Saturday, May 08, 2021

RETURN TO MOVIE FOREVER: SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE PANDEMIC, plus GODZILLA VS. KONG

 


So we went to the movies last Sunday night. 422 days previous, to celebrate Emma’s 20th birthday, we saw our last movie in a theater. And on Sunday night, May 2, the longest drought of theatrical moviegoing I’ve ever been through came to an end with a made-to-order experience for Daddy and child. Back in August 2010, I took my daughter Emma to see Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. They were only 10, and I kinda expected that my wife might not appreciate them seeing a PG-13 picture like this, so we snuck away and didn’t tell Mom where we were going or what we were seeing. I remember the presentation in the cracker box cinema where we saw it being pretty shoddy, but we had a good time together and the movie, once it came out on Blu-ray, became a real touchstone movie for Emma, who has probably seen it ten times since then. I’ve seen it a few times since then too, but other than the time spent together watching it, SPVTW never meant as much to me as it did to my kid.


Until Sunday night, that is. When I bought our tickets I thought, I know Emma would love to see this, but do I really want this movie to be the first one I’ve seen on the big screen in over a year? Turns out it couldn’t have been a better choice, in terms of sheer awesome-itude of the snazzy presentation— the movie has been retooled, in honor of its 10th anniversary, specifically for Dolby Vision-Dolby Atmos Sound theaters, for maximum audio-visual impact— and, of course, as a super-platinum upgrade on our original surreptitious movie outing 10+ years ago. Naturally, we were just excited to be there, but I think I may have underrated just how high the level of anticipation for both of us really was. Just prior to unspooling a bunch of trailers that, whether or not the films themselves turn out to be any good, got us excited at just the prospect of a possible future that included going to the movies, a big ad for the theater chain came on that said simply, “AMC says welcome back to the movies!” And yeah, I got pretty choked up and shed a tear or two over that message because here we were, doing something that this time last year I seriously thought we might not ever do again.


And I also undersold to myself just what being in an audience who was taking social distancing protocols seriously would mean, gathered together to enjoy a movie together with other people, to hear everyone responding, engaged, laughing, having what felt like a special experience, one in which seeing a movie in public was truly appreciated, a activity no longer taken for granted, which felt like a privilege as much as entertainment. Surely I have never enjoyed or appreciated Scott Pilgrim vs. the World as much as I did tonight— it’s as much fun as I can imagine having with a movie populated almost entirely by people I would probably actively avoid in real life. (Except maybe Knives Chau!) And it’s probably the most eye-popping explosion of director Edgar Wright’s visual imagination, in service to expressing both the worldview of the graphic novel’s definitive, indulgent generational satire/wish fulfillment and the experience of what might be going on in the jittery, self-obsessed mind of the novel’s ideal reader. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is an exhausting, hilarious, annoying, exuberant picture, and I can even forgive its outburst of directorial confidence for probably having led directly to the markedly inferior Baby Driver.


I’m so happy that my now-21-year-old offspring still wants to go see movies with Dad, and that said offspring is so aware and sympathetic to how much that experience means to the old man. That we seem to be on the cusp of making it a more regular experience again has filled me with a certain hope that maybe some semblance of normal might be waiting just around the corner. And when we do resume this glorious habit, maybe we won’t take it so much for granted any longer. It was a thrill to be at the movies with Emma tonight. Tomorrow, we’re headed back for our second helping of Godzilla vs. Kong. And then who knows? If our beloved Vista Theater in east Hollywood reopens, there really will be a celebration.



And while we’re at it, I might as well admit that I loved Godzilla vs. Kong. My two daughters and I had a great time with it, even if it was only on HBO Max— we turned it up loud, laughing and shouting and screaming in all the right places. The damn thing must have taken a nation’s worth of craftsmen and artists to compose, but it lumbers not— in light of the four-hour Justice League especially, this is as fleet of foot and spirit as you could hope for in a movie about giant beasts asserting their essential (but not necessarily hostile-to-mankind) beastliness and laying waste to their surroundings, including a surreally gorgeous nighttime Hong Kong that’s neon-lit for maximum eye-popping monster fun. But the highlight for me was the mind-and-perspective boggling landscape of Hollow Earth, revealed when our human heroes travel beneath the surface to find out where the ancestors and cohabitants of Kong and Godzilla have been calling home for centuries. It’s a truly spectacular vision of a hidden world within our own that itself warrants at least a couple more viewings to be even close to fully taken in.


Critic Matt Zoller Seitz is being summarily roasted in the comments following his review at RogerEbert.com for having the audacity to give this movie a four-star rating, as if he were only full-tilt slobbering over it like a Christopher Nolan fanboy. The difference being, of course, that Seitz knows that GVK is, at its heart and on its face, an undeniably silly concept, but one which he chooses to approach with good humor and more than the occasional nod to that silliness while taking entirely seriously the art and craft of the show and his own response to it. (The Nolanoids play an entirely different, poker-faced game of you either love it or deserve to die.) If you love cinema as an art form, you’re supposed to reflexively shun a big, loud, commercial piece of work like Godzilla vs. Kong, but whether or not you think he’s lost his mind (as most of those commenters where his review is posted clearly do), Seitz’s response is not cynical in the least; I read the review after I saw the movie, and now I’m all the more glad for his sincerity. The big boys (plus a surprise guest) are worth that second helping coming up tomorrow, this time on the big screen. And Hollow Earth awaits as well.


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ROBERT ALTMAN'S KANSAS CITY (1996)


Robert Altman’s Kansas City (1996) has the 1934 milieu of the Midwest hub down pat, from the eye-popping production design and costuming, to the corrupt political machinations of the time (emanating from the influence of boss Tom Pendergast and a host of other shadowy operatives silently empowered by the Roosevelt administration), to the city’s fascinating musical culture, which functions as a navigational device through the film’s landscape, especially in terms of race, seeping into the film’s cracks and crevices, almost defiantly, willfully holding it together.

At the center of all this is the magnetic performance of Harry Belafonte as Seldom Seen, the gangster/entrepreneur who runs his part of KC from the back room of the Hey Hey Club, where the plot strands of the film gather to entangle and get more entangled. Seldom Seen is as much of an entertainer as the great jazz musicians gathered on his stage for an ebullient playoff contest, and he knows it— he can’t seem to stop himself from regaling stories and bleak jokes as part of his process of rule by intimidation, his genial manner never far from the flicker, and then the full emergence of menace. And Belafonte navigates his near-presidential presence with the sort of agility that is truly worthy of awe— his manner is observably informed by the truth of the times without ever becoming obvious or mannered, and you can’t, nor would you want to take your eyes off of him when he’s doing his thing.

The problem with Kansas City is that Belafonte’s story is not at the forefront. He’s essentially the impetus behind the film’s primary focus, a melodrama kicked into gear when Seldom Seen foils an attempted robbery of one of his money shipments and holds one of the would-be robbers, a Caucasian in blackface by the name of Johnny O’Hara (Dermot Mulroney) for tortures yet to be revealed. (Seldom dispatches the other, a Black man, with a brutal reckoning in an alley.) When she gets wind of Johnny’s predicament, his wife, a delusional cosmetics counter worker named Blondie (Jennifer Jason Leigh), concocts a scheme to leverage Johnny’s release by kidnapping the wife of a powerful local politician, who has ties to Pendergast and Roosevelt, in an attempt to blackmail him into using his connections to help free her two-bit criminal husband.

As the kidnapping victim, Miranda Richardson starts off playing up the most obvious notes of her troubled character, a woman who has sunk into an opium haze as a way of dealing with the humiliations and neglect dealt to her by her ambitious and often absent husband, essayed with typically cool emotional brutality by Altman favorite Michael Murphy. But Richardson’s characterization becomes warmer—she avoids the pitfalls of an absence of audience sympathy by her ability to orchestrate levels of humanity and sympathy which begin to work their way up through the drug-induced fog as she is forced to spend more and more time observing another form of fragility in the personage of her abductor, whose own relationship to reality is tenuous at best.

The movie’s central conceit is how the kidnapping story reflects the sorts of political machinations and racial stratification that spur on life in Altman’s beloved hometown just after the turn of the century, but if that story is going to function as part of the sort of mosaic Altman could typically conjure, then it has to hold its own against the seamy underworld of Seldom Seen,  the Hey Hey Club, and the commentary on the inequity of structures and everyday life between Black and white. Altman and co-scenarist Frank Barhydt structure Kansas City to flirt with bringing some of these elements into sharp relief— a home for “wayward” women figures into its third act, populated mostly by African American tenants, and a substory involving a young Black musician who befriends a girl who takes up residence in the home—but those elements never find their focus. And despite the details of both the political world and the world of Seldom and the club being easily the more fascinating and potentially rewarding in dramatic terms, they ultimately serve only as background for a story which is itself undermined by the oddly stylized performance of Jennifer Jason Leigh as Blondie, who keeps blunting our empathy regarding her increasing desperation and her slippery grasp on sanity with her own brand of acting histrionics.

Blondie sees herself as a Jean Harlow wannabe, and Leigh chooses to go whole-hog with that fantasy. She plays the character, presumably with the director’s assent, not in the style of realism which the rest of the movie indulges, but as if she really were in one of those rat-a-tat pre-Code pictures she frequents during her copious time off from her department store job. Leigh’s immersion in this sort of stylistic affectation isn’t exactly unprecedented—she took a lot of heat when she essentially conjured Katharine Hepburn for the Coen Brothers’ wild ‘40s-era comedy The Hudsucker Proxy two years earlier, in 1994. But the Coens’ picture, in its overheated approach, matched Leigh’s style syllable for rapid-fire syllable—what she did there was an integrated piece within that movie’s overall energy. In Kansas City, her commitment to the idea of Blondie’s delusions sets her adrift in Altman’s meticulously crafted milieu—she stands out, but not in a way that serves the material, or even her own story. She plays Blondie with such lunatic determination that it seems like she barely unclenches her jaw for the entirety of the picture. The way Leigh plays her, Blondie seems, in contrast to those around her, borderline insane, yet her behavior is never noted as anything particularly strange or hostile-- her pals process her as quirky, unpredictable, and the audience is asked to process her movie-star delusions as just another facet of the ambered past Altman conjures, which is what the conceit of the character is surely meant to convey. But Leigh can only bring attention to her actorly tics, and the performance never gels as anything beyond a curiosity, a misstep, and her story never meshes with the other parts of Kansas City in the way it surely should have.

If you haven’t seen it in a while, there’s a great deal of pleasure to be had from revisiting the gorgeous Arrow Blu-ray of Kansas City. The movie has probably never looked better, and it features a typically droll and informative Altman commentary, presumably ported over from an earlier home video release, as well as enjoyable appreciations by critics Geoff Andrew and Luc Lagier. Unfortunately, Arrow was not able to secure the one element that would have made their Kansas City package one for the ages—missing is Robert Altman’s Jazz ’34, the documentary Altman filmed for the PBS Great Performances series as an accompaniment to Kansas City which focuses entirely on the musical performances from Joshua Redman, Ron Carter and others which keep the Hey Hey Club hopping. These performances serve as the glue which binds Altman’s vision together, yet they blaze, gloriously, in this documentary on their own. On its own, Altman’s feature drama falls short of being the sort of late-period masterwork the director seemed to be able to summon at will so often during his career. But even so, on the wings of its music, these musicians, the riveting presence of a now 94-year-old star who owned the screen like never before in this picture, and yes, on the guidance of its director’s innovation and method of societal inquiry, there are moments when Kansas City, as wedded to the ground as it sometimes seems, still soars.

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Sunday, April 25, 2021

THE FATHER (2020) + OSCAR PREDIX



The Father (2020) begins with classical music on the soundtrack and glimpses into a quiet, spacious, generously decorated flat occupied by a man (Anthony Hopkins) who has the carriage of one who prefers his moments alone. Right away, his daughter (Olivia Colman) comes to visit and, despite the film's tasteful trappings and cool, confident visual style, the ground beneath the feet of the viewer (to say nothing of the characters) begins loosening, shifting, becoming less reliable, ever more so mapping the tenuous connection to the reality that the man is apparently holding onto, the degree to which he is increasingly, against his dwindling will, ever more alone . The writer-director Florian Zeller (adapting his own play) seems to have an instinctive feel for how the camera can be used to both provide a foundation for and to undermine that reality, yet as the depths of Hopkins' character's condition becomes clear-- he's suffering from Alzheimer's disease-- Zeller also demonstrates how democratic his sympathies are. In fact, rather than just telling the story of how difficult the awful slide into dementia is for those whose responsibility it is to care for the one suffering, Zeller, and Hopkins, keep us connected with the disorientation, the strange euphoria that turns on a dime into hostility, loss of pride, confusion and desperation which characterizes the common experience of losing one's mental capacities.

What you've undoubtedly heard about Hopkins-- that this is a career-best performance minus even the slightest whiff of untoward ostentation or sentimental pandering-- can be said of the rest of the cast too, from Rufus Sewell and Mark Gatiss as, respectively, Colman's husband and a man who claims to be the same (though we remain as unsure of his actual identity as Hopkins for the bulk of the film's lean 97-minute running time); to Olivia Williams and Imogen Poots as the women who are in various capacities charged with Hopkins' care; and especially Colman, who probably has the most expressive, inviting, empathetic face in movies right now. Colman draws you in with her agonized loyalty to a father who can't seem to keep straight who she is or what she's telling him, but she also effortlessly connects with her character's varied layers of anger, guilt and even the slight spark of joy that comes in those increasingly rare moments when she seems, if only momentarily, to make a connection with the father she loves, the father she wants to escape, the father who is helplessly slipping away. The Father forces a confrontation with a horror that many viewers may already be familiar with, one which for some of us might well be lurking in the shadows of family history. But it is the actor's art, the ability of Hopkins and Colman to convey the tiptoe terror of confronting such darkness without ever strangulating the audience with signifiers and histrionics, that prevents the movie from becoming an unbearable, unpleasant wallow. It's not likely to happen, but it wouldn't hurt my feelings one bit to see either or both of them take home another little gold man a few hours from now. ******************************************

Before I go, a revised look at my best-of for the past year, now that I've seen a few more contenders:

FIRST COW
COLLECTIVE
EMMA.
LOVERS ROCK
AMERICAN UTOPIA
ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI
MINARI
ZAPPA
THE FATHER
DA 5 BLOODS
And my don't-bet-the-house Oscar predictions too! What follows is a list of the nominees I think will win, followed by my preferences in (parentheses). And remember, I'm no fan of NOMADLAND, PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN or MANK...
PICTURE: NOMADLAND (MINARI)
DIRECTOR: Chloe Zhao (Lee Isaac Chung)
ACTRESS: Carey Mulligan (Viola Davis)
ACTOR: Chadwick Boseman (Anthony Hopkins)
SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Yuh-jung Youn (Yuh-jung Youn)
SUPPORTING ACTOR: Lakeith Stanfield (Paul Raci)
ANIMATED FEATURE: SOUL (no preference-- I ain't seen none)
ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI (THE FATHER)
ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 (MINARI)
SONG: ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI (ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI, I guess...)
SCORE: SOUL (DA 5 BLOODS)
SOUND: SOUND OF METAL (SOUND OF METAL)
COSTUME DESIGN: MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM (EMMA.)
ANIMATED SHORT: BURROW (no preference)
LIVE-ACTION SHORT: THE LETTER ROOM (no preference)
CINEMATOGRAPHY: NOMADLAND (THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7)
DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: TIME (COLLECTIVE)
DOCUMENTARY SHORT: HUNGER WARD (no preference)
EDITING: PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN (THE FATHER)
INTERNATIONAL FEATURE: COLLECTIVE (COLLECTIVE)
MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING: MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM (EMMA.)
PRODUCTION DESIGN: MA RAINEY'S BLACK BOTTOM (THE FATHER)
VISUAL EFFECTS: TENET (LOVE AND MONSTERS) ***********************************

Monday, January 18, 2021

THE THEATER OF THE EVERYDAY: DAGUERRÉOTYPES, CAR WASH, LARCENY INC.


It’s weird how disparate movies can come together in your experience without any preconceived design. I certainly didn’t approach my long holiday weekend’s schedule of film viewing with the intent of curating on a theme, but as I was drifting off to sleep last night I realized that there had been something going on that I didn’t intend or expect. From Friday through Sunday, I took in Michael Schultz’s Car Wash (1976), which I have seen countless times since spending three nights in a row with it at my hometown drive-in back in the summer of 1977, and two other movies that were new to me-- Agnès Varda’s documentary Daguerréotypes (also from 1976), and Larceny Inc. (1942), a Warner Bros. gangster comedy starring Edward G. Robinson, Broderick Crawford, Anthony Quinn and Jane Wyman, directed by Lloyd Bacon—and you could be forgiven if you thought there couldn’t be three more different movies gathered together in one Blu-ray player. But there is connective tissue here. As I watched Car Wash, a shaggy, musically tuned ensemble comedy conceived in the shadow of Robert Altman’s Nashville, and then Daguerréotypes, Varda’s superb portrait of shop-owners occupying her neighborhood along the Rue Daguerre in Paris, I realized that both films represented a type of film storytelling that, as I began really growing as a filmgoer around age 16, I realized I responded to much more personally, intuitively, than a lot of the other types of films I had ravenously consumed and appreciated and enjoyed as a kid.

I’d seen Nashville a year before I saw Car Wash, when it played at my hometown theater sometime in 1976, and it was not love at first sight. It took me two or three more tries with Altman’s stuffed-to-bursting humanitarian mise-en-scene before I finally responded to what the director was doing, and the movie eventually became the one I would call my favorite for 40-some years and counting. When I saw Car Wash I didn’t instantly recognize it as being influenced by Altman—if I had, I might not have been as open to it—but it clearly was, and I loved the working environment it portrayed, populated by vivid and distinct characters who didn’t love their work so much as they enjoyed hanging out with their coworkers at work, and the way Schultz and music producer Norman Whitfield made the music an integral part of the movie *and* the way these characters approached spending their day washing other people’s cars for a less-than-satisfactory wage, was revelatory to me. The movie not only ended up functioning as my first real introduction to Los Angeles—it was certainly the film that formed my fundamental picture of what the city was, or might be—but it also got under my skin in terms of how I thought I might approach my own stabs at storytelling through script writing and filmmaking.

As a kid, and later in college, I messed around with trying to learn how to use Super 8 to make movies, and with friends, as well as on my own, we came up with a couple of movies that I’m still amazed we had the discipline to see through to their finishes. But as a “writer,” I came up with several scenarios that were clearly influenced by Car Wash’s loose-fitting aesthetic—one revolved around the wacky goings-on at a (wait for it) gas station, and still another followed a group of pals as they made their way around a long weekend at the county fair. (As you may have guessed, my worldview was up to that point still understandably limited.) These ideas weren’t any good, and nothing ever came from them, but looking back now it’s clear that the DNA of Car Wash was embedded in their foundation, and my response to that type of storytelling was key to my ultimate embrace of Altman’s directorial style and my appreciation of the sorts of stories he told over his career. As Nashville became my favorite film, so too Altman eventually became my favorite director, and I don’t think any of that would have happened if I hadn’t first fallen for Car Wash and the affinity it displayed for its working-class milieu and the people in there trying to keep their heads up among the soap and hoses.

Similarly, as I spent my college summers working at sawmill jobs in my hometown, I spent a lot of the hours of monotonous physical labor spinning elaborate plans in my head for documentaries that I’d like to make about some of the people and environments in that hometown. At one time or another I had conceived plans for ostensible documentary projects centered around millwork, the bars that the local populace would gravitate to on the weekends (where a friend and I often sat in with a band, me with my trumpet, he with his sax), and even a film about the history of the local Chinese restaurant and its larger-than-life owner, a Chinese immigrant whose life’s work was making the food of her country palatable and inviting to the rural ranchers and their families who made up a large part of her customer base. Of course, my ambition far outpaced my talent as a filmmaker and even my capabilities technologically—I’m not sure how I ever thought such films, as dependent as they would have had to have been on wild or even dubbed sound, could have ever come together with the meager camera and lighting resources I had at my disposal. But those were merely the facts, and they didn’t factor into my imagining when it came time to think about the kind of movie I would have *liked* to have made.


And as I watched the senstively observed Daguerréotypes, which takes as its subject the shopkeepers – butchers, fragrance specialists, hairdressers, bakers, driving instructors, tailors—who made their living on the Parisian street where its creator lived, I recognized that this film was the realization, this and many others she created in her long career, of exactly the sort of humanist portrayal of work and workers and their milieu, the bustling sidewalks and often cramped spaces in which they toiled and offered their various wares, that I had creatively craved for myself years before I ever even heard of Agnès Varda. In Daguerréotypes, Varda seeks the poetry imbued in the mundane without ever allowing her lens to assume anything like a distanced or precious superiority—these people are her neighbors, and her stance of a craftsman of her own sort permits her the grace to observe, as she does at the sight of a woman opening the doors and windows of her shop, that each morning these people raise the curtain on the theater of the everyday (a phrase that could just as easily describe what happens in Car Wash.) And Varda's camera is there to catch some of that naturally occurring theater in behavior and circumstances that, outside her empathetic perspective, might seem only mundane.

Of course, it’s that interest in what people do to make a living, and how they behave and interact with their chosen communities as they make that living, that is the central interest of both Car Wash and Daguerréotypes, even if their individual approaches and their prospective audiences couldn’t be expected to have much Venn-diagram-esque crossover, one to the other. And both films being rooted in the storefront (or car wash-front) business milieu made them a sort of providential match with Larceny Inc., a fanciful comedy about a group of ex-cons led by Edward G. Robinson who purchase a neighborhood luggage shop which just happens to be next door to a bank—their plan is to, of course, tunnel through the cellar wall of the luggage shop and into the bank vault. But before they know it (we naturally have our suspicions right from the start), these criminal invaders eventually become part of the surrounding community of storeowners they’ve exploited and end up working to protect the bank and the other small businessmen when another ex-con escapes from prison and usurps their subterranean robbery plans. Larceny Inc. is a darn sight less realistic in its portrayal of urban business than Car Wash, which isn’t exactly a Varda documentary itself, but all three share a fundamental respect for those who would try to carve out a living outside the sphere or big business or corporate fealty, and that point of view nicely tied the three films together in a way that I could never expected as I rather randomly assembled them for viewing over this past weekend.

We often speak of the magic of movies, and this sort of unintended alchemy that crackles between seemingly heterogeneous works of art, the way movies of distinctly differing times, origins and artistic sensibilities, can speak to us through their proximity to each other, is the sort of movie magic I increasingly live for. The experience of it is like being touched by an unforeseen intelligence. A really good programmer or curator might notice the threads and be able to assemble an excellent series based on the idea, but when works like Car Wash, Daguerréotypes and Larceny Inc. land next to each other more or less on their own and start speaking to each other, that’s a conversation worth listening to, and one which the movies, when lightning strikes, seem uniquely poised to provide. 


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Sunday, January 03, 2021

2020/BEST OF/END OF



A few days ago, I overheard a coworker on a Zoom call preparing to give 2020 the old heave-ho, and among his list of complaints about the year was that “There were no movies! Only Wonder Woman 1984 qualifies as a movie, and it was great, but there were no other movies this year!” That was certainly not his foremost complaint (thank God for a little perspective, I suppose), but unless your definition of “movies” is limited strictly to the sort of blockbuster fare like WW84 that has clogged theaters for the last 20 or more years, such a complaint registers as, at best, shortsighted. What is true is that the big theater chains which showcase the superhero franchises and other mega-budget action franchises are, for the most part, currently closed in many parts of the country. But if the success of the WW84 release simultaneously in those theaters that are open (including drive-ins) and on HBO Max is any indication, Hollywood will find a way to get these potential blockbusters in front of your eyeballs, even as the industry template for production, distribution and exhibition seems to be necessarily mutating on a weekly basis.

But what is certainly also true is in 2020 that mutating model, and the amplified importance of viewing/streaming at home, has opened up and spotlighted a window of access to sorts of lower-budget, character-driven films that have of late become sublimated to the pursuit of the monster theatrical hit. Documentaries, foreign language films, adult-oriented comedies, dramas and even arthouse fare have found a captive audience in pandemic-restricted home viewers, who seem to be willing to sample content like Small Axe, The Queen’s Gambit, Time, How Do You Mend a Broken Heart?, Minari and countless others at home when they would be hard-pressed to drag themselves out to a theater to see any of the same.

One of the big question marks hanging over the future of movies in America and all over the world is, of course, if and when theaters reopen, will we go back? Or will our viewing habits have been so altered by the necessity of attempting to stay alive and safe and having thousands of options available to revolve around our schedules that the relative hardship of dragging our collective asses back out to theaters for a specific film at a specified screening time will no longer seem worth it?



Well, it has been ten months since I’ve been in a movie theater. Previously, the longest I’d been away from one, at least since I began college, had been a dry stretch of a month back in 1982, and I remember at the time that that gap seemed like a year or more— I so pined for the experience of seeing a movie on the big screen that when I finally made it back I was momentarily overwhelmed and found myself near tears, even though the theater was only a typically under-designed cracker-box multiplex. Here in 2021, i
t’s still hard to accept that resuming this activity is still so far away from being an accessible reality. But I can’t let go of my optimism that one day we’ll be able to return to seeing movies the way we used to.  The undeniable truth is that, before the world changed, being in a movie theater had already become a source of stress long before the distinct possibility of losing one’s life (or at least getting extremely sick) for the chance to see the new James Bond movie. Rude, inconsiderate audiences, incompetent exhibition of the films themselves in multiplexes run by minimum-wage employees, and a host of other annoyances and booby traps have made the home viewing option seem like the far more attractive option for years, and God knows, when audiences do return to theaters, the habit of treating these auditoriums as if they were big screen TVs set up in their homes, where they don’t have to worry about decorum or talking over the picture and disturbing others, or even getting out of their pajamas, isn’t likely to improve. (It could very well get worse.) I’ve thought of theaters as a second home since I was about four years old, when I saw my first movie (Gay Purr-ee, 1964, Marius Theater, Lakeview, Oregon), and though before March 2020 I didn’t get out to one nearly as often as I used to, and though I miss the communal experience of seeing a movie—any movie—on the big screen, when they finally do reopen I know I will hesitate at the prospect of returning until I can be assured the environment has truly been made safe. But I can’t imagine not going back one day, and on that day I will try to rekindle once again the habit of an activity that has, as much as any other, framed the way I’ve lived my life for almost 60 years… unless and until those bozos sitting in front of me once again just won’t shut up and eventually drive me home for good.

With these thoughts in mind, my 12 favorite movies of 2020 were all, with the exception of two, films that I would have rushed to see in a theater but which I just happened to see at home. And without exception they were films that, while I feel sure would have been enhanced by the size of the image and enveloping sound of a really good theatrical experience, were not reduced in their impact by the relatively dinky home theater setup that graces my living room. Here’s that list, one that, given how much I have left to see from the blighted year past, might seem a little more constricted than most, followed by 13 movie viewing experiences from 2020 that, for one reason or another, I’ll never forget.

My Favorite Movie of 2020



First Cow (Kelly Reichardt) For many viewers her movies are intolerably slow, tedious and lacking in dramatic urgency, but after seeing this latest, after previous work like Certain Women, Meek’s Cutoff, Wendy and Lucy and Old Joy (I have yet to see her 2013 Night Moves), I have to rank Kelly Reichardt as one of my favorite directors currently making movies. Reichardt’s tales of ordinary people making their way through life and sometimes history, small-scale visions that reach well past their ordinary realms into specificity which allows both rich observations linked to time and place as well as a pointed universality, are realized with the patience of a documentarian, the tranquil gaze and empathy of a poet, and the assured exhilaration of a filmmaker who is at the top of her game. (These qualities are also a hallmark of another film on my list, Steve McQueen’s Lovers Rock.) In First Cow Reichardt tells a story of friendship, community, and enterprise in mid-19th century Oregon—a baker sets adrift by circumstances meets up with an entrepreneurially minded Chinese immigrant and the two of them create a sensation making fried cakes using milk they surreptitiously pilfer from the titular beast. It’s a winning formula for the fledging businessmen and their customers, until it isn’t. First Cow seduces the viewer with its apparent simplicity— it feels like a lushly photographed kinescope of a time and sensibility too far past now for anything but remotely aestheticized access. Yet the movie is also a work of deep feeling, a lovely melody in a minor-key expressing the song of an emerging America which rings of possibility, but also of dire, inevitable fate.

 

(the rest, in descending order)


Emma. (Autumn de Wilde)



American Utopia (Spike Lee)



Zappa (Alex Winter)



Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen)



Minari (Lee Isaac Chung)



Da 5 Bloods (Spike Lee)



You Should Have Left (David Koepp)



Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (George E. Wolfe)



Bill & Ted Face the Music (Dean Parisot)



The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Aaron Sorkin)



The Old Guard (Gina Prince-Blythwood)




As of January 3, 2021, I still need to see Ammonite, An American Pickle, Bacurau, Bad Hair, The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?, Black Bear, Dick Johnson is Dead, Farewell Amor, Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds, The Forty-Year-Old Version, Freaky, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, The Jesus Rolls, John Lewis: Good Trouble, Mulan, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Nomadland, One Night in Miami, Small Axe: Mangrove, Red White and Blue, Alex Wheatle and Education, Soul, Synchronic, The Trip to Greece, Wander Darkly, The Witches and Wolfwalkers.


My 13 Best Viewing Experiences of 2020

1) One of the most wonderful evenings I've yet spent since the days of quarantine were imposed was with one of my dearest friends, Katie Warrener, back in May. We cobbled together a watch party on Facebook IM, synched up our Blu-rays, pressed play and reveled in Fellini Roma  (1972), bookended with an hour of catch-up conversation before and another hour of excited chatter after. So about four hours total in communion with the only other person I know who reveres this movie as much as I do. Roma serves as a sort of bridge between the self-reflexive fantasias at the heart of 8 ½ and Giuletta Degli Spiriti and the more openly nostalgic biography of Amarcord. It's a fantastically entertaining, exuberantly congestive, inclusive and episodic celebration of Rome's ancient ties, its ghosts of culture and religious ceremony and its messy social rituals. All of these are married to the director's usual rich visual bombast and randy iconoclasm to produce a haunted vision of a city which Gore Vidal, on camera, describes (considering its history of unlikely rebirth and clashing sensibilities) as a perfect place to experience the end of the world. Three or four sequences here rank among the absolute peak of Fellini's imaginative cinema-- a long, cacophonous traffic jam leading into the city which includes among its many varieties of travelers and vehicles Fellini's crew (and the director himself) getting the whole thing down on film; an eerily gorgeous tour underneath the streets which hints at the cavernous secrets the city still holds; a hilarious staging of a vaudeville show held for a raucous, heckling audience on the eve of World War II; and probably the movie's most notorious sequence, a visionary fashion show of Catholic vestmental finery culled from the Church's history and its possible future, attended by a Vatican rogue's gallery of worshipers nostalgic for the trappings of Catholicism's influence in a more "innocent" (read more culturally dominant) age. Fellini's great movie would be exhilarating enough on its own, but seeing it with Katie, even though she’s 2,000 miles away, made it genuinely magnificent. 



2) Taking the three main people in my life, my wife Patty and my two daughters, Emma and Nonie, to see 
Gremlins  (1980) at a drive-in. We made it back out to the outdoor cinemas we’ve always loved several times over the summer, but this is the one where everything coalesced into a magical experience, one which seemed as close to the “normal” we’ve known ever since I introduced all of them to drive-ins in 2005 as we’re likely to get for the foreseeable future.



3) Watching the 1988 cheapo horror thriller 
Necromancer (1988) with my best pal Bruce during a rare get-together, with masks, and after we were both tested for COVID-19, at his house in San Diego. Bruce and I were on the set for this one, guests of the movie’s lovely leading lady, Elizabeth Kaitan (or Cayton, as she’s credited here), and Bruce can actually be seen for about .5 seconds during a party scene we were both on hand for. Hard to believe it took us this long to finally get around to seeing this one. It’s no great shakes, but it’s much better than either of us ever imagined it would be, and it was memorable fun watching it together. Well, they can’t all be Animal House, I suppose…




4) Being dazzled by the Arrow 4K Blu-ray of 
Flash Gordon (1980), and knowing that I had written an essay that was included in the booklet featured inside, a rare honor afforded to me by Arrow Films producer Neil Snowdown. Thanks so much, Neil!



5) 
Ushering out my 50s late at night on August 17 with the splendid madness of Ken Russell’s Lisztomania (1975), one of my favorite movies. When the movie was over, as Liszt ascends to heaven, reunited with all the important women of his life and all borne on a chariot-spaceship shaped like a pipe organ, I was blissed out and suddenly 60 years old.


6) Creating the subtitles for
, part of the Criterion Collection’s gorgeous Essential Fellini boxed set, released to commemorate the great filmmaker’s centennial. This one took me all night, and it was the one and only time I haven’t minded pulling a 22-hour all-nighter to get the job done.



7
Seeing, or rather being absorbed by Francesco Rosi’s Christ Stopped at Eboli for the first time on Criterion’s newly released Blu-ray.



8
Seeing Emma. with Emma for her 20th birthday, 3/6/2020, just before the lockdown—it was the last movie we would see in a movie theater for the foreseeable future (ten months and counting…)



9) Finally seeing Alex Winter’s long-awaited documentary Zappa 
 and accessing it via the virtual screenings link at Salem Cinemas in Salem, Oregon. So, I was able to support this arthouse-in-an-unlikely-place and relax into Winter’s brilliantly assembled, anti-hagiographic story about one of my favorite musicians.


10) 
Taking in Lee Isaac Chung’s delightful and moving
Minari in an entirely unlikely environment, at the Mission Tiki Drive-in during the movie’s week-long Oscar-qualifying run. A really good Asian movie, about 60% of which features English subtitles for the Korean dialogue, running on a screen which might otherwise have been occupied by any number of loud, obnoxious cartoons or action movies I wouldn’t be even slightly interested in seeing? Yeah, I’ll drive 60 miles round trip for that.


11) Seeing American Utopia for the second time, on November 4, 2020, the day after the election, when it still looked like Trump was gonna pull it off. At that moment it seemed like the last thing I wanted to see— wouldn’t the movie’s optimism be too unbearable? But it really cheered my soul, and by the end of the week its optimism felt, if not entirely fulfilled, then at least reasonable, something like a gift, a reason to keep going.



12) Catching up with John Ford’s
Seven Women (1966) and 13) Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart (1971) for the first time, on TCM and on the front porch of my house on my iPad, respectively, and bemoaning the fact that I’d waited so long—too long-- for the privilege. How many more times could I have thrilled to these movies had I not been so slow on the uptake?


FIRST TIME SEEN IN 2020


Hearts of the West (Howard Zieff; 1975)
The Wrath of God (Ralph Nelson; 1972)
The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (Roger Corman; 1967)
Pete Kelly’s Blues (Jack Webb; 1955)
Murder She Said (George Pollock; 1961)
I Wake Up Screaming (H. Bruce Humberstone; 1941)
The Skull (Freddie Francis; 1965)
The Uncanny (Denis Heroux; 1977)
Bullets or Ballots (William Keighley; 1936)
The 13th Chair (George B. Seitz; 1937)
Farewell, My Lovely (Dick Richards; 1975)
The Stalking Moon (Robert Mulligan; 1968)
Cover Me, Babe (Noel Black; 1970)
The Big Doll House (Jack Hill; 1971)
Smarty (Robert Florey; 1934)
Town Bloody Hall (Chris Hegedus, D.A. Pennebaker; 1979)
History is Made at Night (Frank Borzage; 1937)
Sapphire (Basil Dearden; 1959)
Nightfall (Jacques Tourneur; 1956)
Ulysse (Agnès Varda; 1983)
Salut Les Cubains (Agnès Varda; 1964)
Wicked Woman (Russell Rouse; 1953)
Mur Murs (Agnès Varda; 1981)
Uncle Yanco (Agnès Varda; 1967)
Suddenly (Lewis Allen; 1954)
Black Panthers (Agnès Varda; 1968)
Fallen Angel (Otto Preminger; 1945)
After the Curfew (Lewat Djam Malam) (Usmar Ismail; 1954)
Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman; 1957)
The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler; 1946)
The Return of Doctor X (Vincent Sherman; 1939)
Murmur of the Heart (Louis Malle; 1971)
Phantom of Chinatown (Phil Rosen; 1940)
Victim (Basil Dearden; 1961)
Attack of the Mushroom People (Mantango) (Ishirô Honda; 1963)
A Slight Case of Murder (Lloyd Bacon; 1938)
4D Man (Irvin S. Yeaworth Jr.; 1959)
Whirlpool (Roy William Neill; 1934)
Hamilton (Thomas Kail; 2020)
No Way Out (Joseph L. Mankiewicz; 1950)
Vigilante (William Lustig; 1982)
Il Bidone (Federico Fellini; 1955)
Aloha Bobby and Rose (Floyd Mutrux; 1975)
The White Sheik (Federico Fellini; 1952)
Sex Kittens Go to College (Albert Zugsmith; 1960)
The Giant Claw (Fred F. Sears; 1957)
I Knew Her Well (Antonio Pietrangeli; 1965)
Crime of Passion (Gerd Oswald; 1956)
6-Day Bike Rider (Lloyd Bacon; 1934)
Sam Whiskey (Arnold Laven; 1969)
The Devil’s Rain (Robert Fuest; 1975)
Gone to Earth (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger; 1950)
Man Bait (Terence Fisher; 1952)
The Crimson Kimono (Samuel Fuller; 1959)
The Boston Strangler (Richard Fleischer; 1968)
Loan Shark (Seymour Friedman; 1952)
Race Street (Edwin L. Marin; 1948)
Manpower (Raoul Walsh; 1941)
Chosen Survivors (Sutton Roley; 1974)
Werewolves on Wheels (Michel Levesque; 1971)
Alien Vs. Predator (Paul W.S. Anderson; 2004)
Seven Women (John Ford; 1966)
Danger Signal (Robert Florey; 1945)
Scorpio (Michael Winner; 1973)
Have I the Right to Kill? (The Unvanquished) (Alain Cavalier; 1964)
The Nightcomers (Michael Winner; 1971)
Dr. Who and the Daleks (Gordon Flemyng; 1965)
The Ghoul (T. Hayes Hunter; 1933)
The League of Gentlemen (Basil Dearden; 1960)
Chop Shop (Ramin Bahrani; 2007)
The Werewolf (Fred F. Sears; 1956)
The Black Sleep (Reginald Le Borg; 1956)
Christ Stopped at Eboli (Francesco Rosi; 1979)
Berserk (Jim O’Connolly; 1967)
The Hill (Sidney Lumet; 1965)
Daughter of Shanghai (Robert Florey; 1937)
Tomorrow is Another Day (Felix Feist; 1951)
Odds Against Tomorrow (Robert Wise; 1959)
Macao (Josef Von Sternberg, Nicholas Ray, Mel Ferrer, Robert Stevenson; 1952)
Variety Lights (Federico Fellini; 1950)
Fellini: I’m a Born Liar (Damian Pettigrew; 2002)

Directors with multiple entries on this “First Seen” list:
Agnès Varda (5)
Basil Dearden (3)
Federico Fellini (3)
Robert Florey (3)
Lloyd Bacon (2)
Fred F. Sears (2)
Michael Winner (2)


PERFORMANCES I LIKED IN 2020

Michelle Dockery (The Gentlemen), Nicolas Cage (Color Out of Space), Julia Garner (The Assistant), Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Ewan McGregor (Birds of Prey…), Riley Keough (The Lodge), Jim Carrey (Sonic the Hedgehog), Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Mia Goth, Bill Nighy, Gemma Whelan, Miranda Hart (Emma.), Elizabeth Debicki, Donald Sutherland, Mick Jagger, Claes Bang (The Burnt Orange Heresy), John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Rene Auberjoinois, Evie (First Cow), Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors, Clarke Peters, Norm Lewis, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Chadwick Boseman (Da 5 Bloods), Bill Burr (The King of Staten Island), Kevin Bacon, Amanda Seyfried, Avery Tiiu Essex (You Should Have Left), Rose Byrne, Steve Carell, Natasha Lyonne, Chris Cooper (Irresistible), Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Chitewel Ejiofor (The Old Guard), John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki (Tenet), Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Samara Weaving (Bill and Ted Face the Music), Steven Yuen, Yeri Han, Youn Yuh-jung, Alan S. Kim, Will Patton (Minari), Joel Kinnaman (The Secrets We Keep), Sunita Mani, John Reynolds (Save Yourselves!), Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jeremy Strong, Mark Rylance, Frank Langella, John Carroll Lynch, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton (The Trial of the Chicago 7), Sacha Baron Cohen, Maria Bakalova (Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan), Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Booboo Stewart (Let Him Go), Amanda Seyfried, Arliss Howard (Mank), Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, Micheal Ward (Lovers Rock), Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci (Sound of Metal), Dearbhla Molloy (Wild Mountain Thyme), Chadwick Boseman, Glynn Turman, Viola Davis, Colman Domingo (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), Tessa Thompson, Nnamdi Asomugha (Sylvie’s Love)

WORST OF 2020 (besides the year itself, of course) from worst to least-worst



The Personal History of David Copperfield (Armando Ianucci)

Greenland (Ric Roman Waugh)

Dreamland (Miles Joris-Peyrafitte)

Wild Mountain Thyme (John Patrick Shanley)

Tenet (Christopher Nolan)


It ain’t all gonna suddenly get better now that the calendar has changed, but nonetheless I wish you all health and safety and sanity and justice and many more good movies in 2021, until such delights once again become the norm.

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