Screen Watch, June 18th 2017

Thoughts on movies, TV, and anything else seen on a flat screen recently:

It Comes At Night

I didn’t see the first feature by Trey Edward Shults, 2015’s “Krisha”, but his sophomore effort is the kind that makes me want to not only go back and catch up, but pay close attention to whatever project he’s got lined up next (Trey, more “Moonlight”, less “La La Land”, please). “It Comes At Night” is a solid entry in the new wave of indie horror. Like “It Follows” or “The Babadook” or “Get Out”, it’s steeped in genre history: Shults’ techniques are familiar (slow, brooding zooms, plenty of shadows, sharp and sudden stings of music or sound), but impeccably deployed in a “Night of the Living Dead”-esque scenario that strips out the metaphorical monsters and skips right to the oppressive, sweat-inducing dread.

It is not a spoiler to say, straight up, that you will never see or really learn much of anything about the threat lurking in the woods outside the secluded home of Paul (Joel Edgerton), Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and Travis (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), and if you need anything more concrete, this will not be your movie. Whereas Romero’s walking, lurching dead are a (brilliantly) simple metaphor for mortality, Shults’ monster is an even broader sense of anxiety and the many, many forms it can take for people: not just death, but xenophobia (sorry, “economic insecurity”), sex, loneliness, puberty, machismo. Our fears are innumerable and therefore, overwhelming and unnameable. There’s been plenty of apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic fare at the box office for the better part of a decade now, and I’m not looking to expound on the likely reasons for that – but “It Comes At Night” for me, taps into a fascinating (and disturbing) new feeling of existential dread: less cataclysmic than Hollywood’s vision of extinction, but a smaller and much harder-to-shake sense that the world we are creating will be worse than the one we’re in now. Society might crumble, our loved ones will be lost, and we’ll be forced to watch it all happen.

The ensemble performance, including surprising turns from Christopher Abbott of “Girls” and Riley Keough (“Mad Max: Fury Road”, “American Honey”), is universally terrific, but the tête–à–tête of Edgerton and Harrison, Jr. as weary, loving father and unmoored son stands out.


Big Little Lies (HBO)

I missed the cultural conversation on HBO’s all-star mini-series, but hopefully the Emmys will bring back around a revisit of this impressive, occasionally infuriating, terrifically performed production. That “occasional” fury is, at any given moment, almost certainly the blame of an incredibly clunky script by David E. Kelley that tends to throw nuance in the trash at critical moments. The reasons it only pops up now and again, rather than a constant stream of why-am-I-watching-this self-interrogation, are 1) surprisingly moody, woozy direction by Jean-Marc Vallee (making a leap above “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Wild” here), and 2) a veteran cast of actresses clearly reveling in the ability to play women with seven hours of development and shading rather than three scenes of “concerned love interest”.

Nicole Kidman does the most with the most room to play, Reese Witherspoon the most with the least, and Zoe Kravitz is the most ill-served by Kelley’s wildly inconsistent script – for a project otherwise so explicitly meant to explore female perspectives, it’s insane to me how completely uninterested in her character the show is beyond “hippie-dippie step-mom that all the middle-aged white men want to fuck”. Laura Dern at least has much much more screen time to turn a cartoonishly terrible character (in all senses) into something relatable, by pure dint of being Laura Dern.

Oh, also Shailene Woodley is pretty good? Honestly, maybe it’s just her smaller body of work overall, but I have almost no opinion on her career, performance, or character here.

This is what makes the series unique though: a desire to delve into and nitpick the roles of these women and performances at a level of complexity and nuance so rarely afforded these actresses (I mean, Kidman’s had a fair share of real shots on goal, but who’s going to begrudge her more).”Big Little Lies”-stans, please get at me, I’d love to talk more.

Oh oh also, the “Greek chorus” of gossiping townsfolk is a great pilot-episode device that gets increasingly misguided as it continues on throughout the series; but I did appreciate and greatly enjoy that, by the final episode, I could potentially see literally any character on the show murdering any of the other characters. No joke, that makes for a riveting mystery.


The Americans, season 5 (FX)

Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields, why you gotta do us like this? After four seasons, by sheer force of will, TV critics and Russian majors had finally gotten the viewing public (or at least the Emmys) to pay attention to your riveting slow-burn spy drama. And then as a victory lap you decide to finally reach the breaking point of “how much plot is too little plot”. When you can literally summarize each character’s season (including, and I can not emphasize this enough, their entire emotional arc) in a sentence or two, you’re really pushing what can even be considered narrative.

In retrospect, we should’ve known we were in for a hit, with the two most interesting side characters on the show, Nina and Martha, more or less taken off the chessboard. But the failure to replace them with any equivalent (oh how this season would’ve benefited from something on the level of season 4’s lights-out supporting turn by Dylan Baker), and then to hand sterling season regulars literally nothing but anticlimax (see: Elizabeth learns tai chi, Oleg investigates grocery fraud) – hooooey. When you catch me admitting that I’m currently most invested in the Paige/Pastor Tim subplot, something is very wrong.

I fully expect “The Americans” to bring it back around for their sixth and final season – I mean, SOMETHING *has* to happen in order to wrap this up – but it was incredible to watch a show that had otherwise so meticulously ratcheted tension for four seasons completely flatline emotionally. When the show, along with Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, earn Emmy nominations again through pure inertia, I will be retroactively applying those nods to season 3.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, season 3 (Netflix)

UKS is following the mold of its Tina Fey-forerunner “30 Rock” of getting stronger the less plot there is. With the Reverend finally out of the picture (Jon Hamm did an amazing job with that character, but really, I’m not convinced we ever ever ever need to see him again), UKS could just go small ball with low-stakes sitcom arcs and focus on being, pound-for-pound and joke-for-joke, the funniest show out there right now. Carol Kane and Tituss Burgess both got some of their best material yet (seriously, that hurricane bottle episode, complete with the perfect Maya Rudolph cameo, is *everything*), while Ellie Kemper proved that Kimmy’s winsome enthusiasm and naivete may very well never grow tiresome.

Jane Krakowski’s character remains the biggest flaw of the show – when somehow *still* sincerely pursuing the nausea-inducing notion of Jacqueline-as-woke-whitewashed-Native American, UKS is, yet again, a black hole of misplaced intentions. Luckily, they improve on season 2 by at least doing *less* of that and much more of the straight-faced absurdity (David Cross getting “smooshed”, flirting with a dead grandmother, anything involving Amy Sedaris) that is Krakowski’s wheelhouse.


Master of None, season 2 (Netflix)

The increasing indulgence of “Master of None”‘s second (and possibly last) season plays both in its favor and against it. Even more so than the first season, the show revolves around a structure of isolated vignettes – meaning it can live or die not just episode by episode, but sometimes even scene to scene. An homage to “Bicycle Thieves” can be alternately charming AND gratingly twee. Suddenly doubling the running time of an episode for an hour-long romantic interlude can both afford more depth than usual to Dev’s desires AND reveal how shallow the object of that romantic interest (first Rachel, now Francesca) is written.

“Master of None” remains one of the most perceptive and empathetic depictions of 21st-century young-adulthood and immigration, especially when it comes to dating and family relationships. But Dev is increasingly the least interesting character on his own show (partly, I gotta say, because of Aziz Ansari’s limited range – he’s got a note, and he played it extremely well for about a season and a half!), and it feels like Ansari and Alan Yang know it – that explains (terrific) episode-long tangents dedicated to say, Denise’s family dynamics, or literally *a bunch of random strangers encountered on the street* (“New York, I Love You”, which for me ranks with season one’s “Parents” as the best the show has offered, despite the more direct crack at a sequel in “Religion”).

Ansari has made noises that “Master of None” won’t return unless he and Yang really come up with stor(ies) that they love, and I get the sense from season two that might not be likely. Seeing their sensibility and writing brought to a slightly different project, though, would be most welcome.

Top 10 of 2015

All right, the Oscars are long over and done with, so it’s time to finally put a cap in the year in film that was 2015. I ran down the 9th Annual EMOs a while back, but after having the chance to spend a couple of months catching up with titles that I missed over the course of the year, I can put out my Top 10 of 2015 and be done with it.

And honestly that sort of feels like a relief. 2015 was a varied and intriguing year – a year where genre contenders (“Mad Max: Fury Road,” “Creed”) went toe-to-toe with the prestige stuff, not just in critics’ lists, but on the red carpets of the awards circuit. A year where some of my favorite international auteurs fell short but new ones arrived with a thunderclap. It was also a year where it felt like some dents were finally made in the Iron Curtain that keeps women’s stories out of Hollywood; hopefully that will be the start of a trend and not an anomaly looked back at in melancholy.

But overall it felt like a year of solid craftsmanship and earnest filmmaking with few offerings reaching for the stars – and even fewer actually making it there. Any regular readers out there will hopefully know that I’m a fierce advocate for positivity in criticism – and indeed, there were many films this year that I would like to applaud, for one reason or another. But outside a few top candidates, I can’t say that my passion really ignited for this top 10 list. Ah well. We’ll always have 2007.

Without further ado then, my personal top 10 films of 2015:

10. The End of the Tour


James Ponsoldt’s indie flick about the long-form interview performed by Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) with David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel) during Wallace’s book tour for Infinite Jest surprised with how unconcerned it was with the famed writer’s brilliance (or pretentiousness, depending on whom you’re asking). Ponsoldt’s film, adapted from Lipsky’s article by playwright Donald Marguiles, is almost wall-to-wall conversation, but the specifics of what Wallace and Lipsky are saying – ramblings about crap television, dogs, women, drug use, or supposedly “deeper” considerations of Wallace’s sudden fame and the nature of genius – are so much less important than what is not being said. Lipsky and Wallace have an instant congeniality, even chemistry (Segel and Eisenberg sell the heck out of the awkwardness of straight men who quickly take a liking to each other but don’t know what to do about it), yet deeper strains of envy and insecurity continually bubble to the surface and interrupt the friendship. The movie’s last moments hammer home the true sadness of not just Wallace’s premature death, but that of any suicide – not that the world lost a talent, but that these two people lost a chance at connection. A touching addition to Ponsoldt’s growing, melancholic collection of addicts and loners (see “Smashed,” “The Spectacular Now”).

9. Room


What a curious movie. A potentially sensational subject matter handled with almost aggressively good taste. A blend of stark realism and stirring expression bordering on the manipulative. Two fine leads asked to walk a very fine line between subjectivity and authenticity. To be honest I am still not entirely sure what I think of Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room,” and very much desire to revisit it – but I’m certainly still mulling it over, and the ambition of Abrahamson and writer Emma Donoghue’s vision has an enviable panache.

8. Brooklyn


A charming immigrant tale, steering clear of melodrama in favor of the engagement and empathy of a very real, grounded young woman simply trying to move forward in life. Emory Cohen and Domhnall Gleeson are both wonderful as two equally intriguing romantic options for Eilis (Saoirse Ronan, in the best performance of her budding career), their divergent futures offered as possibilities, not inevitabilities. Rarely does a coming-of-age tale have the subtlety and agency that director John Crowley and writer Nick Hornby hand over to Ronan. The stunning, warm cinematography by Yves Bélanger and evocative, folksy score by Michael Brook play into the film’s strong sense of emotion without getting calculated about it.

7. Mad Max: Fury Road


George Miller’s decades-in-the-making passion project was the cinephilic surprise of the year, a thunderous return to action filmmaking that signaled Miller’s innovation didn’t run out with “The Road Warrior.” A film-long set piece bursting with indelible design and imagery, “Fury Road” was an adrenaline-soaked reminder that most Hollywood blockbusters (even the entertaining ones) are sleepwalking their way through the motions. Simple but strong politics and Charlize Theron’s instantly iconic turn as one-armed badass Imperator Furiosa were also a gracious antidote to the prevailing action-hero trends of spandexed, tortured machismo. If there’s any problem with the movie, it’s that it may have validated the studios’ instinct to revive old properties over creating something new – if only all those reboots and revivals had a tenth of the energy behind “Fury Road.”

6. Spotlight


“We’re going to tell this story. We’re going to tell it right.”

Tom McCarthy’s paean to investigative journalism is a reflective testament to the power of a well-told story: narratives don’t just entertain or inspire, they can tackle institutions, cause very real consequences. “Spotlight” lacks the paranoid, chilling atmosphere of “All the President’s Men,” its obvious cinematic reference point, but in some ways that makes the story ring all the more true. Corruption and crime doesn’t always happen in shadowy parking lots or shifty hotels; sometimes it plays out under harsh fluorescent lighting, in the false congeniality of men in drab khakis and ill-fitting suits. Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy’s crackling script is in total sync with a terrific ensemble of journeyman actors (McAdams and Ruffalo deservingly got the Oscar nods, but Michael Keaton, Stanley Tucci, Brian d’Arcy James, Liev Schrieber, Billy Crudup, John Slattery and others are all equally on-point). Everyone involved in the making of this film was on the same page – the story’s the thing.

5. Carol


“Carol” opens with an enigmatic closeup, an interweaving pattern of…what? Wallpaper? A fence? A carpet? Carter Burwell’s wonderfully woozy score swells and we finally pull back to see a subway grate, trampled underfoot as a dozen people walk by obliviously, until Todd Haynes actually gets interested in a character and we follow him into one of the more romantic films of recent years. The deception and beauty of things right in front of our eyes has always been an undercurrent of Haynes’ work, and in “Carol” he brings it to the fore to tell a story of repressed love with restraint and delicacy. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara have a striking, otherworldly chemistry, relatable yet alien – but isn’t that always how it is when you look at a couple that you’re not a part of? Their attraction is a secret known only to them, and Haynes exploits that feeling to effective measure.

4. 45 Years


Domestic drama with just the slightest touch of gothic horror, Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years” is more than a showcase for one of the more remarkable leading performances in recent memory (though that would be enough). Charlotte Rampling is superb as Kate Mercer, a retired schoolteacher who finds her marriage, and indeed her whole life, unexpectedly fractured – yet Haigh’s direction is equal to Rampling’s boundless expression. A gesture, a small piece of sound design, a careful framing – these are all it takes for “45 Years” to convey a whole history of a couple. As Kate and her husband Geoff learn when a decades-old choice snowballs into an unraveling of forty-five years of content, it’s the little things that’ll get you.

3. Hard to Be a God


Aleksei German’s last film may very well also be his masterpiece, a blistering, bilious stew of a movie filled with feverish imagery that feels like a Hieronymus Bosch painting come to life. Cross Tarkovsky’s philosophy with Pasolini’s obsession with the dirty, disgusting physicality of humanity, and you’re in the ballpark of German’s deep dive into sci-fi feudalism and fascism (the film comes from a novel by Arkady ad Boris Strugatsky, who also provided the source material for Tarkovsky’s “Stalker”). At 3 hours long, it must be said that “Hard to Be a God” veers close to overstaying its welcome – but German’s planet of medieval horrors is so stunningly and convincingly realized that it’s difficult to say what should be cut. As an Earthling scientist sent to study another planet’s cultural renaissance (which never arrives), Leonid Yarmolnik is fantastic as both tour guide and native, an intelligent man gradually losing himself in the baseness of a primal society. Not an easy sit, but an unforgettable one.

2. Taxi


For Jafar Panahi, just turning on a camera is an act of protest. The Iranian director has been arrested and jailed for his filmmaking and its (gentle, humanist) criticism of religious repression and censorship, yet he keeps working, steeled by the absolute right of expression. His latest work, a mix of improvisation, casual conversation and quiet observation, is all the more bold for how unhurried and relaxed it is. Politics doesn’t have to be about righteous anger or fierce speeches – sometimes it’s just about watching, and listening.

1. Son of Saul


My opinion of László Nemes’ debut feature probably came through pretty clearly in my review for The New Republic, but let’s put it on the record: “Son of Saul” is a landmark piece of film that I firmly believe we’ll be discussing for years to come.  It’s one of the most astonishingly confident first films I’ve ever seen, absolutely assured in its technique and fully prepared to debate with those who will (not unfairly) challenge its complex morality and obsession with depicting the unspeakable. For the record, I’m not even quite in step with Nemes on his interpretation of his own work – there is, I would agree with some commenters, a dangerous grotesquerie present in beatifying the character Saul, or presenting the film’s vivid experience as presenting any sort of “reality”, both of which are things Nemes has gone dangerously close to in his interviews. But this is the kind of film that takes on a life beyond its maker’s intentions: there are so many layers to pull back, particularly in Géza Röhrig’s astonishing lead performance. In so many of Röhrig’s tight closeups, as Saul wanders through Auschwitz on his desperate and foolhardy quest to properly bury a young boy, one wonders, what is he thinking? It’s something we (or at least I) will be pondering for a while, perhaps in nightmares.

Ten more, unranked: “Amour Fou”, “Creed”, “Ex Machina”, “Inside Out”, “Mistress America”, “Results”, “Shaun the Sheep Movie”, “Sicario”, “Tangerine”, “The Tribe”

The First-Ever ERPs

We’re winding down the year of film that was 2015 – already critics are inundating our Twitter feeds and blogrolls with endless Top 10 lists and back-and-forth debates about the merits of movies that the general public still won’t get to see until at least February. It’s still a few weeks before I join in the fray with the 9th Annual EMOs (Ethan’s Makeshift Oscars), but I’ve been considering how, while rewarding/mocking the new releases of 2015 is fun and all, it isn’t entirely reflective of my experience of the year in film. Every year, between visits to the theater to see the latest Marvel monstrosity, I continue my personal cinematic education in the form of DVD rentals from the public library, Criterion Blu-Ray sales, repertory screenings, etc. Sometimes I take the time to talk about these films from years past in this space – my MoMA Mia series this past summer, for instance – or maybe I’ll take a moment to write a snarky tweet, but far too often I let these experiences go by without further comment.

So I’m unveiling what I hope will be a new annual tradition – the first-ever ERPs (Ethan’s Repertory Picks). These will not be as exhaustive as the EMOs – it’s rather difficult, even with my anal list-making habits, to keep track of every pre-2015 film I watched in the past year, and frankly, ain’t nobody got time for that anyway. But what I can do is give out some notices and recommendations regarding the films that, for whatever reason, stood out to me the most this year. Then we’ll wrap things up with a Top 10, Classic-Style.

(And, for the record, I feel pretty safe handing these out now, because the rest of the December will almost certainly be consumed by catching up with 2015 releases before awards season, along with repeat viewings of “The Muppet Christmas Carol”)


For When You, Like a Good Soviet, Are Feeling Exceptionally Literally-Minded: “Nine Days Of One Year” (1962), Mikhail Romm

It’s pretty much all there in the title, except for the fatal radiation poisoning. Which is, tragically, far less exciting than it sounds.


For Proof That Even Legendary Art-House Directors Choke on the Middle Entry of a Trilogy: “La Notte” (1961), Michelangelo Antonioni

I honestly didn’t think it would be possible for Antonioni-ennui to sink in while watching people as beautiful as Marcello Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau and Monica Vitti, but dear lord did I not care about a single person in this film.

For A Reminder That American Politics Could Always Suck Even More: “The Confession” (1970), “State of Siege” (1972), Costa-Gavras

I mean I’m not saying it couldn’t happen at all, but at least right this second I am not really concerned about being arrested by apparatchiki.


For When You Run Out of Funny Animal Videos on YouTube: “Cat Ballou” (1965), Elliot Silverstein

To think that in the ’60s you had to shell out $5 in order to see a drunk horse.

For Prestige Filmmaking That Just Smothers All the Talented People Involved With Its Sheer Competence: “The English Patient” (1996), Anthony Minghella

There is a reason “Oscar bait” is associated with bland, tasteful period pieces, and this movie is pretty much it. Well, that and “Dances With Wolves.” And “Driving Miss Daisy.” And “War Horse.” And “Out of Africa.” And “Forrest Gump”…

For When You Loved “Mad Max: Fury Road” And Want More And It’s Just So Sad They Never Made An Original Or A Third One, Isn’t That Weird? : “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior” (1981), George Miller

Strangest franchise numbering outside of the “Fast and Furious” movies, really.


For When You Want to See John Wayne Wear a Uniform That Really Makes His Eyes Pop: “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” (1949), John Ford

Honestly, the far more momentous John Wayne-related cinematic moment of the year came from Karina Longworth’s podcast You Must Remember This, where I learned that John Wayne once looked like this.

I mean, what?

For When You Need to Trick Your Horror-Movie-Loving Friend Into Watching a Landmark Work of American Neorealism:
“Killer of Sheep” (1978), Charles Burnett

Most misleading title ever? Discuss.


For the “Freaky Friday” Fans: “Cobra Woman” (1944), Robert Siodmak

I really think the body-swap genre could be revived with a copious amount of dick snakes.

For When You Just Need Some Anna Karina In Your Life, Which Is Every Moment of Every Day, Duh: “Vivra Sa Vie” (1962) and “Pierrot Le Fou” (1965), Jean-Luc Godard

Which I’m pretty sure is literally the reason for these movies existing in the first place.

For When You’re Just in the Mood to Feel Shit About Everything: “Prisoners” (2013), Denis Villeneuve

Cue the Tegan and Sara: *Everything is awesooooooome….everything is cool when you’re part of a team….*


For a Reminder That “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” Is Intended To Be the Most Depressing Holiday Song Ever Written: “Meet Me in St. Louis” (1944), Vincente Minnelli

Was Judy Garland ever allowed to be happy? Like, in an unqualified, non-melancholic way?

For When You’ve Just Watched “Going Clear” And Thought, You Know What That Movie Needed, Was More Rock Hudson: “Magnificent Obsession” (1954), Douglas Sirk

I couldn’t in good conscience include it in my Top 10 here, but just know that there was possibly no other film this year that I received as much entertainment from.


For When You’re Wondering Why Sam Spade Never Went Undercover As a Palm-Reading Psychic: “In the Palm of Your Hand” (1951), Roberto Galvaldón

Spoiler alert: it doesn’t go well.

For a Depressing Reminder That Philip Seymour Hoffman Was Better At Acting Than You Will Be At Anything Ever: “25th Hour” (2002), Spike Lee

Also that Spike Lee is one of the most talented working directors in the world and don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise.


For Celebrating the Eternal and Engimatic Majesty That Was Ingrid Bergman’s Accent: “Gaslight” (1944), George Cukor, and “Journey to Italy” (1954), Roberto Rossellini

In fact, throw in Angela Lansbury, Charles Boyer, and Joseph Cotten and we should just rename “Gaslight” to “A Cavalcade of Accents.” It would restore the twist ending while we’re at it.

For When You’re Too Cheap to Rent “Bonnie and Clyde”: “Gun Crazy” (1950), Joseph H. Lewis

Probably about 80% as good, but with 100% more Russ Tamblyn.

For Sunny, Warm Summer Days, Because Watching These In the Winter Might Put You On Immediate Suicide Watch: “Through a Glass Darkly” (1961), “Winter Light” (1962), “The Silence” (1963), Ingmar Bergman

I mean, I guess Sweden has to balance out the universal healthcare, 100% literacy rate and low unemployment somehow. Perpetual theological/existential crisis seems fair enough.


For the Scorsese Fan In Your Life Who Could Maybe Watch Something With Non-White People Once In a While: “City of God” (2002), Fernando Meirelles

I’m not saying you should be wary of super-Scorsese enthusiasts, but I’m not not saying that.

For Horror Enthusiasts Who Know the True Enemy is Diabeetus: “The Thing” (1982), John Carpenter

The other enemy is CGI.


Top 10 Repertory Films of 2015

10. “This Is Not a Film” (2011), Jafar Panahi


In 2010, the Iranian government placed internationally-acclaimed director Jafar Panahi under house arrest and barred him from making a film for 20 years. Only a year later, “This Is Not a Film” arrived at the Cannes Film Festival – smuggled on a flash drive inside a cake. Part documentary, part video diary, and part declaration of political defiance, Panahi’s film is an astounding and utterly unique reflection on the political, moral and philosophical quandaries facing artists in Iran. Its difficult to say much about the film’s production, as Panahi’s sentence has included a prohibition from giving interviews, but the messy and improvised feel of “This Is Not a Film” may in fact be quite calculated, all the better to reveal the compulsion and spontaneity that drives Panahi, and many other artists across history, to create. Few movies are so radical in their simplicity.


9. “Rocco and His Brothers” (1960), Luchino Visconti


A riveting family epic that combines the gritty, working-class aesthetics of Italian neorealism with operatic emotion. Sibling rivalries of mythology proportion (featuring that modern Adonis himself, Alain Delon) play out in dingy communal apartments and rubble-strewn backlots, captured in the unwavering clarity of Visconti’s deep focus. Two scenes of sexual assault (both against the same, pitiable target) remain among the most brutal, visceral experiences of this or any other year, all the more shocking considering the time in which the film was produced.


8. “3 Women” (1977), Robert Altman


I never realized what a great tragedy it is that Ingmar Bergman never worked with Shelly Duvall, but Altman’s own, mumbly take on Bergman’s trademark crises of identity and sexuality is certainly a suitable approximation. Fascinating enough as an oddball drama about mismatched roommates for its first half, “3 Women” really turns into something special in its woozy, eerie denouement, as Duvall and Sissy Spacek play out their “Persona”-esque role reversal while Janice Rule insistently and methodically paints the most unsettling murals I’ve ever seen. Kudos to the production design and to Charles Rosher Jr.’s camera for its bleary, restless observation of Altman’s enigmatic tale.


7. “Paths of Glory” (1957), Stanley Kubrick


“Paths of Glory” is one of the most blisteringly efficient films I’ve ever seen. In less than 90 minutes, Kubrick jams in the horror, folly and injustice of the First World War – with no scrimping on the spectacle, either. Kirk Douglas gives an extraordinary lead performance, more complex than the usual paragons of virtue at the center of other cinematic anti-war screeds: his righteousness is never in doubt, but there’s a distinct sense he might snap and murder his superior officers for their gross inhumanity at any moment. And therein lies the inescapable, cyclical grind of war, something that good men can rail against but still find themselves consumed by. Features the kind of stunning visual imagery you expect from Kubrick.


6. “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring” (2003), Kim Ki-duk


Gentle, lyrical, meditative – Kim Ki-duk’s masterpiece is as easy and comforting to step into as a hot bath. The curious settings and characters – the film never really leaves the floating retreat of a monk and his young apprentice isolated in the Korean wilderness – feel slipped out of time, in an otherworldly reverie. But intrusions from the outside world (both literal and emotional/intellectual) cloud the film’s calm, reflective waters. Are we meant to take the narrative seriously, as the story of one man’s weaving spiritual journey? Does the seasonal structure hint at a broader allegory for enlightenment? One gets the sense that repeat viewings could give the same kind of fresh contemplation through repetitive action as walking a labyrinth.


5. “The River” (1951), Jean Renoir

Dem-3 Photo. Helene Jeanbrau © 1996 cine-tamaris.tif

Like the previous film, another unhurried, observational piece in love with both the natural beauty of its lush, exotic location and the quiet, ordinary people who inhabit it. Renoir suggests a true coexistence of race and culture in his depiction of a British family in barely post-imperial India – life, love and longing allowed to unfold leisurely, without trumped-up conflict or drama. Stunning Technicolor photography captures local tradition and custom without condescension or possessiveness; it is enough for Renoir to witness and pass along events without claiming to understand or explain them.


4. “Blow-Up” (1966), Michelangelo Antonioni


Thomas (David Hemmings) leads a typical Antonionian life of empty hedonism as a fashion photographer, until the moment when, by chance, he photographs a couple walking together in a park. There is a conflict, or an embrace, and then…what? Thomas has potentially witnessed a murder, or perhaps not. A body appears and disappears again. The woman involves arrives at Thomas’ studio, agitated, but offering no answers. Obsessed, Thomas enlarges his photographs from the scene, again and again, hoping to gain a solution through empirical evidence. But the more he scrutinizes, the more abstract his situation becomes. This is Antonioni at his most quietly riveting – Thomas’ professionalism is fascinating in its single-minded determination, but his goal may be a fool’s errand. Is the illusion of purpose as sustaining as purpose itself?


3. “All That Jazz” (1979), Bob Fosse

All That Jazz

An explosion of color, movement, and sound choreographed by one of the best there has ever been at doing just that. Bob Fosse’s vaguely autobiographical fever dream of life on Broadway is more intensely personal than “Cabaret”, and thus crackles with electricity that even that other masterwork can’t quite match. Roy Scheider is stunning – it wasn’t until the very last scene of the movie that I realized the man convincingly, brilliantly played a famed Broadway dancer/choreographer for two hours, despite clearly not being able to dance a lick. That performance takes an exceptional kind of confidence to pull off, but Fosse had more than enough of that to share.


2. “Johnny Guitar” (1954), Nicholas Ray


The original “Mad Max: Fury Road” – come for the familiar male lead, stay for the gonzo committed female performance. Joan Crawford was an odd star and an odder person, but “Johnny Guitar” shows what she could bring to the table: presence, and enough of it to make basically three films at once. Revenge Western, revisionist romance, lesbian psychosexual drama – Nicholas Ray was operating on several different layers here, and Crawford’s knocking them all out of the park. Everyone else, cast and crew both, more or less stay out of her way, and that’s exactly how it should be.


1. “Cat People” (1942), Jacques Tournear


The most special films, and film experiences, often come from lowered expectations. In other words, there are movies that have no right to be as good as they are, and that’s kind of why we love them so much. “Cat People” might be the most extreme example of that I’ve ever encountered. The script is daft, the actors are a B-list studio’s C-list squad – and yet, under Jacques Tournear’s direction and producer Val Lewton’s creative guidance, something utterly magic happens. In Tournear’s shadows we find something as primal and atavistic as the forces that supposedly possess our doomed heroine: an utterly satisfying, riveting, beautiful, innovative entertainment.

And a final word….

While on the subject of old films, I also just want to take the opportunity to recommend one more thing. I did not watch this movie in 2015, for the first time or otherwise – but this is the year we lost Chantal Akerman, whose “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” remains one of the greatest movies you can experience, in this year or any other. It is not a simple sit, and it really deserves to be seen on the big screen – but if you do watch it at home, do yourself, and Akerman, a favor and commit to it. Turn off your phone. Resist the urge to pause, to take a break. Don’t fight the mundanity – think about what it’s doing to you, and why Akerman’s doing it. She was one of the greats, and deserves to be seen and discussed as one.