1980

In 1980 audiences walked up to the theater, noticed a $40 million artistic, serious historical drama was playing, and said to themselves, “Nah, we’ll just go see another Star Wars.” Neither Heaven’s Gate or The Empire Strikes back deserve full blame or credit for this changing tide, but they pushed the industry’s face in it. New Hollywood had captured that serious film-going audience, but that crowd was only so big. The majority of humanity would rather see a fun spectacle, and those could be made with that New Hollywood care too. Make it a sequel to the biggest movie event ever and you can just have all our money. Serious, original movies would continue to be made, just with more studio input (which I’d argue is usually good) and less visibility. Don’t worry though, it won’t be long until the age of independent film.

This is also the middle of a weird time for comedies. It’s got a bit of the silly 70s and a bit of the big new talents from places like SNL. Several high grossers are practically forgotten today. Disney was in a huge slump and I guess no one else thought to release anything for kids or families? Maybe something had to change generationally but it’s mind-blowing to me that no one was trying to get money off parents (except of course for Empire Strikes Back). It would be a good four or five years before what I typically think of as 80s kids or teen comedy took off.

The last thing I’d say 1980 has going on is a few films by great filmmakers who have done or will do better. These aren’t where I’d say to start with those guys unless the specific topics interest you, but still solid stuff. I already reviewed The Elephant Man here.

The Empire Strikes Back

I’m not going to describe or rate Empire for you. Star Wars is maybe America’s biggest cultural touchstone.

Sequels have always been present in Hollywood. Empire helped audiences and filmmakers think they could be a worthy endeavor instead of just blatant cash grabs. Once again the lesson seems to be that if you make something good, people want to give you their money. The explosion of both good and awful sequels in the 80s and beyond prove there’s never a shortage of people willing to exploit goodwill.

Heaven’s Gate

When powerful Wyoming cattlemen start killing poor immigrants to save their profits, an eastern lawyer turned western lawman tries to save their lives and fight back.

This is the movie frequently credited as killing United Artists, a studio originally created by famous directors to free themselves from the studio system. United Artists didn’t actually die and even if it had it wouldn’t have been just because of Heaven’s Gate, but the accusation isn’t totally baseless. When upcoming director Michael Cimino won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director with The Deer Hunter, he leveraged that good will into total control over Heaven’s Gate and proceeded to annihilate millions of dollars. On a seven year hot streak of releasing Best Picture nominees, United Artists was sold. The new management didn’t have another nominee until 1988.

Ultimately though, I don’t think it would have mattered if it was made on its original budget, since that budget was comparable to that of Empire Strikes Back, the original Star Wars, or Jaws. It doesn’t matter how much artistic control you give a director; he will never make a dark, three hour Western tragedy that will bring in Star Wars money. Once they found out how to replicate that success (which sometimes was surprisingly just to make another one), the artists lost some of their leverage. Studios didn’t need to give into their demands for total control to bring people to theaters anymore.

Oh yeah and as for Heaven’s Gate as a movie, it just wasn’t interesting. Cimino apparently assumed everyone loved the wedding scene from The Deer Hunter instead of the Russian roulette, because Heaven’s Gate opens with a vast, extended look at the main character’s Harvard graduation ceremony. Jump forward to Wyoming, where immigrants are being killed, which continues unchanging from here on and is always talked about as being unstoppable. An insane amount of time is spent showing us how full of life these impoverished immigrants are, as if their free-wheeling sense of fun is the reason they shouldn’t be murdered. The whole movie hinges on whether or not the main character will fight with them, which is to say the whole movie hinges his character, which is bland. Duh, he’s going to help them.

Raging Bull

Robert De Niro plays Jake LaMotta, a boxer whose explosive rage first propels him to boxing success and later destroys his personal life.

Raging Bull is considered a huge deal, but even when I watched it again assuming I had missed something, I came out disappointed. The fight scenes show violent ferocity, and the closing fight is imposingly dark. Most of the running time though is focused on his personal life, where he’s a mean idiot picking fights with his loved ones, who are unreasonably defensive and also stupid. It’s never scary or intimidating, just uncomfortable. It loses even more steam when LaMotta tries to become a comedian in his old age and is terrible at it. I guess it’s supposed to be a tragedy but he never had any redeeming qualities besides being able to be punched a lot so who cares?

It’s an impressive production so I’m willing to suggest that’s just not my type of story or lead character. Decades of Martin Scorsese’s huge impact on movies probably eroded his shock factor for me as well. Even then he’s got at least five movies better than Raging Bull.

Ordinary People

When one son is killed in an accident and the other son attempts suicide, the Jarrett family cope with tragedy in vastly different ways.

Ordinary People is frequently referred to as “How did Raging Bull lose Best Picture to this??” but it deserves better. This is a fantastic depiction of grief and a dissolving family. Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Judd Hirsch, and Timothy Hutton all portray the views their characters represent perfectly. When Ordinary People came out it was praised for its positive and realistic depiction of therapy and psychiatric care, and a big focus of the movie is public suspicions of psychiatry. It reminds me of Good Will Hunting, but better because it’s more tragic and realistic. No one will ever expect you to have seen Ordinary People and it doesn’t have a huge place in movie history, but once you see it you might join me in recommending it.

The Shining

Jack and Wendy Torrance take a job as caretakers of an isolated mountain hotel during the winter. Their young son Danny’s psychic abilities tip him off to a supernatural presence in the hotel that drives Jack insane.

Stanley Kubrick is the master of slow intensity. Here he controls every moment and every shot to build a feeling of dread. Wendy paging through Jack’s manuscript is creepier than some whole horror movies. The hedge maze is shot to make us feel lost too. When Jack bursts through the door, the camera moves to give his actions weight, and makes it feel like he’s coming at us. The elevator full of blood is suffocating. A movie needs more than just iconic moments but it’s tough for a movie to be bad when it’s made almost entirely of them.

Jack Nicholson gets all the attention but both he and Shelley Duvall are great. The interactions between them are uneven because they need to be in this depiction of the worst-case scenario for marriage.

Kagemusha

A criminal is saved from execution because of his resemblance to the dying clan leader. Samurai battles ensue.

I don’t remember any of the plot or characters of this movie. Probably a bad sign. All I remember are the huge samurai battles which, I mean, yeah, they’re huge. That also made them seem impersonal. The main upside is the visuals and even then it’s not director Akira Kurosawa’s best.

The Blues Brothers

In the first film based on a Saturday Night Live sketch, two brothers get their old band back together to raise money to save the orphanage that raised them.

I would have assumed John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd comedy would carry the movie, but it’s taken over by the music and locations and just the huge production of it all. The Blues Brothers has more in common with musicals than comedies, since so much of the plot blatantly exists to make big musical numbers happen. When the musical numbers start to be a bit much you’re bailed out by a Belushi freak-out or a comically huge car pile-up. Comedy styles are usually easy to copy but The Blues Brothers is one of a kind.

Caddyshack

Danny Noonan works at an upscale country club to raise money to go to college. He tries to win the favor of a snobbish judge who considers awarding him a scholarship. When a rowdy jokester starts frequenting the club his clashes with the judge escalate and Danny must choose a side.

At risk of angering golfers everywhere, I think Caddyshack is overrated. It has funny moments but its focus is all over the place. Every time Rodney Dangerfield shows up they spend way too much time on him. It’s great when he obliviously crashes his boat but after the fifth quip in a row it just seems like they paused the movie for a stand-up routine. Bill Murray freaking out his co-workers is kinda funny but everything with the gopher seems like they wanted to give him something to do and had time to fill.

Danny is a surprisingly interesting character and all Chevy Chase’s stuff here is fun as the worst role model around, so it’s not necessarily bad. It was just given a bigger legacy than it earned because people who seek sports movies have a low bar for quality.

9 to 5

Three women learn to be friends and wrest control of their office from their chauvinistic boss.

This is a pretty solid girl power comedy. Jane Fonda, Dolly Parton, and Lily Tomlin are all quite funny. I thought it would be just pleasant but they definitely made it weird and surprising at times too.

Feminism was a hot topic in society at this time, and a lot of that focus was on the workplace. 9 to 5 attacked the topic but maybe this is why I don’t see much about it now. With its social point made it’s not quite enough to stand the test of time.

Airplane!

When the crew contracts food poisoning, a traumatized former pilot must overcome his fear of flying to land the aircraft.

I love Airplane! but I could never blindly suggest it to anyone. It’s a very specific kind of dumb comedy. If you think it’s funny for a guy to say he has a drinking problem and it turns out that problem is missing his mouth entirely when he tries to drink anything, watch it.

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Marilyn Monroe

Why do so many people still care about Marilyn Monroe? Why is she so much bigger than other actresses of the time, or other eras’ biggest sex symbols?

I never considered these questions until I incidentally watched her on screen. I sought out Some Like It Hot and The Seven Year Itch for their writer and director Billy Wilder. Wilder is definitely one of my favorite filmmakers of the era. He’s a guy that just gets entertainment and how to keep films interesting and moving forward. I was shocked at how magnetic Monroe was, but thought there had to be more to her film career considering her level of fame. My curiosity led me to watch just way too many of her movies (the best of which is easily Some Like It Hot, if you’re just here for recommendations).

Check your modern ideas about sexism at the door, because it’s about to get weird. I thought about apologizing for it (I’m going to sound real shallow constantly assessing her appearance) but I definitely didn’t take us there. Was Marilyn in on the joke, satirizing views on sex at the time? I don’t think it matters. She invented half of this stuff, profited hugely, and did nothing to change it. In my opinion she left the world shallower than she found it, and it’s the least I can do to be honest about it.

The Asphalt Jungle
All About Eve

I already wrote about these two movies here. Monroe’s looks steal the show twice in two brief appearances. In The Asphalt Jungle she proves she can play dumb (a skill she calls on frequently) and in All About Eve she proves she can stand around and attract attention.

She is extremely hot, gotta give her that. I’m a big proponent of the idea that good-looking people can add to a movie similarly to good-looking sets or scenery or action, so that doesn’t have to be a bad reason to enjoy her presence. But I don’t see this much ongoing fuss over Rita Hayworth or Jayne Mansfield, so we must continue.

Don’t Bother to Knock

In this unusual noir a recently-dumped pilot tries to seduce a woman who is pretending to be one of the rich inhabitants of a hotel room and not the babysitter of their sleeping child.

This is her first leading role and one of her few serious ones. She believably plays younger, and I’m sure the rest of her performance was fine for 1952 but nothing too impressive (Spoiler alert: she had been mentally disturbed the whole time and has a dangerous breakdown). She might be the best thing in this kinda boring movie by default. I didn’t even need to see this one for my research since no one today cares about it, so I’m gonna say her serious acting can be discounted.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Two girls travel on a cruise ship to Paris. Lorelei enjoys her momentary freedom from her fiancee and his family, not knowing that his father sent a private eye to watch her. Dorothy is obsessed with attractive guys and tries to convince Lorelei that looks are more important than money. Lorelei can’t stop gold digging for like one day and tries to get some diamonds from an old married guy.

This movie is pretty much insane. I was baffled at what I was seeing constantly and that alone made it worth seeing. The two leads have dueling musical numbers putting forth their views on men and life and it’s all very silly. I enjoyed the ending and generally all the parts featuring Jane Russell as Dorothy, who brings all the life to the movie. As Lorelei Monroe invents the sexy baby voice and has an otherworldly beauty and that’s about it. The crazy part is that Jane Russell is arguably only barely less physically attractive so I am confused as to why everyone ran away from this movie freaking out about “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”. They must have really liked ’em dumb in 1953.

The other thing they probably liked, which cannot be overlooked, is that Marilyn basically acted like she was desperate to have sex with everyone, both in her movies and in her public persona. She naturally had every physical sexual characteristic cranked way up so she must have figured to go all the way with it in how she talked and moved. Sometimes it works but sometimes when she has her eyes half open trying to make her lips big while talking she seems like an alien. Enemies of subtlety are so far her most understandable devotees.

How to Marry a Millionaire

Three women move to a friend’s New York City apartment with a plan to find and marry rich men.

Yes, somehow Monroe starred in two comedies about blatant gold digging in the same year. This one is pretty unsurprising once you get past that weirdness. Her character is very near-sighted but doesn’t wear her glasses because she thinks men won’t like them and blindness humor ensues. WooOOaahh that’s wacky. Other than that she’s the same ol’ sexy idiot. I assume she had no other comedic strategy at this stage of her career since I’m pretty sure Betty Grable is supposed to be the dumb one and not her. Lauren Bacall plays the brains of the operation and, in what is becoming a theme of this post, she was more interesting than Marilyn.

I would actually like to take a moment to talk about Marilyn’s perceived intelligence. Fans defend her intelligence, usually in an argument over whether we should care about what she’s quoted as saying. Other times it’s just brought up as a surprising fun fact. She did seem to be the driving force of her own success and seemed very thoughtful about what she was doing and the role she played in entertainment. Clearly the bulk of her intellect was used to make the public think she was very dumb. I don’t think she needs us to run to her aid convince everyone she was a secret genius, undoing all that hard work.

River of No Return

A released convict tries to find the man taking care of his son in a mining boomtown. He finds the man has left and his son is being cared for by a saloon singer. Together they venture into the wild, the man and his boy to their farm and the singer and her husband to a potential gold mine.

Unless you like old melodrama there are tw0 notable things here: Monroe as a lounge singer, and great scenery. Never a particularly great singer, Marilyn’s musical draw works by taking every moment as an opportunity to put some heart (or sex) into it. They filmed it pretty well too, showing how she works the crowd in the saloon and how much they love it. Once they get in the open country the scenery is pretty cool, including some huge rapids they go down.

No part of the movie is really that good but the first third of River of No Return at least might help you understand what people were so into as far as her singing is concerned. She was an exceptionally erotic and animated lounge singer, but no part of that description requires having a good voice.

There’s No Business Like Show Business

Family musical act The Five Donehues starts to fall apart when one of the sons falls for sensual singer Vicky.

This is a showcase for mostly good vaudevillian musical numbers, with probably too much filler in between. Ethel Merman as the mom is funny in her numbers, Donald O’Connor and Mitzi Gaynor as siblings Tim and Katy are electric performers, and Marilyn Monroe is definitely also in the movie. To her credit she does make Tim’s potentially family-destroying lust believable. I assume they wanted to showcase all these talented people and wrote her in to get funding for it. There’s one number called “Lazy” where Vicky lays on a couch singing about how she doesn’t want to go out while Gaynor and O’Connor add joke commentary and dance around her. Afterwards their director says the siblings made Vicky look good and it’s what her act needed. Marilyn as a boring performer is literally written into the plot of the movie.

I hate to only be contrasting Monroe with other women but Mitzi Gaynor stole all my attention as an unbelievable dance machine. I have no idea how she does what she does in heels and still adds that much personality in every movement. All that dancing gave her a dancer’s figure, which leads me to a weirder frequent path of Marilyn discussion – that she represents an era of more realistic beauty standards. A Google image search could tell you more about her size than I could reveal from these movies. I’ve seen enough old movies to be able to say trends come and go but generally beauty standards haven’t changed that much. Even the super-thin 90s brought us Anna Nicole, so I think it’s safe to say Marilyn would would be given a fair shot anytime. If anything Hollywood seems more open to different types of people now, which is great.

The Seven Year Itch

When his wife and son leave on a summer vacation, Richard has their home all to himself. When a very beautiful and naive girl moves into the upstairs apartment, Richard fantasizes about her while trying not to sleep with her for real.

Once again the premise of this one is insane. The 50s were a really weird time. The whole movie is seriously just this guy trying not to have sex with his ditsy and erotic neighbor. If you like 50s madcap comedy then you’ll enjoy the writing and Tom Ewell as Richard. This is basically the perfect version of the character Monroe so frequently plays. She’s more extremely naive than dumb, and her naivete about how sexually she comes across drives this poor guy nuts. She does fine but she’s just not that funny. She delivers all the lines as obviously as possible, like a little kid would do.

It might be a totally unfair script with all the funny lines given to Ewell, so it’s tough to say. Ultimately though, we don’t celebrate actors who could have been great if they had a better shot. She never really did anything that funny, so I have no reason to say she’s funny. Maybe she was always typecast into roles with unfunny lines and it’s not fair. Yeah, sorry.

Some Like It Hot

After accidentally witnessing a mafia shooting, Chicago musicians Joe and Jerry must go into hiding. They dress up as women and join an all-woman jazz band on its way to Florida. When Joe falls in love with a fellow musician, he pretends to be a wealthy man to seduce her. To complete the scheme Jerry must distract the owner of a yacht.

At the end of this decade we come to probably its best comedy. It was pretty groundbreaking in its references to cross dressing and homosexuality, and it’s crazy to me how well written they are even today. Gay jokes from even 10 years ago are usually insulting, but the tone here is more poking fun of how seriously we all take these ideas. The script and performances of the two leads (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) are great, and I think this is an excellent choice for someone looking into comedies of the 50s and early 60s. If you don’t like this one, it’s probably not going to happen.

This is Marilyn at her best too because she finally behaves like a normal person. I don’t know if she stopped acting so hard or her acting improved, but she’s more relaxed and natural from her talking to her movements to even her singing. Her sadness and desire and sense of fun replace the pure empty-headed lust and it makes her much more lovable. Who knew that being a living, feeling person would be more attractive than a mindless sexpot?

I think better than anything this explains her enduring popularity. Above the hot body and cheesy jokes and musical numbers, people just want to understand her as a person. And in her movies at least, she didn’t let us.  Later in her career she might have told us herself. You need to look elsewhere, to the on-set gossip and anecdotes from ex-husbands and maybe even quotes on Facebook.

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Federico Fellini

It gets difficult to come up with more ways to describe movies I love, so I’m gonna get into some movies I don’t. Federico Fellini is kind of the epitome of the European film artist. Some of those guys add new techniques or new emotions movies and they ruin it by telling only stories about boring, annoying, boring, smug, boring guys. Each film is very personal so they can brag about how much they hate their free and worldly lives. Fellini has all of that, and doesn’t even have the benefit of being cool since he’s so sentimental.

When your biggest fans are filmmakers, it makes sense that your enduring works would be the weepy homages to artists. Maybe that makes it hard to give this guy a fair shake after seeing only those most critically popular films. Or maybe if film nerds wanted more people to watch Fellini they should suggest more enjoyable choices first. If you need to watch a boring movie five times and read a book about it and go to film school to understand its genius, then it’s a technical exhibit, not viable popular entertainment.

La Strada

A traveling strongman recruits helpless young Gelsomina to be his clown assistant. She tries to find her value and meets others who think she is more valuable than she’s being treated.

Fellini considered La Strada his most autobiographical work, proving that not all famous artists have to be interesting people. The plot is just the bleak yet still uninteresting personal lives of street performers. A thin plot could be fine if you’re going for style over substance, but the only style here is the realistic total lack of fun of being a destitute nomad. I mean could you at least give us a break and make the circus performances entertaining??

If I didn’t anticipate good acting I probably wouldn’t have noticed it because the content is so distracting. Half the screen time is purposefully hammy in-movie performances or the girl meekly trying to avoid attention while something bad happens. By my count she does one or maybe two surprising and brave actions, and they both go south before you even have time to hope they work out. I felt bad for her by the end but she’s introduced as someone whose sister has just died so probably could’ve saved some time there and just told me her life continued to be bad. Yeah it’s realistic, and thanks Federico for letting filmmakers I enjoy know about realism, but I cannot recommend that anyone watch this unless you think the idea of a sad clown is really profound.

Nights of Cabiria

A spunky prostitute named Cabiria tries to find love but has a bad time.

This one was sold to me as one of the more watchable of Fellini’s hits. It has some moments of life and a mercifully eventful plot but wow is it slow. Everything that happens takes forever and every conversation repeats the same idea like four times. All I took from it is that miscreants should be excused because life is hard.

La Dolce Vita

Journalist Marcello is torn between two lives, one in the sleazy, free-wheeling nightlife of celebrity gossip writing and the other as a respected husband and writer.

So basically this Marcello guy sucks hard. I can enjoy a villain or a scoundrel with a heart of gold but Marcello is a scoundrel with a heart of blank space. He kinda just mopes around being kind of interested in any way to give his life direction. People try to win his favor, he uses them and/or tries out their lifestyle for a bit, and then either it goes badly or he just doesn’t commit to it. He learns nothing and no one changes.

On the plus side, it held my attention and I care about it enough to dislike it. A different type of person might deeply relate to Marcello, and I don’t necessarily mean I dislike those people when I say I hope I’m never one of them. I think many admire that Fellini was able to steer every aspect of production towards showing the feelings of the characters. I just wish that feeling wasn’t just being resigned to an empty life filled with regrets.

Famed film director Guido suffers from writer’s block and tries to avoid people who pester him to come up with something great. His thoughts about his life turn into a series of dreams and flashbacks.

In this stage of his career Fellini was really into studying dreams and the collective unconscious. He also was apparently very into humblebragging. Here he shows us how tiresome it is for everyone he knows to rely on his genius. He also imposes a bunch of his sexual fantasies and hangups on us. It concludes in Guido directing all his loved ones in a group dance as part of an outdoor circus and it’s even cornier than that sounds.

I think directors love this movie just like young guys love their friend’s scraggly beard, trying to convince each other the world wants more of this. Audiences don’t all go into theaters longing to study the director’s mind and personal life but there are accolades to be won for pretending that they are.

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Kathryn Bigelow

People might not expect you to know who Kathryn Bigelow is but they should. She’s the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director and she’s the most prominent female director in Hollywood almost by default. Even if you don’t care about that her movies are genuinely great. She’s not blazing new trails in the form but she’s blazing new trails in filling me with adrenaline during a movie. It’s always extra cool to me how much she gets masculinity as a woman but that’s just extra reason why anyone should be able to make movies.

I haven’t seen all her movies but I’ve seen all of them since Point Break, her first major success. When I get to The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty I almost don’t know what to say since I like them so much, so I allowed myself get into long asides about movie accuracy and missing the forest for the trees.

Point Break

FBI agent Johnny Utah goes undercover with a group of surfers who might be masked bank robbers. Their exciting friendship and charisma tempt him to abandon his ideals.

Point Break is extremely stupid and awesome. The whole thing is basically Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze having stoner conversations, committing or trying to prevent bank robberies, and competing in extreme sports, all in the most macho way possible. Johnny Utah’s visceral desire for excitement finally answers the question of why anyone would become a movie henchman. Every second is so all-in that you could enjoy it totally genuinely or ironically, and I don’t know really which of those sides I’m on.

Strange Days

In the days leading up to the year 2000, brutal crime pervades Los Angeles. Former cop Lenny Nero buys and sells memory recordings on the black market. They are made with special headsets that record every sight and feeling. When several different death tapes are connected, Lenny uncovers a police conspiracy.

Strange Days is a team effort between Bigelow and writer/producer James Cameron, who she was married to at the time. Depicting a somewhat lawless near future could go over the top but Strange Days felt surprisingly plausible (except the clothes maybe, but it’s Los Angeles). The memory device is one of the better sci-fi plot devices out there since it’s actually useful to the plot instead of a gimmick to cram in somewhere. A lot of the character building and excellent action takes place in the first person view of memory tapes, and the feelings of fear or love in those shots pretty much make the movie. Ralph Fiennes and Angela Bassett nail characters that get a surprising amount of focus considering how much other stuff Strange Days had to get done. There’s nothing totally revolutionary here but it’s super entertaining and I can’t think of anything else like it.

The Weight of Water

Newspaper photographer Jean sails to an island with her poet husband Thomas, his brother Rich, and Rich’s beautiful girlfriend Adaline. On this island two immigrant women were murdered over a hundred years ago, and Jean uncovers its details. Tension and jealousy seethe within these two interwoven stories.

This one isn’t thought of as highly. It’s not perfect but I don’t know if it was given a fair shake. Without getting too into it, a story focusing on subtle relationship dynamics sometimes is treated as less important because it fits more with how women are socialized than men. I think it’s OK not to be interested in one but it sucks that this is the only movie I’ve seen of Bigelow’s that fits this description at all and it apparently bombed. I think she did a great job building tension and helping us understand and relate to the characters’ feelings. She shoots the outdoor scenes beautifully and the limited action bursts with energy.

I could see how many people wouldn’t enjoy it. The connection between the two time periods is pretty tenuous, and to me their themes aren’t more than the sum of their parts. If you cared less about one the combination would really drag. Sean Penn usually kinda bugs me but here he’s supposed to be contemptible so that’s perfect. I guess that’s a lot of it – would you enjoy watching a movie where a woman rightfully learns to dislike her husband? There’s way more to it than that but if that sounds miserable you’re off to a bad start.

K-19: The Widowmaker

The first nuclear Soviet submarine goes on its maiden voyage. When its nuclear core malfunctions in American waters, the crew must fix it save each other and prevent nuclear war.

Submarines are naturally the most tense, masculine places possible. Bigelow can obviously do tension, and her subtle depiction of masculinity is what makes K-19 different. When the crew struggles for power and learns who can be trusted with rising responsibilities, I can’t help but find it more interesting because I know it’s her perspective. As far as sub movies go Das Boot solidly beats it, but K-19 has Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson, it’s in English, and it’s not like five hours.

The Hurt Locker

Sergeant James takes over a small bomb disposal unit in Iraq. The two men under his command must adapt to his reckless tactics. They all cope with the danger of war in different ways when they are targeted by an invisible enemy.

This is where Bigelow goes from solidly entertaining to genuinely great. The Hurt Locker is the most positively intense movie I’ve ever seen. Again it’s a naturally tense subject but I don’t think anyone could have done it better. It looks, sounds and feels how I’ve seen combat in Iraq described: violent, nervous, ambiguous, and sweltering. Jeremy Renner surprises you the whole time as James. Similarly to Point Break it makes you see how some people could be drawn to the excitement of reckless danger.

Some have argued that The Hurt Locker inaccurately portrays the US military. If it was simply distracting to those who were in the military, that’s totally understandable. If anyone thinks that makes it a bad movie, I extremely disagree.

Apparently the uniforms, lack of radio communication, and other details were way off and that the main character was reckless and unfit for the job. Here’s some other things that probably were different from a tour of duty in Iraq:
-Artistic lighting
-The movie skips to the parts where stuff is happening
-All people present contribute to a theme or the plot, both of which don’t exist in real life
-You don’t need to sign up for the military to experience The Hurt Locker
-The Hurt Locker is much shorter than a typical year-long deployment

Hardly any movies accurately show any job. If a movie wants you to think a character is successful and creative, they’ll show him working on architecture on a big drafting table, even though as I understand most modern architects work on computers and more frequently they couldn’t find an architecture job and are doing something else. It’s a mental shortcut for the audience, not a shout-out for all the architects. The Hurt Locker needs to use what we already think about war to draw us in, but it also builds on that to change our minds about it. It shows Sgt. James as a stereotypical cowboy hero and then proves how his personality hurts him or his team. The fact that everyone disagrees with how he operates is the main conflict of the entire movie. They think he’s unnecessarily dangerous but he’s actually in it FOR the danger. For how long can his luck keep up? For how long can we keep asking people to do this?

Finally screenwriter Mark Boal was embedded with a bomb squad in Iraq, and one of the guys he was with sued him for basing “virtually all of the situations”in the movie on him without compensating him. So someone thought it was pretty accurate!

Zero Dark Thirty

Young CIA analyst Maya devotes her life to the decade-long manhunt for Osama bin Laden. She fights to convince her peers and bosses of her theories and finally must trust the military with the task of killing him.

Zero Dark Thirty totally rules. It’s less explosive than The Hurt Locker but its slow burn glues my eyes to the screen for every second. Jessica Chastain is my favorite actor ever and this is probably her best role. She’s a ferocious maniac, a stone-cold killer, and a relatable, vulnerable, lovable kid. In this character Bigelow shows us the struggles of a woman trying to make it in a man’s job. The story condenses a crazy amount of information and is just confusing enough to help us forget we all know the ending already. That ending, the raid on bin Laden’s compound, is probably my least favorite part of the movie but the way it’s shot is classic Bigelow excellence. Every bit of it feels so real and human. Again the script by Mark Boal impresses by bringing in a bunch of random guys and making you quickly care about them. Probably the most impressive thing about this movie is how much of it shouldn’t work, but it all does.

Much has been said about Zero Dark Thirty’s portrayal of torture. A common complaint is that the movie implies information received during torture was used to find bin Laden. This may be correct but man, did you even watch the movie?  The character Mark goes from maybe getting too into torture, to regretting it and wanting to change jobs, to openly doubting all information gained from torture since it’s frequently so inaccurate. Real progress only happens once they stop torturing guys and start doing real spy stuff. The only way to spell it out in the plot more would be cutting out CIA torture entirely (probably even more misleading) or having the first third of the movie be a bunch of unrelated red-herrings. To me that’s just not a realistic expectation. But if that’s what you needed to understand Kathryn Bigelow doesn’t love torture then yes, don’t watch this movie. Also please don’t vote.

The other reason I find those criticisms weird is that Zero Dark Thirty is such a tragedy. No one came out of it thinking, “Yup, the system works! U-S-A! U-S-A!” I probably came closer to thinking we maybe shouldn’t have even killed bin Laden than I did to thinking we should keep torturing people. I can’t help but think all these movie reviewers were just in their seats imagining conservative old red-staters fist-pumping the air for two and a half hours. I caught it in the theater in South Dakota and Arizona though, and everyone kept their fists politely in their laps. If anything, keeping the usefulness of torture ambiguous allows any person to accept the movie’s premise and really ask themselves if this is worth it either way. Otherwise they’d just assume it’s propaganda and mentally check out.

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1950

According to its most influential and lasting films, Hollywood in 1950 struggled with its past and found part of its future. Sunset Boulevard and All About Eve inspect old theatricality and stars. I can’t tell if they were trying to redeem the past or kill it off, but they made it a bit harder to take the old-school seriously. Glimpses of the future popped up in unassuming places with varying degrees of immediate impact and quality.

There are a couple movies that people care about for which I have zero context: In A Lonely Place directed by Nicholas Ray and Orpheus directed by Jean Cocteau. I’ve seen a few by Luis Bunuel and didn’t care about them so I didn’t see The Young and the Damned.

Sunset Boulevard

An unsuccessful young screenwriter is drawn into the world of Norma Desmond, an older silent film star. She pursues a grand comeback that the rest of the world knows won’t happen, but he humors her to calm her wild mood swings and gain a comfortable life.

Billy Wilder is one of my favorite filmmakers from this era. Here he pushes film’s theatrical past into the light of reality, personifying that past in Gloria Swanson as Desmond. Her complete lunacy is hilarious but to us but you can feel others’ fear or attraction to her. There’s good stuff in other roles but she’s the main reason I can expect someone to enjoy Sunset Boulevard.

All About Eve

Beautiful young actress Eve becomes the assistant to the older and respected stage actress Margo. Eve slowly works into Margo’s social circle and tries to become her replacement professionally and socially.

While Sunset Boulevard makes the silent era seem crazy, All About Eve makes the case that the world of actors continued to be crazy. Conspiracy, backstabbing, and relationship tampering all close in on the funny, mean, and always interesting Margo.

Hollywood back then (and pretty much now) rarely focused on a problem women faced and how a woman fights back against it. There’s no single representative of all women, and instead they’re treated like real people. It’s great because varied types of roles and characters are the only way to avoid seeing the same stories over and over. The whole thing is kind of undercut by Marilyn Monroe, who does basically nothing but somehow was crowned Person We Want More Of.

Rashomon

When a woodcutter finds a samurai’s dead body in the forest, a captured bandit admits to committing the crime. Three witnesses give conflicting testimonies on how and why it happened.

Rashomon is one of those go-to responses for what film nerds might love. Slow character reveals, plot confusion, and the foreign language make it kind of low-hanging fruit on that front. The nerds picked a good one this time. It just has a great spooky vibe and its variety of shots and settings make it look awesome. It’s famous for depicting the same event multiple ways depending on who’s telling the story, introducing the unreliable narrator to movies. I’d seen that in tons of movies it influenced first but Rashomon still surprised me. Some of the acting is out-of-date and it’s a bit sentimental but even there it’s better than most of the 1950s.

The Asphalt Jungle

A group of men plan a heist first succeeds and then falls apart as they turn on each other.

Solid style but nothing too crazy here otherwise unless you love the genre. It’s a tense heist noir starring Sterling Hayden, which is exactly what The Killing is, and The Killing is better. John Huston makes good stuff from what I’ve seen otherwise so maybe I just need to watch this one again.

The Asphalt Jungle’s biggest cultural legacy at this point is the introduction of Marilyn Monroe. Judging from the poster and how frequently she’s mentioned in reviews, you wouldn’t know her role is small and she does nothing impressive but be extremely hot. I’m sure I will write about the strangeness of her phenomenon in the future but for now I’ll just say the people of 1950 must have been uncontrollably desperate.

The Men

A partially paralyzed WWII lieutenant living in a veterans’ hospital attempts to reenter society. As he struggles with physical and emotional problems his friends and doctor encourage him not to give up on his relationship with his fiancee.

As a young man who has had major health problems I could definitely relate to The Men. Each patient, doctor, and friend deals with these problems differently. For each problem you can see there are way more you can’t see. It’s tough to watch but that’s the only way they could show life-changing ailments accurately.

The Men isn’t by itself a big deal but Marlon Brando is the biggest deal as far as actors are concerned. It’s his first lead role, but not one that caught on in a big way. He’s excellent for the time but he won’t be excellent for all time until later movies.

Kon-Tiki

Norwegian explorer and writer Thor Heyerdahl films his attempt to prove Polynesia could have been settled by South Americans. He and his crew attempt the trip using only technology available to these hypothetical colonizers.

The hypothesis Kon-Tiki attempts to prove isn’t considered much by historians today for other reasons, but the trip makes for a great documentary. The crew is enjoyable and Heyerdahl knows just what to focus on. They experience unique dangers and puzzles and it’s great to see how they try to solve them. Not much movie history but you might enjoy it too.

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1941

If you just look at the highest grossing films of 1941, you can probably just throw it in the garbage. I’ve never heard anyone care about or even heard of any of these movies. Hokey musicals, attempts to duplicate the success of Gone With the Wind, and a lot of comedies that I’m sure were zany at the time. Sometimes it lasts but for the most part comedy doesn’t age well. Out of the top 17 movies 10 of them had either Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Mickey Rooney, or Abbott and Costello.

Who knew among all that mess rested three big film nerd favorites? They conveniently scale down from “dismiss people who haven’t seen this” to “namedrop frequently” to “silently appreciate”. Also before I get into these I should note that How Green Was My Valley is apparently The King’s Speech of the 1940s. It’s probably great but I’ve only seen it referenced as the movie that inexplicably stole Citizen Kane’s Academy Award for Best Picture. The lesson here apparently is to never overachieve.

Citizen Kane

When a newspaper industry titan dies, his confusing last words send reporters on a search for some unknown part of the man’s life. Interviews with those who knew him best paint a picture of the impressive and turbulent life of Charles Foster Kane, loosely based on William Randolph Hearst.

After possibly the most famous radio broadcast ever (War of the Worlds) and an innovative Broadway run (Caesar), Hollywood wanted in on 25-year-old Orson Welles. He secured a contract with total creative control, allowing him to produce, direct, and star, and to be unafraid to hire any young innovators he attracted. It introduced production techniques Welles borrowed from his experience in radio and theater, but for the most part it consolidated the best the film world had into one place for the first time. Basically he shot it like German horror, did all the sound like a radio broadcast, used special effects like experimental French fantasy films, and used the Soviet strategy of editing to create meaning, all because he didn’t know you shouldn’t bother to do all that just for a biographical drama.

It’s virtually impossible to judge Citizen Kane in any normal way since it’s the most critically acclaimed movie ever. So with that in mind I think it rules. You start watching and you want to keep looking and listening to every frame and sound until it ends. Orson Welles especially crushes it as an actor, which I’m sure I’ll write more about in the future. He revels in each aspect of his character from charismatic young world-killer to delightfully evil old coot. And he was only 25! Orson Welles was probably a time traveler. It’s the only way to explain how he could be so much better than all of us.

The Maltese Falcon

Private investigator Sam Spade and his partner agree to help a beautiful woman find her sister. When Spade’s partner and a man he was tailing both are killed, Spade must prove their deaths were committed not by him but as part of a plot to acquire a valuable falcon statue.

I mentioned film noir in a previous post, but The Maltese Falcon is pretty much THE film noir. It’s considered the first major release within the genre. When Bugs Bunny pretended to be a detective, he was pretending to be Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade. I can see how so many people liked it and copied it. It’s intriguing, creepy, intense, and pretty fun. It, along with Citizen Kane, gave American cinematography a big artistic boost. Unfortunately there are so many pessimistic crime mysteries on TV today that I can’t picture someone really being blown away by The Maltese Falcon. If you’re curious about where all these classic archetypes and homages come from you’ll probably enjoy yourself while you learn.

Sullivan’s Travels

John Sullivan, successful director of fluff comedies, decides his next picture will be an adaptation of the socially conscious novel “O Brother Where Art Thou?” He forms a plan to travel the country as a hobo to understand real problems Americans are facing. When a struggling actress (who remains nameless and is credited as The Girl) buys him a meal just out of Los Angeles, he can’t resist helping her, revealing his true identity.

Sullivan’s Travels moves in a lot of directions. It starts as a comedy and adds drama and romance, so the story definitely holds your interest. Sullivan’s earnest and overbearing need to be legit makes him a great character, and when Veronica Lake shows up as The Girl you really understand why he’s drawn to her. I can’t say if her character or her acting skills are any good but she has an intoxicating look and manner.

The whole fast-talking, extra-witty style of old comedies can be kind of weird to us today but I think Sullivan’s travels holds up pretty well on comedy. Even if you don’t laugh out loud it all is used to create characters and forward the plot. Where it holds up the best is its dramatic parts later in the film, and its philosophy on suffering. Sullivan thinks movies should unflinchingly show the world its problems, and what he learns is maybe something we can learn today. Instead of wallowing in other peoples’ problems, maybe we can do what we can to help and then enjoy the good times in our lives while they last.

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Woody Allen

Woody Allen is a tough director (and writer and actor) to recommend. He can be really off-putting, and in fact the first time I saw a movie he starred in I refused to watch any more for a long time. He’s an insane combination of whiny and cocky, although once you figure out which parts of that are self-deprecating it helps (or else stick with the ones he doesn’t star in). Plus he has one of those personal lives that completely distracts from everything he’s ever done. I’m not going to get into that beyond the fact that he probably does personally suck and I don’t think I’m funding his past crimes if he gets one cent from me watching his decades-old movie on Netflix.

So why is Woody Allen worth the hassle? The guy just knows what’s interesting and shows it in observational comedy, smart conversations, big thrills, and a shooting style that draws you in to all of those.

I’ve mostly worked my way down the list of the ones generally thought to be the best, and stopped once I figured I didn’t need to seek out 30 more of this quality or less. Seriously, the guy just cranks out movies. The last year he didn’t release a movie was 1981. So if you watch and enjoy all these and want more I can say Scoop, Melinda and Melinda, Celebrity, and Zelig are all varying degrees of pretty good. If you’ve seen anything released after Midnight in Paris let me know if it’s good!

Annie Hall

A neurotic stand-up comic (Allen) thinks back on his relationship with a quirky aspiring lounge singer played by Diane Keaton. He recounts their fun times, fights, and the events of his life that caused him to want to date her.

This is Woody Allen’s most acclaimed movie. Here he shares emotions and fears most of us keep to ourselves, bouncing back and forth between self-hate and self-importance. He’s always willing to take a break from sharing his realistically messy relationship with Annie to take down snobby New Yorkers or show embarrassing stories from his youth.

But basically the guy is a bit much. His faults don’t compensate enough for his qualities in his relationship with Annie and they don’t really for me either. I appreciate Annie Hall’s importance but I think he’s done better and I’d say check out some others first to see if you can tolerate this character of which he frequently plays some variation.

Annie Hall is frequently lumped in with Manhattan, which came out two years later and which I prefer.

Manhattan

A writer who has just quit his hack TV job has to choose between his teenage girlfriend and his friend’s mistress. He tries to make it as a writer but needs to afford alimonies for his two ex-wives, one of whom is releasing an embarrassingly detailed book about their relationship.

Somehow Allen makes his character more likable through objective crappiness and I don’t understand why it works that way. Maybe since he can’t be serious his bragging comes across less like an entitled rom-com lead and more like a scoundrel trying to convince himself.

To me Manhattan surpasses Annie Hall through simply adding many varied and interesting characters. This broadens the focus beyond one man, showing society’s bizarre complexities and giving a context for its humorous dialog. Plus it’s just a bizarre situation and I wanted to see how its twists would turn. Manhattan looks fantastic. Never in the hundreds of movies shot in New York have I enjoyed just checking the place out this much.

Broadway Danny Rose

Allen plays Danny Rose, a tireless talent manager to an amazingly talentless clientele. When his wash-up singer gets a chance at a big comeback, he wants both his wife and mistress Tina to attend his concert. Danny must pretend Tina (Mia Farrow) is his own girlfriend, which gets tough when a mobster turns out to be interested in her too.

A fully likable lead – what a novel concept! Danny Rose genuinely treats his clients like his friends and makes any sacrifice to help them succeed in their inevitably doomed show business dreams. We want to see what events the plot unfolds but even more we need to see if Danny’s kind enthusiasm can withstand them. This is easily the most heart-felt I’ve seen of Woody Allen and I strongly approve.

Hannah and Her Sisters

Sisters Hannah, Lee, and Holly have just a mess of a family dynamic. Hannah (Mia Farrow) tries to set up unsuccessful Holly with her hypochondriac ex-husband, while her current husband (Michael Caine) pursues recently-single Lee.

I watched Hannah and Her Sisters because it won Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards and boy do they get it right sometimes. Woody’s more focused schtick works well as comic relief to some very real relationships and conversations. I doubt many sisters interact like this but it would be a lot more interesting if they did. Allen did a great job directing the excellent cast towards the exact characteristics that made the potentially convoluted relationship web fit together.

Crimes and Misdemeanors

Respected ophthalmologist Judah Rosenthal’s mistress threatens to tell his wife about their affair. He asks his dangerous brother for help. Meanwhile documentary filmmaker Clifford Stern must make a movie about his cocky TV producer brother-in-law to get ahead in the industry.

In Crimes and Misdemeanors Allen’s comedy adds to a dramatic story more cohesively than anywhere else. Both parts allude to similar questions about reputation and ruthlessness and choice. It’s also where Allen’s skill at directing conversations hits hardest, moving between imposing and comedic.

This ends what’s considered his earlier period of quality. We move forward over 15 years (and supposedly a lot of mediocre movies) to his more modern stuff.

Match Point

Former tennis star Chris Wilton works his way into Tom Hewett’s wealthy family when Chloe falls in love with him. He risks losing it all by pursuing Tom’s American actress girlfriend Nola.

Here Woody removes NYC, his typical dialog style, his frequented intersecting storylines, and himself as an actor and what’s left is pure excellence. His skill at shooting conversations pops when he replaces some of the wordiness with innuendo and knowing glances. Comedic timing makes way for that of movement and drama, which excites and horrifies. This movie alone makes Woody Allen certified great. Watch Match Point. Watch Match Point. Watch Match Point. Watch Match Point.

Vicky Christina Barcelona

Two American tourists are seduced by a free-spirited Spanish artist. Things start to fall apart when his fiery ex-wife comes back into his life.

I hate this movie! Every character is like an awful stereotypes horny teenagers would think up. The whole plot is either pathetic wish fulfillment or an attempt to prove how comfortable one can be with a spouse’s former promiscuity. After decades of stories about relationships and cheating Vicky Christina Barcelona forces us to ask if Woody Allen learned anything past 1960s sexual liberation. I’ve seen a few people claim this is a parody of all its cliches, I think because the actors are super all-in on the ridiculousness, but if that’s no point. Selfish, mercurial relationships are exhausting? SHOCKER. Only watch Vicky Christina Barcelona if you want to see how much you can hate the phrase “make love”.

Midnight in Paris

A struggling writer visits Paris with his fiancee’s family. They study museums with her snobbish ex-boyfriend but he prefers to indulge his deep 1920s nostalgia on long night walks. He finds the ultimate inspiration when he witnesses some of Paris’s magic.

Allen replaces his usual cynicism and amorality with Owen Wilson. Classic take-downs of pseudo-intellectuals automatically become unassuming and fun. He’s easy to root for wholeheartedly. There’s a whole gang of great actors in great roles. It feels like cheating for a deep look at important subjects like art and dreams and dissatisfaction to be this pleasant. Even if you dislike other Woody Allen films you’ve seen you should still watch Midnight in Paris.

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