Movie Diary 2023 (3/17-4/5): That Time I Got Really Into a Different Project and Realized That I’d Deserted a Perfectly Good Bit and Needed to Get Back to It

Okay, this is the hyperspeed version of a movie diary. Two sentences! Each of you movies gets two sentences!

  1. The Chosen, 1981, dir. Jeremy Kagan / Adored this movie based on the Chaim Potok novel I’ve never read and now realize I must read, given how closely this adheres to Brideshead Revisited and especially A Prayer for Owen Meany. All of the four leads are really good in here (and I was not prepared to like Robby Benson in this nearly as much as I did), but of course it’s Rod Steiger who turns this into a minor masterpiece.
  2. Fire at Sea, 2016, dir. Gianfranco Rosi / One of the better-reviewed documentaries of the past decade, but in the end it left me completely cold. The juxtaposition between the little Italian eyepatch boy and the troubled migrants on rafts is evident, maybe even obvious, from square one, and it never really develops from there.
  3. The Red and the White, 1967, dir. Miklos Jancso / Howard Zinn says that you can’t be neutral on a moving train, and the same appears to be true in this story about, y’know, the Reds and the Whites, except that instead of a moving train it’s a moving camera. There’s a marvelous lesson for filmmakers to learn about ten to fifteen years ago in this picture, which is that it’s not the distance traveled of a lengthy shot that makes it effective but its ability to focus on many details.
  4. Onibaba, 1964, dir. Kaneto Shindo / One of those films that I’d been meaning to catch up to since about 2015, around the same time that I saw Woman in the Dunes, and like Woman in the Dunes it uses these rural Japanese landscapes to enormous cinematographic effect. The demon mask is great, but the movement of the reeds which makes your eyes blur over and over again has to be every bit as disconcerting.
  5. The Truffle Hunters, 2020, dir. Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw / A movie about a community filled with absolute individuals. I don’t know that I ever would have pulled the trigger on this movie if it hadn’t had the dogs, but this is a short movie, the dogs are all very good and cute, and I would recommend to dog people on that basis alone.
  6. History of the World, Part I, 1981, dir. Mel Brooks / People will talk about the Spanish Inquisition song and dance number first, but that “Jews in Space” bit that they do in less than sixty seconds is so funny and so catchy that it broke my brain for days afterwards. The stuff in Rome is all kind of a drag, and the less time they spend on an era, generally the funnier it is.
  7. Mad Love, 1935, dir. Karl Freund / Peter Lorre’s first American movie, and of course he’s great in here, but this movie could have been great without Lorre because Freund was behind the camera. There’s another universe where Karl Freund rather than James Whale is the definitive ’30s horror director of the American cinema, and while I rather like Whale’s tales of benighted and unfortunate misfits, the tingling and uncomfortable eroticism of Freund’s vision simply lingers longer with me.
  8. Warsaw Bridge, 1989, dir. Pere Portabella / I’m a sucker for a good movie that’s a metaphor about the state of Europe at a given time, and Warsaw Bridge, which finds in this turbulent late ’80s period a way of considering the continent like it’s a novel that no one’s quite able to describe the plot of. I am a little mad about how brazenly Paul Thomas Anderson stole a Magnolia centerpiece from the last five minutes of this picture.
  9. Riotsville, U.S.A., 2022, dir. Sierra Pettingill / Made in a similar fashion to The Reagan Show, relying entirely on news and government footage to tell its story, but unfortunately goes a little too far in including some of that literary narration which has victimized many a recent doc. I liked it, but more for shots like a fake protester hoisting a sign that says “HELL NO I AM NOT GOING” and less for its insight.
  10. Man Hunt, 1941, dir. Fritz Lang / I think the angriest I’ve gotten all year at Letterboxd was reading the reviews on this film which are like, “It makes no sense that this is about a guy sneaking up on Hitler to pretend to shoot him, blah blah blah,” because this movie is only dressed up as noirish action movie. It is in fact a metaphor, which is like a simile without using “like” or “as,” in which Walter Pidgeon is an England who could have stopped Hitler but didn’t, and who must ultimately take responsibility for allowing innocent women at home to be kidnapped and killed because England did not rise to its responsibility.
  11. The Bridge on the River Kwai, 1957, dir. David Lean / The first David Lean movie I ever saw (and boy did I see it a lot long before I knew who David Lean was), and the first one I saw after seeing all of his narrative features. Neither the greatest nor the most wonderful nor the most artistic nor the most essential among Lean’s films, it is still the one I would refer the unfamiliar to first because it epitomizes Lean as a director of fading men and burning sunscapes.
  12. The King of Comedy, 1983, dir. Martin Scorsese / Another rewatch, and while I still hold the opinion that this is more towards the middle of Scorsese’s narrative oeuvre than the top (I can’t quite get there with this or especially Casino), I appreciated it more this time because I was less focused on De Niro. He’s excellent in this, of course, but the soul of this movie is more easily and hilariously met when you’re watching Sandra Bernhard vamp in front of Jerry Lewis while he’s duct taped to a chair.
  13. The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, 1953, dir. Roy Rowland / Sort of the silliest possible version of The Hands of Orlac, wouldn’t you say? I don’t usually wish for this, and I can understand why it wasn’t going to work out with “live-action Dr. Seuss movie,” but the total acidity (LSD, not lemon juice) of this movie could have been evened out a little bit with even a smidgen of Danny Kaye.
  14. The Quatermass Xperiment, 1955, dir. Val Guest / I get it, it’s a low-budget movie, there’s a long history of just suggesting that things are scary and creepy without necessarily having to show a lot of the creepiness, etc. But on the other hand…I didn’t even think Brian Donlevy could save this material, and I believe in the efficacy of Brian Donlevy the way your average Catholic believes in the efficacy of saintly intervention.
  15. Ghost in the Shell, 1955, dir. Mamoru Oshii / This doesn’t have a happy ending, exactly, because the setting of this film isn’t really built for happy endings. On the other hand, it doesn’t really have an unhappy middle, either; one of the things I wish more of our dystopian sci-fi would represent is a realistic sense that the things we create are capable of growth and restructuring instead of fated to the short, brutal existence we gave chimney sweeps in Victorian England.
  16. Annie Hall, 1977, dir. Woody Allen / Not a movie that goes back as far in my movie-watching history as The Bridge on the River Kwai, but still one I’m so familiar with that I’ve reached that happy point where that sixth or seventh rewatch actually reveals something newish. This time around, Alvy’s awfulness was not merely funny like it would be if he were a sitcom character going into season 6, but it was awfulness that it’s also impossible to imagine coexisting with.
  17. Marty, 1955, dir. Delbert Mann / A little Best Picture trivia about the 28th Academy Awards, where Marty took home four Oscars (Picture, Director, Actor, Screenplay): in that year, it was one of just two films that had a Best Picture and a Best Director nomination. The director nominations were better, on the whole, but the only other film with both nominations was, if you can believe it, Joshua Logan’s Picnic.
  18. No End in Sight, 2007, dir. Charles Ferguson / Follows in the footsteps of In the Year of the Pig, the Emile de Antonio doc about the Vietnam War made at a roughly similar point in that war as this was made to the Iraq War. People who have the time to spare or a commute of some length should be listening to Blowback in order to understand the Iraq War, but people with under two hours really ought to be using this as their basis.
  19. Pulp Fiction, 1994, dir. Quentin Tarantino / Last summer I remade my list of the best American movies I’d seen, and I found a spot for Pulp Fiction at 79 and felt a little edgy doing it. I wish I’d put it about eighty spots lower.
  20. Blonde, 2022, dir. Andrew Dominik / The best thing about this movie is also the worst thing about this movie, which is Andrew Dominik’s use of bright, blinding lights as a motif. Even if it’s haha, blindingly obvious, it still works pretty well; on the other hand, it really feels like this guy is trying to recapture the train robbery in Assassination of Jesse James like a forty-year-old trying to recapture the feeling of being a second-string offensive lineman on his high school football team.
  21. Love in the Time of AIDS, 2006, dir. Deepa Dhanraj / If this had been a little easier to see when it came out/gotten better distribution, I think we’d be talking about a Documentary Short Oscar nominee. It’s also a very openhearted movie and would be, if it were made into curriculum, the single-best safe sex education document provided to students in about 75% of our states.
  22. The Boston Strangler, 1968, dir. Richard Fleischer / All the visual attractiveness of one of those six-part Netflix docuseries. I like that it’s trying as much as it is in terms of its visual technique, because this is an incredibly adventurous movie, but none of that adventure gets anywhere close to the effect it might have on people watching the film.
  23. Children of the Pyre, 2008, dir. Rajesh S. Jala / Reaches its most effective points pretty early on, when there are only two colors: the black of ashes and shadows, and the red-orange of sky-high flames. The boys in this film are not lionized or beatified, which makes this hardscrabble doc stay empathetic rather than exploitative.
  24. Putney Swope, 1969, dir. Robert Downey, Sr. / Like History of the World, Part I, this is a way funnier movie when it’s just doing skits and running gags rather than working on anything like a plot. The advertising campaigns are utterly spectacular, but they’re so good that it kind of takes away from the satirical thrusts that this movie is otherwise trying to make.
  25. The Age of Innocence, 1993, dir. Martin Scorsese / The Age of Innocence has not been reclaimed with quite the same level of vigor that The King of Comedy has been, although it probably has more to do with that boyish Film Twitter thing where they’d rather do “This is weird and offputting like me!” instead of “This has such deeply felt emotions that I might have to lay down on the floor for a little while.” I adore Merchant and Ivory, especially the Merchant and Ivory of the years right around The Age of Innocence, but not even The Remains of the Day equals the emotional impalings per minute (EIpM) that The Age of Innocence does.
  26. Control Room, 2004, dir. Jehane Noujaim / I noticed a real dearth of those little WWJD bracelets on the wrists of the American reporters and analysts at CentCom, and it shows: none of them seemed to have any idea what journalists would do. The most telling sequence of this film about Al Jazeera in the early days of the Iraq War is one in which Al Jazeera is absent, as a bunch of English and British reporters grouse about not getting to see packs of the playing cards that have the most wanted Iraqis on them.
  27. Party Girl, 1995, dir. Daisy von Scherler Mayer / Some pretty decent jokes in here about libraries. I’m not really sure what else this has to offer besides being one of those “omg Parker Posey step on my face plz” movies, which…I get the impulse but also don’t know why that needs to be a motion picture.
  28. The Day of the Jackal, 1973, dir. Fred Zinnemann / What an absolute pleasure to watch a movie as balanced as Day of the Jackal, flitting back and forth with increasing speed between the French police and Edward Fox’s confident and adaptable assassin. Would have been more interesting if he had actually gotten to take a potshot or two at de Gaulle, but hey, I guess I’ll take a movie which prefers intrusive right-wing policing to glorifying right-wing terrorism.
  29. Return of the Secaucus 7, 1980, dir. John Sayles / Watching this movie is like watching Saturday Night Live in the sense that you just know the people on screen are reading a teleprompter with their lines on it. A little harsh, maybe, but there’s a reason people like The Big Chill so much, and it doesn’t just have to do with the budget they spent on the soundtrack; it’s a lot more convincing to hear William Hurt and Kevin Kline and Glenn Close do this stuff than the no-names Sayles has collected.
  30. In the Year of the Pig, 1969, dir. Emile de Antonio / Yeah, that mention of this movie earlier was “foreshadowing,” which we probably learned about around the same time we learned about similes and metaphors. It is truly a picture perfect companion piece for No End in Sight rather than like, Hearts and Minds (which I saw years ago!) because of its focus on fact-collection and hindsight rather than feeling.
  31. Twenty Years Later, 1984, dir. Eduardo Coutinho / It took a long time for this movie to start working on me, well into the film’s rediscovery of Elizabeth Teixeira. Her story as an activist, the widow of an assassinated activist, a woman forced to hide from the government on the other side of the country in order to stay safe, is harrowing and moving; it’s discovering that trying to do the right thing has also severed her so profoundly from her children, who were farmed out to other relatives, that makes this movie bitterly sad.
  32. Marcel the Shell with Shoes On, 2022, dir. Dean Fleischer Camp / Like if they made a feature film out of “What is grief but love persevering.” Come on, guys, can we just have movies about grief that are for adults and don’t pretend that there’s a cathartic moment where the sun warms us up and we get a really good hug that fixes it?
  33. The Tall Men, 1955, dir. Raoul Walsh / Decided to watch this with my parents after they were talking about the trend in movies and TV where everything is just muddy and dark and illegible all the time, so much so that they have to up the contrast on their television to watch stuff. No adjustments needed here in this beautiful Cinemascope movie, even though I would much rather have watched Clark Gable as the conservative and wily Montanan tyrant and Robert Ryan as the rough-hewn and stubborn Texan.
  34. Friday Night Lights, 2004, dir. Peter Berg / This was the first time I’d seen this movie since I actually read the Buzz Bissinger book, which is not a progressive manual or anything but which does include some fairly insightful comments about the racism Black students face both on and off the football field which are absolutely absent from this nearly white supremacist picture. Derek Luke and Lucas Black are both much better in this movie than I remembered, too; there’s a place for them in good movies and not just on Netflix or CBS.

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