What I Saw Last Year – Best Documentaries 2020

I didn’t see nearly as many documentaries in 2020 as I have in previous years. When Film Forum and the IFC Center closed down last March (along with all other movie theaters in New York City), the venues where I’d normally see new documentaries were no longer available. Theaters are still closed here, and much as I hate to say it, I don’t expect them to reopen any time soon.

So I began doing what I’m still doing, which is streaming films online. I didn’t realize until near the end of the year that I’d been concentrating mainly on theatrical features, old and new. The title of this post — “What I Saw Last Year” — is a bit of a misnomer. In an effort to catch up on some of the ones I’d missed, I saw seven of last year’s documentaries in January, and five of those made the cut. I still haven’t seen two of the eleven titles on the list, but I’ll explain why I’m including them.

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The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart (Frank Marshall, director)  This was a huge revelation for me. I never had any of their albums, and before seeing this, whenever I thought of the Bee Gees, which wasn’t that often, the only thing that came to mind was Saturday Night Fever (1977) and the song “Stayin’ Alive” playing under the opening credits. I knew little of their career as it evolved over the years and their impact on pop music. Disco is just one facet of their music. This is an excellent film, and quite moving at times. Available on HBO Max.

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City Hall (Frederick Wiseman, director)  Frederick Wiseman is one of the greatest living documentary filmmakers. His contribution has been immense. Wiseman’s films are important and even essential. They show us how our society operates in Wiseman’s granular studies of institutions and communities. I love his films, but still haven’t managed to see his latest, though I’ve had numerous opportunities since last fall. His films tend to run long, and City Hall is no exception. The film’s four and a half-hour running time is daunting, to be sure, but I know it will be worth it. I’ll see it eventually, even if it’s on my computer or our flat-screen. In the meantime, because I’ve never seen a Fred Wiseman film that wouldn’t be on one of my Best Documentaries lists, I’m including City Hall here. I don’t think I’m taking a chance at all.  Available on PBS – THIRTEEN Passport.

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David Byrne’s American Utopia (Spike Lee, director)  This is great. American Utopia is a theatrical experience that transcends the notion of “concert film.” David Byrne is unique, a singular presence. The music, a mix of Talking Heads and newer songs, is  glorious. The presentation is mesmerizing and the effect is emotional and very human. Spike Lee might seem like an odd choice to direct this, but he does a great job of showcasing the material. Available on HBO Max.

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Dick Johnson Is Dead (Kirsten Johnson, director & co-writer)  I was really struck by Kirsten Johnson’s earlier film, Cameraperson (2016), which was comprised of documentary footage she’d shot over several decades. Her new film is something else again. It’s about her father and their relationship. He’s begun to show signs of dementia, and Kirsten wants to film him and be with him while he’s still lucid and alive. As a rather bizarre way to come to terms with his inevitable death, she stages scenes — with his enthusiastic cooperation — of his demise in a variety of scenarios, such as getting flattened by a falling air conditioner as he walks along a city sidewalk. This is then deconstructed as we see how she shot it. These weave in and out of the film. This might sound morbid, but it comes off as anything but. Dick Johnson Is Dead, narrated by the director, has more than a few surprises along the way. It’s funny and quite touching, with a serious subtext. And no actual fathers were harmed in the making of this movie. Available on Netflix.

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Gunda (Viktor Kosakovskiy, director & co-writer)  This is the second film on this list that I have not seen yet. It was available for streaming for a short period last fall, but I wasn’t paying attention, and it was gone before I knew it. I’m including it here because I love pigs, and also because Gunda has received virtually unanimous praise. I grew up on an Iowa farm where we raised beef cattle and pigs (but thankfully not chickens). Pigs are great, and I never tired of being amused by them, even as we trucked them off to the slaughterhouse. I regret not seeing it when I had the chance, but I imagine it will become available sometime this year, and I’ll definitely see it then.

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Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful (Gero von Boehm, director & writer)  This is a fascinating study of the edgy, provocative fashion photographer, Helmut Newton. Isabella Rossellini is a standout among those interviewed on camera, who include Charlotte Rampling, Sigourney Weaver, Grace Jones, and Catherine Deneuve, and others. Available on Amazon Prime.

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Jazz on a Summer’s Day (Bert Stern, director)  Originally released in 1959, this is hardly a new film. I was blown away when I saw it for the first time last August. Since Jazz on a Summer’s Day was re-released in a beautiful 4K restoration in 2020, and because it’s so great, I’ve rationalized including it here. The film is filled with outstanding performances by Louis Armstrong, Mahalia Jackson, Gerry Mulligan, Thelonious Monk, and many others. I was particularly taken with Anita O’Day’s set (and her incredible hat), along with Chuck Berry’s smooth performance of “Sweet Little Sixteen.” It might seem odd at first to find Berry  playing at a jazz festival in 1959, but music categories are more fluid than that. Available on Amazon Prime.

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John Lewis: Good Trouble  (Dawn Porter, director)  I had been wanting to see this film since it was released last July, but didn’t get around to it until last month. John Lewis was a genuine American hero and a Civil Rights icon. This excellent documentary more than does him justice. Seen in the context of the recent White House administration, John Lewis’ life and character are a powerful example of how things can be. As he says in the film, “Speak up, speak out, and get in what I call good trouble. Necessary trouble, what is right.” He was arrested 40 times in the 1960s, and another five times while in Congress. He also says, “You only pass this way once and you have to give it all you have.” And this: “You get knocked down, you get back up, you keep going.” In 2o18 he said, “As long as I have breath in my body, I will do what I can.” Finally, during the end credits I was suddenly practically in tears, overwhelmed by the weight of what I’d seen. This film really gets your attention. Available on Amazon Prime.

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My Octopus Teacher (Pippa Eherlich & James Reed, directors & writers)  After seeing this excellent film, I realized I’d known basically nothing about octopuses. It turns out they are amazing creatures, aware and intelligent. My Octopus Teacher is one surprise after another, and quite moving in the bargain. Available on Netflix.

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The Way I See It (Dawn Porter, director)  The one-two punch of seeing this the day after I saw the John Lewis film was almost two much. I hadn’t heard of Peter Souza, the Chief Official White House Photographer during the Reagan and Obama administrations. What we see of his work in this documentary is amazing. At one point he says, “My goal was to create the best photographic archive of a president that had ever been done. Lasting images for history.” The contrasts we see between the recent administration and those of Reagan, LBJ, and especially Obama are heartbreaking (and infuriating). I was riding waves of emotion throughout this film. Note that the director, Dawn Porter, was also the director of John Lewis: Good Trouble. Both films seem essential to me. Available on Amazon Prime.

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Zappa (Alex Winter, director)  An excellent, seemingly comprehensive study of the life and work of Frank Zappa, an artist whose music transcends categories. His contributions can’t be over-estimated. This film is superior to anything else I’ve seen on him. Alex Winter had an unprecedented access to Zappa’s archives, material that largely hasn’t been seen or heard before.

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That wraps up this installment. Supplemental materials for these films will follow in a day or so. As always, stay safe. — Ted Hicks

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Feature Films 2020: Best of the Rest – Supplemental

Here is a variety of supplemental materials for several of the titles in my previous post.

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I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman, director & writer)

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Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (George C. Wolfe, director)

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Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello, director & co-writer)

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On the Rocks (Sofia Coppola, director & writer)

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Tenet (Christopher Nolan, director & writer)

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Trial of the Chicago 7 (Aaron Sorkin, director & writer)

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This wraps up my posts on the Best Feature Films of 2020. Next up will be documentaries, followed by television. See you then. — Ted Hicks

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Posted in Feature films, Film posters, History, Home Video, Streaming, TV & Cable | 1 Comment

Feature Films 2020 – The Best of the Rest of What I Saw

Here are the best of the rest of what I saw last year, 18 films in alphabetical order. As I said in my intro to last year’s “Best of the Rest” post, 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, a feeling, more often it’s the whole package.

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Bacurau Juliano Dornelles & Kleber Mendonca Fihlo, directors & writers). Available on Amazon Prime.

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Beanpole (Kantemir Balagov, director & co-writer). Available on Amazon Prime.

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Corpus Christi (Jan Komasa, director). Available on Amazon Prime.

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Emma (Autumn de Wilde, director). Anya Taylor-Joy, who scored so strongly in The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix), is excellent as the title character. I think we’ll be seeing a lot of her. And any film that has Bill Nighy in it gains points just for that.  Available on HBO Max.

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I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman, director & writer). Beyond strange, I don’t think the individual scenes and radical shifting of gears add up to a whole, but I found it very compelling nonetheless, even as I kept wondering “What the hell?” Available on Netflix.

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The Invisible Man (Leigh Whannell, director & writer). Elizabeth Moss brings a lot of intensity to this very effective sci-fi thriller that’s mainly about getting out of an abusive marriage. But make no mistake, it has nothing to do with the H. G. Wells novel or classic film, other than sharing the title and having a guy who’s invisible in it. But it’s really tense. Available on HBO Max.

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Lost Bullet (Guillaume Pierret, director & co-writer). This film and Sputnik are the two films on this list that got me the most energized and excited. The familiar and quite flexible premise of a good cop vs. bad cops is given an inventive spin that is part Mad Max, part Serpico, and every car chase movie you’ve ever seen. The forward momentum is relentless. Lost Bullet is probably not very credible, but when did that ever get in the way? I enjoyed it a lot. Available on Netflix.

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Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (George C. Wolfe, director).  Viola Davis is great as Ma Rainey, but the main attraction is Chadwick Boseman in his final film before his death last year at age 43. His blistering performance is overwhelming and tragic, and probably gets an extra charge from our knowing that he’s gone. I’d hoped for more music, but it’s really about the characters and race. Available on Netflix.

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Mank (David Fincher, director). For me, David Fincher (along with Christopher Nolan, Michael Mann, and Ridley Scott) is one of the best living film directors. Mank may not be his best film — that would be Zodiac — but it’s one hell of an achievement. Per numerous profiles and interviews, it’s clear that Fincher exerts total control over every aspect of any film he’s making, and it shows. Mank may be more of a film for film buffs, but it’s stunning in its look and sound and meticulous recreation of its 1940s Hollywood milieu. The casting of Gary Oldman has been criticized because his actual age is much older than Herman Mankiewicz was at the time. I didn’t know that, and anyway, so what? Oldman is a terrific actor and it’s a terrific performance. Available on Netflix.

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Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello, director & co-writer). Available on Kino Marquee/Kino Now.

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On the Rocks (Sofia Coppola, director & writer). Delicate, funny, and insightful. And a great performance by Bill Murray, who’s never been better. Rashida Jones is excellent as his daughter. This moves ever so smoothly. Available on Apple TV.

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The Quarry (Scott Teams, director & co-writer). A slow-burning neo-noir with Michael Shannon and Shea Whigham. That was enough for me. I wish the ending had been stronger, but the performances and tone carry it a long way. Available on Amazon Prime.

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Radioactive (Marjane Satrapi, director). Rosamund Pike is very convincing as Marie Curie, whose discovery of radium and radioactivity resulted in the two Nobel Prizes (Physics and Chemistry) and eventually her own death from radiation poisoning. Pike has been excellent in films that include David Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014), Scott Cooper’s Hostiles (2017), and most especially Matthew Heineman’s A Private War (2018). I hadn’t known that she endured a lot of prejudice in France due to her Polish background. Radioactive also features Anya Taylor-Joy as Curie’s daughter Irene. Available on Amazon Prime.

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The Rhythm Section (Reed Morano, director). This is a familiar premise. A man or woman seeks revenge because of a loss — family, friends, job, etc. — and has to first learn the skills to do so. But it’s all in the telling, and this film pulls it off  with style and feeling. Blake Lively is very good as a young woman intent on avenging the deaths of her parents and brother at the hands of a terrorist bomb maker. Jude Law is her reluctant mentor in the ways of killing and survival. Available on Amazon Prime.

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Sputnik (Egor Abramenko, director). An astronaut returns to earth, but he’s not alone, something has come with him. We’ve seen this before, too, but seldom as inventively done as in this Russian film. Alien (1979) is an influence here, as it has been on just about everything since, but Sputnik is its own thing, literally. It’s pretty creepy and feels very concrete, very physical, and very scary. It’s not for everyone, but then, anything good seldom is. Available on Amazon Prime.

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Tenet (Christopher Nolan, director & writer). I’ve basically recovered from having to see this the first time on a 41″ television set instead of the IMAX screen at Lincoln Square. Though I hope to be able to do that at some point in the post-pandemic future, whenever we get there. Meanwhile, seeing it smaller was better than not seeing it at all. John David Washington is excellent as the unnamed main character. I especially liked Robert Pattinson as Washington’s partner of sorts. The narrative is incredibly complex and has to do with time travel or time shifting or inversion, something like that. I had a feeling for what was going on, but I don’t pretend to understand it. That will require a few more viewings, hopefully one of which will be in IMAX. Available on Amazon Prime.

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The Traitor  (Marco Bellochio, director). Available on STARZ.

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The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Aaron Sorkin, director & writer). This is a very engaging telling of the famous (and infamous) trial of a group of men accused of conspiring to riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Since I was around at the time, most of the people involved were familiar to me. Eddie Redmayne, Jeremy Strong, and Mark Rylance are excellent as (respectively) Tom Hayden, Jerry Rubin, and defense lawyer William Kuntsler. Frank Langella is properly loathsome as Judge Julius Hoffman. But the standout for me is Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman. For anyone who thinks of him as only Borat, and doubts his acting ability beyond that, I refer them to this film, and even more so to the Netflix series Spy, in which he plays an undercover agent in Syria spying for Israel. Available on Netflix.

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That about wraps up this installment. I’m going to take a break now to watch Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943), then do a final edit and post this later today. I’ll post supplemental materials for a few of these titles tomorrow. In the meantime, stay tuned and be safe! — Ted Hicks

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Best Feature Films 2020 – Supplemental

For those of you interested in a closer look, here are supplementary materials for six of the films on my top-10 list.

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The Assistant

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First Cow

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Never Rarely Sometimes Always

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Nomadland

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Sorry We Missed You

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Sound of Metal

This is a lot of material for this title. As always, just pick what you want. There won’t be a test.

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That’s all for now. Stay tuned for “Feature Films – The Best of the Rest of What I Saw” in two or three days. Best documentaries and TV yet to come. Keep safe. — Ted Hicks

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

What I Saw Last Year – Best Feature Films 2020

A year without blockbusters or movie theaters. 2020 was a radically different year for everything, not just movie-going, and 2021 still is. If someone had told me at the outset that theaters would be closed nearly a year later, I don’t think I could have gotten my head around it.

The last film I saw in a theater was Stage Fright at Film Forum on Saturday, March 14. Not a great film, but it was a Hitchcock I hadn’t seen before, and I wanted to check that box. Besides, film screenings had already begun shutting down, such as MoMA and Film at Lincoln Center. Film Forum would close that Sunday, AMC and other multiplexes by Monday. Some theaters across the country have re-opened — I don’t know how many — but film venues in New York City remain closed.

I saw 61 films in theaters before they shut down. Since then I’ve been watching them mainly online via Amazon Prime and Netflix, with some on HBO, Showtime, and from my DVD & Blu-ray disc collection. Even with theaters not open last year, I didn’t see fewer films in 2020, I actually saw more. But get this, of the 392 films I saw, only 95 of them were new films. The remaining 297 were old films, either ones I’d seen before or ones I hadn’t seen that looked interesting. Most of the year I was, in effect, running a random repertory program at home.

But of those 95 new feature films, many of them were excellent, even great. I’ve come up with a top-10 list again this year, to be followed in part two by 18 films that were very strong and deserve to be included. The hell of it is, at the start of the new year I realized that while I’d spent an inordinate amount of time last year watching old films, I’d neglected many of the new ones that were turning up on various streaming services, such as Ammonite, Another Round, and Babyteeth. I intend to catch up in the days to come, and will cover the best of those in a later post. Meanwhile, on to the best of what I saw last year, in alphabetical order.

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Dear Comrades!

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The Assistant (Kitty Green, director & writer)  This excellent, quietly disturbing film stars Julia Garner as a recent hire as an assistant in a film production office. She gets in before sunup and leaves well after sundown. Over the course of one very long day she endures many small humiliations and sexist attitudes that are taken for granted by others in the office. Her boss, never seen but always intimidating and looming via phone and intercom, is what the Me Too movement is all about. The narrative proceeds at a slow burn, an accretion of small details, and often feels like a horror movie. Garner, who we first saw in the great FX series The Americans and more recently on the Netflix series Ozark, is excellent as a wary observer struggling to get her bearings and deal with what’s expected and demanded of her. There are no histrionics or blowups that I recall, but the atmosphere is nonetheless extremely tense. It’s like a grenade waiting to off. This is a small jewel of a film, but no one would call it feel-good. Available on Amazon Prime.

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Dear Comrades! (Andrei Konchalofsky, director & co-writer)  Konchalofsky is a well-known Russian director, but I first became aware of him in 1985 when I saw his English-language film Runaway Train, with Jon Voight and Eric Roberts as escaped convicts in Alaska who end up on a runaway train. That film ends with a powerful, existential image of Voight standing on top of the speeding train in the midst of a blizzard as it speeds through the night. I don’t remember much else, but that scene has stayed with me. Konchalofsky’s new film is based on an actual event that took place in 1962 in a small industrial town when government forces fired on factory workers who were striking to protest higher food prices and lower wages. Many were killed in the ensuing massacre, news of which was officially surpressed until the 1990s. Yuliya Vysotskaya, the director’s wife, plays Lyudmilla, a loyal Communist Party executive. Her frantic search for her rebellious daughter, who took part in the strike, makes up the heart of the film. It’s a great performance in a powerful film. Available via Film Forum/Neon on January 29.

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First Cow (Kelly Reichardt, director & co-writer)  Kelly Reichardt is an excellent director whose previous films have included Wendy and Lucy (2008) and Certain Women (2016). Her new film is quite special in conception and execution. In 1820, Cookie (John Magaro) is the cook for a group of trappers in Oregon territory. He meets King Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese man on the run after killing a Russian. They hook up and set up house in a settlement that’s more or less overseen by a wealthy Englishman called Chief Factor (Toby Jones). Cookie makes biscuits that sell like hot cakes at the local marketplace, but he needs milk to continue to make them. Chief Factor has the first and only cow in the region. Cookie and King Lu begin milking the cow at night, stealing the milk, which works until it doesn’t. This is a wonderful film, filled with unusual detail. At one point, King Lu says to Cookie, “History isn’t here yet. It’s coming, but maybe this time we can take it on our own terms.” I think it’s unlikely that anyone at that time would say something like that, but it gives a great sense of this being a country in the making, and the beginnings of a social order. Available on Amazon Prime.

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Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman, director & writer)   Autumn, played by Sydney Flanigan in her debut film role,  is 17 years old and pregnant. She lives in a small town in Pennsylvania, where her options are limited, to say the least. She and her cousin Skylar (played by Talia Ryder) take a bus to New York City where she plans to terminate the pregnancy. They don’t really know what they’re doing, and while paperwork and finances get sorted, they spend two nights in and around the Port Authority Bus Terminal, which becomes a character in its own right. I was reminded of how stressful and uncomfortable bus stations can be, always transient, and how lonely at 2:00 am. Sydney Flanigan’s performance feels very authentic and completely natural. This film is an example of what we’re seeing more and more, narratives that don’t advance in traditional ways, that are less dramatic and less plotted. Stories develop more indirectly. Not having everything mapped out and spelled out can feel fresher and more real. That’s certainly the case with this film. Available on HBO Max.

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Nomadland (Chloé Zhao, director & writer)  Zhao’s previous film, The Rider, was one of my top three favorite films of 2018. I absolutely loved it. Nomadland is a worthy followup, and then some. Nomadland has been almost universally praised. Traditional storytelling falls away and it feels like you’ve discovered something totally authentic. This is due in part, I think, to Zhao’s method of casting real people as close versions of themselves who use their real names and experiences, as she did in The Rider. A difference this time is that Zhao employed a big-name actor, Frances McDormand, to play the lead character, Fern. This undoubtedly raised the profile of the film. Zhao also cast the quietly outstanding David Strathairn as Dave, who Fern encounters at various times on the road. Fern has lived all of her adult life in a Nevada mining town. With the death of her husband and the closing of the mine that effectively closes the town, even eliminating its zip code, Fern packs up and goes on the road, taking seasonal work where she can get it. She becomes part of a community of transient older Americans living in RVs and vans. They are fiercely independent and frequently on the move — nomads.

Zhao based the film on a non-fiction book by Jessica Bruder published in 2017, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century. Many of the people profiled in the book are characters in the film. As it did in The Rider, this lends a strong documentary aspect, a kind of non-fiction fiction, if you will. Nomadland was filmed over four months on locations in Nebraska, South Dakota, Nevada, Arizona, and California. These people were living their lives as the movie was being filmed. You get a sense of their dignity and self-sufficiency, which is exemplified by Frances McDormand’s fearless performance. At one point, when concerned friends back in Nevada offer Fern a place to stay, she says, “I’m not homeless, I’m just houseless. Not the same thing, right? Don’t worry about me.” Scheduled to be available for streaming February 19 on Hulu.

Note: In what feels like a cognitive disconnect, Chloé Zhao has signed to direct Eternals, a Marvel superhero film expected later this year (pandemic permitting). Her distinctive and very specific sensibility should yield very interesting results, though it’s a little like hearing that Ozu had directed a Mad Max film. Actually, that’s a movie I’d like to see.

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Sorry We Missed You (Ken Loach, director)  Ken Loach is a great director whose films reflect committed humanist, social, and political concerns. These include Kes (1969), Land and Freedom (1995), My Name Is Joe (1988), The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006), and I, Daniel Blake (2016). Loach is nearly 85 years of age, and Sorry We Missed You is strong evidence that his craft, skill, and sensitivity have not diminished in the least.

As in many of his films, the characters in Sorry We Missed You are everyday people, working class, the common man (and woman). Sorry We Missed You was filmed in Newcastle, as was I, Daniel Blake, and concerns a family struggling to make ends meet and get by. Ricky (Kris Hitchen), a somewhat hapless character, has just started working for a package delivery company managed by an abusive boss. His wife Abbie (Debbie Honeywood) works as a home care nurse. Ricky pressures her to sell the car she uses to get to her clients in order to have the down payment for the van he has to buy to make deliveries. Abbie then has to take buses and cabs. Their teenage son Seb skips school to be with his small crew of graffiti taggers around town, and is just generally contrary. Their young daughter Liza Jane (Katie Proctor), is stressed out by the constant bickering between her father and brother.

Working with his frequent collaborator, screenwriter Paul Laverty, Loach has created a deeply heartfelt film, sad and tragic, an essential statement. Available on Amazon Prime.

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Sound of Metal (Darius Marder, director & writer)  Riz Ahmed, who was great in the HBO series The Night Of (2016), here plays Ruben, a heavy metal drummer who suddenly loses his hearing. Ahmed’s performance sharply conveys his confusion, anger, and fear as he struggles go adjust to his new reality. Members of the deaf community portray characters in the film, which adds a level of authenticity that you can feel. Available on Amazon Prime.

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Unhinged (Derrick Borte, director)  This film is the wild card of the bunch. When I first saw Unhinged I was totally turned off. I thought it was irresponsible and gratuitous. Here’s what I had to say on Facebook one day after my initial viewing:

“Why, after a career that includes films as good as Gladiator, L.A. Confidential, A Beautiful Mind, and Master and Commander, would Crowe choose for his latest something as useless and empty as Unhinged. He plays a character as ugly and irredeemable as any I’ve seen in a long time. I was relieved to learn that he was wearing a fat suit and hadn’t actually gained 200 pounds for the role. His character is completely nuts from the start when he charges into a house, brutally kills a guy and then burns the house down. No spoilers here, this is the very first scene. The film seems to exist just to exhibit a whole lot of car crashes and Crowe savagely killing a whole lot of innocent people. I tend to like violent movies, but not when they’re as gratuitous as this one is. It’s very well made, but so what? Something else is that Unhinged was touted as the first film to play in reopened theaters since the pandemic lockdown began in March. If this film reflects the times and the mood, we’re in more trouble than I thought.”

Given that, you might well wonder how it is that Unhinged is on my Best Features list. Well, a day or so after posting those sentiments I was still thinking about the film. I wanted to better understand why I’d had such a visceral reaction, so I watched two interviews with Russell Crowe (these will be included in the Best Films Supplemental post in a day or so). He talks about his initial reluctance to play this kind of basically irredeemable character, and he breaks down how he thinks the film works. He’s very articulate and insightful. What he says basically turned my head around and gave me a new way to consider what I’d seen.

What’s most disturbing about Unhinged is that there’s absolutely no rationale, justification, or explanation for what his character does. Simply called “The Man” in the credits, he’s road rage personified and that’s it. He’s unstoppable, he’s a Terminator. Invariably, in the wake of murders, mass shootings, and violent events, there are always “experts” who attempt to explain and understand what has happened. We don’t want to accept that sometimes there are no answers. That’s hard to deal with. But there’s more than road rage is going on here. Crowe’s character is a darkness that just is.

Unhinged is very well made and it’s a rough ride. The narrative is single minded, unrelenting. It winds tighter and tighter. There are no distractions or relief, comic or otherwise, to ease the tension. It’s our worst nightmare. There’s an Itchy and Scratchy level of violence, except it’s not a cartoon. Unhinged is an example of transgressive cinema. It crosses the line, goes way over.

Unhinged is not a film I plan to see again, but probably will, if only because I don’t want to. And at the same time, I do. That may not make any sense, anymore than I can explain why it’s on my list of Best Films. Like Russell Crowe’s character, it just is. Available on Amazon Prime.

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The Vast of Night (Andrew Patterson, director)  I love this film. I’ve seen it four times and it holds up strongly. If anything, it just gets better. I wrote about it last summer, which can be accessed here. Available on Amazon Prime.

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Working Man (Robert Jury, director & writer)  It’s great to see Peter Gerety finally get a leading role after many years of solid supporting work, mainly in TV series such as Homicide: Life on the Street (1996-1999), The Wire (2002-2008), Sneaky Pete (2015-2019), and Ray Donovan (2019-2020). Like Nomadland and Sorry We Missed You, this film takes place in a working class environment with everyday people. Gerety plays Allery Parkes, who has worked for 30 years in a factory in a Rust Belt town. When the factory shuts down, Allery isn’t ready to stop working. He finds a way back into the plant and continues to go in, day after day, doing his work. That he’s not supposed to be there and is not getting paid is beside the point for Allery. How this plays out in his life and in the community is very interesting and touching. Talia Shire, known for The Godfather and Rocky films, plays his wife, Iola. Billy Brown, who my wife recognized from the series How to Get Away with Murder, plays Walter Brewer, who joins Allery in working in the closed factory. It’s a feel-good scenario, but Working Man has some bite and a few twists along the way. Available on Amazon Prime.

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That wraps up the first part of my annual survey of the feature films I liked the best from last year. Supplemental materials for these ten films will follow in a day or two. In the meantime, Happy Inauguration Day! Stay safe. — Ted Hicks

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Posted in Books, Feature films, Film posters, History, Home Video, Streaming, TV & Cable | 4 Comments

Happy New Year 2021 – To Infinity and Beyond!

2020 has felt like the longest 10 years of my life. I sure won’t miss it. The new year has got to be better, right? A vaccine that will hopefully bring the pandemic under control and get us back into movie theaters and inside restaurants. A new president who probably won’t throw tantrums or rant nonstop on Twitter. Being able to see people’s entire faces once again and not having to experience everything virtually. I don’t know about you, but I’m really tired of all this. If we’ve been in an alternative timeline this past year, some sort of bizarro world, I’m ready to be done with it.

This year’s farewell to 2020 will be the usual random collection of images and videos that may or many not make any sense together, but they struck my fancy and just feel right.

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One of my favorite actors, Sterling Hayden, in a scene from Nicholas Ray’s wonderfully bizarre Johnny Guitar (1954) that gets down to the basic necessities of life.

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Speaking of Chinatown (1974), I recently read an excellent book by Sam Wasson on the making of the film, The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood. It goes deep.

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And now, one of the greatest moments in all of Buster Keaton’s films, or anybody else’s for that matter. Also a metaphor for getting out of this year intact, assuming we do.

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And to end on a slightly more hopeful, if somewhat ambiguous, note.

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That wraps it up for this year. Stay tuned next month for my annual recaps of the best feature films, documentaries, and television shows for 2020. Meanwhile, wear a mask, wash your hands, and stay safe. Hang in there and have a HAPPY NEW YEAR!!! Live long and prosper. — Ted Hicks

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Posted in Comics, Feature films, History, Home Video, Streaming, TV & Cable | 6 Comments

Off the TV Screen – A Brief Diversion + Posters

While taking pictures of movies on a TV screen might seem like something one would do to pass the time while sequestered at home during a pandemic, these were taken sometime in 1978 for reasons that escape me now, though I suspect I just got a kick of doing so. Here are some that survived the ensuing years.

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At the time, I had a B&W 17″ table-model TV I’d brought with me from Minneapolis when I moved to New York in January 1977. This was before cable and flat screens, and definitely before I could buy a color set. So I have to see wide-screen films, such as Spartacus, in all their pan & scan glory, which meant seeing maybe a third of the original screen image. Of course, this was common at the time for scope films shown on television.

I was able to date these shots by the Film Comment issue on the shelf below the TV. This was the January/February 1978 issue, which I still have, along with every Film Comment issue I’ve acquired, though most of them reside in one of our closets. To its left is a copy of Leonard Maltin’s  TV Movies, the first of his many movies-on-TV books. This one was published in 1969, but I was obviously still using it in ’78.

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The following shots were taken sometime in the early to mid-1980s. By that time I’d acquired a 17″ Sony Trinitron, which was a definite step up for me — color! Dark Shadows was a weekday TV show originally shown on ABC from 1966 to 1971. I didn’t see it then, but channel 13, the local PBS station, had begun running two episodes a day, and I started watching. The series was a hoot, with vampires, werewolves, ghosts, witches, time travel and more in the New England fishing community of Collinsport. If you’ve ever seen it, you know. Ten months into its initial run, producer Dan Curtis came up with idea of bringing the supernatural into the mix in a effort to raise the show’s low ratings. And so vampire Barnabas Collins (Jonathan Frid) was introduced. Dark Shadows took off and never looked back.

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Before my wife-to-be moved in with me in 2004, my apartment was basically a movie poster gallery and library. It turned out Nancy thought we should have some actual furniture for grown ups, such as a sofa and maybe some lamps, and stuff other than film posters on all the walls. Here’s what the living room was like before. This shot was taken in the ’90s before I’d had the old rug taken up and the wood floor refinished.

Here’s what it looks like now.

Definitely an improvement, a much more comfortable space, looks like people live here. And we’re both big readers, so there are a lot of books. Though I’d be lying if I said I didn’t occasionally miss some of what had been on display before, especially the King Kong poster, but that’s okay.  Here are some of those.

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This beautiful Metropolis poster was nearly six feet tall. I actually parted with it long before Nancy moved in. The shot on the right was taken after I’d put it on the landing in our building for someone to claim.

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I think that wraps up this little tour. See you later. In the meantime, stay safe. Better days are coming. — Ted Hicks

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Posted in Feature films, photography, TV | 2 Comments

Connery and “The Hill”

When I learned that Sean Connery had died on October 31 at age 90, it felt for a moment as if things had slipped out of gear. Later I read that Connery’s wife of 45 years, Micheline Roquebrune, had said that he’d had dementia in those last months and “was not able to express himself… It was no life for him. At least he died in his sleep and it was just so peaceful.” I can only imagine what it must be like to lose one’s self before actually dying, but it has to be a hard way to go. I don’t like to think of him like that. I prefer to see him as someone vital and virile, a strong physical presence with authority. Of course, this impression is based on years of seeing him in films; those were the characters he tended to portray. He projected intelligence and strength, but strength with feeling.

Sean Connery will be forever known as the first, and for many the best, James Bond, but I think his most interesting work can be seen in films other than those of that iconic series. Right from the start he was determined not to be trapped by the Bond character. Four of the five “official” Bond films he appeared in were made from 1962 to 1967. In the midst of that period, Connery also acted in Woman of Straw (1964), Marnie (1964), The Hill (1965), and A Fine Madness (1967).

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It was in the post-Bond years that Connery gave some of his best performances. One of my favorites is John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King (1975), co-starring with Michael Caine. Huston had tried to get this film made for many years. He planned to do it with Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart in the fifties. Subsequent proposed pairings included Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, then Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole. While it’s interesting to imagine the film with those casts, I think it was worth the wait. Connery and Caine are wonderful together. This was reportedly Connery’s favorite movie role.

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Richard Lester’s Robin and Marian (1976) is a favorite of mine, a film with great sentiment and emotion. Imagining Robin Hood, Maid Marian, and the Merry Men twenty years later is a great idea, cleverly worked out. Audrey Hepburn makes a lovely Marian, and Robert Shaw is excellent as the Sheriff of Nottingham, who clearly has a fondness, or at least respect, for Robin. One of my favorite lines is when he says of Robin before their final encounter, “He’s a little bit in love with death.”

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Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1987), though entertaining, is not a great film, but Connery’s performance certainly is. For his role as Chicago cop Joe Malone, he received a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. This brief scene with Connery and Kevin Costner as Eliot Ness gives a good sense of who Malone is.

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The Untouchables: Andy Garcia, Connery, Kevin Costner, Charles Martin Smith

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Connery should also be given credit for taking on John Boorman’s profoundly weird Zardoz in 1974. Once you’ve seen the WTF image below, you can never unsee it.

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But now to The Hill. Connery made five films directed by Sidney Lumet: The Hill (1965), The Anderson Tapes (1971), The Offence (1973), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), and Family Business (1989). I’ve not yet seen The Offence, in which Connery plays a burnt-out police detective who beats a suspected pedophile to death while interrogating him.  This certainly sounds like Lumet territory, and based on the performance Lumet got out of Connery in The Hill, I look forward to seeing it. Family Business, which I watched recently, is a rare Lumet misfire in which Connery, Dustin Hoffman, and Matthew Broderick play grandfather, father, and son involved in a hapless criminal enterprise. For me, nothing worked, it was all totally off, top to bottom.

Of these five films, the clear winner is The Hill. It was critically well received but did very little business in theaters. I’m betting not that many people have seen The Hill, or have even heard of it, but those who have know what a blistering piece of work it is.

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In Sydney Lumet’s excellent book Making Movies (1995), he writes, “The Hill is the story of a British Army prison in North Africa during World War II. Only the camp is for British soldiers, sent there for discipline problems or criminal behavior. It’s a brutal place, filled with sadistic punishments that are meant to break the spirit of anyone unlucky enough to be there.”

There is no music under the main title sequence. This opening shot runs 2 minutes 27 seconds without a cut. The camera pulls slowly back and cranes up and out to give an overview of the prison grounds. Here it is.

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Sydney Lumet is quoted as saying, “There really isn’t a lot of story. It’s all character — a group of men, prisoners and jailers alike, driven by the same motive force, fear.”

Sean Connery signed on because it was such a change of pace from James Bond. He said at the time, “It is only because of my reputation as Bond that the backers put up money for The Hill.” He later saw it as a personal triumph that lead to more challenging roles.

Before filming began, Lumet told Connery, “I’m going to make brutal demands of you, physically and emotionally.” Anyone familiar with Lumet’s work knows that he gets intense performances from actors in highly charged situations. The circumstances of the shoot also made “brutal demands.” The Hill was filmed at an old Spanish fort in Almeria, Spain, starting in September, 1964. Temperatures climbed to 114 degrees Fahrenheit and above on a daily basis. In Making Movies, Lumet writes “…the exteriors were shot in the desert. The light was blinding, the heat so horrendous that during the day we dehydrated completely. After a few days I asked Sean Connery if he was peeing at all. ‘Only in the morning,’ he said.”

The excellent cast includes Connery as a prisoner busted for refusing to carry out a suicidal order and punching out the superior officer who gave it; Harry Andrews as the Regimental Sergeant Major in charge of the camp; and Ian Hendry as the truly sadistic Staff Sergeant Williams, whose actions bring everything to a boiling point and beyond. Others in the cast include Ian Bannen as the humane Staff Sergeant Harris, Michael Redgrave as the medical officer, with Ossie Davis and Roy Kinnear as fellow prisoners.

Harry Andrews is a powerful actor, but Sean Connery is more than a match for him, as can be seen vividly in this ferocious scene where they go head to head. If you didn’t know you were in a Sidney Lumet movie before, you did now.

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In Making Movies, Lumet writes of his collaboration with cinematographer Oswald Morris on the visual style of The Hill. “Wanting a very contrasty negative, we used Ilford (film) stock, which was rarely used because photographers found it too contrasty. We decided to shoot the entire picture on three wide lenses: the first third on a 24 mm, the second on a 21 mm, the last on an 18 mm. I mean everything, close-ups included. Of course, the faces became distorted. A nose looked twice as big, the forehead sloped backward. At the end, even on a close-up with the camera no more than a foot from the actors’ faces, you could see the whole jail or enormous vistas of the desert behind them. That’s why I used those lenses. I never wanted to lose the critical element in plot and emotion: these men were never going to be free of the jail or of themselves. That was the theme of the picture. I wanted their surroundings powerfully present at all times.”

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It’s my firm belief that in The Hill Sean Connery gives one of his very best performances. When you know that this film was released in the same year as Thunderball, it’s interesting to think that if Connery could have played Bond like this, he would have been a really dangerous character.

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The Hill is available for rental on Amazon Prime.

The screenplay for The Hill by Ray Rigby won at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival.

Sean Connery’s obituary in the New York Times can be accessed here.

My earlier post on the first three Bond films with Sean Connery can be accessed here.

That’s all for now. See you next time. Stay safe. — Ted Hicks

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Royal Navy service, 1946-1949

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Posted in Feature films, Film posters, History, Home Video, Streaming, TV & Cable | Tagged , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Shooting “Barry Lyndon” – John Alcott & Stanley Kubrick

A few days ago on Facebook someone posted a link to an interview with cinematographer John Alcott on how Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) was shot. This appeared in the March 1976 issue of American Cinematographer. The interview covers technical matters in some detail. These include lenses, film stocks, filters, shooting by candle light, and the like. A lot of this was above my pay grade, but I found it fascinating nonetheless. Plus it has some really great photographs.

The full interview can be accessed here. It is followed by an article on the special lenses used for Barry Lyndon by Ed DiGiulio, president of Cinema Products Corporation. After this piece there’s a reproduction of a letter of instructions from Kubrick for projectionists in theaters that would be showing Barry Lyndon. Kubrick was a real control freak; the level of detail and micro-management is impressive. I like to imagine the reaction of a projectionist receiving this letter. It’s a hoot.

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John Alcott (1930 – 1986) was a British cinematographer who was Director of Photography on five films for Stanley Kubrick, starting with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). On that film, which was Alcott’s first DP credit, he replaced Geoffrey Unsworth, who had to leave the production after six months due to another commitment. Alcott had been Unsworth’s camera assistant before getting promoted. Following that, Alcott shot A Clockwork Orange (1971), Barry Lyndon (1975), and The Shining (1980).

John Alton and Stanley Kubrick

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At The Beat website, Jourdan Aldredge wrote about Alcott’s work with Kubrick in a piece called “A Look Behind the Lens of Stanley Kubrick’s Cinematographer John Alcott.” Despite the rather unwieldy title, this is an excellent overview. It also includes the following four videos:

“How Kubrick Made 2001: The Dawn of Man”

“Cinematography in A Clockwork Orange

Barry Lyndon: The Use of the Zoom Shot”

“The Cinematography of The Shining”

Aldredge’s piece can be accessed here.

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Shooting a number of scenes in Barry Lyndon exclusively by candle light gets considerable attention in the American Cinematographer interview. Here is an example of one of those scenes.

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Here are two videos that focus (so to speak) on Barry Lyndon. The first discusses the cinematography. It runs slightly under 14 minutes. The second is an overview of the film itself and runs just under 10 minutes.

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John Alcott received the Academy Award in 1976 for Best Cinematography for Barry Lyndon, one of four Oscars won by the film. Kubrick would make two more features after The Shining in 1980. Alcott would likely have continued to work with Kubrick on those final films but for the fact that he died of a heart attack in 1986. He was only 55.

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Two years ago I posted a four-part series on Stanley Kubrick. If you missed those and are interested, they can be accessed below.

Stanley K Is in the House

More Kubrick!

Still More Kubrick

Kubrick Postscript: Killer’s Kiss – 1955

Okay, that’s it for this one. See you next time. Meanwhile, stay safe. — Ted Hicks

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Alcott & Kubrick shooting “Barry Lyndon”

Posted in Art, Books, Documentaries, Feature films, Film posters, Home Video, Music, photography, Streaming, TV & Cable | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Halloween – Odds & Ends

Here is a rather loosely organized collection of Halloween-appropriate images. None of them are half as scary as the 2020 presidential election, believe me.

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“Unusual times demand unusual pictures.” This ad copy could have been written today.

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Joan Crawford’s final feature film (1970). The ape suit was reportedly left over from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). It’s good to recycle.

Joan is probably thinking of better days in the scene below.

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Artwork by Charles Burns

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“The Public Hating” appeared in the January 1955 issue of Bluebook magazine. It was Steve Allen’s first published short story, and it’s really something. That’s right, Steve Allen, the comedian and first host of the “Tonight” show. This profoundly unsettling story can be read here, at a site called SFFaudio. When the page comes up, scroll down to “Here’s a link to a PDF of the story” and click on that to read the story. It’s definitely worth the time.

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That’s all for now. Be safe. Don’t forget to vote, if you haven’t already. This one’s important. HAPPY HALLOWEEN! Ted Hicks

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