretty sure I haven't gotten to the bottom of my feelings about the show. But it will be hard to forget it.


african-american directors series: 4 little girls (spike lee, 1997)

Spike Lee has made his name as a top director of fiction films, but he has also made some strong documentaries (I am partial to the two-part series on Katrina and New Orleans). 4 Little Girls was his first full-blown documentary feature, immediately establishing his excellence in this genre.

Lee put the film together for just a million dollars. The key behind-the-camera collaborators were cinematographer Ellen Kuras and editor Sam Pollard. Lee interviewed family, friends, and lawyers ... his small crew helped make the family and friends comfortable. He also intersperses archival material to give context to the events of 1963, when racists bombed a church, killing four young black girls. This material serves to remind the viewer of just how volatile America was at the time (of course, it feels very timely now, as well). Lee gathers an impressive list of people to comment on the times, including Andrew Young, George Wallace, Ossie Davis, Walter Cronkite, Jesse Jackson, and Coretta Scott King. The result is a movie that works as history, while also making an emotional appeal to the audience. Lee obviously has a point of view, but he lets it emerge naturally from the stories of the families.

Lee and Kuras rely a lot on close-ups ... the speakers become real to us. And 4 Little Girls is tight, with no wasted space. It grips you, it forces you to think, and there is no rest during the film's running time.

(Similar to the Film Fatales series, I have begun a Letterboxd list, "Black Directors Matter", that includes movies directed by African-Americans. I've also added a category to blog posts, "African-American Directors".)


by request: he got game (spike lee, 1998)

In most respects, He Got Game has the strengths Spike Lee brings to all of his films. He gets the expected great performance from Denzel Washington. He draws another fine performance from Ray Allen, a basketball player early into his Hall of Fame career who had never acted before. His canny casting brought Milla Jovovich, a teenage Rosario Dawson in only her second feature, and some of Spike's usual suspects (Bill Nunn, Roger Guenveur Smith, John Turturro, Lonette McKee), along with many famous basketball names playing themselves.

But He Got Game is too long. The Milla Jovovich subplot is unnecessary (she's a prostitute that Denzel wants to help). The plot itself is ludicrous ... Denzel is a convict who is offered a deal by the warden. The governor of the state wants Denzel's son, the best high school basketball prospect in the country, to attend the governor's alma mater, so Denzel is released for a week to get his son to sign a letter of intent. If he succeeds, the governor will reduce Denzel's sentence.

Denzel works the hell out of the plot, but he can't save it. Still, the interactions between him and Ray Allen as his son are often powerful, and again, Allen shines in his first acting job. It's not enough to save the film, but it does make it worth seeing once.

Something should be said about the music, because Lee always delivers, and He Got Game is no exception. The movie features a canny use of Aaron Copland that is on target throughout. And Public Enemy does the title track, which is terrific. They later released an album of their own material with "He Got Game" at its center, and it's arguably the best album of their post-peak life. I love that track in particular. I like the video as well, but it's hard to find an unedited version, so here's a lyric video with the correct lyrics in place:

(Here is a letterboxd list of movies with African-American directors.)


geezer cinema/film fatales#87: the old guard (gina prince-bythewood, 2020)

A superhero movie with a difference, starting with the fact that if, like me, you came to the movie cold, you couldn't tell it was a superhero movie until things were well underway. Gina Prince-Bythewood (Beyond the Lights) gives us a movie that falls into one of my most-used genres, where a movie is praised for what it doesn't do. There are action scenes, but they tend to be more individual fighting rather than car chases. Time is offered to give depth to all of the main characters ... I usually balk at such things, because the efforts are half-hearted and I just want to get to the good stuff. But Prince-Bythewood pulls another switch on the standard superhero film, by making the characters matter. No one wears a costume, and they only have one super power (which does give them the chance to become really good at fighting).

The Old Guard has a strong cast, beginning with Charlize Theron in the lead. Theron is an Oscar winner with a solid pedigree in action pictures as well, from the sublime (Mad Max: Fury Road) to the not-so-sublime (Atomic Blonde). The Old Guard is in the middle, quite a bit better than Atomic Blonde without reaching the heights of Fury Road.

Theron once again does many of her own stunts, which makes her performance more believable. KiKi Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk) is a standout as the second lead, and it was good to see Anamaria Marinca (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) in a minor role. The plot is a little silly, and the movie drags at times (it clocks in at just over 2 hours). But you'll find yourself caring, not just about the action, but also about the characters. Which will be especially important when the inevitable sequel arrives.

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)

(Here is a letterboxd list of movies with African-American directors.)


african-american directors series: if beale street could talk (barry jenkins, 2018)

Barry Jenkins pulls off a difficult task in If Beale Street Could Talk. He moves smoothly between a touching love story and the realities of life for black people in America. He (and James Baldwin, who wrote the book) gives us complete characters ... they aren't perfect, they aren't bad, they are not stereotypical. Jenkins is on the side of humanity, so the characters tilt closer to perfection than to badness. And it's clear that the main force pulling them away from perfection is the society in which they live. Somehow, Jenkins shows a realistic society within a love story, such that you could almost say If Beale Street Could Talk ends up a hopeful note. Almost.

Jenkins has a lot to work with, starting with Baldwin, of course. He also has a terrific cast. Regina King finally gets her Oscar (Supporting Actress). If you haven't picked up on the greatness of Brian Tyree Henry yet, here's your chance, because he makes the most of a small part. Jenkins doesn't always take the easy route, either. While the film has a fine soundtrack, Jenkins doesn't use it to place the film by calling on our nostalgia for the popular tunes of the time. It's not the way we are used to hearing a soundtrack, where we are bombarded with the hits of the day. We get Miles and Coltrane and Nina Simone along with Al Green and Billy Preston. It's effective without pandering to the audience.

It's hard to single out one scene among the many, but Henry's work here is unparalleled:

If Beale Street Could Talk is #441 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

(Here is a letterboxd list of movies with African-American directors.)


geezer cinema/film fatales #84: harriet (kasi lemmons, 2019)

Kasi Lemmons has had an interesting career. She began as an actor, appearing in such films as School Daze, Fear of a Black Hat, and Hard Target. The fine Eve's Bayou marked her directorial feature debut, and I was a fan of her Talk to Me. Now comes her latest, Harriet, which won many awards including six Women Film Critics Circle Award, one for Best Movie by a Woman. The movies I have seen of hers strike me as consistently good, if not great.

Lemmons (who also co-wrote the screenplay) does well by refusing to fall into the too-common pitfalls of biopics. As far as I know, Harriet sticks fairly close to the historical truth. While it becomes a bit repetitious, she never overdoes it. One problem is that Harriet Tubman was apparently too good at her job. It is said that she had a 100% success rate at conducting slaves to freedom, and the repetition combined with her skills mean the escape scenes eventually lose the kind of tension you expect in such cases. But Harriet rarely drags.

Another example of where the fidelity to real history causes a problem with the film is due to the fact that Tubman suffered a head injury when young that affected her the rest of her life. She would have headaches and seizures and fall unconscious. Tubman had visions during these times, which she attributed to God. That she was inspired is certain, and the film does a good job of showing how she used these incidents to make important decisions. But since the divine inspiration is never questioned in Harriet, it feels as if God, not Harriet, was the one saving those slaves. Tubman may have thought this was the case, but the power of her life as it comes down to us through history lies in her own very human qualities. Harriet Tubman deserves the credit, not the Lord.

Lifting Harriet above the usual is the tremendous, Oscar-nominated performance in the title role by Cynthia Erivo (Widows). Erivo is always believable as this woman whose commitment to freedom was unstoppable. She doesn't play Tubman as if she were just a person who might one day be on the twenty-dollar bill. Erivo gives us a Harriet Tubman who was a real woman, cutting through the historical figure. It's impressive.

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)

(Here is a letterboxd list of movies with African-American directors.)


geezer cinema: da 5 bloods (spike lee, 2020)

Martin Scorsese is probably considered America's greatest living filmmaker. He's been around forever, he's made some great movies, he is a valuable contributor to film preservation and to the history of world cinema.

Spike Lee, even now, is arguably America's most underrated living filmmaker. Do the Right Thing is his greatest, but there's also Inside Man, and both parts of his documentary on Katrina are exemplary. 25th Hour, Summer of Sam, Clockers ... it's an impressive filmography.

According to Zach Sharf, "Netflix was willing to give Martin Scorsese over $150 million on 'The Irishman' in order to de-age actors like Robert De Niro and Al Pacino, but the streaming giant was reportedly more apprehensive when it came to allowing Spike Lee to shoot on 16mm film for 'Da 5 Bloods.'"

The idea to shoot the flashback scenes on 16mm was [cinematographer Newton Thomas] Sigel’s. Those sequences were originally intended to be shot on a different format before Sigel pitched to Lee an idea to shoot the Vietnam sequences using the kind of camera and film stock that would have been available during the Vietnam era. It was a winning pitch, as Sigel explained, “I think what really sold Spike on it was that this is what would have been used if a crew was there in Vietnam shooting during the war.”

It's the kind of care that helps give Da 5 Bloods a unique look, but also a smart and appropriate look.

Da 5 Bloods is Spike Lee at his best. Some of the dialogue is a bit too on the mark, but for the most part, the extended social context for what we see is effectively blended with the heist film. There are obvious homages to movies like Apocalypse Now and Three Kings, and I loved the stinkin' badges making an appearance. All of the actors are at the top of their game, which is worth mentioning because Delroy Lindo is on another level entirely and I fear the others will be lost in the deserved acclaim for Lindo. And, of course, Isiah Whitlock Jr. works in the catchphrase that he first spoke in an earlier Spike Lee movie:

But it's Lindo's show, and he makes the most of it. Da 5 Bloods is the best movie from 2020 that I have seen so far.

[Letterboxd list of the 2020 movies I've seen.]

(Here is a letterboxd list of movies with African-American directors.)


my letterboxd season challenge 2019-20

I finished "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." I began with Shadows in Paradise last September, and 8 months later, I finished with A Town Called Panic. In between were 31 new-to-me movies. It was a great way to be introduced to films that might be outside of my usual choices. Some stats:

Earliest movie: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1920.

Most recent movie: The Shape of Water, 2017.

Longest movie: Empire of the Sun, 153 minutes.

Shortest movie: Lessons of Darkness, 54 minutes.

Highest rating: The Shape of Water, French Cancan, 9/10.

Lowest rating: The Beast of Yucca Flats, 1/10.

Looking forward to next year!