I didn’t see many films at the theater this year, partly due to Covid, but partly due to the fact that I no longer have a convenient source of information about coming attractions. So I missed some. And I don’t subscribe to the channel that has the new Beatles documentary. La Flor was the best of the recent films I saw, followed by Our Time. (Both Latin American.) Then a couple Asian films (A Sun and Drive My Car), and the Sparks documentary. But nothing really stood out. My current interest is in films from the mid-20th century. I’ve been watching a lot of French films by people like Melville, Clouzot and Clement. My favorite books were In Search of Lost Time, and a couple biographies (of Fernando Pessoa and Max Sebald.) It seems like a lot of great writers were
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I didn’t see many films at the theater this year, partly due to Covid, but partly due to the fact that I no longer have a convenient source of information about coming attractions. So I missed some. And I don’t subscribe to the channel that has the new Beatles documentary. La Flor was the best of the recent films I saw, followed by Our Time. (Both Latin American.) Then a couple Asian films (A Sun and Drive My Car), and the Sparks documentary. But nothing really stood out. My current interest is in films from the mid-20th century. I’ve been watching a lot of French films by people like Melville, Clouzot and Clement.
My favorite books were In Search of Lost Time, and a couple biographies (of Fernando Pessoa and Max Sebald.) It seems like a lot of great writers were mildly depressed, suffering from the misfortune of seeing reality too clearly.
Drive My Car (Japan) 3.7 Hamaguchi likes to make films that mix cinema and theatre. He’s at his best when the characters are interacting—not as effective when he attempts to create a (poetic) mood of alienation or despair.
The Velvet Underground (US) 3.6 I really enjoyed this documentary film, especially the historical footage of New York in the late 1960s. But if you don’t like the Velvet Underground and/or aren’t interested in Andy Warhol’s factory scene, then you will like it much less than I did. The Velvet Underground hold up better than most other 60s rock bands, including bands that were much better known at the time. Todd Haynes directed, and you can tell that he’s a fan.
The Alpinist (Canadian) 3.5 If I see a tiger leap at the screen in a movie, it doesn’t scare me. If the camera points straight down from a mountain or tall building, I get acrophobia. I’m not sure why, as in real life the tiger leaping at me would be more scary. I enjoy hiking in the mountains as long as it’s not too step. (I did Angel’s Landing at Zion this year, which is about my limit—don’t laugh.) In any case, this phobia limits my enjoyment of these sorts of “free solo” films. But otherwise, I’m kind of in awe of these people.
Reinhold Messner said that half of these daredevils end up dying from a fall. And yet I feel that the guy in this film had a much better life than me—much more total utility in a shorter period of time. Why don’t they ban this sort of mountain climbing? Perhaps because society considers it inspiring, whereas society doesn’t consider riding a motorcycle without a helmet to be inspiring. (Some motorcyclists may differ.)
Dune (US) 3.4 I had read Lord of the Rings before seeing the movie, and I thought it helped me to enjoy that film more than otherwise. Not because it made it easier to follow the plot, rather it made it possible to have a richer understanding of the importance of certain events, people, etc. The film had more “gravitas”. In contrast, I hadn’t read Dune so I probably didn’t enjoy it as much as those who did. I think I followed the plot, but the characters didn’t come to life for me as much as those in LOTR. The special effects were excellent, but not particularly creative or path-breaking. Indeed the director’s previous films (Blade Runner 2, Arrival) had more interesting special effects. The acting was fine. Overall, despite not having read the book I found the film to be enjoyable and fairly impressive, but a bit “heavy” or “ponderous” at times. Other epics like LOTR and Star Wars seemed more exciting (at the time), with more of a sense that life is a grand adventure. Maybe I’m just too old.
Oh, and I still think the giant worm in SpongeBob Squarepants was more impressive, and certainly more wiggily.
To Late to Die (UK) 3.2 This one is hard to rate. There’s a high level of craftsmanship and many scenes are very high quality—some of the best of any Bond film. And yet it has the same problem as other recent Bond films; it’s neither fish nor fowl. The actress with the low cut dress doing over-the-top fighting didn’t seem to be in the same film as Bond’s love interest. Recent Bond films have followed franchises like the Bourne Identity and Mission Impossible by becoming more “serious”. But they’ve also felt compelled to include a bit of the 1960s sexiness, humor, and gee wiz gadgets expected by viewers, which doesn’t really fit with the more modern elements. (Star Wars has the same problem, moving forward while still catering to audience nostalgia.) Still, I enjoyed it. The final scene seems directed at people overreacting to Covid.
Dave Chappelle: The Closer (3.0) Not as good as his previous film, perhaps because he’s doing more than trying to be funny. We live in a world where people see the difference between comedy and reality in different ways, which makes things complicated for Chappelle. I think he’s in a bit over his head on this one. Still, he’s very funny.
Shang-Chi (China) 2.7 There must be an audience for these endlessly extended scenes of CGI mayhem, but I can’t imagine what people enjoy about them. Sad to see a great actor like Tony Leung reduced to taking this sort of part. It’s too bad there are so many tiresome actions scenes, as the film does contain some nice moments when people aren’t fighting.
The Grand Budapest Hotel (US, 2014) 3.9 In some ways this is Wes Anderson’s best film. I say “some ways” because his films work on multiple levels, and deserve repeat viewings. The visuals here looked spectacular on a big OLED TV, and the screenplay was often wonderful, especially in little throwaway lines. There are all sorts of historical references to people who died in their 20s, from John Keats to Egon Schiele, and more broadly to the whole sad history of Eastern Europe in the first half of the 20th century.
Le Deuxième Soufflé, aka Second Wind (France, 1966, CC) 3.8 Of all the Melville films I’ve seen, this one might be my favorite. It runs 2 ½ hours, and it’s engrossing from beginning to end.
Equinox Flower (Japan, 1958, CC) 3.8 Ozu can make the glimpse of blue green bathroom tiles look like the detail in a painting by Vermeer.
Cleo From 5 to 7 (France, 1962, CC) 3.8 First time I’d seen this classic French New Wave film. A great example of how French films often have a wonderful lightness that is missing from Hollywood films. More than any other film that I can recall it gave me the feeling of what it would be like to be a young woman. Brilliantly photographed.
My Dinner With Andre (US, 1981, CC) 3.8 I expected to be disappointed, but instead was even more impressed than the first time I saw it. This is the sort of “philosophical” film that Woody Allen would like to make, but it took Louis Malle to do it. Seeing it again after 40 years, I noticed that it’s not just a screenplay, it’s a very visual film. Great acting, great camerawork, and yes, a great screenplay.
Cure (Japan, 1997, CC) 3.8 Outstanding Japanese horror film. Relies on mystery, not on cheap shocks.
Purple Noon (France, 1960, CC) 3.8 I was surprised to find that I enjoyed this version of The Talented Mr. Ripley just as much as I did the Jude Law/Matt Damon version. The plot is as good as it gets, one of the greatest plots in film history. Credit Patricia Highsmith. Rene Clement is less well known that the famous “New Wave” French directors, but I think I enjoyed this more than many of the more famous films from that era. Interestingly, the guy playing Greenleaf looked sort of like Jude Law (who starred in the remake). In contrast, Ripley was played by arguably the most handsome actor in the history of cinema (the young Alain Delon) whereas Matt Damon is, well.not the most handsome actor in film history. The gay subtext is less visible than in the later version, but according to the accompanying Criterion documentary, gay viewers understood what the film was actually about.
Diabolique (France, 1955, CC) 3.8 After 66 years, it’s clear that this is one of the most influential films ever made. Dozens of directors have stolen ideas from this and other Clouzot films such as Wages of Fear.
The Housemaid (Korea, 1960, CC) 3.8 Like many Korean films, the drama is racheted up to an almost hysterical level. Parts have been beautifully restored, while other parts are in bad shape. From a visual perspective the filmmaking is superb, done in a sort of Hitchcock style (and same year as Psycho) The screenplay is either ridiculous or a canny satire on Korean society, depending on your perspective. The ending seems tacked on, perhaps to satisfy the censors? One thing is clear, the over-the-top style we associate with people like Park Chan-wook and Kim Ki-duk have deep roots in Korean culture.
Cluny Brown (UK, 1946, CC) 3.8 Even in his final film, Lubitsch hadn’t lost his touch.
Viridiana (Spain, 1961, CC) 3.7 A Bunuel classic from the golden age of European film. It hasn’t lost much of its edge. I liked the first half much better.
The Trouble With Harry (US, 1955, CC) 3.7 Made at a time when Hitchcock was at his creative peak, this delightful comedy is underrated by critics.
Creepy (Japan, 2016, CC) 3.7 Another excellent horror film from the director of Cure. Some really nice images.
Closely Watched Trains (Czech, 1966, CC) 3.7 Delightful. The visual style reminds me of Wes Anderson’s films. I wonder if he was influenced by this film.
Devi (India, 1960, CC) 3.7 Sanyajit Ray’s films are consistently excellent.
After Life (Japan, 1998, CC) 3.7 I found this Koreeda film to be quite interesting from a philosophical perspective. I suspect that if God showed me the happiest moment in my life, it would be a moment that I no longer even recall. Perhaps something at age 3 or 4.
The Chess Players (India, 1977, CC) 3.7 Ray is one of the most intelligent directors out there. At first this film seems insubstantial, but after a while it becomes both funny and sad. Based on an Indian story, but also seems very similar to the plot of a story by Fernando Pessoa.
7 Men From Now (US, 1956, CC) 3.7 It’s the amazing Lee Marvin that puts this film above the other Budd Boetticher westerns. He might be among the top 10 American actors ever. I like how Boetticher’s films don’t mess around, coming in at under 80 minutes. This film probably influenced Sergio Leone.
Frenzy (UK, 1972, CC) 3.7 Made the same year as A Clockwork Orange, this is the only Hitchcock film that reflects the decadence of the 1970s. (As with the Kubrick film, there are uncomfortable scenes of the abuse of women.) But there is a lot to like here, especially the very funny interaction between the police inspector and his wife. Unfortunately, the whole is a bit less than the sum of the parts.
Major Barbara (UK, 1941, CC) 3.7 This film marked the debut of Deborah Kerr as an actress and David Lean as a director (although most of the direction was done by others, and Kerr had just a small role.) The wonderful Wendy Hiller is what makes the film worth watching, along with Shaw’s dialogue. Best of all, the film ends in a sort of art deco utopia, which gives the viewer a powerful sense of nostalgia for the future (Past futures seem so much more appealing than the actual future that we are entering.)
Metropolitan (US, 1990, CC) 3.6 Growing up, I never knew a single person who went to a private school. I don’t think I knew any rich people. So the society depicted in this film seems quite foreign to me. While in many ways it is comparable to a Woody Allen film, I value Whit Stillman films more highly because they are so much rarer, even if they are not superior in an artistic sense.
The Raven (France, 1943, CC) 3.6 Clouzot has been compared to Hitchcock, and in this film you can see why. Holds up very well after nearly 80 years. Made in Vichy-era France, the politics were widely misunderstood until well after the war. Love the final shot, where the receding figure looks like a raven.
Gertrud (Denmark, 1964, CC) 3.6 Carl Dreyer’s final film is one of those stories of a woman destroyed by love (but not really). It’s his distinctive style that makes the film worth watching.
Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (France, 1945, CC) 3.6 Bresson directed, but it’s not really in the style associated with his later films. The actresses are great.
24 City (China, 2008, CC) 3.6 I enjoyed this Jia Zhangke film, but was a bit disappointed to discover that it was partly fiction.
To the Ends of the Earth (Japan/Uzbekistan, 2019, CC) 3.6 The first half often seemed rather slow and aimless, but the payoff was a very moving second half.
Crazed Fruit (Japan, 1956, CC) 3.6 I found the accompanying documentary by Donald Richie to be more interesting than the film itself. He pointed out that for Japan the film was a breakthrough in terms of both style (French) and content (rebellious youth). If I were to rate the version of the film with voiceover analysis by Richie, I’d give it 3.8, not 3.6.
The Man Who Would Be King (UK, 1975, CC) 3.5 John Huston is extremely good at choosing interesting plots, finding good actors, and telling them what to do. On the other hand, he doesn’t excel at the visual side of moviemaking, and the epic sweep of this film falls a bit flat. He’s no David Lean. Still, it’s well worth watching—I hadn’t seen it since 1975. As with so many other films, this one stars Michael Caine.
Heaven Can Wait (US, 1943, CC) 3.5 It’s interesting that this Lubitsch film is better known that Cluny Brown, as it doesn’t hold up nearly as well.
Rocco and His Brothers (Italy, 1960, CC) 3.5 This film is sort of a model for what Coppola and Scorcese were trying to do with their Italian-American family dramas during the 1970s. Despite its flaws, a must see film for fans of that genre.
Marnie (US, 1964, CC) 3.5 The pop psychology doesn’t really work, and even back in 1964 wouldn’t have been very persuasive (a time when pop psych was very much in vogue.) Tippi Hedren is all wrong for the part, and although Sean Connery is enjoyable to watch, he’s also miscast. (A younger Jimmy Stewart would have been better.) Nonetheless, Hitchcock mixes bits of Vertigo, Psycho and The Birds together and produces a tasty cinematic stew. The film is consistently watchable.
Bright Future (Japan, 2003, CC) 3.4 I enjoyed this Kiyoshi Kurosawa film, but you need to get on the same wavelength as the director (who also directed Cure.) He has a very good eye.
Any Number Can Play (France, 1963, CC) 3.4 Mid-century modern French casino heist film with jazzy score, starring Jean Gabin and Alain Delon. At first it was just average, but I really enjoyed the final 15 minutes of the film.
The Petrified Forest (Japan, 1973, CC) 3.4 Satisfying Japanese crime story with a fairly interesting plot.
King of New York (US, 1990, CC) 3.4 Lots of style, with Christopher Walken’s performance being especially notable. Unfortunately there’s not much of a plot, and it gradually runs out of ideas. But for a while it’s a very entertaining ride.
Thief (US, 1981, CC) 3.4 Films like Thief and The French Connection seemed more impressive when they first came out, as they pushed the envelope. But this Michael Mann film is still pretty good.
The Tall T (US, 1957, CC) 3.4 Basic no-nonsense entertainment from Budd Boetticher. With Randolph Scott and his Mt. Rushmore face.
The Murderer Lives at Number 21 (France, 1942, CC) 3.4 Clouzot’s first film is a delightful thriller, light and fluffy.
A Woman is a Woman (France, 1961, CC) 3.3 I’m not much of a fan of musicals, but this Godard film shakes up the genre. Anna Karina is what makes it worth watching.
The Mystery of Picasso (France, 1957, CC) 3.3 I have trouble connecting with his later period—but this is Picasso after all. The final third is an especially revealing look at the creative process.
Red Dust (US, 1932, CC) 3.2 Pretty decent pre-code film carried by Clark Gable and Jean Harlow. Takes place in Vietnam, and contains a pretty insulting portrayal of Asians (Vietnamese and Chinese).
Platform (China, 2000, CC) 3.2 If I’d seen this film when it first came out, I would have been more impressed. Now I feel like I’ve seen this sort of thing before, and without much plot the 2.5 hour length seems a bit much.
Walk Cheerfully (Japan, 1930, CC) 3.2 One of the few silent Ozu films that was preserved. Most were lost. This print was in really bad shape—I hope these can be restored at some point.
Across the Pacific (US, 1942, CC) 3.2 This John Huston film came out a year after The Maltese Falcon, and brought back most of the cast. It starts well, but fizzles out toward the end. They changed the plot half way through because of Pearl Harbor, and made the film even more insultingly anti-Asian than before. It basically provides a defense of putting Japanese-Americans into concentration camps, which makes it a low point in Huston’s career, at least from an ethical standpoint. (The same year he made another film where he attempted to portray African-Americans in a more positive fashion than was typically the case back then.)
Never Look Away (Germany, 2018) 3.1 Overlong and tedious in spots, but the film (about an artist similar to Gerhard Richter) does have its moments. Same director that did The Lives of Others.
Europa 51 (Italy, 1952, CC) 3.1 Ingrid Bergman does her long-suffering saint role here, but the only good reason to watch the film is that it presents the tail end of an interesting period of history. The late 1950s was the very end of an era—the last few years where you could make credible art about white people suffering from extreme poverty. Many years from now, the century before 1955 will seem especially left-wing. Lots of extreme poverty, and yet enough affluent people where the poverty didn’t seem inevitable. Unfair!
Before 1850, a world without poverty seemed a pipe dream, and after the mid-1950s the working class did well enough so that they gradually lost interest in left wing parties. In the early 1950s, there were still a few American film noirs based on desperate poor white men. Not much after that. By the 1970s, the problems were psychological (i.e. Taxi Driver, Deer Hunter, etc.) We’d become too rich to make romanticized poverty seem plausible.
Mishima: A Story in Four Acts (Japan/US, 1985, CC) 3.1 Paul Schrader directed this stylized documentary on the famous Japanese novelist. A lot of interesting visuals in a sort of baroque style. But in the end that’s pretty much all the film offered.
World on a Wire (Germany, 1973, CC) 3.1 Imagine Fassbinder making a 3 ½ hour version of The Matrix back in 1973. It lacks the special effects, but makes up for it in other ways. I liked it almost as much as the 1999 version, but it’s not for everyone.
The Big Sleep (UK, 1978, CC) 3.1 Not the (much better) Humphrey Bogart version; this one stars Robert Mitchum and a whole bunch of other well know actors and actresses. To me, the late 1970s are the absolute peak of freedom in all of human history, and while this movie is a bit bland, it’s always nice to be reminded of that golden time. The way things are going, we’ll never again regain that sort of freedom.
Monte Carlo (US, 1930, CC) 3.1 It’s been almost a century since the 1930s, and yet it still seems to be the case that films from the early 1930s look far more “dated” than those from the late 1930s. It seems to me that the best romantic comedies of the late 1930s and early 1940s remain the best romantic comedies of all time. This Lubitsch musical was just OK.
Ride Lonesome (US, 1959, CC) 3.0 Another Budd Boetticher western.
Suture (US, 1993, CC) 3.0 An interesting experimental film based on a clever idea and containing some nice B&W visuals. But it really needs a director like David Lynch, and the actual two directors just aren’t up to the task. An essay on this film would probably be more interesting than the film itself.
Hollywood Chinese (US, 2007, CC) 3.0 So-so documentary on the role of Chinese people in the US film industry. The problem here is that they just don’t have a lot to work with. Late in the film, you see images of Chinese from overseas who came to Hollywood to do a film, and are reminded of how the talent pool over there is just so much deeper than for American-born Chinese. (Not surprisingly, given the population disparity.) On the plus side, the tendency of Hollywood to use western actors for Chinese parts was discussed without a lot of hysterics and pearl clutching.
Drums Along the Mohawk (US, 1939, CC) 2.9 Yes, this John Ford film is somewhat racist and sexist, at least by modern standards. But it was perfectly acceptable by 1939 standards. The bigger problem is its boring plot—I just couldn’t get interested. And Claudette Colbert is miscast. It does have some very nice Technicolor photography, however, right up there with Gone With the Wind.
After the Wedding (Denmark, 2007, CC) 2.8 One of those northern European films full repressed anger. There are way too many close-ups of eyeballs (human and animal).
The Last Movie (US, 1971, CC) 2.6 Dennis Hopper tried to direct an avant-garde film, but it doesn’t really work. Still, there were a few moments that I found quite amusing.
Klute (US, 1971, CC) 2.6 This thriller was probably considered edgy when it first came out, but now seems dated. History is merciless at exposing mediocre directors. Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland seem miscast and the musical soundtrack is quite annoying.
Dodes’ka-den (Japan, 1970, CC) 2.5 I’m not sure what Kurosawa was trying to do here, but he did not succeed.
The Grass is Greener (UK, 1960, CC) 2.5 One of the weaker efforts by Stanley Donen and Cary Grant.
The Anderson Tapes (US, 1971, CC) 2.5 I saw this 50 years ago when it first came out and was impressed, at a time when I was kind of stupid. Today, the film seems pretty stupid. (I’m probably still stupid, but less so.) Just a year or two later this sort of film was already obsolete (due to The French Connection, The Godfather, Mean Streets, etc.) The only thing that caught my eye was the very young Christopher Walken, already an interesting actor.
Office Killer (US, 1997, CC) 2.5 You’d think that Michael Jordan would have been a pretty good baseball player, but he wasn’t able to succeed in the major leagues. Similarly, graphic artists often have trouble crossing over to a related field such as filmmaking. This film was directed by Cindy Sherman, but it’s disappointingly conventional. I expected more. Seeing this gives me a greater appreciation for filmmakers like David Lynch.
Permanent Vacation (US, 1980, CC) 2.4 I’d never heard of this early Jim Jarmusch film, and now I know why. He didn’t hit his stride until his second film (Strangers in Paradise).