Little Women

Little Women

If I was a girl in a book, this would all be so easy.

For how ubiquitous the story of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is, both in English classes in America and across the annals of film, it can be a slight surprise to note that this is actually the first film adaptation of the novel to officially appear on the List. I’ve previously seen the 1933 version for the Best Picture Project, and I didn’t really care for it all that much; I did end up rereading my review of that one after I’d seen this version just to compare them, though, since a lot of what the ’33 version ended up getting wrong, this version somehow got so much more right. There is, of course, an obvious caveat to the praise I’m about to throw upon Greta Gerwig’s take on Little Women; that this sort of film, with its character focus and general lack of narrative arc, won’t be for everyone. Still, for all the filmed adaptations of this work, Gerwig’s version may quite possibly be as close to the perfect realization as is possible.

For those who skipped English classes or missed my previous review, the little women of the title are the four March sisters: Jo, Amy, Beth, and Meg, who are on the cusp of adulthood circa Civil War-era America. Their father has gone off to aid in the war, leaving their mother, Marmee, to take care of the family, and Jo takes it upon herself to help bring in some income as well through her writing. Each of the March girls has a particular passion or talent they wish to pursue, Jo being the most headstrong about hers; this, however, is 19th-century America, and it will be a challenge for any of the sisters to pursue and achieve their dreams instead of settling for marriage and a family – a discriminatory restriction that Jo is keenly aware of. Still, there may be something to be said even for love in such times, something that Jo is also trying hard to deny herself, and it takes several events happening in the lives of the March family over the years for Jo to come to terms with both her desire to be her own woman as well as her underlying need to be a part of a loving family. As I said in the opener, there’s a lot that happens in Little Women in terms of plot rather than narrative, and this most recent version takes it a little further by kind of assuming you have some knowledge of the story & setting going in, since the film pretty much drops right in on you and moves forward regardless of your disorientation. What I did enjoy a lot with the narrative here was the decision to cross-cut between the girls’ future and past, juxtaposing events that have happened earlier in their lives with events that happen later; it helped establish the idea that the story was mostly about Jo coming back to the core of what she needs as a person: a family around her, which is probably the film’s narrative if for lack of anything else. Everyone seems to be engaged with the story and bringing everything they have to their roles, to varying degrees of success; Emma Watson as Meg was the one sister that seemed to struggle a slight bit with the dialogue, and while Timothee Chalamet does great with his character, it did seem hard to think he wasn’t a little miscast. By far the best scenes in the film, though, are of the four March girls basically doing little more than gab with each other; the chemistry between all of the actors was top-notch, even to the smaller parts. Speaking of which, shout-out to Chris Cooper and Meryl Streep for letting themselves be cast a few rungs further down the character ladder than they otherwise might’ve done, though those kudos probably go to Gerwig more than anyone for managing that of them.

This is an inexplicable film; there’s really no real reason to seek it out if you’re not otherwise already interested in it, but the film itself is just so special a thing that having people pass it up just seems a waste. It’s so rare to be able to appreciate a film like this, one so perfectly put together that it carries that magical air about it that seems so effortless but at the same time hints at how well-crafted everything is and how much work was actually put into it. Really, there’s so much that this film does right that I don’t have the space to cover it all, so I’m left to just do what I can in congratulating Gerwig for everything she manages in only her second film as a solo director. I’ve only seen two versions of this adaptation, but I seriously can’t fathom how any other version can possibly do it better than this.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu)

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

If you look at me… who do I look at?

Foreign language films had a hell of a 2019, that’s for sure. Of course, there’s the obvious one, the one that became the first ever to win Best Picture at the Oscars, and indeed Parasite seemed like a gravitational singularity, sucking all the awards in that dared to glimpse its event horizon. This does mean, though, that while all the organizations and festivals and groups were focused on Parasite and giving it everything, a lot of other really good world cinema unfortunately fell by the wayside. Take, for example, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a French film by Celine Sciamma, which is currently sitting pretty at #14 on Letterboxd’s rankings of the Top 250 Narrative Films of All Time. Now, considering the film only came out last year, and that there’s been a who-the-hell-knows amount of films made over the last century-and-a-half, that’s quite an impressive number to be at. Many would look at that list and take blatant note that Parasite is #1, though, which is the unfortunate shadow being cast on all the other films of world cinema released in 2019. Shame, too, since if Parasite hadn’t been around, Portrait might well have won just about everything that the Korean film ended up taking, and for damn good reason too.

It is around the end of the 18th century, in France. A young painter named Marianne is brought to an island in order to paint a portrait of the young heiress who lives at the estate there, who is set to be married to a Milanese nobleman after her elder sister, who was the one originally betrothed, committed suicide. The heiress, Heloise, does not want to be married, and as such has refused to sit for previous commissioned portraits; thus, Heloise’s mother has hired Marianne ostensibly as her daughter’s companion, to study Heloise in secret and paint her portrait without her knowing. Naturally, the two women become close, and the truth is wont to come out at some point, but the real story of the film isn’t about the painting; it’s about the two women, and how their relationship grows and evolves as they spend precious time with each other before Heloise’s mother returns from a trip and the painting is nearing completion, meaning that Marianne’s job will be done and she will be sent home. I’ll admit, it took me a slightly longer amount of time to sink into this one than I would’ve preferred, and indeed I spent most of the first act or so wondering where the film was taking me and what mood it was trying to present. It was during a key scene of dialogue between Marianne and Heloise, though, that finally got the film’s intentions to click in my head, and I began noticing all the little details of both the composition of the narrative and the performances of the two leads that, from the point-of-view of either Marianne or Heloise, draw attention to the other woman, and how the pair become increasingly drawn to each other as the few remaining days they have together go by. Stealing furtive glances at each other, analyzing the other woman’s ticks and expressions, reading fables together and figuring out what they mean and how it relates to them; this is basically an expression of an ill-fated romance, a romance that the two want to have happen, and do have happen, but due to fate, is never really meant to be. There’s a hushed and secretive fog hovering over the whole thing, especially the dialogue, which isn’t so much said or spoken rather than half-whispered, as if someone, anyone, might come barging in through a door or around a corner and put a stop to the desires and wishes of both women before they become reality. A great deal of this comes from the performances, but an equal part of it feels totally thought and sketched out by Sciamma; she knows exactly what kind of film she wants to make, and damn if she doesn’t get there. The only thing that seemed a little odd was a subplot involving the maid of the estate, who realizes she is pregnant and the two women aid her in her attempts to terminate the pregnancy; I wasn’t 100% on how it related to the main plot of the two women or why it was there, and the scenes involving it came off to me as an obvious subplot introduced in order to have a subplot. It does feel, though, that that might be on my end, and I may just need further clarification on it, but maybe I’m not alone in wondering, so I feel it warrants mention.

I’m frankly surprised as all hell that this didn’t make the list of nominees for International Feature at the Oscars. Apparently, it was one of three films shortlisted as France’s entry, and they went with a different film instead (that had tied for the Jury Prize, or third place, at Cannes). I have yet to see the film they did pick, but I’d be bowled over if it was really better than this. Portrait isn’t obtusely amazing; it’s subtle, and intricately designed, and it definitely comes across as one of those films that separates the casual moviegoer from the real cinephile, the ones that can enjoy just about any film versus the ones with enough perception and experience to be able to appreciate this film and how well it’s made. It’s basically to that end that led me to end up on the score I did; I’ve said a few times in the past for some films that there will be a percentage of viewers who just won’t take to it no matter what, and Portrait is unquestionably one of those films. It’s just a matter of seeing if that percentage is larger than I hope it is, and if so, that’ll be a fairly disappointing thought on the state of movie viewership today; this is the kind of film that I honestly wish more people than I secretly think will be able to appreciate, and that those who can do so will appreciate this probably even more than I’ve been able to myself.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

The Lighthouse

The Lighthouse

He believed that there was some enchantment in the light… Went mad, he did.

After Hereditary made it onto the List for 2018, it seemed only a matter of time that the editors would also take notice of the other up-and-coming auteur horror director to make the mainstream the past few years: Robert Eggers. They passed on The Witch, but they had another prime opportunity with Eggers’ follow-up of last year, The Lighthouse. It definitely seemed like an easy decision, too; it would really take a concerted effort to actually make a bad film with what they had and intended to do with this, and Eggers, even with this being only his second feature, knows enough to take what he’s got and make something singular and wholly unique with it. That, indeed, appears to be Eggers’ M.O.; both of his features so far are unlike almost anything else in Hollywood, especially in today’s era, and that The Lighthouse is not just a unique and fantastical experience, but an altogether entertaining and excellently-made one, is enough to appreciate Eggers and his work to a grand level almost unattainable by any of his peers.

Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe absolutely command the screen as Ephraim Winslow and Thomas Wake, two men sent out on a four-week service contract to an isolated lighthouse off the eastern shore of New England circa the late-19th century. Wake, the superior, relegates Winslow to the menial tasks, while he keeps the books and retains exclusive access to the actual lamp of the lighthouse, both things that quickly grate on Winslow’s patience, along with a one-eyed seagull that persistently annoys him while he goes about his duties. Wake advises him to leave the gulls alone, superstitiously believing them the reincarnated souls of lost sailors, but Winslow snaps one day and beats the seagull to death, and the weather turns on the island almost immediately, producing a storm that prevents any relief or additional rations from arriving at the island past their departure date. The two men thus try to survive both the extreme weather and conditions on the island amid dwindling rations and high consumption of alcohol, but mostly try to survive each other, alternatingly hating and needing the other man as secrets come to the surface and madness creeps in to threaten the survival of both men. As much as the film does rely on the narrative to move things along (though characterization also takes up a large amount of the spotlight), this is mostly a film to be watched for the experience and the presentation than the actual story. The film is not only in stark black-and-white, but an extremely narrow aspect ratio, making the film enclosed in an almost square box to emphasize the claustrophobia of the setting and the mental state of the two men. Everything about the production value and the putting together of the film is an attempt to evoke the film’s late-19th-century period, from the dilapidated lighthouse itself to the music and especially the sea-salty dialogue. Both Pattinson and Dafoe have rarely been better than they are here, with Dafoe particularly gleeful in chewing the scenery of his character and the antiquated way he talks; the film was frequently advertised as simply ‘Pattinson vs Dafoe’, and The Lighthouse absolutely takes that simple pitch and runs clear across the country with it.

What I ended up liking the most about The Lighthouse, besides the all-encompassing presentation so thick you feel like you’re drowning in it, is how ethereal and unexplained the film ultimately is. To truly explain why is to evoke spoilers for the end of the film, but I chose to end up on an interpretation of the film as an almost-meta example of a spook story told by lighthouse keepers such as the two in the film to new ‘wickies’ on the job, almost a cautionary tale of what could happen if you don’t heed the warning Wake gives Winslow about the seagull. As such, The Lighthouse is a greatly engrossing campfire story of a picture, capped off by two intense and committed performances from its leading men, and it is absolutely a film that demands to be seen at least once before you die. I’m more than pleased the editors did add this, too, and they seem to have a wider field of view than the Academy, which nominated this only for its cinematography, snubbing the film in a few other categories it otherwise should’ve gotten noms in (Dafoe in particular should’ve outright won for Best Supporting Actor, instead of not even making the field of five). Still, even with the Academy’s blind spot, this is a film that I’m confident will grow into a hell of a cult film in the years to come, and its appreciation (along with that of Eggers himself) will no doubt increase once people start catching on to this one.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

The Favourite

The Favourite

“It is fun to be Queen sometimes.” “One can only imagine.”

Despite having never seen one of his films until now, I’d known of and generally been an appreciator of Yorgos Lanthimos; though, if pressed to explain why, I’d likely come up empty-handed. He seems… weird, and a part of me can appreciate and even enjoy weird films by weird directors at times. It seemed only a matter of time until he’d make something a little more mainstream but still weird enough to his own sensibilities that would somehow catch the attention of the Academy, and sure enough, we have The Favourite, which landed him noms for Best Director and Best Picture. Going into the ceremony, and again without having seen the film, I had it and Roma pegged as the likely frontrunners to win the big one; and then, of course, Green Book happened… somehow, so that prediction fell through. Still, for what it’s worth, this is very clearly one of the best films of 2018, and even with the Academy’s languid selection they officially produced for Best Picture, I’ll stump for this one to stay even among a whole new field of nominees.

It’s 18th-century England, and Queen Anne rules the country from her estate, which also houses the Parliament along with the maids and servants required for its upkeep. Anne, however, seems to be at most a woman-child, barely interested in ruling the country as much as she is just being occupied by various activities; as such, her favourite, Lady Sarah, is largely the one in charge of the governing and passing the word of the Queen to the legislature and the staff. One of the new staff hires is Abigail, Sarah’s cousin, who quickly learns how things are in the palace as well as the nature of Sarah’s relationship to the Queen, and having basically fallen from nobility due to her father’s actions, seeks to regain it through any means possible. Such means swiftly present themselves as Abigail aids the Queen during an inflammation of gout, and Abigail and Sarah are soon locked in a back-and-forth to curry the Queen’s desires and become the Queen’s favourite for good. As much as this film is ostensibly about the plot, the true value of the film seems to come from Lanthimos and his crew, as the film is an absolute feast for the eyes and ears both in what’s on the screen and how it comes to be on screen. The film is extremely meticulous in both its construction and presentation, one of the first things I noticed about it; camera moves are very deliberate, and anything in the frame is there for exact reasons and little else. Another extremely easy thing to notice was the film’s copious use of wide-angle lenses, and even fish-eye lenses at times, as if the events of the film really are being shown to us through a camera that the characters are merely pretending isn’t there; an odd viewpoint into this world, to be sure, but this is an odd film in every respect. Besides Lanthimos and cinematographer Robbie Ryan, the costuming and make-up departments must’ve had an absolute ball with their work for this film, and I’ll give props to the production design as well even with the film being almost entirely shot in whole in two real-life locations. Of course, one can’t talk about this film and its merits without mentioning the trio of ladies in the leads; all three give arguably career-best performances, with particular praise to Olivia Colman, who easily makes Anne the center of all the focus of the film and the events that happen, even when she’s not on screen. I’ll also make mention of Nicholas Hoult as Robert Harley, the principle opposition to Sarah-through-Anne’s wishes of governance, and who does a very good job returning the hard serves of the female leads.

If I can, I’ll try and drop the pretense of being a reviewer or critic and talk real about this film: this was bonkers. It was fun, and whip-smart, and the bits of black comedy that were there were snarky as all hell. The whole thing comes across as a twisted mix of Dangerous Liaisons and All About Eve, housed within the blackest frame a black comedy will allow a picture to be displayed, and looking at the end result, it couldn’t have worked any other way than this. Lanthimos was really smart at how he did this film and the choices he made as to how he was going to do it, and add in the never-better Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz, along with a surprising anchor with Colman, and I’m frankly uncertain how anyone couldn’t like this film, or any of the reasons they’d have as to why they wouldn’t. This is more than a good and entertaining film; it’s intelligent, and it doesn’t look down on its audience but asks of them to invest their attention into the picture, because it knows its own worth as such. That, for me, is what I think I appreciated the most, and I’m glad the Academy was able to appreciate it as well.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

Avengers: Infinity War

Avengers Infinity War

Perfectly balanced… As all things should be.

Hmm… What to do, what to do. I am sitting here, typing on my laptop, trying to figure out how to write a review of Avengers: Infinity War, because it somehow managed to get added to the List this past year, even despite the editors generally disdaining superhero movies as a whole, as evidenced by the small number they have added as well as the captions they’ve written for the ones they did. Not having a copy of the new edition myself, and thus unable to read the Book’s blurb for Infinity War, I can only conjecture and guess as to why they saw fit to add this, especially since the following year would give us Endgame, the film that really serves as a conclusion and sendoff to the franchise up to this point. What does Infinity War do and have that Endgame doesn’t also have or serve as a better example of? If it seems like I’m rambling, I am; this is Infinity War, the film that everybody and their unborn children saw three times over, and I really don’t know what I can say that hasn’t already been said at some point. Still, I guess I’m obligated to say something, since this – again – somehow managed to make the list… So here we go.

All across the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been heroes and villains, storylines and conclusions, catalysts of action and forces of change, and perhaps none of these catalysts in this universe are more powerful than six individual stones that represent six varying factors of the universe itself: the Infinity Stones. Each by itself is impossibly powerful over the universal aspect it covers; gather all six together, however, and you will have the power to literally do anything at will. Naturally, forces at play have sought to keep these six stones separated and secret, and they’ve been largely successful up to now; now, however, comes Thanos, the Mad Titan, an inter-galactic warlord who seeks to bring his own twisted version of balance to the universe by gathering all six stones in order to wipe out half of all life. Standing in his way, in one form or another, is just about every single Marvel hero and character from the entire franchise so far, and it will take every single one of them to figure out how to stop the Mad Titan before he manages to complete his quest… and woe betide these heroes if they manage to fail. There’s a lot one could talk about when it comes to Infinity War, and even with my saying that about a number of films in the past, it could not be more true than with this film right here: this is basically the climax of a 20+ film franchise, and in order to work as well as it does, it has to incorporate just about everything that has come before it, and Infinity War does that seemingly without effort, so first kudos go to the screenwriters for managing just to pull this off. A lot of what people were looking forward to with this was the new levels of interplay between characters, especially those that hadn’t interacted before now, and while you certainly get your money’s worth in that regard, you get your money’s worth about ten times over with everything this film throws at you. The visuals are amazing, the special effects are flawless, the CGI aspects have never been better, and really one couldn’t help but expect this given the film’s stratospheric budget. All the players are fully committed to the characters and the stakes of the story, even the newer ones, and this helps to sell the film where it otherwise could’ve easily failed. But all of this pales in comparison to what fans of the franchise really came to this film for, and that’s the film’s antagonist, Thanos, whose character and emotional arc as well as the journey he takes through the film really ends up making him the protagonist of the story, even according to the writers. Thanos, played here in both voice and motion-capture by Josh Brolin, is an absolutely dominant force the entire time he is on screen, and even when he’s not; that the motion-capture and CGI for him is as good as it is does not do justice to Brolin’s performance and what he brings to the character, and many have stated outright that Thanos in this film instantly cemented his place in the list of the greatest villains in cinematic history, an opinion I share without question.

I don’t really know what else to say about this, especially since I’d be willing to bet that a good 90-95% of all the people that will ever read this have already seen this film, possibly multiple times. Hence, I can’t end this review with an attempt to recommend either seeing or not seeing this; if this is your thing, you’ve already seen it, and if it isn’t, you haven’t. Two sides of the same coin indeed. Still, though the choice might be a slight bit premature given Endgame the following year, I am kinda glad that this did get added to the List; if any film from the MCU should be added to basically represent the entire MCU, which is now the highest-grossing film franchise ever and unquestionably a benchmark of the modern world of cinema (thus deserving representation of some kind), it would probably be this film. This is the big one, the mack daddy of the Marvel world, at once a culmination of everything that came before and a teaser of what needs to follow, along with one of the best endings a superhero film has dared to pull off. Whether you love it or hate it, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has changed movies forever, and if you want all of that in one package, you’ve got it right here.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

Lady Bird

Lady Bird

We’re afraid that we will never escape our past, and we’re afraid of what the future will bring.

There’s coming-of-age films, and then there’s coming-of-age films; even those who haven’t gone through the 1001 List are likely well aware of the prolific nature of the genre. As befitting a prolific genre like this, there’s lots of ways to go about it, literally more ways than I can think of and list off in this review; my attempt to do so was stymied by my inference that the possibilities are almost literally endless, and the different types of coming-of-age films that actually have been made are only slightly less so. I guess what I’m leading to is, coming-of-age films are a dime a dozen, and to stand out from the crowd, you’ve got to have something particularly special, either in quality or in what you are saying when you make such a film. With Lady Bird, the solo directorial debut of Greta Gerwig, I watched it, and I looked, and looked hard… But this film doesn’t really have anything different from its contemporaries, and indeed seems to come across as right at the crux of the bell curve. So then, why… why is this film as unbelievably good as it is?

Christine McPherson is a senior at a Catholic high school in Sacramento, who wants nothing more than to not be in Sacramento; she distances herself from her “wrong side of the tracks” upbringing, especially her mother, with whom she constantly argues; she gives herself the nickname Lady Bird, to give herself a name instead of using the name given by her parents; she disdains the Catholic school she is forced to attend, at varying points heckling an anti-abortion speaker at their school and vandalizing the car of one of the nuns there; and most of all, she wants to go to college in New York, the center of the cultural world, far from the local schools her parents want her to go to, for lack of financing otherwise. Still, while Lady Bird tries as she can to be more than a regular Sacramento teenager, she is still a regular teenager, going through everything a regular teenager goes through in this time of their lives, and despite her otherwise flagrant disregard for her upbringing and religious affiliations, it seems it will take an act of God for a teenager like Lady Bird to understand what her parents have really gone through for her, and what it really does mean to be a teenager… and an adult. For as thorough as that plot summary seemed, the film itself is only an hour and a half long, and holy hell does it make that time count; man oh man, was this film brisk, wasting no time with its editing and the scenes it chooses to cover everything it wants to cover. That’s not to say that this film cheapens itself by being short, however; this film, contrary to what one would think of a first-time writer/director like Gerwig is, merely knows exactly what it needs to do, and does it exactly how it should do it, and not a frame less or more. The production itself is extremely suburbia, feeling like it was ripped right from a small-town yearbook, and not heightening the reality of what’s going on; the script does the same, imbuing the characters with real-life sensibilities and mannerisms instead of caricaturing a period of time, and Gerwig is to be commended for both of these things. In front of the camera is an absolutely winning cast, headed by Saoirse Ronan in the title role, and while Ronan is as perfect as we expect her to be, the other standouts for me were her parents, played by Tracy Letts and Laurie Metcalf, who have just as much if not more of the emotional weight to carry in the film, and are effortlessly up to the task.

Here’s what I think makes Lady Bird not only one of the best all-around coming-of-age films in recent memory, but perhaps of all time: it takes everything it has and does on camera, and goes a little further with everything, but without making it obvious or visible that it is going further; everything in the film has multiple ways of looking at it and several levels of meaning, especially emotionally, and Lady Bird as a film has that imbued into its very core, so that it comes across in virtually every aspect of the picture. It is reality, plain and simple; as multi-faceted as individual people are as well as the things that different people say and feel, and thankfully, Lady Bird doesn’t make the mistake of just showing reality and making it a featureless void, with no emotion behind anything. Gerwig is a smart director, knowing what to say with each thing she does and how to get it to come across without actually doing it at face-value; this is a film that works with what is said, but it works even more with what is unsaid. There is so much that can be mined from a viewing of Lady Bird, even a repeat viewing, and one needn’t merely go into the film wanting to see life through the nostalgia filter and reminisce about their high school years, though that is entirely possible; Lady Bird asks you to do more than that, to understand yourself and your life as it was back then in a way that the you back then could not possibly have done at the time. Only now, as an adult, can you understand what teenage life really ends up meaning, both for you and your parents, and that Lady Bird captures and conveys this so effortlessly from a first-time writer/director is nothing short of miraculous.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

Call Me by Your Name

Call Me by Your Name

Nature has cunning ways of finding our weakest spot.

It probably would be a little embarrassing to say that of all the films from the 2017 award season, the one I was most looking forward to seeing was a coming-of-age story about a young Italian-American finding his first same-sex relationship in the sumptuous wilds of rural Italy. That is, it would probably be more embarrassing than it ends up being, given how the film in question, Call Me by Your Name, ended up being one of the most revered and lauded films of the year. The almost stoic nodding-heads-of-approval from the Oscars aside, Call Me by Your Name was absolutely the most beloved film of the awards season in the circles of the more everyday moviegoer, or at least the ones that would take to awards-season films; Letterboxd, for instance, loved this film to a near-unheard of level, and now that I’ve seen it myself, I cannot nor am I going to blame them in the slightest – this film is artistry on a level rarely seen in contemporary cinema, from everyone involved both in front of the camera and behind. To use an old-fashioned saying, likely more apropos than normal given how old-fashioned the mentality of Call Me by Your Name is; They just don’t make movies like this anymore.

Elio is a 17-year-old living in 1980’s Italy with his American family, in particular his father, a professor of archaeology who routinely invites select graduate students to live with his family for a summer to assist in his work. This year, Elio’s father brings in Oliver, a 24-year-old Adonis of a figure, and despite Elio’s initial chagrin at their contrasting personalities and having to capitulate to the new arrival, he finds himself harboring a growing attraction to the outsider. What follows is an on-and-off courtship between the two that eventually blossoms into something more, particularly for Elio, and he must come to terms with his relationships and with himself as Oliver’s stay with the family eventually nears its end. That plot summary might make it seem that there’s not a whole lot of plot to Call Me by Your Name, and in truth, there basically isn’t; this is a coming-of-age film, after all. But, while the plot may be slightly thinner than most other films of its length, Call Me by Your Name more than makes up for it in sheer production value, as well as the artistry imbued into the film by both the cast and the crew. The rural Italian setting provides some of the most naturally stunning images a film like this can afford to, pretty much without even trying, though cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s efforts are absolutely well appreciated. If you take the time to look close enough, it’s fairly easy to see the seams of the film, but in no way is this a detraction or negative aspect; rather, looking closely, one can appreciate the craftsmanship of the seams that much more, owing much to director Luca Guadagnino and his oversight. In front of the camera, we have the winning talent of Armie Hammer as Oliver and Michael Stuhlbarg as Mr. Perlman, but the real find is relative newcomer Timothee Chalamet as Elio, who became the third youngest nominee for the Best Actor Oscar for this film, and the youngest since 1939, and rightly so; Chalamet’s performance in this role is, dare I say, perfect, never making a single wrong decision or hitting a wrong note, while also elevating the role and the character so much more with every nuance and natural inkling he takes advantage of on the screen. The production itself is the behind-the-camera selling point, but in front of the camera, Chalamet and his stunning characterization are what people will come to see this for.

While this film was generally praised to high heaven and back, it wasn’t without some people who didn’t take to it as well as most, to put it simply. Of the criticisms or hangups I’ve seen people have toward this, the one I most understand is that the people, culture, and lifestyle depicted in the film are too affluent to be entirely relatable, especially to a typical American audience. There’s no question that Elio and his family are among the better off, but I still feel that, rather than detract from the film’s relatability, it shows that the events that transpire, along with the emotions and experiences that come with them, are universal; no matter what your class or where your upbringing, these sort of experiences and life lessons can still apply to you, even if it ends up doing so in a slightly altered form. The core of that, I think, is why Call Me by Your Name is as universally lauded as it has been; just about anyone can relate to the simplest-defined of coming-of-age experiences that Elio goes through in this film. That the film is as exquisitely made and sumptuous to look at as it is certainly helps it along that much further as well. This is an absolute winner in just about every sense I can think of; if for whatever reason you skipped or passed on this when it had its meager theatrical run, it is completely worth a watch even on DVD, and it’s one of those rare films that you almost owe it to yourself to see at some point.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

Get Out

Get Out

I told you not to go in that house…

So, despite whatever my best intentions may be, there seems to be a inerasable stigma when it comes to someone trying to write or present a review of Jordan Peele’s debut feature Get Out, no matter what that person may look like. This is a film that, almost as much as Black Panther the following year, seemed to bring together the African-American moviegoing audience; finally, they had a film all their own, that represented them on-screen without being ‘a representation of them’ on-screen, and it only took a century of cinema for a writer-director like Peele to get it done. Now, for those of you who do not know or are unaware, I have a possibly shocking truth about myself to reveal to you, one that may color your perception of me from this point on and forever: I am not a black person. I am a white guy… Okay, my sorry attempt at humor aside, I couldn’t help but feel a little pressured when it came to write a review about Get Out, not because I’m a racist, but because it felt like if I didn’t say everything everyone else has said about this and the multiple meanings and layers of subtext throughout the picture, I would be seen as one. Well, there might well be plenty of hidden meanings and subtexts that juxtapose the lives of black Americans today with the events of the film, but when I went into Get Out, I didn’t focus on that, and coming out of it, I didn’t really have much thought toward it in that way. What I did have a thought of, and what I went into it looking for, was that this was a damn good film, a very effective smaller-sized horror, and absolutely one of the best debuts of a writer-director in recent memory.

Chris Washington is not looking forward to spending the weekend up-state at his girlfriend’s parents’ house, as any boyfriend might be; the main issue with him, though, is that he is black and his girlfriend, Rose, is white, and comes from a well-off white family. Despite Rose’s assurances, the weekend at the Armitage estate seems to start off much to Chris’ expectations; Rose’s parents, one a neurosurgeon and the other a hypnotherapist, seem to be overly accepting of the relationship, the hired hands around the estate are all black, and when Rose’s extended family comes by the house for a family get-together, all of them marvel and awe at what a prime specimen Chris is as a boyfriend and a man, particularly a black man. It’s when he sneaks out of the house for a smoke one night that things start to get really peculiar: Rose’s mom, under the guise of helping him quit smoking, manages to put him in a hypnotic state; the hired hands of the house, despite being black, act irrespectively mild-mannered and soft-spoken; and Chris finds out from his TSA-agent friend Rod that a photo of the only black guest among the white family that weekend is actually a missing person who disappeared six months ago. Chris, Rod, and even Rose seem completely unsure of what is going on or what the strange off-ness of everyone’s behavior is leading towards… and if you’re looking for me to explain, even mildly, you are better off looking elsewhere, because going any further into the plot is doing any potential viewer of this film a disservice. Seriously, don’t go look up anything more or try to extrapolate further details from the trailers; this is a film that demands people go into it knowing as little as possible, both to let the twists have their full effect and to reward potential further viewings to see what was obvious from the start but wasn’t clear the first time. Really, the only things I have to say about this film and the technicals are in regards to this being Jordan Peele’s first ever film, and it really only amounts to this: how in the hell is this Peele’s first ever film? The craftsmanship of the filmmaking that takes place in Get Out is miles ahead of anything one would expect a first-time filmmaker to get done; not in any particular wow-factor in the production, but because the production is so finely-tuned, and that the resulting film is exactly what it ought to be, and not a single minute more. This is a perfectly-paced horror, with nary a frame or even an action in the frame out of place or not deliberate, and the ramping up of the chill-factor and the foreboding sense of dread, of “oh man, something is going to go down, but WHAT”, makes one mistake Peele as a writer-director a couple decades into his career as a genre filmmaker.

The only real negatives I had to consider about the film were mainly post-release, in that I didn’t feel Daniel Kaluuya had really done enough to warrant an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, or that Peele’s script, as good and as tight as it is, warranted a win for Original Screenplay. Still, though, these are piddling nitpicks, and not even really about the actual film itself. As I said in the opener, I didn’t care about any of the subtext or the hidden messages that Peele was trying to infer with this; what I cared about was that this, as a horror film (if only a smaller-scale one), was really good, even great; the sense of suspense through the whole first two acts was palpable and crescendoed at exactly the right pace, so that when the shoe finally does drop, it’s almost not even a relief to the viewer, but a turn of the page into unknown territory, into “oh God, what NOW” territory. I loved that about Get Out, and I appreciated it even more, and even despite my reservations about a few of the nominations and wins this got, I am absolutely pleased that this did somehow manage to get nominated for Best Picture. Time will tell whether I think it’s enough of a picture to potentially have won, but regardless of the outcome of that mental question, this is absolutely more than enough of a film, let alone a debut film, to put Jordan Peele solidly on the market as a filmmaker to look out for, whatever color your skin may be.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

The Great Dictator

The Great Dictator

In the name of democracy, let us all unite!

Well, here it is; probably the largest gap in my film viewing history – until now, I had never seen Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. Of course I knew well enough about the film, but had never had the cause to seek it out; my days of watching Chaplin seeming to be largely behind me. When I saw that it was a part of the Best Picture field, I was pretty pleased to be given a reason to watch it and fill that particular hole in my viewing, and indeed when I’d gotten to the field of 1940 I knew it would be the final film I would check off from that list. Really, though, it was that it had been so long since my last Chaplin that was of chief worry for me; would I still be able to appreciate and enjoy him and his work, or had the slew of nonstop dramas that I’d seen for the Best Picture odyssey mellowed me too considerably? During my watch, it threatened to at first, but leave it to Chaplin to come through when it matters the most.

Here, Chaplin pulls double-duty in two roles; one, as the dictator of fictional spoof on Nazi Germany known as Tomainia, Adenoid Hynkel, and the other as an unnamed Jewish barber, who happens to bear more than a passing resemblance to Hynkel (go figure) but who couldn’t be more different in personality and character. While Hynkel tries to conquer the world and encounters a myriad of troubles in his quest to do so, the barber is just trying to get by in the ghetto created by Hynkel’s policies. Really, there’s not a whole lot of narrative to this one, being the type of film it is; it stumbles from gag to gag and coincidence to coincidence rather than craft a throughline for events to happen, but that’s what it’s supposed to be doing. I had to admit, when the film started I didn’t think very much of it; the sound design in particular threw me off, the film opting for odd batches of silence where I’d been taught to expect background noise or soundtrack at the very least, and indeed the film’s abrupt jump straight into the war-time gags initially made them unable to land for me. It was a little bit into the film, though, that I’d noticed it was starting to grow on me; by the time of the scene where Hynkel is swayed into world conquest and dances with an inflatable globe, I knew I was watching something particularly special. What finally sunk in about The Great Dictator seems silly enough to say, given that this is a comedy first and foremost and most all are aware of that going into it, but it was that this is supposed to be a satire that escaped me at first glance; when it finally got into my head, the film made a whole lot of sense, especially as it got into the later portions of the picture. Satire is supposed to not just be funny, but a parody of real life, and not just to be a parody for humor’s sake, but to use that parody to say something about the world and/or the state of it, a definition The Great Dictator perfectly captures with Chaplin’s closing monologue, dictated directly to the camera in a blunt reveal that Chaplin is not speaking to the crowds of Tomainia, but to us the viewers. In being a parody, and in being a satire, using comedy to make us understand the world a little better, The Great Dictator succeeds effortlessly.

I guess the best advice I could give to someone looking to fill the same hole in their moviewatching history that I did with this picture is: don’t go into it expecting it to be a great drama, or perfectly made, or for it to wow with incredible production value. This is a picture of importance, not of soul-crushing proselytizing but of lampooning to take the edge off a serious issue to get us to look at it with a clearer head. In short, don’t go into The Great Dictator expecting it to be what it very clearly isn’t, or especially what it’s not supposed to be. Going into this with the right mindset, one will find the magic of Chaplin is still very much alive and well here, even with this being his first ever talking picture. Chaplin, with this, would become the first ever person to be nominated for producing (Best Picture), acting, and writing for a single film at the Academy Awards. Needless to say, he hasn’t lost a step.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

La La Land

La La Land

Here’s to the fools who dream.

Call me superficial, but I like to end each new batch of 1001 additions on a particularly good or significant note. That said, I knew that La La Land was gonna be my final 1001 film of this year before it even got added, and indeed before I’d even seen it. Having loved Whiplash to a ridiculous degree, I was more than eager for whatever director Damien Chazelle was gunning to do next, so I followed the pre-production of La La Land closely, and I figured that, even with it being a musical, I would enjoy it enough to want to pick it up on Blu-Ray anyways, so I even passed on initially seeing it in theaters. When I finally did pick it up, I tried to go into it with as little ceremony as I could, just in case the film actually let me down and didn’t meet the expectations that a film that had just tied the record for most Oscar nominations for a single film would generate. Well, I learned something that day, and here’s the best way I can put it into words: Sometimes, some films, even the critically beloved ones, just aren’t for everyone. La La Land is entertaining, a hell of a production, and certainly one of the best films of the past year. But it’s not the best, and that ended up being the period at the end of the sentence that was my experience with it.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are Mia and Sebastian, two individuals living in Los Angeles with their own individual dreams of stardom and making things happen based on what the town can offer them. Being in a musical, the two naturally meet up on a few occasions and end up together… but ending up together doesn’t necessarily mean ending up together, especially when individual dreams are involved, and both Mia and Sebastian must try and come to terms with the inevitable clashing of their dream versions of making it in L.A. and the reality of being dreamers in a town that’s ultimately just another real-life town. For what it’s worth, almost everything involved in this production is the top of its respective game; from director Chazelle’s handling of the material, both dream and reality, to the Oscar-winning work with color and camera of Linus Sandgren, to the score and songs by Justin Hurwitz. And let’s absolutely not forget Gosling and Stone, both of which are very nearly note for note perfect, even if their performances in the song-and-dance aspects of the film aren’t exactly Astaire-Rogers level, but it’s enough to get you through the film; Stone’s rendition of the audition song in the third act being what very likely won her the Oscar. The one thing I will say, though, is that I don’t really know why City of Stars was picked out as the choicest song of the film, or why it won the Oscar for Original Song; aside from the actual melody of it, I didn’t really find it to be the centerpiece of the film the way the film so clearly wanted it to be, and from a quality standpoint, I would’ve put my weight behind Audition for Oscar recognition if I were one of the producers.

Here’s the thing, though, about this one: it’s good, it’s actually very good. But that’s it. And what’s more, it’s not the type of very good that compels you to want to watch it several times over, at least for me personally; I picked it up for home viewing and watched it the first time, and since then I actually haven’t had any desire to see it again, and I haven’t until just now to write notes for this review. Whereas Whiplash is endlessly watchable for me, and I still get every ounce of entertainment out of that one that I did the first time I saw it, La La Land is just… there, and I feel fairly bad about thinking that way about what was Chazelle’s passion project. I can see why people love this, and I can see why Oscar admired it as much as they did, and I might even agree with a lot of what’s been said about it, especially with the rating I’m choosing to give it. But, even with all that’s been said, that personal validation, that internal gong that certain films just strike within me, wasn’t hit by the efforts of La La Land. This is still a really good film, and who knows; you might get a lot more from it than I did. From all that I’ve seen, though, across the realm of cinema, and from all the cinematic knowledge that I’ve accumulated; to me, this isn’t the cinematic second-coming that it thinks it is.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

And that’s 2016’s additions in the books. Now then, I think I hear Best Picture calling my name once more.