And so, now that you know what didn’t do it for me last month, here are the films I watched that stood out the most, and for the best reasons.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966)
Directed by Mike Nichols
I tend to not be too fond of movies that feel like ‘filmed plays,’ but this one is so lively, so biting, so clever, and just so damn much that I never found it lacking. Where some adaptations of theater are flat on the screen, Nichols’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is overflowing with energy and character (not to mention yelling).
As much fun as this film is—and it is a lot of fun—its remarkable ability to blend darkness with intelligence and humor is what I’ll remember most. As many have said before me, the two lead performances are also fantastic, with Taylor and Burton portraying their characters with nuance without ever sacrificing their incredible intensity.
Directed by David Cronenberg
Until last month, the only Cronenbergs I’d seen were Eastern Promises and A Dangerous Method; Videodrome represents the first step in my efforts to remedy this situation.
As someone who grew up without venturing into the horror genre, I’ve been a little wary of Cronenberg’s earlier work. As it turns out, I’m an adult, and watching Videodrome was no problem at all. In fact, it was absolutely delightful (in a dark, grotesque sort of way).
Videodrome is stylish, excessive, creepy, and—most importantly—thoughtful. Cronenberg’s picture of a world in which the barriers between man, media, and weapon have all but crumbled is fascinating in part, because it doesn’t feel that far-fetched. In Videodrome, an “enthusiastic global corporate citizen” seeks to turn us all inside out, to dissolve whatever holds us together and use us for its own ends…
Oh, and Debbie Harry is lovely.
Directed by Bob Fosse
Cabaret is A LOT. For all its decadence, playfulness, and exuberance, it never shakes lose a palpable sense of despair. I don’t typically like musicals, but I love this one. There is a grit and a realism to Cabaret, and though its got plenty of style, it never sacrifices substance in the name of spectacle.
For what its worth, I really love The Master of Ceremonies, a character as endearing as he is strange and as unsettling as he is delightful…
I watched Fosse’s film two days before the Orange Beast was inaugurated, and that context may have heightened my sensitivity to its impact. The last shot in particular left me reeling; that reflection of all the Nazi’s in the club’s audience has burned itself into my brain. If you’ve never seen it, let it do the same to you too.
Directed by Ridley Scott
Ignoring the fact that it took me this long to watch it, Alien is a damn good movie. It’s enveloping, revolting, intelligent, and precisely calculated. The film uses its sci-fi and horror elements with purpose, and it’s an impressive exercise in sustaining cinematic tension. Where lighter science-fiction fare (like Star Wars) is expansive, Alien swallows up everything in its path. Alien is a film of dark, slippery, nasty surfaces; the imagery may not be subtle, but it is effective.
And who needs villains when the body and reproduction are both absolutely terrifying all on their own?
For what it’s worth, I also watched Aliens this month and, while it’s very good, Alien is definitely the one I prefer. Narratively, its more tightly wound and less loose around the edges than its sequel. It’s also more atmospheric and leaves more room for rich, potentially radical thematic interpretation.
Anyway, Ripley and Jones the Cat are the heroes we need right now.
Directed by Kenneth Lonergan
I watched the theatrical cut of this film, and after learning what the extended cut adds, I’m more than content with that choice.
As with Manchester by the Sea, Lonergan uses Margaret to plumb the depths of trauma and guilt. This sprawling, somewhat unruly film doesn’t make the mistake of trying to oversimplify its subject matter for narrative convenience either. The film is messy, but so is everything it cares about, and it’s better of Lonergan’s last two works. The film is also haunted by the specter of 9/11 and serves as a meditation on the difficulties of integrating such an event into one’s understanding of the world (particularly as a young person).
There is a lot to love about Margaret, Anna Paquin’s performance very much included. She feels real in this film, and that fact is absolutely essential to its success. Lonergan’s script is layered and includes some of the most authentic-sounding mother-daughter interactions I’ve heard. Lonergan also embraces the awkwardness of his high-school-aged characters. Such a script would have trouble accommodating an overly polished figure at its center, but Paquin never allows that to become an issue. Her work here is controlled chaos at its best.
Mad Max: Fury Road, Black & Chrome Edition (2015/6)
Directed by George Miller
I’ve seen Mad Max: Fury Road numerous times. It’s my favorite movie (full stop). I know it well. And yet, the Black & Chrome Edition still managed to surprise me. Which is all to say that I’m so glad that George Miller invented cinema in the year 2015, and that he and Warner Bros. later decided to bless the masses even further by releasing this alternate version.
None of the energy or the glorious excess of the color version of Fury Road is lost in black and white. In fact, the images in this version are charged with even more power. I felt this film more intensely than just about any other. Swapping color for black and white highlights the incredible composition of the film’s images and lends them a strange, new beauty. There is a sense of timelessness conveyed by black and white that melds seamlessly with Miller’s tale. More importantly, the emotional element of the film is undoubtedly intensified in this edition. I don’t know how to describe it (I am, after all, in the realm of the abstract here), but I experienced it—the color version of the film packs a wallop, but this one left me reeling in a way I won’t forget.
I was lucky enough to watch the Black & Chrome Fury Road on a big screen. If you get a chance to do the same, don’t let it pass you by.
20th Century Women
Directed by Mike Mills
20th Century Women features a solid, nuanced, sensitive, and well-timed script from Mills and is bolstered by an exceptional lead performance by Annette Bening. Greta Gerwig and Elle Fanning are also quite good.
Mills and his cast respect all of the film’s characters, and the result is a tender, emotionally intelligent work of art. 20th Century Women also excels at interweaving its different narratives with different moments in history. The film just feels good. And its now crystal clear that Beginners (2010) wasn’t a fluke.
Directed by Martin Scorsese
ALL HAIL, MARTIN SCORSESE.
Even if the last 15 minutes of the film don’t work for me (they don’t), it’s clear that only a master could have made this film.
So much of Silence is sublime (I know what the word means, and I mean it). This is especially true of Rodrigo Prieto’s cold, elegant, and overwhelming cinematography.
The film is also (appropriately) more ideologically ambivalent than some are giving it credit for. Silence presents. It does not judge.
The subjects that Scorsese tackles here—religion, sacrifice, morality, self-preservation, and much more besides—are complex in the extreme, and to oversimplfy them by opting for easy answers is work for much lesser films.
I’ve never really been a “fan” of Andrew Garfield’s acting, but Silence makes it clear that he is capable of giving a performance that is intense, layered, heavy, and controlled all at once. I’m sure Scorsese deserves some of the credit here, but Garfield’s performance here is one of the best of 2016 (that he was nominated for the hot mess that is Hacksaw Ridge instead is absolutely baffling). Though he’s not in the film all that much, Adam Driver also does impressive work here, and he’s quickly become an actor to keep an eye on—his range is impressive, and he has more sheer presence than most.
Silence left me rattled in that no other film has for a while, and I have little doubt that it will endure far longer than La La Land (or just about anything else from 2016). Silence is a brave and beautiful film, and Scorsese refuses to underestimate his viewers.
Until Next Time
Thanks for stopping by! I’d love to know what the best films you’ve watched recently are, so feel free to share in a comment below!