Category: Film

Best movies of 2020

I categorize them on the basis of when I watch them, so there is always some slippage at the beginning and the end of the year, all the more for foreign films, which can come to the U.S. as much as a year or two later than their original release dates.  Of course this year was very different and there was hardly anything wonderful from Hollywood.  Here is the list, as usual in the order I saw them:

Monos, Spanish-language, Lord of the Flies-type elements.

The Guilty, Danish police story, mainly talk, limited settings, really good.

Just 6.5, Iranian war on drugs movie, brutal at times, culturally fascinating.

The Wedding Plan, a few years older, a Rama Burshtein movie, imagine an Israeli woman setting out to get married by a particular date no matter what.

Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy.  I think you need to have a preexisting connection to Mexico and Mexican food to enjoy it.  I do.

Graduation, 2016 Romanian movie about trying to cheat on your kid’s exam.  Excellent.

An American Pickle, Straussian critique of the Woke.

Tenet, if only to see a blockbuster again.

Cuties, yes it was really good, even if sometimes uncomfortably exploitative in its treatment of the source material, namely dancing young teen girls.

My Octopus Teacher, god-awful sentimental and storified, but everyone loved it.

The Two Faces of a Bamileke Woman, set in Cameroon, about cross-cultural differences.

Chez Jolie Coiffure, set in a Brussels hair salon, women from Cameroon and DRC talk to each other, from the same director as Two Faces of a Bamileke Woman, they make a nice set piece and are both quite short.

The Wild Goose Lake, set in Wuhan, a kind of Chinese noir, you have to already like Chinese cinema for this one.

Usually I put this list out later in the year, but what is the point of waiting?

My Conversation with Edwidge Danticat

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is the CWT summary:

She joined Tyler to discuss the reasons Haitian identity and culture will likely persist in America, the vibrant Haitian art scenes, why Haiti has the best food in the Caribbean, how radio is remaining central to Haitian politics, why teaching in Creole would improve Haitian schools, what’s special about the painted tap-taps, how tourism influenced Haitian art, working with Jonathan Demme, how the CDC destroyed the Haitian tourism industry, her perspective on the Black Lives Matter movement, why she writes better at night, the hard lessons of Haiti’s political history, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

Recommended.  And I thank Carl-Henri Prophète for assistance with the transcription.

My Conversation with Alex Ross

And:

ROSS: …conducting is so mysterious in terms of what is actually happening between the conductor and the orchestra. There are explicit messages being sent. There’re instructions being given, but there’s also this slightly mystical side to it, where once you get to a figure like Klemperer, or today, Bernard Haitink, who just retired, or Herbert Blomstedt, who is incredibly vital and active in his 90s.

COWEN: Coming back at age 93 in Switzerland.

ROSS: Yeah. Even before they say anything, just the mere fact, when [they] arrive at the podium, there is a level of respect. There is a level of attentiveness and readiness in the orchestra. They don’t have to be won over when Herbert Blomstedt is in front of them. His reputation . . .

Blomstedt — someone like this can just skip all the preliminaries and just go for fine-tuning these points, and everyone plays better because they’re in the presence of this celebrated, legendary older musician. It’s almost as if they don’t even need to do anything anymore. They do, of course. They are working very hard, and Blomstedt is delivering very particular instructions to the orchestra.

But there’s that psychological dimension. The musicians are excited to be having this opportunity, and they think this might be the last time, so they give something more. So that’s the mystery of conducting.

I always think of that anecdote about Furtwängler — I think it was Walter Legge who told this story — watching the orchestra rehearse with a different conductor, and they were playing all right, nothing too inspired. He’s looking straight ahead and looking at the orchestra, and suddenly something changes. Suddenly the playing is electrified, transformed. The conductor seems to have done nothing different. And so, “What is going on? How did that change take place?”

Then he happens to look over his shoulder. Furtwängler is standing by the door, watching. In the few minutes that he’s entered the hall and has been standing at the back, the orchestra noticed him there, and their playing changed completely. So that’s the weird, the slightly occult power that the conductors can have. Just their mere presence transforms the playing.

And I start with this:

COWEN: I have so many questions about Wagner. Let me start with one. Why is it I have the perception that the truly great Wagner recordings come from the 1950s or the 1960s? If I think even of the talk you gave for the New Yorker — well, you talked about Keilberth and Solti and Furtwängler. Those are ancient recordings. Clemens Krauss, that was what, 1953? What has happened to the recording quality of Wagner?

Recommended.

Against digitalized subscription services for the movies

Quality public taste is a public good, and right now we are taxing it:

Another response to my whining might be to tell me that I live in a world of cinematic plenty, especially considering my various subscriptions and DVD collection. That is also entirely fair, but do keep in mind the original worry: that the future flow of movies is being broken up and that Hollywood is not regenerating the notion of a cinema with cultural centrality and import. “Star Wars,” “The Godfather,” and “Annie Hall” had real meaning to generations of Americans. Movies might now be in danger of becoming like board games: Many Americans love and play Scrabble, chess and Clue, but they are not a strong part of our common culture…

Now consider the landscape for movies: Streaming services include Disney+, Apple TV+, Netflix, HBO Max, Hulu, Amazon Prime, Sling TV and Fubo TV. (I’m not even counting services such as the Criterion Channel, which are not large in terms of revenue but crucial to anyone, like me, who loves foreign films.) I’m not yearning for monopoly, but I do miss the good old days of paying $13.50 to walk into any theater and see the latest release. And I could watch without being constantly nagged to join their popcorn subscription service.

That is an excerpt from my latest Bloomberg column. If instead everyone watches Rear Window or 2001 on a large screen, over time they help make each other’s tastes better, and to the benefit of broader society.

And no, I am not a huge fan of musical streaming either.  It makes the lower quality taste too easy to cultivate and preserve.

*Tenet* — a review (no real spoilers)

Although liquid securities markets play no role in the plot, this is nonetheless a movie where the value of information is repeatedly very high.

You can think of the movie as constructing a world so that a high value for information is ruling all of the time.  And how strange such a world would have to look.

Most plots are about effort, character, moral fortitude, luck, or preexisting conditions (“are they really meant for each other?”).  It is about time we had a film about information, even though the final world that is built is stranger than you might have expected.

“We must go now.”

But in fact, in the real world, you hardly ever need to “go now.”  You can go just a little bit later, and it won’t matter much.

But this is not the speed premium, rather the game-theoretic concept is that of last mover advantage, the opposite of Schelling’s first mover advantage.  Few of us are intuitively ready to take that concept literally and to order our understanding of a movie around it.

If you have studied Steven Bram’s book Biblical Games (and his other writings), this film will flow naturally for you — otherwise not!

Unlike most slacker films, this movie takes a decided stance on Newcomb’s Paradox, though to reveal that would be a total spoiler.

The movie also has genuine innovations in its chase and fight scenes, a rarity and indeed near-impossibility these days.

The soundtrack is excellent, and might at least some of the music be palindromic?

As for inspirations, you might consider Raiders of the Lost Ark, most other Nolan movies, the Book of Exodus, the Sator Square, James Bond, Frank Tipler and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and most of all Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr.

To be clear, I don’t love most of Nolan’s films, and Inception bored me, so I wasn’t expecting much from Tenet.  I walked away happy.

Should I now be rooting for a sequel? Or would that be a prequel?

Kudos to Alex for renting out the theater, he is the real Protagonist is this one.

From the comments, comedy vs. drama

I would say that many, if not most, comedies are “conservative” in their underlying messages or themes. Look at romantic comedies: the whole point is for characters to establish a committed relationship and either explicitly or presumably get married. The comedy is in watching characters who are notoriously bad at following tradition and institution find themselves desperate to follow tradition and institution. That’s a very conservative theme: happiness comes from family and a serious, formal commitment to family.

An American Pickle isn’t a romantic comedy, but it follows the same structure and offers the same lesson. That makes it a fairly typical comedy.

Dramas, by comparison, tend to be more “liberal” and “radical,” because they often show a character breaking from tradition or from institutional boundaries to find happiness or to resolve a serious problem. The messages of dramas are often the polar opposite of those of comedies.

That is a remark by WB on An American Pickle.  One striking feature of the creativity of Shakespeare, of course, is that he does not follow this usual pattern.

*An American Pickle*

I am not giving away anything by telling you the basic premise of this film is that a Yiddish-speaking NYC Ellis Island arrival is time-traveled 100 years into the future to the current day, where he meets up with his great-grandson, and the two start hanging out together.

At first it seems silly and slight, but over a short 90 minutes it is revealed to be one of the best movies about entrepreneurship ever made, a biting critique of PC and Millennials, a look at current American “complacency”/decadence, and a paean to the value of family and religion and Judaism in particular, all within the framework of a sufficiently entertaining comedy.  It is one of the most successful “right-wing movies” I have seen.

Not surprisingly, the reviews about this one are clueless, but large numbers of MR readers will pick up on the numerous subtle points and jabs.

Here is Wikipedia on the movie.  Streaming on HBO/HBO Max, but of course see it on a big screen if you can.

The film culture that is royal Britain

There have been few insights into what the Queen’s favourite film is but one might assume that it would be a black and white classic from her youth or perhaps Black Beauty.

According to Brian Blessed, however, one of her favourite films is Flash Gordon, the 1980 high camp space opera in which the actor stars as Prince Vultan.

Blessed said that the Queen told him that she sits down to watch the science fiction film every year at Christmas with her grandchildren. The actor, 83, quoted the Queen as saying: “You know, we watch Flash Gordon all the time.” Blessed added that the Queen had then requested him to perform his catchphrase from the film.

“And if you don’t mind,” Blessed recalled the Queen saying, “I’ve got the grandchildren here, would you mind saying, ‘Gordon’s alive?’”

Perhaps, then, if Blessed’s claim is true, it is little surprise that her other viewing choices are more sedate. Royal sources have previously said that the Queen likes to watch the quiz show Pointless and The Bill.

You may recall that the soundtrack to the film was written by Queen, though not by “the Queen.”  Or perhaps she is simply a fan of Max von Sydow.

Here is the full (Times of London, gated) article.

Rewatching *The French Connection*

I had not seen this 1971 movie since I was thirteen or so, and I was startled by how well I remembered the famous “subway scene.”  This time around, it struck me much more as a portrait of the decline of New York City than as a plot-driven vehicle per se.  “Popeye” (Gene Hackman) has no back story or love interest whatsoever, so I viewed this as a tale of how the dysfunctionality of New York simply was absorbing everything in its wake.  It is perhaps the best movie to view to understand just how much NYC has improved, and if you click on the top link you can see they were not just filming in dumpster bin sites but rather in the heart of Manhattan.

It is striking how tacky, and indeed poor, the “rich people” appear to be when the movie is trying to make a point about income inequality.  The critique of “the War on Drugs,” as it later became known, is ahead of its time.  The shots of Marseille are lovely.

It is hard to believe they almost cast Jackie Gleason in the lead.

Recommended.

Rewatching *Serpico*

When I was 12 it was one of my favorite books (by Peter Maas), and shortly thereafter I saw and liked the movie as well.  On this viewing I was struck by the excellent understanding of the culture of corruption, the notion that the mayor is beholden to the police who can threaten to shirk, the performance of Al Pacino, and the wonderful scenes of early 1970s New York City (yes that is Soho you are seeing).

The last quarter of the film should have been shortened.  And for all of its attempts to be a politically correct film, the degree of casual racism and sexism still is astonishing to the modern eye, specifically how either black criminals or attractive women are shown on screen.

Nonetheless recommended, and in particular as historical backdrop for understanding 2020.  Here is a John Arnold thread on the primary of culture in police departments.  And here is the police response to the recent protests.

Here is the Wikipedia page of the actual Frank Serpico, still speaking out against police abuses at age 84.

What I’ve been watching

Graduation, a Romanian movie and perhaps the most notable film about corruption I have seen, ever.  From the director of Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days, also known as “the Romanian abortion movie.”  Both strongly recommended.

Moana.  I had to stop watching this one.  I am not amongst those who regard Disney as a tool of Satan, but the transparent emotional manipulations are so strong in each and every scene that they distracted me from the ongoing technical marvels.  It just wasn’t worth it, and I couldn’t bring myself to care.

Malcolm X, directed by Spike Lee.  I thought this was a grave disappointment, noisy and cluttered rather than insightful, and grossly overrated.  To put my evaluation in context, I consider The Autobiography of Malcolm X to be one of the greatest American books of all time.

Bullitt, with Steve MacQueen, San Francisco crime drama circa 1968, interesting throughout.  Drama from start to finish, nothing hurried, wonderful soundtrack, always feels remarkably cinematic and reflects so many of the movie-making virtues of that era.  No one seems that surprised when a guy ends up on a plane with a gun, by the way.

Dust in the Wind, directed by Taiwanese marvel Hou Hsiao-Hsien.  One of his least scrutable movies, nonetheless memorable, and yes they are boyfriend and girlfriend.  Do keep track of which passages are said in which languages, and what is the vision of both Taiwan’s past and future.  Most of you won’t like this one, but nonetheless a landmark in Asian cinema.

Ozu, The End of Summer.  Could this be the most underrated movie of classic Japanese cinema?  It is hard for me to say more without bumping into spoilers, my only complaint is that the soundtrack is garish and unsuitable.

Rewatching *Dirty Harry* (no real spoilers)

Released in 1971, as usual with San Francisco movies one can see the reach of NIMBY — the city doesn’t look much larger or busier today.  The subtext of the film is that law and order is collapsing, yet San Francisco was far cleaner back then and street harassment never is presented as a risk.  Even the red light district of 1971 seemed better kept than many of the nicer parts circa 2020.

You can see how much the debate has shifted from “how the police treat the guilty” to “how the police treat the innocent.”

It is startling to see actual San Francisco children in the movie — they did not seem to be hired extras.

Yana was shocked that Clint Eastwood did not direct the movie, I was amazed when he started directing.

Overall it held up remarkably well I thought.  Virtually every scene is good, and its ability to offend both sides (and indeed other sides too) remains evident.

Movies to watch under lockdown

I/we have been watching the following:

The Wedding Plan, Israeli movie about a religious woman who precommits to her future wedding, yet without having a particular groom in mind.  Full of subtlety, motivated by behavioral economics and game theory, poignant, recommended.  Israeli cinema and TV remain an underexploited profit opportunity.

Teorema, directed by Pasolini, this one makes no sense but is utterly captivating.  I say it is the devil rather than Christ, but you could argue it either way.  Don’t expect any scene to cohere, but this one is from the golden age of cinema and it shows.

The Lady from Shanghai.  Could this be my favorite Welles movie, as he had not yet started to take himself too seriously?  It spans sailing life, New York, Acapulco and Mexico’s Pacific coast, noir, and San Francisco’s Chinatown.  The look at 1947 SF is enough to scare some YIMBY into the most desperate protectionist.  This was a rewatch for me, and it seemed even better the second time around.

Rhapsody in August, late Kurosawa from 1991.  Not for neophytes but the frankest cinematic treatment of Nagasaki you are likely to find.  The best 2/3 of this film are very moving and indeed unforgettable.  It is sufficiently subtle that most of the reviews are suitably bad.

Beforeigners, a Norwegian television show with a unique twist on the usual immigration story.  Due to a time warp, migrants from earlier periods of history, such as medieval times and also the Stone Age, climb into current-day Oslo.  You are not allowed to call them “Vikings,” rather they are “people of Norse descent.”  And they cannot assimilate to a very foreign culture, though at least one of them ends up working in the Oslo police department.  Clever and original, I hope they make more than just the first six episodes.