To copy what I said at this time in 2015: “A summary, sorted by my ratings. I tend to save the 10/10 ratings for older classics, so a more recent film that gets 9/10 is very good indeed. Movies that are just shy of greatness will get 8/10. I waste more time than is necessary trying to distinguish 7/10 from 6/10 … both ratings signify slightly better-than-average movies, where if I like them I’ll pop for a 7 and if I don’t, I’ll lay out a 6. I save 5/10 for movies I don’t like, and anything lower than 5 for crud. This explanation comes after the fact … I don’t really think it through when I give the ratings. They skew high because I try very hard to avoid movies I won’t like … if I saw every movie ever made, my average might be 5/10, but I skip the ones that would bring the average down. Anything I give at least a 9 rating is something I recommend ... might sound obvious, but if someone is actually looking to me for suggestions, that limits the list to 14. So I’ve included links to my comments on those movies.” (Movies in bold in the 9-10 range are ones I was seeing for the first time.)
8: American Honey The Babadook Before Sunrise Day for Night Dressed to Kill First Reformed Gaslight Gertrud The Guilty Gun Crazy The Incredible Shrinking Man India's Daughter Listen to Me Marlon Local Hero Logan The Look of Silence A Matter of Life and Death Memories of Underdevelopment Private Life Sorry to Bother You The Spirit of the Beehive Springsteen on Broadway Supercop The Thin Man Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Widows Yellow Submarine
7: Avengers: Infinity War The Big Sick Black Mirror: Bandersnatch Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story The Brink Cat People Crazy Rich Asians Creed Darkest Hour Divines El Topo Flying Down to Rio Grand Hotel Hell Is for Heroes Hereditary Hidden Figures Horror of Dracula Icarus If You're Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast Lost City of Z The Magnificent Seven (1960) Man on the Moon The Man Who Fell to Earth The Man Who Knew Infinity The Man Who Knew Too Much Morvern Callar Ms .45 Nothing Sacred On Body and Soul Personal Shopper Set It Off Seven Days in May The Square Syndromes and a Century Tarzan and His Mate The Time Machine Tropical Malady Venom Watchmen Zombieland
6: Atomic Blonde Bo Burnham: what. The Circle Colossal Diamonds Are Forever Dogville The Dressmaker The Equalizer The Equalizer 2 A Girl Like Her Glastonbury Fayre Holiday Inn Hostiles The Lion in Winter Miami Vice Murder on the Orient Express Spring Breakers The Spy Who Dumped Me Star Wars: The Last Jedi Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael
5: Behave Yourself! The Black Scorpion The Day of the Triffids Dishonored Lady Enemy Margot at the Wedding
The title is a bit ironic, given that the two main characters, a married couple in their 40s played by Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti, have what passes for their private lives exposed to seemingly everyone they know. The couple, Richard and Rachel, are artsy professionals (Richard once ran a theater group before owning an artisan pickle company, Rachel is an author) who have been thinking about having kids for quite a while. Their efforts are what turn their private lives into public ones ... seemingly everyone they know has advice on what to do next, plus the process of trying to have a kid gets pretty invasive at times. Denis O'Hare has a nice supporting role as a gynecologist who spends much of his time looking inside Rachel, and along the way we learn, as everyone else already knows, that Richard only has one testicle.
Some of the stops on the road to parenthood are touching, some are funny, some are both. None of them work, until they finally decide to have an egg donor, and with that, I've probably already said too much. I'll leave the various twists to you, although Private Life is not a movie that relies on plot shifts to keep our attention.
What makes Private Life work is the "natural" presentation of the characters and their lives. Sure, we always know that Hahn and Giamatti are acting, but they slip so easily into their roles that we forget they are not real. Jenkins both wrote and directed Private Life, and so she gets the lion's share of the credit for the believable nature of her actors and their situation. It's not a screwball comedy, it's a low-key comedy (I refuse to call it a dramedy, but that's what it is) expertly pulled off by everyone involved. I appreciated the way Private Life is "real" but not bitter or spiteful ... these people have their issues, but they get along without devouring each other. I'm all for that devouring kind of movie, but I was glad this wasn't one of those. And the film ends on a perfect note of anticipation.
Private Life is too long, but one sympathizes with Jenkins' desire to get the details on the screen. Jenkins and Hahn are outside shots at Oscar nominations, if that's what you like to hear about. I doubt the movie is demonstrative enough to get that kind of awards attention, but it plays well for an evening with Netflix, and I mean that as a compliment.
Not much to say about this movie. The best thing is that it was easy for my wife and I to agree on when choosing something to watch. My wife has made a dress or two, of course. Kate Winslet and Judy Davis star, with Liam Hemsworth and Hugo Weaving in support. Winner of many awards in Australia, where it was filmed. Jocelyn Moorhouse had produced films like Muriel's Wedding and directed movies like How to Make an American Quilt.
Yet there isn't a whole lot to The Dressmaker. The most positive review on Metafilter (Kimberly Jones in the Austin Chronicle) gives it 3 1/2 stars out of 5, and concludes "its treats are modest but genuine." Winslet is solid, Weaving is fun, and Judy Davis steals every scene she is in. Some of the tidbits in the IMDB trivia section are fun ... Moorhouse described it as "Unforgiven with a sewing machine", and who wouldn't want to watch that? (We also learn that "Shooting of the film was interrupted several times as wild emus interrupted the scenes.") After seeing The Dressmaker, I'm left with the feeling that it is a good movie to watch with a group where no one will hate it. And given the number of bad movies that my wife and I could have chosen, I suppose I'm thankful we ended up with The Dressmaker.
For a better Kate Winslet movie, try Heavenly Creatures.
Obviously, these movies have nothing in common except they are directed by women, but I watched them on successive nights, so here they are, from the sublime to the not quite ridiculous.
The Ascent is the last film completed by Larisa Shepitko before her untimely death at 41 in a car crash. It's the first of her movies I've seen, and at first, I had a hard time giving it context. Then I realized that Anatoliy Solonitsyn, who plays a Soviet collaborator with the Nazis, was in three Tarkovsky films I'd seen (Andrei Rublev, The Mirror, and Stalker). I suppose it says something that I never mentioned Solonitsyn's name when writing about those three films ... it's not that he was bad, but I was doing everything I could to simply follow what was happening to notice his work.
I am not conversant enough in Soviet politics to know what specific effect state censorship had on movies in the Brezhnev era. But The Ascent would seem to be "acceptable" because the heroes are the Soviet people who fight the Nazis, and the worst characters are the collaborators. Meanwhile, Shepitko sneaks in a Christian allegory that seems obvious, but which escaped censorship. (Again, I don't know a lot about this, and I'm sure Shepitko had to deal with the State's expectations in various ways. But The Ascent seems like both a paean to Soviet values and a recognition of the power of religious belief.)
This time I won't make the mistake of ignoring the actors. Besides Solonitsyn, there are excellent performances by Vladimir Gostyukhin as a soldier who believes in survival, and Boris Plotnikov as the Christ figure. I don't want to over-emphasize the allegorical aspect ... I just can't pretend it isn't there. The Ascent has a remarkable look, white on white (it takes place in winter, in the snow), and Shepitko relies on near-constant closeups that don't just allow us to count the pores in a face, but seemingly to see into each character's soul. For me, The Ascent is better than any Tarkovsky movie I've seen, and I highly recommend it. #733 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.
And then there's The Spy Who Dumped Me. It works as an entertaining throwaway, with one caveat, that there is a lot of shoot-em-up violence ... a lot of dead people who aren't important as people, which matters. I watch a lot of movies with plenty of nondescript characters getting killed in various ways ... it's not the mindless violence I'm objecting to. But The Spy Who Dumped Me suffers from a serious schizophrenia between those scenes and the comedy that makes the film entertaining. This isn't Bonnie and Clyde, where we laugh right up to the point when a man is shot in the face and we realize it's not a joke. It's just an action comedy with plenty of people dying.
The action scenes aren't bad, but they aren't special. What is special is the interplay between Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon. It's surprising that this is the first Kate McKinnon movie I've seen, since like much of America I'm a big fan of her work on Saturday Night Live. She doesn't disappoint here, and she and Kunis make a good team. Outlander fans will enjoy Sam Heughan as a spy ... he turns in a nice comedic performance. I want to like this movie, and it's OK ... I wish it were more.
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.
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.
This is the fifth Varda film I've seen, all within the time I've been writing this blog. I don't know what took me so long to get started on her work, and I'm puzzled why, even though I have loved every one her movies I have seen, she doesn't come immediately to mind when I think of my favorite directors. (For the record, the others of her films I have seen are Cleo from 5 to 7, Vagabond, The Gleaners and I, and The Beaches of Agnes.) The most recent of these movies, including Faces Places, have an impish quality that is quite appealing. Varda was in her 70s and 80s when she made those films, and the themes of aging and mortality are present, but Varda makes you want to live a better life, makes you want to appreciate what you have while you still have it.
The film that preceded Faces Places, The Beaches of Agnes, was thought to be her last movie, but almost a decade later, she gave us Faces Places, co-directed by artist and photographer JR. The two of them travel the French countryside in a van that includes a photo booth. Villagers have their photos taken, and enormous prints come out of the side of the van, much like the photo booths in amusement parks. He then plasters the large photos on buildings, rock, anything, creating remarkable larger-than-life visions of the people. Seeing their photos on the sides of buildings, the villagers encounter a new way of looking at themselves. Varda is the one who picks many of the locations, and her fascination with the smallest items makes everything seem larger-than-life.
Varda and JR make quite a team. You can't help wishing for more Agnès and less JR, but no one expected her to make another movie, and she was 89 when the film was made. And JR is a perfect companion, an artist in his own right whose ability to make artful magic out of everyday life is a good fit for Varda.
JR spends the entire movie wearing a hat and sunglasses, and Varda presses him constantly to remove his glasses so she can see his eyes. (Eyes matter, here ... Varda is going blind, at one point getting an injection directly into her eye to help.) Near the end, Varda convinces JR to visit her old New Wave friend Jean-Luc Godard. When they arrive at his house, Godard has left a cryptic message for Agnès, but he is not there. She is clearly disappointed, as are we ... although the film focuses on "regular" people, we look forward to the appearance from Godard as a way to remind us of Varda's connection to the French New Wave. As the film ends, JR tries to find a way to give something special to Agnès, and suddenly, the obvious comes to him: he removes his sunglasses. We see his face as Agnès sees it, blurry, so that he maintains his mystery for the audience even as he makes a present for Varda. "I don't see you very well," she says, "but I see you." It's overwhelming, and Godard is forgotten for the moment. #339 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.
A documentary about the gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh, an Indian med student, India's Daughter fills its 63 minutes with just the right amount of information, never losing the feel of outrage and anger while connecting the act to the larger Indian society. We also see the enormous reaction of the people who weren't going to accept what had happened (along with the repressive actions of the state against those people).
The people who support the traditional Indian ways come off the worst, none more than defense lawyer A.P. Singh, who states, "If my daughter or sister engaged in premarital activities and disgraced herself and allowed herself to lose face and character by doing such things, I would most certainly take this sort of sister or daughter to my farmhouse, and in front of my family, I would put petrol on her and set her alight." Even so, some have complained that just by allowing such people to air their thoughts, Udwin is giving them a platform they don't deserve.
The film's title also exposes some of the problems with the movie. While it is specific to India, enough so that the Indian government banned the film, there isn't an effort to connect the problem to the worldwide presence of rape. You can only do so much in 63 minutes, and again, Udwin is being specific to the case in question and its ramifications for India, so I'm not sure this criticism is useful. More important, though, is the insistence, reflected in the title, that this is a movie about a daughter. As Tanvi Misra wrote:
The film shows Jyoti as an abstract symbol. She is “India’s daughter”—mourned by parents, and appropriated by both a cause and its opposition for their respective agendas. She is split in the imagination of her country. For the rapists and their lawyers, she failed her daughterly duties and bore the consequences. “India’s daughter” is supposed to have guarded her own modesty, which is linked to the prestige of the family. She was supposed to have been virtuous and virginal, protected and defined largely by male relatives....
The other narrative strain in the film ... talked about how “good” Jyoti was. She was a good daughter (she had asked for her parents’ permission to go out that night), a good student (she worked very hard), and a good friend. In this telling, she was ultimately a martyr—sacrificed to rally a country behind a cause....
I’m not saying that all these things about Jyoti—that she was a good student and devoted daughter—are untrue. I’m saying that they don’t have to be true for the crime committed against her to be just as heinous. The film shows this “good girl” and “bad girl” rhetoric—“India’s daughter” is either, depending on who’s talking about her—but not much else. In the movie, she’s a 2-dimensional figure. But Jyoti, the person, was probably much, much more when she was alive.
India's Daughter is compelling, and you can't help but be angry over what happens to Jyoti, and how Indian tradition reinforces misogynistic patterns. It's perhaps unnecessary to ask for more.
This is something of a Dual Film Fatale entry, given that it's a documentary about Hedy Lamarr directed by a woman.
I was looking forward to a film showing how Lamarr's work as in inventor was buried underneath her image as a great screen beauty. And that topic is always in the background. But much more of the film than I expected is devoted to Lamarr's career as an actress. And that career is not the most interesting thing about Lamarr. I wanted a movie about an inventor who was also an actress, but what I got was a movie about an actress who was also an inventor.
Obviously, the two go hand in hand. And the time spent on her acting career does establish a setting whereby Lamarr's intelligence might be ignored. Dean is kind enough to avoid much analysis of Lamarr's acting ... her fame came from her beauty, not because she was a great thespian.
I'm wondering if they spend relatively little time on her inventions because they weren't as engrossing for the audience than just showing pictures and clips of her in her prime. I don't want to press this point too much ... Dean does not ignore the inventor in favor of the beauty ... but it's the inventions that make this story more than just another tale of a Hollywood goddess.
Nonetheless, Lamarr's life story is a fascinating one, and a documentary is the way to go. The information is here. Lamarr was as smart as she was beautiful.