I moved in late September. Again. I found a little cozy apartment, the second floor of a little house, with slanted ceilings, little cubbyhole-eaves everywhere, and a big yard. It’s a 10 minute walk to the beach. I found it through my own determination and word of mouth. This is the busiest time of year for film critics, so I’ve been buried in work. I’m still not completely “settled in”, although my books are put away, and that’s what matters. It took me a while to put this viewing diary together, and I will put the November list up on my Substack, when it’s done.
Dramatic Relationships (2016; d. Dustin Guy Defa)
I watched Dustin Guy Defa’s 2011 film Bad Fever (and wrote about it here). Many of Defa’s films are currently streaming on the Criterion Channel. Dramatic Relationships is a fascinating short, funny, ironic, with real bite. It’s made up of little vignettes showing awkward interactions between male directors and their actresses. Dustin Guy Defa is, of course, a male, as well as a director, so he’s interrogating a field he knows well, and perhaps interrogating his own participation. It’s raw. Hannah Gross is in it!
Review (2015; d. Dustin Guy Defa)
A black-and-white short film where a young woman sits at a table and recounts to her friends the plot of a film she’s just seen. The friends are engrossed, sometimes appalled, always riveted. They ask questions. They want to know more. They want to know why: why does this happen? What’s the character’s motivation? The funny thing about this is the film in question is a classic. “Cinephiles” (ugh, hate using the word: is there a better equivalent?) know the film inside and out. But to these young people sitting around the table, it’s brand new. Nobody’s even heard of the movie. There’s a tendency for oldsters to have contempt for youngsters. “HOW do you not KNOW about this [well-known thing]. Your education has failed you!” Yeah, no shit, education has failed all of us, but … I don’t know, I didn’t learn about classic film from my education. I grew up before the Internet. My education was Channel 56 showing old movies, and tripping over Shirley Temple on my own, or Philadelphia Story or East of Eden on my own. I watched classic films without any context. I watched them not even knowing they were classics. As far as I knew, they were made yesterday. Everyone sees Citizen Kane for the first time at some point. Coming to things fresh is an emotional state oldsters would do well to remember. (This is the value of the whole YouTube “reaction” phenomenon. People – mostly Gen Z – watch movies, listen to music, from before their time and “react” to it. It’s amazing! Their fresh open reactions gives you a fuller appreciation for things – like The Shining, or Alien, or The Godfather – you’ve seen a bazillion times. It’s also a reiteration of the idea that Great is Great, no matter when you encounter it. Art is for everyone, art is eternal, and you can step into the rushing river of it at any point. You don’t need context. Just jump in.)
God Is an Artist (2015; d. Dustin Guy Defa)
Defa’s documentary about graffiti artists and Detroit culture. The cinematographer is Sean Price Williams, reason enough to see it!
Person to Person (2014; d. Dustin Guy Defa)
Defa eventually turned this short film into a feature, starring Michael Cera. It manages to do quite a lot in its short run time. Bene Coopersmith plays a guy who lives in Brooklyn and works at a second-hand record store. Regular customers stop by, shoot the shit. He throws a party in his small apartment, and the following morning there’s a passed-out girl on the floor. He has no idea who she is. He keeps waiting for her to wake up. Finally, she does, and he makes her breakfast, makes sure she’s okay and then, of course, expects her to leave. He’s got to get to work. He’s got a life to live. But … she won’t leave. Coopersmith is not the type of guy to put his foot down, dammit, so he continues to live his life, regaling his community – the guy on the opposite stoop, the cashier at the corner deli, the regulars at the record shop – what’s going on with this random girl who won’t leave his apartment. This has a really intimate and KNOWN feel: the small apartment, the turntable, the fire escape, stoop life, neighborhood … the way conversations pick up after where they left off. It made me miss living in a city, where the entire world happens in a 3-block radius.
Family Nightmare (2011; d. Dustin Guy Defa)
Harrowing. Defa uses home movie footage from his childhood – a big party at his house, where he can be seen – a small child, on the periphery of all this wild adult behavior. It is a nightmare. Having seen Bad Fever, you have some idea of where Defa is from, what he escaped through sheer force of will and creative imagination … but Bad Fever is fictionalized. Family Nightmare is documentary, and it’s all found footage. You’re dealing with the genuine article, evidence at the scene of the crime. It’s truly haunting, particularly the ending, where Defa lists what happened to each person seen in these home videos. Family trauma, generational trauma, addiction cycles. Very strong stuff.
Revoir Paris (2023; d. Alice Winocour)
I love Alice Winocour’s films. I beat the drum as hard as I could for her 2016 film Disorder (which I reviewed for Ebert and also wrote about in my essay on Matthias Schoenaerts for Film Comment). In Revoir Paris, the wonderful Virginie Efira plays a woman who survived the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, a scene which plays out in excruciating horror, almost slo-mo, as the terrified woman plays dead on the floor of a cafe, as the terrorists stalk through the rubble, looking for anyone left alive. She cannot get back to normal after this event (understandably), and her memories of the event are fluid and unreliable. She attempts to piece her memory together into a linear narrative, easily graspable, but this proves difficult. Efira gives one of my favorite performances of the year. (My pal Charles Taylor wrote about her in his Substack.)
20th Century Women (2016; d. Mike Mills)
A recent comment on my site from a regular reader sent me to re-watch this (it wasn’t the first time). The film gets better and better and better with each visit. I love how everyone gets to be human. I love how tragedy flows into comedy, existing simultaneously. I love the slightly removed point of view, the attempt to not just piece together the memory of a specific moment in time (long gone, and hard to describe to those who grew up with the internet), but also to pay tribute to a time even further back, “the Depression”, and how it shaped its generation. On the windowsill above my grandmother’s sink was a small china statue of the Virgin Mary, and at her feet my grandmother placed a dime. The dime was there for decades. I don’t think she swapped the dime out periodically for a new shiny dime. The dime got grimy with age. I didn’t ask my grandmother about it, but I remember my mother telling me that the dime was there just in case everything fell apart again like it did with the 1929 crash. Even if my grandmother was completely ruined financially, she at least could start again with that dime. She would never be totally destitute. This made a huge impression on me as a child. The dime, faded and worn, gleamed with meaning. I think of that dime when I watch 20th Century Women. I reviewed for Ebert.
The Big Heat (1953; d. Fritz Lang)
I was on the Very Good Year podcast talking about 5 films from 1953 … and The Big Heat was NOT one of the films on my list, although it could have been. Such a good film. It’s such a nasty dark little story, and I always forget how fully-realized and cool Glenn Ford’s marriage is. I love the details of it. You don’t often see happy marriages in noir. It’s not idealized, either. You get the sense that these two people not only love each other but LIKE each other. It’s essential we invest in the marriage. Smart writing.
Sitting in Bars with Cake (2023; d. Trish Sie)
This movie is confused about its own source material. It’s like the movie doesn’t want to deal with the actual facts: the woman wanted to meet a man. Literally many many millions of people want to find partners. Why shy away from it? I mean, I know why. Because it’s seen as “retro” for a young woman to want to find a boyfriend “so badly” that she makes cakes and brings them to bars. But that’s stupid. Wanting a boyfriend is not “retro”. It doesn’t mean a woman is WEAK who wants to find a partner. I don’t think people fully realize how this narrative has solidified into this kind of disheartening and damaging narrative. It’s not that people who want to find a boyfriend don’t want OTHER things in life. Calm down. I reviewed for Ebert.
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret (2023; d. Kelly Fremon Craig)
I went into this one hesitant, merely because of the book’s place in my young life. It’s known as the book about girls getting their periods for the first time, but it’s honestly about a young girl’s search for identity, including religion. I mean, it’s right there in the title. It’s a complex story! I absolutely loved how the film tackled all of these issues, and it does pretty much everything right, including making “Nancy”, the ringleader, not a cliched mean girl, but a KID. She’s a bossy little thing but she is a CHILD and when you look at her mother you understand why she’s that way. So often little girls are sexualized or seen as more mature than they are – even when you get your period, you’re still, like, 12 years old. You’re a child. These are confusing subjects and they deserve to be taken VERY seriously, especially with the constant attacks on female health, and idiots who think sex education shouldn’t be taught in schools. It’s not just SEX. It’s HEALTH. Women’s health is its own thing and it is very very important. Knowing your own body is very very important for girls. I loved the movie.
The Master Gardener (2023; d. Paul Schrader)
I will point you towards Glenn Kenny’s review. “Let Schrader by Schrader.” Yes. (Glenn is always so good on Schrader). I loved Sigourney Weaver in this.
This feels a little bit like the pilot for an Irish crime procedural, rather than a feature, but still, there’s a lot here to enjoy. And I love Aidan Gillen. I reviewed for Ebert.
This is Paris (2020; d. Alexandra Dean)
I finally caught up with this and found it heartbreaking. I never gave any thought to Paris Hilton, except some pretty unfriendly ideas about what she was doing to media/culture. (Little did I know at the time it was just going to get much much worse. Enter stage right: the Kardashians). But this was revelatory, particularly her grappling with the abuse she received at this notorious school for “bad kids”, and reaching out and hooking up with some of the other kids she knew when she was there. If you’re not aware of this whole thing, then all you need to do is Google it. Paris didn’t just “reveal” this for the documentary. She “came out” about it a couple years ago, and has since turned herself into an actual advocate and activist, shining light on the “bad kid” industry and pressing for change from above.
Running on Empty (1988; d. Sidney Lumet)
I was in Chicago for Mitchell’s play. After the play, I went back to his peaceful apartment and hung out with Christopher. Christopher had never seen Running on Empty, which NEEDED TO BE RECTIFIED. It was so fun watching it with him, watching him discover it.
Supernatural, Season 10, episode 11, “There’s No Place Like Home” (2015; d. Philip Sgriccia)
Christopher and I then proceeded to watch three Supernatural episodes. Christopher is a fan, but stopped watching for a number of years. He’s back now doing a re-watch, so we picked up where he left off. It was so fun to be tossed into the middle of a season, and Season 10 was GOOD (up until the last three episodes, that is). I like this episode because of how frank it is about Dean basically being an alcoholic. Mark of Cain? Sure. Okay. Just call it being an alcoholic, because that’s how Jensen played it. He’s so filled with shame and loathing at the end of this one it’s hard to look at him.
Supernatural, Season 10, episode 11, “About a Boy” (2015; d. Serge Ladouceur)
One of my favorite eps of Season 10. I love Tina (Kehli O’Byrne) and I love the scene in the bar. It’s fascinating on a number of levels (in the last 5 years of the show, all the levels disappeared. Everything was surface level, and so the show became completely un-interesting. It was tragic.) But the scene with Tina in the bar is a perfect example of what “we” lost when Andrew Dabb took over as showrunner. It’s a small scene. Tina is a one-off. But she’s not treated like a one-off. She’s actually fleshed out enough so that we can see where DEAN is at. Of course he’s drawn to someone like Tina. He wasn’t an indiscriminate “dog”, the way he became in the Dabb years. Making Dean a “dog” is a complete mis-reading of his behavior in the last ten seasons. Which just speaks to the subtleties of what Jensen brought to the role, and how so much of it was between the lines. But the dialogue in the scene between Dean and Tina is very good: it shows us where Dean is at, what he is avoiding, and what he is looking for … AND it allows Tina to be three-dimensional too, so that we have some closure for her as well. It’s good writing and storytelling.
Supernatural, Season 10, episode 11, “Halt & Catch Fire” (2015; d. John F. Showalter)
I totally forgot about this episode. You know why? Because it’s forgettable. The writers’ room was like “Let’s do an episode about technology!” But you don’t seem hip and current, you seem corny. Plus: uncharacteristically bad acting. Some good stuff with Dean being overwhelmed by the college hotties.
Muzzle (2023; d. John Stalberg Jr.)
Really not very good. I reviewed for Ebert.
Ivy (1947; d. Sam Wood)
The discovery of the year for me. I had never seen it, and watched it when it was streaming on Criterion in their excellent “Noir by Gaslight” series. My friend Farran wrote a fantastic piece about it for her Substack. Joan Fontaine’s onscreen persona was normally one of cringing distraught submissiveness, an easy mark for powerful charismatic men, a suffering woman trying desperately to withstand the strength of her own emotions. But here she gets to play manipulative to the point of sociopathy, and with just a crook of her eyebrow, you can see the wheels moving. She’s so good in this it makes you think she could have had a full career playing femme fatales, as opposed to victims. It was thrilling to see this performance.
Kate Plays Christine (2016; d. Robert Greene)
I loved this sui generis movie when it came out. Kate Lyn Sheil plays herself, on location in Florida, researching Christine Chubbuck, the news reporter who committed suicide on air in 1974. It’s a pure process movie (similar to Todd Haynes May December). Sheil attempts to get a handle on who Christine Chubbuck was (there’s not a lot out there about her, except for one very detailed posthumous profile). She interviews people. She works with a wig-maker, a costumer, trying to find her way into the character. Other actors, local Florida actors, are hired for other roles: the head of the news station where Chubbuck worked, Chubbuck’s mom – their relationship was a strange one, a co-worker. All of these actors are interviewed on camera about their characters, and their work process. They’re rehearsing a movie about making a movie. There’s a lot of great stuff here about the essential unknowability – not just of Chubbuck, but of everyone. And there’s tension in Sheil, not just about her own process – which she finds frustrating – but also what they are actually doing. She has mixed feelings about digging into this poor unhappy woman’s life. Will they be showing her suicide? There are discussions about this. Sheil is resistant. She just doesn’t like it. In her investigation, she goes to the gun shop where Christine bought the gun, she drives around outside the building which once was the news station, and she actually tracks down a couple of people who were there in the studio that day, people who actually knew Christine. This is a fascinating and essential movie about an actor’s creative process.
Christine (2016; d. Antonio Campos)
And then I watched Christine, the actual movie made about Christine Chubbuck, unconnected to Kate Plays Christine, starring Rebecca Hall as Christine. So it’s like this is the finished product of what was being worked on in the OTHER movie, albeit with different actors. They both came out in the same year too. Pretty wild! I’ve seen this one a number of times. Rebecca Hall’s performance is top-tier representation of what chronic depression actually looks and feels like. It’s astonishing. The cast around her – Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts, Maria Dizzia, J. Smith Cameron and John Cullum – are superb. The film smartly does not position Christine as a diamond-in-the-rough, or a brilliant person “kept down” by sexist unfair perceptions of her, or whatever. Christine was a nightmare co-worker. She was driven to the point of madness. She was laudably ambitious but also delusional. There was no way she was going to be picked up by a major network. She was too serious, not ingratiating enough, she pushed people away through tantrums and crushing depressions. Rebecca Hall is unafraid of all of these things. Her Christine is very different from the Christine Kate Lyn Sheil explores … but seeing them together is an exercise in the fluid subjectivity of storytelling. Your Christine Chubbuck is not my Christine Chubbuck and that’s okay. Both films are worth seeking out.
Laura (1944; d. Otto Preminger)
I know this movie by heart but I am still surprised every time by the long scene where Dana Andrews wanders through Laura’s apartment, looking for clues – in theory – but really what he’s doing is trying to avoid being pulled into the power surge emanating from Laura’s portrait on the wall. At one point, he catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror on the closet doors, and stands totally still – perhaps stunned at what he sees, how his mask of cynical distance has been so shattered. Finally, he throws himself into the chair, and gives over to an abandonment of longing and desire and despair: an incredible physical gesture, shocking really since Andrews’ hard-boiled persona has given no clue thus far that all THAT is in him.
Cat Person (2023; d. Susanna Fogel)
I said pretty much everything I had to say in my review for Ebert. What a weird movie, what baffling choices. What were they thinking?
Fair Play (2023; d. Chloe Domont)
I loved this ferocious workplace-romance story. Don’t let the trailers fool you. It’s not a “thriller”. It’s really ABOUT something, a thorny little issue many of us know in our bones, so much so it doesn’t even need to be said out loud. This is Chloe Dumont’s directorial debut, and she also wrote the script. It’s an amazingly accomplished debut film. I got sucked into the couple’s dynamic within the first five, ten minutes, and this identification/investment was crucial for the shattering that follows. This is difficult material, and lesser directors have approached it, relying heavily on cliche and pre-conceived notions. They use shorthand: “Here’s a happy couple! Please believe us that they’re happy. See them smiling at each other over coffee? This means they’re happy. Okay, got it? Now let’s make them miserable.” It’s lazy and cheap. But in Fair Play, Dumont has obviously thought long and hard about the proper approach. This is really a two-hander, and both actors (Phoebe Dynevor, Alden Ehrenreich) are superb. The film is so honest about its subject I almost feared it would tiptoe away from its own implications in the final reel (this happens a lot: a movie betrays its own setup, backing away from the obvious conclusions). Fair Play goes the distance and sticks the landing.
Desperately Seeking Soulmate: Escaping Twin Flames Universe (2023; d. Marina Zenovich)
I read the initial Vanity Fair article when it came out, and found it fascinating and disturbing. A Cult-like group I’d never heard of? Strange! This one was even more disturbing because I felt I could have been sucked into it, at another point in my life. I did fall into the whole “soulmate” belief-system – and have many mixed feelings about it. Or, not even mixed. I think the whole soulmate thing is a CROCK. But this is like Soulmates on Steroids. The whole trans aspect of it is even more disturbing. Similar to NXIUM and Fyre Festival, this group has inspired not one but TWO documentaries.
The Beasts (2023; d. Rodrigo Sorogoyen)
Denis Ménochet and Marina Foïs play a French couple who move to the hilly countryside of Galicia to run their own farm, selling their product in local markets, living close to the land. A romantic notion, perhaps, but they both work extremely hard, bolstered up by the belief in what they are doing. Their neighbors are hostile to the interlopers, and there’s already tension in the little village because of a nearby wind farm. Tradition vs. modernity. There’s xenophobia in the hill people’s response to the French couple. They are literally not welcome. The tension builds and builds. Their farm is sabotaged in various ways – crops ruined, well polluted – and you sense the villagers closing in around the French couple. It’s truly dangerous. There’s an echo of Deliverance in some of these altercations, and no amount of calm rational discussion will alleviate the hostility. It’s a slow movie but excruciating and upsetting. I didn’t realize it was loosely based on a true story. It’s brutal.
Killers of the Flower Moon (2023; d. Martin Scorsese)
Went to the big press screening for this one. It should be seen in a theatre, if possible. It’s a big story. I have moments lately, like watching Silence or The Irishman or this one where I think: “…. God, I feel so lucky that I am actually alive to experience the final stage of this career.” I wasn’t around to soak up the end of Howard Hawks or John Ford or the other legends. But I’m here for this one and I’m grateful and I try to be aware of it as it is happening. In Killers of the Flower Moon, Scorsese doesn’t use his expected motifs and visual signatures (long swooping camera moves, and intensified pacing via cutting). It’s presented in a fairly straightforward style, and this is unnerving in its own way, perhaps because it’s unexpected. There’s a stately quality to its progression, which somehow makes it all worse. De Niro for me is the real standout. This isn’t just a performance: it’s an explanation of how it was done.
Coleen Rooney – The Real Wagatha Story (2023)
Allison and I were casting around for something to watch and tripped over this. As Americans, lol, we were not aware of this massive tabloid story, and so it was all new to us. At first I didn’t care about any of these people, but the docuseries is very well done, and draws you into the personalities involved. I gave a shit, in other words.
Jury Duty (2023; d. Jake Szymanski)
Allison made me watch this and it was hilarious. But kind of sad too: they tricked that poor guy! It was like The Truman Show. How amazing, though, that he emerged as this super nice, kind, thoughtful, responsible person … without having any idea it all was fake. This is just who he is. James Marsden was fucking hysterical.
Beckham (2023; d. Fisher Stevens)
Allison loved this and made me watch it. I didn’t know much about his early career. I only knew of him as a tabloid phenomenon, and it was wild how much came back to me from the days of his “courtship” with Posh Spice. He wore a SARONG on a vacation. People literally were losing their minds about it. I remember that. If you had told me Posh Spice and David Beckham would “go the distance” in their relationship I would have thought you were cracked. But they clearly did have an instant love connection. Not without trials and tribulations, but it does feel like a good partnership. Fisher Stevens included some visual flashiness I didn’t really like (Beckham looking right in the camera at some of his old games, etc.) Unnecessary. But I did find it interesting, and, in its way, a walk down memory lane.
Onyx the Fortuitous and the Talisman of Souls (2023; d. Andrew Bowser)
This was cute and sweet. A real passion project. I reviewed for Ebert.
Wolf Hall (2015; d. Peter Kosminsky)
Allison is finally reading the Wolf Hall trilogy and eating it up. So I made her watch this. I wish they had continued with the series.
Hangover Square (1945; John Brahm)
As with most noirs, it all takes place at night: the night is crowded and urban, but dangerous and unpredictable. The claustrophobia is extreme. There’s an extremely gruesome scene involving an innovative and macabre way to get-rid-of-a-dead-body. Linda Darnell is glamorous and manipulative.
The Bad and the Beautiful (1952; d. Vincente Minnelli)
The Player merely tiptoes into the outer limits of The Bad and the Beautiful‘s cyncicism. One of the greatest insider-Hollywood movie ever made.
Holy Frit (2023; d. Justin S. Monroe)
I loved this documentary about a glass studio in California getting a commission to make the largest stained glass window in the history of stained glass. I reviewed for Ebert.
The Women (1939; d. George Cukor)
I know it practically by heart. And I still watch it on the regular.
The Old Maid (1939; d. Edmund Goulding)
One of Bette Davis’ MANY great performances.
Amen (2003; d. Costa-Gavras)
As much as I love Costa-Gavras’ work, there are still some I’ve missed. Amen is obviously “lesser” Costa-Gavras, not as visually gripping as his others, which somehow translates into the story itself not grabbing you. Costa-Gavras is so strong in visuals AND in dialogue: I mean, Z and Confession are extremely talky. He doesn’t sacrifice one for the other. Here, the Catholic Church is on trial, and for good reason, but Amen somehow doesn’t get a handle on the massiveness of the subject, in the way Z managed to do.
The Ghost Writer (2010; d. Roman Polanski)
I love how meticulously Polanski establishes the mood and the atmosphere. It’s almost like he prioritizes the atmosphere over the plot, to such a degree that the atmosphere IS the plot. The house, the beach, the views out the windows, the eeriness of it all. I saw this one in the theatre, and re-visit it periodically.