Since becoming a patron of Filmspotting on Patreon, I’ve really enjoyed getting ad-free episodes and participating in the production-related chatter.
Recently they were looking for a clever title for a new segment that would be a chronological retrospective of a filmmaker’s work, in anticipation of revisiting Christopher Nolan’s work before Tenet debuts in July. (Assuming, I guess, that we all won’t still be quarantined.)
A few suggestions popped up: Filmography-spotting, Grand Tour, Box Set. Then I added my own: The Oeuvre-view.
I thought that name would have several merits: it’d be fun to listen to Adam and Josh try to pronounce it each time, ‘view’ is related to ‘spotting’, and its double entendre covers the purpose of the project, which is to provide an overview of a filmmaker’s oeuvre.
Cut to yesterday as I listened to the latest episode and heard my name mentioned, along with the fact that Oeuvre-view was the chosen one!
Adam wondered if the title was meant as a joke, but let me reassure you that I consider thinking up punny titles for things my solemn duty. Regardless, I’m honored it was selected and excited for the segment in general.
If you don’t already listen to Filmspotting, get on that. It’s great for both hardcore cinephiles and casual viewers looking for a deeper appreciation of movies old and new.
My now one-year-old and I have slowly been going through the episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood available on Amazon Prime. He’s generally not interested in extended screen time at this point, but Mister Rogers is one of the few figures he recognizes and enjoys. (Along with Alex Trebek. #proudpapa)
There’s not much I can say about Fred Rogers that hasn’t already been said. The man was a genius. And the show, which I hadn’t seen since I was a kid, remains both ahead of its time and outside of it. Its deliberately unhurried pace, humanist ethos, and intellectual respect for its young audience make it almost anti-TV, something I couldn’t have realized as a kid.
Now being on the other side of parenthood, I find watching it a delightful and enriching experience for me and for my son. Rogers’ short bits of wisdom sprinkled throughout the episodes in word and song are deceptively simple, poetic, and actionable. He had such a unique way of communicating that it has its own name: Freddish.
At first I skipped the parts in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe because they’re kinda cheesy. I much prefer Fred hanging around his house doing crafts, singing, and breakdancing. But I’ve come to appreciate how those make-believe times blend the show’s “real” people and plots with the imaginary King Friday XIII and crew.
That kind of magical realism was at the forefront of Marielle Heller’s film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which is based on the making of Tom Junod’s 1998 Esquire article about Rogers called “Can You Say…Hero?” The movie plays out as one long episode of the show, the main difference being that Lloyd, the Junod stand-in played by Matthew Rhys, finds himself becoming involved in the show. Picture Picture turns into a flashback from Lloyd’s life, and Tom Hanks’ Rogers displays a photo board of characters from the show (which happened on a real episode I watched not long before seeing the movie), one of which ends up being Lloyd.
This blurring of fact and fiction works on two different levels. First, it honors the show’s commitment to showcase real-world experiences alongside its pretend adventures—a dynamic that mirrors the way young children actually experience the world.
Second, it abides by Rogers’ expressed intention to act on the show as if he were speaking to one specific child rather than an audience of millions. He really, truly believed that one person—Lloyd in the movie’s case—was special and deserved his full attention and love. (Aren’t they the same thing?)
That’s the genius of Fred Rogers: he was real, but he seemed magical. He wasn’t a saint, as his wife Joanne explains in the movie. He had to work at being good and getting better just like anyone else. But that’s the kind of neighbor we all should want and aspire to be.
Having already conquered my list of favorite films of the 2010s, I found this list much easier to assemble. I knew my movie watching would take a hit when my son was born last February, and it did, though not as much as I expected. My logbook tells me I watched 63 films in 2019, which is only 10 fewer than 2018. Turned out my 9pm-12am baby shift was perfect for catching up on titles old and new (though I can’t say I was always fully awake for all of them). Props to Netflix, Amazon Prime, Kanopy, and my library card for making that happen.
10. Ad Astra. Apocalypse Now meets Gravity. Can’t say I endorse the use of narration, but Brad Pitt plus a lunar car chase plus a personal/cosmic quest more than made up for it.
8. Toy Story 4. What do you do when your worldview crumbles?
7. The Irishman. One day I’ll have time to rewatch this straight through rather than broken up over several days. I suspect I’ll appreciate it even more then.
6. Avengers: Endgame. There was a 1 in 14,000,605 chance this MCU saga ended well, and they nailed it.
5. Apollo 11. A fresh, intimate, and riveting perspective of a world-famous event.
4. Parasite. Had I made this list immediately after seeing this, it would have been lower. But I haven’t stopped thinking about it.
3. The Lighthouse. I watched this alone since I knew my wife wouldn’t enjoy it, but I showed her the first meal scene just so she could behold Willem Dafoe.
2. Knives Out. Rian Johnson knows how to make a movie. A little goofy at times, but the scenery-chewing fun and all-time ending made for an exhilarating ride.
1. Little Women. Yes to everything: Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet together, Florence Pugh’s difficult yet delightful age-spanning performance, Desplat’s score, Chris Cooper as a good guy, Gerwig’s time-turning script that (compared to my beloved 1994 version) redeems Amy and enriches Beth, Gerwig’s direction of the Altmanesque ensemble scenes, the grand exuberance permeating this little world. Gerwig’s Lady Bird didn’t hit me as hard as it did others, but this one knocked me out.
Honorable mentions: Zombieland: Double Tap, The Farewell, Us, El Camino, Knock Down the House, Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood, Hustlers, The Report, Marriage Story, High Flying Bird
Favorite non-2019 films:
The Big Country Hard Eight Jackie Brown Minding the Gap A Clockwork Orange Saturday Night Fever Swingers Cold War The Talented Mr. Ripley The Wages of Fear
My initial list for this endeavor had 77 movies. After I barely managed to winnow it down to 50, I just couldn’t figure out how I’d get to that arbitrary yet appealing round number of 10.
But once I realized most of the movies could be grouped pretty cleanly into 10 different categories (some of which I devised myself), that allowed me to compare movies of the same genre or subgenre to each other rather than to movies doing something completely different. Using that system, my top picks of each slot fell almost immediately into place.
Note that the list ranks the movies, not the categories they represent. The categories made picking the top 10 easier, but the finalists in each one—consider them my honorable mentions—wouldn’t have necessarily ended up in the same ranking and often could fit in several of the categories.
As with all best-of lists, I strove to use an alchemy of my head and my heart to make the final determinations, consulting my yearly best-of lists and trusty logbook to make sure I didn’t miss anything. It was at once overwhelming and rewarding to consider all I’ve seen and decide both what has stuck with me the most and what best represents a decade in cinema.
Here’s what I got.
10. This Is Martin Bonner
A serene and sure-handed film about two men with a faith problem, which inspired one of my favorite blog posts.
Category: Quiet Drama
Finalists: Moonlight, The Rider, Paterson, Ida, Columbus, A Ghost Story
How could I not love a movie exploring the intersection of language and love across the space-time continuum?
Finalists: Interstellar, Edge of Tomorrow, Looper, Snowpiercer, The Lobster
8. Minding the Gap
A stunning documentary about teen skateboarders that’s about one thing before it becomes about many others.
Finalists: Nostalgia for the Light, Tower, These Birds Walk, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, California Typewriter
7. The LEGO Movie
What should have been just a brainless cash-grab brand-stravaganza was also a surprisingly rich, hilarious, sunnily dystopian meditation on creativity and existence.
Finalists: Coco, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, They Came Together, The Muppets, Midnight in Paris
An electric, vivid, and original vision that I hope instigates a sea change in film animation and superhero movies.
Finalists: Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame, Wonder Woman
A biopic done right: not as a shallow, decades-spanning survey treated like a greatest hitsalbum (coughJersey Boys) with bad aging makeup(coughJ. Edgar), but as a focused, intentionally contained story that captures its subject and his times with an appropriate mix of reverence and rigor.
Category: Historical Drama
Finalists: Selma, Brooklyn, Inside Llewyn Davis, Roma
1. Hell or High Water
But me, I’m still on the road
Headin’ for another joint
We always did feel the same
We just saw it from a different point of view
Tangled up in blue
—Bob Dylan, “Tangled Up in Blue”
Lots getting tangled up in this steely, ruggedly graceful, no-bullshit modern western: family, friendship, the past, the future, tragedy, redemption. A dangerous momentum drives the two bank-robbing brothers and the lawmen hunting them through a dust-choked Texas toward their fates. All we can do is buckle up and hold on.
May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers. Heard about this documentary from the Armchair Expert episode with the Avett Brothers. Made me appreciate them anew.
Closer Than Together by The Avett Brothers. “We Americans” should be the new national anthem.
The Feather Thief by Kirk Johnson. A strange, infuriating true crime story from the world of Victorian fly-fishing tie obsessives. The last third isn’t as compelling and propulsive as the first two, but I learned a lot about ornithology.
Toy Story 4. Liked it a lot. They still should have stopped at 3.
Mighty Fitz: The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald by Michael Schumacher. Well-told narrative about an essential event in Great Lakes lore.
Hard Eight. I would say this is shockingly well made for a debut film, but it was by Paul Thomas Anderson so I guess it’s not terribly shocking.
William Wyler’s 1958 film The Big Country is many things you’d expect from an epic western of its era. Nearly three hours long. A plot about families feuding over land and pride in the Wild West. Two vastly different men with vastly different styles vying for the same woman.
But what took me by surprise was just how resolutely the film subverts many of the expected tropes of its genre.
This is epitomized in one scene between the two leads. Gregory Peck, handsome as ever, plays the genteel New Englander McKay who arrives in the “big country” of the western plains to marry the local honcho’s daughter Patricia. Charlton Heston, laconic and smoldering as ever, plays the tough-guy ranch foreman Leech, whose own ambitions for Patricia put him at immediate odds with McKay.
But McKay isn’t interested in fighting, for her honor or his. He repeatedly refuses to be goaded into a fight, whether by a posse of ruffians from the rival family or by Leech, who brands McKay a liar in front of Patricia to try to shame him into fisticuffs.
It doesn’t work. Says McKay:
You aren’t going to prove anything with me, Leech. Get this through your head. I’m not playing this game on your terms, not with horses or guns or fists.
He’s only half-right. After Leech successfully spooks Patricia away from McKay due to his seeming unmanliness—”I’ve never been so humiliated” Patricia tells him—McKay decides to settle things with fists, but not as we’ve come to expect from westerns.
He wakes up Leech in the middle of the night, saying he’ll be leaving in the morning but had in mind a farewell. He says this so evenly and without anger that it’s a wonder Leech even got the meaning. The two of them amble out into the twilight and duke it out.
We get our “epic” fight, but it’s in the dark, without horses or guns, without spectators, without any music whatsoever, let alone anything heroic. Just two men silently slugging each other because they feel they have to, and they don’t even look cool while they do it. They’re like drunks brawling in an alley. Wyler pulls the camera way back, the high and wide framing exposing them as insignificant specks against the infinite plains.
They finally wear each other out. McKay:
Now tell me, Leech, what did we prove?
This is merely a subplot in a larger story of rival clans in a lawless land and the consequences of revenge. But it’s a powerful illustration of a new path being forged within the lives of these characters and, metatextually, within the genre of American westerns at large.
There are many more Wyler films I’ve yet to see, but The Big Country—along with The Best Years of Our Lives, Mrs. Miniver, and Roman Holiday—make him an all-timer in my book.
Booksmart, the directorial debut of the actress Olivia Wilde, was charming as hell.
Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever star as Molly and Amy, two friends and straight-A students on the eve of high school graduation who realize their academic drive kept them from enjoying the more party-heavy pursuits of their peers. They seek to remedy this in one night, pursuing their crushes along the way.
Hijinks, as they say, ensue.
If you’ve heard of this movie, you’ve probably heard it compared to 2007’s Superbad, starring Michael Cera and Jonah Hill (Feldstein’s real-life older brother). The two movies do share a setting, concept, and R-rated comedic sensibility. But there’s more to Booksmart than hijinks.
Wilde’s script, in conjunction with the natural chemistry between Feldstein and Dever, brings the film to depths of character, understanding, and humor that’s rare in debut features and in movies about teens. When we meet them, Molly and Amy share a goofy and loving rapport. But as their one wild night progresses with mounting setbacks, detours, and stresses, cracks appear in their relationship. This culminates in a fierce and painfully public confrontation, which is stunningly captured by Wilde’s enveloping camerawork and adept use of the soundtrack.
Still, it is a comedy, and an often absurd one as a fish-out-of-water story with razor-sharp leads.Similarities to Superbad aside, I find it more akin to 2017’s Lady Bird in its depiction of the experience of young women striving against strictures—imposed by themselves or others—and arriving at a hard-won honesty. Not always with grace, but definitely with admirable wherewithal and wit.
I couldn’t help but reflect on my own high school experience while watching this film. Though I wasn’t bound for the Ivy League like the girls of Booksmart, I never attended or got invited to the kinds of parties I so often see on screen. (Thus I don’t know if they’re even accurate. Are unsupervised, red Solo cup ragers at nice houses actually a thing?) As an introverted and mostly well-behaved Christian boy, I considered sex, drugs, and drinking taboo, which is how I usually found myself hanging out with my church youth group friends on Friday nights.
It was a lot more fun than it sounds. We goofed off, played games, pranked each other. Though my horizons broadened in college and beyond, I’m grateful for that experience throughout high school. It kept me out of trouble and showed me you don’t need mind-altering substances to have a good time.
Booksmart shows this too. Though focused on their maniacal pursuit of what they imagine will be a fulfilling rite of passage, the film takes care to show Molly and Amy before the plot ensues loving their cloistered friendship. The subsequent developments they experience together only strengthen their existing bond, which will be helpful as they transition into adulthood.
High school friendships don’t often make that transition, but the film is hopeful about this one. And I’m hopeful whatever comes next for Wilde as a filmmaker and Feldstein and Dever as performers will match what they’ve done with Booksmart.
I’ve mentioned the podcast This Movie Changed Me before. In its new season, Naomi Alderman talks about how the transformation of Phil Connors in Groundhog Day inspired her to look at the world differently. Once in a while she’ll experience what she calls a “benediction”:
I will suddenly become aware of the incredible beauty and richness of everything around me. So I would look at a brick wall and suddenly be completely struck by the difference and the there-ness, the this-ness, of every single brick in that wall and how much has gone into just even creating that single wall, and then, look — someone’s put windows in there. And look at the plants — there’s a little bee that just buzzed past me. And when you look at the world that way, when you look at the world with Phil Connors’s eyes, when you go right through the sense of ennui, through the despair, right through to the other side, and all you can see is how amazing it is to just be allowed to be alive right now.
Whether it’s my podcast-heavy diet or baby-induced reduction in mental bandwidth for extended concentration, I haven’t been doing much book-readin’ lately. Which is OK, as not reading is finetoo.
That doesn’t stop me from trying. While browsing the new releases at a neighboring library I spotted Ian Doescher’s Get Thee Back to the Future, a complete retelling of Back to the Future in Shakespearean verse.
It’s an incredible literary feat. What plays in the movie as this…
DOC: Are those my clocks I hear?
MARTY: Yeah, it’s 8:00.
DOC: They’re late. My experiment worked. They’re all exactly 25 minutes slow!
MARTY: Wait a minute. Wait a minute, Doc. Are you telling me that it’s 8:25?
MARTY: Damn. I’m late for school!
…Doescher turns into this:
MARTY: Alas, what ringing! Why hath this commenc’d,
The tintinnabulations of the bells?
DOC: Peace! Count the clock.
MARTY: —The clock hath stricken eight.
DOC: A-ha! Then mine experiment hath work’d!
They run as slowly as a tortoise gait,
Behind by minutes counting twenty-five!
MARTY: What shocking words are these thou speak’st to me?
What presage of mine own delay’d arrival?
What prelude to a future punishment?
What fable of a race against the clock?
Is’t true, what thou dost calmly say to me?
The time is verily eight twenty-five?
DOC: Precisely—science is not lost on thee!
MARTY: O, fie upon it! I must play the hare,
And skip most jauntily upon my path,
For I am caught up late for school—again.
DOC: Godspeed, then Marty, on thy merry way!
And so on for the entire film. It’s essentially a funny gimmick that Doescher takes to the extreme. Such an endeavor requires an intimate knowledge of and skill with Shakespearean style, which consists of a lot more than just adding the occasional “hath” and “thou”.
Klazz Brothers & Cuba Percussion. Their Mozart Meets Cuba and Classical Meets Cuba mashups are great for people who want to get into either classical or Latin/jazz.
What is the Bible? by Rob Bell. I much prefer Bell in audiobook form, where his engaging and grounded storytelling chops can really shine. This revisionist history is good for skeptics but better for entrenched believers.
Knock Down the House. The Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez origin story I didn’t know we needed.
Avengers: Endgame. Will need a rewatch to decide if it’s better than Infinity War, but my first instinct is that it isn’t.
All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire by Jonathan Abrams. Amazon Prime has the whole series on streaming, so I decided to watch the first episode again just for kicks. Cut to just now wrapping up season 4… This shiiiiiiiiiiiiiii is good.
Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport. Good combination of cultural analysis and practical takeaways.
Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? Finally knocked this off my AFI 100 list. I’m pretty sure it was, shockingly, my first Elizabeth Taylor film. Mike Nichols directs it into something more artful than its “married couple argues the whole time” conceit.
Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick by Mallory O’Meara. The long-lost story of the female artist who designed the Creature in Creature from the Black Lagoon, alongside reflections on being a woman in Hollywood.