My annual top-10 movie lists begin in 2007, so I thought it would be fun to start going backwards from there and create lists for each year retroactively.
First up is 2006, which is now 15 years ago and a notable year for me in several ways: it’s when I graduated high school, went on tour with my band (RIP Ice Cap Fortune), entered college, and started this blog.
I also have a lot of movie-related memories from that year, including:
seeing Brick at my beloved Hilldale Theatre in Madison not long before it closed permanently
going to my first and last midnight screening (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest)
suffering through some truly awful movies (X-Men: The Last Stand, Superman Returns, Lady in the Water)
But the abiding memory from 2006 was the day I saw five movies in a row.
My mediocre movie marathon
This may be a common occurrence for film festival-goers or professional critics, but for me it was something I did just to see if I could pull it off—both as a tactical feat of avoiding detection by the theater staff and as a moviegoing stunt.
I walked into Marcus Point Cinema in Madison, WI, for a 12pm showing and reemerged into the darkness just before midnight (paying for only one ticket—yes, I was a teenage scofflaw). It’s not the best lineup, but here’s what I saw:
The Pursuit of Happyness
The Nativity Story (an unplanned addition but it fit perfectly between other showings, and my mom joined me with some contraband McDonald’s)
The Good Shepherd (my dad joined me for this one)
I never did this again and would not recommend it. By Blood Diamond my eyes were getting blurry and my butt hurt, so I don’t think I could fully appreciate that or The Good Shepherd. But it was bucket list cross-off and gave me a story to tell on my blog 15 years later.
Anyway, on to the list…
Top 10 of 2006
I suspect this won’t continue to be the case as I move back in time, but I saw almost all of the films in my top 10 in theaters at the time. By then I was an ardent cinephile with a job and a car, so I was able to see a lot of movies. And there were a lot of great ones. Here are my favorites:
Honorable mentions: The Prestige, Borat, Little Miss Sunshine, Idiocracy, Half Nelson, United 93, Marie Antoinette, Shut Up and Sing, Monster House, Old Joy, This Film is Not Yet Rated, Mission: Impossible III
(Haven’t done this since before the end-of-year list-o-mania, so check out my favorite books and films of 2020 for a fuller “Media of the Moment” experience.)
Ted Lasso. Throughout the whole 10-episode first season I kept thinking, “How is this show real?” Can’t wait for season two.
Down from Basswood by Lynn Maria Laitala. Went long on this short, wondrous book.
Palm Springs. I love when comedic actors, like Andy Samberg in this instance, stretch into drama. Also love when a movie manages to mix so many genres well—in this case comedy, romance, sci-fi, drama, and even philosophy.
Run. The latest thriller from Aneesh Chaganty (whose debut film Searching was one of my favorites of 2017) puts Sarah Paulson right where she shines, in a role that cloaks a dark edge with a sunny surface. Kudos to her co-star Kiera Allen for an impressive debut.
The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson. Listened to the audiobook and enjoyed when the British narrator adopted Winston Churchill’s distinctive even-more-British accent when quoting him. Remember to be brief.
The Dig. Like The Splendid and the Vile, a stately story set in World War II Britain that was just OK—though Carey Mulligan and Ralph Fiennes were, as always, the best part of it).
Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President. Documentary about the influence of music and musicians on Carter and his 1976 presidential campaign. Had no idea he was best friends with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. Perhaps I’ll make him my next presidential biography…
Contagion. Finally dove into this Steven Soderbergh joint that was eerily prescient about pandemic life, though thankfully more extreme than what COVID-19 hath wrought.
Wings. This 1927 silent film was the first winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture (technically “Outstanding Picture”). About 30 minutes too long but strikingly style-forward for its time, as this stunning tracking shot demonstrates.
Ghosts of the Abyss. Went on a Titanic kick a while back and stumbled upon this documentary from James Cameron on his 2001 expedition to the Titanic wreck, which captured some incredible footage.
Only Lovers Left Alive. Between this, Broken Flowers, and Patterson, I have yet to be let down by Jim Jarmusch.
At the very end of Driveways, Brian Dennehy’s elderly Del finds himself recounting a story. He concludes:
You know what I wish? I wish me and Eddie were just leaving Joplin this morning. I wish we could do that whole trip all over again. Maybe we’d be a little more deliberate this time, drive a little slower, take our time. Take a good look at stuff. Really see the country.
This echoed in my mind at the end of Pixar’s Soul, which finds Joe being offered a restart for his life:
JERRY: We’re in the business of inspiration, Joe, but it’s not often we find ourselves inspired. So, we all decided to give you another chance. … So what do you think you’ll do? How are you gonna spend your life?
JOE: I’m not sure. But I do know… I’m going to live every minute of it.
I liked the contrast between these two versions of starting over. Del’s second chance is only imaginary, a nostalgic and bittersweet reverie that won’t come to pass. Joe, on the other hand, has an actual opportunity to restart his life with the benefit of the wisdom he acquired on his journey.
Along with all the other lamentable things that happened (or didn’t happen) this year due to COVID-19, I mourn the movies I missed out on seeing on the big screen. The last time I was in a theater was in late February to see LittleWomen, which ended up being my favorite film of 2019.
But I’m also aware that I probably wouldn’t have done much moviegoing this year anyway with a toddler at home. That makes me very grateful for the plenitude of at-home viewing options available to me. Between Netflix, Amazon Prime, Kanopy, Disney Plus, and library checkouts, I was able to see most of what 2020 had to offer and then some.
My logbook tells me I saw a total of 78 films in 2020, 34 of those being 2020 releases. Here’s what stuck with me the most.
This got a lot of “meh” reviews, but I found it to be a gripping, well-made, and admirably brief thriller, written by and starring Tom Hanks as the Navy commander of a destroyer protecting a convoy of Allied merchant ships in the U-boat-infested waters of the Second World War’s Battle of the Atlantic. (An unexpected benefit of having to get a new iPhone recently was getting a free one-year trial of Apple TV+, which is the only reason I was able to see it. So shout-out to my first-gen iPhone SE for crapping out!)
A sweet and insightful documentary from Bryce Dallas Howard that celebrates modern fatherhood, with talking heads from her father Ron Howard, Jimmy Fallon, Judd Apatow, Will Smith, and other celebrities interwoven with the stories of four everyday men and their parenthood journeys. (Watched on Apple TV+.)
In the tradition of previous Cartoon Saloon animated films Song of the Sea and The Secret of Kells, this is a resplendently illustrated magic-infused folk tale set in 17th-century Ireland with some familiar story elements (rebellious daughter, stern but loving father) embedded with many surprising and delightful turns. (Watched on Apple TV+.)
In the last five years, Pixar has hit the bullseye with only Inside Out, Toy Story 4, and Coco. It’s those films that Soul echoes the most, with its jazz musician protagonist undergoing a metaphysical (and physical) journey rediscovering his own life and purpose. Kids will like its zanier bits, but only adults can fully appreciate the worldview-tilting wonder in this ode to finding meaning in “regular old living.” (Watched on Disney Plus.)
6. First Cow
In 1820s Oregon, two men hatch a scheme to steal milk from the area’s only cow to make and sell biscuits at the local outpost. Sneaks into something very different than what you expect initially. A classic western and American tale of enterprise gone wrong, with a blend of sparseness and depth that only Kelly Reichardt can pull off. (Watched on library Blu-ray, but also available on VOD.)
5. The Assistant
Julia Garner (whom I first discovered in 2012’s Electrick Children) stars as an office assistant of an unseen and unnamed Harvey Weinstein-esque Hollywood producer, whose malignant presence nevertheless follows her as she navigates workplace gaslighting, emotional abuse, and a crisis of conscience. The film’s oppressively hushed tone creates a horror/thriller atmosphere that’s fitting for the psychological menace she has to endure. (Watched on Kanopy.)
While a woman fixes up the house of her recently deceased hoarder sister, her shy son develops a sweet friendship with the elderly neighbor, played by Brian Dennehy in his final role. Really enjoyed seeing Hong Chou in a different light compared to her role as Lady Trieu in HBO’s Watchmen. And Dennehy’s quiet, abiding presence culminates in a touching monologue that captures the ache of end-of-life regret. (Watched on Kanopy.)
3. My Octopus Teacher
I already wrote about this documentary, which captures a freediver’s unexpected encounters with an octopus in a South African kelp forest. It’s a beautiful and emotional story that shows the stunning possibilities of what being present in nature can offer. (Watched on Netflix.)
2. Sound of Metal
Riz Ahmed (previously known to me from Nightcrawler) plays a drummer and former addict who suddenly loses his hearing and finds refuge at a community for deaf recovering addicts, led by a deaf Vietnam vet (played by a riveting Paul Raci). His struggle to regain his hearing and old life clashes with new insights, and make this a stunning, humanist portrait of addiction and transformation. (Watched on Amazon Prime.)
1. The Vast of Night
The Twilight Zone meets Super 8 in 1950s New Mexico, where a young switchboard operator and a radio DJ discover a mysterious, possibly extraterrestrial audio frequency. Their search for answers around their small desert town alternates between vexing, exhilarating, and downright eerie. No other 2020 movie captured my imagination and attention as much as this debut feature from writer-director Andrew Patterson, who displays an impressive one-two punch of technical prowess and storytelling panache—with a no-name cast and tiny budget to boot. (Watched on Amazon Prime.)
Honorable mentions: One Night in Miami, Downhill, Tigertail, Blow the Man Down, Miss Americana: Taylor Swift, Hamilton: An American Musical, Da 5 Bloods, Boys State, Lovers Rock, Mangrove, Yes God Yes
Haven’t yet seen but want to: Minari, Nomadland, Another Round
Other non-2020 films I enjoyed:
Only Lovers Left Alive Magic Mike Kramer vs. Kramer A Night to Remember Margin Call The Firm A Hidden Life The Last Temptation of Christ Waves
He’s rich because all of Bedford Falls is dumping a veritable fortune on his table. He’s also rich—richer, I’d say—because of who is doing the dumping and why they’re doing it.
George had been offered a similar financial windfall earlier in the film when Potter tried to hire him, but he rebuffed it. Had he decided otherwise, he would have gained wealth of a kind, but also a kind of poverty that no amount of money could cure. He wouldn’t have had the same relationships with all the friends and family and townsfolk who filled his house with a different kind of windfall.
George was rich in the end because he remembered. He remembered the barrenness of his ghostly alternate life where he was never born. And he remembered—suddenly, when he wanted to live again—the meaning of all his family and friends and frustrating failures and small victories that had accumulated into something like a wonderful life.
Clarence Odbody (Angel Second Class) gets the last word in the movie with his book inspiration to George: “Remember, no man is a failure who has friends.” Remember these friends, he’s saying, not because they’re currently making you rich, but because they already have.
Grumpy Old Men has become one of the few movies I return to every Christmastime, along with The Family Stone and It’s A Wonderful Life. Though (or maybe because), like those other movies, it’s only partially about Christmas.
It’s schmaltzy to a fault, but also an hilarious showcase for the legendary comedic chemistry between Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, forged over decades of working together.
Matthau was open about taking the role only for mercenary purposes. His co-star Kevin Pollak talked about chatting with Matthau on the set before their first scene together:
I said, “So, Walter, script’s pretty good, huh?” And he said, “The script sucks, kid. I owe my bookie $2 million.”
You’d never know it though. Matthau and Lemmon fully commit to their acerbic, chops-busting banter, which is the core strength of the movie.
The movie also stumbles upon a few bits of wisdom that have stuck with me, most of which comes not from the titular men but from the people around them. Like Ariel, the free-spirited neighbor turned love interest played by Ann-Margret. Here’s what she said to acknowledge the death of a mutual friend:
“We can be thankful that we had the privilege of knowing him while he was still here.”
She also drops this doozy during an argument with Lemmon’s John Gustafson, whom she accuses of being too stuck in his ways:
“The only things in life that you regret are the risks you don’t take.”
Finally, Burgess Meredith—absolutely slaying in a supporting role as Gustafson’s horny, incorrigible father—lends this uncharacteristically reflective bit:
The first ninety years go by fast. Then one day you wake up and realize you’re not 81 anymore. You begin to count the minutes rather than the days. And you realize that pretty soon you’ll be gone. And that all you have is the experiences. That’s all there is. Everything! The experiences!
The experience of watching the movie’s combination of sincerity, silliness, and un-Christmaslike shenanigans (along with its wondrously snowy northern Minnesota setting) is what keeps me coming back every year.
For Filmspotting’s latest poll, they ask which of the provided movie failures you are the biggest cheerleader for. The criteria: “These are movie ‘failures’ that paired well-respected, ‘auteurist’ filmmakers with existing properties—and high expectations—resulting in significant disappointments critically and (usually) at the box office.”
Check out the poll for all the options. I’ve only actually seen two of them, but there was only really one answer: Steven Spielberg’s Hook.
Sure, as a ’90s kid there was a little bit of nostalgia that influenced my vote. But it wasn’t nostalgia alone. I’ve rewatched it as an adult and found it to be a superbly directed, campy, and effervescent reimagining of a classic story, with a dynamic Robin Williams performance and jubilant John Williams score.
And as the father of a toddler, the part that really hit me on the rewatch was what Peter’s wife Moira said to him after he snaps at his kids:
Your children love you. They want to play with you. How long do you think that lasts? Soon Jack may not even want you to come to his games. We have a few special years with our children, when they’re the ones that want us around. After that you’ll be running after them for a bit of attention. It’s so fast, Peter. It’s a few years, then it’s over. And you are not being careful. And you are missing it.
Watchmen (TV show). This whole limited series is something special, but the three-episode stretch of “This Extraordinary Being”, “An Almost Religious Awe”, and “A God Walks Into Abar” is spectacular. I went into this basically as a Watchmen neophyte and came out a believer.
Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind by Alan Jacobs. “If it is foolish to think that we can carry with us all the good things from the past—from our personal past or that of our culture—while leaving behind all the unwanted baggage, it is a counsel of despair and, I think, another kind of foolishness to think that if we leave behind the errors and miseries of the past, we must also leave behind everything that gave the world its savor.”
The Vast of Night. A fairly astounding debut feature. The Twilight Zone meets Pleasantville meets Super 8. Available on Amazon Prime, and I’d recommend learning as little as possible about it before watching.
I don’t have to go looking for synchronicity because it always finds me. This time it was on Netflix.
The other day I watched Netflix’s new docu-drama The Social Dilemma (trailer) based on the recommendation from a friend and a lively text thread about its implications.
The film’s thesis is that social networks are engineered to hack human psychology and prey upon our attention as a means to serve advertisers, which is detrimental to humans specifically and society generally. We learn this from the talking heads of former Silicon Valley executives, whose firsthand experience with the dark side of social media have motivated them to speak out against their former employers and advocate for reform.
Interwoven with the talking heads is the drama part of the film, which depict a family wrestling with the many ways technology can negatively affect our lives: the son slowly being radicalized by extremist propaganda, the tween daughter tormented by insecurity and social media bullying, the mother witnessing the fraying of family cohesion.
Though the dramatized storyline sometimes felt a little “anti-smoking PSA” to me, as a morality tale it was an effective companion to the talking heads. (This interview with Tristan Harris, one of the subjects and co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology, gives some needed context to his contributions.)
The documentary stimulated a valuable discussion between my wife and I about social media’s role in our family. But it wasn’t until later that night when its lessons sank into my consciousness in a tangible way.
Diving into the divine milieu
Later that same night, I decided to watch My Octopus Teacher, another new Netflix documentary featuring freediver and filmmaker Craig Foster. The banal description (“A filmmaker forges an unusual friendship with an octopus living in a South African kelp forest, learning as the animal shares the mysteries of her world”) belies the transcendent richness of what we see develop on screen—both between Foster and the octopus and between Foster and the underwater environment.
He describes how diving in the cold seawater makes you “come alive to the world” and focuses your mind intently on your surroundings. I’ve written about freediving before, and how the “divine milieu” of the sea—or any uncivilized landscape—can open us to transformation.
Foster’s own transformation happens over the course of a year as he encounters and befriends a common octopus. And thanks to his abundant underwater footage, we get to witness a series of moments—surprises, scares, sorrows, and simplicities—that teach so much about a reclusive and otherworldly creature. Due to Foster’s soothing narration, the gentle piano score, and the meditative quality of being immersed underwater, it’s a beautiful and emotional story that shows the stunning possibilities of what being present in nature can offer.
That also makes it a fascinating contrast to The Social Dilemma, chiefly in how it offers an antidote to all the ails social media can create. If we feel distracted, we should seek focus. If we feel fragmented, we should seek embodiment. (Brené Brown: “We move what we’re learning from our heads to our hearts through our hands”—a lesson I have to constantly relearn.)
Being in nature, in silence, or at least away from screens allow for both of those things if you let it. And recently I did.
My toddler teacher
A few days after watching both of these films, for undetermined reasons Mr. 19 Months was refusing to fall asleep. I brought him out to his play area and he started tinkering with a wooden train set we recently put into toy circulation. He usually doesn’t focus on one activity for very long, yet for at least 15 minutes he sat there quietly exploring and experimenting with this new contraption.
Usually my phone is with me in our living room post-bedtime, but it wasn’t that night. I could have retrieved it, but I didn’t want to break this spell as I knew he’d either want to follow me or jump to another activity. I soon realized that if I did have my phone, I would have missed so much.
I would have missed his subtle gestures as he figured out how to put the cylindrical blocks into their corresponding holes in the train car.
I would have missed trying to decipher his thought process of how to slot the various discs onto their poles.
I would have missed out on pondering how toddlers can be ferocious one moment and beautifully serene the next—not unlike octopuses.
Similarly, Foster’s unique story wouldn’t have happened if he didn’t dedicate himself to visiting the kelp forest every day, and if he hadn’t noticed the octopus beneath its camouflaged hideout, and if he didn’t intentionally seek to cultivate trust with a marvelous and mysterious creature.
My own marvelous and mysterious creature has taught me a lot in his short time on Earth. (See the tag Baby Comello for the continuing journey.) Just by living out his full self—and toddlers can’t do anything else—he demonstrates the rewards of using your attention wisely, whether it’s for a glowing screen or a wooden train set or an inquisitive toddler or a reclusive cephalopod.
You don’t have to choose one, but you do have to choose.
One of my favorite books of all time is Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember, a retelling of the Titanic’s demise. I finally got around to watching Roy Ward Baker’s 1958 film adaptation of the book on a beautiful Criterion Blu-ray from the library, and it got me wondering: what about the iceberg?
In both the 1958 film and James Cameron’s mega-blockbuster, we get some ominous shots of the iceberg as the ship tries to avoid it, and then some ice chunks sliding across the deck. But after that, the iceberg disappears. For how much we know about the Titanic and its passengers, there’s far less out there about what turned the Titanic story into legend.
I love this article from Gizmodo that charts the iceberg’s incredible journey, beginning as “snowfall on the western coast of Greenland somewhere around 1,000 BCE” and ending when it “likely broke off from Greenland in 1910 or 1911 and was gone forever by the end of 1912 or sometime in 1913.” In all likelihood, “the iceberg that sank the Titanic didn’t even endure to the outbreak of World War I, a lost splash of freshwater mixed in imperceptibly with the rest of the North Atlantic.”
Despite that, we have pictures of it! Not an easy feat in 1912:
In the parlance of The Rewatchables podcast, this may be one of the greatest heat-check performances by a natural formation in history. Basically comes out of nowhere, ventures far beyond where it should be, gets suddenly and violently rammed in the middle of the night by an enormous ship, then melts away within the year.
Such an improbable journey dovetails with the fate of the Titanic itself, as Lord wrote in the original book:
What troubled people especially was not just the tragedy—or even its needlessness—but the element of fate in it all. If the Titanic had heeded any of the six ice messages on Sunday . . . if ice conditions had been normal . . . if the night had been rough or moonlit . . . if she had seen the berg fifteen seconds sooner—or fifteen seconds later . . . if she had hit the ice any other way . . . if her watertight bulkheads had been one deck higher . . . if she had carried enough boats . . . if the Californian [just ten miles away] had only come. Had any one of these ifs turned out right, every life might have been saved. But they all went against her—a classic Greek tragedy.