Favorite Movies That I Saw for the First Time in 2015

When I started really getting into movies, I decided to log each new film I saw, whether it was new-to-me (an old film I watched on Netflix or rented), or a brand-new film I saw in theaters. In a note on my phone, I write the film, the date I watched it, and where (mostly the platform – theater, Netflix, iTunes, etc). I also write a few thoughts for each film, either in the note or on my tumblr, the place I go for immediate reactions to whatever I’m watching. These are usually a sentence or two; just enough so I don’t forget my gut reaction to the work – the lines and characters and moments that caught me.

It’s been my goal all year to write something like this, elaborating on the experience of watching something new, and the exciting process of a movie going from just another thing I’m watching to something that seeps into my consciousness, that I think about and reference often. What follows is waaaay too much about the movies I saw for the first time in 2015 and the ways they impacted me. I saw more movies than I wrote about here, but as I looked through the list, I realized these were the titles I couldn’t ignore. In some way, each of these films and/or the experience of watching them shaped my year and my love of the movies.

The Game-Changers:

The two films I saw for the first time in 2015 that, I would say, became my biggest obsessions, were ones I watched very early in the year. The earliest was Amadeus, which I watched on January 18.

My approach to finding new films to watch is simple – something sparks my interest, and I follow that path until I’m satisfied. I remember one evening near awards season, I decided to re-watch The Grand Budapest Hotel because it was getting a lot of love, and it had been eight months since I saw it in theaters.

I remember loving Jude Law’s character most from my first viewing – his writerly curiosity and the way it sets the whole film in motion. The second time around, I found myself intrigued by the old man whom Jude Law befriends during his stay – the old man, played by F. Murray Abraham. He brought charm and warmth to a few minutes on screen. When I searched his name, I was surprised and intrigued to find he was an Oscar winner, for his role as Salieri in Amadeus.

At that point, Amadeus was only a film referenced in a great 30 Rock joke (Liz is befuddled by some adult film titles: “I’m-a Do Us?” “It’s a pun on Amadeus, dummy!”) Because of the lowbrow context, I’d always assumed it was an un-serious, mediocre movie, or a boring historical epic. But no, it won Best Actor and Best Picture at the 1985 Oscars, and Ebert had named it to his Great Movies list. This was something to watch.

It’s three hours long, and I watched it in two halves the first time, but dang this movie got to me. I actually wrote about it earlier this year, on this blog, so I won’t launch into a whole other thing about it, but I truly love this film. It’s big and gaudy and colorful. You watch it and you can’t believe what the actors are getting away with. And even though there’s not one thing to dislike about F. Murray Abraham, Tom Hulce as Mozart might bring the best performance of the movie.

The second game-changer and, if we’re being real, the most impactful of the two: The Apartment. I watched this on a Sunday in February when I wasn’t feeling well. As I watched it, I could sense its greatness closing in on me. Every line, every scene, every smile, every action seemed perfect. As someone who harbors a dream of writing a screenplay one day, I’ve often thought since watching this, why even try? The best one has already been written.

Yet rather than wallow in knowing I’ll never write something as great, I choose to be thankful I live in a world where this movie exists. This is a classic old film, though it’s not even that old – it was released in 1960 and was the last real black-and-white Best Picture winner. It’s a movie of its time, but its wisdom reaches beyond that.

The core of its greatness is Jack Lemmon and his performance as C.C. Baxter, owner of the titular apartment. It’s the way he moves – the way he plays having a cold as he navigates a five-way call with all the bosses who want to use his apartment on a certain night. The way he dances, drunk, with the woman he picks up at the bar on Christmas Eve. The way he makes spaghetti and strains it with a tennis racket. Yes, he’s performing, but you see his character as a real person with real sadness and concealed needs.

The unsung hero of this film is, to me, Dr. Dreyfuss, Jack Lemmon’s neighbor, who isn’t wise to Baxter’s scheme and thinks his neighbor is bringing new women home every single night. After he revives Miss Kubelik following her suicide attempt, he gives Baxter the advice that eventually inspires him to quit his fancy job – “Why don’t you grow up, Baxter? Be a mensch! You know what that is? A mensch, a human being!” My favorite line of his, though, comes as he reprimands Baxter for his playboy behavior (right after “cooling off” his coffee with some liquor). He summarizes what he thinks is Baxter’s life philosophy: “Live now, pay later! Diner’s Club!”

Shirley MacLaine brings so much honesty to Miss Kubelik, too. The film forces her and Baxter to go through so much pain in order to find each other, and at the end you’re smiling because two broken people realize they’re better together than apart. If you’ve never seen it, watch and prepare yourself for the feeling of not being able to understand how a film can be so joyous.

Shoot, is anyone still reading this? Nothing else will take as long as Amadeus and The Apartment, I promise. On to the rest of them…

Frances Ha 

I wrote a few months ago about a trio of Greta Gerwig-Noah Baumbach movies that had a big impact on me. That’s all here, and the piece is still an accurate explanation of my feelings. Frances Ha and Mistress America especially were powerful films for me. Never had two films spoken so clearly to my place in life in the moment I watched them, and any young person in New York will identify strongly with them – I think with Frances Ha especially. Now, every time I’m restless about where I am in life, I watch the scene where Frances goes to Paris on a whim:

And whenever I’m making unpleasant small talk, I think of this:

This is my movie, and I’m so glad I found it this year.

Hannah and Her Sisters

It might be a little unfair to add Hannah and Her Sisters to the list because I just watched it, but I don’t think my love for it is tied only to its being fresh in my mind. This movie showed me myself and my family and my New York problems, and it gave me one of my new favorite characters – Holly, the sister played by Dianne Wiest (she and Frances Ha are cut from the same cloth).

I found Hannah and Her Sisters when I was looking at Michael Caine’s IMDb page a few weeks ago – you know, as one does. He was in a Woody Allen movie?! Won an Oscar for it?! I had no idea. I felt that compulsion to watch it right now, like this film was calling my name and I had to see what it wanted to tell me. It took me a week to finally sit down with it, but when I did, I just knew it was for me. Mia Farrow was phenomenal in it, and Dianne Wiest and Michael Caine were obviously Oscar-worthy. I liked Woody Allen’s performance, too.

Every so often a character comes around who I just want to be. I want to mold myself after them, and I try to pick up their lines and their style. Holly was one of those for me. She made me want to wear huge coats and chunky bracelets and try to be an actress. While her sisters’ paths seem somewhat defined, Holly is floating, not knowing whether to be an actress or a caterer or a writer. Anyone who is trying to figure herself out can identify with Holly’s lines. “Why must I let my insecurities spoil everything?” She asks. Or when, on a date with Woody, he criticizes her taste in music compared with her sisters: “I-I’m my own person.”

Paper Moon

This is Peter Bogdanovich’s film from 1973 that won Tatum O’Neal her Oscar. It’s a fun film to watch, and I recommend, but it was mostly notable in my 2015 list for the circumstances surrounding my decision to watch. I was listening to Marc Maron’s WTF interview with Peter Bogdanovich. It’s a wonderful discussion – old movies, theater, New York, actors, actresses, love, drama…total magic. I’ve gone back and re-listened to several parts of it since. I can’t get enough of Bogdanovich’s storytelling and his demeanor. I decided as I was listening the first time that I’d watch Paper Moon that evening. A gem of a film. And I just loved that I had gone from not really knowing anything about Peter Bogdanovich to enjoying one of his films in the span of a couple hours.

Love and Mercy 

Of the actors in films and shows I’ve seen this year, no one deserves a nomination for anything this year as much as Paul Dano deserves his Golden Globe nom for Love and Mercy. That movie was fantastic, and he was the best part of it, central to the movie’s success.

One thing I should get better at when it comes to movie note-taking is logging specific scenes and moments I really love. I do that a lot, actually, but I never put it all in one place; it would be helpful to have a year-end list of the moments when I smiled out of sheer joy during a film. I did note one of these from Love and Mercy though, and I think about it often: There’s a scene where Paul Dano, as Brian Wilson, is in the studio with session musicians, while the rest of the Beach Boys are on tour. I want to say the song playing is Here Today, but I could be wrong. Anyway, he’s just in the studio, making music, tweaking strings to find new sounds, directing his players in a joyous musical effort, and it was one of my favorite scenes from the year.

And a few I don’t have as much to say about, but still found notable:

Sense and Sensibility – I watched this with my roommates on that January day when NYC was supposed to have a blizzard It wasn’t at the top of my viewing list but it had a romantic quality that made me just love it. Emma Thompson, people! And, is anyone more a delight than Alan Rickman?

Junebug – Amy Adams is probably my favorite actress, and this was her breakout film. I’m not sure what possessed me to watch this one weekend in the spring, but I’m so glad I did. Its lead performances are all pitch-perfect: Amy Adams as a small-town pregnant wife who is forced to confront the ultimate tragedy; Scott Wilson as her gentle, soft-spoken father-in-law; Alessandro Nivola as her brother-in-law, who left town but hasn’t let go; and Embeth Davidtz as his wife, a Chicago art dealer. This scene, from near the end of the film, has stayed with me all year. The acting and tone capture so much.

My First Mister – On Leonard Maltin’s movie podcast one day in the spring, his daughter talked about this movie being a meaningful one in her youth. I’d never even heard of it, but it stars Albert Brooks, and if I hear Albert Brooks is in something, I rush to see it. This is a two-hour film and I didn’t like where the last hour went, but the first hour is so damn wonderful that it doesn’t really matter. This had shades of Lost in Translation, but with completely different characters and situations; it’s two lost souls finding each other and becoming friends. Albert Brooks and Leelee Sobieski are both great in it.

The Last Five Years – I wrote a little here about The Last Five Years when I watched it in February. This movie is worth it for the music alone, but add in a smashing turn from Anna Kendrick, and you’re really on to something. She’s heavenly. But really, that score. Ugh. It’s hard to convey the gorgeousness with words.

Sabrina – 1954 and 1995 versions – Though in pretty much every circumstance, I’ll go for the classic/original, I’ll admit I enjoyed the 90s remake of Sabrina more than its black-and-white counterpart. Harrison Ford. Greg Kinnear. I do not need to say any more.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl – Describing this is the opposite of describing Hannah and Her Sisters; it may have been so long since I’ve seen this that I forgot just how much I loved it during my first viewing. My notes from May indicated I loved it, but I haven’t spent a ton of time thinking about it since. Some of those notes: “I loved all the fake movie titles, like Senior Citizen Kane and 2:48pm Cowboy.” “In the hospital waiting room, when Rachel is trying to get Greg to apply for college, I loved the way Olivia Cooke pushed her laptop over to him and said, ‘Apply now, apply right in front of me.’” “This is exactly the type of honest, believable, smart, funny, easy-to-watch film I want to make someday.” I’d like to watch this again sometime soon.

High Fidelity – John Cusack is one of those actors who just gets me, every time. I’m always happy to see him, in a way that his presence notably elevates my movie-viewing experience (he was also excellent in Love and Mercy). High Fidelity was fun and funny, and a movie about how real people live and talk and feel. Cusack’s character delivers a line that is basically my life philosophy: “Books, records, movies, these things matter. Call me shallow, it’s the f’ing truth.”

Amy – I would definitely have considered myself an Amy Winehouse fan before I saw this film, but Amy refreshed and deepened my understanding of her story and of her tragedy. Don’t watch this if you want to be cheered up, but if you can hang in there, you’ll see the highs and lows in the life of a brilliant personality, and walk away saddened about the state of our celebrity culture and the environment that led to Amy Winehouse’s destruction. A most devastating story, well-told.

There it is. Movies treated me well in 2015, and I’m excited to see what my 2016 viewing list ends up looking like. One of my goals is to watch (re-watch or for the first time) many of the “classics” and key films in each genre; I need to get better at watching those films considered great, even if they fall into categories I wouldn’t normally touch – science fiction, horror, etc. Each new film is an opportunity to expand my universe. Whether it opens me to new actors, directors, film techniques, stories, quotes – something will change. All the films mentioned above changed me in some way in 2015. We’ll see what’s next.

Movie Appreciation: Amadeus

I guess I’m kind of revealing my own personal Internet secret here, but for over two years now, I’ve had a tumblr that I use expressly for my pop culture obsessions. It started as a home for pictures of New York and the Beatles but morphed into something more when I started caring about movies. I didn’t want to put my name on it and a 49ers game was on TV when I decided to make it, so I threw “harbaugh” in the username, and added 71 because 7/1 is my birthday.

The posts are mostly expressions of whatever’s in my head, an overflow of the moments and quotes and scenes that fill my mind. Looking at the first page of my tumblr this morning, I thought the three most recent posts were an especially good representation of three movies that have lately had an affect on me: Silver Linings Playbook (I’m pretty much always watching that movie but I went to Philadelphia yesterday and had it playing in my mind all day), Amadeus, and Some Like it Hot. And because it’s Sunday and I want nothing more than to sit on my bed with a cup of coffee and write while looking out my window across a sunny New York City, I’m just going to start writing appreciations of those three movies. First, Amadeus.

Amadeus floated to the top of my mind because it was just added to Netflix. When I wanted to watch it for the first time a couple months ago, I ended up buying it on iTunes because, to my knowledge, it wasn’t streamable or rentable. But somehow watching a movie on Netflix seems easier and more accessible than watching a movie I already own.

It quickly became one of those easy-to-watch movies for me, where you just know and love it so well that you can pick up at any place, have it on in the background while doing other stuff and not miss anything (actually, Silver Linings Playbook and Some Like it Hot are like that for me, too, which is probably why I feel the urge to write about them).

I started retracing my steps to remember how I decided to watch it in the first place. It started in January, when I re-watched The Grand Budapest Hotel in preparation for awards season. I like that movie a lot, and who doesn’t love Ralph Fiennes, but the whole beginning part, set in the 60s with Jude Law as the young author, is my favorite part. And I’d forgotten that the whole movie is basically presented as a story told by F. Murray Abraham’s character.

He doesn’t have much screen time, but there was something I liked about Abraham in the film, so I went down my usual Google/IMDb rabbit trail and found that he had won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1985 for his performance in Amadeus. At that point, the only way I knew about Amadeus was from a 30 Rock joke – when Tracy briefly lives with Liz and she gets mad at him for charging pay-per-view adult movies to her cable bill, she asks about a movie called “I’ma Do Us” and Tracy replies, “It’s a pun on Amadeus, dummy!” I knew that was a movie and I guess I assumed it was about Mozart, but truly – that was the only way Amadeus ever entered my consciousness before a couple months ago.

[SIDE NOTE: I just Googled “30 Rock Amadeus” to confirm that line, and learned there is AN ENTIRE AMADEUS SUBPLOT in the episode “Succession,” from season 2. So of course I just sat here and watched the whole episode. Fitting for a Tracy and Frank storyline, it again involves adult films, with Tracy as Mozart and Frank as Salieri as they attempt to create a pornographic video game. I’d never watched that episode with the context of Amadeus, so obviously the parody was completely lost on me until now. Just another layer of that show’s brilliance.]

Where was I? Oh, the actual movie. I watched it after learning F. Murray Abraham won an Oscar for his performance, and I loved it right away. It was totally different from what I expected, and totally unlike anything else I’d seen. I assumed it was a boring biography movie. I wasn’t expecting Mozart to be portrayed as a disruptive, punk-ish revolutionary who wore pink wigs and had a ridiculous laugh.

But that’s what I love about it. In this movie, Mozart is the Beatles, basically. No one knows what to do with him, or how to accept this totally revolutionary force. He doesn’t act like anyone else and he doesn’t make music like anyone else. He is completely original and effortlessly brilliant.(Roger Ebert named this to his “Great Movies” list, and the Jordan-to-Barkley, Kennedy-to-Nixon comparisons he makes with Mozart and Salieri really helped me understand Mozart’s creative power.)

I think this scene, from early in the film, is a perfect illustration:

 

I didn’t really think much of it in my first viewing, but I’ve been watching pieces on Netflix over the last couple days and am now head-over-heels in love with the colorful wigs. Mozart’s, of course:

mozart pink wig

But also Constanze, his wife, who – and maybe it’s just the way it looks with her outfit – wears a colorful look of her own.

Screen Shot 2015-03-29 at 2.04.54 PM

F. Murray Abraham won the Oscar, and I wholeheartedly think he deserved it, but Tom Hulce was nominated as Mozart, and his performance is probably my favorite of the two. Well, actually, it’s probably more that Mozart is my favorite character. They’re both insane performances. Watching Amadeus is probably the first time I’d consciously realized that the film was great because the performances were great. With any other actors, it would have been different, and…less great.

At the height of my obsession with the film, I watched a feature called “The Making of Amadeus.” Typical DVD bonus stuff, like behind-the-scenes photos, interviews with Milos Forman, the actors, etc. The most interesting part is the discussion of casting, especially when Forman talks about casting the smaller roles, and how it was important for all those actors to be distinct. He said it drove him crazy when you couldn’t tell minor characters apart in a film. I totally agree. (Other best part of that feature: Forman talking about his decision to shoot in Prague, saying it was perfect because the city still looked exactly the way it did in Mozart’s time thanks to “communist inefficiency.”)

One other major thing I love about this movie is how the characters speak in totally modern, Americanized English, using contractions and phrases like “they shit marble.” Of course they didn’t actually speak like that, but who cares? It’s the best way to convey the essence of the characters and their time.

There are a million other aspects to this movie I adore, but a lot of them are subtleties in performance that are hard to put into words. It should also go without saying that the music is fantastic, too. The whole thing is big, colorful, perfectly acted, and a pure joy to watch.