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)

Le Carré Adaptations, Ranked

I recently read John le Carré’s Silverview, a water-tight little gem of a novel that is a fitting and poignant cap to the author’s storied career. It reminded me of a long-abandoned pet project that I began a number of years ago (before the Park Chan-Wook Little Drummer Girl series was even announced, I think) but never got over the finish line: to watch, rank, and write up every filmed adaptation of le Carré’s work, whether movie or TV series.

Well, I finally tracked down and powered through some of more obscure BBC adaptations (not to give any spoilers, but some have been clearly forgotten for a reason). The gap between starting and finishing my project does mean it has now unfortunately been some time since I visited some entries and my keenest analysis has perhaps faded from memory. On the other hand, perhaps that assisted with the ranking – letting those movies with the strongest and most lasting impression rise to the top. In any case, much as I love le Carré’s grimy, shifty landscape of sallow-faced operatives and creaky back rooms, I’m not particularly inclined to start all the way over, so here we go. From the bottom to the top:

16. The Looking Glass War (1970)

One of the earliest adaptations takes the lowest spot by virtue of being so utterly, completely, transcendentally forgettable. I suppose in a meta way, The Looking Glass War is actually the most authentic depiction of the faceless men that le Carré held so dear; but let’s be honest, that kind of authenticity is not really the reason we read books or watch movies. I struggled to recall a single detail of the plot here – Wikipedia tells me something about a Polish emigré dropped back into Eastern Germany to retrieve photographs, which is certainly plausible and standard le Carré fare, though Christopher Jones makes for a rather less-plausible Pole. I remember a young Anthony Hopkins being mildly interesting in a too-brief supporting turn, but otherwise this is entirely boilerplate material elaborated to much greater effect by both le Carré and his adapters elsewhere.

15. A Perfect Spy (TV, 1987)

One of le Carrés most sprawling and ambitious novels (the only, to my recollection, to attempt to actually cover a character’s lifetime) gets a listless and overlong “mini”-series. On the page, Magnus Pym is a cipher, his loyalties at any given moment as much a mystery to the reader as to those around him – forced to visualize this in five episodes’ worth of low-budget closeups, Peter Egan can pretty much only summon this inscrutability via blank stares and incomprehensible, paradoxical actions (not even taking into the account the whole two episodes/hours spent in Pym’s childhood and teenage years). Meanwhile, the day players are pitched all wrong, dominated by over-the-top, Law and Order-cameo-type theatrics that are so very wrong for le Carré’s tone and which pretty much every other entry on this list avoids. The one bright spot is Ray McAnally as Magnus’ rapscallion father Rick.

14. The Little Drummer Girl (1984)

A wonky film, though one nominally wouldn’t expect much from some of le Carré’s worst source material (a fact that made one of the later entries on this list such a pleasant surprise). The Little Drummer Girl is possibly his most outrageous plot, much closer than usual to the romanticized Ian Fleming-type spy stories that le Carré supposedly hated. So the filming style here – utilitarian and sparse, barely a notch up from the BBC productions, probably intentional to match their reputation and audience expectations of a “le Carré” work – actually clashes horribly. Diane Keaton is terribly miscast as Charlie, clearly very much a woman in her mid-30s when the character does not work at all if a day over 20 (and look, I adore Diane Keaton, but the idea of giving this part to a non-Brit is madness). It’s a shame, especially since Klaus Kinski as Charlie’s Mossad controller is the kind of insane casting that inexplicably *does* work. But the movie just winds up a string of baffling choices cobbled together to little point or effect.

13. Our Kind of Traitor (2016)

Another attempt whose greatest sin is blandness. It very much feels like some producer wanted to piggyback on the recent successes of other contemporary adaptations higher on this list, with little enthusiasm or perspective behind the particular story; an IP grab for the art house (clearly evidenced by the hedged, tacked-on coda to one of le Carré’s most brutal endings). But, it’s shot slickly enough, and the cast is uniformly solid if unremarkable. You expect the standout to be Stellan Skarsgård, teed up to chew the scenery as Dima,the flamboyant Russian money launderer looking to sell out his oligarch clients, but in true le Carré fashion that kudos actually belongs to Damian Lewis, both catching and deflecting the eye as Hector, the MI6 investigator caught between manipulating his agents and being manipulated by his political superiors.

12. A Murder of Quality (TV, 1991)

An oddity in le Carré’s oeuvre, starring his most famous character but completely transplanted from “the Circus” to a mystery plot more in line with something from Inspector Morse or Ms. Marple. As long as your expectations are suitably adjusted, this TV movie becomes a perfectly serviceable way to pass the time – Joss Ackland was the proto-Skarsgård of scenery-chewing, Denholm Elliott plays an agreeably rumpled “Detective” Smiley, and you get a fun flash of young Christian Bale. The ceiling is quite low here, but at least it doesn’t trip.

11. The Tailor of Panama (2001)

I had generally positive memories of this one from the early aughts that drained considerably the moment I realized/remembered that *Brendan Gleeson* was meant to be playing a Panamanian. Still – the central relationship mostly lands: Geoffrey Rush makes for a great le Carré scoundrel in the Rick Pym tradition, and Pierce Brosnan is a savvy bit of casting (though he was clearly so bored and/or over-eager to flip his heroic Bond persona that his Andy Osnard comes off as a rather un-le-Carré-ish cartoon villain). The scenes with the two together, bringing out the worst in each other, spiraling out to the great detriment of themselves and those around them, are propulsive amid an otherwise by-the-books thriller. Rush’s visions of his mentor Uncle Benny, gleefully and eccentrically played by Harold Pinter of all people, are so jarringly shot by John Boorman that I still can’t quite decide if they work as part of the film’s darkly comic tone or detract by hitting the node too hard.

10. The Russia House (1990)

Another former Bond paradoxically bringing star-power sheen to le Carré’s galaxy of normies, resulting in a thriller too conventional to reflect the author’s unique voice but that still largely delivers on the genre’s pleasures. Unlike Brosnan, Connery need make no attempt at all to subvert his established persona; his curmudgeonly charisma is a fine match for a reluctant spy (it’s really the bit where he’s a *book-seller* that’s a stretch). Do I buy Michelle Pfeiffer as Russian? No. Do I care, because ’90s Michelle Pfeiffer was and remains a national treasure? I do not. Unremarkably shot, but the twisty plot keeps one engaged.

9. The Deadly Affair (1966)

Catch me on a different day and I could swap around this film and either of the previous two on this list. But today I rank it top in the trio for Sidney Lumet’s elevated direction and James Mason’s sweaty, disheveled take on Smiley (sorry – “Charles Dobbs”), wallowing in perhaps the character’s lowest moment. It’s also unabashedly European – Simone Signoret! Maximilian Schell! Harriet Andersson! – in a way the other two aren’t that just better retains that classic, Cold War-fueled le Carré simmer. Quincy Jones’ moody jazz score and D.P. Freddie Young’s washed-out, foggy color palette are subtler pleasures than some of the bolder work higher on this list, but pleasures nonetheless.

8. The Night Manager (TV, 2016)

If we were ranking based on pure entertainment value, The Night Manager might have come in tops, but that just seems wrong and counter-intuitive for a le Carré list. Unabashedly sexy, over-the-top, all tension and sensuality and romantic settings and daring capers – I mean, there’s not an anticlimax in sight here! You can almost hear the Broccoli family second-guessing whether they should break Daniel Craig’s contract and offer Bond to Tom Hiddleston on the spot. The everyman-turned-accidental-spy is a classic le Carré setup, but Susanne Bier’s series never bothers to address what such an astoundingly handsome and charming man as Hiddleston is doing as a night manager of a hotel in the first place. Instead she just lets a murderer’s row of actors – Hiddleston, Olivia Colman, Hugh Laurie, Tom Hollander, Elizabeth Debicki – absolutely go to town on a spy romp with little to no reflection on the human cost of the craft *at all*. “Joes,” they’re not.

7. Smiley’s People (TV, 1982)

On nearly the perfect flip side are the two BBC Alec Guinness-led Smiley adaptations: all unflashy, workman-like execution of a story done to quiet perfection. Smiley’s People is the lesser of the two less through any fault (or really any kind of difference) in the production than it’s just not quite as good a story – Karla’s downfall has always just been a *little* too pat/quick for me even in the book, though it’s certainly in keeping with le Carré’s insistent de-romanticizing. In any case, Guinness is all you want him to be here in his return to Smiley: more of the same phlegmatic, droll demeanor and hyper-competent machinations. His rapport with Bernard Hepton’s peculiarly jovial Toby Esterhase is a particularly welcome addition to this one.

6. A Most Wanted Man (2014)

My word, was anyone ever better suited to play a le Carré protagonist than Philip Seymour Hoffman, the hangdog’s hangdog? Even his talent as one of cinema’s great swearers comes into play here, in a denouement where Hoffman’s thwarted operative lets loose a thunderous “fuck” that has stayed with me for years and in many ways feels like an eruption *on behalf* of every other le Carré lead, too professional to ever do it themselves. Anton Corbijn’s highly composed, clinical style and visuals feel right for latter-day, post-Soviet le Carré – all glass and marble and computer screens, a reminder that the tech-infused, “modern” iteration of espionage and surveillance remains as cold as the Cold War ever was.

5. The Little Drummer Girl (TV, 2018)

I mentioned before that this is one of le Carré’s wonkiest, most outrageous plots, making it an absolutely inspired course correction to hand a second attempt at adaptation to Park Chan-wook. Completely eschewing the dust and fog and chipped paint that usually defines le Carrés underworld-in-plain-sight, Park (as he ever does) goes full-tilt aesthete, packing the frame with flowing dresses and saturated color and sumptuously-decorated sets, right down to a woozy, romantic set-piece staged on the steps of the goddamn Parthenon. No one is hiding behind blandness and mediocrity here – instead, the series piles on layer after layer of artifice, a fitting match for Charlie, the aspiring actress trying on political loyalties and ideology like a new bathing suit. Florence Pugh was the breakout start here for good reason – she balances confidence, naivete, insecurity, yearning, curiosity, boredom, all the pieces necessary to make this story work at all. Elsewhere, Michael Shannon is as solid as to be expected (not as unhinged as you might expect, as a latter-day Kinski), and Alexander Skarsgård is miscast (just, stop with signing up northern European men to play Mossad agents, I’m begging you) but not disastrously so.

4. The Constant Gardener (2005)

Rachel Weisz won the Oscar (not undeservedly) for her turn as the crusading activist Tessa, but it’s really Ralph Fiennes’ finely-calibrated, devastating turn as Justin Quayle, the naive and passive diplomat who gradually uncovers a web of political corruption and pharmaceutical greed, that sticks with you. Fernando Meirelles’ style and tone, vibrant and melancholy in equal measure, is a great match for the material, one of le Carré’s saddest and starkest in its depiction of the impact of the games played by the global elite. In his postscript to Silverview, le Carré’s son Nick Harkaway speculates onhis father’s hesitancy to publish such a near-complete manuscript, landing on its unflinching and arguably unkind depiction of the wheel-spinning of tradecraft – in Harkaway’s eyes, a sharper critique of the utter pointlessness of professional espionage than most of le Carré’s other works. I don’t entirely buy or agree with this argument, and The Constant Gardener is a big reason why – no one playing inside the system comes off well here, and I think the movie does an excellent job of documentary-influenced exposure of injustice without overly preaching or losing the messy character arc at its center.

3. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (TV, 1979)

In many ways the ur-text of le Carré adaptations and the one most of the entries ranked lower are largely trying to copy in one way or another. For many, Alec Guinness defined George Smiley, and this series at large stands as the best example of adapting le Carré’s uncanny ability to make art with shades of beige. I can’t really find any particular fault with that assessment – the paranoid languor of Smiley’s methodical search for a mole in MI6’s highest circles is the author’s master work, and the BBC series is as dutiful and attentive to le Carré’s text as his lamplighters are to the arrangements of a dead drop. Procedural/narrative television still rarely hits this level of genre satisfaction so squarely.

2. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)

It’s fascinating, particularly considering how so many folks looked to copy the BBC Tinker Tailor on both TV and film, the ways in which the *actual* first le Carré adaptation – Martin Ritt’s movie, coming only two years after the breakout novel and preceding even the actual writing of the Karla trilogy – continues to stand alone. The only adaptation to be shot explicitly in black-and-white, such a literal realization of le Carré’s shadows and grays could’ve whacked viewers over the head with visual metaphor,but by god it plays, Richard Burton’s Alec Leamas trapped in the purgatory of a cover story, probing and poking for the way out of his self-imposed captivity with no way of knowing whether he’s headed for escape and reward or just an even worse fate. Le Carré’s plots often hinge on what is not said between his characters, but Ritt’s film has some of the best, sharpest dialogue in any of the adaptations, particularly in the scenes with Burton and Oskar Werner dueling back and forth, the movie just sitting back and letting them sink into the rhythm and tension of each interrogation. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is really worth seeking out if the extent of your le Carré knowledge is one or both versions of Tinker Tailor.

1. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

I mean, I don’t even know where to start. Tomas Alfredson’s film exceeded all my expectations for another take on Tinker Tailor (how could you top Guinness?) and gets better every time I re-watch it and notice another subtle detail or precise edit. It seemed an impossible task to condense the twisty narrative, full of divots and red herrings, down to a two-hour film, but Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan’s script succeeds precisely by throwing too much detail at the viewer in too little time – the effect is a fog, a blur of names, faces, and obscure lingo with little guidance until the very end on *which* of these details is actually important. That’s what elevates Smiley as a character in the books – his ability to sift through the noise and the haze and see the threads, the true intentions at play behind seemingly unconnected symptoms. I do hesitate to declare Gary Oldman a better Smiley than Guinness – the former is clearly still indebted to the latter – but he certainly finds his own spin on it, taking the veteran spymaster’s monkishness to the extreme. I recall, at the time of the movie’s release, my mother compared Oldman’s performance to a lizard gradually waking up from a cold-blooded stupor, and the metaphor is bang-on: that is exactly what Smiley is in this story, a camouflaged leviathan stirred, inexorably, out of retirement. The supporting cast is uniformly excellent – Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, Colin Firth stand out, but there’s not a note wrong in the grizzled bunch – and Alfredson comes up with several shots and set-pieces that reach an instantly iconic distillation of le Carré’s mood and tone as no other adaptation has. (I’m thinking, in particular, of the interrogation of David Dencik’s Toby Esterhase on an airport runway,a propeller plane growing ever, anxiously closer in the background via a flattened, distorted lens; but there are others, like the menacing freight elevator at the Circus, or Tom Hardy’s Ricki Tarr zipping around shipping containers in a sports car with his doomed lover/mark). If you don’t vibe with this movie, I can’t help you – best to avoid le Carré altogether.

The 3rd Annual ERPs


A year in movies isn’t just about the new releases. In addition to the EMOs, now I present the 3rd annual Ethan’s Repertory Picks, running down some of the best, worst and most memorable games of cinematic catch-up that I played in 2017. Enjoy!

For Marilyn Monroe Really Going For It With the Crazy: “Don’t Bother to Knock” (1952), Roy Ward Baker

For Marilyn Monroe Really Bored: “Niagara” (1953), Henry Hathaway

For the Origin of Every Think-Piece and Opinion You’ve Ever Seen or Had About Marilyn Monroe: “The Seven Year Itch” (1955), Billy Wilder


For “Deliverance” But More Martial and Also Insane: “Southern Comfort” (1981), Walter Hill

For the Silliest Vin Diesel Hair: “The Last Witch Hunter” (2015), Breck Eisner

For When Your “Stranger Things” ’80s Nostalgia Isn’t Ultra-Violent Enough: “Turbo Kid” (2015), Francois Simard, Anouk Whissell, Yoann-Karl Whissell


For When You Want to Yell At Protagonists Who Are Not Nearly Freaked Out Enough About the Circumstances They Find Themselves In: “Children of the Corn” (1984), Fritz Kiersch


For Cary Grant In Some Really Primo Hats: “Only Angels Have Wings” (1939), Howard Hawks

For Faye Dunaway Really Going For It in a Movie with Unclear Reasons for Existing: “Mommie Dearest” (1981), Frank Perry

For a Great Le Carre Adaptation Done in By Bizarre Casting: “The Little Drummer Girl” (1984), George Roy Hill

For A So-So Le Carre Adaptation Elevated By Great Casting: “The Russia House” (1990), Fred Schepisi


For Sexy Mermaids That Will Eat the Patriarchy: “The Lure” (2015), Agnieszka Smoczynska

For the Particular Delight of Rock Hudson Trying to Fit Into a Car That’s Too Small For Him, Which Is Really What We Should Be Talking About When We Say That They Don’t Make Them Like They Used To: “Pillow Talk” (1959), Michael Gordon

For a Thriller About Revenge Against the 1% and Nazis That, Somehow, Feels Even Less Timely: “Inside Man” (2006), Spike Lee

For Checking Your Goddamn Narrative Logic At the Door, We’re Making a Soviet Avant-Garde War Movie and Just Go With It: “Story of the Flaming Years” (1961), Yulia Solntseva


For Super Super Fashionable Murder: “Blood and Black Lace” (1964), Mario Bava

For the Good Old Days When Charles Durning Could Be An Action/Thriller Hero: “When a Stranger Calls” (1979), Fred Walton


For When You Really Feel Like Suspending Disbelief, Sure Orson Welles Could Hide Out in Small-Town Connecticut Without Attracting Any Attention: “The Stranger” (1946), Orson Welles

For The Most Xtreme Xaction Xaround: “xXx” (2002), Rob Cohen

For Half of a Pretty Good Movie Just Repeated Twice: “Sully” (2016), Clint Eastwood

Top 10 Repertory Picks of 2017

10. “Train to Busan” (2016), Sang-ho Yeon


A clever, zippy take on the zombie outbreak genre, follows through on its killer conceit with claustrophobic action and character work. The third act really starts to lag, but terrific set-pieces and likable leads make for a real romp that manages to sneak in some feeling.

9. “Woman of the Year” (1942), George Stevens


A contradictory movie – obvious reshoots and edits reveal paradoxical attitudes towards femininity and Hepburn’s fierce investigative journalist Tess Harding in particular. Her independent spirit is both validated by a refreshingly oddball-yet-realistic romance with Tracy’s kind but emotionally stunted sports reporter; yet knocked down by that grafted-on ending that clearly needs to put the character “in her place” for a 1940s American wife. But when it’s embracing the eccentricities and fumbling of Tess and Sam’s relationship, “Woman of the Year” feels surprisingly ahead of its time and quite unlike contemporary screwball romances – and, while that re-shot ending sequence is awkward, poorly written and problematic against the rest of the film, it *does* give Hepburn one of the best purely comic set-pieces of her career.

8. “The Women” (1939), George Cukor


Likewise – it’s rough that even when investing in a rare all-female production, it’s tough to say whether Golden Age Hollywood could quite pass the Bechdel Test. But even if the story can’t stray past typical character confinements – “The Women” is all socialite machinations, gossip, and affairs – it’s impossible to put such an incredible cast together and not get something special. Shearer, Crawford, Russell, Fontaine, Paulette Goddard, Marjorie Main, Ruth Hussey – letting these superb actresses bounce off each other, without a rote Melvyn Douglas performance or somesuch to get in the way, remains (sadly) a unique experience.

7. “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (1941), William Dieterle


Dieterle, a Hollywood transplant from Weimar Germany, leans into the gothic horror of Stephen Vincent Benet’s colonial New England fable, with playful special effects and haunting imagery. Walter Huston has a near criminal amount of fun as the demonic Mr. Scratch.

6. “Repo Man” (1984), Alex Cox


Cox’s encyclopedic knowledge of and affinity with the L.A. punk scene of the early ’80s may provide the easy hook, but it’s one thing to be referential and another to actually translate punk’s off-kilter humor and disregard for social norms into a movie so viscerally. A send-up of wacky conspiratorial sci-fi B-movies, a satirical critique of consumer dystopia, a punk rock coming-of-age story – none of it should add up to anything coherent, and maybe it doesn’t, but you can’t help but think about the makers laughing at you for being square enough to try to square it, and go along for the ride.

5. “Mildred Pierce” (1945), Michael Curtiz


Anyone who’s only seen Joan Crawford second-hand: filtered through “Mommie Dearest” or “Feud”, really owes it to themselves to see her at the height of her own power. “Mildred Pierce” ain’t a bad place to start. Narrative casts her as both heel and patsy, but the expressionistic noir wasteland of Curtiz’s California coastline, along with Crawford’s nuanced, powerhouse performance, suggest the deeper tragedy of circumstance going on here in Mildred Pierce’s story.

4. “Paprika” (2006), Satoshi Kon


A trippy, balls-to-the-wall thriller that appropriately abandons all logic in favor of stunning, dreamy imagery. Rather than some of its Hollywood equivalents – think “Inception” – Satoshi Kon’s anime classic leans into the absurdity and spontaneity of subconscious thought, trading precision plotting for a zippy, delightful journey that *feels* sensical, even when the details can, and should, fall by the wayside.

3. “Pather Panchali” (1955), Satyajit Ray


Ray’s loose, eminently empathetic masterpiece practically defines humanist cinema. Effortlessly gorgeous (the Criterion Collection and Academy’s painstaking 2015 restoration is truly something to behold), gently heart-breaking, “Pather Panchali” tells the story of a childhood with minimal bluster and excess. It’s a triumph of understatement and sensitivity.

2. “Poem of an Inland Sea” (1958), Yulia Solntseva


A deep cut – and even among the small crowd of New York cinephiles who happened to catch all three of Yulia Solntseva’s gorgeous Ukraine trilogy at Museum of the Moving Image this past summer, perhaps the oddball choice. The consensus pick for best of the bunch seemed to be the Tarkovsky-esque “Enchanted Desna”, and Solntseva won Best Director at Cannes for “Story of the Flaming Years”. But “Poem of an Inland Sea” really captured my fascination – precisely because it is in many ways the most stilted of the three. The most overtly “propagandistic”, it is also by far the queasiest about those propagandistic elements – building up the Soviet achievement of a new dam with visual grandeur while at the same time mourning the loss of the Ukrainian communities about to be flooded with a thoroughly anti-Party sense of melancholy and romanticism for the past. Though Solntseva’s visual style had clearly not yet fully matured, the characters in “Poem of an Inland Sea” are fleshed out and empathized with in a way the later films abandon for pure sensual stimulation – and it’s still hardly skimpy on stunning shots. A fascinating relic of the cultural/generational/ethnic tensions contained within the USSR.

1. “Dekalog: One” (1989), Krzysztof Kieslowski


No other filmmaker gives me chills in quite the same way as Kieslowski. I’m still only partially through the Dekalog, his cinematic series of loosely Biblical morality tales, but the distressing, bitter opening chapter sets a pall that is not easily shaken. As queasy and probing about the relationship between humanity and technology as the best episodes of “Black Mirror”, Kieslowski manages to ask some of the most unsettling, existential questions with the simplest of images.