As the due date of my first child approaches, I’ve tried to account for and appreciate things I can do now, pre-parenthood, that won’t be quite so easy soon. Quiet nights reading, hassle-free dining, uninterrupted sleep, and keeping a tidy home come to mind. But chief among these activities is moviegoing, one of my most cherished traditions.
Here’s my typical moviegoing routine:
I pick a morning showtime, usually the very first, to avoid crowds and get the cheapest price. (Having a job with occasional weekdays off helps.)
I drive our Nissan Leaf since the public parking garage near the theater has free charging stations for electric cars.
I use a theater gift card, which I always request for birthdays and holidays and which those cheap early showtimes help stretch into more movies. (Gift cards: like MoviePass minus the chaos.)
I take advantage of the theater’s free parking validation on my way out.
(Who says there’s no such thing as a free movie?)
My wife and I saw The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part on Friday. As I expected, it wasn’t quite as good as the first one (one of my favorites of 2014), but still had the same manic, joyful verve and heavy meta references. It’s also probably the last movie I’ll see in theaters before the baby arrives. My moviegoing days aren’t over, of course. But it does feel like the end of an era.
I can certainly sympathize with the people driving away from the theater due to high prices or bad behavior. I remember the guy who took a phone call during Children of Men. I remember the old woman’s smartphone playing opera in her purse (unbeknownst to her) throughout the previews and the beginning of 12 Years A Slave. And I remember the lady behind me expressing her every dumb thought and question during Gravity.
For me those incidents are few and far between. I just love going to the movies, and I hope my child will too. Because far more often, I emerge from the theater refreshed or challenged or bewildered or overjoyed, or sometimes dismayed or disappointed. Regardless, my aforementioned moviegoing routine isn’t special to me only because of its combination of thriftiness and good fortune. It’s special because it tells my mind and heart to prepare for something extraordinary.
The late, lamented Sam Shepard called the movie theater “a dark room where a bunch of strangers sit down and watch huge images of other strangers who somehow seem more familiar than the people they know in real life.”
A funny thing happens in the dark with those strangers on and off the screen: life feels a little less strange.
Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy stories from the library reference desk.
On Tuesday I hosted a discussion at the library on the films of 2018. It was an informal time to swap favorites (or least favorites) from the year, and discuss the Oscar nominations that had just been announced. Opinions abounded, of course.
I brought a laptop and projector so we could watch trailers of the movies being discussed. This turned out to be helpful, as I was surprised by how few of the movies the attendees had seen. Of the eight Best Picture nominees, one man had only seen Black Panther.
This gave me the unique opportunity of curating their exposure to the year in film. We watched trailers for high-profile nominees like The Favourite, Vice, Roma, and BlacKkKlansman, but also lesser-known indies like Leave No Trace, The Death of Stalin, Cold War, and First Reformed. I was this close to just going through the rest of my top 10, but I restrained myself (and ran out of time).
Librarians are in this position often. Introducing readers to their next book or viewers to their next movie is part of the job, but also a privilege and a pleasure I take seriously. Maybe a title I recommend will become their all-time favorite, or become inextricably linked with a future memory, or be forgotten as soon as it’s over. Regardless, we’re point guards. We’re there to make the assist, to keep feeding the shooting guard and forwards and hope they score more often than not.
After the program, I walked past the reference desk and saw the gentleman who had only seen Black Panther. He was asking to be placed on hold for Leave No Trace and The Death of Stalin, and I couldn’t help but smile.
Remember Terry Kniess, the guy who made the perfect bid on the Showcase Showdown of The Price is Right? Someone made a documentary about the guy behind that bid, and it’s surprisingly thrilling.
Ted Slauson is a math whiz and The Price is Right superfan who’s attended dozens of tapings of the show and even wrote his own computer program to help him memorize the show’s thousands of different products and games. Using archival footage and Ted’s deadpan talking head interviews, the documentary pieces together how Ted’s savant-level mastery and willingness to feed other contestants exact prices led to some amazing television.
Though amateurish in its choppy editing and overuse of background music, the doc is an effective love letter to one of the most popular game shows ever and a compelling investigation into its unlikely cult hero.
Want to give some love to three services I’ve enjoyed lately:
Kanopy is a free streaming service available through your public library. (If it isn’t, ask them to get it!) Abundant with titles from A24, The Criterion Collection, and other high-quality providers, it’s rife with a delightful array of foreign films, indies, and documentaries to fill the FilmStruck-shaped hole in the hearts of cinephiles. My watchlist expanded pretty quickly once I signed up, much of it classics and Criterion titles I’ve been meaning to watch and want to get to before my wife gives birth. In the last few weeks I’ve watched Three Days of the Condor, The Seventh Seal, 48 Hrs., Ugetsu, Battleship Potemkin, and The Wages ofFear, with more on the horizon. Get thee to Kanopy!
I’ve been using Hum for a lot longer than Kanopy, but only recently realized how much I love it. It’s the perfect songwriting app. Super easy to quickly record song ideas, gather lyrics, and add helpful metadata. Beautifully made and a joy to use, though I really ought to use it more. Since I recently released the songs that comprised my 20s, I’m excited to see what will become of the song ideas currently residing in Hum.
System Information on Mac
I rediscovered this function while trying to clean out some disk space on my wife’s MacBook Pro and make it run faster. Previously I used Disk Doctor for this job; it’s a fine app that costs $2.99, but System Information is built-in and provides a more granular view of your files. It also makes deleting them super easy and satisfying. It’s a bit hidden, but well worth the hunt. If you’re a file hoarder or haven’t optimized your Mac in a while, you’ll be shocked by how much cruft builds up. Also by how large iOS backups are! (Seriously, my wife’s storage space more than doubled after I deleted those.)
For some reason I can’t explain, I didn’t make a list of my top 10 films in 2009. My filmlog did get a little sparse that year, but I’m surprised I didn’t at least throw a list together, since I’ve been making best-of lists since 2007. Regardless, once I noticed the discrepancy, I figured now, 10 years later, would be the perfect time to make one and add it to the rest of my best-of lists.
It’s hard to know how different this list is from what it would have looked like in 2009. Except for Sweetgrass, I would have seen all those movies at the time, so it probably would have been similar. Surprised by how many comedies and comedy-dramas there are, but I don’t hate it:
1. Inglourious Basterds
Choice quote: “Nah, I don’t think so. More like chewed out. I’ve been chewed out before.”
2. A Serious Man
Choice quote: “The Uncertainty Principle. It proves we can’t ever really know… what’s going on. So it shouldn’t bother you. Not being able to figure anything out. Although you will be responsible for this on the midterm.”
Choice quote: *sheep grazing*
Choice quote: “So until next time, remember: cardio, seat belts, and this really has nothing to do with anything, but a little sunscreen never hurt anybody.”
5. Star Trek
Choice quote: “What is necessary is never unwise.”
6. (500) Days of Summer
Choice quote: “Just because she likes the same bizarro crap you do doesn’t mean she’s your soul mate.”
7. Away We Go
Choice quote: “OK, can that maybe be the last bit of parental advice we get tonight?”
8. I Love You, Man
Choice quote: “I will see you there or I will see you another time.”
9. The Secret of Kells
Choice quote: “I’ve seen suffering in the darkness. Yet I have seen beauty thrive in the most fragile of places. I have seen the book. The book that turned darkness into light.”
Choice quote: “You are not my mother.”
I also liked: Moon, Winnebago Man, Up, District 9, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Me and Orson Welles, The Princess and the Frog
Since June, when I found out I was going to be a father, I’ve been keenly aware of how fatherhood has been portrayed in this year’s crop of movies. What strikes me now, looking back on all of them, is the wide array of characteristics the 2018 Film Fathers represented.
There were men who weren’t fathers yet but pined to be (Private Life and Game Night) or despaired of their fatherhood (First Reformed).
There were men whose defining characteristic was their absence (the doctor in Roma, Apollo in Creed II, T’Chaka in Black Panther)
There were men whose children inspired in them unconditional love (Eighth Grade), desperate determination (Searching), painful grief (First Man), righteous if misguided zeal (Blockers), and a longing to stop time (Hearts Beat Loud).
And there were men whose family life, whether through inspiration or inertia, led them towards apathy (Tully), frustration (The Incredibles2), and flight (Wildlife).
Not all of these films made my best-of list, but I’m grateful to all of them for demonstrating just how consequential fatherhood can be.
On to the list…
1. The Death of Stalin
I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like this, Veep creator Armando Iannucci’s film about the machinations of Stalin’s inner circle after the dictator’s sudden death in 1953. Don’t be fooled by the serious title: this is social and political satire at its sharpest, loosely based on real events but also exactly right about much more than its titular subject. (Review)
2. The Favourite
Rachel Weisz I’ve loved since The Mummy, Emma Stone since Superbad. But Olivia Colman is basically new to me, and she might have won this movie as a querulous, manipulative Queen Anne balancing the competing bids for favor from Stone’s Abigail and Weisz’s Sarah. Writer-director Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster barely missed my top 10 list in 2015, but he nearly conquered this year’s with this delicious, darkly comic period piece that takes “be careful what you wish for” to a delightfully daring level.
Stunning directorial debut from actor Paul Dano. A very well composed and controlled story of a 1960s family struggling against disintegration, experienced by the perspective of 14-year-old only child Joe. Everything felt so specific and slo-mo tragic, Carey Mulligan’s performance especially.
4. First Reformed
What to do about despair? As the priest of a small historical church, Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Toller communes with it for a living, whether fighting his own ailments, struggling against professional obsolescence, or pastoring a young couple haunted by the specter of global warming. An intense portrait of the search for meaning, a reckoning with darkness and extremism, and a worthy entry into the “priest in crisis” canon (a personal favorite subgenre) alongside Winter Light, Calvary, and other gems.
5. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
It’s a rarity for me to see a movie in theaters twice, but I was happy to do so for this one so I could see it with my wife. This could be the movie that changes superhero movies—in style, personality, and thematic exploration. If you haven’t seen it yet, go into it with as little foreknowledge as possible.
6. The Rider
A rodeo accident forces horse rider Brady off the saddle, leaving him in poverty with brain damage and an existential crisis. This lithe, mesmerizing, and richly empathetic film rides a fine line between fiction and documentary, as Brady and most of the characters are essentially playing themselves. Director Chloé Zhao has an eye for beautiful shots and tender moments.
I didn’t fully appreciate Roma until it was over, when I could see the full scope of Alfonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical take on a year in the life of Cleo, a live-in maid in 1970s Mexico City. Still, from the first shot—a meditative long take of a floor being mopped—I cherished Cuarón’s ability to see grandeur in the granular, to magnify the minute details of a humble woman’s hidden but compelling life.
“Thriller whodunit that takes place solely on a computer” sounds like a cheap direct-to-video B movie, but Searching is shockingly effective at overcoming this supposed gimmick. Why is this story of John Cho’s David using everyday technology to track down his missing daughter effective? I think it’s the specificity of the tools—everything from Windows XP to Facebook and FaceTime—used in a panicked silence throughout. David could be any of us, alone at a computer clicking desperately against time.
Based on a true story of the first black police officer in 1970s Colorado Springs infiltrating the local KKK chapter, with the help of a fellow officer, played by Adam Driver. True to a Spike Lee joint, it’s brash, cutting, funny, loose when it needs to be but solid at heart. The Birth of a Nation montage could be the scene of the year. John David Washington (son of Denzel) deserves not to always be compared to his famous father, but they share a compelling verve that bodes very well for John David’s career.
10. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Not all of this Coen Bothers anthology’s six parts are equally good: “The Girl Who Got Rattled” and “Meal Ticket” did a lot of the heavy lifting (or gold digging?) to get to this spot. But this would have made the list for the Zoe Kazan and Bill Heck performances in “Rattled” alone. Like most Coen Brothers joints, I expect this to reward repeat viewings.
I also liked: Avengers: Infinity War, Leave No Trace, Tully, If Beale Street Could Talk, Won’t You Be My Neighbor, Black Panther, Private Life, Game Night, Hearts Beat Loud, Annihilation, Widows
Because the only screengrabs of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal I’ve ever seen are of a knight playing chess with Death, I really thought that would be the whole movie. Just a Very Serious Film that would be more film-buff obligation than an enjoyable experience. But wow, am I glad to be mistaken. It’s a profound, disturbing, grotesque, even goofy film, impressively rooted in religious inquiry but humanist at heart.
Two quotes stood out from Antonius Block (played gracefully by a young Max von Sydow), a disillusioned knight returning home from the Crusades to plague-ridden Denmark. His wager with Death—being spared if he wins—sets him apart as a determined, sensitive, and thoughtful seeker. So his wrestling with God is keenly felt:
“Is it so terribly inconceivable to comprehend God with one’s senses? Why does he hide in a cloud of half-promises and unseen miracles? How can we believe in the faithful when we lack faith? What will happen to us who want to believe, but can not? What about those who neither want to nor can believe? Why can’t I kill God in me? Why does He live on in me in a humiliating way—despite my wanting to evict Him from my heart? Why is He, despite all, a mocking reality I can’t be rid of?”
Yet later, while enjoying a moment of solace amidst the chaos of his journey, he practices a Middle Ages form of mindfulness and calls out his gratitude:
“I shall remember this hour of peace: the strawberries, the bowl of milk, your faces in the dusk. Mikael asleep, Jof with his lute. I shall remember our words, and shall bear this memory between my hands as carefully as a bowl of fresh milk. And this will be a sign, and a great content.”
This is only the third Ingmar Bergman film I’ve seen after Winter Light and Wild Strawberries. My regard for Bergman has shot up based on the caliber of these three alone. God bless Kanopy (free with a library card) for making it available. Looking forward to discovering more.
Northwestern’s Block Museum hosted a screening of Rear Window that was introduced by Gary Rydstrom, Oscar-winning sound designer for Saving Private Ryan, Titanic, Jurassic Park, Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and many other movies you love. Though I didn’t stay for the movie (I’ve already seen it on the big screen), I was eager to hear Rydstrom’s perspective on one of my all-time favorites.
Rear Window is so highly charged with a sense of the significance of the hidden, with the mystery of the barely glimpsed and distantly heard, that it is difficult not to carry this same sense of mystery back to our own world. Hitchcock’s cinema leaves us with a more highly charged sense of the mystery of the world. We notice certain things more after a Hitchcock film—a glass of milk, a woman’s handbag. Mundane items buzz with a mystery they did not have before. Hitchcock tends to invest us with his manifold neuroses. He makes us more wary of, and therefore more alive to, the world. Rear Window specifically heightens our attention to the barely glimpsed sights and distant sounds of our own neighborhood. It makes us more sensitive to the mystery of hidden lives, to the mysterious presence of loneliness and alienation in our own world.
Other notes from his brief talk:
He saw Rear Window on TV in 1971 as a 12 year old; turned him on to movies and sound design
His goal was to marry Grace Kelly (ditto)
We tend to think movie sound should be loud and dramatic; Rear Window‘s wasn’t, yet still an ingenious use of sound to this day
Film was a counter to criticisms of Hitchcock that his films were cold and clinical
The film’s hero is Lisa Fremont
Stewart’s Jeffries a criticism of the American male
Murder mystery was in service to the love story
Voyeurism generally has a reputation as a sickness, but this shows an upside
Diegetic music throughout (pianist, radio) comments on and contrasts with the action
Distance/echo of music around the apartment complex indicative of neighborly distance and alienation; also technically hard to do in 1954
Sound design changes once Thorwald appears
Pianist’s “Lisa” theme develops during movie along with the story
So says a love interest to Sam (Kiersey Clemons), a shy but talented musician who reluctantly performs with her dad (Nick Offerman) in Hearts Beat Loud, the new indie film from Brett Haley. It’s a little High Fidelity, a little Once (or more like its inferior sibling Begin Again), a dash of That Thing You Do! and every New York indie film you’ve ever seen. Its scope is admirably small, its supporting cast (Toni Collette, Blythe Danner, Ted Danson as a bartender) appreciated but underused, and its music scenes charming and realistic enough.
“Come on, Doc, it’s not science! When it happens, it just hits you. It’s like lightning.” – Marty McFly, Back to the Future Part III
A couple nights before my buddy’s wedding, I was at his house with a bunch of other guys for a time of toasting, roasting, and advice-giving. One thing I shared was how immediately evident it was to me that the couple was The Real Deal, and how a similar certainty hit me like a bolt of lightning when I first met my future wife.
Later on, the wedding reception was held at Ace Eat Serve, a ping pong hall in a converted auto garage serving pan-Asian cuisine. (Loved the amazing food and the novelty of playing ping pong at a wedding.) The ping pong tables outside were made of concrete and had metal nets with Ace’s lightning logo cut through them, which in the sunlight looked like this:
It’s almost as if I was at the temporal junction point for the entire space-time continuum. On the other hand, it could just be an amazing coincidence.