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.
The primary function of my logbook is to document in a Google spreadsheet what I read and watch. But that’s not all it tracks. Among sheets dedicated to typewriters I own and words I like is one that charts my progress through several Top 100 film lists (see above).
I’ve been slowly endeavoring through the AFI 100 since high school. I then added Image’s Arts & Faith Top 100, the Time 100, and recently the BFI Critics 100 just cuz. There’s a fair amount of overlap between them, but enough differences for all of them to be useful sources of viewing suggestions.
Here’s where I’m at now on each list:
There’s a completist satisfaction in checking off titles and inching closer to 100. Though as close as I am to finishing the AFI list, there are a few remaining titles I’m in no rush to subject myself to, like Intolerance, A Clockwork Orange, and Sophie’s Choice. As with any movie I watch, mood has to align with opportunity and availability. Having lists like these ready to go ensures I always have good options for when the moment is right.
These lists are also great fodder for exploring cinema beyond whatever Netflix or other streaming services decide to make available at any given moment. Besides Kanopy, these services tend to have a recency bias. Everyone, but especially Kids These Days, should be exposed to older and lesser known movies. See Ty Burr’s book The Best Old Movies for Families: A Guide to Watching Together for more ideas, or peruse your local library.
In case you haven’t heard, 1999 was a great year for movies. I don’t remember seeing any of them in the theater at the time (I was 12), but I fondly remember watching and rewatching many on VHS and DVD later on.
I really tried to rank them. But the exercise of ranking felt even more futile and arbitrary than usual when I considered all the candidates and how I loved them nearly equally for different reasons. And so:
Top 10 films of 1999 I love nearly equally for different reasons, in alphabetical order
This gets funnier the more you know about Watergate. Choice scene: Haldeman’s house
As a tween I babysat for a family that owned only a few DVDs, the only interesting one being The Matrix. Since the kids were always in bed by the time I arrived, basically I was paid to watch The Matrix. Choice scene: “I’ve been looking for you, Neo.”
Jake Gyllenhaal has been great for a long time. Ditto Chris Cooper, who had quite the one-two punch with this and American Beauty. Choice scene: “He isn’t my hero.”
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 driven 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