Seeing Movies in These Crazy Times

Well, there’s nothing quite like a pandemic to put things in perspective, is there? I don’t see how the country — and the world — will be able to recover from the financial loss the coronavirus is causing, not to mention the impact culturally, socially, and on everything else. I doubt that we’ll ever return to the “normal” we knew, whatever that was. Interesting, isn’t it? It’s like nothing else is happening except this. I guess, basically, nothing is. Except, of course, life goes on. What does that mean for someone like me, who is used to seeing movies, mostly in theaters, all the time? It means you go online, obviously. Here’s how I got there.

By the first of March coronavirus stories were all over the news, but movie theaters, museums, and restaurants had yet to shut down. I couldn’t quite imagine that happening, not really. On Tuesday, March 3, the Museum of Modern Art was kicking off a Daniel Craig retrospective with Casino Royale (2006), his first film as James Bond. Craig was in New York City to host Saturday Night Live that weekend, and would be at MoMA to introduce the screening. I definitely wanted to be there for that. It turned out that he didn’t simply introduce Casino Royale, but was interviewed before the film for a full 30 minutes by MoMA’s Chief Film Curator, Rajendra Roy. It was great. And Casino Royale was better than I’d remembered. Though maybe I was more disposed to like it since Craig was actually there. (I was in the second row and took these shots.)

The next day or the day after that I read that the release of  Craig’s new Bond film, No Time to Die, had been moved from April 19 to just before Thanksgiving in November. It was the first big film to pull out, but wouldn’t be the last.

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Over a week later, on Thursday, March 12, I was back at MoMA to see Road to Perdition (2002), a film directed by Sam Mendes with Daniel Craig in a supporting role. Before the film, I heard someone in the audience say that Film at Lincoln Center was cancelling all screenings until further notice as of 5:00 pm that day. This meant Nancy and I were going to miss three films in their Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series that we had tickets to that weekend. I think the Metropolitan Museum of Art had already shut down. As it turned out, MoMA closed up the next day, which meant Road to Perdition would be the last film I’d see there for a while.

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During the Casino Royale showing at MoMA the previous week, I’d felt a sore throat coming on. It only lasted a couple of days, but then became more of a head cold. I saw my doctor the next Monday, who said he didn’t think it was any more than that. I asked about going to movie theaters. While he didn’t flat out tell me not to do go, he did say that people were recommended not to. I still wasn’t scared enough, so I went to films in theaters the next five days before closures put an end to that. (I’m fine now, just more careful and appropriately scared.)

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On Friday the 13th I saw The Hunt on its opening day at the AMC Lincoln Square multiplex. I liked it a lot. The Hunt was only in theaters for three days. By Monday, AMC theaters had closed, along with all the other theaters.

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On Saturday I saw Alfred Hitchcock’s Stage Fright at Film Forum, partly because I’d not seen it before, but mainly because I didn’t know how much longer they’d be open. The first hour of the film is pretty good, the rest of it not so much. But I was glad I went, because they closed the next day. That’s the last film I’ve seen in a movie theater to date.

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Before this I’d frequently streamed films on our flat screen or my laptop, so it was more of a psychological adjustment than anything else to start doing it exclusively. Nothing beats seeing movies in a theater, but this is better than not seeing them at all.  That Saturday night I opted for something I knew would satisfy, Three Days of the Condor, directed by Sidney Pollack in 1975. I’ve seen it a bunch of times over the years. It always works, except for the few parts that don’t, and I’m willing to ignore those. It has a distinctly 70s vibe, and great performances by Robert Redford and especially Max von Sydow and John Houseman. (Three Days of the Condor can be streamed on Netflix.)

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A day later I watched Layer Cake, directed by Matthew Vaughn in 2004. I hadn’t been able to see this in MoMA’s Daniel Craig series, which had been cut short by more than a week. I’d not seen it before, but had been told by a friend that it was very good, and it is. Craig’s performance in this film is reportedly what got him seriously considered to be the new James Bond. Layer Cake is a very British gangster film with an excellent cast, made with lots of flash and polish, snap and violence. (You can see it on Amazon Prime.)

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Staying in the mood for more Daniel Craig, a couple days later I watched Skyfall (2012) and Spectre (2015) five days after that. Both are directed by Sam Mendes. If Spectre disappoints at all, it’s only because Skyfall is so strong, easily one of the best Bond films in the entire series. (Both are available on Amazon Prime.)

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In between those Bond films I saw some other stuff, starting off with The Bourne Legacy (2012), co-written and directed by Tony Gilroy. It has the challenge of being a Bourne film without Jason Bourne, but I think it’s pretty good. Jeremy Renner is strong as an alternative Bourne. Rachel Weisz is also very good. The scene in which Zeljko Ivanek methodically guns down everyone he can in a research lab is perhaps a little too close to reality. The Bourne Legacy may not be on par with the Bourne films directed by Paul Greengrass, but I like it and find it very watchable. (Available on Amazon Prime.)

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Next up was The Other Guys, a comedy directed by Adam McKay in 2010. Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg star as mismatched cop partners, losers who get no respect in their precinct. It’s very funny for the most part. What had stayed with me in the 10 years since I first saw it was a demented debate between the two as to who would win in a fight between a tuna and a tiger. Their commitment to the premise is impressive. (The Other Guys can be seen on Netflix.)

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My choices since embarking on this post-theater journey have been, with the exception of the Daniel Craig films, basically impulsive. I ran across the following two John Wayne films in a book about Hollywood films made in Mexico, and thought, “Let’s see those!” In almost all cases, the films I’ve been watching are ones I’ve seen before. I want known quantities, kind of a comfort-food approach. Anyway, I watched The War Wagon (Burt Kennedy, 1967) and The Sons of Katie Elder (Henry Hathaway, 1965). I’d remembered The War Wagon as being better, but it’s not so good. It’s watchable for Kirk Douglas’ enjoyable performance, but not much else. Katie Elder is a better film, but still not great, though Wayne and Dean Martin play well together. At the time of their release, you could have added to the experience by getting these comic book versions. (Both films are available on Amazon Prime.)

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I next watched two films from one of my favorite directors, Steven Soderbergh, Contagion and Haywire, both released in 2011. Contagion is currently trending for obvious reasons.  I’m not sure it will necessarily lower one’s anxiety level, but there is something reassuring in that the characters in the film beat the virus in the end. Of course, real life doesn’t always have movie endings. Haywire is a rush, a very tightly put together thriller with a great cast. (Contagion is on Amazon Prime, Haywire is on Netflix.)

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We’re almost to the present date. Last Thursday I watched a recent film I hadn’t seen when it was in theaters, and hadn’t particularly wanted to. Now I know why. This was Midway, directed by Roland Emmerich, a big-budget action epic about a pivotal sea battle in the Pacific during World War II. Something felt very out of place about this film, like we should have seen it in the 1970s. In fact, we did see it in the ’70s, ’76 to be exact. That Midway was directed by Jack Smight, with Charleton Heston and an all-star cast. It was about same battle, though perhaps less historically accurate. It had the distinction of being the second of only four films to be “…presented in ‘Sensurround’, a special low-frequency bass speaker setup consisting of four huge speakers loaned by distributors to select theaters showing the film. This system was employed only during certain sequences of the film, and was so powerful that it actually cracked plaster at some movie theaters.” Luckily we were spared that in the new version. Besides the heavy CGI video-game combat graphics in the new film, I was very put off by Ed Skrein, the actor who had the lead role. I don’t know, just something about him. You can see for yourself on Amazon Prime.

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By the way, I realize that with well over 1,000 DVDs and Blu-ray discs in the Ted Hicks Memorial Cinema Library, I don’t have to limit myself to what’s available on Netflix and Amazon Prime. I think I have to get more used to this new reality before I can begin to know how best to use my time and resources. Watching some classics, for one thing.

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That said, the next film I watched was Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018), written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie. This is the latest in the series lead by Tom Cruise, apparently doing most of his own stunt work, all of which seem quite insane. I’d seen it before and like it a lot. It’s very well made, if utterly preposterous. An especially good scene takes place in a large men’s room with Cruise and another agent, played by Henry Cavill, up against a seemingly unstoppable adversary. It’s bone-crunching, without Cruise or Cavill apparently any the worse for wear when it’s over. It’s also worth noting that the entire encounter plays without a music score, which is very effective. (This film is available on Amazon Prime.)

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On Sunday I saw Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), directed by Tomas Alfredson, based on the novel by John le Carré. I remember not liking it when I saw it nine years ago. I was comparing it unfavorably to the six-hour BBC version in 1979 with Alec Guinness as George Smiley. A two-hour feature couldn’t begin to have the detail of a six-hour production. True enough, but I didn’t have any reservations this time around. It’s very good. (Available on Amazon Prime.)

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Yesterday we watched Ron Howard’s documentary The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years (2016). It’s terrific, joyful, and just perfect for these times. (Available on Amazon Prime.)

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That brings us up to today, and I’m writing this piece instead of watching a film. Maybe later.

In the meantime, I have to say that what I miss as much as anything is Film Forum popcorn. Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but not much of one. This is really great popcorn. I can’t wait to have it again.

Everyone be safe! — Ted Hicks

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Posted in Books, Comics, Documentaries, Feature films, Film posters, History, Streaming, TV & Cable | 1 Comment

Best Documentaries 2019 – Supplemental

My blog post from last August, Recent Documentaries: Supplemental, contains materials on the following films on my 2019 list. (Click on the link to access.)

Echo in the Canyon, David Crosby: Remember My Name, Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, Mike Wallace Is Here, Jay Myself, For Sama

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American Factory

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Be Natural: The Untold Story of  Alice Guy-Blaché 

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Bitter Bread

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Carmine Street Guitars

New York Times review

Variety review

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The Edge of Democracy

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63 Up

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They Shall Not Grow Old

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Varda by Agnès

This is not available for streaming yet, but in the meantime, the glorious Faces Places, her previous film made with photographer JR, can be seen on the Amazon Prime/Cohen Media Channel. It gives a good sense of her total engagement with the world around her and the people in it.

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Where’s My Roy Cohn?

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Bully. Coward. Victim. The Roy Cohn Story

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Next up, my picks for Best TV, Cable & Streaming for 2019. Stay tuned. — Ted Hicks

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Posted in Documentaries, Feature films, Film, Film posters, History, Home Video, Non-Fiction, photography, Streaming, TV & Cable | 1 Comment

What I Saw Last Year: Best Documentaries 2019

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I wrote on seven of these titles last August (“Random Notes on Recent Films: Documentaries!“). You can read about them there. The films are indicated by a double- asterisk ** in the list below.

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American Factory (Steven Bognar & Julia Reichert, directors)  Winner of the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, American Factory can be streamed on Netflix. It’s excellent, and extremely timely.

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 Apollo 11 (Todd Douglas Miller, director & editor)  This stunning film about the first manned trip to the moon was assembled entirely from archival footage and audio, much of which had not been previously available. It’s an amazing feat of organization and editing. It’s quite exhilerating. — Apollo 11 can be streamed from Amazon Prime.

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Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (Pamela B. Green, director & co-writer)  This is an absolute must-see for anyone interested in film history and pioneering women. Alice Guy-Blaché was a French filmmaker born in 1873. She was there at the very beginnings of cinema. Per her Wikipedia entry, she was the first female film director, and one of the first filmmakers to make a narrative fiction film. From 1896 to 1906 Alice Guy-Blaché was probably the only female filmmaker in the world. She moved to the United States where she co-founded Solax Studios in Flushing, New York. In 1912 Solax built a new studio on Fort Lee, New Jersey. Before Hollywood, this was the center of filmmaking in this country. Also in 1912, she made A Fool and His Money, probably the first motion picture with an all African-American cast. Alice Guy-Blaché had an amazing life and historically important career. Pamela Greeen’s documentary reflects an enormous amount of detective work and commitment. — Be Natural can be seen on Amazon Prime.

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Bitter Bread (Abbas Fahdel, director/producer/cinematographer/editor)  When this film was shown at the New York Film Festival last fall, this was the description on their website: “Among the countless Syrian citizens who have fled their country, about one-and-a-half-million have relocated to neighboring Lebanon. In this patient, heart-rending portrait, Iraqi-born filmmaker Abbas Fahdel, director of the epic Homeland (Iraq Year Zero), settles in with a community of refugees living in a tent camp in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, most of them children. Hopeful to earn a meager wage as they work under the supervision of a Lebanese shawish, who owns the plot of land they’re essentially renting, the adults try to keep their families together amidst flooding and destructive seasonal weather, all the while listening to the radio for news from back home. Fahdel burrows in with his subjects in close quarters, alighting on the various human dramas that occur throughout the camp, including the frustrations of a young man waiting to bring in his fiancée from back home. Most importantly, Fahdel, working as director, producer, cinematographer, and editor, simply lets these desperate yet resilient people—so often treated as statistics—speak for themselves.”

I was unfamiliar with Abbas Fahdel until seeing his narrative feature Yara last February, which I loved. He was at that screening for a Q&A. I subsequently connected with him on Facebook (of course), and was looking forward to seeing Bitter Bread, which did not disappoint. Fahdel is a deeply humanist filmmaker. — Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to find any streaming sources for this powerful film.

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Carmine Street Guitars (Ron Mann, director)  This film is as relaxed and easy going as Rick Kelly, the master guitar-maker and owner of the Greenwich Village shop that bears the title of this fascinating documentary. Rick makes custom guitars using repurposed wood from old buildings in the city, the “bones of the city,” as he puts it. It’s a thing of beauty to watch him work. Carmine Street is only a few blocks from Film Forum, where I attended an afternoon showing, so I decided to find the shop, which I did. It was a weird feeling walking into Carmine Street Guitars shortly after seeing it on film, and then meeting Rick Kelly and Cindy Hulej, his apprentice. — Carmine Street Guitars is not yet available for streaming, though it can be purchased on DVD.

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The Cave (Feras Fayyad)  This film was nominated for the Best Feature Documentary Academy Award, as was For Sama, which has a similar setting. Both are set in make-shift hospitals in Syria, where doctors work under difficult conditions, such as frequent bombardments. The Cave is excellent, but I give the edge to For Sama, in which the filmmaker herself is telling the story, which feels more personal and more immediate to me. But something The Cave shares with For Sama is that the most tragic victims are children. And how everyone struggles to survive despite malnutrition, no food and no medicine. — The Cave can be seen on Amazon Prime.

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The following three films are all of a piece, with Echo in the Canyon at the head of the class. They complement each other nicely and would make a great triple-feature.

 Echo in the Canyon (Andrew Slater, director) ** Available on Amazon Prime.

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David Crosby: Remember My Name (A.J. Eaton, director) ** Not yet available for streaming.

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Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice (Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman, directors) ** Available on Amazon Prime.

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The Edge of Democracy (Petra Costa, director)  Per press notes for the film: “Filmmaker Petra Costa saw democracy take root in Brazil following years of authoritarian rule under a military dictatorship. Given unprecedented access to working-party leaders Lula de Silva and his protegee Dilma Rousessef, Costa traces the downfall of both democratic leaders that resulted in the impeachment of Rousseff, the imprisonment of de Silva, and the rise of the far right.” This is a totally engaging — and frightening — film that has sharp resonance with the situation in our country and others around the world. — The Edge of Democracy can be streamed on Netflix, and should not be missed.

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For Sama (Waad al-Kateab & Edward Watts, directors) ** This is the best and most important documentary I saw last year. You can stream it on Amazon Prime.

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Jay Myself (Stephen Wilkes, director) ** Available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

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Mike Wallace Is Here (Avi Belkin, director) ** Available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

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Shooting the Mafia (Kim Longinotto, director). I wrote about this extraordinary film last November. That post can be accessed here.

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63 Up – Michael Apted (director)  This is the latest installment of a unique and important series that began with Seven Up in 1964, with a new episode every seven years thereafter. We’ve watched the subjects grow up from age 7 to 63. It’s an extraordinary journey. — 63 Up is not yet available for streaming.

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 They Shall Not Grow Old (Peter Jackson, director)  The Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson has used 100-year-old archival footage of British troops shot during World War I to make this astonishing film. Painstakingly restored, with color added, They Shall Not Grow Old is a trip back to in time presented in way that we’ve not seen before. It’s not just a technical stunt. The overall effect is quite moving, as we hear survivors of that war speak their memories on the soundtrack. It’s quite an achievement. — They Shall Not Grow Old can be purchased on DVD and Blu-ray, but is not yet available for streaming.

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Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am (Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, director) ** Available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

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Varda by Agnès (Agnès Varda, director)  I think the first film of Agnès Varda that I saw was The Gleaners and I (2000). I loved it. She was an important figure in the French New Wave during the 1960s, and continued working until her death last year. She had an insatiable curiosity about everyone she encountered, which is reflected in every film of hers I’ve seen. In 2017, during the annual Rendez-Vous with French Cinema series at Lincoln Center, I attended a press event with several directors who had films in the series. I was early and took a seat in the front row of folding chairs. Before things got started, I noticed a small woman going from person to person in my row and shaking hands. I wondered who this was, and then realized with a start that she looked like Agnès Varda. And it was! She didn’t have a film in the French series, but was in New York for an opening of her art work at a gallery. I guess she just decided to show up at this event. I was really struck that she wanted to shake hands and know who we were. I spoke with her briefly afterwards and said how great it was to see her. “Still alive, you mean,” she said with a smile. It was a great moment for me. Varda by Agnès serves well as a final statement, with clips from her many films, both narrative and documentary, interspersed with footage from various talks she’s given over the years. — Varda by Agnès is not yet available for streaming.

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Where’s My Roy Cohn? (Matt Tyrnauer, director)  Available for streaming on Amazon Prime.

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Bully. Coward. Victim. The Roy Cohn Story (Ivy Meeropol, director)  I actually prefer this to Where’s My Roy Cohn?, though both are important in presenting a profile of this reptilian creature. There’s a kind of nastiness to Matt Tyrnauer’s approach, which I suppose is appropriate to the subject, but I found Ivy Meeropol’s film to be somehow more measured. Which is a little unusual, given that she’s the granddaughter of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed as spies for Russia in the 1950s, due in no small part to the efforts of Roy Cohn, a prosecutor on the case. She might have been expected to really go after Cohn, but she lets the footage — and Cohn himself — speak for itself. There’s some overlap of material, but there are also aspects of Cohn’s life and career that are covered in one film and not the other. Together, they present a more complete picture. It’s also true that Cohn, as we see in these films, was a mentor and role model for Donald Trump, which makes perfect sense. — Ivy Meeropol’s film will air at a future date on HBO.

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That’s all for now. Supplemental materials to follow in a day or so. — Ted Hicks

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Posted in Books, Documentaries, Feature films, Film, Film posters, History, Home Video, Non-Fiction, photography, Streaming, TV & Cable | 1 Comment

Best Features 2019 – Supplemental

For those of you interested in a deeper dive, here are supplemental materials for the films on my top-10 list.

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Diane

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The Irishman

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Little Women

I definitely don’t understand how Greta Gerwig didn’t get an Oscar nomination for Best Director. She certainly deserved one.

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Marriage Story

Below is a clip of a key scene in the film. (This comes with a SPOILER ALERT for those who have not yet seen Marriage Story.) Can you imagine having to do multiple takes of a scene like this? I know it’s called “acting,” but something this emotionally raw would have to take something out of you. I know I felt wrung out just watching it.

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1917

I saw 1917 again recently, this time on an IMAX screen, and was even more impressed. While I still don’t think it’s the best of last year’s features, I won’t have a problem if it wins the Best Picture Academy Award.

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Previously posted supplemental materials for this film can be accessed here.

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Pain and Glory

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Parasite

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Portrait of a Lady on Fire

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Uncut Gems

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That’s all for now. Best Documentaries and Best TV yet to come. — Ted Hicks

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Posted in Books, Feature films, Film, Home Video, Streaming, TV & Cable | 3 Comments

Feature Films 2019 – The Best of the Rest of What I Saw

Here are the best of the rest of what I saw last year, 31 films in alphabetical order. I don’t claim that all of these are great films (though some of them are), but they all got my attention and engaged me in one way or another. Sometimes it’s just a performance, more often it’s the whole package. When movies work for me, it’s an interactive experience.

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Ad Astra (James Gray, director & co-writer)  I liked this enough to see it twice in IMAX. I thought maybe some of the things that had bothered (or confused) me the first time would become clearer with a second viewing. Brad Pitt is outstanding in the role of an astronaut in search of his father (Tommy Lee Jones), an astronaut who’d gone missing years before, and who just might be responsible for interstellar energy surges that could threaten the entire solar system. I wanted to like Ad Astra more, but a second go-round only reinforced my original assessment. I liked the first half or two-thirds of the film, but once Pitt embarks on his journey, and especially once he locates his father, who’s gone full Kurtz from Heart of Darkness, it becomes increasingly hard to accept. Still, James Gray is a serious director who has made some outstanding films. There’s a curious distance and restraint, a disconnect, between the characters in Ad Astra, both physically and in the way they speak to one another. I was drawn in by the mystery of what was happening and especially by Brad Pitt’s restrained performance. Despite these caveats, I still think this is a film worth seeing.

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Ash Is Purest White (Jia Zhangke, director & writer)  Per David Rooney in The Hollywood Reporter, this film is a “chronicle of the relationship between a low-level Chinese crook and the woman who goes to prison for him.” IMDb calls it “A story of violent love within a time frame spanning from 2001 to 2017.” Those brief descriptions don’t begin to hint at this film’s depth and texture.

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Black and Blue (Deon Taylor, director)  This is a compact, well-made urban thriller, powered by Naomi Harris’s totally invested performance as a rookie cop in New Orleans. She witnesses murders committed by bad cops (led by the always-authentic Frank Grillo), and spends the rest of the movie trying to stay alive and outrun them until she can get the evidence on her body cam to authorities. Harris is an excellent actor. We’ve seen her as a crack-addicted single mother in Moonlight (2016), and as Miss Moneypenny in James Bond films with Daniel Craig, including the upcoming No Time to Die. She really sells this movie. Black and Blue is basically non-stop, and probably not even remotely credible, but if you like this sort of thing, which I do, it definitely does the job.

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Booksmart (Olivia Wilde, director)  This film is a hoot. I loved it. The two leads are great. I wasn’t familiar with Beanie Feldstein before this, though she’ll be appearing as Monica Lewinsky later this year in the third season of American Crime Story on FX, so I think everyone will get to know her better. I’ve liked Kaitlen Dever since seeing her in Justified (FX) from 2011 to 2015, and she’s great as a rape victim in the Netflix series Unbelievable.

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Captain Marvel (Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, directors & co-writers)  Given the excellent reality-based, character-driven films they’ve made in the past, including Half-Nelson (2006) and Mississippi Grind (2015), as well as directing episodes of Showtime’s Billions and The Affair, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck probably wouldn’t be the first people you’d think of to write and direct a Marvel superhero movie. But you’d be wrong. Their involvement is what sets Captain Marvel apart from the pack, along with Brie Larson’s incredibly appealing performance in the title role. Along with Wonder Woman (2017), this is my favorite superhero movie of recent years.

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Clemency (Chinonye Chukwu, director & writer)  Great performance by Alfre Woodard as a conflicted prison warden overseeing executions, and it’s always a pleasure seeing Wendell Pierce (The Wire and Treme) in anything.

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Dark Waters (Todd Haynes, director & writer)  I don’t know why this didn’t make more of an impact. Probably not enough action. It’s a powerful true story about deliberate pollution in our water system that takes years to resolve, to the extent that it does. Even then, it feels like we lost.

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Ever After (Caroline Hellsgard, director)  The original German title of this film about two young women attempting to survive in the aftermath of a global zombie apocalypse is Endzeit, which means “last days of the world.” I prefer Ever After, which I think better suits the fairy tale vibe of the story. This film puts a creative spin on what has become a rather well-defined genre, and takes it someplace new.

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The Farewell (Lulu Wang, director & writer)  This movie deserves the attention it’s received. I just wish I’d seen all of it. The night we saw it, the entire theater went dark about 10 minutes before the end. It turned out a large portion of the Upper West Side was in a blackout. The next day a friend who’d seen the whole movie told me how it ended. Even though I now knew, I still intended to see it again so I could see for myself what happened. But so far I haven’t made it back. Probably won’t. Good movie, though. Awkwafina rocks.

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Fighting with My Family (Stephen Merchant, director & writer)  Based on the trailer, I initially didn’t think I wanted to see this film about a family of would-be wrestlers, but then I saw that Stephen Merchant wrote and directed the film and Florence Pugh was in it, which got my interest. I liked it a lot. I first saw Florence Pugh in Lady Macbeth (2016), a twisted variation on Wuthering Heights filtered through Alfred Hitchcock. She was great in that, as she is in Little Women. She was also in Midsommer last year, a film that a lot of people have praised. I’m not one of them, but that wasn’t Florence Pugh’s fault. She brings a distinctive quality to everything I’ve seen her in.

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First Love (Takashi Miike, director)  Prolific isn’t a strong enough word for this genre-hopping Japanese director. I don’t think I’ve ever fully recovered from being freaked out by the first film of his that I saw, Audition (1999). He brings an incredible amount of energy to his films, which are frequently filled with scenes that are outrageous and over the top. I’ve particularly liked his samurai films, specifically 13 Assassins (2010) and the astounding Blade of the Immortal (2017). I really liked First Love, but be warned, it’s a little violent.

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Ford v Ferrari (James Mangold, director)  This is a really good film. Matt Damon and Christian Bale are excellent as Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles. Ray McKinnon is a quiet standout as Phil Remington. The race footage both looks and feels different than the way it usually does in racing movies. It seemed that way to me, anyway. Also, the scene where Henry Ford II (played by Tracy Letts) totally collapses in tears after being taken for a spin around the track by Shelby is priceless.

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Invisible Life (Karim Ainouz, director)  Set in Rio de Janeiro in the 1950s, this is the story of two inseparable sisters, who nonetheless get separated for many years. It’s a tragedy. It’s also a sensual overload of color and emotion, a film with a very rich texture. There’s artistry in its melodrama.

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Joker (Todd Phillips, director & co-writer)  Though it’s very well made, I didn’t much like Joker, found it unpleasant and ugly. Though I like a lot of films that are unpleasant and ugly, so I’m not sure what didn’t work for me, but it didn’t. I think I should see it again. The reason I’ve included it here is to acknowledge the greatness of Joaquin Phoenix’s performance. He’s another actor who doesn’t hold back anything, which can be frightening and unsettling.

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Judy (Rupert Goold, director)  As with Joker, I don’t think Judy is a particularly good film either, but am including it because of Renée Zellweger’s stellar performance.

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Just Mercy (Destin Daniel Cretton, director & co-writer)  We’ve seen this before, an unjustly convicted black man on death row is freed due to the tireless efforts of a dedicated lawyer. Until recent years, this lawyer was frequently a white guy. Just Mercy has the distinction of being based on a true story. Michael B. Jordon plays African-American attorney Bryan Stevenson, by all accounts an actual hero. Jamie Foxx is Walter McMillan, sentenced to death in 1987 despite a preponderance of evidence that he was innocent of murdering a young woman. Tim Blake Nelson has a nice turn as an inmate whose false testimony had helped to convict McMillan. He finally does the right thing. The film is uplifting not only because justice prevails in the end, but also because of how solid and well-made it is. Everything in it is in synch.

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Knives Out (Rian Johnson, director & writer)  This film is immensely enjoyable. Riffing on Agatha Christie plotting, Knives Out is an intricately constructed puzzle in which all the pieces lock into place by the end. Knives Out has one of those all-star casts that you used to see in big films like this in the 1960s and ’70s. It’s ironic that the least-known actor here, Ana de Armas (excellent), plays one of the most central characters. We’ll see her again later this year with her Knives Out co-star Daniel Craig in the new James Bond film, No Time to Die.

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Long Day’s Journey into Night (Bi Gan, director & writer)  The last hour of this hypnotic film is in 3D and a single take. This had a very strange effect on me. I realized at some point that I’d become so immersed in the film that I didn’t have any idea how much time had past, or even, briefly, where I was. This was very disorienting, but in a fascinating way. I wanted to see it again to try to figure out how this worked, but so far haven’t.

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Mickey and the Bear (Annabelle Attanaio, director & writer)  This is a sharply observed character study that feels delicate and special. Though the stories are completely different, it reminds me in a way of a film I loved from 2018, The Rider, .

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Never Look Away (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, director & writer)  After following up the award-winning The Lives of Others (2006) with the disaster that was The Tourist (2010), with Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, von Donnersmarck recovered with this epic three hour story of the life of a painter who escapes East Germany to live and work in West Germany. I thought I recognized the lead actor, Tom Schilling, and realized I’d seen him in the German film Generation War (2013), and then in The Same Sky (2017), a German series on Netflix.

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Oh Mercy (Arnaud Desplechin, director & co-writer)  Terrific slow-burn police procedural with the mesmerizing Roschdy Zem as a police chief investigating the murder of an elderly woman, with Léa Seydoux as one of the suspects.

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One Cut of the Dead (Shun’ichiro Ueda, director & writer). Takes the concept of “meta” to a whole other level. One Cut of the Dead is comprised of three parts, each about 30 minutes long. In the first, it seems we’re watching a low-budget zombie film being made, but then real zombies turn up  to disrupt the shoot. This film-within-a-film was slapdash and frantic, and was being done in a single-take. I wasn’t too impressed. Then the second part kicks in, which taked placd a month earlier. We’re in a studio where a live TV show is being prepared, which is whag we just saw. The final half hour is a recreation of the first part, but seen from the perspective of the cast and crew. It all comes together in ways that make you rethink what you saw earlier. I now knew why the first part seemed slapdash and frantic. I wish I could describe it better. It’s like an elaborate magic trick, but it’s not just a stunt. At least, I don’t think so.

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Ready or Not (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett, directors)  This is a nasty little thriller with Samara Weaving as a new bride who discovers that on her wedding night she has to play a game of hide and seek in which the groom’s extended family set out to kill her as she tries to elude them in the labyrinth of a large mansion. She finds out she’s quite capable of turning the table on her pursuers when it’s a matter of life and death. It’s utterly absurd, but I quite liked it.

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The Report (Scott Z. Burns, director & writer)  Burns made his name as a screenwriter, having written Contagion (2011), Side Effects (2013), and The Laundromat (2019) for director Steven Soderbergh, as well as co-writing The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) and the forthcoming Bond film, No Time to Die. Adam Driver was busy in 2019, appearing as Kylo Ren in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Marriage Story, and this film. That’s quite a variety. The Report is very good, but it won’t make you feel any better about how government agencies work. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has attacked the film, which is probably an indication of how accurate it is.

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Shadow (Zhang Yimou, director & co-writer)  I’m running out of time and energy, so I’ll let Oliver Lyttelton from The Playlist handle this one. Below are excerpts from his review. I’m in complete agreement with his assessment.

“Shadow is set in the third century, during the time of the Three Kingdoms, and centers on Yu, the brilliant military commander of the Pei Kingdom. After years of battle have taken their toll, Yu replaced himself with an identical ‘shadow’ named Jing, with only Yu’s wife Madam aware of the difference. This is a filmmaker in total command of every visual element — his compositions more compelling than ever, the production design almost verging on steampunk, and a special mention has to go to the extraordinary costumes — but it doesn’t feel stifling or precious either. I can’t think of a film this year that’s been such a pleasure to look at. And the action, when it comes, absolutely bangs. It’s probably not ruining things too much to say that rather than swords and arrows, the fight sequences mostly revolve around, uh, umbrellas. The result, in the final battle and in a few warm-up sequences beforehand, is some of the most kinetic, inventive, and thrilling sequences that Chinese cinema — or any cinema, really — has seen in a long while. The extended final sequence, in particular, is something of a masterclass in cross-cutting and tension building.”

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Sunset (Laszlo Nemes, director & co-writer)  Set just before World War I in Budapest, this film by the director of the devastating Holocaust drama Son of Saul (2015), follows a young woman who has come to the city to work as a milliner in a famous hat store once owned by her late parents. This is a powerful, engaging film.

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Sword of Trust (Lynn Shelton, director & writer)  A shaggy-dog story that involves people trying sell an antique sword that supposedly proves the South actually won the Civil War. The always acerbic Marc Maron plays the owner of a pawn shop in Birmingham, Alabama who doesn’t want anything to do with this. Sword of Trust is a very funny film with an abundance of deadpan charm.

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Us (Jordan Peele, director & writer)  Peele’s follow-up to Get Out is even stranger and more disturbing. It took two viewings before I really get into it. Itchy and unsettling.

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The Whistlers (Corneliu Porumboiu, director & writer)   I saw this at the New York Film Festival and loved it, as I had this director’s earlier film, Police, Adjective (2009). Both films are concerned with language and modes of communication and they’re both terrific. The Whistlers is also noir to the hilt. As A.O. Scott wrote in his New York Times review, “If the Coen Brothers were Romanian, they might have made The Whistlers.” Indeed. It opens in New York on February 28, 2020.

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Yesterday (Danny Boyle, director)  This is a very seductive fantasy built on the premise of a young man in London who comes to after a global power blackout to discover that he’s apparently the only one who remembers The Beatles and their music. He then becomes famous singing Beatles’ songs that everyone thinks he wrote. It’s a somewhat shaky premise, but who doesn’t like hearing Beatles music? I went with it. The clip below the trailer is the most interesting scene in the film for me. In it, before thousands of adoring fans at the seaside, the hero rips into a version of “Help” that has a desperate, frantic edge to it.

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Zombi Child (Bertrand Bonello, director & writer)  I saw this at the New York Film Festival a few months ago and knew it was special. This is not the kind of zombie movie we’ve come to expect since Night of the Living Dead changed the game in 1968. Make no mistake, this is not one of those. This feels more like the real deal. Switching back and forth between Haiti in 1962 and an elite girls’ school in present-day France, Zombi Child is a deeply unsettling film. Zombi Child opened in New York on January 24.

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That’s more than enough for now. Many of these films are available for streaming from Amazon Prime, Netflix, and other sources.

Supplemental materials to follow in my next post. Right now I’m taking a little break. — Ted Hicks

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Posted in Books, Feature films, Film posters, Home Video, Streaming, TV & Cable | 3 Comments

What I Saw Last Year: Best Feature Films 2019

2019 was another year of exceptional films. Maybe every year is, to one degree or another, or so it seems to me. Out of the 384 feature films (including documentaries) I saw in 2019, I’ve actually come up with a top 10 list for the first time. Well, not exactly. Besides my top 10 picks, which I’ll deal with in this post, there are 31 other features that really stood out for me. I can’t leave those out, so they will be included in part 2, which will follow shortly. And now, on to the top 10.

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Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, director & writer)  This is my favorite of the year, and the best film, I think, when all the dust has settled. I’ve seen it five times now, most recently earlier this month when it was back in theaters after its Golden Globes win. It has never let down for a minute. I wrote about it at the end of August, which can be accessed here.

The rest of my top 10 picks are in alphabetical order.

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Diane (Kent Jones, director & writer)  This is the first narrative feature from Kent Jones, who was director of the New York Film Festival for many years. He made several documentaries prior to Diane, including Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows (2007) and the excellent Hitchcock/Truffaut (2015).  Diane is extraordinary, quiet, and powerful. Its everyday rhythms, characters and situations rang true for me, having grown up in a rural community in Iowa. These people felt real. Jones shows a great deal of respect for his characters. I would love the film if only for the single-take scene of Diane (Mary Kay Place) in a bar dancing by herself in front of the jukebox. Jones just lets it run. It’s one of those privileged moments you sometimes find in a film.

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The Irishman (Martin Scorsese, director)  A great film from a great director. We saw it at the New York Film Festival. I know that with a running time of 3 hours 29 minutes, it’s a long film, but it didn’t feel that way to me. I didn’t even have to take a bathroom break, which is a big deal for me. The Irishman is a kind of summation, in a way, of all the films Scorsese has made during his long career. It’s gangsters again, sure, but with less flash and stylistic flourishes than in films like Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995), which was disappointing to some, but not me. Scorsese has gotten older, along with his characters. Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci bring all the associations of the previous Scorsese films they were in together, and their age and experience. Al Pacino, working with Scorsese for the first time, also brings the authority of age and experience, and in the process gives one of the best performances of his career. There’s been a lot of talk about Netflix’s involvement with The Irishman, but Scorsese has said they were the only people willing to put up the money to make it, and for him, the film had to be made. Most people will probably stream The Irishman at home on their TV, though I always think the best way to see anything is on a big screen in a theater where you can’t hit pause.

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Little Women (Greta Gerwig, director & writer)  This is a wonderful film, nearly perfect from top to bottom and side to side. I’ve only seen it once, but a scene I loved takes place in a pub with everyone dancing in a swirl of color, movement, and stomping feet. I felt like I was in a whirlpool of sight and sound and music. I was swept away. Greta Gerwig is going to have a great career.

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Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach, director & writer)  I’ve always had a soft spot for The Squid and the Whale (2005), but this is probably Baumbach’s best film. A study of a couple — Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson — going through a painful divorce (is there any other kind?), Marriage Story is funny, gentle, sad, and wrenching. There are scenes, one in particular, where the actors enter an emotional space that feels almost too raw and frightening. Marriage Story was shown at the New York Film Festival, but we saw it at the Museum of Modern Art in their annual Contenders series. Noah Baumbach was there for an interview and Q&A after, which always expands my awareness of a film I’ve just seen.

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1917 (Sam Mendes, director & co-writer)  With ten Oscar nominations, a Golden Globes win, and top awards from the PGA and DGA, 1917 has a lot of momentum behind it for getting Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards. While I don’t think it’s the “best” film of those nominated, it’s still very, very good. A lot of its interest is in the way it was edited to look as though it’s one uninterrupted take from beginning to end. I like films with very long takes that dispense with traditional shot/reverse shot editing. This technique seems more real because scenes play out in real time and feel more authentic. But a single-shot style is only a stunt if story and content aren’t there. This isn’t a problem with 1917. I was with it all the way (mostly), and after a while, was caught up in the story to the extent that I was no longer conscious of the technique. It’s an immersive experience. I plan to see it again.

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Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, director & co-writer)  Bong Joon-ho is among the best of South Korean directors now working. I especially like his Memories of Murder (2003), The Host (2006), Mother (2009), and Snowpiercer (2013). He puts interesting spins on traditional genre material. With Parasite, Ho has taken it to a whole other level. It’s as well-received as any recent film I can think of. That doesn’t mean everyone is going to love it. A friend of mine absolutely doesn’t, but as a film teacher of mine once said, “Sometimes you get on the ride, and sometimes you don’t.” I was definitely on the ride. We saw it at the New York Film Festival with Bong Joon-ho and three cast members there for Q&A after. This was a great way to see it.

The following two trailers are different enough to warrant including here.

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Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodóvar, director & writer)  A truly great film from a great director. Antonio Banderas, who has frequently acted in Almodóvar films, here plays a version of the director in this autobiographical study. As with his best films, it’s inventive, colorful, and surprising, much like Almodóvar himself. I remember many years ago seeing a film of his at the New York Film Festival (can’t remember which). When he was introduced prior to the screening, he came out on the stage practically turning cartwheels, bursting with energy. He’s mellowed with age. Pain and Glory is quieter, more reflective, deeply felt, and a knockout.

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Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Céline Sciamma, director & writer)  I saw this during a limited run last month. As I wrote in Happy New Year + Things to Come: “It’s extraordinary, a film by women about women that feels quite different. Men are present more by their absence than anything else. It opens on February 14, which will make for a very interesting Valentine’s Day.”

This is an excellent film. I look forward to seeing it again. By the way, “Lady on Fire” is not just a metaphor.

As with the Parasite trailers, the following two are different enough that I want to include both.

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Uncut Gems (Josh Safdie & Ben Safdie, directors & co-writers)  I was so turned off by Good Times (2017), the Safdie Brothers’ previous feature with Robert Pattinson, that I didn’t even stay to the end, which is something I seldom do. I hate walking out of a movie. So when I saw the trailer for Uncut Gems, and saw it again and again before films at Lincoln Square, I knew I didn’t want to get close to this one. This is an example of what should be on my tombstone, which is “What the hell do I know?” Because when I finally did see it, I was completely converted, and not just by Adam Sandler’s take-no-prisoners performance, which is amazing, but also by the film itself. Just the way he walks hooks you in. It’s a harrowing experience as we watch this guy blow up his life over the course of a few days. The end is never really in doubt, but you start hoping, and you can’t take your eyes off of him. I think what finally got me into the theater was all the buzz about Sandler’s performance. He definitely should have gotten an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, but who can figure these things?

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The Irishman and Marriage Story are available for streaming on Netflix. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, Diane, and Parasite are available for rental on Amazon Prime. Uncut Gems will be available from Amazon Prime on February 25.

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Okay, that’s it for my top-10 films. Part 2 , which includes the 31 other features I couldn’t bring myself to leave out, will appear in a couple of days. It may be less predictable. Stay tuned. — Ted Hicks

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Posted in Books, Feature films, Fiction, Film posters, Home Video, Music, Streaming, TV & Cable | 2 Comments

More Roundtables – Actors & Actresses

This is a follow-up to my previous post, “Actors on Acting – Face to Face.” The Actors Roundtable was just made available, so I’m including it here with the Actresses Roundtable. I prefer the term “actor” for both male and female, but these roundtables use traditional labels, so I’ll use them, too.

All of these actors and actresses and their films are awards contenders this season. So, staying traditional, ladies first. (The roundtables run about an hour each.)

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And now the guys.

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One thing: Adam Sandler got robbed by not getting a Best Actor nomination for Uncut Gems. Just my opinion. I didn’t even want to see the movie, until I did, and he knocked me out. Okay, that’s all for now. — Ted Hicks

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Posted in Feature films, Film, Streaming, TV & Cable | 1 Comment