I've been spending a little time at the Letterboxd website ... this is what happens when you're retired, I guess. A couple of fellows from Germany uploaded a list of their top three films of each year, and I got inspired enough to create my own list. It starts in 1924 and goes through 2018. Two years (1926 and 1929) only got two movies, so the entire list is comprised of 283 movies. The thing that interested me the most was the recent films, because when I make Top 50 lists or whatever, I always end up with lots of old movies and not enough new ones. By forcing myself to pick three from each year, I was able to give recent years some space. So, to take a couple of years at random, from 2018, Black Panther, Roma, and Springsteen on Broadway made the list, while 2005 offered A History of Violence, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, and Dave Chappelle's Block Party. Top three from 1924? Sherlock, Jr., Greed, and The Navigator (lots of Buster Keaton in the silent years).
We saw this at SFFILM's Hong Kong Cinema series. Director Lee Cheuk-pan and actors Hanna Chan and Kyle Li were in attendance for a short Q&A after the showing. This was the directorial debut for Lee. I'm unfamiliar with the work of the three artists who attended, and only recognized one other name in the cast, Chapman To (Infernal Affairs, Beautiful Country). All of the actors were excellent in G Affairs, with To and Huang Lu the standouts. The latter two played a corrupt cop and a whore-with-heart-of-gold, which is to say, the characters in the film are largely stereotypes. But the style of the film is quirky enough that you don't always notice those stereotypes, and To and Lu do wonders with the material. To say that To plays a corrupt cop is a bit repetitive ... in G Affairs, if you are a cop, you are corrupt. Basically, everyone and everything in the movie is corrupt. Hong Kong society is a mess, from the teenagers at the elite high school to the criminal scum. Chan's character seems sweet enough ... she also gives blow jobs to her teacher, eventually getting gonorrhea. It's that kind of movie. The letter "G" is a gimmick ... everything in the plot is connected in some way to words that begin with a G (gravity, guns, a dog named Gustav), and it was never clear why the English letter turned up in the lives of people speaking Chinese. (This was addressed in the Q&A, and I still didn't understand it.)
Honestly, there was a lot I didn't understand about G Affairs. Some of this can be attributed to the Hong Kong specificity of the film ... I was more certain than usual that I was missing a lot of cultural clues. But Lee also uses a fragmented style that further muddies the narrative. If you are the type who doesn't mind this kind of muddying (or even enjoys it), you will get more out of G Affairs than I did. Good acting and a style that always looked good, even when I had no idea what I was watching, meant I found G Affairs an interesting 105 minutes, and Lee, only 33 years old, seems to have a good future ahead for him. But I wasn't blown away.
Catch-22 (Mike Nichols, 1970). Better than I remembered it being. It's still like a revue of the novel, with various highlights, doing better with the humor than with the existential angst. Features a ridiculous cast: Alan Arkin, Bob Balaban, Martin Balsam, Richard Benjamin, Marcel Dalio, Norman Fell, Art Garfunkel , Jack Gilford, Charles Grodin, Buck Henry, Bob Newhart, Anthony Perkins, Paula Prentiss, Martin Sheen, Jon Voight, Orson Welles. Better than reading the CliffsNotes, I suppose, at least more fun. I see I used the word "better" three times ... that may give the movie more credit than it deserves.
I didn't know this, but there was a TV pilot in 1973 with Richard Dreyfuss as Yossarian. It's pretty bad, with an incongruous laugh track. I'd link to a video, but it's been taken down from YouTube. I'd recommend you try to hunt it down, but it's awful enough that it's not worth your time unless you're a completist. Of course, there's also a new mini-series, which I'll get to once I finish it.
Ip Man 3 (Wilson Yip, 2015). Follows Ip Man and Ip Man 2 (duh). Donnie Yen is a little older with each outing, but unlike someone like Jackie Chan, who relies so heavily on stunts, Yen mostly sticks to martial arts, which I imagine aren't quite as hard on an old body as some of Jackie's crazier stunts. Lynn Hung returns one last time as Ip Man's wife ... she's not always given a lot to do, but at 5'10" she certainly stands out, and her acting is as good as she is tall. Max Zhang makes his first appearance in the series, and he's so good they gave him a spinoff, Master Z: Ip Man Legacy, which I haven't seen. Nor have I seen the recent Ip Man 4, with Yen returning once again. (In fairness to me, I don't think Ip Man 4 has been released yet.) A final fight between Yen and Zhang is the highlight, but there's also Ip Man going up against "Frank", played by Mike Tyson, that isn't as bad as it sounds. Ip Man 3 was the biggest success of the three at the box office. For reasons that escape me, I watched this in an English dub, which was not too bad. This outing takes place in 1959, and as with Ip Man 2, there is a notable anti-British bias. Ip Man remains the best of the series, but they are all worth seeing.
Here, Ip Man takes on Mike Tyson in a 3-minute round:
Or, as it's known in the U.S. and on Netflix, The Legend of Drunken Master.
It was Jackie Chan's 65th birthday on Sunday, so I took in one of his classics, the sequel to Drunken Master. Age is a funny thing in movies. Given the things Jackie has done to himself over his career, it's amazing that he's still alive. In Drunken Master II, Chan was already 40, although he plays a much younger character (and pulls it off ... when you are a physical marvel like Jackie, age seems less important, at least at 40). His co-stars include a few Hong Kong greats ... Ti Lung (A Better Tomorrow and many others) plays his father, although in real life, he's only 8 years older than Jackie. And the magnificent Anita Mui (The Heroic Trio) plays his step-mother, and she was actually 9 years younger than Chan.
And, since I'm listing cast members, Andy Lau has a cameo that points to the numerous alternate versions that we in the States get of HK movies. The copy I watched, on Netflix, was in Cantonese with English subtitles, but Lau's character was a counterintelligence officer, which was supposedly true only in the American dubbed version. Whatever ... it was a good print, and if the soundtrack was different from the original, I couldn't tell (not saying it was different, just that it didn't seem to matter). Here's a look at some of the changes made to the American version ... I like this because you get a brief chance to see what Anita Mui does in Drunken Master. The "Madonna of the East" really shines, stealing scenes left and right. She was a true superstar, and it shows here. She makes every scene better.
As for the movie itself, Chan relies less on crazy stunts than usual. "Drunken Master" refers to a style of martial arts, and this film, like its predecessor Drunken Master, is a martial arts film more than anything else. There are some eye-popping scenes in Drunken Master II, and I don't want to overstate the difference between this and, say, Armour of God II: Operation Condor.
The big finale features a sensational battle between Jackie's drunken master and an imposing villain who is played by Jackie's real-life bodyguard at the time, Ken Lo. Even by Chan standards, it's amazing ... Roger Ebert said,"It may not be possible to film a better fight scene."
If you're thinking of a double-bill, the obvious match is Drunken Master. If you're looking for another Jackie Chan movie to watch, I like to recommend Police Story 3: Supercop with Michelle Yeoh.
Last Hurrah for Chivalry (John Woo, 1979). I don't entirely buy the pairing of these two movies. But Woo loves musicals, and while there are no songs in Last Hurrah for Chivalry, there is a balletic feel to some of the sword battles. In the end, I just watched it as a Woo fan who hadn't seen this one before. It came seven years before A Better Tomorrow changed everything, and while there is some novelty seeing sword play in place of shootouts, the film is more interesting as an early look at the friendships among men that is one of the themes Woo is most famous for. The film moves along briskly, the characters are detailed enough for us to care about them, and the exploration of male camaraderie, if low-key compared to Woo's heroic bloodshed classics, at least hints at Woo's future. The women in the film are largely irrelevant, despite the attempt in the trailer to make it seem like there is some important heterosexual love. Not up to Woo's classics, but enjoyable just the same. And the Sleeping Wizard is the best.
The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964). Very much of a piece with The Young Girls of Rochefort, which Demy made three years later. The primary common thread is that both movies feature dialogue that is 100% sung. It sounds annoying, but you quickly get used to it. It matters that Cherbourg is such an honest portrait of romantic love ... it would be worth watching without the music (I might say it would be better, but the music is part of the charm, and there's a recognizable-to-this-day song in Michel Legrand's score). David Thomson, writing about this movie, noted, "So often, the realist's complaint about the musical is that awkward moment where the actors take a deep breath, the story goes on hold, and 'it' breaks into song. What better cure for that hesitation, or the nausea that attends it, than having every line of dialogue sung?" Makes sense to me, although I've found it easy to resist more recent attempts at this kind of "complete" musical. Meanwhile, in commenting on the music, we should not lose site of the look of the film, which is full of gorgeous, irresistible colors. It's hard to believe we're looking at a real city, which I mean in this case to be a compliment. #173 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.
This was a bit of a test in a couple of ways. First, it's the latest Movie of the Week on the upcoming Criterion Channel, so I felt obliged to stream it, even though I own the Criterion Blu-ray. Second, I wanted to try out my new computer with its 4k graphics. This was also a stretch, since the Channel wasn't in 4k, so the movie probably looks better on the TV in Blu-ray. But I had to play with my new toy.
I wrote about Chungking Expressbefore, and outside of liking it even more this time, I don't have much to add. Interesting to note how critical opinion changes ... when I wrote about the film in 2010, it was #320 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. Now it has moved up to #214. This reflects my own opinion, since, as I noted back then, I've liked Chungking Express more every time I've seen it. Brigitte Lin and Tony Leung are great, but I expect no less from those great actors. (Leung really is in my pantheon ... I've given my highest rating to In the Mood for Love, Hard Boiled, and Red Cliff, and have never given one of his movies a bad rating ... his average is 8.5/10.) Faye Wong is such a bright spot ... she was/is a singer, she had done some acting, mostly on TV, but Chungking Express was her breakout role in movies. (She has only acted in a few features since.) She commands the screen, and being able to do this when sharing a scene with Tony Leung isn't easy.
One of my favorite film-based videos is this one, created out of Faye Wong's hit version of "Dreams" by The Cranberries:
It's funny, in the movie, the song most identified with Faye is "California Dreaming", but it's her version of "Dreams" that has always stuck with me.
It amazes me that Chungking Express is now 25 years old. The actors are so young ... Tony Leung was 32, Faye Wong was 25, Takeshi Kaneshiro (unfairly getting less attention than the other stars) was 21, and Brigitte Lin, the veteran, was 40.
How did the test go? The Criterion Channel picked a good one for their second Movie of the Week, and the new 4k 27" screen looked great, even in a non-4k film.
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
I revisited In the Mood for Love after watching an episode of the late Anthony Bourdain's series, Parts Unknown. I watched Bourdain at the encouragement of a friend who had asked me to do so earlier this year when Bourdain died. He specifically suggested the Hong Kong episode, and I finally got around to it. I get recommendations from people all the time, and sometimes it takes me forever to get to them ... a couple of weeks ago I watched a DVD someone had given me a few years ago, for the first time. It takes forever ... but I keep track, and I do get to them eventually. (Hint: the comments section is always a good place to make requests.)
I know very little about Anthony Bourdain. I know he died. I know he was partners with Asia Argento. What I know of his work comes completely from when he wrote for Treme. I also knew nothing of the series Parts Unknown. Honestly, I thought it would be a food show and nothing more.
Well, it was great. And when it began, and I heard music that sounded a lot like In the Mood for Love, I was instantly happy. Then I found out Christopher Doyle, long-time collaborator with Wong Kar-Wai and the co-cinematographer for In the Mood for Love, is in the episode. Watching Doyle, I couldn't believe I'd never encountered him anywhere but behind the camera, so to speak. I love his work, and left it at that. To find out he is such a character fascinated me. Of course, I had to look him up, and found that he is famously rambunctious. I felt at times that I was watching a camera-toting Keith Richards, and liked finding out that he has called himself the Keith Richards of cinematographers. Like I say, I can't believe it took me this long to learn about him as a person.
There are things I don't think I quite get, given I am coming to Parts Unknown cold. It was a bit creepy knowing this was the last episode shown before he died. It was also creepy knowing Asia Argento directed it, given her own recent problems. I guess I'm lucky I found it, since apparently CNN removed her episodes from their streaming site.
I often think, when watching food or travel shows, that I wish I was adventurous. I don't like to travel to unfamiliar places, and my taste in food is notoriously narrow. Seeing Bourdain wandering around HK and eating any damn thing they put in front of him reminds me of how limited I am.
I admit, this didn't make me want to immediately watch more of the episodes of the show, but it did make me want to watch In the Mood for Love yet again. That film was #38 on my Fifty Favorites list of a few years ago. At the time, I wrote:
In the Mood for Love is a perfect title for this movie. The two main characters are most definitely in the mood; they also don't ever get beyond being in the mood. Repressed emotions have rarely been so charged as they are here. While on one level, "nothing really happens," Wong Kar-wai does a great job of making us anticipate what is about to happen. Of course, our expectations go unfulfilled.
This time around, I think I better appreciated why some people wouldn't love the film as much as I do. The haunting waltz that is played throughout the film might simply seem repetitious, and those unfulfilled expectations might just be irritating. Not for me, I must add. As beautiful as the film is to look at, it takes an extra leap because of its stars. As I once said, "The plot, whereby a man and woman discover that their respective spouses are having an affair, isn’t particularly far-fetched. But they are played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Maggie Cheung, two of the best-looking actors in the world, and you can’t help wondering why anyone lucky enough to be married to them would have a roving eye." Ultimately, I'm not sure In the Mood for Love felt different when seen partly through the filter of the Bourdain show. But the two make a perfect, if tragic, pairing.
Here is an interesting video essay on the movie from "Nerdwriter1":
Diamonds Are Forever (Guy Hamilton, 1971). This was the 7th film in the Bond canon, and the last with Sean Connery until his return in the non-canon Never Say Never Again. It followed the only George Lazenby Bond, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, which had everything except a good actor playing 007. Connery returns to the worst of his first six ... it's not up to From Russia with Love or Goldfinger ... heck, it's not up to You Only Live Twice. Jill St. John is a decent Bond Girl, there are a couple of goofy bad guy partnerships, and Jimmy Dean plays Howard Hughes. But it's nothing you haven't seen before, if you'd watched the ones that came before it.
The Brink (Jonathan Li, 2017). We saw this at an HK festival ... it came out in Asia last year, but is only now showing up in the U.S.. It's Li's first turn as a director, and he is brutally efficient. The fight scenes are well-choreographed, and the two leads, Jin Zhang and Shawn Yue, were charismatic. But the plot existed mainly for the fight scenes ... there was none of the over-the-top "heroic bloodshed" of HK gangster movies in the past. It's a good movie that doesn't give you any real reason to watch it. Like Diamonds Are Forever, it's nothing you haven't seen before, if you watched the ones that came before it.
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 15. So I’ve included links to my comments on those movies.”
8: 13th 20th Century Women Andrei Rublev The Dreamers Fat Girl Girlfriends Hail, Caesar! The Handmaiden Hell or High Water The Host I Walked with a Zombie Journey to Italy Klute Lady Bird Melancholia Okja Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid Persepolis Real Women Have Curves The Southerner Terminator 2 Them! Three To Walk Invisible Train to Busan Vengeance
7: 10 Cloverfield Lane 2 Days in Paris The Amazing Mr. X Bad Kids The Bare-Footed Kid Bedlam The Black Cat Blade Runner Doctor Strange Don't Breathe Drug War The Fly The Happiness of the Katakuris Gimme Shelter High Noon Ip Man 2 Jesse James Johnny Guitar Lifeline The Lobster Love Actually Marshall My Night at Maud's The Panic in Needle Park A Place in the Sun Punch-Drunk Love Road to Morocco The Set-Up Some Came Running Spielberg Stalag 17 Stalker The Thing To Catch a Thief Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives The Unknown Village of the Damned Wanda Wonder Woman
6: The Best Offer Biker Boyz Colossal Youth Cop Car Genocide Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Guess Who's Coming to Dinner The Haunted Strangler In the Heart of the Sea The Intervention Jesus' Son The Mad Monk The Maltese Falcon (1931) The Mirror Rudderless Shoot 'Em Up The Time Travelers The Vampire Lovers
5: Return of the Fly A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop Zabriskie Point
4: Anything Goes The Ghost Galleon The Screaming Skull