A very hilarious realization really helped me free up my movie watching this year; what if I focused on watching older movies? What if there are lots of movies, from a variety of genres, from a before time that I haven’t seen? How wild if that were the case! Somehow my brain didn’t quite wrap my head around that last year but 2021 it finally clicked. Emily and I always watch movies together but I had backed myself into a corner by only compiling a list of violent or intense movies. I broke up this list and started fresh and we watched an odd collection of movies. We even finally watched David Lynch’s Dune! I also found that movies were a more enjoyable activity than watching TV, preferring the experience of one longer story than sifting through a series to dedicate ourselves to.
All in all, I had a fantastic time revisiting old favorites, new directors, classic films, and even a couple new ones. Here’s some of the best times I’ve had watching movies this year:
Thelma & Louise
What a tremendously fun movie. The 1991 Ridley Scott (??) movie about female empowerment and friendship takes you on a journey of just the absolute hellish landscape of America and the cathartic release of not giving a fuck. Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon are incredible in this movie, playing two polar opposite characters with deep love and respect for one another. Susan Sarandon’s collected yet aggressive Louise tries her best to control the chaos that she unleashes, creating the plan and path that her and Thelma follow. Thelma on the other hand slowly embraces the chaos, completely blowing the lid off of the narrow confines that the patriarchal society and her emotionally abusive husband (played amazingly by Christopher McDonald; watching him completely unravel is incredible). They play great off one another with Louise keeping things together as Thelma becomes more and more unglued. Together they learn harsh lessons and get one over on all the men they come across. The beauty of this movie too is that all the men are absolutely awful, a society full of drooling and aggressive Neanderthals (minus Harvey Keitel’s heart of gold agent). Even the partners we meet midway betray the pair in some way either to the feds or stealing their money. It adds to the catharsis as the dopey agents struggle to keep up. It makes the often parodied ending impactful, where they make a hard choice for freedom.
Raimi’s Spider-Man Trilogy
I wrote about the first two Spider-Man movies, so I won’t go into them too much. They both still hold up while also being products of their time, superhero movies evoking a classic hero’s journey that stand in stark contrast to modern Marvel movies. They both set stakes for Peter’s personal development at the heart of the movies as he learns to accept responsibility for his powers and his loved ones. The first one is a great setup and Spider-Man 2 is still the best and richest superhero movie to date.
The most surprising part of my rewatch though was how much I enjoyed Spider-Man 3. I wouldn’t say it’s a great movie; it’s still overstuffed and suffocates any rich tension by whiplashing between the various villains. The core of the movie, Peter learning to accept responsibility for his mistakes and grappling with newfound fame, actually really hits. He’s at his most grating in this movie talking down to MJ and shirking his family to embrace the high that comes with being Spider-Man. His “evil” turn, accelerated but importantly not originating from the alien symbiote, is marked by him becoming an elitist asshole. He’s that overconfident nerd who thinks he’s better than everyone and lacks the charisma to fully pull it off. Everyone in the movie is repulsed by his personality change. The derided transformation scene, where he walks down the street in his new black garb, is misunderstood. We’re supposed to be laughing at this wannabe pick up artist and his ridiculous “moves.” The deadweight of the movie was the studio demanded Venom. It’s not Topher Grace’s fault, he mirrors Peter’s aggressive nerd energy, but rather that the villain overtakes the others’ more compelling narratives. Sandman is in line with the first two movie villains, a man who’s bad choices turn him into a monster. He’s sympathetic but gets 0 screen time so his story lacks any narrative punch. Harry’s turn into the new Green Goblin is hokey but right in line with his narrative arc. If only we had more time focusing on his relationship with Peter and how his feeling of superiority over his friend clashed with the reveal of Spider-Man killing his father. Even though the movie is rushed and chaotic, it’s still worth revisiting.
Michael Mann Corner: Thief and Manhunter
I had never watched any Michael Mann movies before, so the new Manhunting series over at WaypointPlus was the perfect time to jump in. Both movies were a treat, distinct visually interesting movies that capture their stories from a more detached approach. They’re unique in that sense and it’s interesting to see that style fully formed in his first movie Thief. I can see why Drive copied so much from it; a sleek neo-noir about a man risking it all so that he can have that idealized home life. James Caan’s Frank is a unique “cool” hero, a no nonsense thief with working class roots. He puts himself in league with people he knows are dangerous but the movie takes its time showing the stakes for him. He wants to have the idealized suburban life but his criminal record prevents him achieving it. There’s a specificity to the way work is displayed; deeply technical and exploitative on the part of the worker. The bosses wanting the job rely on people like Frank to earn them money, not the other way around. There’s a lot going on in this movie even when you can see how it’s all going to unfold. Add in visually rich imagery and an amazing score by Tangerine Dream and you’ve got a stone cold classic.
I was surprised to learn that Manhunter was not only a Hannibal Lector movie but the first film adaptation. This movie is definitely overlooked, a colder approach to the current pulpier serial killer dramas. This is a movie obsessed with the process of tracking down killers, of Will Graham understanding the Tooth Fairy and the technology necessary to identify suspects. It doesn’t extend that to Tooth Fairy’s stalking and killing like most movies do, instead dropping us in with him in society and interacting with someone he’s interested in. It resists the focus on the violent aspects of the genre and zeroes in the psychoanalysis of Will Graham. William Petersen’s monologues work for me, even with cheesy lines like “you did that, didn’t you! you sick fuck.” The use of color is more apparent in this movie, denoting the difference in environment between Will Graham’s home life and work. Perhaps the most surprising part of all is Brian Cox’s more restrained approach to Hannibal Lector, belaying his eccentricities in his mannerisms more than his speeches.
I’m not usually one for period pieces but this film blew me away. An intricate “upstairs/downstairs” movie about the convergence of several wealthy Britons at the stately manor of Gosford Park that has so many narrative threads coursing through it that it’ll take multiple viewings to track them all. The movie floats between the events of the wealthy visitors and inhabitants and the busy schedules of the servants who tend to them. Gosford Park is brimming with insight whether it’s the gender roles pertaining to each class of society, the pecking order of the individual castes, what information is and isn’t spoken openly about and the importance that that information carries. All of this is performed by an incredible cast of actors, a list of famous names and well known character actors a mile long. I almost forgot that this was billed as a “whodunit” as the murder doesn’t take place until well into the second half of the movie. The reveal lands differently than most other murder mysteries do with a harsh reckoning of how people with social standing cause havoc on the ones that serve them. There’s not a big arrest, just the realization that life goes on and nothing will change.
My Dinner with Andre
No wonder this is regarded as a classic and has been endlessly imitated in TV episodes. This 2-hour conversation is deliberately paced as the two old friends catch up and slowly grapple with their individual shortcomings. Wallace Shawn’s less successful playwright accepts Andre Gregory’s dinner invite with some skepticism; Andre had found success and decided to travel the world. Their conversation mostly pivots around Andre’s exploits as their dialogue slowly hashes out the differences in privilege between the two characters. Andre is able to extend the invitation to Wallace because of his standing but he also does this out of regret, the path not taken. Together they delve into the traps that entitlement and privilege bring you and also the pitfalls that their individual attitudes have brought on their lives. There’s a natural give and take to the conversation; Wallace’s resentment slowly comes out while Andre’s regret over not spending time creating and living with his family. They both envy the other to varying degrees but find themselves renewing their connection through bashing it out. By the end, nothing has changed and no big revelations have dropped. The two characters leave the table enriched by the company and conversation of the other. Wallace heads home renewed from the reconnection with his old friend and I left the movie feeling the exact same way.
Bill & Ted Series
Excellent tidings to all my good dudes. With the release of the third movie last year Emily and I dedicated a full series watchthrough. I still think Excellent Adventure is pretty close to a perfect comedy, two loveable doofesses that are somehow the chosen ones for the hair metal future traversing time to complete a history project. I’ve always loved how the idealized society was built out of a pure “rock on” attitude but without the misogynistic baggage that that actually represented in the 80’s. We also get great set pieces with historical figures running around malls and landmarks. What else could you want?
The pitfall of any successful comedy is a sequel. It’s always hard to continue jokes and try to freshen up a premise that you successfully pulled off. Bogus Journey is a bit of a rough one, complete with new creepy and rapey android versions of Bill & Ted. The movie also shifts from time travel to the afterlife, and while most of it doesn’t land as well the Reaper is a great addition. It ends very similarly to the first one but with them performing a concert instead of a presentation. I found the new mean spiritedness of some of the comedy doesn’t land very well and the rehashes of jokes were not particularly great.
Happy to report though that the long awaited third movie is most excellent. The jump forward in time is a great one as Bill & Teds’ former charm has solidified into a state of arrested development and mixed success in their music careers. They are now up against the deadline of saving the world again but instead are more focused on taking shortcuts in their individual relationships and try to travel time to see how they made up with their partners. The saving task instead shifts to their daughters, who are both reflections of their fathers but with more motivation. They are the best parts of the movie and their mission is a great spin on the older movies plots. It never settles into too much nostalgia and instead peppers in the winks and nods to the originals. Face the Music imparts lessons on growing up, accepting responsibility, and how to nurture the next generation.
Imagine two of the worst people imaginable facing off against each other over stage acts. I have a lot of fondness for this movie even though I think it might unironically be of the mind that hard work requires sacrifice. Let me tell you that all of our magicians are absolute narcissists and making everyone absolutely miserable along the way. This movie also earnestly blends technology and real life magic in a way that its twisty nature doesn’t imply and the hyper reality of it removes anything potent about the reveal. The best twist though is who is actually the greatest asshole and it’s completely unrelated to the wild explanation of his magic act. Nobody’s hands are clean and it’s just a joy watching them put themselves and others through the ringer. No wonder people hate magicians.
No Sudden Move
Another Neo-Noir! This time on the evils of the… auto industry? What starts as a job gone bad slowly morphs to implicate Detroit’s namesake in the snaking tendrils of organized crime. This is a movie of complex relationships as the protagonists slowly find themselves working their way up the social food chain to find who set them up. This type of story is a great fit for Soderbergh but it’s much bleaker compared to his Oceans movies. There’s nothing slick about Curt or Ronald, played by Don Cheadle and Benicio Del Toro respectively, small-time criminals who fight to preserve their freedom. That doesn’t mean there isn’t humor mostly at the expense of David Harbor’s in over his head office manager Matt Wertz. The whole cast is stacked with greats including a great performance by Brendan Fraser showing off his range as an intimidating enforcer. All of the disparate threads eventually come together to tell a story of corporate malfeasance and the structures that allow them to avoid accountability.
David Lynch’s Dune & Dune 2021
Note: I haven’t read the books so I avoid making any comparisons to the original novel. I can’t speak personally to how close the adaptations are.
I finally crossed a big movie off my must watch list with the 1984 version of Dune. I’m a big David Lynch fan, so I was especially interested to watch a movie that he famously hates. I can see why he’d be resentful of it; he has also claimed that he was denied final cut and that budgeting issues restricted his vision. The reaction was pretty negative and the movie has gone down as an infamous flop. Dune 1984 tries its best to synthesize Frank Herbert’s notoriously complex book into a two hour movie and relies heavily on voice over to explain what everything is. The copious amount of VO can make the film drag, the cinema form of telling rather than showing. There’s some really good pieces here though. David Lynch brings his horror eye to Harkonnen’s and portrays them as extremely sadistic and maniacal. The practical effects are extremely charming as well and they do a great job of creating the sandworm even in its cheesier moments. Kyle MacLachlan is great as well, using his boy scout charm to portray reluctant hero Paul.
Denis Villeneuve takes the modern blockbuster approach and slices the story into two. It’s hilarious how much the marketing hides this; there’s not even a mention of part 1 until the opening title hits (I’ve heard many stories of people being surprised when they went to go see it). It definitely allows for more room to explain the complexities of the universe, even if I was still a little lost on some of the finer details. Villeneuve brings his cold and ominous directing to the universe, something that I think left me feeling detached from some of the more emotional scenes. The modern and sleek designs are incredible, whether it’s the costuming of the Space Guild messengers or the castle on Arrakis. The action scenes are great too, especially the Harkonnen invasion as troops slowly descend from the sky. And who could forget the big worms! I think a big downside is the dour mood over the whole thing. Timothée Chalamet always comes off as slightly removed or pouting, sleepily moving through the proceedings. It flattens his inner turmoil but does help by playing with his likeability. Dune 2021 has more undercurrents of questioning Paul’s destiny than its 1984 counterpart. Overall the new version had me intrigued by the world, I will definitely see Part 2, even if it didn’t blow me away.
The Matrix Trilogy
We didn’t know what we had. This is probably my favorite blockbuster series of all time? How soon I forgot how much I loved them. These movies are all incredible and my rewatch this year with Emily had me pulling a complete 180 on Matrix Revolutions (good!). It’s amazing just how much of a perfect movie the original Matrix is, dropping you into sci-fi action with big helpings of philosophy. It wrestles with identity and how people define who they are within oppressive systems. Neo becomes the One because of his actions choosing to fight and choosing to believe in himself. Over the course of the movie he works to shed his preconceived notions of how he defines himself, how the world contributed to that definition and finds a new family that helps him along. It’s not hard to read the movie as queer coded as Neo learns to assume his new identity. The action scenes all hold up and are every bit as impressive as they were in 1999. There’s literally so much here and it’s a feast to watch.
The more derided sequels are must watches as well. Reloaded expands the universe of the Matrix incorporating programs that have become self aware and the underground ecosystems that govern the Matrix. Neo continues on his journey of self discovery and the main plot deals directly with finding out more about him and the Matrix itself. The scene with the Architect is incredible introducing a repeating timeline where Neo has repeatedly tried and failed to overcome the Machines. I was surprised just how much detail this movie adds to the universe. I had completely forgotten Zion wasn’t in the first movie. The cave rave, which I used to find cheesy, is an amazing tribute to bodily autonomy. The people collectively celebrate their freedom from the Matrix and their freedom within their natural bodies. Reloaded also has the best action scene in a movie ever; the big highway chase. The only thing dragging the sequel down is the increase in CG; the “Burly Brawl” looks much more video-gamey in 2021. Still this movie is the best of the series.
The worst-reviewed third movie is actually great, providing a great conclusion to the series. What is ostensibly the second half of the Matrix Reloaded, it doubles down on Neo’s journey as a Christ metaphor. The opening moments of him in the train station are slower and more tender than the rest of the series. His interactions with the refugee programs, smuggling their daughter because she has “no purpose,” works in the same space as the earlier works questions with personhood. It plays with the idea of who gets to be saved and how we define who gets to be human. From there it’s mostly falling action and big set pieces that are all extremely well done. The invasion of Zion has tremendous imagery, using CGI to depict big mechs protecting against a large swarm of buzzing machines. It evokes the anime imagery that inspired the Wachowskis especially in the “death by a thousand cuts” of Captain Mifune. There’s also a beautiful moment when Neo and Trinity crest above the clouds on their journey to the Machine City. They find that the natural beauty of Earth is still there, obscured by the clouds that humanity caused. This entire series is worth a rewatch ahead of the new fourth movie coming out near Christmas. I’m uncertain about how it’ll be but I’m wildly excited to find out.