Sunday, June 25, 2023

My top 10 non-2022 movies of 2022

So, uh, this one kind of got away from me. I usually do these lists around the end of the year, and it's one of my favorite traditions, rounding up the best movies I saw for the first time in a particular year that were initially released in previous years. This has become a popular online activity in the years since I started doing it in 2008, and I've also started appearing on the Piecing It Together podcast to talk about my picks, as I did for 2022. I got so behind on writing them up that I considered skipping it entirely, but instead I put together some shorter remarks so I could finish up the list and present my picks. I'll try to do better in 2023.

1. Moonstruck (Norman Jewison, 1987) This absurd romance probably shouldn't work, but Nicolas Cage and Cher make for an unlikely perfect couple, and John Patrick Shanley's screenplay captures the warmth and passion of the Brooklyn Italian-American community. It's a funny, feel-good love story about how falling in love can be an exasperating, traumatic experience.

2. The Color of Money (Martin Scorsese, 1986) This still has a reputation as a lesser Scorsese movie, since it's a work-for-hire sequel to The Hustler, but Scorsese brings all his filmmaking skill to an underdog sports drama that subverts the genre's cliches, with great performances from Tom Cruise as the arrogant young billiards hotshot and Paul Newman as the bitter veteran.

3. Design for Living (Ernst Lubitsch, 1933) Anyone who isn't aware of how daring pre-Code movies could be should watch this sparkling Lubitsch comedy that is essentially about a threeway relationship, which is equal parts witty and horny. Miriam Hopkins, Fredric March and Gary Cooper are perfect as the three gorgeous, glamorous artistic types flouting societal convention in favor of personal happiness.

4. Between the Lines (Joan Micklin Silver, 1977) Although it was more than two decades later when I started my stint working at an alt-weekly, there was a lot about my experience reflected in this appealingly ragged, episodic dramedy about the quirky employees of a Boston alternative paper adjusting to changing times and new corporate ownership.

5. Lenny (Bob Fosse, 1974) My Awesome Movie Year co-host Jason Harris insisted I watch this after hearing my lukewarm reaction to Fosse's All That Jazz, and I think it's definitely a stronger movie, benefiting from Fosse's distance from the material. Fosse and star Dustin Hoffman convey Lenny Bruce's genius and self-destructiveness, with faux-interview segments that emphasize the collateral damage to the people in his life.

6. Niagara (Henry Hathaway, 1953) Marilyn Monroe gives one of her best performances in this vibrantly colorful noir, playing an unstable woman who attempts to kill her husband while on a trip to Niagara Falls. The lush Technicolor gives the movie the feel of a lurid nightmare, as an upstanding honeymooning couple are drawn in to the deceit and betrayal going on in the hotel room next door.

7. Burden of Dreams (Les Blank, 1982) Much of the myth of Werner Herzog can be traced back to this documentary about the seemingly cursed production of his film Fitzcarraldo. Blank captures Herzog's unique philosophical perspective as well as the inherent chaos of his artistic vision.

8. Killer's Kiss (Stanley Kubrick, 1955) This early Kubrick movie doesn't get much attention, but it's an impressive, efficient thriller about a boxer who has an existential crisis (and puts himself in physical danger) when he falls for the alluring, troubled girlfriend of a volatile gangster.

9. Feast of the Seven Fishes (Robert Tinnell, 2019) This sweet 1980s-set family dramedy is like a Bruce Springsteen or Billy Joel song come to life, with a working-class Italian-American townie (Skyler Gisondo) romancing an upper-middle-class college student (Madison Iseman) over Christmas in a Pennsylvania rust belt town.

10. A Kiss Before Dying (Gerd Oswald, 1956) Robert Wagner makes for a perfect smarmy sociopath in this noirish melodrama about a social climber who romances and then murders (or attempts to murder) two daughters of a wealthy industrialist.

Honorable mentions: Cruising (William Friedkin, 1980); A Few Good Men (Rob Reiner, 1992); The Outlaw Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood, 1976); Sorcerer (William Friedkin, 1977); The Wages of Fear (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953)

Previous lists:

Friday, January 07, 2022

The best TV series of 2021

Although I still review TV shows pretty steadily, it's been a while since I put together a full yearly top 10 list, in part because I tend to get behind on keeping up with shows I'm not writing about. But even though I missed many of 2021's most acclaimed shows (Succession, The White Lotus, Squid Game), and fell behind on some others that I previously enjoyed (Insecure, Star Trek: Discovery), I saw plenty of great TV series this year, more than enough to write up this (belated) list of shows worth watching.

1. Yellowjackets (Showtime) I haven't felt this level of week-to-week excitement for a show in quite some time, perhaps since the heyday of series like Lost and Battlestar Galactica. There is a lot of Lost in creators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson's vision for this series, which flashes back and forth between characters stranded in the wilderness and their lives back home. But what's so brilliant about Yellowjackets is how it finds new ways to mix and match various elements of its influences, from Lost to Lord of the Flies to Stephen King's It. The acting from both the teenage stars and the more famous adult stars is fantastic, and the storytelling is riveting and unpredictable. More in my CBR review.

2. Landscapers (HBO/HBO Max) I'm surprised that this show hasn't gotten more critical attention at the end of the year, and that it wasn't even all that extensively reviewed when it first premiered. Given the proliferation of mediocre-to-poor true crime series (both narrative and documentary), Landscapers is a welcome deconstruction of the genre, with great performances from Olivia Colman and David Thewlis as a codependent married couple who were convicted of murdering the wife's parents. The show uses surreal, dreamlike techniques to depict the fragile mental state of the main characters, along with frequent fourth-wall-breaking to call attention to the entire concept of true crime storytelling. It's both thoughtful and heartbreaking. More in my CBR review.

3. Midnight Mass (Netflix) I've mostly enjoyed Mike Flanagan's feature films, but I've been less enthusiastic about his longform series. I gave up on The Haunting of Hill House before finishing it, and never watched The Haunting of Bly Manor, so I was skeptical of this latest horror miniseries. Midnight Mass is a bit ponderous and long-winded, but it's also beautiful and bleak, full of genuine horror as well as genuine wonder. Hamish Linklater and Samantha Sloyan are both terrifying as two different kinds of villains, and Zach Gilford and Kate Siegel make the upstanding protagonists into fascinating, multilayered characters. There are a lot of lengthy, heavy monologues, but the actors make them work, and Flanagan balance the intense scares with meditations on mortality. More in my CBR review.

4. Girls5eva (Peacock) Tina Fey's own new show of 2021, NBC's Mr. Mayor, is a middling, mildly amusing effort, but this show from her longtime collaborator Meredith Scardino (with Fey as executive producer) comes closer to capturing the spirit of 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. It's similarly densely packed with jokes, many of them with references to '90s and '00s pop culture, the era when the eponymous girl group was a brief success. Stars Sara Bareilles, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Busy Philipps and Paula Pell have great chemistry as the former pop stars attempting to navigate a reunion in their 40s, and the catchy music is a perfect recreation of a particular time and place, while also packing in just as many jokes as the dialogue. More in my CBR review.

5. Schmigadoon! (Apple TV+) If nothing else, I have to appreciate that a streaming behemoth produced a star-studded six-episode homage to a genre (the classic Hollywood musical) that hasn't been popular in decades. This is a loving tribute to and parody of old-fashioned musicals, and it's also a fabulous musical on its own. Cecily Strong proves that she could carry a Broadway show, alongside actual Broadway stars like Kristin Chenoweth and Alan Cumming. It's also director Barry Sonnenfeld's best work in years, the perfect fit for his blend of whimsy and snark. Everything in this magical, musical town is lovingly recreated, and spending time there is a delight. More in my CBR review.

6. Only Murders in the Building (Hulu) Of course Steve Martin and Martin Short are a lovely comedic team (and I have fairly low patience for Short, who properly tones down his mania here), but it's their collaboration with Selena Gomez that really makes this show work. It's a funny but gentle satire of true crime podcasts and NYC privilege, a sweet story about intergenerational friendship, and a pretty decent murder mystery, too. More in my CBR review.

7. Hacks (HBO Max) The best representation of Las Vegas on TV since the third season of GLOW (even though very little of it was shot here in Vegas), this is also an intelligent comedy about aging and sexism in showbiz. Jean Smart is excellent as the kind of Vegas entertainment lifer that is very familiar to me after covering local productions for so long, and she brings layers to a character who seems at first like a simple caricature. Hannah Einbinder matches her as the snarky youngster who is also more than a set of recognizable quirks, and their growing friendship and respect is endearing without being sappy.

8. Central Park (Apple TV+) Coverage of this show's second season was virtually nonexistent, but it's still sweet and funny and full of multiple Broadway-caliber songs in each episode. Yes, I have two Apple TV+ musical series on this list, but they're very different shows. The animated Central Park is a warm, inviting ode to family and the oddities of New York City, and the second season deepens the character relationships while pulling back on the serialized story. It's family-friendly in the best way, and I hope it gets more attention when new episodes resume.

9. Star Trek: Lower Decks (Paramount+) This is another animated series that seemed to get very little coverage in its second season, but it remains my unlikely favorite of all the current Star Trek series. It's a perfect combination of respect for and mockery of the franchise, both rooted in the creators' extensive knowledge of Star Trek lore. I'm only a casual Trekkie, so I certainly miss quite a few references, but the show stands on its own as a fun, lighthearted space adventure with appealing characters and creative missions.

10. Search Party (HBO Max) The fifth and final season of this dark comedy is already streaming, but this entry is about the fourth season, which continued to showcase the main characters' entitled awfulness in hilarious and disturbing ways, while remaining engaging and clever. Even when creators Charles Rogers and Sarah-Violet Bliss make a misstep, it's always bold and unexpected, and they always have a new even more outrageous direction to take the story next. The fourth season ends at a perfect stopping point, but I'm still eager to see what the new season has to offer. More in my Slant Magazine review.

Honorable mentions: Ted Lasso (Apple TV+), Mr. Corman (Apple TV+), Starstruck (HBO Max), WandaVision (Disney+), Reservation Dogs (Hulu), We Are Lady Parts (Peacock), The Shrink Next Door (Apple TV+), Brooklyn Nine-Nine (NBC)

Saturday, January 01, 2022

My top 10 non-2021 movies of 2021

When I started making these lists in 2008, I was inspired by a random commenter on an AV Club post. Letterboxd didn't exist yet, and I hadn't seen anyone else regularly recap their year of watching movies from previous years. Now, I see lists of "first-time watches" all over social media, sometimes monthly, and I think it's an awesome development, highlighting people's explorations of cinema's past (even if it's just a year or two in the past). Maybe that makes me less special for posting this list every year, but it's still one of my favorite things to do. These are the best movies I watched for the first time in 2021 that were initially released in previous years. 

1. The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955) This is the first time in a while that I've had a well-known classic at the top of this list, and of course it's shameful that it took me this long to watch Laughton's lone directorial effort, featuring an iconic, terrifying lead performance from Robert Mitchum. What's great about Mitchum's performance is the way he shifts so easily from the ingratiating, likable preacher to the menacing killer, while making it clear that those two sides are part of the same continuum within a single person. The story is suspenseful and often unexpected, and the haunting visual style, influenced by German expressionism, is still astounding nearly 70 years later. It's pointless to lament that Laughton never made another movie, but it's also impossible to watch this movie without having that thought.

2. Prospect (Zeek Earl & Christopher Caldwell, 2018) I love sci-fi movies that feel like they are a glimpse into one out-of-the-way corner of a fully realized future world offscreen. Earl and Caldwell clearly had a small budget for this sci-fi movie set on a remote mining planet, and all they really need are a couple of worn-out space suits and a janky-looking pod command center set in order to create a believable alien setting. Prospect is full of unexplained jargon that gives it a more authentic, lived-in feel, and the core of the plot is about the relationship between Pedro Pascal's hardened prospector and Sophie Thatcher's fierce teenage girl. It's a timeless human story of survival and connection, with plenty of nods to classic Westerns, given new life by being placed in an otherworldly context.

3. Outland (Peter Hyams, 1981) And speaking of sci-fi worlds that are believably grungy and lived-in, this mostly forgotten Sean Connery vehicle could easily take place across the solar system from Prospect. It's also about blue-collar space miners, rank-and-file employees rather than Prospect's freelancers, toiling for a heartless company that would rather get its workers addicted to productivity-enhancing drugs than offer them decent working conditions. Connery plays the outsider security chief who's the only man of integrity on the base, setting up a High Noon-style showdown with organized criminals. Connery is at his ornery best as the upstanding lawman, and Hyams delivers a noir-style crime story in the midst of convincingly ramshackle future technology.

4. Klute (Alan J. Pakula, 1971) This year, I wrote articles on two vintage Jane Fonda movies that I love (The China Syndrome and Barbarella), and this could fit right alongside them, with another complex, intelligent and alluring Fonda performance. She plays Bree Daniels, a high-end escort in New York City who gets caught up in the investigation of a missing executive. Donald Sutherland plays the title character, the private detective on the case, but this is really Fonda's movie, and she makes Bree into a smart, capable woman who isn't defined or diminished by her profession. The movie has a remarkably forward-thinking perspective on sex work for 1971, never denying Bree her own agency as a person. Often grouped in with Pakula's other 1970s conspiracy thrillers The Parallax View and All the President's Men, Klute is more personal than political, although the way the two seamlessly blend together is part of what makes it great.

5. Wait Until Dark (Terence Young, 1967) I watched this movie right before we started our 1967 season of Awesome Movie Year, and I almost switched up my pick for the season after seeing it. I'm happy with Point Blank (which topped this list for me in 2019), but Wait Until Dark is an excellent, somewhat underrated thriller, making great use of a single location and a simple home-invasion premise. Audrey Hepburn was deservedly Oscar-nominated for her role as a blind woman facing criminals who break into her house looking for their smuggled drugs. She conveys the character's terror and vulnerability, but also the defiance that she musters to prove that she doesn't deserve to be a victim just because she's disabled. Alan Arkin is devious and menacing as the main villain in the kind of role he doesn't usually play, and Young comes up with new and inventive ways to maintain tension in the confined space.

6. Casting JonBenet (Kitty Green, 2017) I had Green's debut narrative film The Assistant pretty high on my 2020 top 10 list, and this docu-fiction hybrid has many of the same unsettling qualities. It's a deconstruction of the idea of true-crime documentaries -- which have proliferated even further since it was released -- as well as an interrogation of the motives for people's obsessions with the murder of JonBenet Ramsey. Green uses deliberately artificial re-enactments featuring actual members of Ramsey's local community, and she interviews those people about their reactions to and thoughts about the crime. The movie is less interested in investigations and solutions than in perceptions and emotions, using the participants as a reflection of the crime, and vice versa.

7. Seconds (John Frankenheimer, 1966) Rock Hudson plays with his pretty-boy image as the reconstituted version of a frustrated middle-aged man who accepts an obviously sinister offer to be reborn as a handsome playboy. The concept of Seconds is a Twilight Zone-style morality play that sounds a bit limited at first, but Frankenheimer turns it into a surrealistic nightmare that's also a meditation on the culture clashes of the 1960s. Hudson is great as the tortured everyman who doesn't appreciate his mundane life until he loses it -- and then is violently prevented from ever getting it back. More in my Inverse spotlight piece.

8. The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch, 1940) I ended up watching quite a lot of Christmas movies this year for various articles, and this was catch-up viewing for my list of HBO Max Christmas offerings. It definitely has a holiday flair, and the climax takes place on Christmas Eve, but it's not quite as Christmassy as many seasonal favorites. It's probably best known now as the source material for the Meg Ryan/Tom Hanks rom-com You've Got Mail (which I've never seen), but it's more than just a love story between two bickering retail employees (played by James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan) who don't realize they're secretly romantic pen pals. It's a witty, warm portrait of all the employees at this little shop in Budapest, the community that forms among workers and the ways they come together in the face of their various emotional and financial struggles.

9. Dredd (Pete Travis, 2012) This movie has become an unlikely cult classic since its 2012 box-office failure, and it's not hard to see why. It's a simple, brutal and efficient action movie, with a plot similar to The Raid, as the main characters work their way up an enormous high-rise en route to a showdown with the main villain. Travis and writer Alex Garland balance that B-movie simplicity with effective bits of sci-fi world-building, and even as someone largely unfamiliar with the comic book source material, I got a clear sense of the scope of this dystopian future. Karl Urban is dedicated to the title character's taciturn grimness, never even taking off his helmet, so it falls to Olivia Thirlby to provide the character development and emotional arc as his partner, and she delivers, while retaining the focus on the suspense and action.

10. Highlander (Russell Mulcahy, 1986) As I said on Letterboxd: I really screwed up by not watching this like 25 times when I was 12 years old. It delivers everything I loved about movies at that age (and still mostly love now) in a stylish, fabulously entertaining package. Mulcahy directs the hell out of this cheesy sci-fi/fantasy nonsense, crafting what is essentially a two-hour bombastic '80s rock video. The Queen music is majestic and fits the epic material perfectly, the shot composition and visual transitions are creative and evocative, and Clancy Brown (looking like Glenn Danzig for the first two-thirds of the movie) is a perfect villain. Instead, kid me obsessively watched the Dolph Lundgren Masters of the Universe movie, which I now realize is just an inferior version of Highlander.

Honorable mentions: The Tall Target (Anthony Mann, 1951); A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon (Will Becher & Richard Phelan, 2019)

Previous lists:

Sunday, January 03, 2021

My top 10 non-2020 movies of 2020

Slightly behind schedule, here's one of my favorite traditions of the year (which has become an increasingly common practice for others as well, since the rise of Letterboxd), my list of my favorite movies from earlier years that I saw for the first time in 2020.

1. The Innocents (Jack Clayton, 1961)
Henry James' The Turn of the Screw had a bit of a resurgence in 2020 with the feature film The Turning starring Mackenzie Davis and Mike Flanagan's Netflix miniseries The Haunting of Bly Manor, and I hope that any curious viewers of those will look back at this stunning earlier adaptation from director Jack Clayton, based on the play by William Archibald. Deborah Kerr is phenomenal as Miss Giddens, the governess hired to take care of orphans Miles (Martin Stephens) and Flora (Pamela Franklin), who either encounters ghosts or slowly loses her mind while isolated with the children on the family's sprawling estate. Kerr perfectly balances her performance between madness and compassion, and the child actors both project an eerie self-assurance. The CinemaScope images from cinematographer Freddie Francis are breathtaking, and the sound design is unsettling, especially the use of the ethereal theme song "O Willow Waly." It's hard to imagine anyone doing a better job of bringing this story to life.

2. Emma (Douglas McGrath, 1996)
The article I spent the most time researching, pitching and writing in 2020 was this Vague Visages piece on the greatness of Gwyneth Paltrow in the 1990s, and my viewing of Douglas McGrath's adaptation of Jane Austen's classic novel was the spark for that story. I initially watched this movie to prepare for the new version directed by Autumn de Wilde and starring Anya Taylor-Joy, and while I think Taylor-Joy is brilliant, that movie fell a little short for me. This one, on the other hand, is a pure delight, led by Paltrow's fabulous performance as the well-intentioned meddler Emma Woodhouse, who is oblivious to her privilege but also humbly open to learning from her mistakes. The various romances are all satisfying, the writing (from either Austen or McGrath) is witty, and the performances are all effortlessly charming.

3. Gold Diggers of 1933 (Mervyn LeRoy, 1933)
This pre-Code musical is a sheer joy, even as it tackles the realities of the Great Depression from the perspective of out-of-work theater professionals. Ruby Keeler, Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon and Ginger Rogers play four Broadway dancer/singer/actresses struggling to find work when shows close before they can even premiere (the opening features authorities seizing sets and costumes for non-payment), and they are all giddy and witty in that particularly naughty pre-Code manner. There's a silly romantic storyline about Keeler's Polly falling for a rich heir (Dick Powell) who's also an aspiring composer, which provides the requisite mix-ups and entanglements. The sharp dialogue is as entertaining as the dazzling musical set pieces from Busby Berkeley, one of which features Rogers singing in Pig Latin, clearly the height of cinema.

4. Secrets & Lies (Mike Leigh, 1996)
We covered this movie (which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes) as part of our 1996 season of the Awesome Movie Year podcast, and it's a great example of Mike Leigh's humanistic, character-driven storytelling, with justifiably lauded and awarded performances from Brenda Blethyn, Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Timothy Spall. It takes the kind of storyline that could come from a sensationalistic TV movie (an upper-middle-class Black woman reconnects with her working-class white birth mother) and treats it with warmth and sensitivity, more about forging genuine connections than about exploiting divisions.

5. Home Before Dark (Mervyn LeRoy, 1958)
I didn't even realize before gathering details for this list that I had included two movies by the incredibly versatile Mervyn LeRoy. Home Before Dark could not possibly be more different from Gold Diggers of 1933, and not just because it was made 25 years later. It's a rich, serious drama about a fragile woman (an excellent Jean Simmons) attempting to adjust to regular life after spending a year in a mental institution, and encountering hostility, suspicion and gaslighting from nearly everyone in her life. I watched it to include in this tribute to the late Rhonda Fleming, who often cited it as her favorite role. Fleming is good as the main character's scheming stepsister, but this is Simmons' show all the way, and she brings vulnerability and a reserve of unexpected strength to this surprisingly nuanced and progressive drama about mental illness.

6. Let's Scare Jessica to Death (John D. Hancock, 1971)
Although this low-budget production has one of the all-time great horror-movie titles, it's more of a slow-burn psychological thriller than a horror movie. Similar to The Innocents, it's the story of a possibly unstable woman (Zohra Lampert's Jessica) living on a remote estate and believing that she's seeing apparitions. And like Home Before Dark, it's the story of a woman recently released from a mental institution who is treated with suspicion by the people in her life. Jessica, her husband and their best friend embrace a hippie lifestyle by moving to an old country house in Connecticut and attempting to work as farmers, and they let a squatter they find in their new house continue living there. But Emily (Mariclare Costello) may be more than a harmless drifter, with ties to the house's sordid history. Director John D. Hancock builds creepy atmosphere in the house and the surrounding town, and the story takes on an impressionistic, dreamlike quality as Jessica slowly loses her mind, or is tormented into believing that she is.

7. Thelma & Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991)
I finally got around to watching this movie as part of a round-up on road trip movies that I wrote (somewhat ironically) just before the pandemic lockdown, and it lives up to its reputation as a rollicking thriller with a dark edge. Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon are fantastic as the title characters, who free themselves from their downtrodden lives when they inadvertently embark on a crime spree. Director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Callie Khouri portray female empowerment and rebellion against the patriarchy without losing the movie's sense of raucous fun. Some of it goes a little too far over the top, but it all builds beautifully to that iconic (and remarkably cynical) ending, in which the only way to truly defeat a rigged system is to opt out of it entirely.

8. Anna and the Apocalypse (John McPhail, 2017)
This was the one movie on my list of Christmas horror recommendations that I hadn't previously seen, and I'm grateful to that assignment for pushing me to watch a movie I'd had in my queue since it came out. Like Gold Diggers of 1933, this is a joyous musical about a dark subject, although zombies are less of a real-world concern than economic depression. The cast of mostly unknown young actors capture the outsize emotions of teen angst as well as the terror of witnessing the end of the world, and then they engage in gleeful song-and-dance numbers about it. The catchy original songs don't end when the violence begins, and director John McPhail successfully balances the music with the violence, giving proper attention to both. The filmmakers impressively integrate multiple genres into an entertaining and weirdly heartwarming movie.

9. The Right Stuff (Philip Kaufman, 1983)
The recent Disney+ adaptation of Tom Wolfe's nonfiction book about the early days of the American space program was a disappointment, but reviewing it got me to watch this earlier film adaptation, which is quite long (over three hours) but is consistently engrossing. Director Philip Kaufman somehow fits more range and nuance into his movie than the series creators can fit into an entire TV season, and he includes the story of pioneering test pilot Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard) that the series leaves out. Yeager's refusal to join the space program and the way he's subsequently left behind adds a melancholy counterpoint to the scenes of hotshot future astronauts like John Glenn (Ed Harris) and Gordo Cooper (Dennis Quaid). The movie makes these towering national heroes into flawed, even sometimes unlikable people, bringing them satisfyingly back down to Earth.

10. Pumping Iron (George Butler & Robert Fiore, 1977)
This is another Awesome Movie Year selection, and I didn't really have any expectations for this documentary about the bodybuilding scene in the late 1970s. But it's so much fun to watch, with future stars Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno hamming it up for the cameras, alongside other bodybuilding champions who became minor celebrities. Schwarzenegger comes off like the villain on a reality TV show, self-consciously playing up his devious scheming in a way that he would never do now that he's a beloved celebrity and former politician. It's a fascinating glimpse into a younger, less guarded Schwarzenegger, and a snapshot of a scene poised between wider pop-culture recognition and weird underground subculture.

Honorable mentions: Beverly Hills Cop (Martin Brest, 1984); Dark Water (Hideo Nakata, 2002)

Monday, December 28, 2020

The best movies of 2020

As has been the case for the last few years, although I wrote a lot of articles and reviews about a lot of movies in 2020, I didn't have an outlet for a traditional top 10 list. So here are my favorite movies (plus some favorite performances) of a very strange year for cinema, in which theaters were mostly closed but I probably saw more new releases than I ever have before.

1. Dreamland I remain surprised that this movie hasn't become a major awards contender, but I don't want to turn people off by describing it as typical Oscar bait. The Depression-era drama about an intense but doomed connection between a fugitive bank robber (Margot Robbie) and a troubled dreamer (Finn Cole) explores elegiac themes about the lost American dream, with a strong Terrence Malick influence (albeit more accessible than anything Malick has made in quite some time). Gorgeous cinematography, haunting score, careful pacing, evocative use of cross-cutting, and a great performance from Margot Robbie make this easily my favorite movie of the year.

2. Selah and the Spades Tayarisha Poe makes a striking debut with this gorgeous, clever and totally original take on the high school drama, with what should be a star-making performance from Lovie Simone as the title character, who runs the mafia-like underground at an elite prep school. Poe combines the plot elements of a crime thriller (threats, betrayal, rival factions) with the environment and activities of a typical high school (the major showdown is over the prom). The visuals and the dialogue are heavily stylized, immersing the audience in a world that is both unique and entirely familiar. More thoughts in my CBR review.

3. Gretel & Hansel I saw Oz Perkins' third feature in a mostly empty movie theater back in January, when people weren't staying away because of pandemic restrictions, but because apparently nobody cared about this movie. But they missed out on another haunting, atmospheric horror movie from Perkins, who has established a distinctive impressionistic style in his three films. His take on the classic fairy tale is moody and artistic, with a surreal narrative, gorgeous production design, and great lead performances from Sophia Lillis (as Gretel, a young woman tempted by dark power) and Alice Krige (as the witch who attempts to bring Gretel under her spell). More thoughts in my Piecing It Together podcast appearance.

4. The Invisible Man This is another horror movie I got to see in a theater before the pandemic shutdown, although I watched this one with a full house, and that probably added to my enjoyment of Leigh Whannell's delightfully suspenseful reimagining of the iconic Universal monster movie. Elisabeth Moss is predictably great as the victimized woman standing up for herself against a literally invisible abuser, making the somewhat absurd scenario completely believable and emotionally devastating. And Whannell creates such a convincing narrative that he manages to generate tension just by pointing his camera at empty spaces. More thoughts in my Film Racket review.

5. Banana Split There were quite a few charming teen coming-of-age movies this year, but this delightful comedy from co-writer and star Hannah Marks was easily my favorite, with its story about the bonds of teen-girl friendship transcending any romantic entanglements with boys. Marks and Liana Liberato have fantastic chemistry as two teenagers who should be fighting over the same guy (one is his ex, one is his current girlfriend) but instead discover that they love hanging out together far more than they care about who's dating whom. It's joyous and funny while tackling real, complex emotions. More thoughts in my Crooked Marquee capsule review.

6. The Assistant The scene in which Julia Garner's title character attempts to report her boss' serial sexual harassment and abuse to her company's HR department is the best (and most uncomfortable) scene I saw in any movie this year. Kitty Green's movie is full of those mundane and yet horrifying moments that add up to a portrait of the dehumanizing cost of being a low-level female employee at a corporation full of entitled men who never face consequences for their actions.

7. Bad Education I loved director Cory Finley's first film, the dark teen comedy Thoroughbreds, and Bad Education (which he directed but didn't write) is a very different kind of story. But it's sharp and funny and wonderfully acted by Hugh Jackman (in possibly his best-ever performance) and Allison Janney, among others, taking a ripped-from-the-headlines scandal and turning it into a meditation on the costs (and benefits) of institutional corruption. More thoughts in my Film Racket review.

8. Palm Springs This rom-com riff on Groundhog Day is far more than that high-concept pitch suggests. It's a smart take on the time-loop formula, a hilarious comedy about the soul-sucking experience of attending a destination wedding, an existential musing on the nature of identity, and a giddy romance between two soft-hearted cynics played by the dynamic team of Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti.

9. Shithouse This is a frighteningly assured debut from 23-year-old writer/director/star Cooper Raiff, who finds honest, vulnerable ways to tell a familiar story about two young people (college students played by Raiff and Dylan Gelula) discovering a thrilling, unexpected connection. The story struggles a bit after the heady first night the two characters spend together, but it's still a sweet romance and a sensitive look at the difficulties of being away from home for the first time.

10. Boys State I don't watch nearly as many documentaries as a lot of critics (or my Awesome Movie Year podcast co-host Jason Harris), and I tend to prefer nonfiction films that play more like cinematic narratives. So this character-driven documentary about a mock-government retreat for Texas teens works perfectly for me, making incisive (and scary) points about the political future of our country while remaining focused on its engaging central personalities.

Honorable mentions: The Dark and the Wicked, The Devil All the Time, Driveways, The Platform, Sea Fever, Swallow

Top five lead performances: Julia Garner, The Assistant; Elisabeth Moss, The Invisible Man; Hugh Jackman, Bad Education; Margot Robbie, Dreamland; Christopher Abbott, Possessor

Top five supporting performances: Brian Dennehy, Driveways; Allison Janney, Bad Education; Cristin Milioti, Palm Springs; Rene Auberjonois, Raising Buchanan; Frank Langella, The Trial of the Chicago 7

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Bette Davis Month Bonus: 'John Paul Jones' (1959)

I'm not sure I should even bother including the 1959 biopic John Paul Jones in my Bette Davis series, since Davis' appearance in it is so brief that in the intro to the TCM showing I recorded, Ben Mankiewicz referred to her role as a cameo. Davis gets a splashy "special appearance" title card all to herself in the opening credits, but she only shows up for about four minutes near the end of the movie. The rest of the two-hour-plus movie belongs to Robert Stack as the title character, a hotheaded naval commander considered one of the founders of the modern U.S. navy.

The final film directed by John Farrow (father of Mia, who briefly makes her first onscreen appearance at age 13), John Paul Jones is a lavish but stilted military epic, full of bombastic patriotism but very little human emotion, even in its attempts at depicting its title character's romantic dalliances. Stack is stiff and robotic as Jones, like an exhibit in Disney World's Hall of Presidents, playing the rough-and-tumble Scotsman as a humorless scold who condescendingly dismisses pretty much all of his colleagues as spineless idiots.

The characterization may not be far off, since the real Jones was known for his questionable leadership tactics and possible criminal activities as much as for his bravery and strategic insight. But this movie glosses over any sordid aspects of Jones' life, portraying him as unerringly honorable and correct, whether arguing with the founding fathers of the United States or facing down a rival British sea captain. He comes off as equally pompous when interacting with his love interests, neither of whom get much screen time or make much of an impact on the story. Charles Coburn brings some earthy wit to his performance as Benjamin Franklin, whom Jones befriended during the Revolutionary War when he was based in France, but he's the only cast member who brings one of these historical figures to life.

And what about Bette Davis? She plays Russian Empress Catherine the Great, who employed Jones' services for a few years after the war, and she's appropriately regal in her brief appearance, even getting to speak some Russian and French. After that, though, it's back to Stack's bloviating, which continues all the way to Jones' deathbed. The movie is framed by modern-day Navy footage, connecting Jones to the integrity and honor of the contemporary American Navy, in a way that plays like an extended recruitment film. Given the movie's lackluster sea battles and self-important blowhard of a hero, though, it's hard to imagine it convincing anyone to sign up for military service.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Bette Davis Month Bonus: 'Beyond the Forest' (1949)

Bette Davis' final film in her 18-year career at Warner Bros., Beyond the Forest is mostly known for its extraneous qualities, from the behind-the-scenes battles that led to Davis' departure from Warners, to her later comments about its low quality, to the bad reviews (including a designation from the founder of the Razzies as one of "the most enjoyably bad movies ever made"), to the iconic Davis line ("What a dump!") that's generally used as a clip without any context. Although it's still mostly regarded as terrible, Beyond the Forest has also picked up a cult following of sorts, like any campy movie with big stars tends to do, and some critics have re-evaluated it as subversively brilliant.

I fall somewhere in the middle, I suppose. Watching the movie, I had kind of forgotten about its reputation, so aside from waiting for that famous line (which is such a throwaway that I never would have guessed it was particularly notable), I wasn't focused on how notorious it apparently is. Mainly, as usual with these lower-tier Davis movies, I was watching for Davis' performance, which is vampy in the extreme, possibly because she held the production in such contempt and just decided to let loose on what she felt was a poor script. Davis plays Rosa Moline, a vain housewife who's contemptuous of her small Wisconsin town and her square doctor husband Lewis (Joseph Cotten).

Rosa dreams of moving to the big city (Chicago, just because it's the closest), and is having an affair with a rich businessman named Neil Latimer (David Brian) who clearly does not care about her at all. The movie is sort of a tragedy about Rosa's ambitions ruining her happiness and ultimately leading to her death (after she attempts a self-induced abortion by literally throwing herself off a cliff), but Rosa is such a haughty, mean-spirited person that it's hard to sympathize with her. Davis is great at playing these kinds of imperious villain figures, but the movie doesn't seem to know whether Rosa is actually a villain or not, and so Davis' nasty line readings don't have much of an impact.

Poor Joseph Cotten plays the world's blandest, most upstanding man, who endures all of Rosa's abuse with saintly patience, takes her back after she runs off with Neil and then is rejected, and serves his small-town patients with compassion and dignity, even if they can't pay. The dynamic between them is so lopsided that there's no interest in them staying together, but there's also no reason to want to see Rosa end up with Neil, especially after she commits murder just to keep word of her pregnancy a secret. Seeing Rosa end up dead isn't very satisfying, either, since she's at least partially a victim of sexist expectations of women (and possibly of unspoken racial prejudice, according to some viewers who read her as Latina, although that's never explicitly stated).

Director King Vidor puts together some striking compositions (as is often the case, Davis makes sure to get great lighting during her most dramatic scenes), and the story is so increasingly over-the-top that it's at least an entertaining train wreck. It's not quite insane enough to qualify as a camp classic, and I think the people who read sophisticated social commentary into it are reaching too far. But it's far from Davis' worst film, and it's certainly far from the least memorable (any number of 1930s cheapies outweigh it there). It's at least worth a look from anyone interested in Davis' late-period turn toward camp icon.