Best Films 2017

The Best New Film I saw this year was Get Out, which was so scary I had to go back and see it again a couple of days later. This was pretty much the only grown-up movie I saw at the cinema this year, apart from Dunkirk, which was what it was, proper cinema for sure. There are lots of films I didn’t see but wanted too…. I did see The Breakfast Club on the big screen for the first time ever, which was odd, because it’s the first time I ever watched this movie (I have watched it a lot) without pausing and/or rewinding, and and both La La Land and The Last Jedi, but those last two in the company of a 10-year old, so not sure they count as grown-up.

The Best thing I watched on Netflix was Shimmer Lake, not least because I didn’t even realise it was going to be backwards (oops, gave it away, but not really). I started Wormwood, but haven’t finished that yet. West of Memphis is a bit old now, but was still great, and sad, and now I understand Lucinda Williams’ song a bit better (and there’s an interesting side-story going on about celebrity activism). Stranger Things was fun. I also caught up on some Hollywood oldies, including Johnny Guitar (I have a bit of a thing for Sterling Hayden), Sorry Wrong Number (Barbara Stanwyck doing 120% frantic), Double Indemnity (actually, you can catch up on pretty much the whole of Stanwyck’s Noir career on Netflix), and It Happened One Night (which I didn’t quite realise was what it was until I realised what it was).

The Best Old Film I watched was Laura, which is now just my favourite film ever. I was genuinely knocked sideways by the ‘twist’ in the middle – it took me about 10 minutes to settle back down and realise what was really going on (I can’t tell if you if you don’t know, because you need to not know before watching it). I watched lots of old films this year, the sort of old films that one is led to by the odd conjuncture of binge-listening to Karina Longworth in the car on the way to work and having read too much of the ‘lighter’ Stanley Cavell on Hollywood comedies and melodramas. The Best newish-old film I watched again was a tie between Desperately Seeking Susan and Something Wild (“Yeah. I’m a rebel. I am! I just channelled my rebellion into the mainstream” – since first watching this movie as an undergraduate in 1987, I have tried my very hardest to live my own life by that principle).

The Best Kids Film was Captain Underpants. This is now up there with Frozen and Box Trolls in my all time Best-movies-I-saw-with-my-children-which-I-wouldn’t-have-watched-otherwise Top 3.

Last, but not least, the Best Documentary Series I watched this year (a bit late again) was definitely Little Lunch. I learnt so much from watching this, again, and again, and again.


Growing Old

CHIYou know you’re of a certain age when all the movies you go to see are animations, and are mostly U rated. I just saw my tenth kids’ movie of the year, not counting Frozen, which I have seen twice this year at the cinema, after seeing it twice last year when it first came out, and of course, having watched it again, and again, and again at home on DVD; and not counting Home Alone either, which I got to see on the big screen for the first time as a birthday treat earlier in the year. I have no expectation of seeing a better movie than Frozen for quite some time. Here is my list of this year’s lot, in a rough order, and bearing in mind there are two months to go still:

  1. The Boxtrolls [awesome]
  2. The Book of Life [the least scary kids’ movie with loads of death in it that you could imagine]
  3. Earth to Echo [ET meets Blair Witch without the scariness of either]
  4. The Nut Job [clever doubling of human and animal capers]
  5. Peabody and Sherman [a movie for dads]
  6. Tinkerbell and the Pirate Fairy [the least disappointing of the lot]
  7. The Lego Movie [awesome only in parts]
  8. Dolphin Tale 2 [not good enough to make me watch the first one]
  9. Tarzan (The Legend Starts Here) [very peculiar]
  10. Postman Pat: The Movie [forgot about all the good characters]

I seem to have missed a couple aimed at the target audience of which I am now a part, such as Maleficent and Muppets Most Wanted. This year, I have seen a grand total of 1 grown-up movie, which was ’71. On the basis of this rather skewed sample, I think the difference between kids’ movies and grown-up movies is that death always seems to have a redemptive purpose in the kids’ movies – ‘cos there is a surprising amount of death in most of these films.

Bite Size Theory: The Big Screen

“In the early 1960s, there was confusion over what to call this transaction – was it film, the movies, or cinema? You could tell a person’s taste and agenda by the word he used most often. “Cinema” meant the history, and the suggestion that it has been superior then; “film” was the essential function and might be covering an urge to make the stuff: while “movie” usually meant America and fun”.

David Thomson, 2012, The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies and What They Did to Us, Allen Lane.

Favourite Thinkers II: Pauline Kael

Now that I live in a town almost devoid of bookshops, it’s a big occasion when I get out at the weekend and end up buying a book of any sort. Last week in Stroud, the slightly odd leftie-hippy enclave in the heart of the staunchly Tory Cotswolds, I picked up two second-hand volumes of collected reviews by Pauline Kael, the long-time film critic for The New Yorker from the late 60s through to the early 90s. I haven’t read anything by her since I was a student in the late 80s, in the days when I tended to go to the cinema on average once a day, mainly at 11pm at night. I remember liking her not least because she had a soft-spot for John Hughes-style teen movies, on the grounds that they were the only American films left which centred on questions of class.

I was primed to re-acquaint myself with Kael because earlier this year I read a great little book by Craig Seligman, Sontag and Kael: Opposites Attract Me, which compares and contrasts the styles of criticism of these two quintessential ‘New York intellectuals’, both very serious writers, both interested in ‘the popular’, but one, Kael, more than the other, managing to avoid the traps of avant-garde disdain for popular taste. Reading the essays in the two volumes I bought in Stroud, Reeling (which covers the early 70s) and When the Lights Go Down, covering the ‘golden age’ of mid and late 70s Hollywood films (although one surprise is just how many films Kael didn’t seem to review, no Chinatown, or plenty of other ‘classics’ of that time, but lots of reviews of late-period John Wayne), is proving a joy, partly because lots of these films are the films I grew up watching on TV, so there is a familiarity to them, but also because reading Kael writing about them contemporaneously, placed in their 1970s milieu of the weekly or monthly review, throws films like Westworld or Taxi Driver or Saturday Night Fever into wholly new perspective, as part of their time, sitting alongside Rooster Cogburn or The Gauntlet, as part of a contested public culture of representations of violence, sexuality, liberation, aspiration, and resentment.

What I have most enjoyed about reading Kael again is the principled populism of her criticism, expressed most clearly I think in the sense that the object of her criticism is not ‘Film’ so much as ‘the movies’, ‘movies’, or a ‘movie’. This is the privileged term of her writing, and I think it captures something quite distinctive and valuable that offsets her writing from more solidly ‘academic’ styles of film analysis. ‘Movies’ indicates an appreciation of the unavoidably populist dimension of this form of, well, popular culture – Kael’s negative judgements are always shaped by a sense of disappointment that a particular movie fails to be as good a version of the kind of movie it claims to be (in one of these pieces, she describes the latest release by a reknowned French director as probably ‘a perfect film’ but for her an ‘entirely forgettable movie’). This attitude is summed up in a great definition she gives at the start of Reeling, of the ‘maze of borderlines’ in which criticism operates: “criticism is a balancing act, trying to suggest perspectives on the emotions viewers feel, trying to increase their enjoyment of movies without insulting their susceptibilities to simple, crude pop”. This is wonderful statement of Kael’s appreciation of the visceral, sensual qualities of ‘movies’ – that they can leave us ‘reeling’ – but also of her self-understanding of her own relationship to viewers/readers. This definition of criticism strikes me now, on reading it for first time some three and a half decades after Kael penned it, as standing in very stark contrast to a style of cultural theory in which discovering the emotional or ‘affective’ dynamics of enjoyment involved in unashamedly ‘mass’ forms like the movies is still, astonishingly, presented as a politically charged act of revelation and de-mystification. Reading Kael again has reminded me of the rarity of finding academic writing about popular culture that doesn’t fall into the trap of condescending towards popular taste, and of how much of the writing and thinking about ‘culture’ I have learnt most from has not been written by academics at all, but by ‘critics’ who actually like  the cultural forms, if not every example, about which they write.