Friday, January 24, 2020

Audient Authentic: Nanook of the North

This is the first in my new 2020 monthly viewing series, in which I’m watching classic documentaries from before 1990 that I haven’t seen.

Welcome to the new series, and welcome to the movie that actually inspired it.

I had noticed Nanook of the North being available on Kanopy some time ago, and thought it was kind of funny that I had never seen it before, it being such a seminal film in the history of cinema, and in the history of documentary in particular. And it’s not like I only belatedly became aware of it. I’m pretty sure it was at least referenced if not fully discussed back in my Art of the Film class by my teacher, Mr. Brown. That was 1990, my senior year in high school, and the very year I think of as having gotten into cinema, in large part because of that class. That’s also why it’s the year I’ve chosen as the upward cutoff for movies I will watch in this series.

But indeed I had not seen it, and within six months of adding Nanook to my viewing list on Kanopy, I thought, “Why not make a series out of it?”

Hence Audient Authentic was born, and so, this made a logical first entry.

Before I started watching Nanook I thought it was a shame I had not waited two more years to think of this series, as it would have allowed me to watch Nanook in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of its release. But the best time to put any good idea into action is now, so Audient Authentic couldn’t wait. At least I watched it on January 22nd, which felt appropriate for a movie from 1922.

Another thing about seeing a movie from 1922 as my first movie is that it will allow me to tackle this series chronologically, at least potentially. While that has some tricks to it, like my ability to source the movies in question and not getting ahead of myself, I think it’s a worthy goal to try to start out that way and see how I go. I’ll attempt to progress through the decades and I won’t get to movies from the 1980s, for example, until the autumn. I know the second movie I have in mind will conform to this strategy, as it remains in the 1920s, but I’ll tell you more about that later on in this post.

First off I wanted to say that I loved Nanook. It’s a joyous celebration of the day-to-day successes (most often) and failures (rarely) of an Inuit man and his family. The rare failures also seem joyous as the title character always has a huge grin plastered on his face. Whether he was playing to the camera or whether this was an accurate representation of his true outlook, I don’t know for sure, but director Robert J. Flaherty certainly asserts it’s the latter in his opening text, as he interacted with these Inuits for long periods of time on multiple journeys to the Hudson Bay and northern Canada. The score also communicates the idea that this is all pretty joyous, though the music I heard was composed in 1998, so it can only be considered a very recent influence on the way a person watches this movie.

Despite my love for what I was watching, I gave Nanook “only” four of a possible five stars on Letterboxd. This could have something to do with my general perception of documentaries, which in the past I have tried to describe as “the documentary ceiling.” That idea was that most documentaries we see easily exceed a minimal level of quality, but only on rare occasions are they the kind of outstanding viewing experiences that stick with us throughout our lifetimes. My four stars for Nanook recognizes its importance in the history of cinema and its basic enjoyment as a viewing experience, but also, I suppose, suggests that it’s not a movie whose themes I am going to continue to examine over time, or whose filmmaking was particularly distinctive. It is a great artifact if not a “great” film the way we would assign such language to the consensus best films in the history of the medium.

The thing that may have surprised me the most about Nanook of the North is how much surprised me. I guess I figured that most of the ways Inuits live their lives would have filtered down to me over the years, but this was most certainly not the case. Among this film’s surprises:

Inuit people can fit multiple people into a kayak seemingly intended for one. My mind was blown straight off in this movie as Nanook’s family is introduced to us by them all steadily emerging, clown car style, from a kayak that seems like it’s only holding one person. By shrinking themselves into the kayak’s availability cavities, Nanook’s family could travel with him in his kayak. And not just one or two others, but three other people – one a full-grown adult – as well as a dog. It wasn’t that I couldn’t imagine they could fit, but that it showcased absolutely no sense of the type of claustrophobia that would cripple most of us in that scenario. Given how much time they spend in wide open spaces, I might have thought the Inuit would not like an enclosed space, but then again, they do spend time huddled together in small igloos, remaining in physical contact as they sleep to create more warmth. I suppose this is just an extension of that. However, it also makes for a really great way to start the movie. Kudos to Flaherty for thinking of it.

Inuit people sometimes killed their prey with their teeth. In a fascinating sequence that shows Nanook fishing, it also shows him subduing/killing his catches by biting them. You’d think a knife would be both available and a much more efficient way of doing this, but no, the teeth work just fine. I should say, in some research I’ve done since then, I’ve found that the word “eskimo” is considered derogatory because it is said to mean “eater of raw meat.” However, there can be no doubt that this is what the Inuit people actually do, as there is a later scene that shows them helping themselves to walrus before they can return it to camp and cook it, so hungry are they due to a general paucity of food options in their climate.

Inuit people can build an igloo spontaneously, in a matter of hours. I had always assumed there was something semi-permanent about an igloo, like, maybe the same family would live in the same igloo for years on end. As it turns out, if you are off on an extended hunt with your whole family and have no hope of returning to your more regular settlement, you can built an igloo wherever you are. Now, the film does not show the making of the igloo in real time, obviously, so I only had to get a sense for how quick the process might be. But it seemed like they could do it in only a couple of hours, which is pretty cool indeed.

Inuit people can also sculpt spontaneous art from the snow. This is not necessarily something I didn’t know, but something I was charmed by. There’s a moment when they make a little statue of a polar bear out of the snow. You’d expect something like that could be crude, but it was really good!

Inuit people chew boots. Some text in the film advises that sealskin boots can harden overnight, so Nanook’s wife chews his to diminish some of that effect.

Dogs can get igloos, too. If Inuit people can quickly build igloos, they can even more quickly build dog-sized igloos. If asked, I might have assumed the family pet would just huddle with them on the animal skins they sleep on. But perhaps it is more heat efficient for the animal to be protected in its own enclosure, and indeed, their pet gets his/her own igloo. Of course, the dogs that pull the sleds have sufficiently warm coats to just sleep outdoors.

I hope it goes without saying that I know this is not how Inuit people now, the present tense I used in the previous section of this post notwithstanding. But it's how they lived 100 years ago. 

Another scene I loved in the film involved them catching a baby white fox, and the way the fox playfully nips at one of the little kids who gets too close to it. I was worried they would eat that fox, so I was glad to see it survive intact – on screen, anyway.

So obviously I got a lot of nice and engrossing moments out of Nanook of the North, and I think it must have been a really amazing document for audiences who simply had no idea what this part of the world actually looked like. And even in 2020 it is opening my eyes to things I never knew about.

From a filmmaking perspective, I was perhaps most impressed about the pace Flaherty keeps going in this film. Some films from that era seem particularly indulgent and slow-moving, but Flaherty has a good sense for his viewers' attention spans, even though those attention spans would have been capable of so much more back then than ours are in 2020. He moves from segment to segment and gets the thing in at only 79 minutes, where I’m sure he would have had enough footage to make a film twice that long if he’d wanted.

I also really liked the title cards that narrate the action. While they are reflective of the sort of flowery style that was in fashion at that time, I found some of their descriptions to be more than merely flowery, sometimes crossing over into the poetic.

As a last comment, another pleasant surprise about the film is that I didn't find it to be patriarchal, condescending, or worst of all, racially insensitive. This was around the time D.W. Griffith was thoughtlessly diminishing the value of every racial minority he could find, and I'm pleased to say Flaherty did not learn from his example. The film finds these Inuits whimsical, but not in a way that I thought was uncharitable. His style suggests that he is energized by what he is discovering from them, not bemused by it, and that is indeed the right perspective to have for one of the world's first documentaries. 

Okay, off to a good start! Next month we’ll move forward only seven years to the highest ranked movie on the 2012 Sight & Sound poll that I have not yet seen, #8 on that list, Man With a Movie Camera. If, you know, you want to play along at home.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

An option, not an audit

In no small amount of irony, I’m about to write a post about a “perfect crime” that I would appear to have gotten away with – until I decided to write this post about it. But what can I say, my dear viewers? You deserve my innermost thoughts, even when they implicate me.

So my wife was away in Sydney for a couple nights last week, and on the second night, I belatedly remembered that I usually use her trips out of town as an opportunity to watch a thing that I wouldn’t feel comfortable watching while she was there, or that would just invite too many questions. I don’t necessarily mean something titillating, although sometimes I do, and in this case, you will see that I do. Sometimes it’s just watching a movie where if my wife were here, and she walked through the room, she’d say (or at least think) “Why the hell are you watching this?” Sometimes easiest just never to have that question come up at all.

I didn’t have a specific choice in mind that fit this description Friday night, so I went digging for one. I typed the word “erotic” into the search area in Stan, our Australian streaming service, and indeed, it came back with a bunch of choices that seemed to kind of plunge beneath the surface of what they usually promote on the site. I felt like I’d unlocked a secret door.

Now, I didn’t want to watch just any tawdry, sleazy movie. There’s porn if that’s really the type of thing I’m looking for. But it’s interesting sometimes to watch classic instances of tawdry sleaze, ones that may have actually had some level of artistic credibility at the time they were released, or have developed that in the years since. As an example, one time she was out of town last year, I watched the notorious Japanese film In the Realm of the Senses, which is, for all intents and purposes, pornography. And which I really hated.

There was a good candidate on Stan: The Story of O. I had heard this whispered about when people talk about well-known smut, and I was thinking about queueing it up when I called an audible at the last minute. Maybe it was the memory of In the Realm of the Senses, which was also made in the early 1970s, but at the last minute I changed horses.

“Just any tawdry, sleazy movie” it is.

The choice I pivoted to was The Receptionist from 2016, as you will see from the poster above. I won’t go into why I selected it, but this poster certainly had something to do with it.

It’s not a very good movie, but neither is it as bad as you might think. It was directed by a woman, Jenny Lu, and in the end, that could certainly explain why I didn’t get the titillation I admit I was seeking. I knew it was about the receptionist in an illegal massage parlor, but I didn’t guess that it would be more of an exposé of illegal massage parlors and the women who feel like they are forced to work there because life didn’t go their way. And it has some nice moments, some honest moments, examining this subject matter.

In the end, though, it was a total bait and switch. I ended up watching a reputable movie which actually had nary a moment of female nudity in it. A reputable movie with a disreputable poster.

A disreputable poster that was now in my Stan viewing history.

It was a problem I anticipated before I even started, which is why I first looked on iTunes (though didn’t know what I was looking for) and Kanopy before settling on Stan. I don’t share a watch history with my wife on those other platforms, but do on Stan. However, we watch Stan a lot less, so I thought it was a better option than Netflix, anyway.

Now, I should remind you that I was not really trying to “get away with something.” More than anything, I was trying to avoid an immediate moment of embarrassment or an implied question by my wife walking through the room. I don’t actually have a problem with her discovering that I watched The Receptionist while she was out of town, and I think the very existence of this post should be proof of that.

But if I could avoid it …

I thought about doing some artificial viewing on Stan in order to push The Receptionist down in the watch history. Maybe I couldn’t purge it, but I could push it off the first page of most recent viewings, if she ever landed on that page. In fact, I had a fairly easy way of doing it. My younger son watches a show called Henry Danger, and there are about 30 episodes of Henry Danger after the most recent few things we watched, each of which assumes its own distinct slot in the viewing history. I could have just gone in and pressed play on those episodes consecutively until enough of them had pushed The Receptionist into the nether regions (pun intended) of the viewing history.

It turns out, it was much easier than that.

I don’t know why this only occurred to me belatedly, but Stan makes it very easy for you to delete something from your viewing history, kind of a streaming service equivalent of deleting your browsing history. But you don’t even have to delete the whole history. You can just go into the history, choose the movie you want to remove, and remove it. There’s a button that says REMOVE right there.

Fifteen seconds later, it was done.

“And I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren’t for you meddling blog post writers.”

So why did I write about this?

Because it occurred to me that a viewing history on a streaming service is an option, not an audit. And now you finally understand the title of this post.

I had always assumed that a viewing history was intended as some kind of irrefutable record of what has been watched on the service, something that would hold up in a court of law. You could see the value of that type of thing if you wanted to know what your kids had been watching, and I’m sure you can actually set it so that titles cannot be removed, just for that purpose.

But for normal adults who just want to get away with watching a softcore skin flick while their partner is out of town, it’s only an option to have an unmolested viewing history. You can tweak it how you see fit. I don’t suppose you can add movies to it, not without pressing play, but subtracting? Sure, why not?

And if my wife does learn about my viewing of The Receptionist by reading this post, well, more power to her. She’s not a frequent reader of my blog so I doubt she will. But better she finds out about it this way, through a transparent dialogue open to the whole world, than by wondering why a viewing of a softcore skin flick – that’s actually really not a softcore skin flick – is buried deep behind 30 episodes of my younger son’s favorite TV show.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

A double dose of the devil from the year of my birth

The first movies I've rewatched in ages whose release year didn't start with "201" were actually released in the year I was born.

On Saturday night, I had planned to actually watch a different movie from the year of my birth and then a movie from the 1990s, but I had to adapt on the fly and ended up with quite the spontaneous double feature.

Jesus Christ Superstar from my own collection was supposed to be that movie from the year of my birth, 1973. But we've been having problems with our DVD player lately and it just wouldn't play. I got the little red Ghostbusters symbol when I pushed the play button on the face of the player. The ability to remotely control this device from its native remote control, a different smart remote control or an app on my phone is part of its myriad problems and has long since gone by the wayside.

So I had to pivot to what ended up being another movie from 1973, The Wicker Man. This was only a coincidence, as the way I found it was not thinking "What's another good movie from 1973?" but rather looking at the stack of movies I just borrowed from the library on Friday. (Incidentally, one of my favorite moments from the new viewing year is when you go to the library and load up on titles without worrying about whether they help you form some kind of list or not.) The Wicker Man was actually the only movie in that group that I had already seen -- once, about four years ago -- so it helped scratch the itch of rewatching something rather than watching something new. That it would keep the groovy vibes of 1973, which I had intended to produce via Jesus Christ Superstar, was an added bonus.

You might have expected me to run into a similar wall as I had with JCS, since both were DVDs, but my player would play this one. Who knows. Maybe the issue was that JCS originated in the U.S. while this one was an Australian DVD, but it shouldn't matter since our player is region-free. Anyway.

The second movie was going to be The Cable Guy, just because. But once I'd gotten to the end of The Wicker Man, I tried JCS again to see if the successful playing of The Wicker Man had somehow resolved the player's stubbornness about JCS. It had not. But having made this attempt, I realized it would be nice to keep going with the early 1970s vibe I was working on, and having to pivot again from JCS allowed me to keep the horror vibe going as well.

I'm not sure if it was the release year itself that was more responsible for the pivot I chose, or the fact that I've been trying to get this movie on my viewing schedule for the first time in two decades, but I ended up finding The Exorcist streaming on Netflix, remembering correctly that I'd seen it there. It was kind of a shame not to watch this in October, as I did the last time I saw it (Halloween of 1999, in the theater no less), but I didn't want to wait another nine months to watch it when I could watch it right now.

It may not be totally accurate to call these both "devil movies," as the paganism of the citizens of Summerisle sets itself up in opposition to Christianity in a way that does not specifically align itself with the devil. An outsider might (and does) characterize them as devil worshippers, but they would not see themselves that way. But they were definitely both 1973 horrors, which made me realize what a great year for horror that was. There may not be any other examples (I'd have to look), but I reckon truly chilling horror movies that endure for decades don't come along very often. You're lucky to get one per year let alone two.

I also noted that the films would make a great double feature for Ari Aster to show anyone who wanted to understand his influences. The impact of The Wicker Man on Midsommar is obvious to the point of hitting you between the eyes, and this viewing was particularly instructive for me in light of seeing the latter film twice within the past six months. You wouldn't call Midsommar a remake of The Wicker Man, but it has enough elements in common that The Wicker Man is certainly the first film you'd name if you were trying to find a film most similar to Midsommar. It warrants no additional examination here.

The influence of The Exorcist on Hereditary might not be quite as evident, but it's plain as day as soon as you unpack it. Both films deal with the incursion of the devil into an innocent host, and this innocent host is actually a young girl (a 12-year-old girl?) in both instances. (Nope, Charlie is 13 in Hereditary -- totally different.) Hereditary's Gabrielle Byrne even looks a bit like Jason Miller's Father Karras, plus Toni Colette and Ellen Burstyn both give tour-de-force performances of grief.

But the thing that really interests me is the way the physicality of devil possession in The Exorcist influenced countless future horror filmmakers, Aster in particular. Regan McNeill is of course famous for the way her head can spin all the way around and the way her body can contort -- not only the writing of "help me" in her stomach and the way her body folds up at 90 degree angles to the bed, but, in a director's cut that I did not see on Saturday, the way she crawls down the stairs, crab-like, her stomach pointing toward the ceiling. That same sensibility appears in Hereditary when [a character] (might as well not spoil it) is seen clinging to the underside of the attic door, repeatedly banging his/her head against the door in a rapid motion no human being could produce.

I've probably taken up enough of your time but I'll end with a few assorted observations from my viewings of these two films.

- Brit Ekland's seductive Wicker Man nude dance remains a terrific moment of 1970s glory, as does the use of the song "Corn Rigs." In fact, I wondered as I was watching whether this movie was nearly as good when it came out as it is now. Its ability to capture a specific place and time is one of its charms, and in 1973, it would have just been a contemporary movie.

- I love the moment when Edward Woodward's character is searching houses for the missing Rowan Morrison, and what appears to be the body of a young girl falls out of a wardrobe. She seems perfectly corpse-like when she hits the ground. But then she kind of rolls her eye up toward him and grins, to indicate it's all been a joke. It's a neat acting trick and it's creepy as hell.

- The strength of Woodward's religious fervor at the end is something to behold, especially when contrasted with the similar level of fervor displayed by Lord Summerisle and his followers. It's an interesting potential bit of commentary by Robin Hardy. Who is the real wacko here?

- I'm not sure if this was the first use of animal masks in a horror movie -- probably not -- but it's incredibly chilling.

- I love the final shot of The Wicker Man, as the camera travels past the burning head of the wicker man to the setting sun, which goes behind the clouds in the time it takes for the credits to roll. That could not have been easy to pull off.

- I love the Northern Iraq prelude in The Exorcist. It doesn't at first seem like it has anything to do with the rest of the movie, but it sets the tone, which is particularly interesting as it all occurs in the daylight.

- I can't believe that Max Von Sydow, who is still around at 90 years old, was playing old in a movie that came out 46 years ago. He was only 44 in this movie and yet he has to take pills to control some kind of palsy in his hands. Also, the other priests in Washington openly wonder if he is too old to perform an exorcism. Now granted, they used makeup to make him look older, but there's no way Von Sydow looks two years younger than I am now. Maybe I'm baby-faced but it was a bit shocking to consider. It made me think of how young Ian McDiarmid actually was when he played old as the emperor in Return of the Jedi, a fact I feel like I discuss on a regular basis because I'm just so impressed by it. Which is funny because Von Sydow also appears in a Star Wars movie, very briefly, playing old when he was actually old in The Force Awakens. When you consider that The Wicker Man's Christopher Lee also has an extensive Star Wars history from the prequel trilogy, that is quite the set of coincidences indeed.

- I still think possibly the single most disturbing moment is when Regan comes downstairs during her mother's party and looks blankly at the guests, saying "You're going to die out there" and urinating on the floor. I'm getting goosebumps just typing it.

- I continue to remain impressed at how raw they allow things to get in terms of Regan's language and actions, as she drops a bunch of f-bombs and appears to stab herself in her own vagina with a crucifix. This was not your father's horror movie.

- I love the editing in this film, as William Friedkin (or really, his editors, Evan Lottman and Norman Gray) have no trouble smash-cutting out of a seemingly important moment and into the next scene. I refer specifically to Father Karras sitting with the other priest in the diner (I believe it is) and saying "I've lost my faith." Most films would allow a moment for the other priest to react and try to convince him that this is too rash of a stance. Instead, by cutting immediately to the next scene, it leaves no doubt about the fact that this is a true statement and he really means it. Which makes his steady recovery of his faith over the course of the rest of the narrative all the more powerful to behold.

Okay, fast forward again to present day, and onward.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

What the Lux?!? Breaking the age relativity rule

I'm not sure if there is actually an "age relativity rule" in cinema the way there is, for example, a "180-degree rule." But there should be.

What do I mean by an "age relativity rule"?

Well let's get into that by way of the movie that prompted me to coin the phrase, if I am indeed coining it.

I watched Vox Lux on Thursday night, my first new viewing after all the 2019 viewings were done and dusted. As it turned out, it was also a landmark of sorts, my 5,500th movie watched of all time. I decided to spare you the pomp and circumstance of writing an entire post devoted to this minor milestone. But, as you will see, Vox Lux inspired me to write about it in another way.

In Vox Lux, Natalie Portman plays a trainwreck pop star, giving me flashbacks to a much better and also more recent film, Alex Ross Perry's Her Smell, which made my top ten of 2019. However, she only plays Celeste as a 31-year-old, which is already a small bit of a stretch as Portman was about 36 when she filmed it.

For the first half of the movie or thereabouts, we see Celeste from ages 13 to 15, when she is played by Raffey Cassidy, who you will know from such films as Tomorrowland and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. No offense to Portman, who can be quite a good actress, but having her technique contrasted so directly with that of Cassidy does her no favors. I'm not saying Cassidy is the better actress overall, but here she certainly is. Cassidy makes Celeste seem like a real person, while Portman makes her seem like an outsized caricature -- who for some reason has developed this weird, affected New York accent, or at least that's what it sounds like it's trying to be. Her character is supposed to go way downhill over the course of the narrative, but Portman utterly fails to honor anything about Cassidy's choices and thereby fails to convince us it's the same person.

This is not the biggest problem related to this character within the movie, though. The biggest problem is actress Stacy Martin, who plays Celeste's sister, Ellie.

At both ages.

You may know Martin from Nymphomaniac Vol. 1, in which she plays the young Jo. It's relevant to what I'm about to discuss that Lars von Trier saw the character aging out of Martin's ability to play her, because that's not the same choice Brady Corbet makes in Vox Lux.

Martin is 29 now, having just turned 29 on January 1st, which hey, is the same birthday as my younger son, who just turned six. That means she was about 27 when she made Vox Lux. She seemed a little old to play the older sister of the 13-year-old Celeste, but you never know how much older an older sibling may be. She could be 20 years older. But Martin is a pretty baby-faced actress, so if you told me she was playing only five years older than Celeste I would have believed it. I bought it and didn't question it.

Until we see Celeste at age 31 and Ellie is still being played by Martin. But now Celeste is being played by a woman who is nine years older than Martin. Yet Celeste is not only supposed to be Ellie's younger sister, she may be significantly younger.

When Martin first came on screen after I'd been sitting with the new Celeste for nearly ten minutes, I almost said out loud "What???"

It's a dilemma filmmakers certainly have to tackle. In movies where characters age, it would be very common to have a character graduate from childhood to adulthood and be played by different actors, but have a character who is an adult for the entire movie, their parent or someone like that, played by the same actor, only made to look a bit older through makeup or hairstyles or what have you. In fact, Jude Law is an example of this very thing in Vox Lux.

But Jude Law is 47 years old, making him the same amount older than Portman than Portman is older than Martin. So there's no disconnect and it seems perfectly normal in this case.

What doesn't seem normal is Portman leap-frogging over a baby-faced actress who is supposed to be playing her older sister but now looks much, much younger than she does. There is not even any apparent attempt to make Martin look older through makeup or another strategy. I mean, even with Law they give him different hair to account for the approximately 18 years that have elapsed since we first met him. (They allowed him to bald into his current look, which couldn't have particularly stroked Law's ego.)

The even stranger thing about the whole thing, which made me do a particular double take, is that when Martin comes back on screen again when she's in her 30s, she is flanked by none other than Raffey Cassidy.


So Corbet made the weird choice to have had Celeste have a baby in her teens. This occurs off-screen. It's previewed in the narrative by the fact that Celeste has started to do drugs and be sexually active at age 15, so it doesn't come out of nowhere. But it's a bit difficult to imagine an approximately 17-year-old Celeste having a baby and also still becoming one of the biggest pop stars in the world. Maybe it's not totally unprecedented but it also doesn't strike a chord of realism.

So Cassidy is now playing Celeste's daughter at approximately the same age Celeste was when Cassidy was playing Celeste. What's more, she pretty much dresses the same and has the same hairstyle. So when this daughter (Albertine by name) comes on screen walking next to her aunt, appearing to have the exact same dynamic with Stacy Martin as when Cassidy was playing Martin's sister, it's just uncanny. Why did Corbet have to make such a distracting choice?

If it had something to do with some theme Corbet was trying to explore about life being cyclical or something of that nature, then that was lost on me. But then again, it wasn't the only thing about this film that was lost on me. My astute colleague John Roebuck pointed out in his review of Vox Lux that this movie doesn't know what it's about and may not be about anything, and I could not agree more.

Corbet sure does throw up some provocative subject matter (did I mention the movie also involves a school shooting and September 11th?), and he's got some great technique at times. But his actual ideas are frustratingly and fatally opaque.

So yeah, I guess my "age relativity rule" goes something like this: "Actors in a movie must always have the same relative ages as their characters, unless great pains are taken with makeup or digital aging technology to remove the awkwardness of an inversion of those relative ages."

Sound good?

Monday, January 20, 2020

The Audient gets authentic

Hey! Welcome to the post where I introduce you to my new monthly viewing series for 2020.

I had a topic all lined up, maybe for as long as the past year, but recent events have changed my thinking on the subject, and now that one will have to wait until 2021.

I couldn't help but notice that my top 20 of 2019 contained four -- count 'em, four -- documentaries, those being Hail Satan? (#7), The Australian Dream (#12), Apollo 11 (#13) and Fyre (#19). To give you some idea how different this is from recent years, my highest ranked 2018 documentary was Whitney at #29 and my highest ranked 2017 documentary was Quest at #17. (And, I actually had no documentaries in my top 25 of the decade -- shame shame.)

There has been an explanation for this, and in fact, it involves Quest. Quest was the final film I watched as part of my association with HRAFF, the Human Rights Arts & Film Festival, for which I vetted films for the 2016-2017 festivals. I didn't actually vet Quest, but watched it as the closing night film of the festival. And obviously really liked it.

But at that point it was too little, too late. I had already decided that I was not going to vet films again in 2018, as it added five (!) additional viewings per week from mid-August through late-January, and that was just too much for me. I was staying on top of the workload and still attending to my other viewing duties, but my wife was none too pleased with it.

The other problem was, an unexpected thing was happening -- or maybe, a thing I should have expected to happen but didn't:

I was starting to hate human rights documentaries.

And actually, what's more, I was starting to hate documentaries, period.

This won't do, not a for a cinephile. And yet you can't forcefully lift your aversion to something. If you're burned out on something, you're burned out on it, and only time heals that wound.

I think time may finally be catching up. And if so, I want to strike while the iron is hot.

So in 2020, I'm going to be watching documentaries. But not just any documentary. I'm still sick of the most common type of documentary I think we see nowadays, the prototypical example of which is a movie I have not seen. That prototypical example is called Chicken People, and it's about show chickens. That's right, chickens who compete in shows like their dog counterparts who compete in shows. Frivolous subjects like this just waste my time and yours, and even if Chicken People is actually a good movie, it offends my sensibilities as a person trying to rekindle his love of documentaries.

I'm not going to spend 2020 watching Chicken People.

In fact, I'm going to go into documentary's hallowed past and see the classic documentaries I haven't seen, the ones that really mattered, the ones that would either scoff at or laugh in the face of Chicken People. One per month, 12 in total.

I love the idea, but I do have to set some ground rules. Well, I guess just one. And that is, to figure out a line of demarcation between "classic documentaries" and "new documentaries."

I can't think of just one title that would function as a turning point, so instead, I'm going to look to my own life.

At first I thought of watching only documentaries from before the year I was born, 1973, but I decided that was too limiting. Part of my hesitation is that I already have a couple candidates in mind that are from later in the 1970s. So we need to look forward.

I probably didn't see a single documentary in the entire 1980s, or if I did, I'm not aware what it might be. I started really getting into film around 1990, and I probably saw my first doco soon after that. Something like Hoop Dreams comes to mind as a possible contender, but that was in 1994 and I know I would have started my documentary career before then.

So I've chosen 1990 as that cutoff, which is nice and even as the start of a decade. It'll also allow me to consider only movies that I wouldn't have naturally come across when they played in theaters, because I wasn't into that sort of thing yet.

As luck would have it -- "luck" -- this series also has a clever title that fits in with my preferred alliterative naming scheme. I'm going to call it Audient Authentic, which I slightly prefer over Authentic Audient. The latter makes it sound like I'm not usually being authentic with you. I hope I always am.

But I also think this gets in the idea that not only are these movies non-fiction, but they are non-fiction in a truly authentic way, when the documentary was seen as a serious-minded tool for revealing life's truths rather than a vehicle to put quirky stories into the world. I'm not saying every movie I watch will be a sober depress-fest, but I can guarantee you, there will not be the 1960s equivalent of Chicken People.

I've got a first title in mind that I plan to watch and post about before the end of January, and from there I'll bushwhack a path through the 20th century's best documentaries I have not yet seen.

I hope you'll join me.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Performers and directors of the decade

Do I really need to do two follow-up posts to my best of the decade post?


But this is the last, I promise.

As I was going through my list of 87 movies identified for further reconsideration for my best of the decade (82 of which I ultimately watched), I noticed both actors and directors appearing multiple times across the films. That naturally got the wheels spinning for me to honor them separately, hence this post.

I won't write an additional post this time explaining how I did it, but will give you a little bit on that right here.

For starters, I want to explain that this is not some be-all, end-all examination of who were the "best" actors or actresses (or directors) this past decade. That kind of thing might involve tallying Oscar nominations and the like, and that might be an interesting separate exercise, but that's not what I'm doing today. The honors in this post are based only on which movies I liked the best, so they ignore what I might have thought were great performances in mediocre movies. It seemed like the most effective way to filter and manage a post like this, while also keeping it very subjective to my own tastes.

And yet, there is also a non-subjective element to it. Unlike my "three who had a good year" segments in my year-end wrap-up posts, the methodology I'm using does not allow me to choose one person over another based on more nebulous, slippery criteria. I'm going by sheer number of appearances in my favorite films here, with a little wiggle room based on ties and factors like whether the person's work contributed significantly to my affection for the film. So if a dominant percentage of the actors who recurred in my favorite films are of a particular racial composition -- er, white -- then that isn't the result of a specific choice made by me in January of 2020. It's what the numbers bore out over time. And, I suppose, the cumulative effect of a number of small, individual choices. Hey, what can I say, I watched what I watched and I loved what I loved.

I'll also say that either actors or directors who did good work in 2019 are slightly disadvantaged by my system. If 2019 were a year in the middle of the decade rather than at the end, I'd have longer to figure out if those films were going to endure with me, and I would have reconsidered more of them, possibly even some that landed outside my top ten. I think that's just kind of inevitable with years at the end of the decade. Sorry 2019.

So director was pretty straightforward, as each film has only one of them, or at most two. (Okay, okay, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has three.) I put the 87 films in a spreadsheet, slapped the director's name(s) next to each, and sorted by the second column, thereby figuring out who appeared the most. Done and done. As there were only seven directors who had more than one film appear, I had to go outside the 87 in support of the director who appeared as a third honorable mention, but that seemed fair.

Actors were a bit more tricky. I also used a spreadsheet, and I went through the films listing every actor who was either of note or who had any likelihood of appearing in another of my films. For example, I didn't get too hung up on the cast of Tanna (though I did list the two leads) because I knew it was just academic to include them. This meant that some actors got credit for only a very small role in some of their films, but I did my best to account for that as well in breaking ties. In the end, I identified 278 (!) different actors across the 87 films, 240 of whom appeared in only one film.

Tedious. Exhaustive. That's me.

It may go without saying, but if it doesn't, I'll say it now. I didn't penalize anyone for appearing in/making bad films. You could have spent the entire decade making shithouse movies, but if you made two or three that I really loved, you were in. I did decide to mention the moves that may have detracted from their clean records, as you will see, and may have used them once or twice to break a tie. But I was by no means consistent about that.

Okay! Here we go.

Actresses of the decade

1. Emily Blunt 
Considered from the 87: Edge of Tomorrow (2014), Looper (2012), Sicario (2015), Your Sister's Sister (2012)
It was easy enough to award Blunt the accompanying art to this post, as she was the only performer to appear in four films from the original list of 87*. (See all the way at the bottom of this post for explanation of asterisk.) In a weird and surprising phenomenon, though, none of those films appeared in either my top 25 or my honorable mentions. Your Sister's Sister, my #2 of 2012, came closest. That does nothing to tarnish the way Blunt announced herself this decade, becoming one of the most capable A-list stars who you also never worried about in terms of her craft. She mostly played tough, as we would expect from female characters written really carefully nowadays, but I may have found the vulnerability she displayed in Sister to be some of her most affecting work this decade. I find it hard to believe that this talented actress has never earned an Oscar nomination (she was robbed for Sicario), and I hope to see that change in the coming years. Interestingly, her "imperial period" (to borrow a phrase usually reserved for music artists) occurred entirely within a four year span from 2012 to 2015, when all four of the above movies were released. But that's not to say she didn't do good work elsewhere in the decade, as you will see below.
Other notable works this decade: The Five-Year Engagement (2012) (really liked it), Mary Poppins Returns (2018) (liked it), A Quiet Place (2018) (really liked it)
Possible detractorsThe Girl on the Train (2016) (didn't like it), Into the Woods (2014) (hated it)

2. Zoe Kazan
Considered from the 87: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018), Meek's Cutoff (2011), Ruby Sparks (2012)
It may be surprising to see Kazan on this list, especially at #2, but she makes it on quality rather than quantity. Kazan was not in a lot of movies this decade compared to some of her peers -- she also spent some time writing -- but whenever she did appear on screen, she was great. I'm glad to have this opportunity to throw some love to my #1 of 2012, which was the only #1 I left off my top 25 (it was an honorable mention). As both writer and star of Ruby Sparks, Kazan is perhaps more responsible than anyone else for the success of that movie, a sly attack on the lazy screenwriting trope of the manic pixie dream girl. Contrary to what you might think, that was not a role she herself played very often, as her two other choices I considered are oddly similar, both involving characters on long and fateful wagon train trips across country. She may have been a part of the ensemble in Meek's Cutoff, but she carried the brunt of the effectiveness of the best segment of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which I was also sorry I could not give any more love before now.
Other notable works this decade: The Big Sick (2017) (liked it), What If (2013) (really liked it)
Possible detractors: The Pretty One (2013) (didn't like it)

3. Scarlett Johansson
Considered for the 87: Isle of Dogs (2018), Under the Skin (2014)
In the end, I really only considered one film where Johansson plays a major role, Under the Skin, in which she is pretty much the entire thing. Her role in Isle of Dogs, kind of a random choice to consider as it was only my #15 of 2018, couldn't really be said to move the needle in that giant ensemble cast. But that doesn't tell the true story of Johansson's decade, one in which I twice named her as one of three "who had a good year" (let's forget the once she was named to "three who had a bad year"). Scarlett Johansson was all over this decade, doing increasingly interesting and increasingly more realistic work as the 2010s went on. We always knew she could play a fembot -- that's pretty much the role in Under the Skin -- but her Oscar nomination for Marriage Story was based purely on her ability to portray an actual person. So when looking to why Scarlett Johansson makes this list, we may have to look more to the films down below this text than those above it.
Other notable works this decade: Avengers: Endgame (2019) (loved it), Captain America: Civil War (2016) (loved it), Her (2013) (really liked it), Jojo Rabbit (2019) (loved it), Marriage Story (2019) (really liked it)
Possible detractors: Ghost in the Shell (2017) (didn't like it), Rough Night (2017) (didn't like it)

4. Nicole Kidman
Considered from the 87: The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), Rabbit Hole (2010)
I may have really fallen in love with the acting skills of Nicole Kidman last decade, after following the rest of the world and pretty much snubbing her for the first 10-15 years of her career. But she came on strong at the start of the 2010s by giving perhaps my favorite naturalistic performance of the decade in Rabbit Hole. That didn't mean she couldn't still groove to the kind of weirdness she found with Stanley Kubrick in Eyes Wide Shut or with Jonathan Glazer in Birth. She teamed up with Yorgos Lanthimos for The Killing of a Sacred Deer and played a perfect type of sultry ice princess (if you'll go with me on that possibility) who isn't quite knowable. Kidman likes to work so her choices haven't always worked for me (Just Go With It, anyone?), but she has continued raising the bar throughout the decade, perhaps most notably in places I have yet to see her (Big Little Lies). My kinship with her is such that I feel defensive on her behalf when people snipe at her about plastic surgery or whatever other things they think she's guilty of. If Kidman really is worried about her age, she needn't be. At 52, she still looks great, but that doesn't matter, because those skills translate at any age.
Other notable works from decade: The Beguiled (2017) (loved it), The Family Fang (2015) (really liked it), Lion (2016) (loved it), The Paperboy (2012) (liked it)
Possible detractors: Just Go With It (2011) (didn't like it)

5. Jennifer Lawrence 
Considered from the 87: mother! (2017), Winter's Bone (2010)
It’s hard to believe that Jennifer Lawrence is someone we have known for only ten years, as her entire known career falls within this past decade. Winter’s Bone may not have actually been her first professional work, but it was the first time most people had ever seen her – unless you watched (ahem) The Bill Engvall Show. She went on to be nominated for four Oscars over the course of the next decade, winning one. Lawrence’s toughness and girl-next-door authenticity were both on display in Winter’s Bone, but my favorite performance she gave this decade might be the one where she had her bearings the least. Darren Aronofsky’s mother! subjects her to nearly von Trierian levels of sadism in a story about how a young bride’s life is falling apart after her famous older husband starts losing interest in her, which is only one of a kajillion interpretations of the film. There’s no other way to interpret the performance of Lawrence than brilliant as she looks on in horror at the social contract exploding around her, and her house becoming the site of nothing less than biblical apocalypse. It’s sad to me that Lawrence has taken a step back from the spotlight as I am interested every time I see her name attached to a project. 
Other notable works this decade: American Hustle (liked it), The Hunger Games (2012) (really liked it), Silver Linings Playbook (2012) (loved it), X-Men: First Class (2011) (really liked it)
Possible detractors: Joy (2015) (didn't like it), X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019) (hated it)

Honorable mentions

1. Rooney Mara
Considered from the 87: A Ghost Story (2017), The Social Network (2010)
Other notable works this decade: Ain't Them Bodies Saints (2013) (liked it), Carol (2015) (liked it), The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011) (really liked it), Her (really liked it), Side Effects (2013) (really liked it)
Possible detractors: Mary Magdalene (2018) (didn't like it), Pan (2015) (hated it)

2. Emma Stone
Considered from the 87: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014), La La Land (2016)
Other notable works this decade: Battle of the Sexes (2017) (really liked it), Crazy, Stupid, Love (2011) (loved it), Easy A (2010) (really liked it), The Favourite (2018) (really liked it), The Help (2011) (liked it), Magic in the Moonlight (2014) (really liked it)
Possible detractors: Aloha (2015) (didn't like it), Irrational Man (2015) (hated it), Movie 43 (2013) (hated it), Zombieland: Double Tap (2019) (didn't like it)

3. Kristen Wiig
Considered from the 87: mother! (2017), The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013), The Skeleton Twins (2014)
Other notable works this decade: Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013) (really liked it), Bridesmaids (2011) (loved it), Date Night (2010) (really liked it), The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015) (loved it), Ghostbusters (2016) (liked it), Her (2013) (really liked it), How to Train Your Dragon (2010) (really liked it), The Martian (2015) (really liked it), Masterminds (2016) (really liked it)
Possible detractors: Hateship, Loveship (2013) (didn't like it), Nasty Baby (2015) (hated it), Where'd You Go, Bernadette (2019) (didn't like it)  

Actors of the decade

1. Ethan Hawke
Considered from the 87: Before Midnight (2013), Boyhood (2014), First Reformed (2018)
It was a pretty straightforward choice to select Hawke as my #1 for the decade, as he appeared in three films I considered, all of which made either my top 25 or my honorable mentions. He has Richard Linklater to thank for two of those, and as you saw in yesterday’s post, Before Midnight was the “first alternate,” in other words, the last movie to get knocked out of my top 25. But as much as I appreciate the lived-in naturalism of the performances Hawke gives for Linklater, his collaborator for more than 20 years now, I think my favorite Hawke performance of the decade was the slightly more stylized one he gave for Paul Schrader in First Reformed. That’s not to say his portrayal of Ernst Toller is not naturalistic, but it’s a kind of heightened naturalism consistent with Schrader’s willingness to stray from realism when it suits him. I was really hoping Hawke would get Oscar nominated for that performance, which would have been only his third, but at least many other critics groups recognized his work. Hawke has been a consummate professional throughout his 35-year career and I know he’s always interested in breaking the boundaries of narrative cinema. It’s why I’m always interested in seeing his name attached to a new project. 
Other notable works this decade: Daybreakers (2010) (really liked it), Maggie's Plan (2015) (really liked it), Predestination (2014) (liked it), Sinister (2012) (really liked it), Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) (really liked it)
Possible detractors: The Purge (2013) (hated it), Regression (2017) (didn't like it)

2. James Franco
Considered from the 87: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018), 127 Hours (2010), Spring Breakers (2013)
James Franco is not a good guy, but hey, I don’t make the rules. Okay, I do make the rules, but I’m happy to include Franco based on the way his performance dominated (in a good way) two of my favorite movies of the decade. You can’t imagine either 127 Hours or Spring Breakers with any other actor, not because another actor could not do it – okay, I don’t know that another actor could do Alien – but because he put such a stamp on those roles that they don’t deserve to be in anyone else’s hands. The thing that blows my mind most about Alien is not that he preens like a gangsta, it’s that he’s actually a scared little boy preening like a gangsta, which most actors would not have thought to bring to that role. 127 Hours features a guy who is scared in a different way and is nearly being driven out of his mind from hunger and exhaustion, which Franco expresses perfectly. He’s not hugely important one way or another to The Ballad of Buster Scruggs so that’s just gravy. The much-deserved shaming of Franco in the latter half of this decade was disappointing to me not because I feel an inherent warmth toward the man, but because it means that going forward, he won’t likely get the same opportunities to give us more performances like these. 
Other notable works this decadeDate Night (2010) (really liked it), The Disaster Artist (2017) (really liked it), Howl (2010) (really liked it), The Interview (2014) (loved it), Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) (loved it), This is the End (2013) (really liked it)
Possible detractors: Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) (didn't like it), Why Him? (2016) (hated it)

3. Adam Driver 
Considered from the 87: BlacKkKlansman (2018), Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), Lincoln (2012), Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
Adam Driver may be the most interesting case on this whole list as he packed a decade’s worth of good performances into essentially a half-decade. Okay, Inside Llewyn Davis isn’t the second half of the decade, but I love his performance as Al Cody more in retrospect than I really recognized it at the time. (“Outer … SPACE!”) Speaking of outer space, it was when he emerged as Kylo Ren in 2015 that I started to appreciate the things that had eluded me about Driver when I first encountered him on Girls (the few episodes I watched). Three excellent turns as the unhinged spawn of Han and Leia really sold me on his innate skills that go well beyond his kind of mumblecore beginnings. This is the way Hayden Christensen wished he could have played Anakin Skywalker. Then my Driver lovefest was bolstered by his work with Spike Lee in BlacKkKlansman, in which he has to act the part of a guy who’s acting a part, which is no mean feat. At decade’s end I feel like I want Adam Driver to be in every new movie that gets made, and the rest of the world is catching up to me as he has now been nominated for Oscars in consecutive years.
Other notable works this decade: Frances Ha (2012) (loved it), J. Edgar (2011) (really liked it), Marriage Story (2019) (really liked it), Paterson (2016) (loved it), Silence (2016) (liked it), Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) (really liked it), While We're Young (2014) (liked it)
Possible detractors: The Dead Don't Die (2019) (hated it), The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2019) (didn't like it)

4. Paul Dano
Considered from the 87: Looper (2012), Meek's Cutoff (2011), Ruby Sparks (2012)
If we went back to the start of the century, Paul Dano would be even higher than this, but he doesn’t get to count movies like The Girl Next Door and There Will Be Blood for this decade. That said, the films he does get to count are quite solid, and his power coupling with Zoe Kazan (I just looked, they’re still together!) gets its second entrant on this list. Paul Dano has been kind of John Cusack’s heir apparent as the “weird looking” everyman leading man, which is appropriate as he and Cusack played the same character in Love & Mercy, a film that I could have revisited by virtue of it landing at #4 for me in 2015, but decided to rule it out from the start. He used those traits to their fullest in Ruby Sparks, but his intense desperation has been present in all of his roles this decade, from Looper to Swiss Army Man (another top ten movie I pre-emptively ruled out) to Meek’s Cutoff. He’s pursued other interests the last few years, making his feature directing debut with a film I did not like, Wildlife. Here’s hoping he gets back to what he does best.
Other notable works this decade: Love & Mercy (2015) (loved it), Okja (2017) (really liked it), Prisoners (2013) (really liked it), Swiss Army Man (2016) (loved it), 12 Years a Slave (2013) (really liked it)
Possible detractors: Cowboys & Aliens (2011) (hated it), Wildlife (2018) (as director) (didn't like it)

5. Chris Pine
Considered from the 87: Hell or High Water (2016), Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018), Wonder Woman (2017)
Captain Kirk was the role that really put Chris Pine on the map at the end of last decade, but that isn’t even where he’s shone in this one. He really demonstrated the range of his abilities in performances both essentially Kirk-like (funny and charming, the way he is in Wonder Woman) and those that are pretty much the exact opposite of that (laconic and world-weary, the way he is in Hell or High Water). In fact, Pine is so good in Hell or High Water – though he’s not the only one – that I was kind of shocked when the movie couldn’t find its way into my top 25 of the decade, settling for an honorable mention. His role in Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a lot more brief, and at first I kind of wished they’d given him Jake Johnson’s role until I saw how good Johnson was. The point is, at this point, I’ve decided beyond a shadow of a doubt who is the “best Chris” out of him, Hemsworth, Pratt and Evans. Just as he charmed the pants off of Gal Gadot, he’s charmed the pants off me, and that’s not even the only mode he has – not nearly.
Other notable works this decade: Horrible Bosses 2 (2014) (liked it), Star Trek Into Darkness (2012) (liked it), Z for Zachariah (2015) (really liked it)
Possible detractors: Into the Woods (2014) (hated it), A Wrinkle in Time (2018) (didn't like it)

Honorable mentions

1. Oscar Isaac
Considered from the 87: Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
Other notable works this decade: Annihilation (2018) (really liked it), Drive (2011) (liked it), Ex Machina (2015) (loved it), A Most Violent Year (2014) (liked it), Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) (really liked it)
Possible detractors: The Addams Family (2019) (didn't like it), X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) (didn't like it)  

2. Javier Bardem
Considered from the 87: Everybody Knows (2018), mother! (2017)
Other notable works this decade: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017) (liked it), Skyfall (2012) (liked it), To the Wonder (2013) (really liked it)
Possible detractors: The Counselor (2013) (didn't like it), The Last Face (2017) (hated it)

3. Mahershala Ali
Considered from the 87: Moonlight (2016), Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
Other notable works this decade: Green Book (2018) (liked it), Hidden Figures (2016) (liked it), The Place Beyond the Pines (2013) (liked it)
Possible detractors: Alita: Battle Angel (2019) (didn't like it)

Directors of the decade

1. Asghar Farhadi
Considered from the 87: Everybody Knows (2018), The Past (2013), A Separation (2011)
Farhadi easily wins the decade by being the only director who had three films that I considered for the decade’s best. What’s more, the fourth film he released this past decade – 2016’s The Salesman – won the best foreign language film Oscar, giving him two (along with A Separation). That I think this film is only mediocre is an indication of just how successful Farhadi has been. (Or maybe I’m still just mad at the movie for stealing the Oscar that rightfully belonged to Toni Erdmann.) When you consider that his 2009 film, About Elly, was also unearthed and made more generally available this decade, and that it is also a masterpiece, you have a truly staggering body of work to grapple with. Two other factors contribute to making these ten years all the more astonishing for Farhadi: 1) He’s an Iranian director, yet somehow avoided the type of government scrutiny that torpedoed fellow countryman Jafar Panahi, while still making films that seem pointed in their criticism of Iranian society; 2) He directed films in three different languages, those being Persian, French and Spanish. What a decade. 
Other works this decade: The Salesman (2016) (liked it)

2. Richard Linklater 
Considered from the 87: Before Midnight (2013), Boyhood (2014)
Linklater came within a hair of getting two films in my top 25, which would have made him one of only two directors to do that (see my #3), and only the third to do it in the history of these decade-end lists (Cameron Crowe had two in my top ten last decade, if you can believe it). But just because I decided Before Midnight was only my #26, it doesn’t take away from a decade of critical acclaim and exquisite invention for Linklater. It was impressive enough when he submitted his third entry in the best “aging along with the characters” series since Michael Apted’s Up movies. But then, as something of a surprise, the very next year he told everyone he’d been working on a movie for the past 12 years using the same four actors at different ages. Who does that? The answer is, the guy who last decade was experimenting with rotoscoping, which allowed him to put Waking Life on my last best of the decade list. Linklater has never been flashy with his technique (unless, of course, he’s using rotoscoping), but he has established himself as able to convey thoughtful humanism like few of his peers. He’s also great with nostalgia, as exemplified in one of the other movies below.
Other works this decade: Bernie (2011) (really liked it), Everybody Wants Some!! (2016) (really liked it), Last Flag Flying (2018) (haven't seen it), Where'd You Go, Bernadette (2019) (didn't like it)

3. Byron Howard 
Considered from the 87: Tangled (2010), Zootopia (2016)
Who? Exactly. And that explains why the only man to get two movies in my top 25 for the decade is only my third-best director for the decade (and why I haven't mentioned this feat in either of my previous decade-end posts). It's hard for most people, including myself, to understand exactly what role a director has in bringing an animated movie to the screen, since animation is one arena in which we don't typically think of the director as the primary auteur. In fact, the director rarely even has sole credit, and that was the case with Howard in each of his movies that made my top 25. But the fact remains that whether with Nathan Greno on Tangled or Rich Moore on Zootopia, Howard helped make two absolutely fantastic 2010s animated movies a reality. Did he tell the actors how to say their lines? Did he suggest how to "set up the camera"? To the first, probably yes; to the second, I have no idea. But without Byron Howard, I do know that it's a far less rich decade for animated movies. And hey, at the very least, we know he can hold a stuffed animal. 
Other works this decade: None

4. Barry Jenkins
Considered from the 87: If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), Moonlight (2016)
I greatly regretted that I couldn’t summon more affection than I did for Moonlight. I placed it in my top ten for 2016, at #10, but I felt like there might have been films below it where my personal affection was slightly higher (sorry, Hello My Name is Doris). If the whole film remained at the high level of its first third, which showcased a director I’d never heard of (Barry Jenkins) and all that this “newcomer” possesses in terms of craft, it’d have been my #1 of that year. I did revisit Moonlight for this project to be sure I didn’t actually love it (I didn’t), but there was no artificial inflation when it came to If Beale Street Could Talk, which floored me the first time and then pushed me through the floor into the earth on the second. Here Jenkins’ skills were matched with a story that was overall more resonant with me, and it left me in a near-stupor state. Moonlight would have probably resonated with me just as much if it had kept its momentum from the Mahershala Ali-led first act, which only goes to show that not only can Barry Jenkins pick ‘em, he can film ‘em too. 
Other works this decade: None

5. Gaspar Noe
Considered from the 87: Climax (2018), Enter the Void (2010)
Gaspar Noe made three films this decade, two of which I saw twice, and I also twice watched his one movie from last decade, Irreversible. That means I was never long without the singular weirdness of this French filmmaker, who is known for putting his entire closing credits – often smashed at the screen in crazy fonts, and with strobe lights and industrial music – at the beginning of the film rather than the end. Each Noe film thereby introduces you to the fact that you’re in for a ride, and a ride is what you get. Not only is his subject matter always shocking – graphically sexual in nature when it is not graphically violent, and sometimes both at once – but he films it in a way you’ve literally never seen before. Most of Enter the Void is shot from above, from the angle of a wandering spirit flying over the city of Tokyo. In Love, you get a head-on view of a penis ejaculating. In Climax, the camera goes literally everywhere, in such a manner that the only way I could think to describe it in my review was that it seemed to be on a fishing rod dangling over its subjects. I’m not sure how Noe does what he does, but I love it. 
Other works this decade: Love (2015) (liked it)

Honorable mentions

1. Joel & Ethan Coen
Considered from the 87: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018), Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Other works this decade: Hail, Caesar! (2016) (didn't like it), True Grit (2010) (liked it)

2. Damien Chazelle
Considered from the 87: La La Land (2016), Whiplash (2014)
Other works this decade: First Man (2018) (really liked it)

3. Bong Joon-ho
Considered from the 87Parasite (2019)
Other works this decade: Okja (2017) (really liked it), Snowpiercer (2013) (loved it)

Okay! That'll do.

Thanks for tuning in to a full week of year-end and decade-end writing. Tomorrow I will look forward to 2020 in a very explicit way by introducing you to what I'm going to be watching as a monthly series this year.

Oh, and here's that asterisk I promised you earlier:

* - I only belatedly noticed that Adam Driver also appeared in four of the 87 movies when I determined he had a small role in Lincoln. I had already written most of this post at that point, so I did not adjust my perspective mid-stream and allowed Blunt to keep the spotlight to herself. 

Saturday, January 18, 2020

How the sausage gets made: My 18-month road to the decade's best

Thanks for reading my best of the decade post yesterday. Now, to take you farther behind the scenes than you ever dreamed or wanted.

You don’t really need to know all the ins and outs about how I run my blog or, more to the point, how I make my movie lists, but I thought you’d be interested in learning about something I’ve been up to for the past 18 months without ever telling you about it. 

I enjoyed so much the project of identifying my best of the last decade in late 2009/early 2010 that I have been looking ahead to the end of this decade for several years now. That list was put together under some duress, over a period of maybe a couple weeks and no more than six weeks at the very longest. That meant maybe only ten rewatches to confirm my ongoing affection for the contenders, and then a bunch of movies I just slotted in based on my memory of them. Even rewatching those ten was complicated by the fact that I was also trying to finish watching 2009 movies, and I remember my wife getting annoyed at my lack of availability during those several weeks.

I wanted to be a lot more scientific -- or maybe just a lot more exhaustive -- as well as more available to my wife -- this time around.

So sometime in the summer of 2018 (winter of 2018 in Australia), I put together a list of contending films to rewatch for this best of the decade list. I did this by combing my year-by-year list of movies seen. Not my rankings, since those included only movies I saw in time to rank them, but rather, the ongoing lists I keep adding to every time I see a movie from a given release year. Some of those – particularly the years when I was watching movies for the Human Rights & Arts Film Festival (HRAFF) – have upwards of 230 titles in them, or maybe 80 more than I actually ranked that year.

My goal was to identify this list of contenders and then spend the year 2019 watching at least one per week. But the list of contenders was nearly 90 films long, or ended up at nearly 90 films after I inevitably added 2019 films and contenders seen for the first time in 2019. So I had to start earlier than this past January if I wanted any hope of fitting them all in.

So I started watching them not long after I came up with the list, even though it was not yet 2019. Hey, no time is too early to start on a project like this, even if means I might want to watch some titles a second time before all was said and done. I actually ended up watching three of these movies -- mother!, First Reformed and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse -- twice, though sometimes for other reasons. I didn’t hold myself to the standard of at least one per week until the start of 2019.

So instead of giving you a total alphabetical list, I’ll show you the movies I watched in order and with the date I watched them, then follow that up with the ones I couldn’t reconsider for whatever reason. I've only listed one of the two viewings, the "official viewing," for the movies I rewatched twice. If you’re curious, this also functions as sort of an extended honorable mentions from yesterday’s post, though as it turned out, my feelings toward certain films dropped enough on rewatch that I liked them less than certain titles I chose not to consider. Hey, my initial estimate of movies is not always unimpeachable.

So here that is:

  1. Moonlight (7/16/2018)
  2. Animal Kingdom (7/27/2018)
  3. Meek’s Cutoff (8/29/2018)
  4. The Killing of a Sacred Deer (9/11/2018)
  5. Melancholia (9/28/2018)
  6. Coco (10/13/2018)
  7. Beyond the Black Rainbow (10/19/2018)
  8. mother! (11/23/2018)
  9. First Reformed (11/30/18)
  10. Queen of Earth (12/13/18)
  11. Tangerine (1/6/19)
  12. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (1/9/19)
  13. Your Sister’s Sister (1/16/19)
  14. Edge of Tomorrow (1/26/19)
  15. Hell or High Water (2/2/19)
  16. 127 Hours (2/8/19)
  17. Zootopia (2/10/19)
  18. Toni Erdmann (2/17/19)
  19. Sicario (2/22/19)
  20. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 (3/1/19)
  21. The Last Five Years (3/5/19)
  22. What Maisie Knew (3/13/19)
  23. Lincoln (3/19/19)
  24. Moneyball (3/28/19)
  25. Nocturnal Animals (3/29/19)
  26. Isle of Dogs (3/30/19)
  27. Inside Out (3/31/19)
  28. Before Midnight (4/8/19)
  29. Boyhood (4/8/19)
  30. Like Father, Like Son (4/16/19)
  31. Whiplash (4/24/19)
  32. A Ghost Story (5/1/19)
  33. Gimme the Loot (5/7/19)
  34. A Separation (5/15/19)
  35. La La Land (5/19/19)
  36. The Lost City of Z (5/20/19)
  37. Climax (5/24/19)
  38. Love is Strange (5/28/19)
  39. Exit Through the Gift Shop (6/5/19)
  40. Take Shelter (6/12/19)
  41. Winter’s Bone (6/18/19)
  42. Ida (6/24/19)
  43. The Handmaiden (6/28/19)
  44. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (7/1/19)
  45. The Social Network (7/9/19)
  46. In a World … (7/16/19)
  47. Under the Skin (7/20/19)
  48. Beyond the Hills (7/24/19)
  49. The Hateful Eight (8/2/19)
  50. Berberian Sound Studio (8/7/19)
  51. BlacKkKlansman (8/13/19)
  52. Ruby Sparks (8/23/19)
  53. Everybody Knows (8/31/19)
  54. Rabbit Hole (9/3/19)
  55. Looper (9/13/19)
  56. Other People (9/17/19)
  57. Red State (9/27/19)
  58. Another Earth (10/3/19)
  59. Stories We Tell (10/7/19)
  60. What We Do in the Shadows (10/12/19)
  61. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (10/18/19)
  62. Wonder Woman (10/18/19)
  63. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (10/19/19)
  64. The Breadwinner (10/19/19)
  65. The Skeleton Twins (10/20/19)
  66. The Blackcoat’s Daughter (10/25/19)
  67. Upstream Color (11/1/19)
  68. Enter the Void (11/2/19)
  69. The Hunt (11/10/19)
  70. Creed (11/14/19)
  71. Parasite (11/14/19)
  72. If Beale Street Could Talk (11/22/19)
  73. Killing Them Softly (11/28/19)
  74. Your Name. (11/29/19)
  75. Four Lions (12/6/19)
  76. Inside Llewyn Davis (12/7/19)
  77. Tanna (12/9/19)
  78. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (12/14/19)
  79. The Past (12/21/19)
  80. Crazy Rich Asians (12/27/19)
  81. Tangled (12/30/19)
  82. Spring Breakers (12/30/19)
As you can see, that made for a total of 82 films I was able to rewatch before I cut it off at the end of 2019. I had an alphabetical list I was working from, and each time I’d see one I’d cross it off with the strikethrough feature on Microsoft Word (fun) and add it to the list you see above. If you examine those dates closely, you can see there were some times I was able to binge decade rewatches, such as my birthday weekend in October, when I watched five of them. And if you really do want to audit those dates, you’ll see I never failed to watch at least one movie in a calendar week, which I defined as Monday to Sunday, including the weeks I was out of the country on vacation or for family purposes. Go me.

As you can see, I saved my ultimate #1 and #2 for a double feature on the second-to-last night of the year, knowing they would be my #1 and #2 but not knowing which would be which.

I also short-listed but couldn’t watch the following:

The Arbor (2011, Clio Barnard) – One of my top ten of 2011, I simply could not find this anywhere. Unwilling to pirate, I left it out. Probably not a realistic contender anyway.

BPM (Beats Per Minute) (2017, Robin Campillo) – This I fully intended to rewatch, even though I’d only just seen it for the first time earlier in the year. However, I brought only its case with me to Tasmania at Christmastime, a fact I realized only once I’d gotten there. I had taken that DVD out of its case to test our DVD player when we were having a problem with it, and I never returned it. This meant I missed my window of opportunity to see BPM and also that I had to find a substitute or else risk not successfully seeing at least one contender every week of the year. Fortunately, our Tasmania holiday house had Crazy Rich Asians, a film I loved and had already seen twice, but had considered too frivolous to seriously consider it for my top 25 of the decade. But it actually deserved to be considered and it ended up advancing to the next stage, as you will see shortly. As for BPM, I really liked it but if I'm being honest with myself, it was not going to make it to the final 25.

Capharnaum (2018, Nadine Labaki) – I turned on this a little after my fellow podcasters did not like it as much as I did, but I ultimately never found this available for rental. I did not want to purchase it when I thought it probably was not that strong of a contender in the end.

Three Windows and a Hanging (2014, Isa Qosja) – This was a film I watched for HRAFF, but it was always obscure, and predictably, I could not find it. Again, not a serious contender, maybe, but something I wanted to shortlist nonetheless.

Vivarium (2019, Lorcan Finnegan) – As you saw if you read yesterday’s post, this has not had a theatrical release yet and I’ve already decided I might consider it for the best of the 2020s.

I also briefly had Toy Story 3 on my list, but removed it when I was honest with myself and decided that outside of the very ending, which makes me cry like a baby, I don’t love this movie enough for it to be a serious contender.

Just a few words on the watching itself. I plucked movies from a number of different sources, from my own collection to Netflix to iTunes to Stan (our Australian streaming service) to Kanopy (the free streaming service associated with the public library system) to library rentals themselves. Perhaps my most innovative rewatch was seeing Peter Strickland's Berberian Sound Studio when it played at MIFF as part of a retrospective of Strickland's work, which I wrote about at the time. Strickland was a big surprise omission from decade-end honors as he got two films in my top ten in the years of their release (Berberian and The Duke of Burgundy) but I steadily soured on those films just a bit (it occurred on my second viewing of Burgundy but not until my third of Berberian). Perhaps fitting as he ended the decade with what I consider to be sort of a turkey, 2019's In Fabric.

So the next step in the process was to whittle this list of 82 down to 50 films that I would duel on Flickchart in order to determine my top 25, with the next ten being my alphabetical list of honorable mentions. I eyeballed the list and eliminated the 20+ movies I knew had not impressed me enough on rewatch, then more regretfully shaved of the remaining strong titles that I knew were not quite strong enough to be serious contenders.

In order to begin dueling the remaining contenders, I created a Flickchart account specifically for the purposes of this project, containing only those 50 films. As it turned out, it ended up being 51. That’s because just a couple hours after I finalized this list of 50 on the morning of December 31st, I saw Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which ended up as my #2 of 2019 and actually ended up making my top 25 of the decade, as you will remember if you read yesterday’s post. Instead of bouncing one of the other contenders, I just added it.

Once I had these films added to Flickchart, I dueled them in my down moments for the next two weeks. It took a while to get the films in a semblance of the correct spots, in part because Flickchart’s algorithm is a bit goofy sometimes, meaning it will present the same duels several times within a space of 50 duels, and then never duel certain other films. For example, I got Tangled to be my #2 and Spring Breakers to be my #1, but a duel between those two movies never came up organically, so Tangled never had its natural opportunity to beat Spring Breakers and leap-frog into the #1 spot. (As this was something I’d already decided after that double feature on the final night.) The only way I finally got that to happen was by choosing the option to re-rank Tangled, which results in a series of duels involving Tangled and another movie, and is the only surefire way to force a particular film all the way to #1 on your chart. Using this same method helped fix the correct rankings for other films.

I had set my sights on duelling these films 5,000 times. That would remove any doubt that I had really thought this through. But as it turned out, I either didn’t have enough time or didn’t budget enough time. I also started to lose some of my enthusiasm when I had duelled two particular films for the 37th time, while still never getting certain other duels. But by this point, I had arrived at the correct relative position for my films either by chance or by force, so the full 5,000 were not needed.

After 2,196 duels, I came up with the following order. The top 25 should look familiar to you. The next ten are honorable mentions, but this shows you the order that they appeared, which you didn’t get from yesterday’s post. And then the last 16 are films I hated not to recognize in any way. They are now getting their moment in the sun.

  1. Tangled
  2. Spring Breakers
  3. Rabbit Hole
  4. The Social Network
  5. Tanna
  6. Like Father, Like Son
  7. Inside Out
  8. The Blackcoat’s Daughter
  9. First Reformed
  10. Under the Skin
  11. Beyond the Hills
  12. A Ghost Story
  13. Parasite
  14. Boyhood
  15. A Separation
  16. If Beale Street Could Talk
  17. 127 Hours
  18. Zootopia
  19. What Maisie Knew
  20. Toni Erdmann
  21. Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
  22. Red State
  23. Inside Llewyn Davis
  24. BlacKkKlansman
  25. Portrait of a Lady on Fire
  26. Before Midnight
  27. The Breadwinner
  28. Tangerine
  29. The Skeleton Twins
  30. Ruby Sparks
  31. The Last Five Years
  32. Hell or High Water
  33. Whiplash
  34. mother!
  35. Other People
  36. The Lost City of Z
  37. Coco
  38. Wonder Woman
  39. Melancholia
  40. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
  41. Your Sister’s Sister
  42. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
  43. The Past
  44. Creed
  45. Four Lions
  46. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  47. Everybody Knows
  48. Climax
  49. Enter the Void
  50. Exit Through the Gift Shop
  51. Crazy Rich Asians

I especially hated not to recognize my two Gaspar Noe films, Climax and Enter the Void, though as #48 and #49 their top 25 prospects were pretty clear, and my #2-ranked genre films from 2015 and 2017, Creed and Wonder Woman, which were very important to me in their respective years but have suffered just a tad on further reflection. Shout out also to Coco and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the two animation stragglers in what was truly an excellent decade for animation.

Okay, almost done here, but I did want to finish with a few stats, since there is no better place to put them.

Top 25 by year:

2010 – 4
2011 – 2
2012 – 1
2013 – 4
2014 – 3
2015 – 1
2016 – 3
2017 – 2
2018 – 3
2019 – 2

Films from 2010 made up three of my top four of the decade, giving credence to the notion that having the time to allow a film to sit with me is an important factor in my love for it. However, this theory is not necessarily borne out over the rest of the top 25. The years 2011 and 2012 yielded only three movies combined before we jump back up to four in 2013. Plus, every year from 2016 onward had at least two films, so maybe that’s the point where recency bias starts to play more of a role.

I didn’t specifically set this as a requirement this time, but last time I ensured that each year of the decade would be represented among the top 25 at least once. I was grateful to see that this occurred organically. I should say, however, that each ranking year was not represented at least once. By relegating my #1 of 2012, Ruby Sparks, to only an honorable mention, making it my only #1 not to make the top 25 (just like last decade when only Gosford Park failed to make the cut), 2012’s list got shut out of the top 25 entirely. However, because my #1 of 2013 (and #11 of the decade), Beyond the Hills, was a 2012 release in Romania, that got it in on a technicality as a representative for 2012. The funny thing is, I was really passionate about my movies in 2012, so much so that I was inspired, for the very first time, to write the wrap-up post that is now my traditional day-after follow-up to announcing my best of the year. So who knows.

Some more extraneous info:

Movie year represented most in my top 25 – 2010 & 2013 (4 films)
Movie year represented least in my top 25 – 2012 & 2015 (1 film)
Movie year represented most in the 87 films I had hoped to rewatch  – 2013 (13 films)
Movie year represented least in the 87 films I had hoped to rewatch  – 2019 (2 films)
Movie year represented least in the 87 films I had hoped to rewatch, without the asterisk of being the last year of the decade – 2012 (7 films)
Only film in my top 25 that I did not see in time to rank it in its ranking year (though I did see it in the theater): If Beale Street Could Talk
Only film in my top 25 that I only saw once: Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Lowest original ranking for a film I considered a best of the decade contender – What We Do in the Shadows (#41 in 2014)
Top 25 films I saw for the first time in the theater – 21
Top 25 films I saw for the first time on video – 4, but three in my top ten

If you’re still reading, you may be my mother, or a stalker I’ve never known about. But assuming you are not one of those, I’ll let you go now.

Thanks for reading. One final decade wrap-up post tomorrow, then we’re on to 2020 and back to normal posts.