Commenters occasionally ask me for my movie list. Due to blogging I haven’t seen as many films as usual (I used to see about 75 a year, all at the theatre). At the end of this post I have provided a few comments on each film I saw on the big screen last year (both old and new.) Three stars means barely worth seeing. Some films should only be seen on a big screen—preferably film, not digital. (I hate digital. I’m so happy I wasn’t born 30 years later.) The best new film I saw was Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, but it wouldn’t work on TV. So don’t complain it is “too slow.” That’s not the point.
Recently I’ve been thinking about flawed masterpieces. I’d much prefer to watch a flawed film like “The Master”, over a well made piece of corporate product like “Argo” or “Silver Linings Playbook.” Recently I saw Barry Lyndon for the first time in nearly 40 years. As I recall the film was mostly panned when it came out, but it actually holds up far better than any other period costume drama that I recall seeing. The glorious faces alone are worth the price of admission. Marisa Berenson looking like a dazed Goya princess. Card sharks right out of a La Tour painting. Why was it panned by critics? Perhaps for a combination of reasons. Kubrick doesn’t always go for easy crowd-pleasing techniques. And despite its excellence, it’s a significant drop-off from his two 1960s masterpieces. Perhaps the subject matter seems less “important.”
About the time I saw Barry Lyndon I’d been listening for the first time in nearly 40 years to a CD made at exactly the same time–Planet Waves. Once again, a flawed masterpiece that was panned by critics. A CD that mostly avoids crowd-pleasing techniques. A CD where the subject matter seemed less important, more simplistic, than earlier works. A CD in the shadow of even greater works from the 1960s. I wondered what the critics would have thought of Planet Waves if it had been the only CD made by a little known artist. Or what if Barry Lyndon, or Lynch’s Inland Empire, or Tarantino’s Django Unchained had been the only film made by a nobody? What would the critics make of it? And did I overrate the Aussie film on my list, for exactly that reason?
Tonight is the Academy Awards. The Nobel Prize in literature is just about plausible enough to merit ridicule. Unfortunately the Oscar’s fall short of even that low threshold.
Blow-Up (British/Italian) 4.0 It’s been over 40 years since I first saw Blow-Up, and it seemed like a completely different film. Or maybe I’ve changed. It’s now obvious that Blow-Up was hugely influential (Blow Out, The Conversation, A Clockwork Orange, etc.)
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Turkish) 3.8 Ceylan is now one of the world’s best directors, and still doesn’t seem to have reached his peak. Stunning cinematography and excellent acting. But I wouldn’t watch this film on TV if you paid me to.
The Conversation (US) 3.8 The weakest of Coppola’s four 1970s masterpieces, and yet still a masterpiece.
Barry Lyndon (US/British) 3.8 Holds up very well after nearly 40 years—an underrated film.
Wake in Fright (Australian) 3.7 A real freak of nature here. The print was recently discovered in a Pittsburgh warehouse—it was about ready to be destroyed. One of the best movies of the 1970s, indeed one of Scorcese’s favorite films. More testosterone per second than any other film I can recall. Saw it at the Brattle in glorious Technicolor. Reminded me of when I went kangaroo hunting back in 1991.
Django Unchained (US) 3.7 Bill Clinton was once called America’s first black President. Not quite sure what that means, but I was reminded of it during an interview with Tarantino. He said he grew up in an African-American neighborhood, immersed in black culture. He certainly seems to have a comfort level riffing on styles like “blaxsploitation,” which most white directors lack. The film has all the usual Tarantino qualities. It probably won’t be rated as highly as it should be, because the film won’t be seen as serious enough for the subject matter, and we’ve seen this style before in his earlier films.
A Separation (Iranian) 3.7 Excellent film that touches on issues of gender, class, politics, youth, etc, presented in a compelling way that never talks down to the audience.
The Master (US) 3.6 An impressive film with the sort of acting performances loved by “The Academy.” (I.e. actors acting like crazy people.) I didn’t think the director (Anderson) quite pulled it off, but scene for scene it’s one of the best films of the year. Similar to “There Will Be Blood.” Excellent cinematography—see it in 70 mm.
The Day He Arrives (Korean) 3.6 The older I get the more I like Hong Sang-soo’s films. The black and white cinematography is great, and a reminder of how much “information” gets lost in color films.
In Another Country (Korean) 3.6 Another gem by Hong Sang-soo.
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (Japanese) 3.6 The best of three Japanese anime I saw last year, all by Miyazaki. Surprisingly erotic for a kids film.
Laputa: Castle in the Sky (Japanese) 3.5 Another outstanding anime from Miyazaki. Lots of ideas in Avatar seem to have been stolen from Laputa and Nausicaa.
My Neighbor Totoro (Japanese) 3.5 Another excellent Miyazaki film—this one aimed at little kids.
Moonrise Kingdom (US) 3.5 I was ten years old in 1965, and a cub scout. Wes Anderson does a beautiful job evoking that era. A charming film.
A Foreign Affair (US) 3.5 A 1948 Billy Wilder film made in the rubble of post-war Berlin. Does a nice job showing that the Washington elite was just as out of touch with reality in 1948 as they are today. But the real reason to watch is Marlene Dietrich.
Beasts of the Southern Wild (US) 3.5 A new filmmaker who clearly has some talent. Reminds me a bit of Spielberg, but grittier.
Skyfall (British) 3.4 One of the best of the recent Bond films. Scene by scene it was extremely well made, with Bardem being a very effective villain. The one weakness is that the Bond franchise doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. James Bond, or the Bourne Identity? That indecision takes it down a couple notches.
Damsels in Distress (US) 3.3 It’s great to see Whit Stillman is back. Some of the reviewers complained the film wasn’t “realistic.” (rolls eyes)
Argo (US) 3.1 Affleck’s weakest film so far, but still fairly entertaining.
Zero Dark Thirty. (US) 3.1 Sort of like a documentary, with some Hollywood-style acting added in. In other words neither fish nor fowl. Worth the price of admission to see the raid on Abbotabad.
The Hobbit (New Zealand) 3.0 The book version of the Hobbit was a story that seemed like it was just a story. The book version of LOTR was a story that seemed so real that you believe it actually happened. Ditto for the movie version of each.
The Outcry (Italian) 3.0 An early film by Antonioni. Very depressing, but interesting in parts.
Silver Linings Playbook (US) 3.0 Standard Hollywood rom-com with fake crazy people.
The Story of Pi (US) 3.0 I get tired of the CGI look of modern films, so perhaps I’m too old for this sort of thing. But it also had some nice features, and was certainly watchable. Clever ending.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi (Japanese) 2.8 How much I like a documentary depends partly (but not entirely) on how much interest I have in the subject. I have little interest in food. I love Japanese films and I love Japanese food—just not films about food.
Dark Shadows (US) 2.8 Maybe I’m getting too old, but I find it increasingly difficult to get interested in Hollywood films, even when directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer and Helen Bonham Carter.
Headhunters (Norwegian) 2.6 Mildly entertaining thriller that suffers from too much violence. Starts out entertaining but after a while it become so implausible that you begin to lose interest.
Inni (Icelandic/American) 2.3 Sigor Ros in concert. Visuals were disappointing.
Salmon Fishing in Yemen (British) 2.0 A romantic comedy that was neither funny nor romantic.