Overall, a disappointing year. I didn’t see a single new film that I’d call “great”. (I somehow missed Ash is the Purest White.) I saw more films than usual this year, due to the purchase of a 77-inch OLED TV (which is great for movies in 4k). I’ll start with films made in the last few years, and then older ones: Recent Films: Shoplifters (Japan) 3.7 This Koreeda film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. I wasn’t as impressed as I expected, and still prefer Nobody Knows. There are some subtle, brilliantly developed scenes late in the film. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (US) 3.7 I’ll need to see this again to form a firm opinion as to how good it is. I missed some of the dialogue, but what I heard was excellent. The craftsmanship by the Coen brothers was superb. They seem to
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Overall, a disappointing year. I didn’t see a single new film that I’d call “great”. (I somehow missed Ash is the Purest White.) I saw more films than usual this year, due to the purchase of a 77-inch OLED TV (which is great for movies in 4k). I’ll start with films made in the last few years, and then older ones:
Shoplifters (Japan) 3.7 This Koreeda film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. I wasn’t as impressed as I expected, and still prefer Nobody Knows. There are some subtle, brilliantly developed scenes late in the film.
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (US) 3.7 I’ll need to see this again to form a firm opinion as to how good it is. I missed some of the dialogue, but what I heard was excellent. The craftsmanship by the Coen brothers was superb. They seem to really care about getting the look of the film just right. The final four episodes were the film equivalent of first rate short stories.
Burning (Korea) 3.7 Fascinating Korean mystery involving two men who are interested in the same women. (Based on a Murakami story.) The film has some fine performances that went beyond the typical clichés. Even after the film was over, I was still trying to put the pieces together. My only reservation is that the director tried to do a bit too much mixing of the political and the metaphysical. The political seems to win in the end, whereas it might have been better to end with the metaphysical. Still, there is one scene in the film that stands out above anything else I saw this year.
The Salesman (Iran, 2016) 3.7 I’ve now seen three films by Farhadi, and all have been excellent. His films aren’t particularly innovative, just extremely well crafted and true to life. The political/social repression in Iran allows for plots that would be considered implausible in America or Europe.
They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (US) 3.7. Extremely entertaining film about the making of The Other Side of the Wind, very skillfully made. Orson Welles is one of the two great artists from my home state of Wisconsin, along with the equally colorful Frank Lloyd Wright. Like Bob Dylan (another upper Midwest guy), he had enormous accomplishments by age 26.
The Other Side of the Wind (US, 1975-2018) 3.6 It’s likely that I’ll enjoy this unfinished Welles film better on second viewing. Despite my rating it lower than the accompanying documentary, it’s the more important film.
Filmworker (US, 2017) 3.6 Fascinating documentary about Leon Vitali, who was Kubrick’s right hand man. (He also had a major role in Barry Lyndon.) The documentary is not particularly well directed, but it’s a very interesting story.
Isle of Dogs (US) 3.6 Wes Anderson films are delightful. He’s one of the few American directors that you can recognize from just a 10-second segment of his films.
The Third Murder (Japan) 3.6 A murder mystery by Koreeda. Here the puzzle is not so much the logistics of the crime, rather the mystery is the motivation.
Roma (Mexico) 3.6 Brought back memories of my time in Mexico during the early 1970s. I expected a bit more after the rave reviews.
Babylon Berlin (Germany) 3.5 I don’t usually watch TV, so I didn’t realize until well until the series that you can watch it on Netflix without dubbing. Definitely opt for the subtitles; the dubbing is horrible. My favorite parts are the opening and closing credits. The final episode is excellent, actually cinematic at times. Bryan Ferry did a great job with the music.
Maria By Callas (US) 3.5 Very engrossing documentary. It gave me entry into a subject that I know little about—opera. I’d guess they sugar-coated her life somewhat.
Kusama: Infinity (US) 3.5 Documentary about a Japanese artist who had a very interesting life.
The Farthest (US, 2017) 3.4 A documentary on the Voyager spacecraft mission, which explored the outer planets from 1977 to 1989 (and recently left the Solar System.) Gets my vote for the most interesting science project in human history.
Phantom Thread (US/Britain) 3.4 Daniel Day Lewis is the reason to watch this film.
Crazy Rich Asians (US) 3.4 Economics professors are so romantic. Unfortunately, my daughter informed me that game theory is way cooler than monetary economics.
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (US) 3.3 This is one of those stories that would have been considered absurdly implausible if included in a work of fiction. But this is a documentary. The film suggests that she was the co-inventor of “frequency hopping”, the technology behind Bluetooth and several other high tech applications. Don’t know if it is true, but it seems clear she did have an interest in science and technology that went far beyond the typical Hollywood bombshell.
Three Identical Strangers (US) 3.3 This is a very engrossing documentary, with one big flaw. One can defend their decision to not mention the Minnesota twins study, but it is hard to defend the decision of the filmmakers to imply that this study never occurred. Or to imply that this particular case tells us something important about the “nature/nurture debate”. Or to suggest it tells us something about “free will”. It doesn’t.
Us and Them (China) 3.3 Two young people trying to make it in Beijing during 2007-17. A bit too conventional, but not a bad drama. The cinematography of Mark Lee makes it watchable.
Zama (Argentina) 3.3 I read the book a few months earlier, and this film allowed me to see the book in a slightly different way. It was clear the book featured an unreliable narrator, but the film makes him seem even more unreliable. Paraguay in the late 1700s seems like one of the saddest places on earth.
Egon Schiele: Death and the Maiden (Austria/Luxembourg) 3.2 Standard biopic of one of Austria’s greatest artists, who died at age 28.
Oh Lucy! (Japan) 3.2 It’s always interesting to see your home country through the eyes of a foreigner.
Shirkers (Singapore) 3.2 A mildly interesting documentary about a punkish group of Singaporean teenage girls who worked with an American film teacher on a feature film, only to see the teacher disappear with their film. It resurfaced 20 years later, after he died.
Red Sparrow (US) 3.1 A standard US/Russian spy thriller, starring Jennifer Lawrence.
The Spy Gone North (Korea) 3.1 Fairly engrossing spy thriller, but marred by an increasingly far-fetched plot. Memo to the movie reviewer at The Guardian (among others)—although the film claims to be based on a “true story”, it’s about as true to life as the average James Bond film.
Mission Impossible (US) 3.0 Lots of spectacular set-pieces, but as usual the special effects overwhelm the narrative. Tom Cruise is now too old for this; he’s lost that edge he had when he was younger.
Can You Ever Forgive Me (US) 3.0 Somewhat predictable film about a literary forger. The one saving grace was the actor who played Jack Hock, who brought some style to his role.
Nelly (French Canadian) 2.8 I never realized this was based on a true story, until the final credits.
Last First Man (US) 2.8 This film has lots of flaws, such as ridiculously hyperactive camerawork that will make you seasick. But it is sort of redeemed by Ryan Gosling’s performance. He refuses to pointlessly emote in the way that is so typical of Hollywood films. Disappointing special effects, especially on the moon. I’ve seen better images in documentaries of the space program.
Searching for Bergman (German) 2.5 A disappointing documentary about the great Swedish director.
Resistance Banker (Dutch) 2.5 Finally, a hero for neoliberals! Dutch bankers work to aid the resistance to the Nazis.
Sorry to Bother You (US) 1.8 Intriguing for a few minutes, then it degenerated into a weird combination of sophomoric political satire and teenage comedy.
Older films I saw this year:
Spirited Away (Japan, 2001) 4.0 I enjoyed this film the first time around, but was absolutely blown away when I saw it again on the big screen. This is Miyazaki’s best film, done when he was at the peak of his imaginative powers. (And he made many excellent films.) There are a number of scenes that burrow deep into one’s subconscious. (Yes, my writing has too many cliches.) I’d rate it one of the top 5 films of the 21st century.
Touch of Evil (US, 1957) 3.9 Each time I see this film I become more and more convinced that it provided Hitchcock with the inspiration for Psycho. The similarity between these two classics seems increasingly obvious as time goes by. This is probably my favorite film by Orson Welles, who must have lived a wild life. He looks about 65 years old in the film, but is actually 42. He gets all the best lines and his performance is amazing. Unfortunately, the film was butchered by the studio. Although it’s been partly restored, Welles’s original vision is lost forever.
Lord of the Rings (US/New Zealand) 2001-03) 3.8 I saw all three of the extended versions in one day, from 11:30am to 12:45 am the next day—13 hours including two intermissions. That’s probably a bit much. The third film has been extended to over 4 hours, and it drags at times. (After 12 1/2 hours I was like.just throw the damn ring into the lava!) Still, the combination of a great story and superb craftsmanship is hard to beat. It seemed like the third film drifted away from the novel at times, but then I haven’t read it for decades, so perhaps I forgot some things.
The Terrorizers (Taiwan, 1986) 3.8 Somehow I missed this masterpiece, which was never released in the US. Now I need to find all the other films directed by Edward Yang. (They need to come up with a better translation of the title.)
Flowers of Taipei (Taiwan, 2014) 3.8 For film buffs, this is 2 hours of pure bliss. It looks at the Taiwan films of the 1980s, and made me realize how many great films I have yet to see. There are interviews with an amazing list of directors and artists from all over the world. The 21st century has yet to produce any film school as distinctive as Taiwan during the 1980s and 1990s. This is the first time I ever watched a film on Amazon Prime.
The Big Lewbowski (US, 1998) 3.8 I haven’t seen this film in 20 years, and it holds up extremely well. I always wondered why it became a cult classic—now I know.
A Time to Live, A Time to Die (Taiwan, 1985) 3.8 A semi-autobiographical film from Hou Hsiao-Hsien
Ikiru (Japan, 1952) 3.8 A classic Kurosawa film about a man with 6 months to live. Japan looks really poor, and much wilder than today.
Black Coal, Thin Ice (China, 2014) 3.8 This Golden Bear winning film is called “Daylight Fireworks Club” in Chinese, and is the best film noir I’ve seen in years. I can’t wait for the next film from the director (Diao Yinan.) Takes place in gritty northern China (Harbin), which has bitter cold winters. Almost everything about this film is outstanding. The story begins in 1999 and ends in 2004. At one point a character refers to the cost of an expensive coat that was damaged back in 1999, and says something like, “That was a lot of money back then.” In what other (non-inflationary) country would this statement make any sense, referring to only 5 years in the past!
You’ll never look at ice skates in the same way again.
Japanese Story (Australia, 2003) 3.7 I loved this film when I saw it 15 years ago, and re-watched it recently. It still holds up pretty well, mostly due to Toni Collette’s amazing performance. Hard to recall a film with a sadder ending.
Lost Highway (US, 1997) 3.7 A fairly representative David Lynch film, and thus a minor masterpiece. For a while during the mid-1990s, Bill Pullman seemed like the most interesting leading man in Hollywood. He also starred in The Last Seduction and The End of Violence at about the same time. Great soundtrack, put together by Trent Reznor.
It Happened One Night (US, 1934) 3.7 We watched this mainly because Netflix had a 4k copy, and I was interested in how it would look on my new 77 inch OLED. It looked very good. (It cost $5.99.)
Age of Consent (Australian, 1969) 3.4 I ran across this film on Amazon Prime, and noticed that it was directed by Michael Powell. When I was young, films from the 1930s seemed charming and innocent. Now I get that feeling from a film from 1969. Helen Mirren has plenty of “charisma”. If you’ve only seen her later work, you need to check out her short YouTube video from 1967.
Let the Wind Carry Me (Taiwan, 2009) 3.4 A documentary about Mark Lee, the cinematographer for many Hou Hsiao Hsien’s best films, along with other classics such as In the Mood For Love.
500 days of Summer (US, 2009) 3.4 As always with romcoms, you need to avoid overthinking what’s on the screen. The leads are charming and as an added bonus the film defies Hollywood convention by not having them end up together.
The Sandwich Man (Taiwan, 1983) 3.3 Considered the beginning of Taiwan’s new wave. Three short films, primarily interesting for the way they portray Taiwan during the 1960s (when it was quite poor.)
Bullit (US, 1968) 3.3 Interesting to see the famous car chase again after 50 years. It’s still probably as satisfying as any subsequent car chase, despite being pretty tame compared to modern extravaganzas. Less is more, perhaps because it seems bit more real. The same applies to Steve McQueen’s acting style.
Blowout (US, 1981) 3.3 Just as 1971 was actually part of the 60s, 1981 seems like the 1970s in this DePalma film. As usual, he rips off other directors. The good news is that he chooses to copy people like Hitchcock, Coppola and Antonioni. This film really makes me feel old—is 1981 already ancient history?
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (US, 1978) 3.3 When I first saw this film it seemed as good or better than the original. It doesn’t quite hold up, and the original (which I saw again a few years ago) now seems like the enduring classic. This version seems too frenetic at time, too noisy. When it slows down it’s still pretty good. San Francisco looks very rundown.
Riding the Breeze (Taiwan, 2014) 3.0 I’m drawn to films about long bike trips.
As far as books, I read volume 6 of Karl Knausgaard’s great novel, if that’s what it is. Also Murakami’s new novel, as well as his first two, which were finally translated. Also the excellent Chinese sci-fi trilogy The Three Body Problem. Another Chinese novel entitled “Decoded” is also pretty good. I also read Zama, Disgrace, Solaris, and The Immoralist, all from the long list of famous authors that I’d never gotten around to reading. Plus a few other novels and travel books that I’ve forgotten. I’m a slow reader. The best nonfiction book I read was Simon Ley’s The Hall of Uselessness, which is a collection of essays. It’s not perfect—the remarks on gay rights haven’t aged well—but overall it’s very, very impressive. He’s a sort of Belgian George Orwell. The book I learned the most from (“How to Change Your Life”) discussed psychedelic drugs. In social science, my favorites were the latest books by Tyler Cowen, Eliezer Yudkowsky, Bryan Caplan and Kevin Simler/Robin Hanson. All were excellent, and also very readable.