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!

a town called panic (stéphane aubier, vincent patar, 2009)

Another movie for "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." Week 33 is called "Current Host Week".

Well, friends, we've reached the end of our journey, and what better way to end it off then with a little self indulgence. I was hesitant to do a list of this nature last year as I hadn't felt I'd earned it and I didn't even have a list like this made. But this year, I think I'm ready. So, take a look at the films that personally drive my love for the medium, and enjoy the final week of the challenge. To everyone who made it this far, thank you for participating, as I really couldn't do it without you all. Have a great summer, and I'll see you next Season!

This week's challenge is to watch a film from my I Like These Ones list.

A Town Called Panic is a fun and silly stop-motion animated film from Belgium. It's narrative defies logic, but in a good way ... you never know what will happen next, only that it will be absurd. It's not chaotic ... you could make a timeline of what you see ... but the connections are dreamlike. Once you quit worrying about it making sense, A Town Called Panic is a delight.

It helps if you don't mind a movie with characters named Horse, Cowboy, Indian, Policeman, Mailman, and the like. The characters are "played" by toy-like figurines, and everything is treated as if it were normal, which I suppose it is in their world. Aubier and Patar aren't looking for the emotional tug of the Toy Story franchise ... they're just having fun.

The movie lasts 75 minutes, and it actually seems a bit long. The looniness can be overwhelming. But, as Roger Ebert wrote, "Because the plot is just one doggoned thing after another without the slightest logic, there's no need to watch it all the way through at one sitting. If you watch it a chapter or two at a time, it should hold up nicely." It's the kind of movie an adult and a kid can watch and enjoy together. And there's even a character named Steven! #964 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

empire of the sun (steven spielberg, 1987)

Another movie for "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." Week 20 is called "Alternate Oscars Week".

The past couple years, the week before the Oscars has been saved as a Best Picture nominee category for that year's awards. But following last year's supreme blunder of a Best Picture winner, I say we skip the normal category (at least for this year) and check out some films that should've won instead. According to Danny Peary, of course, who suggests that the Academy usually gets it wrong anyway.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from Danny Peary's Alternate Oscars: Best Picture list.

This was a bit tricky. When Week 20 came around, I couldn't find anything from Peary's list that I hadn't seen and was available for streaming. So I watched The Beast of Yucca Flats, which was my Week 32 pick, and at the time I thought I'd be in Spain by then and wouldn't be able to watch it on schedule. Whatever ... it's confusing, but it explains why I'm watching the Week 20 movie on Week 32.

I am a fan of Steven Spielberg's. I think I've seen more movies directed by him than by any other director, and I liked most of them. Four are canonical for me (Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T.), a couple of others come close (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Schindler's List), and many more I would watch again in a second (especially Minority Report). Only Hook was a stinker; for the most part, I find Spielberg reliable, and not just in a good-but-not-great way, because more than once he has given us greatness.

For me, Empire of the Sun is in the middle. There are some great moments ... face it, Spielberg specializes in Great Moments ... and Christian Bale, 13 years old and at the beginning of his career, is tremendous. As I have often said, when we see a great performance by a child, at least some credit needs to go to the director for eliciting that performance. (It's fine to say Bale turned out to be a great actor, but he was an unknown at the time of this movie.) Still, the film felt long (it is long, at 153 minutes, and I felt every one of those minutes). I'm not sure what could have been cut ... the various segments were all important, and the length gave the movie the feel of an epic ... there were multiple "almost endings" that were a bit much, but I may be nitpicking.

The thing is, I was aware when Spielberg was going for one of his Great Moments, but I wasn't awed by them the way I was in, for instance, Close Encounters. Despite its epic nature, Empire of the Sun is essentially a coming-of-age story that takes place in a notable historical period. I don't know how Spielberg could have done better ... trying to combine the intimate story of a boy becoming a man with World War II isn't easy.

Cinematographer Allen Daviau got a well-deserved Oscar nomination for his work here (Daviau sadly died just a few days ago). Everything in the movie is professional at the highest level. But the one thing that makes it stand out is Christian Bale.

This is almost a brilliant scene. The Americans have finally come to save the day, and Bale's character, Jim, who loves airplanes, is overcome with joy. It's beautifully shot, and Bale delivers. It is peak Spielberg. But then here comes the inevitable John Williams score, and while it is meant to reflect the grand emotions of the moment, it's just piling on. Spielberg couldn't resist.

germany year zero (roberto rossellini, 1948)

Another movie for "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." Week 30 is called "Martin Scorsese Week".

One of America's most well known and celebrated film makers, Martin Scorsese made a name for himself with landmark films of the New America film wave, such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and continues to inspire through his films today. Here, we have a list of films that Scorsese considers imperative to watch for anyone learning the art form.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from Martin Scorsese's Film School.

Germany Year Zero is the third film in an unofficial trilogy from Rossellini (following Rome, Open City and Paisan). The Germany of this film is a post-war disaster area, with bombed-out buildings and people desperate for basics like food and water. There is a neo-realist feel to much of the film, as is to be expected, but Rossellini also gives us sequences that are almost flights of fantasy in comparison to what the genre usually offers. The scenes showing the blasted lives of Germans after the war are indeed realistic. The women prostitute themselves for money, while the men and children work the black market. In one scene, a horse lies dead in the street, surrounded by people cutting it open and stealing the meat. Many of the ex-Nazis hide their previous lives, but among themselves they feel a bit more free to remember.

A young boy, Edmund, tries to do well for his family, selling things, stealing potatoes, whatever it takes, but his efforts are not enough for the family, which includes a sick father and two older siblings. They only have three ration cards because the older brother, a committed Nazi who fought to the end, is afraid to turn himself in for his own card. The boy watches all of this, and is clearly suffering from the reality of their lives. He meets up with an old school teacher who makes sexual advances and gives Edmund tasks, from which the boy gets a pittance to take home.

Germany Year Zero is dark and oppressive. Edmund comes up with a plan to kill his father so there will be one less mouth to feed. He listens to his old Nazi teacher talk about survival of the fittest, while his father says he wishes he were dead. When Edmund poisons his father, he thinks he is doing a good thing. Such is the world of Germany Year Zero that we understand what leads Edmund to his actions, even as we condemn him for what he has done.

The final segment of the film has Edmund wandering the streets of Berlin. He sees nothing to make him think the world is or ever will be a good place, and makes a decision that is emphatically final.

One imagines Buñuel using surrealism to show us this world, but Rossellini treats it, not as surreal, but as all too real. With hindsight, we know that Germany recovered, but in 1948, Rossellini saw only destruction and despair. #232 on the They Shoot Pictures Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

we still kill the old way (elio petri, 1967)

Another movie for "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." Week 29 is called "Poliziotteschi Week".

From Wikipedia:

"Poliziotteschi [films] constitute a subgenre of crime and action films that emerged in Italy in the late 1960s and reached the height of their popularity in the 1970s. They are also known as Italo-crime, Euro-crime, poliziesco, spaghetti crime films, or simply Italian crime films. Influenced by both 1970s French crime films and gritty 1960s and 1970s American cop films and vigilante films, poliziotteschi films were made amidst an atmosphere of socio-political turmoil in Italy and increasing Italian crime rates. The films generally featured graphic and brutal violence, organized crime, car chases, vigilantism, heists, gunfights, and corruption up to the highest levels. The protagonists were generally tough working class loners, willing to act outside a corrupt or overly bureaucratic system."

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Poliziotteschi film.

Here is why the Challenge exists. I had never seen a Poliziotteschi film, even though the above link lists 100 of them. So this was definitely new to me.

I ran into some technical problems with this one. It was hard to find ... it finally turned up on the Epix Channel. The problem there was twofold. First, the aspect ratio was wrong, from the original 1.85:1 to what looked like 1.33:1. Second, it was a dubbed version. The latter didn't seem so bad, considering how many Italian movies use post sync for their films. Nonetheless, it wasn't ideal, and I would like to see it again sometime with a better version.

We Still Kill the Old Way was interesting, in any event. I think I was unfair with the movie, which is a crime film that takes place in Sicily. I kept waiting for it to turn into The Godfather, but it was never intended to be that kind of gangster movie (another reason I might appreciate it more on a second viewing). Also, the movie didn't exactly match the Wikipedia definition of poliziotteschi films ... there wasn't that much violence, and it wasn't graphic, while the main protagonist, far from being a working class loner, was a professor. Still, there was plenty of corruption in We Still Kill the Old Way, a corruption embedded into society.

The professor, played by an excellent Gian Maria Volonté, tries to solve a murder that occurs early in the film. It's a bit like a procedural, except with a professor instead of a cop. He keeps bumping into the dead ends of the corrupt society. His lawyer friend (the prolific Gabriele Ferzetti) seems helpful, but he really isn't, although it's not clear if he is a Bad Guy or just someone who knows how to get along. Irene Papas also stars as a mysterious woman who seems involved in everything and nothing simultaneously.

In fact, the film is fairly vague about the crime at the center of things. By the end of the film, nothing is resolved. We never find out who was really in charge of the murders. We assume the Mafia is involved, mostly because while the Mafia isn't explicitly identified, it's obvious that sinister figures run things. I was going to say shadowy, but they aren't in the shadows ... they operate, quietly, in plain sight. The professor's quest becomes almost existential. It's not just that he can't get to the bottom of the crime, it's that it feels like the entire society is against him, ultimately leaving him by himself with no real support from friends or colleagues.

We Still Kill the Old Way seems better as I look back on it, so for the third time I'll say that it warrants another viewing.

film fatales #80: welcome to me (shira piven, 2014)

Another movie for "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." Week 28 is called "Leigh, Leigh, Leigh, or Leigh Week".

A play off of last year's "Lee, Lee, Lee, or Li" week, I initially struggled to find a fourth Leigh, but then I remembered Vivien Leigh whom I somehow forgot. Obviously these selected people have little in common with each other, but its just something I threw in for fun.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film directed by Mike Leigh or starring Janet Leigh, Jennifer Jason Leigh, or Vivien Leigh.

This was harder than I expected. I originally chose something called Jake Squared, which featured Jennifer Jason Leigh, but after watching the trailer, I decided I really didn't want to see that one. So I went with Welcome to Me, which I had been thinking about watching for some time. It's a bit of a cheat, though ... Jennifer Jason Leigh is in this one, too, but her part is pretty small. (For one of my favorite Leigh films, check out The Anniversary Party.)

Welcome to Me is interesting, but not completely successful. Director Shira Piven, screenwriter Eliot Laurence, and star Kristen Wiig as Alice deserve credit for presenting a bipolar character without resorting to some of the stereotypes we're used to. Wiig is often just a little off (and sometimes, a lot off) ... she doesn't play the part as if she's begging for an Oscar. And the film doesn't make the mistake of making Alice overly lovable, or suggest that bipolar people are somehow "better" than the rest of us, even as they suffer. (I'm cheating a bit using the word "us" ... I, too, am bipolar, although I'm "II" and Alice is clearly Type I.) Alice is troubled, but she is also so self-absorbed that she is practically clueless about the possible problems of others.

But the film doesn't really go anywhere. Alice makes some marginal changes, but not enough to wake the movie up. It is funny at times (it's Kristen Wiig, after all), although you get the feeling they were trying for farce and not getting there. It is extremely sad at times ... in this way, Welcome to Me is rather bipolar itself. But despite the best efforts of all concerned, there are times when we are laughing at Alice as much as we are suffering for her.

All of this makes Welcome to Me an uncomfortable film to watch, and really, that's a good thing ... this isn't a run-of-the-mill movie about a crazy person. But the discomfort comes in part from the feeling that the material is moving beyond the grasp of the intentions of Pivan and crew.

Kristen Wiig is very good, and plenty of good names turn up, especially Linda Cardellini as Alice's best friend. Welcome to Me is OK, but that's as far as I'd go.

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

sisters of the gion (kenji mizoguchi, 1936)

Another movie for "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." Week 27 is called "Kinema Junpo Week".

Kinema Junpo is Japan's oldest and premiere cinema magazine. Once a decade they poll Japanese critics to name the best Japanese films of all time. 2009 was their biggest poll yet, with just short of 200 films listed. Like with the 1,001 Films... list, there may be a new version of this list after the publication of this Season Challenge, and if so, you are free to choose a film from either the 2009 version or the 2019 version.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from Kinema Junpo’s Greatest Japanese Films list.

This is my third Mizoguchi film (after Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff), which is not enough for me to have any useful opinions about his work as a whole. I came to Sisters of the Gion cold ... among other things, I didn't know what the title meant. (Gion is a famous geisha district in Kyoto, although I don't know how it might have been different in 1936, when the film was not only made but when it takes place.) The movie is indeed about two geisha sisters. One of the primary themes is generational; the older sister, Umekichi, has more traditional views about the role of the geisha, while the younger, Omocha, resists traditions. Mizoguchi doesn't choose sides, but Omocha does appear to have more control of her life, and her role in the film is the more active of the two. Umekichi is reactive, responding to things as they happen, while Omocha makes those things happen, often to benefit Umekichi (Omocha is always out for herself, as well). I don't know if it's a cultural thing, but I liked Omocha more than I liked her sister. As I say, though, Mizoguchi isn't choosing sides ... neither sister is able to escape their place in society.

If Mizoguchi takes a side, it's against the exploitation of women inherent in the system. Omocha rebels against that system; she also pays a bigger price than her sister in the end.

Isuzu Yamada plays Omocha. She was only 19 when the film was made, but she had already been in movies for six years. She was in several Kurosawa films I have seen, though admittedly I don't remember her. Yôko Umemura (Umekichi) was already in her 30s and had been in movies since the early-20s, although again, I haven't seen them. Both do good jobs here, but it's hard from the perspective of the U.S. in 2020 to ascertain just how good.

It's hard to find clips of Sisters of the Gion ... this video from YouTube claims to be a trailer, but it's actually the beginning of the movie, when a once-thriving businessman sits while his belongings are auctioned off. The clip is a nice example of Mizoguchi's love of long takes.

african-american directors series: fear of a black hat (rusty cundieff, 1993)

Another movie for "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." Week 26 is called "Rock It or Mock It Week".

"Oh yeah, well, I'll make my own documentary, with rock music and comedy! In fact, forget the documentary!"

-Bender Bending Rodriguez, probably.
(That's right, another Futurama reference, I can't be stopped.)

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen rockumentary or mockumentary film.

Fear of a Black Hat has two movie reference points. This Is Spinal Tap established the music mockmentary genre, and CB4 (which came out the same year as Black Hat) applied it to rap music. I've always thought Spinal Tap was funnier in concept than in execution, although it has some iconic scenes. It's been a long time since I saw CB4, and all I remember is that it was weak but had one song I found hilarious:

Fear of a Black Hat has more good parodies, some of them fairly subtle. Because of this, I suspect it plays better to fans of early-90s rap, because that's where their targets come from. Does it matter if you know that "I'm Just a Human Being" is inspired by P.M. Dawn? Does anyone still know P.M. Dawn? Here's the Black Hat Version:

When I doo-doo is my shit not brown
It's a universal thing we all flush it down
And when you wipe do you look at the tissue
Most folks do, it ain't even an issue
Hot stuff makes it burn comin out
I bet everyone knows what I'm talkin about
'Cause we are all one race on this planet
We all burp and fart, and that's the way God planned it
So don't act like you're superior
Eat something bad an just like me you'll get diarrhea
'Cause black, white, yellow, red, brown or gold
Our shit all comes from the same little hole
You are just like me
I'm just a human

Like other modern comedies, Fear of a Black Hat is hilarious at its best, dead on arrival at its worst. Kasi Lemmons is in the cast ... she later directed Eve's Bayou.

Here's P.M. Dawn, for comparison purposes:

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

hour of the wolf (ingmar bergman, 1968)

Another movie for "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." Week 25 is called "1,001 Films to Watch Before You Die Week".

Maybe the most well known film reference book widely available for consumer purchase, 1,001 Films to Watch Before You Die is a yearly publication showcasing a selection of 1,001 films with essays and contributions by 70+ film critics. If you're a fan of film, you've most likely come across at least one edition of these books over the years, and maybe even flipped through one at one point or another. Now, the list I've linked uses the 2018 version of the book, and that's the version that will be used for this challenge, but if there's a 2019 version that is released after this Season Challenge is published, you are free to watch a film from that list, even if it didn't appear on the 2018 version.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film from the 2018 edition of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.

Max von Sydow died last week, so I chose one of his movies for this challenge.

David Lynch loved Hour of the Wolf. If you've seen his movies, and you see Hour of the Wolf, you'll understand his feelings. Hour of the Wolf is beautiful to look at (Bergman's usual contributor Sven Nykvist was the cinematographer). It focuses on intense psychological profiles that are rarely concrete, allowing the viewer to interpret what we are seeing both in real time, and when we look back on the film. There is plenty to talk about.

And its meaning are insular. Bergman drew on his own nightmares ... when Max von Sydow's artist Johan has terrifying visions, they have at times direct connections to things Bergman has experienced. This gives them that inscrutable, uneasy terror of the worst nightmares. They don't have to "mean" anything. But it feels like Bergman knows what they "mean".

Liv Ullmann, who is the best thing about the movie, said "she had little understanding of the subject matter during production, but recognized Bergman's traits in von Sydow's character." She knew Bergman intimately. The audience does not, so we can't really recognize Bergman, other than knowing Johan "is" Bergman.

So Hour of the Wolf becomes an example of Your Mileage May Vary. I found it intriguing, it was never boring, Liv Ullmann was excellent, and it was over in an hour-and-a-half. If it matches your taste preferences, you might agree that it has earned its spot at #485 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. For me, it does not reach the heights of The Seventh Seal (another Bergman/von Sydow collaboration).

Here is one of the best scenes in the movie. This is not the best print ... don't judge Sven Nykvist!

where is the friend's house (abbas kiarostami, 1987)

Another movie for "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." This is out of order. Week 24 is called "Masters of the (Middle) East Week".

Twisting the rules of this one as well, as we usually showcase East Asian filmmakers here, but this time around, we're taking a trip to the Middle East. Specifically, we're going to take a look at two modern Iranian filmmakers, both of whom create challenging and critically acclaimed cinema.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film directed by either Abbas Kiarostami or Asghar Farhadi.

This was an odd one. I could have sworn I'd seen it before. Being obsessive/compulsive, I have a variety of methods for keeping track of what I've seen, most obviously by writing about the movies here on this blog. Well, I've never before written about Where Is the Friend's House?, I've never marked it as watched on any sites, so I decided maybe I hadn't seen it, and I thus chose it for my movie for this week's Challenge. Having watched it, I feel certain I did indeed see it before.

I loved Kiarostami's Close-Up, perhaps the most meta film of all time. I've also seen Certified Copy, which I liked without finding it a classic. But I was frustrated by Where Is the Friend's House?, and it didn't really help that I think Kiarostami wanted that reaction. The story is of a young boy who accidentally takes home the school notebook of a classmate. It is established that the classmate will be expelled if he doesn't come to class with his notebook and his homework. So the young boy decides he must take the notebook to the classmate. But he doesn't know where the friend lives, and when he tries to explain to his mother that he needs to return the notebook, she tells him to do his homework, watch the baby, get bread at the story, basically everything except return the notebook. The boy struggles to express the importance of his mission, and he is frustrated that none of the adults are actually listening to him. He sneaks off, walking from one small town to another, trying to find the friend's house.

It's not an easy trip, because he keeps running into adults who won't listen to him or understand him. Babek Ahmed Poor, an amateur who plays the boy, does a great job of showing frustration. In fact, it's almost too great a job ... I shared his frustration, but not only did I think the adults were too dismissive, I wanted to strangle the tyke for his persistence in bugging everyone. Kiarostami wants us to understand the boy's frustration, and we do, but added to that is my frustration with the boy, which I doubt is what Kiarostami wants us to feel.

Still, my reservations are clearly my own, and your mileage may vary. I'd say I'll watch it again sometime to see if I react differently, except I think this was the "again". #294 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.