2022 Year-End Review: What I Learned

This year, I watched more new-to-me movies than I’d ever watched before in a single year. I don’t have all that much in common with Pauline Kael, but as she boasted that she never saw a movie twice, I much prefer to learn a new movie rather than experience a movie I’ve seen before. I watched a lot of American movies this year, focusing on the work of my own countrymen more than the work of foreigners. I found myself both consciously and subconsciously trying to fill in gaps in time periods as well as in the filmographies of major directors. I got annoyed with myself for not having seen a number of movies on the bigtime lists, and I tried to chip away at They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? and the 2012 Sight and Sound poll. I’ve learned a lot in movie-watching since 2017, which is when I first started watching movies in earnest, but this year has been really different from any of the years that precede this one. I thought it was fitting that my year-end piece should be more of a statement of humility about how much I still have to learn about the history of this art form.

What follows is not a list of the best or most acclaimed movies I watched this year, nor is it a list of the movies I liked the most. Instead, I’m including some number of movies which have to do with the ideas at hand, and it’s the lessons more than the films which I’m making a list of.

Lessons 1-3:

Individual Directors

Lesson #1 / Terence Davies is a top-10 director all time.

Seriously, this isn’t that “This guy is a top-10 player in the NBA, don’t ask me to count them all or I’ll actually have him eighteenth.” Maybe I’ll feel differently about it in a few days or a few weeks, and I’m sure I’ll feel differently in a few months, but right now, there are five people who deserve to be in that conversation: Robert Bresson, Carl Theodor Dreyer, John Ford, Yasujiro Ozu, Andrei Tarkovsky. Then there’s a giant second tier which probably has 25 to 30 people in it, and from that second tier I’d pluck David Lean, Abbas Kiarostami, Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa. And then…why not Terence Davies? I can see the entire Italian peninsula gesticulating wildly at me from here, and I appreciate their grievances on about four different fronts. But I can tell you year-by-year which director changed me, and more importantly, changed the way I watched movies. In 2018, it was Ingmar Bergman. 2019 was Claire Denis, 2020 was Jean-Pierre Melville, and 2021 was John Ford. In 2022 that person is Terence Davies, who I’d watched in small doses before this year (The Long Day Closes, A Quiet Passion) but, thanks to a Criterion bundle, finally got the prodding to experience in greater amounts. When fancy critics break out the word “oneiric,” they tend to use it for Mirror or Meshes of the Afternoon or anything David Lynch. But the most dreamlike movies are from Terence Davies, who uses the snatches of tableaux and constant use of music to recreate the past. Memory and dreams have an uneasy relationship with one another, and Davies’ stories of childhood (Distant Voices, Still Lives, The Neon Bible, The Long Day Closes, Of Time and the City) are all vivid images which seem neither real nor unreal. The fades in and out that Davies loves so much are like the slowed down blinking awake, in those split seconds where you cannot remember if your teeth really did fall out or not, if there really is a monster that chased you off the edge of a cliff, if that girl’s lips really do feel like that. Scenes in Distant Voices, Still Lives where we see the intense meanness in the Postlethwaite character aren’t real, they can’t hurt you, and yet you feel watching him like the child who sees him, awkward and afraid and unnerved. Nor does one simply shake off a Davies. The Deep Blue Sea, perhaps the greatest movie of 2011, had me in pieces like no romance I’d seen since Brief Encounter. The purity of the feeling in that movie is so overwhelming. I keep wondering if there really are people for whom there is no way out of their love but death. The Deep Blue Sea says that there are such people, that they can love and need and want and ache so profoundly that even having the person they love for a short time is not enough to stave off death.

Lesson #2 / Vincente Minnelli is chronically underappreciated and I’m part of the problem.

The problem with Minnelli that I have (and that a lot of other people have too, apparently!) is that the ceiling’s just not there. There are inferior directors who have made better movies than anything Minnelli ever took charge of; I wouldn’t put Tobe Hooper, Quentin Tarantino, or Whit Stillman on the same level as Minnelli, but their best is just better than his best. In the past two years, I’ve watched ten Minnelli movies, and not every one of them has been great. Kismet kind of sucks, Father’s Little Dividend is meh, and my apologies to the Judy Holliday Hive but I just wasn’t that taken with Bells Are Ringing. But even those films have such wonderful elements to them. Bells Are Ringing turns an office space into infinite space; I love the way that Judy Holliday is confined to her desk less by the phone and more by the distance between her position and the door. Father’s Little Dividend gives a young Elizabeth Taylor a little more room to spread her wings. And Kismet…no one can deny that that movie is an absolute stunner, sumptuous in color and cinematography. There’s simply a guarantee in Minnelli’s films, and it’s a guarantee that we don’t have nearly as often in this time when namebrand directors are only making one movie every two years or so. From 1943, when debuted with Cabin in the Sky, through 1960, when Home from the Hill and Some Came Running were released, Minnelli directed twenty-nine movies. Almost all of them are at least good, and a number of them are very good.

One of the great joys of my movie watching year was seeing The Pirate for the first time, which combines silliness and sexiness with a flair unmatched until Federico Fellini started working with Giulietta Masina. Gene Kelly and Judy Garland end the film with “Be a Clown,” but earlier in that film, both of them get these showcase numbers which let us see them both be pretty hot because everyone else is pretty sure they’re hot. Kelly gets “Niña,” in which every gorgeous extra on the MGM lot drapes herself over him while he dances; one lucky lady gets an open-mouthed kiss with a third party involved, a cigarette he’s got on his tongue. And not much later, after a bit of hypnosis gone a little far, Garland gets “Mack the Black.” A prim and put together young woman gets increasingly less prim and less put together, and meanwhile there are these shots of Kelly looking more and more amazed by her. He was prepared to fool around with Garland a little bit, but he wasn’t expecting her to be just as hot as him. Leave it to Minnelli to step aside for Kelly’s number with the Nicholas Brothers, knowing that he’s just got to track those three while they’re performing, but to know how to shoot beautiful people beautifully as well.

Lesson #3 / John Carpenter is a lot weirder than I’ve been giving him credit for being.

When The Thing became the consensus best Carpenter sometime last decade, I think it became easier to overlook part of what makes Carpenter unique. Ironically, I’m part of the problem here too, because The Thing is the Carpenter I’d call the best. It’s not just the best movie of his career, but it’d be the best movie of almost anyone’s career. It’s one of the great ensemble thrillers of all time, and the special effects are as marvelous and uncanny now as they were in 1982. I wouldn’t change a thing about it. But The Thing is a pretty bleak movie, and for everything that is unimpeachable about it, it’s also got “Horror-Thriller’s Greatest Hits” written all over it. The Thing is a triumph of execution much more than it is a triumph of ingenuity, which is a charge which you can probably even level (maybe a little unfairly) against Halloween as well. John Carpenter is an Austin or a Portland, and there’s a danger in commodifying him primarily as the master of genre fare rather prizing him as one of the weirdest movie dudes in the past fifty years. If you get into Carpenter as I got into Carpenter and come to things like Big Trouble in Little China around the same time as The Thing or Halloween or Christine, you can get to this point where you say, Okay, that one’s an incredibly affectionate spoof, but the real Carpenter is in the unkillable Michael Myers. Or you look at Starman and say, Wow, what a really tender film, but usually tenderness in Carpenter means an endless wrestling/boxing match between Rowdy Roddy Piper and Keith David. After getting to some of Carpenter’s less-loved movies, I’m more of the mind that John Carpenter is more the weirdo from Big Trouble in Little China and Starman than he is the savage master of The Thing and Halloween, and that just makes me like him more.

Neither Dark Star nor Vampires are as good as any of the movies I’ve mentioned, nor would I say that they’re as good as Assault on Precinct 13 or The Fog or Escape from New York. But they are so weird! I love how weird they are. Compare Dark Star to THX-1138, another ’70s sci-fi student film stretched out to feature length, and while THX has so much more polish, Dark Star just feels so much more alive. That life comes through in the funniest places possible, because while the spacemen of the film are basically dull morons who spend a lot of time locked into their positions at work and dangling from ledges in the spaceship, the nonhumans are terrific. I love the bombs that have a cat’s stubborn iconoclastic energy, but that alien they’ve got hanging around, a beach ball with limbs that hides around the ship and is unremittingly toddler while doing so, is so delightful and completely unexpected. Then there’s Vampires, which starts with one of Carpenter’s best sequences. There’s doom in the atmosphere, doom which is not even upset by the slightly absurd presence of James Woods and Daniel Baldwin. Cleaning out those vampires is such a thrilling mission, one where this ragtag group of men who genuinely know how to do their job well follow the steps to obliterate an enemy which would obviously defeat them one-on-one. And then, before you know it, one vampire comes and cleans out the victory celebration by himself, in a sequence which is shockingly similar to what had happened in the film’s opening. After that, a movie that’s in the mold of a supernatural thriller gets terrifically strange, becoming increasingly involved in conspiratorial Catholicism down to the crucifixion of James Woods that this lead vampire has planned for him. The presence of Satan is not new for Carpenter, whose Prince of Darkness invokes him in title and deed. What makes Vampires different is its focus, as Prince of Darkness begins by viewing Satan as a kind of scientific figure, someone who can be approached by curious physicists. Vampires is always about the occult, building up to the intended mockery of Christ’s death by a former priest who has embraced Satan instead. Vampires isn’t The Exorcist, and it’s not even Prince of Darkness, but it is undoubtedly weird even by the standards of the horror-thriller.

Lessons 4-6:

Film Intentions via Genre and Structure

Lesson #4 / There are more than a century’s worth of Journey to Italy movies.

One of my special pigeons is the Journey to Italy movie (“J2I”), named for Roberto Rossellini’s masterpiece of the same name. The basic premise is pretty simple: a couple gets away from home, typically on vacation, and a relationship with cracks in it finally shatters. I began the year with plans to really delve deeper into the J2I; for a few reasons, some of them even really understandable, it’s not something I managed to give as much time to as I intended to. The oldest J2I movie I know of is Blind Husbands, an Erich von Stroheim film which really is about a literal journey to Italy—albeit on the other side of the country from where Rossellini set his—and I saw that for the first time this year. The most recent Journey to Italy movie I know is Bergman Island, Mia Hansen-Love’s marvelous picture from last year which sends a couple to Faro. Bergman, even more than Rossellini, really treasured this particular setup, relying on it for pieces of Scenes from a Marriage as well as Smiles of a Summer Night. Most of the really big ones, like Contempt and Sunrise and Certified Copy, are films I’d seen before this year. There were others which I finally got to because I felt like I needed to fill in a space to work on this pet project. This was the year that I watched Antichrist for the first time, another J2I made by a Bergman disciple and every bit as uncomfortable as its reputation. I also finally got to Two for the Road, a film where Stanley Donen got a hold of a never-better Audrey Hepburn and made one of the finest variations on the traditional script. It’s not a single vacation to the south of France that gets Hepburn and Albert Finney up in arms with one another, but a series of vacations charted with different clothes, different cars, different types of arguments. I had no idea it was so marvelous as all that. And then there are films that I came across almost entirely by accident. By the Sea, which I had totally forgotten was a real movie from the last ten years, happened to be on Netflix. The film itself isn’t all that great, but as a metatext about Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt falling away from each other I can’t believe that doesn’t already have a book or five written about it. Near to my heart is Summer Lovers, which I literally came across in a Kino Lorber catalogue or otherwise I would never have heard of this movie. It’s got a real case to be the worst of the J2I candidates I’ve ever come across, but none of these other movies has a Michael Sembello theme song that will get stuck in your head for months afterwards, so checkmate, Ingmar.

Lesson #5 / Whatever your definition of an audacious movie musical is, it’s almost certainly not bold enough.

You know what’s an audacious movie musical? A movie musical with virtually no solo performances, practically no songs which are not basically narrating events, and which is silent as often as it is sound. Le million, which rapidly became my favorite Rene Clair, does not allow what the form of the musical is supposed to be (or what people might expect it to be, even in 1931) slow down its more unusual thrusts. The sound will just disappear as this becomes a silent film, and then it’ll be back again as the people in the movie start singing in unison again in one of several recitatives.

What was my favorite musical I watched for the first time this year? Lagaan qualifies, surely, a Bollywood epic which is most delightful in its musical sequences. The film is an incredibly emotional one, surely the most emotional film ever to be named after taxes. There’s the sympathy we feel for the farmers and the curling lip we can’t suppress whenever that English officer shows up and gets all racist and snooty. There’s the thrill of the cricket itself, of how the individuals playing the game for the first time approach it once they’re bowling or at bat for the first time. There’s the love triangle, because, almost to a woman, the ladies of Lagaan are trying to get paddled by Aamir Khan’s wood bat. All of those suffice in the film on their own without any special lift from the music, but they are most memorably brought out by songs and dances. “Ghanan Ghanan” gives us a sense of the community’s need for rain and their great hope for it, not as individual farmers or citizens but as a united group. “Mitwa” is about the bravery it will take to play this unfamiliar sport and to do so basically for the lives of the village. And “Radha Kaise Na Jale” absolutely sets up the stakes for Bhuvan and Gauri’s love affair, hinting for everyone except Elizabeth that Bhuvan will choose a woman of his own world rather than traveling outside of it to seek a bride. A.R. Rahman writes a great score, to be sure, but in particular I find “Mitwa” to be much more rousing than any single event that occurs inside the cricket match. Set aside the familiarity we all have with Bollywood pictures in the abstract with their use of music; Lagaan simply does it better than most, really demanding that there is an emotional unity between the story and the songs which pepper it.

Hair, which could not have been an easy film to make let alone adapt well from the stage show, makes up for what it might lack in a unifying plot with some exceptional camerawork. Based on the way “Age of Aquarius” is shot, I thought I might be watching one of the great movie musicals, period. Renn Woods absolutely demolishes that song, singing with absolute authority over the lyrics, standing with incredible poise in the midst of a shot that swirls and revolves around her like the stars around the unseen power of fate. The rest of the movie doesn’t live up to that scene, and in retrospect I’m not entirely sure that it could have. The gang of hippies, despite having some good actors in the bunch, never really lives up to what Woods is laying down in “Age of Aquarius,” not even in the second-best vocal performance of the film, the ensemble “The Flesh Failures/Let the Sunshine In.” The closest it gets to being a really interesting movie again is in “Black Boys/White Boys,” which engages fantasy in the show more clearly than any other piece while also having its satirical say. Pennies from Heaven lacks the high points of Hair, although on balance it is a much better film. Into the Woods may not be as much as musical fantasy as Pennies from Heaven, which does something that I don’t think any movie musical will ever try to do again because of how hard Pennies from Heaven bombed. Lip syncing with music that is clearly not coming through the characters on screen is a formally daring choice. Doing so with some of the most popular and familiar songs of the 1930s is even more daring. That risk pays off in the film as the characters do more and more predictable things; they have been seduced by the popular music, and the popular music makes each person in that film just a little more common, a little bit more like every other wretched person around Chicago. And that lip-syncing never gets in the way of the performances of the movie: you’re going to tell me it makes Christopher Walken’s bartop strip/tap performance less exciting?

Lesson #6 / Getting the nostalgia documentary right is like winning Minesweeper on the hardest difficulty level.

I’ve probably watched more documentaries this year, good and bad, then I’ve ever watched in any other year of my life. I have thoughts that are going to trickle through the next few lessons.

There’s a subset of documentaries that are almost all bad and that I have seen an awful lot of this year, and I think they are probably second only to expository-inflammatory documentaries on your favorite streaming service. That’s the nostalgia doc, a film which exists mostly to talk about something you knew about from ten to fifteen years ago and let you experience it again as someone who’s fatter and uglier now. I haven’t even watched a bunch of these that are hanging out on Netflix and Hulu, least of all anything about Blockbuster, but one of the neater examples here is the White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch. What an absolute turd of a movie, which looks like a VH1 program and sounds like a poorly edited Wikipedia page. A bunch of your Netflix miniseries, which could be ninety minute movies instead of four-part “docuseries,” fall into this category: Pepsi, Where’s My Jet? is the most recent example I can think of. (I got through an episode and a half of that and I was just exhausted by how much excitement there was for…the Cola Wars? I can’t take it anymore.) Summer of Soul is a nostalgia documentary no matter how much it pretends to be history. The Automat was released this year, and that’s also a nostalgia doc, and it also is quite bad. It’s not bad because it’s got politically uncool people in it, and it’s not bad because it’s mostly just about Mel Brooks talking about how good the food was at a restaurant decades ago. It’s bad because there’s nothing to it. It could have been a 30 minute episode of “Stuff You Should Know” and it would have sufficed without any of the other fluff. It’s bad because it’s a nostalgia documentary which is trying to make us feel nostalgic for something which was only in two cities and which virtually no one remembers as anything more than a novelty. Why do we need to get nostalgic for that? People would scoff at you if they said that Applebee’s deserves this kind of tongue bath, but at least they have Applebee’s in more than two places and they will probably sustain themselves for about as long.

There are two nostalgia documentaries I watched this year that have kept me in on the concept, both of which have basically the same premise. A Place of Our Own is about Stanley Nelson and his family returning to Oak Bluffs, a historically African-American vacation hub on Martha’s Vineyard. And Welcome to Kutsher’s: The Last Catskills Resort is about one of the Jewish resorts that really took off in the 1950s. And once again, only one of them is good. A Place of Our Own is a truly great film by one of America’s great documentarians. I’ve gushed before about Nelson’s ability to balance personal and community history in a short stretch of time, and I imagine I’ll continue doing it because it’s just so well done. The film is not really about whether a place like Oak Bluffs is still valuable, if it’s special because Adam Clayton Powell’s widow is still vacationing there in the 21st Century, but more about whether it can maintain the value to Stanley Nelson, a guy who grew up going there and who can’t go back without thinking about how essential his mother was to his understanding of the place and how absent his father was from that family time. It’s still a nostalgia documentary, but it’s about the nostalgia of one man who is trying to riddle out just what he’s nostalgic about, exactly. This one is filmed well, if a little candidly.

Then there’s Welcome to Kutsher’s, which I wish I knew how to quit. It’s really not good! I think that I could probably could have made a better documentary with the technology that was available to me as a 21-year-old in 2012. It’s so janky. I’ve seen student PowerPoints which are tighter. It’s basically just Wikipedia again, like the Abercrombie & Fitch doc, remembering the stuff that people liked about the resort, interviewing people so the twenty-five people who’d watch this can say, “Hey, I remember her!” No matter how mediocre it is, no matter how unambitious it is, no matter how little I connect to it on a personal level, Welcome to Kutsher’s is haunting. There are two reasons why Kutsher’s fails, and one of them is unambiguously a good thing. The first is that air travel means that people can get to like, Miami or the Caribbean or other vacation spots in much less time than they could in the 1950s or ’60s, meaning that the relative comforts of Kutsher’s have to compete against tougher competition. The second, the unambiguously good thing, is that Jewish people are accepted at country clubs and elite vacation spots all over America rather than being blackballed and forced to go to clubs run by and catered to Jewish people. The family became successful and the grandchildren of the man who founded it all went on to be lawyers and doctors and have fine careers in fields of their own choosing. For many decades, the place worked. It was beloved, it was profitable, it gave everyone what they wanted. But those places do not survive simply because they were loved. It takes something more than love to preserve a Kutsher’s, and watching the people interviewed in the documentary realize that, people working and holidaying in the crumbling husk of a place that used to be delight itself, is heartbreak itself. Something can die through no fault of its own.

Lessons 7-9:

Contemporary Trends

Lesson #7 / The performative documentary is an emotional flat tire.

The greatest filmmakers, and I really do mean the greatest, command the objective correlative to the last minim. Who can understand what it must be like to see a woman raised from the dead through the faith of a child and the power granted to a devout man? There are no words for it, no reactions that can do justice, no performance than encapsulate it, and yet in Ordet Carl Theodor Dreyer puts us in the room and gives us a way to feel the miracle in cortices and cuticles. We are as amazed and thrilled and shocked and muted as the mourners whose roles change in an instant. Or, to take a more prosaic approach, there’s the christening scene intercut with the scenes of Michael’s henchmen finishing off his rivals at the end of The Godfather. Michael’s newborn evil is never clearer, not even in literally the final scene, than in that sequence where he welcomes God into the life of his new child while taking life with the forcefulness of God himself, blaspheming even as he submits himself to the rites of the church. I watched a couple recent documentaries this year, Procession and Casting JonBenet, which I would describe as performative documentaries. Individuals act out roles, either as themselves in the past or as other people, and their process and background are given extra weight in the potentially cathartic/incriminating moments that people like Robert Greene or Kitty Green record and share with their audience. I admired Procession more than I had any other previous Greene I’d watched—if I wanted to do leftist chores, I’d join a commune instead of watching Bisbee ’17 again—and thought Casting JonBenet was at least a little bit incisive about the power of local gossip. I also felt like this process must have been truly meaningful to these people, especially the people who Greene interviews in Procession. But there’s a gap here, a gap that’s missing in Ordet or The Godfather, a missing emotional conduit that would have lifted these documentaries and others like them to a greater position of power. It’s as if we need to have an emotional reaction to Birgitte Federspiel or Preben Lerdorff Rye as they explain their acting, on top of a reaction to Inger and Johannes. It’s clunky. I’ll grant that there can be something liberating about exposing the process of filmmaking, and Greene in particular does interesting work in sharing the power of the director with so many people. What both films come down to are statements about the mutability of form, and my sympathy for that goes as far as the effectiveness of that mutation. Procession and Casting JonBenet are clever, but there’s no way for me to give them higher praise than that.

Lesson #8 / The best documentary of 2022 was a Prezi.

I watched a lot of historically great documentaries for the first time in 2022: Of Time and the City (Terence Davies, baybee), Histoire(s) du cinema, News from Home, In Jackson Heights, Mr. Death, Wattstax, Attica, Down and Out in America, Sherman’s March, Encounters at the End of the World, South, Eadward Muybride, Zoopraxographer, Paradise Lost, and perhaps above all of them, Dying at Grace. That doesn’t even include documentaries I saw for the first time and thought were simply very good. I feel a closeness for non-fiction film that I don’t think I’ve ever felt so consistently, and that’s incredibly exciting. So with the caveat that I haven’t see everything from 2022 and that there are documentaries I know I still need to catch up on…what does it mean that the best documentary I watched for the first time this year was a made-for-YouTube doc which is, by the traditional standards of cinema, maybe not even a movie at all.

The People You’re Paying to Be in Shorts, Jon Bois’s telling of the 2011-2012 Charlotte Bobcats, is wonderful. I wouldn’t put it on the same level as any of the (counts) fourteen documentaries I listed up there, but it’s good, even really good. Be in Shorts is formulated to tell the story of a team from ten years ago that even casual basketball fans have some familiarity with in so many different ways, all of them complementary. Bois, with his trademark oddball humor, apostrophizes mostly to Michael Jordan himself but contextualizes the unusual and the predictable alike. Alex Rubinstein and Seth Rosenthal take care of most of the statistical and day-to-day lifting of the Charlotte Bobcats as they immolate their way to the worst season in NBA history. Kofie Yeboah supports in smaller ways, discussing what it was like to be a North Carolina sports fan at the time and noting how deeply unimportant the Charlotte Bobcats were compared to like, every other college and pro team in the state. There’s an eye on the past of Charlotte basketball, particularly the competent and cool ’90s Hornets, as well the future of Charlotte basketball in terms of the NBA Draft and their chance to get Anthony Davis. Reader, I gasped when I remembered that the worst season in NBA history ended with the Bobcats drafting Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and I laughed my behind off when I saw Rich Cho’s face as he realized that the Bobcats were not going to get Davis. It’s accessible for everyone in that way, whether you’ve been keeping up with the NBA with a semi-religious fervor (raises hand) or if people like Anthony Davis or Kemba Walker or D.J. Augustin or the princely Boris Diaw are totally unknown to you. Usually I think of that kind of accessibility as a problem in a documentary—not because I’m pretentious but because if it’s that general, it tends to be missing the specificity that makes a story interesting—but Bois and his crew are so good at telling this story, and so good at aiming it right in the middle of the audience in order to get as many people as possible.

That’s well and good, but as I seem to find myself compelled to say multiple times a post anymore, cinema is a visual medium. What is so remarkable about Be in Shorts is that it is one of the most interesting documentaries of the year in terms of its visual storytelling. Almost entirely without the crutches of talking heads and old footage (the most notable piece of tape they use is to build up a DeSagana Diop free throw), which are the basis and bane of sports docs, Bois finds visual intrigue in the faces of the subjects, the graphs which show the flow of the games, the schedule that can be filled and crossed off in neat boxes. Is this less fluid than watching a bunch of clips of the Bobcats’ opponents nailing shots as they throw up on the court? I guess so. But is it more visually challenging than a more traditional doc, like The Battered Bastards of Baseball? Absolutely. A documentarian relying on Todd Field and Kurt Russell’s heads and some pictures and spare footage is doing the easiest thing possible. There is great care taken in Be in Shorts, and the growing density on screen as the maps build and the graphs fill and the clippings proliferate gives the sense of a narrative being completed. This time last year, I wouldn’t have called Be in Shorts a movie. Now I think that, at least for people as talented as the Dorktown folks, it’s possible to visualize this mold as a cost-effective, smart, entertaining, and thoughtful path to documentary filmmaking.

Lesson #9 / Watching a movie star in 2022 is like watching an actual star…

…because the light you’re seeing is actually from the past, get it? It’s okay, I have an allusion I prefer to this anyway. In It’s a Wonderful Life, once George has gotten wiped from the planet, he says the phrase “Don’tcha know me?” a bunch of times. Watching movie stars in star vehicles in 2022 is like getting grabbed by the shoulders while the movie star in question looks deeply and ferally into your eyes and emotes, in his or her own way: “Don’tcha know me?” Whether or not this is actually the “fault” of the movie star is a thorny question, in much the same way that awkward artistic choices that we ascribe to actors can just as easily come from directing, editing, and so on. For Tom Cruise in Top Gun: Maverick and Nicolas Cage in The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, both of whom have producer credits to go along with their starring roles, you have to assume that they have a greater degree of command over the final image they present. And for all I know, Michelle Yeoh might have had nearly as much say in her portrayal of a woman who develops martial arts prowess in Everything Everywhere All at Once.

Unsurprisingly, all three of them are at least a little bit hollow, and if you gave a good bonk to Cruise in particular you would hear it reverberate through his body like a wooden spoon on Tupperware. It’s a mite shocking how little Maverick has changed from Top Gun to Top Gun: Maverick. Still a fighter jockey, still indifferent to the regulations, still unkillable. There’s some gestures made toward parenting in the film, but I don’t know that the movie cares about that stuff any more than it cares about Mav hitting Mach 10; it’s so basic that it barely registers. The point is that he still plays games on the beach, still is the best pilot despite being a million years old, is still the same size and shape and crooked smile he had before, still has the same haircut, and in the end still flies an F-14 to finish the mission. Tom Cruise tried changing before. He showed enthusiasm about Katie Holmes, was more open about his devotion to Scientology, and played in Rock of Ages. He tried to get weird. Everyone hated it. What everyone wanted was Tom Cruise the cocky winner, Tom Cruise the invincible, and since the mid-2010s, that’s what we’ve gotten. Mission Impossible movies which raise the stakes and which have gotten those just fine movies up to near-classic status, and now we have a Top Gun sequel in which we get Tom Cruise doing “the old guy’s still got it.” Nothing could be more appealing for chubsters with backache and heartburn than to see their teen idol, maybe only slightly more grizzled than before, and to see he’s still kicking butt and taking names. Keep lifting with your legs, though, just in case.

In Yeoh’s case, in a movie that definitely has that MCU-beige stink on it in story, in VFX, and most of all in aspiration, I mostly find the martial arts stuff cynical. Maybe this makes me some kind of revanchist, but I liked her in Crazy Rich Asians where she was playing basically the same type of person. She was stern, she was tough, she was flawed, she intimidated a younger woman, she proved she could learn and adapt to a new time. The only difference is that she didn’t kick anybody in Crazy Rich Asians. Yeoh has gotten much more praise for Everything Everywhere than she did for Crazy Rich Asians, and I certainly don’t begrudge her any of the accolades she’ll pick up for that movie during awards season. (I’m rooting for her! I like Michelle Yeoh! I’d love to be able to call her “Oscar-winner Michelle Yeoh” in future posts!) I mostly find that her performance hinges on all of us in the audience waiting for her to display her physical finesse in much the same way we’d wait for Fred Astaire to display his in a movie. To then reward us with her martial arts, such a reward as it is in a movie so drab, is to ask for us to clap like sea lions who have finally gotten their fish. We were good and we waited and now we get to have a little treat.

The only one of these three that I don’t find fundamentally condescending is the Nicolas Cage performance, although in its own way The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is like asking everyone to get in the Jacuzzi with Film Twitter. (Does the movie improve with the Paddington 2 stuff, or do you just like seeing another meme in a movie about a meme?) There’s not all that much insight into Cage the actor here, let alone Cage the man; one wonders if the movie might even be improved a little bit if he’d played “Kicolas Nage” or something just to give a whiff of deniability. Cage is the best actor of these three, and strangely, given that he’s brought into the world of a European drug cartel to write a movie with a big fan, he probably has the most plausible scenario set out in front of him. The Unbearable Weight is the only one of these three films that does something to twist our perception of Cage even a little bit, despite the fact that the “Don’tcha know me” score on this thing is astronomical. Nicolas Cage has been adored and panned precisely because he’s not normal. He is an eccentric, and that eccentricity (and his mistrust with money) sent him careening on a path better suited to the career of like, Dan Duryea than a major star from the 21st Century, instantly recognizable time and again in a slew of movies. But The Unbearable Weight makes a move which is perhaps even more adorable than “The old guy’s still got it,” and that is “Celebs! They’re just like us!” Even the guy from Face/Off can’t get alone with his family more often than not.

Lessons 10-12

“The Future of Film Talk Is on Letterboxd”

Lesson #10 / Too many of us say things like “This is [insert director’s] best work” while assuming the less seen films don’t qualify for that too.

There are fifteen lessons I’m writing about in this post, but only this one has a moral. That moral is that a person only gets so far allowing the opinions of others (even the opinions of smarter people who we trust!) to guide their mindset about a movie corpus. Last year I finally read Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema, the opus of a critic who saw far more than I will and who was a lot smarter than I am now. What I walked away from The American Cinema feeling was not that I had a Bible to be venerated but that I had a really cool handbook and reference tool at my fingertips. I’m not a professional critic, I don’t know any professional critics personally, and for better or worse I’m not temperamentally inclined to trust the discrimination of others above my own. Shoot, I don’t even have any namebrand people from Film Twitter following me on that platform under judgment. If there’s something that my relative hermeticism provides as a strength, it’s that I don’t feel pressure to agree with other people because I’m afraid of getting dunked on by the Internet, I’m not scared of my replies, and I’m not worried I’m going to hurt my online friends’ feelings by disliking a movie they like or vice versa. There’s a consensus that builds among groups, and whether that consensus flattens (my one complaint about the Sight and Sound polls) or pacifies (as when people decide as a group that, I dunno, E.T. is a top-five Spielberg), too often it comes at the expense of films found upriver from the most popular and beloved.

At any rate, this wasn’t my favorite movie-watching year of my life. A lot of enjoyment was replaced by edification, which is less cheerful by definition. This was such an edifying year because of how much work I wanted to put into filling back catalogues of directors I had previous familiarity with. In doing so I really changed how I looked at those directors, a group of many that I’m going to limit to four for the sake of time: Michael Mann, Nicholas Ray, Powell and Pressburger, and John Ford.

If you’re like me and you came to Michael Mann, in some order, with Heat and The Last of the Mohicans and Collateral and The Insider and Thief and Manhunter, then I think it’s really easy to be burned out on him really quickly. With the complete exceptions of Manhunter and The Insider, I find this group to be pretty cold to the touch, a touch formulaic, too reliant on our affection for movie stars in neat lighting and not compelling enough in character, story, or ideas. I mean…they’re still good. Collateral is the least of those, but if you released it today I’d want it in a ten-film Best Picture field for the next Academy Awards. When we talk about Michael Mann, we so often go back to Heat, which is (at least according to Letterboxd) probably his most seen picture, and I think not coincidentally the one that people most often call the best of Mann. Water gun to my head, though, I’d rate The Keep, which is not nearly as seen as Heat, more highly among Mann’s oeuvre. This isn’t a popular opinion, maybe least among people who have seen both films, but given a choice between the two I’d rather have the visual grandeur, cosmic mystery, and moral turmoil of The Keep. No matter how often you start thinking about how this is just Raiders of the Lost Ark: Northern Exposure, it still feels original. These Nazis aren’t being punished for their curiosity or their lust for power. These Nazis are being punished for existing, which is a very different rationale. In this ancient haunt, they have uncovered not the wrath of God but the malice of a demon, a malevolent being who uses circumstance and the apparition of a shared platform to make deals with a profoundly endangered and embittered Jewish scholar. It’s a film which demands so much more than Heat, asks for us to ponder and suffer in ways that engage a muscle that Mann does not typically ask us to flex. Between seeing Manhunter and The Keep for the first time in the past couple years, my perspective on Mann has changed so much from what it would have been if I just kept to what Film Twitter has to say about the guy.

To pick a completely different example, I wouldn’t call Born to Be Bad one of Nicholas Ray’s three best films. I wouldn’t put in his next group of three either or, while we’re at it, in the three after that. All the same, I really enjoyed Born to Be Bad, which takes the subtext of so much Ray and makes it into the gleeful text of the picture. Take some of Ray’s better-loved films about domestic drama (Rebel without a Cause, Bigger Than Life) and strip them of the already peeling veneer of respectability and morality they possess and you just get scandals about teens gone wild and drug abuse. The noirs already stretch the limits of good taste anyway, as any good noir ought to, though one of the fun tricks with noir is balancing the first clause of this sentence with the second. Born to Be Bad takes things further than In a Lonely Place, which still has a moral center in Gloria Grahame. No, Born to Be Bad is as trashy as it sounds, and I loved finding this piece of Ray’s filmography, a piece which for good and all shows that his better and better remembered films rely on his sense of balance. Born to Be Bad has Joan Fontaine playing, with all respect, a big slut. If there’s a balance in this film, it’s not a balance that has anything to do with James Mason figuring out how to be a decent head of the family after all the wrong he’s done. It’s a balance for Joan Fontaine playing a woman with savage sex appeal opposite Zachary Scott, pretty and wheedling and slimy, and Robert Ryan, who would have had the starring role in a biopic about Moloch. Everyone in that movie makes your skin crawl, and darned if it doesn’t feel more like fingernails tiptoeing up your forearm than anything else.

Poke around the past two Sight and Sound polls and you’ll see there are three Powell and Pressburger movies in those top 100 lists: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes. What all three have in common is some of the most adjective-breaking Technicolor in history, the kind of color that stays with you for years every time you close your eyes. (See also Black Narcissus, The Tales of Hoffman…) I finally got to The Small Back Room, which is emphatically not a Technicolor marvel but a black-and-white cry for help. When I took the CAT tests in elementary school, there was a section where they gave us new words for familiar objects, and one of them was “hoyjet,” which replaced “a thick liquid.” The Small Back Room, as I’ve observed elsewhere, is a hoyjet film, the kind of movie that drips something foul-smelling and smearing on you while you’re watching it. David Farrar is not the charmer with the standoffish facade and a taste for pretty nuns from Black Narcissus any longer but a man broken physically by alcoholism, whose brokenness is visibly displayed with a prosthetic foot, and whose mind is broken by self-pity. There isn’t another Powell and Pressburger quite like it. The Small Back Room has come a long way from girls getting glue in their hair in A Canterbury Tale or, more potently, David Niven’s pip-pip cheerio attitude towards his certain demise in the opening minutes of A Matter of Life and Death. It is not pessimistic, precisely, because our hero does ultimately do his best under dangerous circumstances, and he does ultimately earn back our respect. What the film is instead is dubious, not because people are incapable of transcending circumstances but because it is bloody hard to do so. I don’t want to call it an ignored Powell and Pressburger, as it is part of their sacred and studied 1940s, but let’s just say that if I wanted to put three Archers in a top 100 movies of all time list, I’d slide The Small Back Room in there instead of A Matter of Life and Death.

If this weren’t the year of Terence Davies, or if 2021 hadn’t been the year of John Ford already, I’d probably call 2022 the year of John Ford as well. I watched just as many of his movies this year as I did last year. He made about sixty features between 1930 and 1959, not including his work for the military; I’ve seen at least two-thirds of them. It was the year I saw Pilgrimage for the first time and The Horse Soldiers and Four Sons. It was the year I saw a Ford in a movie theater for the first time; The Quiet Man was on a screen that size. I’m not Scott Eyman, who wrote a book about Ford, nor am I Filipe Furtado, who rules Letterboxd and who has seen every Ford that one can see. But I’m trying, darn it, and aside from Pilgrimage, the best new-to-me Ford for me this year was The Last Hurrah. It’s a movie which doesn’t seem like it’s an obvious fit with so much of his oeuvre. There’s no war fought, it takes place in Boston rather than the West, and while Spencer Tracy is playing an Irish Bostonian, it’s rather less emphatic about the old country than one can find pretty easily in other Fords. I thought it was marvelous, a film that is largely without cynicism despite being a political movie. It’s an idealistic film, one that genuinely believes that you can judge a man from his enemies. The enemies Frank Skeffington has made are the wealthy, the entitled, the vainly powerful; they are the same breed that Sam Waterston led in Heaven’s Gate. They beat him. They run a bad candidate against him, a man easily led, and Skeffington and company do what they can to maneuver around the powerful men backing him. It isn’t enough. The effort, or perhaps the loss, kills Skeffington. I haven’t read anyone’s interpretation of the film that postdates Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 election, and of course it’s hard to compare a politician as good as Skeffington to a politician as mediocre as Hillary Clinton. I do have to say that the film’s fundamentally decent protagonist running headlong into a defeat which ends him on all levels doesn’t feel like a copout or a fairy tale the way it might have when the movie was released. Ford’s films were not cynical, and The Last Hurrah, the penultimate great movie of his career, gains its wisdom from the simple, wrenching power of watching someone lose a race he ought not to have lost.

Lesson #11 / Subtitles + any kind of variance in form = “I’m watching a masterpiece.”

Thomas Vinterberg wasn’t yet thirty when The Celebration was released, and it shows. I like The Celebration, but there’s no real difference between what Vinterberg is doing and what Joshua Logan would have done back in the mid-’50s in America. Sure, Dogme 95 demands a forced naturalism from Vinterberg, but is that so different from how Columbia demanded lush colors from Logan? Vinterberg’s actors are trying to be as real as possible, but so are Logan’s, influenced by the new methods of performance from New York. Susan Strasberg, daughter of Actors Studio founder Lee Strasberg, was in Picnic. I recoiled from The Celebration even though I thought the actors were good and the film was shot and cut well; I recoiled from Picnic for the same reason. Both films are so driven by unbelievable coincidence, by ludicrous people, and most of all by a crippling self-importance. The Celebration reeks of it, odoriferous with this belief that it’s pushing the bounds of cinema, stinking with this sense that it is indicting the highfalutin capitalists of Denmark. Using digital cinematography in 1998 is adventurous, certainly, but it’s just mascara for The Celebration.

If the plot hinges on someone finding a suicide note for a long dead person filled with incriminating accusations inside a light fixture during a weekend-long party…I dunno, you don’t think even Charles Dickens would look at that with an eyebrow up? I don’t mind far-fetched events, but I tend to put my nose up at far-fetched events that can’t even happen in a game of Clue. So why is The Celebration, a film with a story like Eugene O’Neill would have put in his middle school literary magazine, so feted? Why is The Celebration understood to be a major picture, an outstanding artwork? I mean, it seems like it’s the same formula that gets a lot of stateside reviewers to jump up and down: it’s got some unusual technique and it has subtitles. I’ve got that as a 3.5 star movie on Letterboxd, for what it’s worth. I think it’s a good movie. It’s also got flaws that you couldn’t root out with a backhoe. The cinema is a visual medium, and if there are films which are advanced by their visual approach (like The Celebration), we must also account for what’s on the inside. The Celebration, on the inside, is just sordid in the way that something like #savethechildren is sordid, asking for our outrage regarding people who stop existing when the movie ends.

I didn’t find Run Lola Run quite as obnoxious as The Celebration, but the same basic principle applies here. Subtitles, some unusual structural quirks, the occasional animation, hard cuts. Is it genuinely striking out at something new or is it just really busy? I found Run Lola Run to be completely empty of emotion, which is not unusual when a film strikes out into multiple subplots about the same stretch of time. Of course, as I’ve alluded to in Everything Everywhere All at Once, even your most respectable critics are as likely to salivate about a “multiverse” or “sliding doors moments” or, as we called them in third grade Reading class, “turning points” as any thirteen-year-old just getting armpit hair. You’d think everyone would have realized that everything was interconnected when global capitalism became the major animating force of their lives, but hey, maybe they’re all just thinking about all the things that could have happened instead of global capitalism.

Lesson #12 / A movie that only has one goal is like a diet that only lets you eat one food.

Jordan Peterson went on Joe Rogan’s show many months ago now and told his listeners that all he ate is beef, salt, and water. “I never cheat,” he said, and without an ounce of sarcasm I believe that he didn’t. Obviously, that diet didn’t end well. We are not meant to only have one kind of food; we gain strength and vitality from a varied diet which provides us with different nutrients. There’s nothing wrong with limiting one’s diet, either, as one can be vegetarian or vegan and still get the vast majority of the nutrition one needs to live a healthy life. It’s just that you cannot expect to live healthily eating one food. This much any child knows, I think. The principle applies in much the same way to film. You cannot give the viewer just one thing to eat or drink and hope that it will sustain them. Even in the short term, a single thing will fail.

I got around to Shiva Baby, one of the darlings of 2021, in January this year. I knew going in that the film was supposed to be uncomfortable in the extreme, and I guess it was kind of awkward? I mean, it was so perfectly staged to be awkward that it ceased to be awkward after about 20 minutes, tops, because I can think and watch at the same time. And more than that, when the film comes to this conclusion where Maya and Danielle have reconciled and have set themselves up for something much healthier than the relationship Danielle has with, like, anyone else, there’s no way to react to it. Are we supposed to chug salt water for 75 minutes and then act like we can taste the sweetness of chocolate milk for the last three? There is no shot in Shiva Baby that is not meant to put us in a stressed interpersonal hell, no line of dialogue that is not meant to heighten it. The film is humorless, without human feeling or connection. Its only value is in the evocation of a single feeling, and in that relentless drive to evoke that feeling it merely numbs us to it. The best horror does not only mean to frighten us: Nosferatu has the romance, The Exorcist the religion, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre the inky black satire. The best comedy does not only mean to make us laugh: Dr. Strangelove has the nihilism, Some Like It Hot has the mob thrills, Duck Soup has the ice-cold irony. Shiva Baby is relentlessly aimed towards being one thing, and it is an all-beef diet which I’m all too happy never to eat again. Shiva Baby hasn’t gotten the kind of adoring critical reaction that a The Celebration or an Everything Everywhere All at Once has, or even the really good reaction that Run Lola Run got from the pros. I think what weirds me out about it is that, as of today, this movie has nearly 20,000 five-star ratings on Letterboxd. On the level of counting stats, that’s not a crazy number for a recent movie that’s been on HBO Max for years. On the level of rate stats, that’s comparable to a movie like Promising Young Woman. About nine percent of Shiva Baby raters give it five stars; about eleven percent of Promising Young Woman raters give it five stars. And for as much as I really don’t care for Promising Young Woman, a film that I find sophomoric through and through, you can’t say that it’s only after one emotion.

Lessons 13-15

Enjoying Movies (I Know, What a Concept)

Lesson #13 / I can learn to love a short film.

I have a lot of opinions (I mean, obviously), and I like to think I hold many of them with real seriousness. One of my opinions I have that I’m not all that serious about but definitely act like I’m serious about is that short films are dumb. I don’t log any film I watch which is under half an hour, which occurred to me when I first watched La jetee, and that’s the real reason that I don’t watch more shorts. This year, I watched Listen to Britain for the first time, the twenty minute short documentary by Humphrey Jennings, and if I were making a list of the ten best films I watched this year I’d absolutely include it. There is no Terence Davies without Doris Day, but there’s also no Terence Davies without Listen to Britain. I didn’t think that watching people dance and rumble along to “Roll Out the Barrel” could overwhelm me like Vera Drake or Kes overwhelmed me, but that’s precisely what happened. I count it as one of my most sacred movie-watching experiences.

Nearly as powerful for me was Tale of Tales, the animated film by Yuri Norstein. There is not another movie I’ve ever come across that looks anything like this one, a movie with more texture than any picture I’ve ever seen. It’s a film that scrapes and rubs and prickles your arms and cheeks while you watch. You can practically feel the fur of that funny and melancholy gray wolf, and the cries of the baby are the kind that you can feel physically in part because he’s drawn so angular. (Between this and Eraserhead, 1979 was a real banner year for unnatural babies with cries I can still hear in the back of my head if I stay up too late.) This is not The Celebration, which would not be fundamentally different if they’d shot it on film. This is a film which can only exist in the bizarre textural world that it creates for itself, something between nightmare and fairy tale, cultural memory and fable. It’s about as perfect an example of form following function as I can come up with.

The most intellectual and provocative of the movies under an hour I watched this year was Illusions, by Julie Dash. I don’t think they’ve made a better movie about Hollywood than Sunset Boulevard, but Illusions is every bit as canny and brilliant, a movie that combines grad school thought exercise with a story that contains details of suggestive truth. There’s some imagination in the picture, since Illusions is centered on a woman film executive in the early 1940s; it is merely unexpected rather than totally ahistorical. What marbles the picture is the overview of her job, the way that she manages actors both seen and unseen. There are two dramatic sequences in the film. One is an argument between the executive and a very self-assured soldier, and the more powerful and less traditional comes in a recording session. A white actress is being dubbed by a Black singer, a woman who is not going to be credited for the work and who is coming into the studio with something like military secrecy. It has to be one of the great metaphors for (squeezes eyes shut) America that I’ve ever seen, and despite that awful cringe in the first half of this sentence it doesn’t feel didactic at all. It’s a moment which is rooted in the film as much as it is rooted in metaphor, and it builds on itself when we’re shown that the executive is also a Black woman who is passing.

Lesson #14 / I think I like those boyish adventure movies of the 1930s.

Or at least I like two of them! I didn’t expect that I would be enthralled by The Prisoner of Zenda (1937, literally the fourth time Hollywood made that movie in a twenty-five years or Beau Geste, mostly because I’d been mostly immune to Gunga Din, The Four Feathers, and The Lives of a Bengal Lancer in the past. (Full disclosure, I only watched Bengal Lancer because Hitler liked it and I could not wait to see how badly Henry Hathaway had screwed up.) I thought The Lost Patrol was spellbinding when I watched that a couple years back, but I didn’t interpret that as a “’30s adventure movie” because I was interpreting it mostly as “John Ford with Boris Karloff shambling around in fits of religious hysterics.” Similarly, I sort of assumed I just liked Errol Flynn stuff because almost everyone thinks Errol Flynn doing swordfights and mustaches is a good time. After The Prisoner of Zenda and Beau Geste, I’m starting to wonder if there might be something about this genre that speaks to me a little bit more. It’s not the morals or the ideals, certainly, because it’s not like I’m dying for the return of imperialism or monarchies. The Prisoner of Zenda is much the less objectionable film, the kind of story that must have inspired George Bailey as a boy when he was planning for a harem and three or four wives. An innocent man on a fishing trip is the beneficent doppelganger of the crown prince of a small European nation, which turns out to be lucky for the little country when the crown prince’s evil half-brother decides to take the throne himself. Mistaken identity, delightful twists and turns, Ronald Colman romancing Madeleine Carroll, Raymond Massey making angry Canadian noises in the midst of a bunch of Brits. Beau Geste, the story of three brothers who join the Foreign Legion after a snafu of thievery at their stately home, definitely has some of that “Some day you too, little fellow, will need to traipse into the desert and shoot as many as Arabs as possible” stink on it that feels bad. All the same, it’s another case of movie stars, in this case movie stars who were still coming into their own, just absolutely filling the screen. Gary Cooper was well-established, but Ray Milland and Robert Preston and Susan Hayward were still up and coming at the time, and the three of them are nearly as fun as Cooper in this thing.

Eagle-eyed readers will note that I have left out two actors who are awfully important to those movies: Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. in The Prisoner of Zenda and Brian Donlevy in Beau Geste. There are rough equivalents for Ronald Colman and Madeleine Carroll and Gary Cooper and Ray Milland in those fun ’30s romps I’ve mentioned. I mean, shoot, they kept putting Cooper and C. Aubrey Smith and Victor McLaglen into them until your eyes start to cross from the double vision. What those movies don’t have is a villain like Fairbanks’ Rupert of Hentzau, a villain who is a villain because it’s just a hell of a lot more fun than being a nice guy. I love the way that every one of Fairbanks’ smiles has the same impression as a sneer, disaffecting him from the people around him in the movie and making him darn near irresistible for those of us in the audience. Rupert is theoretically taking orders from Massey’s Duke Michael throughout most of the movie, but we understand that Rupert’s engaged in skulduggery because that life suits him best; he is his own man and no stooge simply because someone has a title he can lord over him. It’s not even as incredible as what Brian Donlevy is doing as the dangerous, spiteful Sergeant Markoff in Beau Geste. Bring back that water gun from when you asked about ranking Michael Mann’s filmography, and Donlevy’s performance might just be the one that impressed me in this entire year. Markoff has fewer virtues in him than Captain Ahab, but the disciplinarian with a touch of sadism in his visage turns out to be a remarkable leader of men once the chips are down and his fort is surrounded. Donlevy earns our mistrust, even our hatred from the start. He keeps it throughout the movie even as we have to profess a grudging kind of admiration for his nastiness, a force that can keep a man redoubtable if he’s not getting 2,000 calories a day.

Lesson #15 / Never be afraid to turn on a movie you know nothing about, because you may end up cherishing it.

I thought about some favorite movies I watched this year that I didn’t cover above (sorry, The Keep and The Prisoner of Zenda) and then tried to keep it to movies that I really didn’t know anything more about than what Hulu or TCM or Netflix described them as in a sentence.

  • Spaceship Earth, Matt Wolf – watched on January 8th. January 8th was a Saturday, and this was my fifth and last movie of a day that I had begun with Stage Door (another great favorite I met this year) but had run aground a little with the middling Les Girls and the offensive Dear Zachary. I really enjoyed Spaceship Earth, which provided context I’d never had before for Biosphere 2. I’d read about it before in a couple places and the accounts I knew were fairly derogatory, not quite hippie-bashing but more along the lines of “Well, what did they expect?” Biosphere 2 makes way more sense as part of a larger story about the Synergians, a futurist organization which just had done any number of seemingly impossible things under the leadership of John P. Allen. It’s a context that makes Spaceship Earth into more than just a podcast with archival footage; there’s a sadness in the film that I didn’t expect and which made watching it in the late hours of January 8th moving and wistful.
  • Tread, Paul Solet – watched on May 3rd. May 3rd was a Tuesday this year. I got three movies in that day, and this was pretty clearly the worst of the bunch. I like Tread a lot, but it’s not Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, and neither one of those is The Importance of Being Earnest. I still couldn’t believe what I was watching half the time. The recreated footage is a real bust, and it’s really surprising to me that they’d recreate Marvin Heemeyer’s homemade tank when there’s actual footage which is completely unlike what they’ve cooked up. The recreation is not janky, precisely, but it’s clearly being directed. There’s nothing directed about the intense fear you get just looking at the monstrosity that Heemeyer developed out of the resentful belief that he was being purposefully marginalized. If there’s something honestly brilliant about Tread, it’s the way that it shifts hard in the middle of the film. In the beginning, we’re sympathetic to Heemeyer and his version of events. After we see more people and get more context, it’s clear that there are only two ways to believe Heemeyer’s recollections: believe in conspiracy, or hear his side of the story first.
  • Somewhere in Time, Jeannot Szwarc – watched on May 7th. That was a Saturday, and this was the first of five movies I got in that day. I don’t know that this was flat out the best watch of the day, but it’s close. Cyrano was better than I expected but I started laughing at a joke in the movie and then long story short woke up on the floor with some scrapes on my knees. Anyway, I didn’t know much about this short of Christopher Reeve being the lead, and by the time it was over I was just smitten with the story. It’s so full of longing, and that longing comes through despite being fairly silly, despite Christopher Reeve doing some clowning in one of the worst outfits I’ve ever seen in a movie, despite giving a shocking amount of time to Reeve lying in bed and sweating with concentration. He and Jane Seymour are a delicious pair, and the disappointment of waking up in this movie is shattering. Replace Inception with Somewhere in Time when you talk about pop movies about the ineffability of dreams.
  • Libeled Lady, Jack Conway – watched on May 18th. May was a lot of fun! May 18th was a Wednesday, and this was the only movie I got that day. I’ve never really been that interested in Jean Harlow, and I guess one of these days I’ll have to work harder to see more of her work; maybe 2023 will be the year of Jean Harlow. I mean, she’s not even giving my favorite performance in this movie. I really enjoy Spencer Tracy playing one of the worst people in the world (a journalist, naturally), and while I think most of us usually think about Myrna Loy in William Powell’s shadow, in this movie she’s absolutely blocking him out as a rich girl with a surprising amount of depth and a heart that is touched more quickly than is safe. The thing about Libeled Lady is that between Tracy, Powell, and Loy, we’d have a Joan Crawford movie from the same era. With Jean Harlow, this thing turns into a bigamist farce with lunatic gusto, and no one exemplifies this movie’s hilariously offputting energy more than a perpetually disappointed Harlow.
  • The Town That Dreaded Sundown, Charles B. Pierce – watched on June 22nd. A five-movie Wednesday, which started with me finally catching up to It Always Rains on Sunday and ended with this movie. Thank God for this movie, too, because the third movie of the day was Language Lessons, quite possibly my least favorite movie I watched this year. The Town That Dread Sundown got remade in 2014 and I haven’t caught up to the remake yet. I’m not sure I’m super excited about it after watching this fairly low-rent version which seems to perfectly fit the low-rent world of Texarkana in the mid-1940s. It’s not a scary movie, precisely, but the seeds of Zodiac are in it. It’s not a case that gets solved despite the presence of a highly competent cop on the scene (Ben Johnson, so good), and the figure shields his identity with a pretty simple outfit and wreaks havoc behind a thick body and a reputation that scares the crap out of everyone in that northeastern corner of Texas.
  • Violets Are Blue, Jack Fisk – watched on July 30th. One of the twelve movies I watched in the last weekend of July before i had to go back to my day job, a stretch where I also crossed off such incredibly similar movies as Showgirls, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Bamako, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, and Bacurau. Violets Are Blue really stands out in this group, because the closest comparison I’ve got to it is Peter Ibbetson, a more unusual and inventive movie by half but also much less moving for me. I love Kevin Kline and Sissy Spacek, and I love the double-barreled want that this movie possesses. As young people, they want each other, and when they meet again as middle-aged people set in their separate journalist ways, they still want each other. But that want is also about reaching out for a failed opportunity, about an accident of fate which separated them (for good, it turns out) that neither one of them asked for. There’s no going back in time in Violets Are Blue, no guff about how one small moment can change everything. This film has stakes instead, and at the end, people are wiser at the expense of being better.
  • The Order of Myths, Margaret Brown – watched on December 10th. Whaddaya know, another five-movie Saturday. And as much as I really liked this movie, there’s a good chance that the only movie I watched on the 10th which was worse than this one was Zardoz. (The other candidates? Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, 12:08 East of Bucharest, News from Home. It was a pretty good day.) The reason why I’m talking about The Order of Myths instead of like, a Sergei Parajanov movie is because I went into the Parajanov expecting to be changed. I went into The Order of Myths having been disappointed by a string of bad Netflix docs over the course of the previous month, and let’s be real, throughout the entire year. The difference between them and The Order of Myths is that this film isn’t a made-for-Netflix doc made by people with as much imagination and depth as a lichen. Brown’s movie is about a highly specific event in a highly specific setting (Mardi Gras in Mobile), and that specificity, coupled with Brown’s insider status, births a revealing film. Recording a pre-Obama Mardi Gras which is almost entirely segregated, The Order of Myths is efficient yet humane. The queen of white Mardi Gras that year is a descendant of the guy who brought the last slave ship to America. Obviously it’s not her fault or anything, and Brown doesn’t make it seem like this young woman is somehow responsible for the history of racism in America or even for the present racism in Mobile. (She’s part of an awkward set of ceremonies where the Black king and queen come to a white function and she and her white king go to a Black function. For whatever it’s worth, she seems to be pretty open to all of it.) On the other hand, being the king or queen of white Mardi Gras in Mobile is to be local royalty in a different way; it means that you are from old money, and it means that your ancestors owned other people. The Order of Myths is about people who are largely ambivalent, not frequently demanding change or, in the cases of many white people, trying to skirt it entirely. “They don’t want to be part of ours,” white people say, leaving it at that and never questioning why, exactly, Black people have worked so hard to make a carnival of their own.

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