Yes, I’m late again. I was hoping to get this post up earlier in the month, but it just didn’t seem appropriate given current events; however, then I thought that perhaps people might be looking to add some escapism to their lives right about now. In any case, the delay means that Ghostbusters is among my selections below and really everyone should run out and see that first. And then, if you are so inclined, please rate it on IMDB or Rotten Tomatoes, where whiny man children have apparently been down-voting the film without even seeing it. Sigh.
My movie-watching was rather uneven this quarter, and I’m a few weeks behind on my 52 Films By Women project, but I nevertheless saw eleven films in the theater and thirty at home.* I continued catching up on the critical darlings of 2015 and also managed to rewatch the entire Star Wars saga.
The second quarter of the year is always a bit slow until the summer movies start rolling out, but this year it seemed slow all the way through since there weren’t many blockbusters I was interested in seeing. Last summer was so great I think we got a little spoiled. Of course, Ghostbusters is a fun summer popcorn flick, but I don’t think it quite reaches the heights of Spy. And where oh where is this year’s Mad Max? I swear, Jason Bourne had better be good. I need a smart thriller right about now.
Still, the 2016 films I saw in the theater between April 1 and now were—for the most part—better than what I saw last quarter. There were two that stood out above the crowd and that I suspect may still be on my Top Ten at the end of the year: Green Room, a locked-room horror thriller by Jeremy Saulnier, and Love & Friendship, a Whit Stillman adaptation of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan.
2016 Top Ten (to Date)
Love & Friendship
The Nice Guys
The Man Who Knew Infinity
Best Film Seen in a Theater: Love & Friendship (2016)
With a pitch-perfect performance by Kate Beckinsale as Lady Susan, Whit Stillman really captures Jane Austen’s snarky spirit. The only weak link for me was Chloë Sevigny, who didn’t seem to fit in this world at all. I hope this at least gets an Oscar nod for Best Costume; the dresses were fabulous.
Best Theater Experience: Green Room (2016)
Though wary of the potential gore—and there was gore—I was really looking forward to this horror thriller by Jeremy Saulnier, the director of 2014 favorite Blue Ruin. The crowd of critics and other guests was obviously excited as well and there was even swag at the screening. Plus, it was my first visit to the new Alamo Drafthouse so that added to the fun. Terrific performances all around, including a Patrick Stewart like you’ve never seen him before and the late Anton Yelchin, gone far too soon.
I was hoping to present a definitive Top Ten for 2015 in this post, however, while I managed to watch six more critical darlings from last year (Appropriate Behavior, Creed, Eden, Grandma, Le meraviglie (The Wonders), and Slow West), I still have a bunch more I’d like to get to before I laminate that sucker. So I guess you’ll have to wait until next quarter for that.
As for my 52 Films By Women challenge, I only watched nine films that qualified: Appropriate Behavior (2015), Batkid Begins: The Wish Heard Around the World (2015), Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), Dear Frankie (2005), Eden (2015), Le meraviglie (The Wonders) (2015), Merrily We Go to Hell (1932), Money Monster (2016), and Suffragette (2015). So, I have some catching up to do to stay on track for the end of the year. Luckily, there are a couple films in the theaters now that fit the bill, including Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan and Anne Fontaine’s The Innocents, both of which I’ve been meaning to see. You can follow my progress on this challenge at Letterboxd.
Best Film by a Female Director: Appropriate Behavior (2015)
In many ways, this film is just your typical indie about a young Brooklynite hooking up and finding themselves in the big city. Except the lead is the daughter of Iranian immigrants. And bisexual. The film goes back and forth in time as the main character remembers and re-examines her past relationship with her (now) ex-girlfriend.
Best Film by a Female Director (runner-up): Dear Frankie (2005)
This film shows up on a lot of “female director” lists but it never really stood out to me as particularly interesting. Well, I wish I had seen this earlier as it’s utterly delightful. Not quite a romantic comedy but it has that vibe. Bonus: Scotland!
Best Female Director Discovery: Dorothy Arzner, Merrily We Go to Hell (1932) and Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)
There are not many female directors to be found in classic Hollywood, but one is Dorothy Arzner. The two films I watched by her were real gems that you should seek out; I got my copies on DVD from Netflix. If you have never seen a pre-code film and want to go dark, try Merrily We Go to Hell, which shows how a quick movie courtship can go wrong. Bonus: a young Cary Grant pops up in one scene. If you like musicals and backstage antics and want to see Lucille Ball playing a “sexpot” role, then Dance, Girl, Dance is for you. Note: Dance, Girl, Dance was edited by Robert Wise, who later went on to direct West Side Story. [A special shout-out to @NitrateDiva on Twitter for turning me on to Arzner.]
One mini-project I managed to complete was rewatching all the Star Wars films. With all the excitement over The Force Awakens, I had been reading quite a bit about how, for younger generations, the prequels are similar in quality to the original trilogy. I found this hard to believe (as I thought the prequels were pretty god-awful) but I hadn’t seen the originals since they were re-released in theaters in 1997. Because I am very excited about the upcoming Rogue One and that film is set just before the action of the original Star Wars, I figured a rewatch and re-evaluation might be in order.
Ah, Star Wars… nothing but Star Wars… gimme those Star Wars… don’t let them end!
The Definitive Star Wars Ranking
The Empire Strikes Back
The Force Awakens
Return of the Jedi
Revenge of the Sith
The Phantom Menace
Attack of the Clones
I was more than a little surprised at these rankings, but I have to say that Empire just doesn’t hold up as well as I expected. The movie really suffers from the “gang” being separated, the timeline is somewhat hard to follow, and it just sort of wanders all over the place, from the lackluster opening to the cliffhanger ending. It’s just not a complete film unto itself. Still, it’s a solid follow-up to the original, which remains a masterpiece of story and character. Rewatching The Force Awakens I had to admire its pacing, as well as its straddling of old and new. I think the only weak link was the lame villain and can only hope that the character of Kylo Ren improves in the next episode. Finally, while I don’t dislike Return of the Jedi as much as some, it gets bogged down in the beginning on Tatooine. Thankfully, there was less of slave Leia than I remembered, but the fact that almost a quarter of the film’s running time is spent on Jabba the Hut is sort of ridiculous—and people complain about the Ewoks! As for the prequels, the less said the better, they were as awful as I remembered—the acting, directing, and writing (along with most of the CGI) are atrocious. Even if some of the lines in the original trilogy were cornball, they were at least delivered with flair.
And with that, let’s look at some of my other favorite (and not-so-favorite) selections from this quarter:
Best Classic Rewatch: Star Wars (1977)
I had forgotten how tight this story is. Also, how much of a bad-ass Leia was in the first film. She really loses agency and spark as they go on doesn’t she? Sigh. Despite Luke’s whining, I can easily watch this one over and over.
Best New-to-Me Classic: Experiment in Terror (1962)
I caught this with Sudden Fear in a San Francisco double feature at the Castro Theatre with the Math Greek. This Blake Edwards film has interesting cinematography, a terrific score by Henry Mancini, and, for you sports fans, an incredible finale that takes place at Candlestick Park.
Best Math Greek Selection: Jodorowsky’s Dune (2014)
I had meant to see this when it came out, despite my lack of interest in science fiction in general and Dune in particular. Regardless of your own stand on sci fi, this documentary is an interesting look at the pre-production process and the challenges artists face in bringing their vision to the screen.
Best Documentary: Zero Days (2016)
Zero Days is this year’s Citizenfour and it was just as fascinating and terrifying; however, I think the narrative structure is more effective in Zero Days. Furthermore, the film does a great job of explaining the tech involved so that even I could understand it.
Biggest Theater Disappointment: Finding Dory (2016)
If you are a regular reader of this blog, you may remember that Finding Nemo came out on top of my Pixar rankings, so naturally I had high hopes for its sequel. Finding Dory was perfectly fine, but, like Zootopia, is really more for kids than adults. In other words, it’s more of a Disney “message” movie than a visual stunner or creative concept. And the incredible animation of Piper, the Pixar short that ran before Dory, only highlighted this fact. [One reason Zootopia ranks higher than Dory in my 2016 top ten list above is its impressive animation.]
Best Opening Scene: Ghostbusters (2016)
The audience spontaneously burst into applause after this opening. It captures the spirit (hah!) of the original film’s library sequence but ups the ante by actually being scary. That’s something I really appreciated about the new Ghostbusters; I was genuinely scared at times. Much like an SNL sketch (and the original Ghostbusters), the finale goes on far too long, but I thought the writers modernized the story well and came up with an excellent origin story for the team.
Best Closing Scene: Creed (2015)
One thing I love about Creed is how it works very much within its sports film genre but takes it to another level by building on the Rocky legend in just the right way, staying true to its roots but expanding the vision. So it seems only fitting that the movie closes on the “Rocky Steps” overlooking Philadelphia. Creed (along with Niki Caro’s McFarland, USA) is an excellent argument for supporting more female and PoC directors whose unique viewpoints can help revitalize stale genres.
Worst on Rewatch: Ghostbusters (1984)
Yup, I went there. It is hard for me to objectively judge this childhood favorite, but on rewatch the misogyny hit me like a ton of bricks. It’s creepy and sexist and simply not funny enough to overlook that. It may be “better” than the remake because of its originality and quotability, but it’s really not based on the quality of the comedy.
Most Overrated: Patton (1970)
This is a decent biopic but certainly not the must-see classic I was expecting given its reputation. Yes, it has an incredible performance by George C. Scott and a great opening shot, but not much more to recommend it. It mostly made me want to rewatch The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.
John Wayne award for hyper-masculinity: Thief (1981)
After finally watching and enjoying Manhunter and Heat last year, I thought for sure I would love Thief, but this Mann film was a bit too “man’s man” for me. From the opening shots of heavy machinery, it was all toughness and tough dialogue, with no real heart (though that did make the Tangerine Dream soundtrack remarkably apropos).
Gloria Steinem award for proto-feminism: Suffragette (2015)
This film suffered from a tone-deaf marketing campaign which is unfortunate since it is a rather good (albeit overly earnest) period piece. I liked the choice to profile the real movement in Britain through main characters that are fictional, keeping real-life suffragettes in the background of the action and drama. Carey Mulligan is outstanding. I’m sorry to say it (not really), but if this movie was about a man and directed by someone like Spielberg, it would have been up for numerous Oscars.
Cutest Kitten: Keanu (2016)
I don’t even like pets but this kitten was adorable. And not just because he was named after my man Keanu.
Best Dragon: Dragonslayer (1981)
While the story is a bit muddled and not really my thing, the dragon special effects used in this film are great even by today’s standards.
Worst Dragon: Pete’s Dragon (1977)
A childhood favorite of the Math Greek, I think the less I say about this rambling tale the better. I’ll simply note that the effects are not good and they really should have just committed to the invisibility gimmick.
Best Bees: Le meraviglie (The Wonders) (2015)
Best Use of a Dictaphone: Sudden Fear (1952)
The Rupert Giles Award (aka Mathiest): The Man Who Knew Infinity (2016)
Most Existential Ennui (aka Frenchiest): Eden (2015)
Best Worst Dancing: Ralph Fiennes dancing to “Emotional Rescue” in A Bigger Splash (2016)
Worst Geography: The Age of Adaline (2015)
This popped up on Hulu so I decided to rewatch what I remembered as a not-great selection from last year. The boyfriend is still too stalkery for my tastes, but it bothered me less on this second go-around and I found myself enjoying this romance fantasy more than I expected. On the other hand, the geography of San Francisco as presented in this movie bothered me just as much as in the theater. So much wrongness.
Five Films I Can’t Recommend
Attack of the Clones
Man of Steel
Oz the Great and Powerful
The Phantom Menace
Revenge of the Sith
Tune in next quarter when I tackle the Bourne filmography, more female directors, and make a final stand on the films of 2015!
*The movies I saw or rewatched this quarter include:
2016: A Bigger Splash, Demolition, Finding Dory, Ghostbusters, Green Room, Keanu, Love & Friendship, The Man Who Knew Infinity, Money Monster, The Nice Guys, Zero Days
2015: The Age of Adaline, Appropriate Behavior, Batkid Begins: The Wish Heard Around the World, Creed, Eden, The Force Awakens, Grandma, Le meraviglie (The Wonders), Slow West, Suffragette
Released prior to 2015: Attack of the Clones; The Cheat; Dance, Girl, Dance; Dear Frankie; Dragonslayer; The Empire Strikes Back; Experiment in Terror; Ghostbusters; Jodorowsky’s Dune; Man of Steel; Merrily We Go to Hell; Oz the Great and Powerful; Patton; Pete’s Dragon; The Phantom Menace; Return of the Jedi; Revenge of the Sith; Star Wars; Sudden Fear; Thief
Note: These posts are in no way affiliated with the Film Quarterly journal published by the University of California Press.