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Best of not-2015

Digging this out of the dusty drafts folder to finish and post now, when last year feels so very far away: the best movies I saw in 2015 that weren’t released in 2015.

Honorable mention: Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012)

I think about Lorene Scafaria’s movie so often. Just give it a chance.

10. Adam’s Rib (1949)

Much like how my love for Charles Dickens’s prose and storytelling makes me read maybe one of his novels every couple of years so I can postpone ever being done with them (and I know he was kind of an a-hole; don’t @ me), so have I spaced out catching up on all of the glorious K.Hepburn’s most famous films, even as her glowing visage graces my phone screen and gives me strength every day. And then when I really need it, there she is spouting feminism and breathing fire and making everyone on screen with her seem worthy, even though they’re totally not (sorry, Judy Holliday, luv u 2). She rules, George Cukor rules, this movie rules.

9. The Thin Blue Line (1988) / Into the Abyss (2011)

Obviously the appetite for true crime documentaries took the U.S. by storm in 2015, and I was not immune — I will tell you why I think Adnan did it, or encourage you to go back to watch The Staircase and then let me tell you about the crazy online theory I actually believe. But crime stories can be and should be more important than just providing the voyeuristic thrill of dissecting the possibility of one person’s guilt. Thankfully we have Errol Morris, Werner Herzog, and other non-fiction writers and documentarians who approach the landscape of our criminal justice system and our assumptions about it in less sensational ways.

8. Nightcrawler (2014)

Speaking of our collective voyeurism and obsession with crime… Dan Gilroy’s twisted story combined with Jake Gyllenhaal’s BONKERS CREEPY performance created something seriously entrancing to me. Louis Bloom is that character who’s so repulsive you can’t actually look away, as we watch his confidence and hubris grow as he moves from merely exploiting crime scenes for the photos he can sell to actually manipulating the scenes and the people he’s selling the photos to. Gilroy has had an established screenwriting career, but I was surprised to see this was the first film he directed. He needs to do more; I will watch without hesitation.

7. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002)

God, what a bleak, heartbreaking, gorgeous maze of tragedy. It’s all right there in that word sympathy, even though this film opens Park Chan-wook’s “Vengeance Trilogy.” Everyone in this movie does the wrong thing for a desperate or ill-informed reason, and it all begins because of a system that leaves people dying because they can’t afford the medical care that will save their lives. Someday maybe we will live in a world where that doesn’t need to be a common theme.

6. Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

Ah, the glorious feeling when people have been pestering you to watch a movie and then it totally lives up to expectations! It happened to me with this film, and I promptly paid it forward by harassing someone else to watch it, too. A convoluted set of writing credits often gives me pause (even when Christopher McQuarrie is in the mix), but director Doug Liman (undersung for how many solid-to-great films he’s made) brings it all together here by hitting the right tone of actual fun — not just random quips — on top of the Save the World plot. Please let Tom Cruise continue to be used smartly as a jackass, and please let Emily Blunt become a true action star, please please please. (Bond. Jane Bond?)

5. The Accused (1988)

This is the first in a trio of list entries that represent movies from the ’80s one can’t watch today without desperately wishing that in the last thirty years we’d made a bit more social progress on the issues at hand. Here the issue is rape, and specifically society’s tendency to blame or discredit a victim who doesn’t meet exacting yet arbitrary standards of “innocence” and “trustworthiness.” As hard as it is to watch — particularly when writer Tom Topor and director Jonathan Kaplan finally show us the full horror of what happened in the bar, nearly at the end of the film — Jodie Foster’s Oscar-winning performance remains a marvel.

4. The Brother From Another Planet (1984)

Joe Morton is a living treasure who’s been mostly known to me for rants on Scandal and the immortal line from Speed “It’s finished on the goddamn map!” John Sayles has been a glaring blindspot for me on the list of important indie filmmakers of the 1980s. I’m glad I started remedying that with this clever, funny, and sad film, where The Brother, a mute alien on the run from those who would enslave him, slowly comes to realize what his outward appearance as a black man means in this new world. Joe Morton’s beautiful silent performance will hold up until the end of time. I wish the social commentary didn’t have to.

3. A Dry White Season (1989)

When I saw this affecting and successful film about the fight against apartheid in South Africa, done on this kind of scale, I was angry for two reasons: obviously, that the same kind of injustices illustrated here by apartheid continue to replicate themselves around the world relentlessly. And also, that someone who was able to stage and tell this story so beautifully hasn’t had every opportunity and dollar thrown at her to keep making films of this magnitude. Euzhan Palcy should be a much more widely known name.

2. Force Majeure (2014)

What do you do when suddenly faced with a situation that illuminates a weakness, a fault you never knew or admitted you had, or one you never knew your partner had? Something that changes your whole perspective? Ruben Östlund explores that here when a wealthy Swedish couple’s view of themselves shatters after Dad’s instinct in perceived danger — in this case, an avalanche that turns out not to be one — is to run away from Mom and kids and save himself. The aftermath is uncomfortable, fascinating, darkly funny, and darkly honest about how we’re all really selfish hypocrites in the end.

1. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Okay, because there are so many director’s cuts and such of this film, to be clear: I saw the 1998 Collector’s Edition, and I saw it at with a beautiful crowd at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in a haze of pot smoke filling the unusually chilly and misty Los Angeles night, and it was wonderful. Spielberg is Spielberg, after all. (See, I can criticize how he doesn’t make movies about women AND still love him. Nuance, internet bros. The world contains it.)

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TOP FIFTEEN OBJECTIVELY BEST GAME OF THRONES SCENES*

15. Episode 3.3: The complete politics of the Small Council demonstrated through chair placement.

14. Episode 1.9: Ned Stark loses his head.

13. Episode 2.5: Brienne of Tarth pledges herself to serve Lady Catelyn.

12. Episode 1.5: Robert and Cersei get real discussing how fucked up their marriage has been.

11. Episode 4.2: Joffrey’s dying breaths.

10. Episode 3.6: The Wall cracks.

9. Episode 4.8: Oberyn Martell vs. The Mountain.

8. Episode 4.8: Sansa tells “the truth” about what sent Lysa Arryn through the Moon Door.

7. Episode 1.6: Khal Drogo awards Viserys Targaryen his “golden crown.”

6. Episode 4.1: The Hound and Arya make a good team for a pub massacre, and she gets her sword back.

5. Episode 3.4: Daenerys unleashes dragon fire on the douche who’s selling her the Unsullied.

4. Episode 2.9: Cersei gets drunk and speaks her mind to Sansa while they’re taking shelter during the seige.

3. Episode 2.10: Khal Drogo and Daenerys “reunite” in the House of the Undying.

2. Episode 3.4: Lord Varys tells Tyrion how he was cut and reveals what’s in that crate.

1. Episode 3.5: Jaime tells Brienne the real story of why he killed the Mad King.

(Before you can say “You forgot the Red Wedding”: No, I didn’t. It’s okay.)

And the top five worst bits:

5. Any Stannis scenes in which Melisandre is not present and we therefore have to endure his scowly face for no reason.

4. Shae’s descent from sassy mystery woman to insane jealous girlfriend to shockingly clueless revenge-seeker. What a wasted character.

3. Liberation of slaves glory ruined by deeply problematic White Savior imagery (who the hell signed off that chanting/lifting of Dany in episode 3.10??).

2. Cersei and Jaime’s nothing reunion (they just STARE at each other and then it cuts away!!!) followed by That Scene next to Joffrey’s body. Never ruin a great incest story by making it too rapey. This is basically the first rule of writing.

1. Literally anything to do with Theon getting tortured. I mean. Why.

HAPPY GAME OF THRONES DAY!

*This is just, like, my opinion, man.

Best of not-2014

It’s that time again! The best movies I saw in 2014, that weren’t released in 2014.

10. Short Term 12 (2013)

Feel like having, like, a lot of sad feelings? Watch a movie about foster kids! And if you think the kids have it bad, JUST WAIT until you hear about the staff at the group home and THEIR issues!

That makes this movie sound more depressing than it is, but the emotions are definitely intense. A tremendous lead performance from Brie Larson, some terrific supporting teen actors, and a small dose of humor keep Destin Daniel Cretton’s film from veering too hard into Movie-of-the-Week territory. It’s just bare, honest drama.

9. One Way Passage (1932)

Kay Francis! William Powell! A doomed love lived out in coattails and sparkling gowns! God I love these early ’30s romances, packing so much passion and pain into an hour’s worth of crackling scenes and then leaving us with a swell of the music and an aching heart. On a trans-Pacific crossing, he’s a criminal being taken for execution who’s conned his way into a few final days of freedom on the boat, and she’s a lady of means whose terminal illness could snatch her beautiful breath away at any moment. Neither knows the other’s secret, only that their love must end when the ship reaches dock. Oh, the Fates, how they toy with us!

8. Enough Said (2013)

While I appreciate her voice out there in the world, I’ve never really “gotten” Nicole Holofcener. I’ve dutifully seen all of her features, but fallen into the camp of feeling like there was too much shallow, privileged ennui mixed in for me to really empathize with the characters. However, the influence of Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late, great James Gandolfini strongly pushes me into the pro camp for her latest film, which captures a more specific and only-in-the-movies dilemma than Holofcener usually goes for: divorced Eva might really like divorced Albert, except she’s just made friends with Albert’s ex-wife, who has a lot of stories….

This is a smart story with a slightly difficult woman at its center (I love me some difficult women), with great, loose performances, funny and romantic. I’d say don’t call it a rom-com, except I’m not one of those people who gets down on rom-coms, so yeah: it’s a fucking good rom-com. Deal with it.

7. Bombshell (1933)

“Your hair is like a field of silver daisies. I’d like to run barefoot through your hair. Your mouth is like a gardenia open to the sun.” Gotta love a comedy about a talented, feisty woman whose biggest problems are the dumb men surrounding her. The wonderful Jean Harlow — who seems like she was born with a reaction shot on her face — plays a screwball version of a movie star not so unlike herself, who’s dealing with a bunch of freeloaders while trying to figure out what’s missing in her life.

In its own way, Bombshell has a feminist streak, with Lola Burns taking no shame in seeking her own path to “have it all” — she makes a decision to adopt a baby, a plan that springs forth with only the briefest consideration that maybe she could marry a man and do it the old-fashioned way. And just as the good themes seem they might be undermined in that “the previously rejected love interest shows her what’s best for herself (and it’s him)” kind of way, the farce twists back on itself yet again. So much fun.

6. You’re Next (2011)

Many a horror fan evangelized about this film when it played the festival circuit in 2011, but I was part of the problem in not making it a hit when it finally had a wide release two years later. Not seeing it on the big screen is my loss, but I’ve joined the evangelizing since catching the movie on Netflix. What a joy to see a full-on, twisted slasher movie, brimming with shocking and gross and occasionally hilarious deaths, but without having to grimace and ignore any blatant sexism or soul-killing objectification of women. The film’s heroine should join the ranks of great final girls, and aspiring young males with movie cameras and buckets of blood should look to director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett’s example as one to live up to.

5. Middle of Nowhere (2012)

Ava DuVernay is, I sincerely hope, on her way to a Best Director nomination for her achievements with 2014’s Selma. She’s also somewhat insultingly being included on various “filmmakers to watch” lists, as if those of us in the know haven’t already been watching her since she ***won fucking Sundance*** with her second feature film, the quieter, but still devastating, drama Middle of Nowhere. (Or even before that, because of the lovely, light-filled I Will Follow.) I didn’t get to see the film until it was finally shown on the BET last year, because even with that win, wide theatrical distribution never came. Funny, that.

Not only is DuVernay excellent at capturing the small moments that build to a moment of stark choice, making everything seem tense with possibility yet inevitable, but she’s starting to build a small stable of signature actors, as well — something male directors like the Coen brothers or Wes Anderson get praised for, yet women directors rarely get a chance to do. As she has with David Oyelowo and Omari Hardwick, here’s hoping she soon crafts another role for Emayatzy Corinealdi, whose work here as a woman devoted to her husband in prison but questioning her choices is so beautiful.

4. Purple Rain (1984)

If I had seen Purple Rain while, for example, curled up in sweatpants with a glass of Chuck on a Wednesday night, I would have enjoyed it, but it may not have been so high on this list. But I saw it under the absolute best circumstances for a first viewing: at an outdoor summer showing at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, with hundreds of other picnic-drunk Angelenos, swaying and singing and holding up lighters and soaking in the night together under Prince’s spell. The magic may never be underestimated, nor recaptured.

Ever the feminist killjoy, I must of course also acknowledge how this film is not exactly un-problematic in its commentary on domestic violence. Despite this, the general spectacle of music and emotion and costumes and sex remains electric, even as we shake our heads at things we hope no filmmaker would get away with thirty years later.

3. A Hijacking (2012)

If I had to pick a country besides the United States that’s making my favorite movies today, it would probably be Denmark. As an example, their version of a film about a cargo ship being hijacked by Somali pirates is just, well, insanely better than ours. (No offense, Captain Phillips.) Tobias Lindholm builds a story with excruciating patience, brilliant structure, and heartbreaking performances. A Hijacking was so great that I didn’t want it to end, even though watching it was kind of killing me. IT’S ON NETFLIX WATCH THIS MOVIE OMG.

2. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

Oh, I had a damn fine time finally watching this movie. Why didn’t anyone tell me how witty and fun it is? Yes, it deals with a serious subject, but I’d always assumed it was a sort of domestic counterpoint to the same year’s other major Sidney Poitier film, the fantastic but heeeaaavy In the Heat of the Night. Not so. And yes, of course the racial discussion here is dated, but the scenes are so carefully crafted for the time that watching them remains a pleasure. I can even forgive the film ending its series of delightful conversations between diverse characters with a lengthy monologue from an old white guy, because Spencer Tracy deserved that moment in his final performance (which, due to illness, everyone knew during filming would be his last).

1. An Unmarried Woman (1978)

Every fucking male filmmaker out there who seems to think he can’t make art out of the lives of women needs to take a fucking look at what fucking Paul Mazursky did in nineteen-fucking-seventy-eight and be ashamed of themselves. Fuck.

Jill Clayburgh was nominated for Best Actress for her portrayal of Erica, an Upper East Side woman figuring out what the rest of her life might look like after her husband leaves her for a younger woman. Though we see her re-enter the dating scene, this isn’t really about finding a new love; though she questions how to proceed in her professional life, when she’s only been working part-time in a gallery, this isn’t really about money. As Erica’s conversations with her friends and therapist and lover show, it’s just about her. Her as a complete, independent, important person, no matter what happens. Imagine that.

The archives:

2013
2012
2011
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2008

Best of not-2013

It’s the annual round-up! The best films I saw in 2013, that weren’t released in 2013.

honorable mention: Road House (1989)

Yes, it shames me as a Patrick Swayze fan, but I had not taken in the glory that is Road House until this past year. This is one of those films that I thought I’d seen at some fuzzy point long ago, but as soon as it was rolling, I realized it was completely fresh Swayze action. And oh, how I basked in it.

Listen, you don’t need me to tell you why Road House is awesome. It exists on a plane that requires no explanation.

10. This Is Not a Film (2011)

Filmmaker Jafar Panahi’s documentary capturing a day in his life under house arrest in Iran is necessarily an odd exercise. Banned from making films or leaving the country, and facing a possible prison sentence for making “propaganda against the regime,” even this seemingly (perhaps deceptively so) loose, unpolished piece of work was so risky to make he had it smuggled out of Iran on a flash drive in a cake. Though it’s often hard to tell what moments are the most “real” and which have been staged in some way, it doesn’t really matter. The stakes at hand, and the emotions of someone facing severe political and artistic oppression, cannot be questioned. The final melancholy moments will twist the insides of anyone who values freedom and creative expression.

9. To Be Or Not To Be (1942)

The tiny subgenre of comedies made about WWII while WWII was still happening is so, so odd. To Be Or Not To Be would have to be admired simply for the boldness of its message and dark humor, but given that extra touch by director Ernst Lubitsch, the crazy package becomes a screwball masterpiece. Jack Benny and Carole Lombard play married actors working in Warsaw who get involved in a spy plot against the Nazis, and soon their whole troop of oddball thespians is involved. The only thing I would’ve changed would be more screen time for the gloriously funny Lombard—especially since this would turn out to be her final film, as she was killed in a plane crash not long afterward.

8. Morvern Callar (2002)

I so wish Lynne Ramsay made films more often. Her arresting visual style—close up in moments, often making the gruesome beautiful or the beautiful gruesome—causes her odd character studies to brand themselves on my brain in ways that quirkier or more purely observant films don’t. The style perfectly serves Samantha Morton here as the title character, a working-class Scottish woman who, upon her boyfriend’s suicide, steals his unpublished novel and calls it her own, leading to various unexpected events both good and terrible. Morton is an underrated actress, able to somehow simultaneously seem otherworldly and like the girl next door. Her performance combined with Ramsay’s direction creates a hypnotic film.

7. Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2012)

As both a character study and a meditation on the search for perfection, David Gelb’s documentary is a smashing success. 85-year-old sushi master Jiro Ono—who runs the most well-regarded sushi restaurant in the world out of a small space in a Tokyo subway station—makes a fascinating subject whose single-mindedness might seem over the top if it was found in a fictional character. His son, a master sushi chef in his own right who remains in his father’s shadow, provides a compelling emotional counterpoint. An engrossing portrait of a life, a family, and a passion.

Highly recommended to have sushi on hand while watching.

6. Hopscotch (1980)

The great Walter Matthau’s particular talents fit beautifully into this uber-leisurely-paced political comedy about CIA agent Miles Kendig, who decides to expose his corrupt colleagues in a memoir, then easily outwits their every attempt to track him down. If you need more than just Matthau in your comedy (but come on, who does?), there’s also Glenda Jackson as his delightful and delightfully-named lady-friend Isobel von Schonenberg, and Ned Beatty as the increasingly irate boss-man Myerson. Few actors have ever been as fun to watch play frustration as Ned Beatty, and the gleam in Kendig’s eyes every time he gets one over on Myerson brought warmth to my heart as only Matthau can.

5. Greenberg (2010)

I watched this as the back half of a double feature with Frances Ha, and was surprised to enjoy Greenberg far more. In fact, this was the most I’ve ever liked a Noah Baumbach film, with Ben Stiller’s performance finally really selling his style of humor for me. (Perhaps this was also helped along by the sharp LA jokes, what with my being a new resident here.) Rhys Ifans as Stiller’s semi-estranged best friend also shines, creating one of the more compelling male friendships I’ve seen on film in a good long while.

4. She Done Him Wrong (1933)

Mae West’s humor and personal brand of anti-slut-shaming should bring a smile to the face of any contemporary feminist. We’re not talking about a complex storytelling achievement here, but the sheer amount of enjoyment packed into 66 minutes (!) cannot, cannot be beat. Come for the pre-Code luxury and luridness, stay for the baby-faced Cary Grant.

3. Thief (1981)

I watched Michael Mann’s Thief for the first time and was raving about it just before it was announced that it was getting the Criterion treatment, which of course made me feel a little burst of cinephile pride. This is another case of a director’s specific style finally really clicking for me. Gritty beauty, a fantastic Tangerine Dream soundtrack, and young James Caan perfectly covering his character’s inner desperation with a layer of grimy swagger—it’s all right on the mark.

2. The Messenger (2009)

Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson are two of the best actors of their respective generations. The subject matter of Oren Moverman’s film (co-written with Alessandro Camon; rightfully Oscar-nominated) could hardly be more heart-breaking. Foster plays a new recruit to the small band of soldiers who notify families when other soldiers have been killed in action. Harrelson’s character teaches the new kid how to do the job, and gradually reveals the significant toll it takes. No bit of pain is shied away from by the actors or the filmmakers, and the result is something profound.

1. The Conversation (1974)

How good is this movie? I avoided it for a while because in my head I associated it with various crime films of the ’70s that insist on a level of inscrutability that annoys me (The French Connection, The Long Good Friday, etc). But damn am I glad that Netflix’s insistence made me finally give it a chance. The mystery is thrilling (and comes with an actual explanation!), the exploration of anxiety in the age of surveillance even more relevant today, and Gene Hackman’s performance might be my favorite I’ve seen of his. Outstanding all around.

Previous lists:

2012
2011
2010
2009
2008

Five Things I’d Like to See in the 2013 Emmy Nominations

Epic Game of Thrones-ness in Best Supporting Actress in a Drama

Because TV is so much more friendly for women actors than movies are, you could fill at least twenty slots in this category, if not more. And half of that could be women from Game of Thrones. I want Michelle Fairley (Catelyn Stark) and Gwendoline Christie (Brienne of Tarth) in the mix, for sure, and wouldn’t mind if the other four slots were taken up by Maisie Williams (Arya Stark), Lena Headey (Cersei Lannister), Natalie Dormer (Margaery Tyrell), and Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen).

Frankly, it’s just silly that Peter Dinklage is the only actor from the show who’s ever been nominated for their role. I DEMAND GAME OF THRONES LADIES BE RECOGNIZED!

(Looking at the official Emmy ballot, I actually don’t see Christie or Williams anywhere on the list as options. I refuse to amend my wishes based on this lunacy.)

David Lynch as Best Guest Actor in a Comedy

Because that arc on Louie is simply one of the best things I’ve ever seen. And while we’re at it, can Louie get a Best Comedy Series nomination, already?

Writing and acting nominations for Enlightened

Especially writing. If “The Ghost Is Seen” doesn’t get nominated, there is no justice. (There are other truly great episodes in season two, but that’s the only one on the ballot.)

Everything on this show was pretty much perfect. Laura Dern and Mike White should both be in the acting categories, and the series deserves direction and technical recognition, as well. It still hurts that there won’t be a third season, but let’s hope for acknowledgement for the stellar work we did get to see.

Portia de Rossi for Lead Actress in a Comedy

Lindsey has always been the most underrated character on Arrested Development, and I was delighted to see her have such a central role in season four. Portia de Rossi does incredible work getting us to root for Lindsey even when she’s at her most selfish and ridiculous. She’s just brilliantly funny. (And before you ask, yes, this is the category she’s submitted in, not supporting. As it should be.)

Call the Midwife surprise writing nomination

This is the longest long shot of long shots, but the second season finale of Call the Midwife, “Episode 8,” is on the ballot for drama writing, and I would LOVE to see it somehow sneak into the nominations. This is a beautiful show overall, but this particular episode made me SOB SOB SOB tears of joy, which is a testament to the stunning work that’s been done in building up the characters and relationships over only 15 episodes’ worth of content.

In your dream scenario, what would you like to see show up in the nominations tomorrow?

Best of not-2012

A bit late this year, but here we go, as per tradition: the best films I saw in 2012, that weren’t made in 2012.

10. Little Darlings (1980)

In one of the few movies that explores the pressure to lose one’s virginity from the female perspective, Tatum O’Neal and Kristy McNichol are rivals at summer camp who find themselves in the middle of a bet to see who can lose it first. As other campers throw money behind one contestant or the other, neither girl feels she can back down, even when situations become rather complicated with the intended male “targets.” This is a very funny movie that also takes its lead characters seriously, allowing them to be weird and outlandish in the ways that best serve their conflicted, hormonal selves, not just the plot. Though some resolutions are predictable, this is one of the best teen movies I’ve seen in a long time.

9. My Brilliant Career (1979)

Speaking of headstrong teens, here we have a young Judy Davis playing Sybylla, a young woman weighing her options (not many) in early 20th century Australia. She wants to be a writer, perhaps; something that gives her independence, surely. This strong desire for independence is challenged in ways unpleasant (the family’s farm has gone into severe debt and Sybylla must work as a governess for some truly awful children) and more pleasant (a dashing young Sam Neill may just want to sweep Sybylla off her feet). Sybylla is a wonderful character, reminiscent of the great Anne Shirley, and Gillian Armstrong’s film serves her well with an ending that reflects how tough choices in life really can be.

8. Touch of Evil (1958)

I had a chance to see this film on a theater screen while I was in Paris this past November, and I’m glad I was able to finally check it off my list in that setting. No one needs to hear me explain that Orson Welles was a stunning visual director, but I’ll say that it’s impossible not to be sucked in by the world he creates here, from the opening tracking shot to the final tense, shadowy moments. Once the issue of Charlton Heston playing a Mexican man is put aside a bit (admittedly, a difficult task), it’s a great experience to bask in the dirt, grime, and sweat of this boozy border town. Plus, there’s plenty of Janet Leigh, which is always a good thing.

7. Les Bonnes Femmes (1960)

In 2012 I watched my first few films from prolific French director Claude Chabrol, and this was by far the highlight among them. The film follows four French shopgirls through their boring workdays and their dubious night lives, where they encounter a fair few hideously-behaved men. The film is observational to the point where tracing a core plotline is impossible, yet it’s also terrifically engaging as a window into a certain kind of Paris. The one development we can really grasp onto—one woman’s emerging romance with a man on a motorcycle—resolves in a way I could never have seen coming. If you’re interested in the French New Wave, this is a must-see.

6. Videodrome (1983)

I wrote a little bit about Videodrome when I had David Cronenberg Month, but a year later I’m not sure I have anything deeper to say about why I liked it so much. Someone with more expertise than I have would need to explain why some surrealism works and some doesn’t; what Cronenberg throws into his narrative of a schlock producer works incredibly. Scenes make you feel uncomfortable and confused, but in the most glorious way.

5. Marnie (1964)

Marnie was another film I wrote about while attempting monthly director-fests. For me, it might be Hitchcock’s most fascinating film, in terms of the layers of psychological complexity and amoral behavior. I still am not quite sure what to think about it, which is sometimes the best way to feel about a piece of art. I do know that Tippi Hedren’s performance is simply brilliant, and is evidence of what highs she could have reached had her falling out with Hitchcock (to use a term that probably gives him too much credit) not affected her career.

4. Le Bonheur (1965)

Agnès Varda, how I love you. But as I said in August, I’m not sure if “love” is the right word for how I feel about this film—though my admiration for it only grows the more I think about it. Le Bonheur is a story of delusional infidelity, and also a sort of parable about the way women’s lives are so often unjustly defined by their relationships with men. Watching it now, I only wish progress in that area would continue at a faster pace, because too many women are still not the controllers of their own lives. The film isn’t really an attack on men, though—more like a warning that if the world says you can have everything, there’s actually going to be a catch somewhere. This is a tough movie to explain, so I just say: watch it.

3. A New Leaf (1971)

Unavailable for a very long time, this film is now ACTUALLY OUT ON DVD!, and I urge you to seek it out. This is flawless dark comedy, and Walter Matthau and co-star/co-writer/director Elaine May play off of each other as if they’d been a long-time comedy duo. Matthau is selfish rich man who’s just been told he’s actually poor; May is a clueless rich woman he’d like to marry and then murder. I’ll actually have much more to say about this film for a piece on May that I’m preparing for The MacGuffin, so I’ll end with just urging all who like black comedies to get this one, now.

2. The Last Days of Disco (1998)

I overuse the word “delight” as a noun to describe things that bring me joy, but it’s simply the most apt descriptor for Whit Stillman’s wordy, hilarious, occasionally beautifully awkward film. I crave the kind of dialogue Stillman writes, which weighs entertainment value and true cleverness over realism, but never crosses into self-congratulatory, referential irony. I wrote about The Last Days of Disco back in April, when I was almost stunned by how much I’d enjoyed it, and not just because of all of the amaaaaazing disco music. When something can be this bitingly clever on the surface and have so much heart underneath, everyone should love it.

1. Warrior (2011)

One of the most interesting ways a film can engage a viewer is by giving us two opposing sides to root for and no way that both will win. For some reason, sports movies rarely take advantage of the fact that they’re inherently set up to make this dynamic as easily constructable as it could ever be. Warrior‘s deft handling of two brothers in the same mixed martial arts tournament wrings all of the natural drama out of the set-up, but somehow never feels cliché, even while hitting story beats we’ve all seen before: the family in desperate need of money; the husband keeping a secret from his wife; the return of the alcoholic father; the stoic man who can’t get over a loss. Co-writer/director Gavin O’Connor crafts the film perfectly to stack all of its elements in a way that feels fresh, and he pulls the viewer along breathlessly until that final fight—the one where only one brother can win. This film was a triumph for O’Connor, and a brilliant surprise for me.

Previous lists:

Best of not-2011
Best of not-2010
Best of not-2009
Best of not-2008

A few male directors who should consider female protagonists for future projects.

This post is not meant to shame any of the following directors, or to serve as any sort of a definitive list. These are just a few thoughts I had today about some men who are very successful making Hollywood-type films that I often enjoy, and whom I would like to see ask themselves why they feel they can’t do that with a woman for the core, central character.

*Paul Thomas Anderson: has never made a film with a female protagonist. Fascinating explorations of dark emotions need not be limited to men, PTA.

*Steven Spielberg: has not directed a film with a female protagonist in 27 years, since 1985’s The Color Purple. He had only one other before that, The Sugarland Express. How about an adventure film with a woman taking the lead, Mr. Spielberg? 27 years is a long time.

*Wes Anderson: has arguably never made a film with a female protagonist. A case can be made for Suzy as a co-protagonist in Moonrise Kingdom. I see it more as an ensemble piece (with many, many more male characters than female, as is the case in all of his films). I would love to see him do more with exploring female characters, and not just through the lens of being a male character’s crush or mother.

*Danny Boyle: has arguably never made a film with a female protagonist. Perhaps one could make an argument for co-protagonist status for Cameron Diaz’s character in A Life Less Ordinary. (I would say that McGregor’s actions/perspective most drive the film, but I haven’t seen it in a while. Shallow Grave, which I have not seen, seems to have a woman for 1 out of 3 co-protagonists.) Certainly since he has rocketed to A-list status, his focus has been on projects with male protagonists. Given his range and willingness to dabble in lots of genres, I hope he’ll branch out further.

*Martin Scorsese: has not made a film with a female protagonist in 38 years, since 1974’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. If anyone wonders why I’m not a Scorsese junkie like so many film buffs: there you go. 38 years, and he never saw a script with a female protagonist that interested him? Never heard a female-centric idea that piqued his interest? No wonder his sensibilities don’t always entrance me. Way to be a bro, Marty.

What other beloved dudes could use a reminder that women are interesting, too?


Other projects:


Downton Gabby: podcasting about Downton Abbey from a funny, foul-mouthed, feminist perspective

Quick Lit: reading one short story a day in 2015

Grand Dames: collecting sundry achievements of admirable women

The MacGuffin: archive of my days as a film critic

I love Twitter.

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