What I’ve been watching



I used to do a best of the year film list, but things have changed. First, I no longer see films at the theatre. Even last year I had started watching some films at home, now I watch all of them at home. And I watch mostly older films, with a few recent ones sprinkled in. When the NBA closed up shop I started watching documentaries while exercising.

With Amazon Prime, I watch far more films than before. Unfortunately, with everything at one’s fingertips, the masterpieces of the past don’t seem quite as precious as when I tramped through the snow to Harvard Square to watch old classics. It’s like eating every night at a 4 star restaurant. So I try to add in some mediocre films, to mix things up.

With so many films, I thought it made sense to stop at the half way point of 2020, instead of waiting until the end of the year. I may switch to monthly film reports, as even this post will be way too long. I’ll start with a few recent films, then lots of older ones. :

New Films

An Elephant Sitting Still  (China) 3.8  A four hour film somewhat reminiscent of Bela Tarr, but the director has his own distinctive style.  Hu Bo committed suicide after making this film, at the age of 29.  Had he lived, he might have been one of the all-time great directors.  An unbearably sad film, and it’s equally sad to ponder the director’s suicide.

1994  (Mexico)  3.7  A 4-hour Netflix documentary (5 episodes) covering 1994 in Mexico.  I already knew the outline of what happened, but the film made the events come alive.  Reminded me a lot of 1968 in America, with Colosio being the Bobby Kennedy of the story.  You really need to use your critical thinking skills when watching this, as the filmmaker’s interpretation is not always the most plausible one.  Nonetheless, the facts are presented in a fair enough fashion that viewers can make up their own minds.  Zedillo might have been treated a bit unfairly—I wonder if that’s because he declined to be interviewed (while almost all the other key players were interviewed.)

Now someone needs to make a documentary of the year 1968, for us nostalgic boomers.

The Whistlers  (Romania)  3.6  Original and clever thriller that takes place in Romania and also the Canary Islands. I thought they made up the whistling language, but apparently it is actually used in the Canary Islands.  Recommended for those looking for something intelligent, humorous and off beat.

Call For Dreams  (Japan, Israel)  3.6  Most people will not like this film, but it contained almost everything I look for in a film. A feast for the eyes.  Not one review on Rotten Tomatoes, which is hard to understand.   Watch it late at night.

The Vast of Night  (US)  3.6  Very impressive effort for a first time director, despite being a bit derivative at times.  Let’s face it, it hard to come up with anything new in a low budget flying saucer film. Patterson is a director to watch.

Dave Chappelle: Sticks and Stones  (US)  3.5  I’d never seen this comedian before, and was impressed by his sneaky intelligence.  Probably not politically correct, but then I’m too old to know how acceptable his jokes are in contemporary society.  Takes shots at both sides of the political spectrum.

Miles Davis:  The Birth of Cool  (US)  3.5  With a life this interesting you’d have to work pretty hard to create a bad documentary.  And they didn’t.  I would have liked to have seen a more bit coverage of the music, however.   (Also saw “Chasing Trane”, a 2016 film about John Coltrane.)

Transit  (German/French, 2018)  3.5  Not a great movie, but a pretty good film in many different ways, including acting, cinematography, screenplay, plot and pace. 

Uncut Gems  (US)  3.2  Many would rate this higher, as it’s obviously a skillfully made film.  But for me large parts of it were tiresome to sit through—too annoying.  Just not my cup of tea.

Star Wars IX  (US)  3.0  I saw this film out of a sense of duty, since I’d seen the other eight.  JJ Abrams put lots of spectacular scenes on the screen, but forgot to tell an interesting story.  He’s a competent director, but doesn’t have much originality. It’s one of the (many) Stars Wars films that was passable entertainment, but you’d never in a million years want to see twice.

Tigertail  (Taiwan)  3.0  A nicely crafted story of a couple of Taiwanese emigrants to American.  In the end, however, the protagonist never quite seemed like a real person.  Taiwan has produced far better films.

Joker  (US)  2.8  Joaquin Phoenix is excellent, but is stuck in a film that doesn’t quite seem to know what it’s trying to do.  A mishmash of previous films, which don’t really fit together. Or maybe I just didn’t “get it”.

Dying to Survive  (China)  2.4   A Hollywood style “message” film.  In this case the message is that Swiss pharma companies with expensive life-saving drugs and the Shanghai police that enforce their intellectual property rights are evil, and Indian drug counterfeiters making cheap copies and the Chinese lowlifes who smuggle them into China are heroes.  Feel free to scoff, but the film makes a powerful emotional argument for its thesis.  Pity it’s such a flawed film. 

BTW, perhaps the most interesting thing about this “subversive” film is that the Chinese government allowed it to be made.  The Shanghai police look bad, but it’s not hard to figure out who the real target is.

Maki  (US)  2.2  Sometimes, less is more.  At other times (as Robert Venturi said), less is a bore.

Extraction  (Bangladesh)  2.0  Lots of 4k images of Dhaka, one of the world’s largest cities and a place I’ll never visit.  So there’s that.  Also a reference to Fitzroy Crossing, Western Australia, a remote outback town I drove through in 1991, which not many people visit.  Otherwise, more of a video game than movie.

Old Films

Late Spring  (Japan, 1949)  4.0  If Kurosawa is the Rembrandt of Japanese directors, then Ozu is the Vermeer.  A near perfect film, featuring Setsuko Hara.

Persona  (Sweden, 1966)  3.9  Imagine a film made during the late 1960s that is full of mystery and multiple interpretations.  There are sudden breaks in the narrative that confuse the viewer.  The music is jarring and atonal.  The cinematography is often breathtaking, among the best in the history of film. The intro is radically different from the main narrative.  Sounds a lot like 2001, doesn’t it?  Yes, Kubrick’s film explores outer space while Persona explores inner space (or more specifically human faces.)  But after more than 50 years, the bold experimentation of the 1960s is what shines through in both films.  Just as the creative explosion of the late 60s set the template for pop music for decades to come, these two films have been wildly influential with serious filmmakers.

Unlike me, most movie buffs saw this film long ago.  For me, it was weird seeing echoes of later films by Lars von Trier, David Lynch and even the film 2001.  I can no longer assume that 2001 “came out of nowhere”. Call me a nostalgic boomer, but the leap in film from the classics of the late 1950s (Vertigo, The Searchers, etc.) to Persona and 2001 was the most radical in film history. After these two films, filmmaking was no longer about pushing the envelope; it was about utilizing the innovations.

At the same time, I’d only recommend this movie to film buffs.  It’s much less enjoyable to watch than most 4 star films, unless you share Bergman’s sensibilities (I don’t.)  For me it was all about light and shadows; the murky 60s-era psychology goes right over my head.

Blade Runner: The Final Cut  (US, 1982)  3.9  It’s a sort of miracle that this film ended up this good.  One of the three best sci-fi films ever made (Kubrick and Tarkovsky made the other two, and Ridley Scott is not in their class.)  A 4K image plus 77 inch OLED plus Blade Runner equals bliss. 

Rushmore  (US, 1998)  3.9  I can’t believe I’d never seen this film before.  Just brilliant.

A Man Escaped  (France, 1956)  3.8  The most realistic and suspenseful escape film I’ve ever seen.  Bresson’s films tend to be rather minimalist, without a lot of Hollywood flourishes.  If that’s your taste then you should definitely check this one out.

La Notte  (Italy, 1961)  3.8  One of my favorite Antonioni films.  The second half is a masterpiece in every respect.  Worth getting a big OLED just to see the inky blacks in the superb cinematography.

Solaris   (Russian, 1972)  3.8  It’s funny how certain scenes seemed mesmerizing in 1972, but now seem inconsequential.  I recall being fascinated by the scene driving through modern Tokyo on the freeway.  In life you can only experience something for the first time once.  (I sometimes wonder if JFK was the most fortunate man in history—got everything a man could want, went out at his peak, and avoided the long painful decline.)

A Brighter Summer Day (Taiwan, 1991) 3.8  An Edward Yang masterpiece.  One beautifully directed scene after another—for 4 hours.  Some scenes you’ll want to cut out, frame, and put on the wall.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly  (Italy, 1966)   3.8  Even better than I remember it.  More epic, with impressive production values.  Sergio Leone is sort of a weird mix of Tarantino and John Ford.  Eli Wallich gives the more memorable performance, not Eastwood.  And that soundtrack. . . .

The Lady Eve  (US, 1941)  3.8  In 1941 Sturges also directed Sullivan’s Travels, another masterpiece. In the same year, Barbara Stanwyck also appeared in Ball of Fire and Meet John Doe.  (Has an actress ever done three better films in one year?) Also in 1941, Hollywood produced Suspicion, How Green Was My Valley and High Sierra.  Oh, and did I mention Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon? It truly was a magical year.  And 1941 was also the year the Great Depression ended.  We were prosperous, but WWII had not yet saddled our country with the military-industrial complex.  A great time to be alive.

Sullivan’s Travels  (US, 1941)  3.8  Another gem by Preston Sturges.  He tries hard to be funny rather than serious (and often succeeds), but “ideas” keep slipping through anyway.  One more to add to the long list of great movies about making movies.

Hana-Bi  (Japan, 1997)  3.8   Excellent film by Beat Takashi, probably his best. Odd mixture of art film (with actual art) and violent Tarantino-style film. Lots of Americans would be horrified by the ethical implications of the ending, but I thought it was beautiful.

Shadow of a Doubt  (US, 1943)  3.8  One of Hitchcock’s best pre-1950s films, full of wonderful scenes. During the 1940s, a Santa Rosa, CA resident is bored with life and looking for some excitement, and ends up with too much to handle (as in The Man Who Wasn’t There.) Very nice B&W cinematography.

The Music Room   (India, 1958)  3.8  This Satyajit Ray film would be too slow for many people, but has great rewards for the patient viewer.

The Kid  (US, 1921)  3.7  You can learn a lot about history watching these old silent films, such as what poor neighborhoods looked like in 1921. Contains a nice illustration of Bastiat’s broken window fallacy. Chaplin is upstaged by the cutest kid in the history of cinema. 

Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures  (US, 2005) 3.7  One theme in the documentary is the way that Kubrick’s pictures were consistently underrated on release, especially by critics who should have known better.  (Audiences were ahead of the critics.)  Another theme is how Kubrick’s reputation keeps growing over time.  I suspect he’s eventually headed for #1, as he has so many films that are the absolute best in their genre (2001 for sci-fi, Dr. Strangelove for black comedy, The Shining for horror, etc.)  That’s really hard to do in such a variety of genres.  Full Metal Jacket isn’t as good as Apocalypse Now, but then when you think about it the Coppola movie sort of rips off Kubrick.

Alien  (US, 1979)  3.7  Ridley Scott has a good eye, which is why this film holds up really well.

The Talented Mr. Ripley.  (US, 1999)  3.7  Has there ever been a writer whose novels were turned into such consistently great films?  I’ve seen 4 films based on Highsmith novels, and they are all excellent.  Even if Matt Damon was miscast, the acting is consistently good.  It’s unusual to see such a good film made by an average director (Casablanca is another example.)

Singing in the Rain  (US, 1952) 3.7  First time I’d seen this classic. This should probably rate even higher, but I’m not really a fan of musicals.  Some great dance sequences, but the first half has some scenes that don’t quite work.

Rome: Open City  (Italy, 1946)  3.7  This film would have seemed even more impressive in 1946, when it’s realism would have shocked audiences.  Even today it’s a powerful film.  It might almost be viewed as the first modern film (in terms of content, not style).

Spies  (Germany, 1928)  3.7  I’d never even heard of this great Fritz Lang (silent) film.  You see its influence on everything from Hitchcock to James Bond.  A great musical soundtrack, one of the best ever in terms of matching the flow of the narrative.

Elevator to the Gallows  (France, 1957)  3.7 Louis Malle’s first film, with a really cool soundtrack by Miles Davis.

Raise the Red Lantern  (China, 1992) 3.7  The cinematography doesn’t seem quite as impressive after 28 years, although that may reflect seeing it the second time on a smaller screen.  Gong Li’s first great role.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir  (UK, 1947)  3.7  Javier Marias wrote a heartfelt essay suggesting that this film is wildly underrated.

Body Heat   (US, 1981)  3.7  One of the best of the 1980s film noirs, at least among those that don’t feature Theresa Russell.  It holds up pretty well after 40 years, if (like me) you have the gift of easily forgetting plots.

Antarctica: A Year On Ice  (New Zealand, 2013)  3.7  A gorgeous documentary about a year spent living in Antarctica.  Also contains lots of interesting sociology, including the emotional impact of the small winter community being suddenly overwhelmed with the large summer staff of the scientific station.

The Man Who Wasn’t There.  (US, 2001)  3.6  During the 1940s, a Santa Rosa, CA resident is bored with life and looking for some excitement, and ends up with too much to handle. Very nice B&W cinematography.  The critics missed all the references to Shadow of a Doubt in this beautifully crafted Coen brothers film.  Hitchcock himself doesn’t appear, but no fewer than three fat men play important roles.  Even the title sounds like Hitchcock.

You Only Live Once  (US, 1937)  3.6  An overlooked gem by Fritz Lang.  The plot seems derivative, but perhaps that’s because Lang has been copied by others.  Sylvia Sidney is excellent as usual, and Henry Fonda plays a criminal.  The desperation of the 1930s seeps through almost every frame of this film.

Journey to Italy  (Italy, 1954)  3.6  This is the second time I’ve seen this film.  Given its reputation, I was a bit disappointed (especially the ending.)  Nonetheless, it’s well worth seeing if you’ve never seen it before.  Rossellini doesn’t seem to like the English.

The Grifters  (US, 1990)  3.6  This may be rated a bit high, but I really like Anjelica Huston.  I don’t much care for Annette Bening, but she’s fine in this film. John Cusack wasn’t given much of a role.  Or maybe he’s just a pretty face.

Brief Encounter  (UK, 1946)  3.5  This David Lean film has the feel of being a classic, but it’s a bit too serious for my taste.

Dreams  (Japan, 1990)  3.5  I see why some critics panned this films, but I found much to enjoy in an otherwise uneven and disjointed effort by Kurosawa.  They say the inferno section of the Divine Comedy is best (I don’t agree), but it’s certainly not the best part of Dreams.  The Van Gogh section is a disaster.  But the blizzard is sublime.

Punk Revolution NYC  (US, 2012)  3.5   I greatly enjoyed this 3¼ hour documentary on the New York music scene in the 1970s.  Your mileage may vary, depending on how you feel about the Velvet Underground, the New York Dolls, the Ramones, Patti Smith, Television, Richard Hell, Blondie, the Talking Heads, etc.  In my view, a lot of this music holds up better than the more popular stuff from the 1970s. (Especially that boring, mellow, West Coast stuff.) There were also a bunch of interesting people on the edges of this movement (Warhol, Nico, John Cale, Eno, etc.)

Brian Eno: The Man Who Fell To Earth (2011) 3.4  Another long documentary about the 1970s music scene.  The film just focused on 5 years of his life. But they were the decisive 5 years, so maybe that was for the best.  Interestingly, while in Roxy Music he enjoyed living the life of the decadent rock star much more than did Bryan Ferry.  (The opposite of what I would have expected.)

Black Sunday  (Italy, 1960)  3.4  A classic black and white horror film, with some inspired cinematography.  Just ignore the silly dialogue.

Sleuth  (UK, 2007)  3.4  Kenneth Branagh’s version is intriguing at first, but gets a bit tiresome by the end.  Other than Michael Caine, has the same man ever starred in a film, and then starred in the remake of the film 35 years later?  Has Michael Caine been in more movies than any other actor in film history?  (He’s been in 130.) 

Monty Python: Almost the Truth (UK, 2009)  3.4   Six part documentary on the history of the British comedy group. The members did a good job of evaluating the group dynamics, especially seeing the other side of disputes.  Reminded me again of why the 1970s was the greatest decade ever.

Consider these three facts:

  1. They had some funny skits
  2. They developed a new approach to comedy.
  3. They were very talented comedic actors.

People overrate the first point.  It doesn’t even matter if some of the skits no longer seem funny.  It’s the second and third points that insure their legacy.

Sonatine   (Japan, 1993)  3.4  Beat Kitano play a yazuka who spends much of the film hanging out in Okinawa, waiting for violence to erupt.

Riding Alone for Thousands of Miles  (China, 2006) 3.4  One of those Zhang Yimou films that wavers between sentimental and overly sentimental.  It presents a sanitized view of China, but there’s real value in what he does.  He plants a seed in the minds of Chinese viewers—this is what their country should be.  That’s how change happens.

Dennis Hopper: Uneasy Rider:  (US, 2016)  3.4  Hollywood actors like to consider themselves to be “artists”, but in the case of Hopper the term actually fits.  Whether he was actually “the coolest man on Earth” is debatable, but he was certainly in the conversation.

Happy People:  A Year in the Taiga  (Russian, 2013) 3.4  At first I wasn’t that interested, but it became increasingly engrossing, especially the final 10 minutes.  Looks at the smart, tough, resourceful men who hunt and trap in the Siberian wilderness.  Makes pretty much every single job in America seem cushy by comparison.  It’s sad to think that this way of life is probably dying out.  Despite all our new gadgets, we are losing something important.  And it’s narrated by (who else?) Werner Herzog!

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology  (2012) 3.4  The point is not to follow our dreams, but rather to create the right set of dreams.  Slavoj Zizek definitely has interesting things to say, but I found the 2 1/4 hour length to be excessive.  It would have worked better as a 90-minute film.

A Shot in the Dark  (US/French, 1964)  3.4  I saw this film on TV when I was about 12, and more than 50 years later it holds up pretty well.  Parts are silly, but Peter Sellers is perfect and some of the other people are well cast.

Ghost in the Machine 2: Innocence  (Japan, 2004) 3.4  Actually better than the first one.  Nice visuals and sound.

Hangmen Must Die!  (US, 1942) 3.3  A fairly engrossing Fritz Lang film about the Czech resistance, made during WWII.

Baby Face  (US, 1933)  3.3  TMC said this was the uncut version, too risqué for even the pre-code era.  In fact, it’s quite tame.  There’s only one reason to watch this, but it’s a good one—Barbara Stanwyck. 

Voyeur  (US, 2017)  3.3   There are all kinds of people in the world, which means there are plenty of documentaries still to be made.  For me, the most interesting idea in the film was the protagonist’s God-like perspective.  And also those thousands of people who will go to their graves having no idea there was a man above them, watching over them in seedy hotel rooms.

BTW, conventional wisdom says that someone who watches people without their knowledge is a creep, but when God does the same thing it’s OK.  I’m not sure I accept this conventional wisdom.  I suspect that either voyeurs are underrated or God is overrated.

Cowards Bend the Knee  (Canada, 2004)  3.3  This sort of film is hard to rate.  Think of it as a silent movie with everything except Freudian images removed.  Not for those who view film as a narrative art, but lots of eye candy for those who view it as a graphic art.  Don’t blame me if you hate it.

Coast Modern  (US, 2013)  3.2  Nice documentary looking at the history of modernist houses on the West Coast.

Sayonara  (US/Japan, 1957)  3.2  A somewhat dated 50s Technicolor film, with a message in support of interracial marriage. And yet even as late as 1957, the role of a Japanese Kabuki actor is being played by Ricardo Montalban.  Japanese men were still invisible, or the objects of ridicule. Marlon Brando is always interesting, but here he seems to be playing a character below his actual intelligence, which I found a bit grating.  Written by James Michener, and has his usual “social studies lesson” vibe.  Still, the film is pretty to look at and has its moments.  It did get 100% on Rotten Tomatoes.

The Steel Helmut  (US, 1951)  3.2   Sam Fuller’s first film, and already has his unmistakable style.

Archangel  (Canadian, 1990)  3.1  Guy Madden is one of the most original directors out there.  His films seem like long lost silent movies that someone unearthed from a vault somewhere.  With sound added.

The Pearl Button  (Chile, 2015)  3.1  Pretentious and artsy at times, but it does have two things going for it.  There are stunning images of the landscape in southern Chile, and there’s some very interesting material on the native people of that region.  Left-wing perspective.

Sea Gypsies: The Far Side of the World  (Roaring 40s, 2017)  3.1  Adventure is still possible to stumble upon.

K2 and the Invisible Footman  (Pakistan, 2016) 3.1 A reminder that the third world is still really, really poor.

This is Spinal Tap (US, 1984)  3.1  I had heard that this film is hilarious, but after 36 years it merely seems amusing.  Perhaps having heard “turn it up to 11” about 50 times ruined it for me.

Killing Them Softly  (2012)  3.1  A sort of poor man’s Tarantino film.  Worth watching if you are a fan of Reservoir Dogs.  Some good acting, but a bit tiresome at other times.

Boccaccio ’70   (Italy, 1962)  3.1  A 3.5 hour film comprised of four short films.  The first is charming but inessential.  The second (by Fellini) is quite lame; I’d skip it.  The Visconti episode comes third and may be the best, and the amusing final episode (De Sica) has Sophia Loren—a force of nature.

S is For Stanley.  (UK/Italy, 2016)  3.1  A documentary about an Italian guy who was Stanley Kubrick’s personal assistant.  Probably not worth your time unless you’re a big Kubrick fan.

The Age of Innocence  (Korea, 2015)  3.0  For some bizarre reason (OK, I know why), Amazon Prime translated the title as “Empire of Lust”.  Fairly typical East Asian historical drama.  A bit over the top, as with so many Korean films.   Still, you’ve got to respect their enthusiasm.

The Barefoot Contessa  (US, 1954) 3.0  There are only three reasons to see this film.  Humphrey Bogart (not at his best), Ava Gardner, and the glorious 1950s Technicolor.

Where the Green Ants Dream (Australian/German, 1985)  3.0  Not one of Herzog’s best efforts.  There’s some droll humor, but directors like Jim Jarmusch are better at that sort of thing.

The Sacred Triangle:  Iggy, David & Lou  (2010)  3.0    Another documentary on 1970s music, this time the connections between Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and David Bowie. I also saw a Jim Jarmusch documentary on Iggy Pop called “Gimme Danger”.

Dirty Pictures  (US, 2010)  2.9  A documentary about a guy who devoted his life to creating new mind altering drugs, and then experimenting with them on himself.

You Were Never Really Here  (US, 2018)  2.9  One year after getting really fat to play this role, Joaquin Phoenix got really skinny to play the Joker.  This film has some stylistic flourishes, but never really comes to life.   Unless you are a great director, the safest course is to tell an engrossing story.

Midnight Cowboy  (US, 1969)  2.9  I was surprised at just how bad this movie was, given its reputation.  (It’s basically a 2-star film with a 4-star performance by Dustin Hoffman—maybe the best of his career.  Watching the film I couldn’t help think about what aspects of the movie would have appealed to people back in 1969.  Some films just don’t hold up well, especially if they rely a lot on scenes that seem novel at the time, but are actually nothing special.

Topkapi  (US, 1964)  2.8  This film actually got very good reviews, but spoofs from 1964 don’t seem funny in 2020.  Even so, the last third has a jewel heist that is nicely done.

Impact  (US, 1949) 2.7  I love film noirs from the late 1940s.  But this one’s just OK.

The Avengers  (US, 2012)  2.5  First time I’d seen an Avengers film.  Last time I’ll see an Avengers film.  Felt more like watching a video game than a movie.

The Bedroom Window  (US, 1987)  2.5  Steve Guttenberg?  Got to be among the top 10 miscast roles of all time.

Topaz  (US, 1969)  2.5   It seems almost inconceivable that Hitchcock went from Vertigo to this bland film in just 11 years.  I’d be inclined to assume senility, but then he bounced back somewhat with Frenzy.

The Harder They Come  (Jamaica, 1973)  2.4  I suppose this is a sort of cultural landmark.  And it does have some very good music.  But it’s not much of a film.

Moon  (US, 2009) 2.3  For some reason this dull and unimaginative sci-fi film got good reviews.

The Neon Demon  (US, 2016) 2.2  First there was Lars Von Trier and now Nicholas Winding Refn.  There’s truly something rotten in Denmark.  Does have some nice visual images.  But about that second half . . .

She  (US, 1935)   2.0  A sort of poor man’s King Kong, albeit very poor.  Despite the horrific screenplay, I’m giving this two stars as an interesting historical artifact.  For some strange reason I’m glad this sort of film exists, as it tells us something about our secret desires.