Most of January was spent trying to watch whatever documentaries we could get our hands on, mostly on Netflix Instant, so we could nominate films in that category for the 2nd Annual Flickcharters’ Choice Awards (we had to have seen at least five per category to nominate in it). Neither Jonathan nor I are big documentary fans, so we had a lot to catch up on. As I expected, they all ended up falling into my “yeah, it was good but not really my thing” category. Ah, well. Did manage to see a few films I genuinely loved, so it was still a good month. We only made it out to theatres twice (January releases – you know), but enjoyed both critically-panned movies we saw quite a bit for what they were. Running late as per usual, I decided to throw February in as well, especially because I only managed to watch ONE new-to-me movie in all of February. Feeling very pregnant apparently necessitated a lot of comfort-food rewatches.
And now, of course, most of March is gone, taken up by a newborn. :)
What I Loved
I won’t actually write very much about this one, since I saw it at a press screening and I’ll be posting a full review on Row Three soon, time willing. For now I’ll just say that The Artist (a film I quite enjoyed) wishes it were as excellent an homage to silent cinema as this version of Snow White (set in 1920s Spain with Snow White as a bullfighter) is. I loved every second of its completely unironic take on European cinema of the ’20s.
2012 Spain. Director: Pablo Berger. Starring: Maribel Verdú, Ángela Molina, Macarena García, Inma Cuesta, Pere Ponce.
Seen January 8 at a press screening.
The Story of Film: An Odyssey
Yes, this is a 15-hour documentary originally shown in British TV, but I’m treating it as a single long film, because that’s frankly how it plays if you’re able to marathon it (like you can now on Netflix Instant, so….go do that), and that’s how Mark Cousins prefers to think of it. But whatever format you think it falls into, it’s an incredible accomplishment. Cousins illuminates the history of film from a much more global perspective than we’re used to seeing in the United States anyway – he doesn’t shortchange Hollywood, but he’s quick to point out innovation in other countries all along the way, and show how new techniques spread and echoed around the world. Some have complained about Cousins’ idiosyncratic narration style; his Scottish accent and diction tends to make most of his statements sound like questions and it definitely takes some getting used to, but I think it works, because it also emphasizes how personal an approach to film history this is – it’s comprehensive and informative, but it’s always filtered through Cousins’ own critical perspective, which is a good thing, I think. It keeps 15 hours of film history from ever getting dry or caught up in attempts at objectivity. He also does a great job of connecting films across the globe and across time; even though he goes largely in chronological order, he often takes detours to show how certain elements, whether technical or thematic, developed over time. Part history, part criticism, and all fascinating.
2011 UK. Director: Mark Cousins. Starring: Mark Cousins.
Seen December 26-January 14 on Netflix Instant.
The Muppet Movie
I’ve come at the Muppets almost solely as an adult – I watched Sesame Street some as a kid, but not a lot, and I never saw the original Muppets show. I didn’t see any of the Muppet movies until I was in my twenties, with A Muppet Christmas Carol (which is now one of my favorite Christmas movies of all time). But that hasn’t lessened any of my enjoyment as I start introducing myself to more Muppet stuff – I’m pretty convinced it works just as well for adults as for kids, if not better. The first Muppet Movie is silly as all get-out, but in a very absurdist, wonderful way that’s like the G-rated version of Monty Python. In other words, exactly up my alley. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of this, from the “holy crap” cameos to Miss Piggy’s outrageous crush on Kermit to the fourth-wall breaking to the somewhat saccharine but irresistible songs. Can’t wait to see the rest of it. Dear Netflix: Please to put the show on Instant.
1979 USA. Director: James Frawley. Starring: Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Richard Hunt, Dave Goelz, Charles Durning.
Seen January 17 on Netflix Instant.
Fargo (1996; rewatched February 6) – This is the top film in mine and Jonathan’s mutual Flickchart list (the site can calculate weighted favorites based on multiple users individual rankings), and it was about time we revisited it. Still awesome.
The Court Jester (1956; rewatched February 19) – A friend alerted me to the fact that this is available on Amazon Prime Instant, and I jumped at the chance to rewatch it – one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen, and the rewatch didn’t change that opinion.
Clue (1985; rewatched February 19) – This was total comfort food; sometimes you just need a little Clue.
The Untouchables (1987; rewatched January 12) – Watching Gangster Squad put me in mind of The Untouchables, and Jon had never seen it, so we pulled it out. Yeah, Gangster Squad stole whole swaths of stuff from this movie, which remains much much better overall. Still my go-to when people start bagging on Brian DePalma. At least he made this.
What I Liked
Watched for my 2013 Blind Spots list. Sort of. I watched it, then decided to make a Blind Spots list after all this year, then decided to stack the deck by including this one. Still, as one of the highest-rated Bergman films I haven’t seen, it probably should’ve been on there anyway. Full post here.
1957 Sweden. Director: Ingmar Bergman. Starring: Victor Sjöström, Bibi Andersson, Ingrid Thulin, Gunnar Björnstrand, Jullan Kindahl, Gunnar Sjöberg, Max von Sydow.
Seen January 21 on HuluPlus.
The Naked City
Faux-documentary-style detective film, going through a homicide investigation in New York City from start to finish. The narrator treats the town almost as a character, and I think this was one of the earliest films to have exteriors shot on location, with areas like the Brooklyn Bridge getting some iconic attention. The film builds its narrative according to fiction rules, but includes a lot of vignette details that give it character (which is good, since very few of the actual characters are fleshed out much), and does a great job of emphasizing how much of police work is the drudgery of walking around seeking leads from, say, every jeweler or pawn shop in town until finally hitting on something. Obviously, much of that can be expedited somewhat now, but I liked the way the film focused on those things, making breakthroughs seem momentous and saving the thrilling excitement we expect from cop stories for the very end. Like I said, not strong on characterization, but enough to go on, and the cops are supposed to be everymen in a way – as the narrator intones, the naked city has 8 million stories and this is just one of them.
1948 USA. Director: Jules Dassin. Starring: Barry Fitzgerald, Howard Duff, Dorothy Hart, Don Taylor, Frank Conroy.
Seen February 27 on HuluPlus.
It’s overly glossy and fairly rote (and feels like it’s stealing from both The Untouchables and the video game L.A. Noire), but I still enjoyed watching 1940s LA cops try to take down interloping gangster Mickey Cohen. I’m actually glad it got delayed – I think it plays much better as a January genre release than it would’ve as a September release. Because really, it’s a fun shoot-em-up and not much more, and that’s fine. Pretty people, fancy clothes, blazing guns, and a bravura performance from Sean Penn as Cohen. Really, the film is worth watching to see him going for broke, playing this over-the-top character all the way to eleven, chewing all the scenery as he goes. It’s fun times.
2013 USA. Director: Ruben Fleischer. Starring: Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Sean Penn.
Seen January 12 at The Rave.
Bones Brigade: An Autobiography
I know pretty much nothing about skateboarding, other than I would probably kill myself if I tried it, considering I suck at it even in Tony Hawk games. Okay, I’ve played Tony Hawk games, so I know some of the terminology and the name Tony Hawk. Hawk figures fairly prominently in this film, basically a memoir of the skating team put together by Stacy Peralta (who also directs this film) in the 1980s, which included a young Hawk along with lots of other skaters that I’m sure I would’ve known if I knew anything about it. Anyway, the film is quite enjoyable, capturing the exhilaration these kids got (and still get, frankly) out of skating, and the way the Bones Brigade became the social circle that eluded them in regular school life. The fact that all the guys have different styles and approaches as well as different approaches to their outsider status keeps it interesting, and Peralta has gathered a great lot of archival footage from competitions and meets at the time as well as the from the skate videos his company put together starring the Bones Brigade. The one thing I might’ve liked more of would be footage of skaters prior to the Bones Brigade’s formation – they talked a lot about the moves that Bones Brigade members created which are standard now, like the ollie and the 520 McTwist, and had interview clips with older skaters talking about how things changed when the Bones Brigade came along, but for someone like me who doesn’t know hardly anything about the sport, a bit more visual context of what it was like before the Bones Brigade would’ve helped me appreciate their innovations and contributions more.
2012 USA. Director: Stacy Peralta. Starring: Tony Alva, Steve Caballero, Shepard Fairey, Tommy Guerrero, Ben Harper, Tony Hawk, Christian Hosoi, Mike McGill, Lance Mountain, Rodney Mullen, Stacy Peralta, George Powell.
Seen January 7 on Netflix Instant.
Indie Game: The Movie
Interesting doc following the struggles of the developers of indie games Braid, Super Meat Boy, and Fez. It’s a lot of talking head stuff, but with a lot of insight into both the development process for an indie game, and the different personalities involved. It’s great to know that all three of these games were successful and well-received (Fez was not out yet by the time the movie was finished, but is now and is excellent); on the other hand, one wonders how many dozens of developers go through this and end up with a game that languishes on Xbox Live Arcade or PlayStation Network and nobody ever hears about.
2012 USA. Director: Lisanne Pajot, James Swirsky. Starring: Jonathan Blow, Phil Fish,, Edmund McMillen, Tommy Refenes.
Seen January 4 on Netflix Instant.
A dialogue-free documentary showing nature and culture from around the world – kind of like Koyaanisqatsi except less polemical (and though the score is lovely, it’s hardly Philip Glass’s unforgettable Qatsi score). I’m not sure what, if anything, I was really supposed to take away from this film or its juxtapositions, but I did get lost in watching it purely thanks to some of the most gorgeous cinematography I’ve seen in any film. For that alone, I would’ve liked to have seen it on the big screen, but it was still pretty breathtaking at home.
2012 USA. Director: Ron Fricke.
Seen January 28 on Netflix DVD.
Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters
I don’t know what critics were expecting from this film to pan it the way most of them seemed to. It’s a January genre release, with a gleefully splattery red-band trailer about a grown-up Hansel and Gretel fighting evil witches. I went in expecting some gory over-the-top fun, and I wasn’t disappointed – in fact, I found it a good bit funnier than I expected, thanks to little touches like a jaded Hansel pulling an eager kid in front of him to avoid the splatter as a cursed messenger explodes all over everything. Renner is obviously capable of much more than this role asks for, but he and everyone else embrace the low-hanging genre fun here with exactly the lack of seriousness/care that it needs. Meanwhile, Janssen throws herself into the evil shapeshifting witch role wholeheartedly, and was great fun to watch. Plus I was pleased to note that most of the effects were done with makeup and prosthetics, a rare thing in today’s CGI-driven world, and I think that tactility worked really well. The final collection of witches was great to watch, just to see what kind of crazy designs would show up. I was entertained. I’m cool with that.
2013 USA. Director: Tommy Wirkola. Starring: Jeremy Renner, Gemma Arterton, Famke Janssen, Peter Stormare.
Seen January 26 at the Rave.
The Queen of Versailles
This doc takes as its subject one of the richest families in the US (owner of the largest time-share company in the world, the Westgate properties) and their plans to build the largest home in the country – plans halted by the bottom dropping out of the economy, leaving them unable to continue their business model, which was highly dependent on mortgages. It’s interesting because the family has to get used to having something less than all the money in the world, which is still a gazillion times more money than most people have – this is a first-world problem movie to the nth degree – and yet somehow you both feel kinda bad for them and not at the same time. It’s all just a matter of scale, isn’t it? But on the other hand, both husband and wife came from much more humble backgrounds and it’s frustrating to watch them unable to figure out how to return to a more modest standard of living. It’s the American Dream gone sour, and yet, the interviews with their Filipino nannies and the shots of empty call centers previously filled with Westgate employees (now laid off) provide a stark contrast. So yeah, I’ll stick with “interesting” yet again, because I did rather enjoy the conflicting reactions I had to this family and their problems, and yet the documentary as a whole didn’t feel particularly focused or anything, so I kind of felt unsatisfied at the conclusion.
2012 USA. Director: Lauren Greenfield. Starring: Jackie Siegel, David Siegel.
Seen January 20 on Netflix Instant.
The Secret of NIMH (1982; rewatched February 18) – I remember seeing this as a kid, but had forgotten most of it. It’s really quite scary, huh? I like that. :) The animal rights message is a bit heavy-handed, but by and large, a nice alternative to ’80s Disney.