A Year with Mubi

Still of Bill Paxton from Kathyrn Bigelow's film "Near Dark"

Like every other average movie/TV viewer, I’ve slowly accumulated a pile of subscription streaming services over the years while chasing the (impossible) dream/promise of being able to watch any given movie at any given time. At this point I think the tally stands at: Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, Discovery+, Apple TV+, AMC+, Paramount Plus, and even, don’t judge me, the Lifetime Movie Club. (I’ll regularly use Vudu for rentals to fill in the gaps, while I still maintain a futile, not-particularly-principled “stand” against both Disney+ and Amazon Prime and will pursue any titles exclusive to those platforms via…other…means)

Of course, as an aspiring cinephile I remain frustrated (in the abstract) by how that lineup leaves a ton of independent, foreign, and otherwise obscure back-catalog material out in the cold and/or subject to the tax-evading whims of the major media companies. So I’ve also dabbled in the past with the late, beloved FilmStruck and its spiritual successor, the Criterion Channel, but had to concede, after multiple years of mindlessly watching the monthly debit to my bank account fly by without ever seeing the Janus Films logo, that my at-home viewing habits and the everything-all-at-once-pile-of-tiles model of most streaming video services, including Criterion, do not gel easily with art-house fare. Given the opportunity – out of thousands of undifferentiated options – I am highly likely to default to comfort food sitcom reruns over a passed-over Céline Sciamma joint.

Unless – unless! There is something to force my hand. Which is why I have always been intrigued by the model of Mubi, with its highly curated, explicitly rotated selection of titles. But for whatever reason (perhaps the assumed FOMO of missing out on films before they rotated out of the service and “wasting” my subscription, as was my usual experience with FilmStruck/Criterion), I never dived in until finally gifted a one-year subscription for Christmas 2021. Thinking back over the year of movie-watching (read: forced to choose whether to re-up the subscription with my own cash), I was moved to reflect and write up a bit both about the particular delights of some of the films I encountered but also on the general experience of Mubi, which I must say does stand out somewhat from the crowd.

Now, Mubi no longer strictly holds to what I recall was their original model of only having 31 titles available at any given time, with one film added and one cycled out of rotation every day, giving you only a month to watch any given entry; having gradually expanded their role as distributors and producers over the years (including recently acquiring The Matchstick Factory), there’s a fair bit of back-catalog material, largely from foreign studios, that, much like every other streaming service, appears to be available exclusively and in perpetuity (or at least for the lifetime of whatever contracts have been signed behind closed doors). And while their rotating carousel still highlights one curated new addition every day, many if not most of the titles seem to stick around for considerably longer than a month, giving one plenty of time to build up a languishing pile of unwatched titles.

That said – it was a revelation to see how slowing down the content spigot to a controlled trickle affected my follow-through on actually sitting down and watching a bunch of movies that I’m certain I would have scrolled right past on any other service. Rather than facing that wide-open, intimidating, impossible question of “What do I want to watch?” and being met with a deluge of new, old, and stale recommendations, it limited the question, every day, to simply: “Do I want to watch this movie?” If the answer was yes, I could tap an icon on my phone to add the title to my watchlist, and likely within a few weeks, left to my own devices for an afternoon or evening, I would indeed sit down and watch the damn movie (the giant, glaring “LEAVING IN 14 DAYS” countdown banner that appears in the app over titles that are about to leave is also an incredible motivator and piece of UI/UX design that definitely succeeded several times in kicking my ass toward a film that I had otherwise left ignored for too long). If the answer was no, then no harm nor foul – the question would pop up again tomorrow, and the very act of picking and choosing felt worthwhile, relieving the worry of whether I was getting “my money’s worth” from the subscription.

Running down the final tally of 24 films that I watched over the course of the year, an average of 2 movies per month may not seem like much in our maximally-extracted-value culture, but I can only emphasize again how I almost certainly never would have picked these particular films out of the lineup on HBO Max, Hulu, or any other mainstream service (one especially – in fact my favorite, top-rated Mubi watch of the year – is notoriously difficult to find on any streaming service and prone to random and extended disappearances given its peculiar rights situation, so that was an especially delightful find). Even with the films I didn’t end up liking very much, the ability to finally catch up with and cross off indie sleepers or foreign titles that I’d missed in years past, to explore the lesser-celebrated nooks and crannies of favorite genres or filmmakers, to challenge myself with repertory or eccentric picks without necessarily having to trek out to the local indie theater in the midst of a still-raging pandemic; I felt the closest I ever have to recapturing my film studies spirit since leaving New York City five years ago.

So! If this style of engaging with movies appeals to you (or so does the following list of movies themselves – though keep in mind this is essentially my double-curated personal watchlist, and there were many other directions I could have gone with what Mubi made available!) – I can’t recommend Mubi enough. I don’t know that I will bring back this particular blog format next year (it would probably be more worthwhile to revive the full ERPs – Ethan’s Repertory Picks – and fold Mubi watches into that, but I lack the energy to pull that off at least this time around) but I do very much look forward to continuing to explore in 2023!

Top 10:

  1. Near Dark (Kathryn Bigelow, 1987)
    • I bothered nearly everyone I know around October to add this to their Halloween/spooky watching rotation, but truly I feel like Bigelow’s neo-Western/vampire mash-up would hold up well no matter the time of year. I’m 100% convinced Near Dark would be more highly revered in the ’80s genre/cult classic canon if it was more widely and easily available: the cast is chock full of Cameron favorites doing their thing (Bill Paxton! Lance Henriksen! Jenette Goldstein!), on top of a unique, scuzzy, but occasionally incredibly/woozily romantic vampire story that just happens to erupt in satisfying squib-happy violence from time to time. Never quite seen anything like the way the intro scenes (with Adrian Pasdar’s hapless cowpoke accidentally stumbling into a drifting pack of monsters) is shot, scripted and staged.
  2. Transit (Christian Petzold, 2018)
    • Petzold is a blind spot for me, but I could see what folks are on about minutes into this curious, timeless anti-fascist affair. I have to say, I’m a sucker for a director that knows how to unsettle the viewer with long shots, and Petzold keeps you on that knife’s edge between languor and excruciating anxiety that one glimpses (even when not, uh, escaping political persecution and execution) in the in-between from departure to destination.
  3. Crimson Gold (Jafar Panahi, 2003)
    • I’m entranced by nearly everything Panahi does, including his less-ballyhooed pre-arrest films; this was no exception. An extraordinary, heart-breaking depiction of class division, with an unforgettable, half-silent performance from its troubled lead; finally seeing this added quite a bit of context and flavor missing from the extended piece of This Is Not a Film that reflects on the making of Crimson Gold. Very glad to have filled in this gap in the Panahi filmography.
  4. I Am Love (Luca Guadagnino, 2009)
    • Everything I loved about Call Me By Your Name – the perfect control sliding up and down the scale of romanticism, sensuality and eroticism; the delicate homages to Visconti melodramas – without, uh, the bits that are less fun to engage with. Plus, swap Timothée Chalamet for Tilda Swinton! Who doesn’t win here?!
  5. The Love Witch (Anna Biller, 2016)
    • Speaking of homages – what an audacious and careful recreation of a particular kind of B-picture that quite literally hasn’t been made in decades. Forget the third-wave/postmodern feminist (re)analysis of witchcraft, male/female relationship dynamics, spiritual communities, etc. – this one’s a (welcome) challenge just to sift and sit through a style of image-making that got tossed out by the American New Wave.
  6. Rodents of Unusual Size (Quinn Costello, Chris Metzler, Jeff Springer, 2017)
    • A documentary that promises to enlighten the viewer on the history of nutria (yes, the giant, invasive rats) but cleverly zags to become an extremely moving and intimate portrait of blue-collar Louisiana. Certainly the most surprising cry I had in movie-watching this past year.
  7. Drug War (Johnnie To, 2012)
    • Just a rollicking, tense, terrifically-executed crime thriller. Alllllmost starts to overstay its welcome with maybe a twist or two too many and the extended third-act shootout, but To’s style and a great pair of lead performances keep things propulsive from start to finish.
  8. Free Angela Davis & All Political Prisoners (Shola Lynch, 2012)
    • A simple, but fierce and enraging overview of Davis’ activism and particularly the criminal case made against her for abetting the armed takeover of a Marin County courthouse in 1970. Lynch knows she has the best tool available to tell this story – Davis herself – at hand, so largely sits back and lets one of the most thoughtful and engaging public speakers of the past 50 years guide the tale.
  9. White God (Kornél Mundruczó, 2014)
    • I’m not quite sure what to take away from this film besides the most virulently, violently pro-animal rights stance this side of a Greenpeace protest; there is a fable-like quality to the story that I suppose one could map on to the dynamics of any oppressed group or minority of your choice, but it frankly felt like a stretch to me. But it’s certainly the source of some of the most startling, vivid movie imagery I’ve seen in some time, all the more incredible (in the literal sense) that it was managed in a humane environment to match its pro-dog ethics.
  10. Tender Mercies (Bruce Beresford, 1983)
    • A cliché I’m sure, but Beresford’s Tender Mercies is unsurprisingly, well, tender! It is really quite wild to me now with this added context that Jeff Bridges and Crazy Heart picked up so much acclaim for doing uhhhh like no joke the EXACT SAME MOVIE only 25 years later. But that’s neither here nor there – Robert Duvall and Tess Harper are both lovely here, and Horton Foote’s screenplay engages with the obvious connections between country music and southern/Texan Christian culture vis-a-vis thematic obsession with addiction, recovery and redemption that feels like a lighting rod few other Hollywood (or even indie) films have dared to touch.

Also watched:

  1. The Third Murder (Hirokazu Kore-eda, 2017)
  2. Control (Anton Corbijn, 2007)
  3. All Is Lost (J.C. Chandor, 2013)
  4. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)
  5. This May Be the Last Time (Sterlin Harjo, 2014)
  6. Lucky (John Carroll Lynch, 2017)
  7. The Nile Hilton Incident (Tarik Saleh, 2017)
  8. Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil (Eli Craig, 2009)
  9. Life Itself (Steve James, 2014)
  10. Croupier (Mike Hodges, 1998)
  11. Love Affair (Leo McCarey, 1939)
  12. Wife of a Spy (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2020)
  13. Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (Stephen Chow, Derek Kwok, 2013)
  14. Nowhere to Hide (Lee Myung-se, 1999)

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