This quarter I saw thirteen films in the theater and sixty-five at home (either on DVD or streaming). I watched thirteen female-directed works, making good on my 52 Films By Women pledge, while also managing to complete a thorough review of classic horror, watching forty-eight horror (or horror-adjacent) films released between 1920 and 1960. In addition to these films that were mostly new to me, I rewatched eight of my favorites from earlier in the year to confirm my 2016 top ten rankings; however, I didn’t feel I should include these in my yearly viewing totals a second time. At least it was all a nice distraction from the disastrous election.
Best Movie Seen in the Theater: Arrival (2016). I saw Arrival just days after the election and its hopeful message was exactly what I needed at the time. I was already big fan of Villeneuve’s work through his recent films (Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario) and Arrival made me seriously hopeful for the Blade Runner sequel. One thing I love about Villeneuve’s work is that it always makes me think. Arrival is no exception and I recommend going into it as unspoiled as possible. That said, I did see this film a second time in the theater and I’m happy to report it was just as enjoyable on rewatch. In fact, the second viewing left me with even more admiration for its structure, score, and Amy Adams’s performance.
Best Theater Experience: The Love Witch (2016). I was very privileged to attend a local showing of The Love Witch in the presence of its director, the lovely and talented Anna Biller, who also served as the film’s set designer, costumer, and composer, among other tasks. It is very hard to describe this gorgeous film in only a few words, but for me it was Alfred Hitchcock’s Family Plot meets Jacques Demy’s Peau d’Âne meets The Court Jester, all wrapped up in a feminist witch bottle. Shot to look like an old Technicolor film, I consider myself privileged to have seen this in a theater, especially since the audience took such a delight in it.
Best Adaptation: Ah-ga-ssi (The Handmaiden) (2016). I had only read about one hundred pages of Fingersmith when I saw this and I’m glad for that because this is not a film you should be spoiled for. It’s a thriller with incredible twists and turns, but also romance and humor. I would have cut way down on the extensive sex scene (a number of previous scenes are full of sexual tension and the explicitness wasn’t necessary) and some of the gore at the end, but otherwise this film was near flawless. One of the best examples I have seen of successfully resetting a story in another time and place entirely and still having it work. [Side note: I loved that they set the subtitles in different colors depending on whether the characters were speaking Japanese or Korean so you could understand the class implications.]
Best Directorial Debut: The Edge of Seventeen (2016). I wasn’t quite sure what to expect of this coming-of-age tale, but I didn’t expect it to be so laugh-out-loud funny. Yet, the teen awkwardness on display was also so real and so uncomfortable at times as to make me squirm. While being full of the usual elements found in teen flicks, debut director Kelly Fremon Craig manages to present each character as a fully developed person, not just a cliché. Hailee Steinfeld delivers an excellent performance as the misfit teen trying to navigate the treacherous waters of high school.
Speaking of female-directed films, I completed my 52 Films By Women challenge this quarter, watching thirteen films that qualified: L’Avenir (Things to Come) (2016) by Mia Hansen-Løve, Bachelorette (2012) by Leslye Headland, The Bling Ring (2013) by Sofia Coppola, Crossing Delancey (1987) by Joan Micklin Silver, The Edge of Seventeen (2016) by Kelly Fremon Craig, The Fits (2016) by Anna Rose Holmer, The Invitation (2016) by Karyn Kusama, The Love Witch (2016) by Anna Biller, Real Women Have Curves (2002) by Patricia Cardoso, Saving Face (2004) by Alice Wu, 13th (2016) by Ava DuVernay, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (2005) by Judy Irving, The Wolfpack (2015) by Crystal Moselle.
The Edge of Seventeen (2016)
The Love Witch (2016)
Saving Face (2004)
L’Avenir (Things to Come) (2016)
Crossing Delancey (1987)
The Fits (2016)
The Invitation (2016)
Real Women Have Curves (2002)
The Bling Ring (2013)
The Wolfpack (2015)
The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (2005)
I haven’t quite decided if I’m going to undertake this challenge again in 2017. Fifty-two films represents about a quarter of my movie viewing for the year, which is a significant commitment given the small percentage of films out there that are directed by women. While I support the cause, my selections are really starting to feel very random. At this point I have seen a lot of the best older films directed by women and I’m not sure seeing obscure films is really helping promote women in the industry today. Instead, I may try to focus on seeing a certain number of current films in the theaters. I missed a number of high-profile female-directed films in the theaters this year (due to travel, schedules, or sheer laziness) and I’d like to rectify that.
Top Ten Classic Horror
The Old Dark House (1932)
The Cat and the Canary (1927)
The Unknown (1927)
King Kong (1933)
The Mummy (1932)
Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933)
Cat People (1942)
The Bad Seed (1956)
I’m not going to go into my horror series much here or below since I am planning to post about the remaining films in the next week or so. Suffice it to say that I enjoyed a number of these movies, but that watching so many (48!) in such a short time was overwhelming and didn’t leave much room for other older films I might have chosen instead.
In terms of my other movie watching this quarter, here are some favorite (and not-so-favorite) selections:
Best Classic Rewatch: Freaks (1932)
Best New-to-Me Classic: The Old Dark House (1932)
Best Silent (tie): The Cat and the Canary (1927) and The Unknown (1927)
Best Documentary: 13th (2016). A highly informative documentary about race and racism in America and its implications for the U.S. prison industrial complex.
Must-Watch Documentary: Tickled (2016). I don’t even know how to describe this bizarre film that gets weirder and creepier as you go along. It is not a particularly good example of documentary filmmaking and definitely rambles, but the story it tells is utterly fascinating. Just watch it; it’s not what you think.
Best Math Greek Selection: Exotica (1994). Speaking of bizarre, and weird, and creepy, Exotica is all of these and more. Atom Egoyan proves himself to be a master at drawing you into the least attractive mysteries possible and providing utterly satisfying conclusions (even when they don’t necessarily answer all your questions). The Math Greek is getting so good at picks for me that when he proposed watching this I was convinced I must have seen it already when I was living in Paris once upon a time, but I hadn’t.
Most Underrated: The Accountant (2016). Speaking of math, going into the theater I didn’t realize The Accountant was going to be like John Wick but with math. To be sure, The Accountant is no John Wick, but it is far more enjoyable than critics would have you believe. I feel like I should have figured out a few things before their reveal but didn’t and I loved many of the performances and the resolution of the lead couple’s relationship. I’m not claiming this is a great film, but it would be a good rental and most other decent films I saw this quarter were fairly (or over) praised. Speaking of which…
Most Overrated: Moonlight (2016) and La La Land (2016). Both of these are perfectly fine films and I’m happy to see them on the screen and reaching an audience, but I don’t get the raving to high heaven in either case. Both have a number of great scenes but, for me, those individual moments don’t hang together successfully (for very different reasons). While they start and finish very strong, these films fall apart in the middle either through clichéd, clunky, or inconsistent storytelling. I just wasn’t transported by the story in either case—and I so wanted to be. Given the subject matter and hype, I would have expected these to be among my favorite films of the year, but they aren’t even in my top ten. In the case of Moonlight, I’ve seen comparisons to both Malick and Carol, neither of which I get but perhaps explain why I wasn’t blown away by it. That said, some of the performances, notably those of Mahershala Ali, André Holland, and Ryan Gosling, really elevate themselves above any script limitations.
Biggest Theater Disappointment: Rogue One (2016). Admittedly, I was so looking forward to Rogue One that it would have been hard for anything to live up to what was in my brain. There was a lot to like about it, but I really wish they had stayed off the Death Star altogether and focused more on the caper elements of the plot and the characterization of those on the squad. A side bonus to such a plan would be that the completely unnecessary (and atrocious) CGI character could have been completely avoided.
Worst Movie Seen in the Theater: Rules Don’t Apply (2016). I don’t know what Warren Beatty was thinking with this one. A waste of great period set design.
Worst #52FilmsByWomen Movie: The Bachelorette (2012). I felt like this was trying to be a female Hangover but I don’t remember the guys in that film being as mean as the girls in Bachelorette. I just can’t decide if this is being subversive or reinforcing ugly stereotypes. I don’t need characters to be likeable per se, but who are we rooting for here?
The Rupert Giles Award (aka Mathiest): The Accountant (2016). See above.
Most Existential Ennui (aka Frenchiest): L’Avenir (Things to Come) (2016). This film is so French it hurts. It is also one of those good films that doesn’t really go anywhere so it will never be on any “favorites” list of mine, but it’s solid filmmaking nonetheless.
Quirkiest: The Lobster (2016). I wasn’t sure what to expect of this film, and I’m not sure it is entirely successful (for one thing, it is extremely repetitive in its message), but it held my attention all the way through and that’s more than I can say for a lot of films I watch at home. If you can accept the absurd premise and have an offbeat sense of humor, this may be a film for you.
Most Romantic Couple: Black and Kevin in Moonlight (2016)
Sexiest Couple: Lady Hideko and Sook-hee in The Handmaiden (2016)
Best Romance to Take Place in a New York Immigrant Community (tie): Crossing Delancey (1987) and Saving Face (2004). Saving Face focuses on a young Chinese American doctor whose family is not necessarily accepting of her homosexuality. Meanwhile, her widowed mother, played by Joan Chen, is pregnant and refuses to say who the father is, also causing a rift in the family. This story reminded me a lot of Appropriate Behavior, but is lighter in tone. Crossing Delancey, which takes place in New York’s Jewish community, centers on a young, intellectual, single woman whose grandmother hires a matchmaker to ensure she settles down. The film is very sweet, but super dated at this point. Still, it was very interesting to see how independent and unlikable Amy Irving’s character was allowed to be (and not in an “adorably awkward” way).
Most Confusing Geography: Elle (2016). Both my sister and I have lived in and around Paris but neither of us could figure out where Isabelle Huppert lived or worked in this movie and it drove us crazy.
Worst Abuse of Geography: The Love Witch (2016). While this could have been Arrival (Where exactly does Louise live that you can fly from her house to Montana in a helicopter?) or La La Land (Pasadena, Hermosa Beach, and Watts are all just a hop, skip, and a jump away in La La Land’s Los Angeles), I chose the geographical quirk that most bothered me while watching, namely, if Elaine is driving north from San Francisco (which I think is implied), why is the ocean on her right?
Best Opening: La La Land (2016). A great ode to the traffic that essentially validates the fact that much of the rest of the action is pure fantasy.
Best Closing Shot: The Invitation (2016). I’m sure some might argue that it is too cheesy, but I loved the Twilight Zone-like ending.
Best Closing Shot (runner-up): The Lobster (2016). If you know my issues with certain kinds of violence on screen, you’ll know why I thank god this movie ended how and when it did.
Freddy Mercury Real Life-Fantasy Award: The Wolfpack (2016). This is either a middle-of-the-road documentary or a brilliant performance piece. I just can’t decide which.
Joss Whedon “Bored Now” Award: Captain America: Civil War (2016). Oh good god, make them stop already. Or at least let’s stop pretending these bloated superhero movies are in any way good filmmaking.
Gloria Steinem “Thank God This Film Wasn’t Made by a Man” Award: Real Women Have Curves (2002). “Thank god this film wasn’t made by a man” is a serious thought I had at multiple points during this film. While I loved the fact that this movie was so body positive and that the women were complex and super independent, the lead character wasn’t very sympathetic, which I guess is good in the sense that she seemed like a real teenager, but I couldn’t fully root for her as a result.
Reading is FUNdamental Award: The Handmaiden (2016). This movie is book porn in every sense of the word.
Least Faithful Adaption: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931). This film isn’t bad by any means, but it doesn’t come close to resembling the original novella.
Most Sherlockian: Zero Effect (1997)
Best Western: The Magnificent Seven (2016). There was nothing really innovative about this western except the casting, but it was very fun and serves as another example of how female or PoC directors can help revitalize and/or reenergize stale genres.
Best Sports Movie: The Fits (2016). I didn’t really understand this movie, or what the director was trying to say with it, but I loved the coming-of-age through sports element and seeing Toni, played by Royalty Hightower, move from the world of boxing to dance.
Best Worst Dancing (tie): The Lobster (2016) and The Fits (2016)
Biggest Head-Scratcher: Elle (2016). My sister and I left the theater and simultaneously said to each other “WTF was that?” I’m still wondering. Isabelle Huppert is great though (of course).
Best Headshake: Janelle Monáe in Moonlight (2016). One of the many scenes in the first third of this movie that stood out to me. I’d love to know how many takes it took to get her glance just right.
Best Score: Arrival (2016)
Best Score (Classic Edition): Candyman (1992)
Best Mantra: Rogue One (2016)
I’m one with the Force; the Force is with me.
Best Gloves: The Handmaiden (2016)
Best Lingerie: The Love Witch (2016)
Best in Birds: The Big Year (2011). I came to this delightful film about obsessed birders via Far Out City. I think it was underrated upon its release because it’s not a clear-cut comedy or buddy picture, but it has amazing actors and a fascinating story.
Best in Birds (runner-up): Arrival (2016)
Worst in Birds: The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (2005). I had wanted to watch this documentary about the parrots in San Francisco for some time but I was sorely disappointed. It is more about one man than about the birds, a fact that is problematic at best when you realize the director ends up in a relationship with her subject.
Most Surprising Lack of Birds: The Cat and the Canary (1927)
Best in Cats: L’Avenir (Things to Come) (2016)
Most Cats: Cat People (1942)
Most Superfluous Cat: The Black Cat (1934)
Least Effective Watch Cat: Elle (2016)
Most Unfortunate Cat: A Bucket of Blood (1959)
Most Unfortunate Cat (runner-up): The Fly (1958)
Most Misunderstood Cat: The Leopard Man (1943)
Most Surprising Lack of Cats (tie): The Cat and the Canary (1927) and Curse of the Cat People (1944)
Best in Dogs: Village of the Damned (1960)
Best in Dogs (runner-up): The Uninvited (1944)
Most Dogs: Les Yeux sans visage (Eyes Without a Face) (1960)
Most Unfortunate Dog (tie): Candyman (1992) and The Lobster (2016)
Best Camel: The Lobster (2016). I mean, obviously.
Biggest Waste of Hollywood Cred: Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring (2013)
Five Films I Can’t Recommend
Beat the Devil (1953)
The Black Cat (1934)
Son of Frankenstein (1939)
White Zombie (1932)
*The movies I saw or rewatched this quarter include:
2016: The Accountant, Allied, Arrival, L’Avenir (Things to Come), Captain America: Civil War, The Edge of Seventeen, Elle, The Fits, Ah-ga-ssi (The Handmaiden), The Invitation, La La Land, The Lobster, The Love Witch, The Magnificent Seven, Moonlight, Rogue One, Rules Don’t Apply, 13th, Tickled
2015: The Wolfpack
Released prior to 2015: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, Bachelorette, The Bad Seed, Beat the Devil, The Big Year, The Black Cat, The Bling Ring, The Body Snatcher, Bride of Frankenstein, A Bucket of Blood, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Candyman, The Cat and the Canary (1927), The Cat and the Canary (1939), Cat People, The Corpse Vanishes, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Crossing Delancey, Curse of the Demon, The Curse of Frankenstein, The Curse of the Cat People, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dracula, Exotica, The Fly, Frankenstein, Freaks, The Ghost Breakers, Horror of Dracula, House of Wax, House on Haunted Hill, I Walked with a Zombie, The Invisible Man, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Island of Lost Souls, King Kong, The Leopard Man, The Monster, The Mummy, Mystery of the Wax Museum, Nosferatu, The Old Dark House, One Frightened Night, The Phantom of the Opera, Real Women Have Curves, Saving Face, Secret of the Blue Room, Son of Frankenstein, The Thing from Another World, The Uninvited, The Unknown, Vampyr, Village of the Damned, White Zombie, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, The Wolf Man, Zero Effect
Note: These posts are in no way affiliated with the Film Quarterly journal published by the University of California Press.