The Great Unseen

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About a month ago, I was tweeting about significant films I hadn’t seen, including such classics as Barry Lyndon (1975), Duck Soup (1933), and The French Connection (1971). I haven’t been avoiding these films for any particular reason, I just haven’t gotten around to them yet. With so many movies produced every year, it is almost inevitable that even hard-core film fans will have gaps in what they have seen, and I don’t feel any particular guilt for not having seen the films below. However, when I realized I had seen so few films last quarter and could use some additional motivation, it occurred to me that I might try to actively remedy some of these gaps. And thus was born “The Great Unseen” project.

For this project, I have selected three to five significant films (that I haven’t yet seen in their entirety) to represent each decade from the 1920s to the 1990s. By “significant” I mean that they are critically acclaimed and/or often part of the cultural conversation. My goal is to watch at least twenty-five of these films before my next quarterly report. I’m starting with the four silents, but after that I will probably go on mood. Please feel to join me for any or all of these classics.

And now the list…

The Great Unseen
Les Résultats du féminisme (1906)
Safety Last! (1923)
Battleship Potemkin (1925)
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
Duck Soup (1933)
Triumph of the Will (1935)
A Night at the Opera (1935)
The Little Foxes (1941)
A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
Late Spring (1949)
The African Queen (1951)
High Noon (1952)
Madame de… (1953)
Seven Samurai (1954)
Rio Bravo (1958)
(1963)
Blow-Up (1966)
Cool Hand Luke (1967)
In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Playtime (1967)
The French Connection (1971)
Barry Lyndon (1975)
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Taxi Driver (1976)
Mad Max (1979)
The Thing (1982)
Body Double (1984)
Pretty in Pink (1986)
Raising Arizona (1987)
Wild at Heart (1990)
Daughters of the Dust (1991)
Orlando (1992)
Beau Travail (1999)
The Insider (1999)

How many films on this list have you seen? Which ones do you recommend in particular?

If you haven’t seen many (or any) of the films on this list, or if there are significant films you feel you should have seen but haven’t, will you pledge to watch at least one per month before October? If so, list your three selections below. Don’t leave me alone on this!

Film Quarterly, Vol. 2017, Issue 2

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Gal Gadot as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman in Wonder Woman

Well, folks, this has been a slow quarter for movies. Between my extended vacation, oral surgery, and other things fun and not so fun, my normal outings with the lovely @FyodorFish often got canceled, and my Twin Peaks rewatch in anticipation of Twin Peaks: The Return meant that much of my home viewing was devoted to damn fine television instead any particular film project.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But it does mean that over the past three months I only saw twenty-four movies overall: seven in the theater and seventeen at home.

Luckily, “what’s there is cherce”: Even the worst movie I saw in theaters (The Fate of the Furious) managed to be hilarious to me in its awfulness. And I’m happy to report I couldn’t even come close to coming up with my usual “Top Five Films I Have Seen But Can’t Recommend” list. Finally, while a number of the 2017 movies I have seen to date fall into the “good but not great” category and will therefore likely fall off this list by the end of the year, I think my running Top Ten bodes well for the rest of the cinematic year.

2017 Top Ten (to Date)
Get Out
Bacalaureat (Graduation)
I don’t feel at home in this world anymore.
The Big Sick
Their Finest
Baby Driver
The Zookeeper’s Wife
Wonder Woman
John Wick: Chapter 2
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Needless to say, I’m also thrilled there are currently three films by women on this list even if I’m not doing #52FilmsByWomen this year.

Best Film Seen in a Theater: Bacalaureat (Graduation). This film by Romanian director Christian Mungiu is the one everyone should see but almost no one probably will. It is one of those typical “European” films that manages to be intense and subtle about fairly mundane subject matter: In this case, what parents choose to do (or not) in order to provide their children with the best opportunities in life. Really, it’s a study in ethics. I know that doesn’t make it sound very interesting, but it is. It is quiet, and fairly bleak, but the performances and camerawork are excellent. In terms of moral weight and the consideration of social systems, it makes an extremely interesting pairing with Get Out at the top of this list.

Best Theater Experience: Wonder Woman. Was there any doubt this film would be here? Even the horrible movie-going experience I had trying out the new AMC Dine-In that took over my beloved Sundance Kabuki couldn’t ruin the delight I took in seeing this movie with a crowd. While pretty much tapped out on the superhero genre, this is one of those examples of how the unique viewpoint of female and PoC directors can help revitalize stale genres (which I initially wrote about in reference to Creed and McFarland, USA). The earnestness, humor, and joy on display in this movie were all incredibly refreshing. For that reason, I was somewhat sad when the third act went off the rails and into Transformers territory but, all in all, I thought this one lived up to the hype. It reminded me of my favorite Captain America (The First Avenger), so maybe I just need more of my superhero movies to be set in the past.

Best Film to See in a Theater Right Now: The Big Sick. This is an incredibly well-constructed romantic comedy and one of the best films in recent memory to capture the true awkwardness of the early stage of relationships (rather than just the Manic Pixie Dream Girl version of awkwardness). It is sweet and funny and also made me tear up in multiple spots (which in and of itself is not a value, but was rather unexpected). I loved Ray Romano and Holly Hunter as Emily’s parents; they really brought those characters to life and imbued them with a complexity you rarely see from parental roles. All this to say that The Big Sick doesn’t hit you over the head with anything particularly cinematic, but it has a number of interesting layers that reward even the most casual viewer.

Best Film to Stream Right Now: I don’t feel at home in this world anymore. As regular readers of this blog know, I am a huge fan of Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin, which stars longtime collaborator and friend Macon Blair. So when I heard Blair had debuted his own film this year at Sundance, where it won the Grand Jury Prize award and was picked up by Netflix, I was extremely eager to see it. I wasn’t disappointed. While it doesn’t have the energy that I remember Blue Ruin having, it is certainly a film for our times and I probably related to it far more than I’d like to admit. The two definitely have a similar dark “how revenge can go horribly wrong” vibe, though I don’t feel…  is more comic than Blue Ruin. There is also some subtle commentary on gender dynamics at play here that I think will reward multiple viewings. As an added bonus, Melanie Lynsky (Heavenly Creatures) and Elijah Wood are both fantastic.

Most Underrated: Their Finest. This is one of those films that gets underrated because male critics (who are numerically overwhelming in any ratings system) either “don’t get it” or “can’t relate to it” (or both). Like a number of the films here, it has third act problems, but ones that pale in comparison to some others I might (and will) mention. On the surface Their Finest is merely a light confection of a motion picture but it’s actually saying quite a lot about filmmaking and the creative process, life during wartime, romance, and sexism, all from a feminist perspective. In fact, it’s a bit hard to describe: I guess the elevator pitch would be Argo (or actually Laissez-Passer [Safe Conduct] if you really know your French cinema) meets The Imitation Game, meets The Bletchley Circle. The cast is good all around, though Bill Nighy really steals the show.

Best Opening Scene: Baby Driver. While I had a number of problems with the third act of this film, and it is a little too in love with its soundtrack, it is hard to argue with the effective way it explodes onto the screen in the opening heist getaway scene. The stylized look is very modern, but the choreography of both the cars and people seems to harken back to the golden age of movie musicals. Ansel Elgort is riveting throughout. I would never have guessed that the uptight, rather bland brother from Divergent could play this character, but he makes it seem easy. His physicality especially is a joy to watch. If the rest of the movie had lived up to the promise of this opening Baby Driver would likely be at the top of the above list, but unfortunately it just ends up coming off as Tarantino-lite to me.

“Been There, Done That” award: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. I had pretty much decided not to bother with this one based on the mixed reactions I was seeing on the interwebs, but when my niece came to town and wanted to go to the movies, I figured “Why not?” It was amusing enough and if you liked the first one I would imagine you would like this one, even though I don’t think the script comes close to the crackle of the original. Plus, much like The Empire Strikes Back, it really suffered from the gang being separated for much of the film. But, yes, Baby Groot is adorable.

Biggest Theater Disappointment: The Fate of the Furious. I had never seen a Fast and the Furious movie (not for any particular reason, I just hadn’t gotten around to it), and having heard so much about them I went into this one with high hopes. Alas, it was not meant to be. My spreadsheet notes for this one read “Stupid. I can’t believe these are popular.” Really, what more needs to be said?

And with that, let’s look at some of my other favorite (and not-so-favorite) selections from this quarter:

Best Classic Rewatch (tie): Escape from Alcatraz (1979) and L.A. Confidential (1997). How many times have I seen Escape from Alcatraz? I don’t know, but I never get tired of it. Every rewatch I appreciate new things: This time around it was the slow approach we make to the island in the beginning. Utterly gripping. L.A. Confidential was a movie I hadn’t seen since its release and I was a bit scared of what I would find. Rewatching twenty years later I’m much more attune to the shoddy treatment the women get, but otherwise it holds up quite well. Incredible script and lots of interesting camerawork.

Kevin Spacey as Jack Vincennes in L.A. Confidential

Best New-to-Me Classic: Battle Royale (2000). I’m not really sure if something made in the year 2000 can count as classic, but this movie is excellent. I liked it way more than I thought I would considering it’s a splatterfest. I see why so many people link this story with The Hunger Games but to my mind they are trying to do very different things even if on the surface their plots are similar. One thing Battle Royale does exceedingly well is character development: We start with over forty kids and I feel like the audience gets to know each one individually. An amazing feat, especially considering that any nuance is probably lost on me since I don’t speak Japanese.

Best Math Greek Selection: Fitzcarraldo (1982). Generally the Math Greek knows better than to suggest a film by someone like Werner Herzog to me, but I think he knew that my soft spots for both Claudia Cardinale and opera might convince me otherwise. And, given that a few years back he presented me with Herzog’s journal of the making of this film (as yet unread), I finally decided to take the plunge. For those that don’t know, the story concerns a would-be rubber baron (and lover of opera) who comes up with an incredible plan to circumvent some dangerous and unpassable falls by hauling a riverboat over a mountain. To film this, Herzog decided to haul a riverboat over a mountain. Hijinks ensue.

Klaus Kinski is not usually my jam, but opera makes strange bedfellows.

The “Add Fuel to the Fire” award for Most Improved on Rewatch: Fire Walk with Me (1992). Obviously this rewatch went hand in hand with my recent review of the entire run of Twin Peaks. I hadn’t seen this movie since it first came out and I honestly don’t remember where I stood on it. I wasn’t as shocked as I might have been since I had read The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer at that point, but I’m sure I probably didn’t “get it” either. Anyway, it is essential viewing if you like the series and certainly doesn’t deserve its horrible reputation.

The “When You Play with Matches Sometimes You Get Burned” award for Least Improved on Rewatch: St. Elmo’s Fire (1985). This movie came out the summer before I started at Georgetown University and believe me when I say that there are no other reasons anyone should be watching it. Vanity Fair, what were you thinking?

Everyone is young and stupid at some point in their life: Exhibit A.

Best Casting: Short Term 12 (2013). Speaking of casts that are going places, Short Term 12 is a typical indy film that warrants a mention simply because of its incredible cast. First off, you have Brie Larson in her breakthrough role. But you also have the debut of Keith Stanfield (last seen in Get Out) as Marcus, a pre-Mr. Robot Rami Malek as Nate, John Gallagher Jr. (last seen in last quarter’s 10 Cloverfield Lane), Kaitlyn Dever (who I loved as Loretta McCready in Justified), and even Stephanie Beatriz. Very good performances in an otherwise unremarkable film. (Seriously, it’s fine, but I don’t see what all the fuss is about).

Best Documentary: Tower (2016). I don’t watch too many documentaries as a rule, but this quarter I saw three that all merit a recommendation. The first was Fog City Mavericks, about the incredible filmmakers who have emerged from the Bay Area (and also Chris Columbus for some reason). Fog City Mavericks was a pretty standard documentary but was well structured and I certainly learned some things. The next two were more creative and both appeared on the Best Documentary shortlist for the last year’s Academy Award: Cameraperson and Tower. I’m not a huge fan of memoirs in general, so it is probably no surprise that I didn’t share the critical love for Camerperson, but it has a number of interesting bits that might work for you if you like the genre. Tower, the story of the mass shooting at the University of Texas in the 1960s, was very well done. I liked the angle they took, not focusing on the background of the shooter or those murdered but rather the experience of the survivors of that day—it’s an extremely interesting look at human nature and reactions to trauma. I resisted this one somewhat because I didn’t think I would like the fact it was mostly animated, but the style worked beautifully for the story they were telling. Check it out on Netflix if you are interested.

Most Oddly Relevant for Today: The Running Man (1987). Relevance is just one of the many reasons this 80s “classic” is painful to watch.

John Wayne award for hyper-masculinity (tie): L.A. Confidential (1997) and Excalibur (1981). While one might make the argument that these films are exploring and confronting traditional definitions of masculinity, I will not be the one to do so.

Gloria Steinem award for proto-feminism: Their Finest (2015). In addition to the film’s plot and (sometimes subtle, sometimes not) script, there was also the crew: It was so bloody refreshing to see all those women in the opening credits (including direction, screenplay, editing, score, and production design).

Most Adorable Baby (three-way tie): Baby in Baby Driver (2017), the baby in The Fate of the Furious (2017), and Baby Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

Best Choreography Involving a Baby (three-way tie): Baby in Baby Driver (2017), the baby in The Fate of the Furious (2017), and Baby Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

Winning

Worst Geography: St. Elmo’s Fire (2015). No contest. This is a film about a bunch of Georgetown grads, who are nothing like Georgetown grads, and who keep visiting the campus of University of Maryland for some reason. Psst, screenwriters, Georgetown University doesn’t have fraternities.

Worst Title: I don’t feel at home in this world anymore. (2017). I like this film, but let’s be real, the title is ridiculous.

Worst Title (runner-up): Baby Driver (2017). I like this film, but let’s be real, the title is ridiculous.

Francis Ford Coppola “Opera in Unlikely Places Award” award (tie): Fitzcarraldo (1982) and The Running Man (1987)

Best Use of Helen Mirren (tie): Excalibur (1981) and The Fate of the Furious (2017). Sadly even this Dame’s presence couldn’t save either one.

Worst Abuse of Lycra: The Running Man (1987). Let us never speak of it again.

Best Use of a Cape and Cowl (tie): Kim Basinger in L.A. Confidential (1997) and Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman (2017)

That cape you like is going to come back in style.

Pam Grier award for distribution of vigilante justice: Melanie Lynsky and Elijah Wood in I don’t feel at home in this world anymore. (2017)

“Is That a Sword in Your Pocket Or…” award: Wonder Woman (2017)

“Is That a Sword in Your Pocket Or…” award (runner-up): Excalibur (1981)

Best Use of Nunchaku (tie): Battle Royale (2000) and I don’t feel at home in this world anymore. (2017)

Best Use of the Old Poisoned-Drink Switcheroo (tie): Valentina Cortese as Viktoria/Karin in The House on Telegraph Hill (1951) and Taron Egerton as Eggsy in Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

And, finally…

Film I Forgot to Include Last Quarter but Barely Deserves a Mention Here: Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016). It was fun while it lasted but is utterly forgettable except for a couple of songs, which really should have been nominated for Oscars (yes, I’m serious).

What are your favorite movies of the year so far? What have I missed that I absolutely must see? Let me know in the comment box below.

Gemma Arterton as Catrin Cole gives notes to Bill Nighy as Ambrose Hilliard in Their Finest

For Vol. 2017, Issue 1, click here.

*The movies I saw or rewatched this quarter include:

2017: Baby Driver, Bacalaureat (Graduation), The Big Sick, The Fate of the Furious, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, I don’t feel at home in this world anymore., Their Finest, Wonder Woman

2016: Cameraperson, Miss Sloane, Tower

Released prior to 2016: Battle Royale (2000), Escape from Alcatraz (1979), Excalibur (1981), Fire Walk with Me (1992), Fitzcarraldo (1982), Fog City Mavericks (2007), The House on Telegraph Hill (1951), Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015), L.A. Confidential (1997), The Running Man (1987), Short Term 12 (2013), St. Elmo’s Fire (1985), Viva (2007)

Note: These posts are in no way affiliated with the Film Quarterly journal published by the University of California Press.

Note to email subscribers, there is embedded video in this post that may not appear in your email. Please click through to the actual post to see the complete list of selections.

Opera 101—Orange Foolius

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Quinn Kelsey as the eponymous court jester in Rigoletto. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Giuseppe Verdi, Rigoletto (1851)
Based on: a play by Victor Hugo
Notable Cultural References: Frasier: “Out with Dad” and The Muppet Show: “Pigoletto”
Setting: Mantua, 16th century

Plot in 101 words or less: Rigoletto, a hunchbacked court jester, keeps his beautiful daughter secluded lest she catch the duke’s roving eye. Too late! Gilda has secretly been making googly eyes at him in church. Furious over the jester’s endless mockery, cuckolded noblemen kidnap his “mistress” (i.e., Gilda), bringing her to the duke so he can have his way with her. Rigoletto vows revenge and hires an assassin. Despite knowing the duke’s a no-good scoundrel, Gilda sacrifices herself to save him. Idiot. As Rigoletto dumps the wrapped corpse in the river, he hears the duke singing and discovers it’s Gilda who’s dead. Aw, sad, frowny clown.

Sung in: Italian
Memorable Music: “La donna è mobile”

Rigoletto was originally titled La maledizione (The Curse) after the curse placed on Rigoletto by Count Monterone, here played by Reginald Smith Jr. in his SFO debut. Photo by Cory Weaver.

While Rigoletto is one of my favorite operas from a musical standpoint and I’m happy to see it on stage any chance I get, I wasn’t thrilled when I realized that this summer production was a revival of the one La Maratonista and I saw in 2012. Back then, when it opened the San Francisco Opera’s 90th season, I was simply thrilled to be beginning our first full season subscription. However, I remembered really disliking the sets and costumes, particularly the mostly orange jester’s outfit, and so I was sorry to see them return. I guess since an orange fool has taken over that other house, it was only a matter of time until one took over our opera house as well.

And I guess it’s good that one of these orange fools can sing. Quinn Kelsey—who I have only seen once before, way back in my first season at the opera, in Madama Butterfly—acquits himself quite well in the lead, although something about his restrained performance seemed to make the character of Rigoletto even less sympathetic to me than usual. I know that reviewers have been fawning over this performance, but I’m just not seeing it. In fact, as happened last time I saw this production, it was Gilda that stood out for me. Nino Machaidze, here in her SFO debut, has such a lovely tone that I could forgive her for being not quite powerful enough on the “È amabile invero cotal giovinotto” trio.

Nino Machaidze as Gilda in Rigoletto. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Another stand out for me was Andrea Silvestrelli as Sparafucile. I’ve seen Silvestrelli loads of times, but he has never stood out for me as he did here. Perhaps it’s because I love “È amabile invero cotal giovinotto” so darn much. Unfortunately, I found Pene Pati to be rather uneven in the role of the Duke of Mantua, but I nevertheless appreciate it when Adler Fellows are given solid roles, rather than appearing merely on the fringes. Speaking of Adler Fellows, it was nice to see Zanda Švēde return as Maddalena.

Pene Pati as the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Sparafucile (Andrea Silvestrelli) and Maddalena (Zanda Švēde) plot in Rigoletto. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Again, Rigoletto is one of my musical faves so I guess I should be happy that the singing is as strong as it was, but this production still somehow fell flat for me. Sure, the sets were boring (I mean, blather on about De Chirico all you like, but they are still BORING), but I knew that going in. Ultimately, I think where this production failed me is in the direction. The direction is not something I generally comment on, but here I really think it did the opera a disservice. With such a boring set (I mean, can a girl get some furniture in that house?), you need to have dynamic staging. This production didn’t deliver. The crowds at court were okay for the most part, but the blocking and acting of all the leads really lacked energy and conviction.

What didn’t lack energy was the orchestra, which sounded more dynamic, fluid, and articulate than usual. There was some fine piccolo work by Stephanie McNab (and I rarely like the higher instruments) as well as a great moment for what I thought might be a viola but La Belle Chantal thought was a cello. Which leads me to a thought I had while attending The Cleveland Orchestra last month: I would really appreciate a bit of musical information sprinkled into the plot summaries given in the program. I realize it is sometimes very hard to summarize these crazycakes plots—and Rigoletto is one of the worst (see my prior post for a plot assessment that is far longer than 101 words), but would it hurt to also highlight key arias and musical elements (especially soloists) to look out for? I’d much rather have a few of those tidbits handy than the far-too-detailed articles explaining an opera’s composition. Sure, it is nice to have reading for the ride home, but if the San Francisco Opera wants to get more people to the opera house in the future, it might consider helping them appreciate the performance in front of them.

Rigoletto (Quinn Kelsey) and Gilda (Nino Machaidze) in their darkest hour in Rigoletto. Photo by Cory Weaver.

I suppose this comes across as a fairly negative review, which is not my intention. Maybe that other orange fool has simply gotten me down on this one. And whether this bodes well or ill for next week’s Don Giovanni remains to be seen. In any case, despite this nit-picking, Rigoletto remains one of the best operas for newbies and this production is no exception.

Rigoletto is being performed through July 1 at the War Memorial Opera House. Tickets can be purchased here.

Film Quarterly, Vol. 2017, Issue 1

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Jessica Chastain as Elizabeth Sloane in Miss Sloane

Jessica Chastain as Elizabeth Sloane in Miss Sloane

As I did last year, I’m breaking my annual film viewing down into quarterly posts. While the first quarter of any year is generally devoted to my Oscar Blitz and other critical darlings of the previous year, I’ve also seen a few good 2017 selections so far. Oddly enough, when I sat down to write this post, I felt like my theater-going for the first quarter was low, but when I checked against last year I saw that it is actually up (from six films to ten), while my overall viewing remained the same (thirty-nine films total). In any case, here is my ranking of the films I have seen in the theater so far this year:

Films Seen in a Theater Ranked
I soliti ignoti (Big Deal on Madonna Street)(1958)
Lion (2016)
Miss Sloane (2016)
Hidden Figures (2016)
Get Out (2017)
La città si difende (Four Ways Out) (1951)
The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017)
John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
Jackie (2016)
Table 19 (2017)

Best Film Seen in a Theater: I soliti ignoti (Big Deal on Madonna Street)
I saw this along with La città si difende (Four Ways Out) at a Noir City double feature at the Castro Theater on the night of the Women’s March. Aside from being rather wet from the rainy march, it was great fun—as you might imagine a comic caper film starring Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale, and Totò would be. However, I remember trying to watch this at home at some point when I couldn’t really get into it, so maybe the lively Castro crowd helped more than I realize.

Best Theater Experience: Get Out
If you haven’t seen this yet, what are you waiting for? While not a perfect film (it fell for me somewhat towards the end), Get Out represents an incredible directorial debut for Jordan Peele. Not only is it a well-paced horror/thriller with great moments of comic relief and interesting visuals, it contains a richly layered social and political subtext that I imagine rewards repeat viewings. I guess others agree, since it recently became the highest-grossing U.S. writer-director film debut (earning $160 million to date on a $4.5 million budget). [Side note: I recommend learning as little as possible about the film before seeing it.]

Most Underrated: Miss Sloane
My sister insisted I see this film, claiming that it was right up my alley and that if it had been called Mr. Sloane it would have gotten far more attention. I agree on both counts. If you like well-made political thrillers and/or Jessica Chastain, I highly recommend it.

Speaking of Jessica Chastain…

Best Movie by a Female Director: The Zookeeper’s Wife
Although I am not doing #52FilmsByWomen this year, I am still trying to see the work of female directors when I can, so I was thrilled to get a chance to see a critic screening of The Zookeeper’s Wife by Niki Caro (Whale Rider and McFarland, USA). While I saw a number of great films based on true stories this quarter (Lion and Hidden Figures among them), this really stood out because, while I thought I had a decent knowledge of Warsaw during World War II, I had never heard this incredible story before. As with Hidden Figures, the film made me immediately check my library for the book it was based on.

Most Deceptively Ranked: John Wick: Chapter 2
I suppose its placement so far down on the list above might seem to imply that I didn’t like John Wick: Chapter 2, but no, I just happened to see really great films in the theater this quarter. Sure, this follow-up to the surprise hit John Wick could have been tighter, but I loved all the new elements they added—the Italian, art jokes, Orson Welles shout-outs, and more. While the final chase is probably what stands out most in people’s minds, I adored the Roman bath scene, which set the tone of this film early on.

Keanu Reeves as John Wick in John Wick: Chapter 2

As many of the above films are not currently at your local theater, you may be asking yourself, “What should I be renting to watch at home?” Good question! Let’s take a final look at 2016, shall we?

If you read my year-end post, you may recall that I thought it was a pretty good year and that it was fairly easy to come up with a solid Top Ten, but I hesitated somewhat over filling the last slot and thought it was likely that my first quarter viewing would dethrone The Light Between Oceans. In fact, I’ve had to rethink much of the list. What’s more, I’ve added the next fifteen because there are some brilliant films in there, any of which I might recommend depending on your mood and what you are looking for (for more specific recommendations, see lists below).

Updated Top Ten Films of 2016
Les Innocentes (The Innocents)
Arrival
Hell or High Water
20th Century Women
Love & Friendship
American Honey
Maggie’s Plan
Ah-ga-ssi (The Handmaiden)
Green Room
Hunt for the Wilderpeople

The Next Fifteen
Lion
The Edge of Seventeen
Captain Fantastic
The Light Between Oceans
The Lobster
The Love Witch
Moonlight
La La Land
Miss Sloane
Sunset Song
Busanhaeng (Train to Busan)
Hidden Figures
The Dressmaker
Queen of Katwe
Sing Street

For more of my thoughts on the films of 2016, see my “Film Quarterly” posts (Vol. 2016, Issue 1, Vol. 2016, Issue 2, Vol. 2016, Issue 3, Vol. 2016, Issue 4) and my year-end wrap-up (The End of Innocence: The Year in Films).

For an incredible edit of some of the best visual moments of 2016, along with a countdown of his own top twenty-five, watch this glorious video by David Ehrlich of the Fighting in the War Room podcast.


If that didn’t give you enough ideas for what looks good, here are some more specific suggestions…

If You Have a Cinematographer’s Eye:
Ah-ga-ssi (The Handmaiden)
Hell or High Water
The Light Between Oceans
The Love Witch
Sunset Song

If You Know That a Good Editor is Hard to Find:
Arrival
Busanhaeng (Train to Busan)
Green Room
Hell or High Water
Miss Sloane

If You Want a Film that Crushes the Bechdel-Wallace Test:
Ghostbusters
Hidden Figures
Les Innocentes (The Innocents)
Tallulah
20th Century Women

The incredible, and incredibly complex, women of 20th Century Women

If You Want to Laugh:
The Edge of Seventeen
Love & Friendship
Maggie’s Plan

If You Want Something to Warm Your Heart:
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Queen of Katwe
Sing Street

If You Think Revenge Is a Dish Best Served Cold:
Ah-ga-ssi (The Handmaiden)
The Dressmaker
Hell or High Water

If You Don’t Mind Something Disturbing:
Elle
Green Room
Tickled

If You Want to See Things That Go Bump in the Night:
Busanhaeng (Train to Busan)
10 Cloverfield Lane
The Witch

If You Want a Science Fiction Double Feature:
Arrival and The Lobster

The Lobster takes an unblinking look at modern dystopian love

If You Want a Movie That Keeps You Guessing:
Ah-ga-ssi (The Handmaiden)
Miss Sloane
10 Cloverfield Lane

If You Think You Can Handle the Truth:
O.J.: Made in America
13th
Zero Days

If You Want to See America’s Gritty Underbelly:
American Honey
Green Room
Hell or High Water

If You Want to See La La Land not La La Land:
City of Gold
The Nice Guys
Rules Don’t Apply

If You Want to Travel Vicariously:
L’Avenir (Things to Come)
A Bigger Splash
Lion

The most adorable travel companion you could ever wish for in Lion

If You Want to Travel in Time:
Love & Friendship
Sunset Song
The Witch

If You Want to Relive World War II:
Allied
Denial
Les Innocentes (The Innocents)

If You Want to Relive the 1950s:
The Dressmaker
Hail, Caesar!
Rules Don’t Apply

If You Want to Relive the 1960s:
Hidden Figures
Jackie
Loving

Spheres are in commotion and elements in harmony in Hidden Figures

If You Want to Take a Walk on the Wild Side:
Captain Fantastic
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
The Lobster

If You Want to See Cats:
L’Avenir (Things to Come)
Elle
Keanu

If You Want to See Dogs:
Green Room
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
The Lobster

If You Want to See Horses:
Hell of High Water
Love & Friendship
The Magnificent Seven

If You Want to See Sheep:
Captain Fantastic
Sunset Song
Zootopia

Bumping into one another in town, as you do, in Sunset Song

If You Dig Math:
The Accountant
Hidden Figures
The Man Who Knew Infinity

If You Dig Books:
Ah-ga-ssi (The Handmaiden)
L’Avenir (Things to Come)
Captain Fantastic

If You Think Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing:
Ah-ga-ssi (The Handmaiden)
La La Land
The Light Between Oceans
Loving
Sing Street

If You Think It’s Complicated:
Allied
The Lobster
The Love Witch
Maggie’s Plan
Moonlight

Looking for love in all the wrong places in The Love Witch

If You Want to See Friends in Need or in Deed:
Don’t Think Twice
The Edge of Seventeen
The Fits
Green Room
Sing Street

If You Want to Keep It in the Family:
The Dressmaker
Hell or High Water
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
The Light Between Oceans
The Witch

If You Want to Reflect on Your Parenting Skills:
Busanhaeng (Train to Busan)
Captain Fantastic
Queen of Katwe
Sunset Song
20th Century Women

The Kids Are Alright (Teenage Star Power Performances):
American Honey
Captain Fantastic
The Edge of Seventeen
The Fits
Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Moonlight
The Nice Guys
Queen of Katwe
Sing Street
The Witch



A big thanks to some of my favorite film podcasts (Fighting in the War Room, Movie Geeks United, Movies Now and Then, and Top 5 Film) for calling my attention to many of these films, especially American Honey, Busanhaeng (Train to Busan), The Fits, The Lobster, and Sunset Song.

Top Five 2016 Movies I Haven’t Yet Seen But Want To
Cameraperson
Certain Women
Krisha
Paterson
Tower

Top Five Films I Have Seen But Can’t Recommend
Don’t Bother to Knock (1952)
The Man with One Red Shoe (1985)
Milius (2013)
Diavolo in Corpo (Devil in the Flesh) (1986)
Lost in America (1985)

Best Classic Rewatch: Groundhog Day (1993) on Groundhog Day

Best New-to-Me Classic: La città si difende (Four Ways Out) (1951)

Best Math Greek Selection: Some Came Running (1958). An unknown-to-me gem of 1950s CinemaScope weirdness and delight.

Frank Sinatra, Shirley MacLaine, Dean Martin, and Carmen Phillips in Some Came Running

The Rupert Giles Award (aka Mathiest): Hidden Figures (2016)

Most Existential Ennui (aka Frenchiest): Trois couleurs: Bleu (Three Colors: Blue) (1993)

Worst Abuse of Geography: the New York of John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

Best Use of a Major U.S. Tourist Attraction: the Space Needle in The Parallax View (1974)

Best Use of a Hat as Plot Point (tie): Phantom Lady (1944) and Some Came Running (1958)

Best Distributor of Vigilante Justice: Pam Grier in Coffy (1973)

Ewan McGregor “Please Put That Penis Away” Award: Diavolo in Corpo (Devil in the Flesh) (1986)

Gloria Steinem “No Way Was This Film Made by a Man” Award: The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017)

Peter Cetera “They Don’t Make ’Em Like They Used To” Award: Iron Man (2008)

Most Oddly Relevant for Today (three-way tie): F for Fake (1974), The Parallax View (1974), and The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia (2010)

I suppose hucksters and con men have always been with us.

What are your favorite movies of the year so far? What did I miss in 2016 that I absolutely must see? Let me know in the comment box below.

*The movies I saw or rewatched this quarter include:

2017: Get Out, John Wick: Chapter 2, Table 19, The Zookeeper’s Wife

2016: American Honey, Bridget Jones’s Baby, Busanhaeng (Train to Busan), Captain Fantastic, City of Gold, Hidden Figures, Jackie, The Light Between Oceans, Lion, Loving, Miss Sloane, O.J.: Made in America, Sunset Song, 10 Cloverfield Lane, 20th Century Women

Released prior to 2016: La città si difende (Four Ways Out), Cloverfield, Coffy, Diavolo in Corpo (Devil in the Flesh), Don’t Bother to Knock, F for Fake, Groundhog Day, I soliti ignoti (Big Deal on Madonna Street), Iron Man, Kindergarten Cop, Lost in America, The Man with One Red Shoe, Milius, The Parallax View, Phantom Lady, Some Came Running, Trois couleurs: Blanc (Three Colors: White), Trois couleurs: Bleu (Three Colors: Blue), Trois couleurs: Rouge (Three Colors: Red), The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia

Note: These posts are in no way affiliated with the Film Quarterly journal published by the University of California Press.

Note to email subscribers, there is embedded video in this post that may not appear in your email. Please click through to the actual post to see the complete list of selections.

Women 101—Adventurers and Explorers

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In my continuing series on women Hollywood should f*cking be making movies about,* we learn about some amazing adventurers and explorers. There is some overlap here with the spies category, as a number of these women worked in espionage and intelligence while they were gallivanting about the Middle East and the Arctic. But since spying is merely one item on their extensive curriculum vitae, I’ve included them with their fellow travelers.

Lady Hester Stanhope in a lithograph by Robert Jacob Hamerton (c. 1830)

Hester Stanhope (1776–1839)
Where to begin with Hester Stanhope? Or should I say, Lady Stanhope? For Hester Stanhope was a bad-ass lady adventurer and archaeologist who was in fact an actual lady with a capital L. More specifically, she was the eldest child of the 3rd Earl Stanhope and niece to Prime Minister William Pitt, serving as his official hostess and later as his private secretary when he was out of office. After the death of her brother in 1810, Stanhope left England to travel indefinitely, heading to Gibraltar, Malta, and Constantinople, where she lived for over a year. On her way to Cairo, a storm and shipwreck left her empty-handed on the island of Rhodes and Stanhope borrowed male clothing (billowy trousers, boots, and a turban) to continue her voyage. After Egypt, she traveled throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East, including Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria, all while continuing to refuse to wear a veil and often adopting male dress and carrying arms. To travel to the ruins of Palmyra in 1813, she dressed as a Bedouin and took a caravan of twenty-two camels to cross the dangerous stretch of desert, making a grand entrance into the city and calling herself “Queen of the Desert.” Stanhope was the first white woman to visit the ruins once ruled by the warrior queen Zenobia. After coming into the possession of an Italian manuscript describing a hidden treasure, Stanhope set out for the ruins of Ashkelon in 1815, establishing the first modern archaeological excavation in the Holy Land. Stanhope eventually settled permanently in Lebanon and over the years cultivated political friends and enemies by giving sanctuary to numerous Druze refugees. [Side note: Stanhope is apparently mentioned in Georgette Heyer’s Venetia, which I read almost two years ago, but I guess since the name meant nothing to me at the time I have no recollection of it.]

Gertrude Bell (third camel from the left), flanked by Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence in Egypt in 1921

Gertrude Bell (1868–1926)
Gertrude Bell is hard to summarize in one or two paragraphs, especially given that she is the most problematic woman on this list from an Orientalist perspective. In short, Bell was an energetic and intelligent girl from a wealthy, political family in the industrial North, who studied in London and then Oxford, becoming the first woman to graduate with a history degree from that university. Shortly after, in May 1892, Bell traveled to Persia to visit her uncle, who was serving as an ambassador in Tehran. She published a book about her travels in 1894 and spent the next decade or so mountaineering, traveling, and learning languages, eventually becoming fluent in Arabic, French, German, and Persian, as well as speaking some Italian and Turkish.

From 1900 to 1913, she traveled throughout the Middle East and, like Stanhope before her, refused to wear a veil as she did so. She was noted for establishing ties with local groups and tribes, particularly the Druze, as well as surveying and excavating ancient ruins. She wrote extensively about her travels and documented them with maps and photographs. With the arrival of the First World War, this knowledge of the area and its peoples was suddenly quite valuable and she was invited to join the intelligence men in Cairo, including T. E. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia. At the time, Bell was the only female political officer in the British forces and she would go on to become a key actor in British imperial policy-making and one of the people behind the creation and early administration of modern Iraq (and, yes, she foresaw that it would be a sh*tshow, describing the new nation as an “immense failure” and “an inchoate mess of tribes”). She founded the Baghdad Archaeological Museum to preserve Iraqi culture and history and keep artifacts in their country of origin. Shortly after, she died in Baghdad in 1926 following an overdose of sleeping pills; it is not known whether the overdose was intentional.

I think there has seldom been such a series of hopeless blunders as the West has made about the East since the armistice.

—Gertrude Bell, Paris Peace Conference, 1919

Freya Stark (1893–1993)
Rounding out our English adventuresses is Freya Stark, an explorer and travel writer who explored the Middle East and beyond. The daughter of bohemian artist parents (her father was English and her mother Italian), Stark spent her childhood roaming Europe, in her father’s home in Devonshire, and then in Italy after her parents split up. She loved reading and became fascinated with the “Orient” after reading One Thousand and One Nights. An odd note to her biography is that when she was a teenager, she got her hair caught in a machine at the family rug and basket factory (I’ll spare you the details, but the accident required months of recovery in a hospital and multiple skin grafts), leading her to wear hats for most of her life to cover the scars.

Despite her early interest in the region, it wasn’t until 1927 that she began to travel the Middle East in earnest: First Lebanon to perfect her Arabic, then Syria and Iraq, and finally western Iran, including exploration of the fabled fortress of the Assassins. In 1935, she travelled to southern Arabia, little explored by Westerners. For many of these trips, she was acknowledged by the Royal Geographical Society though she never “discovered” anything per se. Instead, she became known for the personal, cultural details she recorded, particularly her descriptions of women’s lives. During the war, Stark joined the British Ministry of Information and worked to persuade Arabs to support the Allies. After the war, she travelled to Turkey and finally Afghanistan. All told, she published more than two dozen books on her travels. Her books sound utterly thrilling: I think I’m going to seek out The Valleys of the Assassins first, although The Southern Gates of Arabia, which tells of her attempt to locate the lost city of Shabwah, sounds pretty good too.

Louise Boyd (1887–1972)
Women didn’t explore only the Middle East. Louise Boyd was a gold heiress from California who logged numerous Arctic expeditions throughout the 1930s and 1940s—studying fjords and glaciers, measuring ocean depths, and photographing plant and animal life, particularly on the coast of Greenland. Boyd had traveled extensively with her parents after the early deaths of her two brothers (heart disease as teenagers!), and they encouraged her in a number of hobbies, including photography. As the sole heir to a fortune after both her mother and father died in quick succession in 1919 and 1920, she began traveling even more widely. In 1924, on a trip to Norway, Boyd made her first trip to the Arctic. By 1928, she was leading her own polar expeditions, including one to find legendary explorer Roald Amundsen who had himself disappeared trying to find and rescue Umberto Nobile. At first it seemed that the outbreak of WWII would halt her regular expeditions; however, in 1941, she undertook an expedition sponsored by the U.S. government, studying the effects of polar magnetics on radio communications. Boyd subsequently became an advisor on military strategy in the Arctic and continued to work on secret assignments for the U.S. Army throughout the duration of the war. In 1955, she became the first woman to fly over the North Pole.

Louise Boyd photographs her rescue expedition in 1928.

And again, why did I not know of this woman who lived most of her life in the Bay Area (while not exploring) and part of whose home now serves as the Marin History Museum? I realize the fault lies with me for my ignorance, but, at the same time, I can name multiple polar explorers who happen to be male. You can see some of Boyd’s photographs in the Marin History Museum, which is located in the gatehouse of her former estate gatehouse in San Rafael, California.

Is this just me? Did you know of any of these women? Do you have a favorite female adventurer or explorer I should know about?

To read more about these incredible women:

  • Priya Satia, Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain’s Covert Empire in the Middle East
  • Georgina Howell, Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations
  • Janet Wallach, Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Adviser to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia
  • Jane Fletcher Geniesse, Passionate Nomad: The Life of Freya Stark
  • Elizabeth Fagg Olds, Women of the Four Winds: The Adventures of Four of America’s First Women Explorers
  • Freya Stark, The Valleys of the Assassins and Other Persian Travels

Podcast episodes:
Footnoting History: Desert Queens? Women at the Edges of Empire from Hester Stanhope to Gertrude Bell
Stuff You Missed in History Class: Gertrude Bell: The Uncrowned Queen of Iraq, Part 1; Gertrude Bell: The Uncrowned Queen of Iraq, Part 2
Stuff You Missed in History Class: Freya of Arabia
Stuff You Missed in History Class: The Heiress Explorer: Louise Boyd and the Arctic

For previous posts in this Women 101 series, click below:
From Abigail Adams to Zenobia
Birds of the Air
Wasps and Witches
Soldiers and Spies in the Civil War
Soldiers and Spies in World War II

*Apparently there is a project on Hester Stanhope in development by the people behind The King’s Speech and Werner Herzog has made a film about Gertrude Bell starring Nicole Kidman, which is being released here in April (but unfortunately has already come out in Europe to horrible reviews).