Categories
Film

Top 5 autumn movies

I have a pretty good handle on my Christmas/winter movie canon. But fall? Not so much. That’s what inspired me to consider the movies I return to during autumn, or seek out when I want that Mr. Autumn Man feeling on screen regardless of the season.

To qualify, they have to take place primarily within, embody the spirit of, and have the look and feel of autumn. So my beloved Little Women (both the 1994 and 2019 renditions) don’t quite make the cut given their year-round plots. Nor do other movies that are widely considered fall movies but I either haven’t seen (Hocus Pocus, Practical Magic) or care enough about (When Harry Met Sally).

Here, listed alphabetically, is what I landed on, along with some of their appealingly autumnal attributes.

Coco

Dia de Los Muertos. The spookiness. The cemetery.

Knives Out

The foliage. The sweaters and coats. The gothic architecture.

October Sky

The title of the movie. The overcast. The mournful spirit. The gorgeous music. The light jackets and flannel. (This is really #1.)

Remember the Titans

The nighttime football. The new-school-year vibes.

The Village

The cloaks. The chilly nights. The aphyllus trees. The forest walks.

Categories
Film

Marvel-less

As the capstone of an 11-year cinematic journey through the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Avengers: Endgame was so thoroughly conclusive and satisfying that it has made me consider giving up on the MCU.

Seriously, how can you top this:

I’m sure someone can “well, actually” me about other even more epic crossover events in the comics or whatever. But I’m not a comics person. I have no connection to the Marvel universe beyond the films themselves.

And I’ve been a big fan of them! I wrote a positive review of Iron Man for my college newspaper at the time and have engaged with the MCU ever since. That’s probably why life as a casual fan post-Endgame has been a bit bewildering.

My only foray has been WandaVision. We signed up for a year of Disney+ back in March 2020, pretty much right after COVID-19 lockdown started, so we had it for just enough time to watch that show—but none of the subsequent ones—before our subscription expired.

I didn’t resubscribe mostly because Disney’s megathread on Twitter back in December announcing the next few years’ worth of movies and shows coming to theaters and Disney+ broke my brain a little bit. The prospect of the MCU metastasizing even further beyond its already expansive ambit forced me to consider how much time and energy the next phase is worth. (Or is it phases? I don’t know phases.)

The bottom line is: I’m OK with skipping whatever is on Disney+ (that’s what Wikipedia summaries are for) and I’m still open to seeing (some of) the forthcoming movies, though the threshold for seeing them in theaters versus waiting until they’re on DVD/Blu-ray will be high. I’ll let critical acclaim and my personal interest sort that out on an individual basis.

In the meantime, I look back on the journey to Endgame fondly. It remains a monumental achievement, and one I’ll treasure revisiting one day with Mr. 2 Years Old.

Categories
Books Film Music

Media of the moment

An ongoing series of what I’ve read, seen, and heard lately

Schmigadoon. Though its story is a little loose at the edges throughout the show’s short six-episode run, the central conceit of a couple getting stuck inside the world of an old-timey musical was a fun journey. Watch out for “Corn Puddin’” because it’s an earworm. More TV musicals please!

Ted Lasso, season 2. Will be curious to see how this season fills out as a whole, but nothing can damper my love of the best show on TV. We really enjoyed the stretch of a couple weeks in July and August when we could watch the latest episodes of this and Schmigadoon as an uplifting and wholesome Friday night double feature.

Crimson Tide. So, this ruled. And made me really miss seeing Gene Hackman in movies.

In the Heights (movie and soundtrack). Seeing this was my first time back in the theater since February 2020, and I’ve had the soundtrack pretty much on repeat since. Favorite little moments: “damn, we only jokin’, stay broke then” and the It’s A Wonderful Life reference.

Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic by Steven Johnson. My favorite author strikes again.

A Quiet Place / A Quiet Place Part II. Being horror-averse I put off the first one for a while, basically until I saw the excellent reviews for Part II and realized they’re not actually horror but more of the “momentarily scary well-made thriller” variety, which I’m down with.

Paper Trails: The US Post and the Making of the American West by Cameron Blevins. Shoutout to the post office.

Showbiz Kids. Affecting documentary on HBO Max featuring former child actors talking about their past and present struggles.

The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green. I’ve never listened to the podcast this book is based on, but still enjoyed Green’s unique, earnest, and wry literary voice shining through this collection of essays.

Categories
Film

Favorite Films of 2004

I’m creating my annual movie lists retroactively. See all of them.

As a freshman/sophomore in high school, this year provided me several memorable theater experiences, including the last great M. Night Shyamalan movie, some surprisingly excellent sequels, and a romance that inspired one of my very first blog posts.

But chief among these theatrical outings were Anchorman and Dodgeball. Both were instrumental to the development of my comedic sensibility (for better or worse), having hit me and my peers at the exact right age for maximum effect and quotability. A shocking amount of lines remain lodged in my subconscious to this day, just waiting to be deployed—much to my wife’s puzzlement or annoyance.

I can’t defend everything about them. A recent rewatch of Dodgeball confirmed just how much of its comedy wouldn’t survive into today. But dammit, if “We’re better than you, and we know it!” and “I immediately regret this decision!” and countless other references are wrong, then I don’t want to be right.

On to the list…

1. Before Sunset

The Before series is one of four trilogies I own on DVD, the others being Back to the Future, Die Hard (4 and 5 don’t count), and Lord of the Rings. Unlike with those series, this second movie is the best of the trilogy.

2. The Incredibles

This is at #3 in my Pixar rankings, behind WALL-E and Toy Story. Such a beautiful, exhilarating vision from Brad Bird.

3. Shaun of the Dead

I think about this film essay on Edgar Wright’s visual comedy a lot. While my opinions vary on his films, there’s no denying his filmmaking prowess, which is nearly Wes Anderson-esque in its distinctness.

4. The Village

The last great M. Night Shyamalan movie. I know the twist is divisive, but it worked for me, as did the gorgeous James Newton Howard score, the crackling chemistry between Joaquin Phoenix and Bryce Dallas Howard, and the murderers row of character actors.

5. Anchorman

Within Pewit’s Nest gorge in Baraboo, Wisconsin, you can wade down Skillet Creek and jump off small cliffs into pools within the creek. I was there several years ago with a few people when I clambered up one of these cliffs and, right before jumping, delivered Ron Burgundy’s poolside monologue to those nearby, punctuated with a cannonball into the water just like in the movie. To my chagrin, no one understood the reference and therefore probably considered me a disturbed weirdo. I should have capped it with “Don’t act like you’re not impressed…”

6. Collateral

Tom Cruise needs to play more villains.

7. Miracle

Not all live-action Disney sports movies work, but this one just straight-up does. And like most good sports movies, you don’t need to know much about the sport.

8. Ocean’s Twelve

Saw this with a group of friends, and we decided to get dressed up for a fancy night at the movies just to emulate the suaveness of the cast. This is usually ranked last in the trilogy, but it’s not far behind Thirteen.

9. Friday Night Lights

The show was good, but this was great. My introduction to the music of Explosions in the Sky.

10. I, Robot

This holds up, not only as sci-fi dystopian action but as a Will Smith vehicle during his late prime.

Honorable mentions:

  • National Treasure
  • Team America: World Police
  • Spider-Man 2
  • Vera Drake
  • 50 First Dates
  • Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
  • Kill Bill Vol. 2
  • Kung Fu Hustle
  • The Notebook
  • Shrek 2
  • Spanglish
  • Win a Date with Tad Hamilton!
Categories
Film Media Religion

Siskel & Ebert, Mark Driscoll, and the Power of Popularity

Among the podcasts in my regular rotation, there are two others I’m listening to that are both limited series, airing concurrently, and happen to share a surprising thematic overlap.

One is Gene and Roger, an eight-part Spotify-exclusive series from The Ringer that serves as an oral history of Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert, and their movie criticism legacy. The other is The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill from Christianity Today, which charts the story of Mars Hill Church and its controversial pastor Mark Driscoll.

What’s the connection between these two disparate stories? The epiphany came after listening to recent episodes of both shows, released on the same day.

For the brand

“Top Guns” finds Siskel and Ebert reaching new heights of exposure, popularity, and power through their TV show and “two thumbs up” brand. Meanwhile, “The Brand” follows Driscoll as he and Mars Hill’s burgeoning marketing team harness technology and internet to build his personal brand and rocket the church’s growth.

Both subjects became celebrities within their domains despite their unlikely origins, unorthodox approaches, and often prickly demeanor. Whatever criticism that came their way—like for the reductive sloganeering of Siskel and Ebert’s “two thumbs up” and for Driscoll’s macho masculinity and objectification of women—was overshadowed by their surprising success and cultural ubiquity.

Movies and machismo

Though I was too young to watch Siskel and Ebert together on TV at the time, I was a regular viewer of the post-Siskel iteration with Richard Roeper and even the post-Ebert version with Michael Phillips and A.O. Scott. Before podcasts and social media, this was the only time I could see intelligent people arguing about movies. You also couldn’t be a film lover and understand what it means to write and think about movies without Ebert’s influence specifically. (His Great Movies anthologies are an essential resource, and the documentary Life Itself is a great primer on his life and work.)

Driscoll had a similar influence within American Christianity. I listened to his sermon podcasts through iTunes in the early 2010s, back when they were usually topping the Religion charts (and back when I was still listening to sermons). Driscoll’s tough-guy personality and the reported toxic culture of Mars Hill eventually turned me off, but his cultural cache lived on—probably peaking with his infamous trolling of Obama for his second Inauguration—until Mars Hill’s demise less than two years later on account of Driscoll’s bullying and “patterns of persistent sinful behavior”.

The beauty of synchronicity

The comparisons do fade at some point. The end of Siskel and Ebert—as a show and as individuals—was caused by untimely illness, while it was Driscoll’s behavior that led to his disgrace.

Still, it was a synchronistic delight to catch both of these excellent podcasts at the right moment to hear how seemingly unrelated stories can inform each other. One of the benefits of subscribing to (probably) too many podcasts…

Categories
Film

Mad Max on the Feminism Road

mad max fury road reaction gif

Really enjoyed this post from Freddie de Boer about his frustration with the common misinterpretation of Mad Max: Fury Road as “Furiosa replaces Max in a Mad Max movie”—a take that’s entirely false:

It’s important to understand that Furiosa doesn’t replace Max because the entire movie demonstrates the failure of dictatorship and the superiority of communal leadership. It’s not about men being erased in deference to women; it would be totally bizarre for a movie with that intent to place so much agency in its male characters. (Nux’s sacrifice saves the lives of the remaining characters, to pick an obvious example.) It’s about the superiority of democracy and shared governance and diversity over the the whims of an individual autocrat.

He then links this framework to how a “new masculinity”, embodied by Max, can be “unthreatened by the strengths and abilities of others” while joining with the ideal version of feminism:

Feminism is not about women replacing men in an equally stratified and undemocratic structure as the patriarchy that preceded it; that’s a parody of feminism. Feminism is about equality, diversity, communalism, and radical democracy. Indeed, the movie models consensus and communal deliberation for us. When they stop and discuss whether to continue on the salt flats or turn back for the Citadel, Max and Furiosa do most of the talking, but everyone weighs in and is heard. Furiosa doesn’t lead by fiat. She listens and becomes convinced, as do the rest, and they all make a plan together. Max isn’t erased; he’s a valued and essential part of the whole, just as white men will be in the new world of democracy and equality we are building.

In that group discussion on the salt flats—one of the few quiet moments of the movie—Max concludes his case to Furiosa thusly:

Look, it’ll be a hard day. But I guarantee you that 160 days riding that way, there’s nothing but salt. At least that way, we might be able to, together, come across some kind of redemption.

What a great metaphor! The path towards a better world is hard and painful, but retreating away from it is worse in the long run. “The obstacle is the way,” as Ryan Holiday would say.

Might be time for a Fury Road rewatch.

Categories
Film Life

Stargazing with WALL-E

Spent the holiday weekend at my wife’s family’s beach community, where they do a fireworks show every year on the beach. (Read my 2017 reflection about this experience.)

Though it was fun to watch Little Man experience fireworks for the first time, my personal highlight was being able to see the clear night sky without much light pollution for the first time in a while. And, man, was it glorious to behold.

All that love’s about

It echoed a moment that stood out in our recent rewatch of WALL-E, which we decided to try with Little Man after he gravitated to a WALL-E toy at Target (probably because it looked like a truck).

In the film’s transcendent first act, WALL-E pauses during his garbage collection routine and looks up to the sky just as the otherwise dense smog clears just enough for him to see stars. “It Only Takes a Moment” from Hello, Dolly! underscores the moment, specifically at the line “And that is all that love’s about.”

This is a lovely bit of foreshadowing for later in the movie, when WALL-E and EVE perform their fire extinguisher-fueled space ballet among the stars—a scene I love so much I named it one of my favorite movie music moments. (The movie itself is #2 on my best of 2008 list.)

The robot toddler

Another takeaway from the movie this time around was something I couldn’t have realized before having a kid: WALL-E embodies all the best characteristics of toddlers.

He’s diligent, curious, enthusiastic, loving, loyal, temperamental. He’s a tinkerer who tosses aside a diamond ring because he’s more interested in the box it came in. He’s eager to show EVE all his toys when she visits his home. He basically has two speeds: inching along or sprinting. He’s charmingly clumsy, quick to make friends, and an accidental agent of chaos—but one that ultimately brings life to those around him.

In short, an excellent role model, and not just for kids. Here’s to all of us being more like WALL-E.

Categories
Books Film Music

Media of the moment

An ongoing series of what I’ve read, seen, and heard recently

The Good Lord Bird. The limited series really captures the book’s madcap and dramatic spirit. Ethan Hawke is so delightfully committed to the dead-serious absurdity of John Brown.

The Underground Railroad. Two of my main takeaways while watching this 10-episode limited series: 1. I can’t believe I get to watch essentially 10 new Barry Jenkins movies! And 2. That’s a few too many given the heavy subject matter!

Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, A Night in Tunisia. Recently my wife asked me to “get some jazz” from the library, so right before I left I grabbed a few albums more or less at random. Struck gold with this one.

Benny Goodman, Mozart at Tanglewood. Wanted to find some good concertos and heard good things about this one. Those good things were right.

Fake Love Letters, Forged Telegrams, and Prison Escape Maps: Designing Graphic Props for Filmmaking by Annie Atkins. A cool visual compendium and behind-the-scenes exploration of a film graphic prop designer’s impressive work, including lots from Wes Anderson movies.

Categories
Film

Favorite Films of 2005

I started making annual top-10 movie lists in 2007, so I’ve been going backwards from there to create lists for each year retroactively. See all my best-of lists.

I really enjoyed kicking off my back-in-time film rankings series with the 2006 slate.

Most of my indelible memories from this moviegoing year involved the late, lamented Westgate Cinema, a rundown strip mall theater in Madison that showed the arthouse flicks I was really getting into at this time as a high school junior and senior. I saw several of my top 10 films there.

Looking at the box office from that year reveals a now-familiar dominance of franchises, though only one superhero movie. The only two original concepts represented in the top 10 were Mr. & Mrs. Smith and Hitch—one of which made my own top 10 and the other just missed out.

As for the Oscars, the bit that sticks out (besides the surprising-but-not-really Best Picture triumph of Crash over Brokeback Mountain) was host Jon Stewart’s quip after Three 6 Mafia won Best Original Song for “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” from Hustle & Flow: “For those of you who are keeping score at home, I just want to make something very clear: Martin Scorsese, zero Oscars; Three 6 Mafia, one.”

On to the list…

1. Brokeback Mountain

True story: when I started teaching myself how to play guitar around this time, the first two songs I learned were “Blackbird” by The Beatles and “The Wings” from the Oscar-winning Brokeback Mountain score by Gustavo Santaolalla. Partially because they happened to share a similar riff (and, I realize only now, theme: “Take these broken wings and learn to fly…”), but also because they’re both gorgeously evocative in their own ways.

2. Good Night, And Good Luck

There’s a cozy intimacy this film accomplishes that sets it apart from other star-studded period dramas. Maybe it’s the smooth-jazz score, the black-and-white, or the short runtime. Or maybe it’s the contrast of big issues—freedom of speech, the power of the press—being teased out through small conversations in unassuming rooms.

3. Grizzly Man

I’ve seen and enjoyed many Werner Herzog documentaries, but this one still reigns supreme.

4. Batman Begins

Ah, the halcyon days of when a gritty superhero reboot was a novel concept.

5. A History of Violence

The fight in the diner. The stairway sex scene. The final shot.

6. The 40-Year-Old Virgin

Let’s save the discussion about the cancelability of mid-2000s comedies for the 2004 list (Anchorman, Dodgeball) and say for now that this felt like a sea change at the time, not only for the humor but also for the ultimately positive portrayal of virginity.

7. The New World

I remember going to see this with some friends who were expecting something closer to Pocahontas than the slow, meandering, meditative epic this actually is. Needless to say they didn’t like it, but I did.

8. Walk the Line

At my high school, seniors were allowed to make a big raucous commotion between classes on their last day of school to celebrate graduating. My contribution to this day was hoisting my boombox above my head and playing this movie’s soundtrack on repeat while I walked the halls.

9. Four Brothers

An underrated winter movie, crime movie, family drama, and ensemble piece, with Chiwetel Ejiofor’s truly chilling turn as the sadistic, fur-spangled crime boss Victor Sweet as a bonus.

10. Mr. & Mrs. Smith

We now know how Brangelina would turn out, but at the time the chemistry of Pitt and Jolie was as incandescent as this movie’s alchemy of action, humor, and romance.

Honorable mentions: Broken Flowers, Fever Pitch, Hitch, In Her Shoes, Just Friends, King Kong, The Squid and the Whale, War of the Worlds

Categories
Film Life

Favorite Films of 2006

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)
  • starting to write about movies (Quinceañera, The Prestige, the 2006 Oscars)

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:

  1. The Pursuit of Happyness
  2. Rocky Balboa
  3. The Nativity Story (an unplanned addition but it fit perfectly between other showings, and my mom joined me with some contraband McDonald’s)
  4. Blood Diamond
  5. 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:

  1. Children of Men
  2. Brick
  3. Tell No One
  4. Casino Royale (review)
  5. Inside Man
  6. Stranger Than Fiction (review)
  7. The Departed
  8. V for Vendetta
  9. Pan’s Labyrinth
  10. Jackass Number Two

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