I mentioned in the last letter that I tried to write about every movie I watched. Turns out my resolution only held out a couple months. I think the following covers January to March.
Color Out of Space — Richard Stanley’s return to directing after being run off the set of The Island of Doctor Moreau by Val Kilmer and Marlon Brando has Nicholas Cage chewing up scenery the way only he can. It’s got body horror, great old-school special effects, and a total belief in its own reality. Haven’t seen an unselfconscious horror flick like this made after the 80s.
Cane River — The acting’s amateurish and some of the storytelling is didactic and preachy, but the heartfelt intent and grasp of place made this a unique rediscovery. A kind of late-70s/early-80s time capsule.
The Cremator — A stark and timely reminder of how ordinary people become monster. The first film of Juraj Herz’s I’ve seen. A masterpiece.
Ferat Vampire — Another great Herz horror. This time about a vampire car which sucks blood out of its victims via a spike in the gas pedal. A spot-on allegory about fossil-foil and automobile dependence.
Oil Lamps — Second tier Herz. A historical drama about an unhappy but vivacious woman making horrible romantic choices.
Morgiana — Gothic Poe-style horror from Herz. Has moments but is mostly unintentionally funny like a B-movie.
Sign of Cancer — An intense take on cutthroat politics in a hospital. The horror of everyday human interactions is precisely rendered in this satire from Herz.
Beauty and the Beast — Herz’s grubby, hairy, grimy take on the famous fairy tale. Has a bit of a Hammer Films vibe.
The Junk Shop — The most joyful of Herz’s films that I saw. Has an Italian Neo-Realist feel and features many recurring faces from his later films.
The Hole — My introduction to Tsai Ming-Liang and his inscrutable onscreen alter ego, Lee Kang-sheng. Human disconnection illustrated by nonstop rain and water damage. Very dark but funny in its own way.
What Time Is It There? — One of the best meditations on grief and loss I’ve ever seen. Lee is Buster Keaton-level in withholding emotion to show true feeling.
I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone — A romantic film with no romance. The only one of Tsai’s films I couldn’t connect with so far. Here the remove and coldness doesn’t let the viewer in unlike in his other films that I’ve seen. Still some beautiful sequences.
Goodbye, Dragon Inn — My favorite Tsai so far. A virtually wordless love letter to movie theaters and what goes on behind the scenes. Sublime.
The Assistant — A devastating, subtle portrait of what women must put up with in the workplace. More powerful in what it withholds than what it shows.
Scarecrow — A total misfire with Gene Hackman and Al Pacino both miscast as drifters in 1970s America. It’s like a tone-deaf remake of Midnight Cowboy (to which the filmmakers owe a pile of money for defamation and copyright infringement.) A ton of talent wasted here.
The Traitor — An epic based-on-facts mafia saga starring Pierfrancesco Favino as the titular traitor. Favino’s face, resembling a meaty prime rib, communicates the arrogance, daring, bloodlust, and confidence needed to run a crime organization, then turn around and betray everyone of one’s former brothers-in-arms.
The Plagiarists — A pretentious, unvisual art-school version of a social-commentary film. Every point and idea this thing tries to make is undercut by the incompetence with which it was produced.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote — In a just universe, Terry Gilliam would get truckloads of cash and acclaim. But in this one, he puts out a great meta-film about the futility of ideals and inspirations and no one notices or sees it. Compared to the dogshit that passes for successful filmmaking now, this is a masterpiece.
Bonnie & Clyde — Boy did this one age badly! Hokey old-timey dialogue, over-the-top mugging from Warren Beatty. Not even the stunning Faye Dunaway can save this one. I think I liked it at one point but walked out about forty minutes in.
Recorder — A chilling yet somehow triumphant portrait of a difficult woman who had an insight into the direction American culture was heading way before most. Like an old B-movie blurb said, “It’s the cracked ones who let the light into the world.”
A Woman of Paris — A surprisingly sensitive and empathetic silent from Charlie Chaplin about a woman who wants to make her own way in the world.
Zombi Child — This one won me over despite low expectations. A deft take on the teenager boarding school coming-of-age film, mixed, improbably, with a voodoo/zombie subplot. It’s a testament to Bertrand Bonello’s intelligence and craft that he manages to balance these two themes somehow. The explicit acknowledgement of a European outsider’s take on Haitian culture is a welcome change from the typical horror-flick use of cultural rituals with no context or respect for their origins.
At the Video Store — Hard to criticize a movie made with so much love for its subject. Interesting to be old enough to see the death of the video store, which once threatened to kill the movie theater. No personal nostalgia for these stores but it’s hard not to feel the pain of those who do.
The Disappearance of My Mother — A powerful portrait of the filmmaker’s iconic and sometimes scary mother which made me hate the filmmaker by the end for meddling in his mother’s life. It’s a credit to Beniamino Barrese that he’s willing to make himself so unsympathetic to capture what makes his mother tick.
Honey Boy — Another one which won me over despite my fighting it. I don’t care much for Shia LaBeouf’s public image but this bio flick convincingly tells how he became the narcissistic monster we know.
The Breaking Point — A grubby noir version of a Hemingway story with a surprisingly forward-looking stance on race relations and great insight into economic desperation in post-war America. John Garfield’s last film before he was destroyed by the Black List. Much better than the Bogart/Bacall star vehicle based on the same material.
Auto-Focus — A miscast Greg Kinnear is never believable as sex-obsessed “Hogan’s Heroes” star Bob Crane. I didn’t care for this one when it came out and didn’t like it better this time. Paul Schrader is the grandmaster of shameful or wrong sexuality and desire, but I never felt like I wasn’t just watching actors act in this one.
The Comfort of Strangers — A profoundly unpleasant watch which I couldn’t turn off for some reason. The story makes no sense and Rupert Everett can’t act, but Natasha Richardson, Christopher Walken, and Helen Mirren are hard not to love, ebven when dealing with inferior material like this. Venice is very easy to look at too. A movie set in and of itself.
The Best Years of Our Lives — This is one of those stiff, overwrought message movies, but it’s so earnest that, even though the moral lessons are pounded with the subtlety of a cartoon-size hammer, it’s hard not to be effected by it. Tough to root against an armless navy vet longing for love.
Come Back, Little Sheba — A pretty awful anti-alcoholism melodrama with an oddly affecting performance by Shirley Booth as the long-suffering wife/victim of Burt Lancaster’s raging lush.
The Rose Tattoo — A dreadfully dated movie which traffics in cringe-worthy stereotypes of immigrants. Anna Magnani and Burt Lancaster chew all the available scenery.
One Shocking Moment — A totally enjoyable low-budget noirish melodrama from Ted V. Mikels, who’s better known for no-budget horror movies. Here he edges into Russ Meyer territory with busty broads tormenting simpering men and a small-town couple coming to the big bad city only to flee back to the safety and comfort of small-town America. I loved this movie.
Ether — A chilly tale of a very bad doctor in pre-WWl Russia. A kind of Frankenstein story about arrogance and scientific overreach. Like all of Zanussi’s other films I’ve seen, this is concerned with the battle between intellect and morality.
Suzaki Paradise — A grubby little movie about how men and women torment one another. The setting, in a little bar by the gates to a red light district, are effective in communicating the threat of self-annihilation via debauchery.
Winter Passing — The most memorable thing about this cheesy attempt at a deep meditation on loss is not Will Farrell’s turn as a near-autistic failed Christian rocker, but the Halloween-worthy wig of stringy white hair atop hermit/genius-writer Ed Harris’s head.
Separate Tables — A great cast including Rita Hayworth, Burt Lancaster, and especially David Niven as Munchausenesque self-aggrandizer and Wendy Hiller as a quietly heroic innkeeper. The writing is heavy-handed and bloated with portent and this is really just a filmed play rather than a movie, but the acting keeps it mostly watchable.
In the Cut — I had no memory of this queasy psycho-sexual thriller from Jane Campion, but found it really powerful this time. A surprisingly-good lead turn by Meg Ryan and a heartbreaking one from Jennifer Jason Leigh as her doomed sister.
Zandy’s Bride — Gene Hackman plays a neanderthal rancher who decides raping Liv Ullman will solve his loneliness. A pretty repugnant film which seemed unsure of what it wanted the viewer to think of the monster dominating it. Nice shots of Big Sur, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Nostalgia for the Light/The Pearl Button/Cordillera of Dreams — A jaw-dropping trilogy which meditates on the history, nature, and political turmoil of Patricio Guzmán’s native Chile. Tying many contradictory themes together he ends up with a polyphonic, fully-dimensional portrait of an entire country. To call it a mere documentary would be to sell it short. So glad I saw it in the theater.
Miss Americana — I knew next to nothing about Taylor Swift before watching this very carefully edited infomercial about her and felt like I didn’t know too much more after. It made me feel bad for her, but I would’ve enjoyed it better if they cut out her awful music.
Primrose Path — An unrecognizable Ginger Rogers stars as the daughter of a prostitute longing for a different life. Queenie Vassar gets all the best lines as Rogers’ salty grandma, but it’s bizarre to watch a movie about prostitution never actually say the word. Dana Andrews shows up as a conceited asshole who Rogers falls for for some reason.
In This Our Life — An almost comically over-dramatic drama with Betty Davis and Olivia De Havilland as opposite-side-of-the-coin sisters swapping husbands. Sort of a trainwreck but a weirdly watchable one, even if there isn’t a single believable moment the entire running time.
Parasite — Had the same reaction on the second viewing as the first: good first hour, then totally runs off the rails in the second. The class warfare theme is set up so effectively that it’s a real shame when it shifts into an over-the-top satiric gore fest. One of the most overrated movies in recent memory.
Guilty Bystander — Maybe the noirest noir ever. Zachary Scott is killer as a twitchy alcoholic ex-cop trying to find his missing son. Everyone he meets is a more twisted character than the one before. The whole movie feels like it has the DTs. Amazing.
Beanpole — One of the most powerful evocations of the impact of war on human behavior that I can recall. A complete masterpiece.
The Invisible Man — This was a loathsome, boring waste of two hours. I kept waiting for it to be scary, or funny, or something!?! A faceless, generic corporate entertainment product.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives — I’ve avoided Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films because every description I’ve ever read make them sound like precious, faux-naïve treacle. But this was an effortlessly magical experience without any put-ons or cloying sentimentality. There are ghosts and imaginary creatures, but they are entirely real within the world the filmmaker has created. This is one of the most sincere films about grieving and loss I’ve ever seen.
Overnight — Boondock Saints is one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. This fly-on-the-wall documentary about its director, Troy Duffy, makes a compelling case that he is a delusional, megalomaniacal cretin. I don’t know if it’s satisfying to learn that the guy who made an awful movie is himself awful, but this was a lot easier to watch than the movie he made.
The Exhibition — This documentary is a mess. It’s about a serial killer who preyed on women, an artist trying to pay tribute to those women, and about how the families of the victims reacted to their work. But i could never tell what the filmmakers’ point of view was and the parts about the artist especially seemed staged — more of an infomercial/reality show than a documentary. The subject deserves more skilled journalism/filmmaking than this.
The Anderson Tapes — A joyless slog of a caper flick with Sean Connery starring as an asshole robber just out of jail ruining the lives of everyone he comes in contact with. Didn’t know Sydney Lumet could make such a shitty movie, but he did.
Cactus Flower — It took about three-quarters of this weird, out-dated romantic comedy’s running time, but it won me over. For every cringe-worthy line, there were six or seven laugh-out-loud ones and Walter Matthau and Ingrid Bergman are great together. The outcome is obvious from the start but I guess that’s how romantic comedies work; the audience knows from the first frame what it takes the characters two hours of heartache to learn.
Safe — I haven’t seen this one since it came out but it lost none of the power of my memory of it. The idea of someone becoming allergic to the 20th century seems even less farfetched in the 21st.
The Way of the World — An awful exposé-type movie about racism and payola in the record industry, written by novelist Sam Lipsyte’s father. Everyone except Earth, Wind, and Fire as “The Band” is completely miscast, especially Harvey Keitel as the genius music producer.
Tommaso — About as personal a fictional narrative film as I can imagine. Abel Ferrara casts Willem Dafoe as himself, opposite his actual young wife and child, then shows what it feels like to be an old man beset by jealousy and insecurity as he tries to build a new life with them. Only Ferrara and Dafoe could’ve pulled this off.
Lifeline: Clyfford Still — A fawning and largely self-serving documentary which tries to make the case for Still as the most important painter of Abstract Expressionism. My attention drifted as his daughters repeatedly quoted their father’s pompous pronouncements and parroted his grudges with everyone in the art world. Proof that an outsize ego is no guarantee of genius.
Living the Light-Robby Müller — A completely forgettable documentary about a great cinematographer. Why the director would alternate highlight clips from Müller’s career with shitty home movies is a mystery. This should’ve been a half hour DVD extra. Go see the movies he shot instead.
Extra Ordinary — A sweet laugh-out-loud comedy about loneliness and ghosts. It made me forget our new virus life reality for an hour and a half. Reminded me a bit of Shaun of the Dead and What We Do in the Shadows.
Young Ahmed — A sober, unflinching portrait of a rabidly devout Muslim boy looking for a way to live in a European country he sees as incompatible with his morals. Effectively illustrates how someone can substitute religious fervor for true humanity and empathy. A small but devastating story.
A Slender Thread — An unpleasant, wooden message movie about suicide. The flashback of Anne Bancroft’s life before she swallowed a bunch of pills in a motel room are watchable and nearly believable, the rest is an industrial film-style PSA. The worst Sidney Poitier performance I’ve seen. Also: Telly Savalas as a psychologist (that’s not a joke.)
A Colt is My Passport — Just about a perfect hardboiled action flick with the great chipmunk-faced Joe Shishido as a sullen contract killer. He makes The Man With No Name seem like a crybaby.
The Hunt — This was a lot better than what I was expecting and one of the only watchable BlumHouse productions. I don’t know if the delayed debut date and controversy was a gimmick, but right-wingers have nothing to fear from a movie whose simple, nonpolitical message is not to judge people by their appearance. My viewing experience was greatly enhanced by the fact I saw it in an empty theater, on the last day that movie theaters were open in Chicago due to coronavirus.
Losing Ground — This overly earnest, amateurish film should be a disaster, but it casts a weird spell. The filmmakers believe in what they’re trying to say so hard that I did too.
The Deadly Affair — As a rule, spy flicks make me sleepy, but this one had my full attention. Perhaps this was because of the collection of amazing faces featured and a heartbreaking turn by Simone Signoret. But really it’s because the spy nonsense was just a place-setting for the real drama between James Mason and Harriet Andersson as an estranged couple.
After Truth — Not quite Adam Curtis, but an effectively chilling rundown of the current political situation in America.
All Good Things — Not sure why I sat through to the end of this thing. A lot of great actors, especially Kirsten Dunst as the young wife who disappears and Frank Langella as the ice-cold slumlord dad. Also Philip Baker Hall as bizarrely eccentric neighbor. Though this is based on a true story (that of Robert Durst) it comes off as make-believe.
All Things Must Pass — A very affectionate documentary about the rise and fall of Tower Records. Curious because I never had any special feeling for the store. It was a faceless behemoth in comparison to the little record shops I loved. But the former employees and especially its founder obviously believed Tower to be a family store. Valuable just for that difference in perception between people when recalling the same thing.
Ms .45 — A great revenge flick which turns the macho vigilante trope on its head. It’s also an amazing document of what New York City looked like at the beginning of the ’80s. A fitting follow up to Ferrara’s Driller Killer.
Dangerous Game — A powerful meta-pic about Ferrara’s personal problems. Features the only convincing Madonna performance I’ve ever seen.
Pasolini — Dafoe’s good and the movie looks great, but this is a weirdly low-key tribute to someone who was anything but.
Pharos of Chaos — I wonder whether the poor filmmaker who took on Sterling Hayden knew what he’d be in for. Hayden stalks around his barge drunkenly holding forth, never answering his interviewer’s questions directly. It’s an amazing performance which blurs the line between fact and fiction beautifully. This is the writer Hayden portrayed in The Long Goodbye come to life.
No Time For Tears — Good set up for a noir but it devolves into needless complicated plot twists. Lizabeth Scott and Arthur Kennedy are great as mismatched married couple who literary have a bag of money thrown at them. But once Scott offs Kennedy my attention drifted. Dan Durya seems miscast as a heavy and there are too many other moving parts to keep track off for a simple story about greed. I really wanted this to be a lot better than it was.