Movie Meditations from a TIFF Newbie

The moment I caught “festival fever” at the Toronto International Film Festival last weekend came Saturday at 8:00pm. My boyfriend and I darted out of a 6:00 showing of I, Tonya to start a 15-minute sprint through downtown to line up for an 8:45 screening of Lady Bird, my most anticipated movie of the festival. We knew we were cutting it close; we’d make it by 8:45, but with first-come, first-served seating, we weren’t setting ourselves up for the best seat in the house.

Of course, I anticipated a line. We’d been queued up for I, Tonya, but were only waiting at the corner of the block the theater was on. We stood in a long line earlier in the day for Downsizing, but had reserved seats that time. When we arrived at the Elgin Theatre for Lady Bird, we had our first taste of the true magnitude of the festival. The line stretched up a block, then over a couple more, then up again. Festival volunteers stood in crosswalks to ensure safe everyone’s safe passage.

That’s when the magic sunk in. This line might go on forever. But it’s filled entirely with people who love movies. People who think it’s kind of amazing to be among the first to see Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut. People who probably think about Frances Ha as many times a day as I do. People who care whether Laurie Metcalf might get an Oscar nomination for this movie. And we’re all right here, under city lights, experiencing it together.

Lady Bird may not have ended up being my favorite film from the weekend (though I still loved it), but running through downtown Toronto, chasing down the end of the line, will be the memory that encapsulates this TIFF experience.

The TIFF experience began on something of a whim, when the lineup was released in late July and I saw lots of films on the schedule that I’d already heard some buzz about. I knew nothing about the logistics of attending the festival or how accessible it was for the everyday viewer, but did a little Googling and discovered the festival offered a back-half package which allowed you to see any six films in the final days of the festival for $100 Canadian dollars ($85 U.S.!). That ended up being the perfect option. The first weekend, I figured, would be more crowded and more expensive; going later also fit more comfortably with my work schedule this time of year.

It was surprisingly easy to talk Timmy into going with me (this also perfectly coincided with his discovery of the Letterboxd app, which has turned him into quite the movie fan), so we found an Airbnb that seemed close to the action and bit the bullet. A friend’s roommate also tipped us off to Porter airlines, which flies smaller planes from Newark to Billy Bishop Airport, which exists on an island that’s just minutes from Toronto’s downtown. The novelty (and convenience) factor of this urban airport has not worn off for me. And Porter has a really cute raccoon logo.

Back to the movies.

Our window for selecting movies came at the end of August. We decided to select four in advance, meaning we left two of our tickets as “vouchers” that we could exchange for tickets once we got to Toronto – allowing us a little wiggle room with our schedule, and the chance to capitalize on any last-minute screenings that might be added.

We pre-selected Downsizing, the new Alexander Payne movie starring Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig; I, Tonya, the Tonya Harding biopic with Margot Robbie in the title role; Lady Bird, directed by Greta Gerwig and starring Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, and many others who will pop up on screen and make you go “oh yeah, I love him/her”; and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Martin McDonagh’s new film starring Frances McDormand.

Saturday morning, upon the recommendation of a local podcaster we struck up conversation with, we added Sheikh Jackson, directed by Amr Salama and just recently named Egypt’s official submission for the Oscars’ Best Foreign Language Film category. So we ended up seeing five of our possible six films, and gifted our vouchers to a couple guys sitting near us at our Saturday screenings, hoping they could use them Sunday.

Though I enjoyed some of our selections more than others, I can honestly say we did not see one bad film. All five of them were entertaining in their own ways, and I’d recommend all of them to any adventurous moviegoer.

I’ll leave the full reviews to the real critics, but I certainly walked away with impressions. I, Tonya wins my award for most engaging – not to say I was bored by the other movies, but that one had me locked in the whole time. Part of that was its being set in my hometown of Portland, Oregon (I never expected to hear the words “Clackamas County” spoken in a TIFF movie), and Tonya Harding having been something of a local figure throughout my childhood. So there was a base layer of familiarity. But more than that, it was Margot Robbie. Her performance was committed and captivating. I could never tell if I was rooting for or against Tonya Harding, which says to me that Robbie made her a real person – sympathetic in one moment, exasperating in the next, complicated all the time. She really shone in the skating competition sequences. The shot of Tonya as she lands the triple axel jump, her arms open wide in victory and adrenaline, was gorgeous. I’d pay to see the movie in theaters just to watch that again.

I’ve been more down on Lady Bird as the days have gone on, but that’s unfair of me. I wanted it to be the next Frances Ha or Mistress America – movies that resonated with me deeply and that reflect life as a young adult in New York so beautifully. But Lady Bird isn’t about an adult in New York; it’s about a high school senior in Sacramento. And it tells an equally beautiful story about how complicated family relationships can be. I also thought it did a great job of capturing the specific weirdness of “senior year,” knowing it’s the last few months under your parents’ roof, in your own room, and among faces you’ve known your whole life.

The more I’ve thought about the movie, something I think it captured perfectly was the way family members don’t (or can’t, or don’t want to) address issues with each other head-on. In order to figure out her mom, Ronan’s character goes through her dad (Metcalf and Letts were aces as her parents). It’s her brother who has to tell her that mom’s disappointed she chose to go to her boyfriend’s house for Thanksgiving. I didn’t pick up on that as I watched the film, but that dynamic added a layer of truth and believability to the portrayal of a middle-class American family.

While the mother-daughter relationship in Lady Bird resonated with me, Timmy connected with the father-son dynamic in Sheikh Jackson, which focused heavily on an Egyptian imam’s trying relationship with his dad during his teenage years (told largely through flashbacks). We starting drawing these connections on Sunday afternoon, when we walked through Toronto’s downtown entertainment district to Lake Ontario, between the Sheik Jackson and Three Billboards showings. Having that space to reflect on the films, to talk through more than just our snap judgments, was something I loved about our TIFF experience. At home, it’s easy to see a movie just for something to do, or we see one and rush off to dinner afterwards. Movies were our primary reason for being in Toronto in the first place, so we enjoyed being able to discuss each one in-depth, and view them all in light of each other.

Just a couple hours before we saw Three Billboards, it was named the winner of the festival’s People’s Choice Award. Eight of the last nine winners have gone on to be Best Picture nominees at the Oscars, and I predict this one will make it nine out of ten. It tells such a compelling, original story, and is chock-full of indelible performance. Frances McDormand stars in a role that echoes – but doesn’t imitate – Marge Gunderson from Fargo; Sam Rockwell deserves an Oscar nomination for his part as a cop who squares off with McDormand; and Peter Dinklage, though I think his role is too small for major awards consideration, delivered a line that had me (and the entire theater) howling and that still makes me smile while thinking about it a week later.

I loved Three Billboards because it’s one of those movies that keeps getting better as it goes on. At the beginning, you’re intrigued. As it progresses, it still holds your attention. And then somewhere in the middle, you realize. Oh, this is great. These are completely new characters in a completely new story, I’m invested in everyone’s fate, and the plot makes sense but I can’t tell where it’s going. I think this one will get a lot of attention in its wide release.

TIFF was a unique experience and one I hope to repeat next year and in years to come. It reminded me why I love movies – and why so many thousands of others love them, too. And since TIFF unofficially marks the beginning of fall moviegoing and awards season, I’m ready to catch up on the buzzy films I missed at the festival and start seeing the movies we’ll be talking about for the next five months during the Oscar race. There’s so much to be seen, and I can’t wait to start.

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“Brooklyn” and Reinvention

In keeping with my previously stated goal of keeping better track of all that inspires me in 2016, I’m sitting here to meditate on a beautiful piece of writing I encountered today: “Bronx, Brooklyn, Broadway: Saoirse Ronan’s New York,” by Colm Tóibín, who also authored Brooklyn, the novel upon which the Ronan-starring film is based. The piece is the cover story for the current issue of New York magazine, its annual spring fashion issue. I love Saoirse Ronan, but it wasn’t her as the subject that made me love this; it was Tóibín’s turns of phrase, his perfect articulation of what it’s like to reinvent yourself, and his understanding of why you’d want to in the first place.

One of my favorite elements of the movie Brooklyn, which I saw a couple weekends ago, was that it understood homesickness in a very real way. I have not moved between countries, but I moved from Oregon to New York at a key transitional point in life – right after I graduated from college and entered the quote-unquote real world – and I identified so strongly with Ronan’s character, Eilis, as she left Ireland for Brooklyn and began a new life. I have cried like Eilis cried in the movie, felt the same hopelessness and wondered why I ever did this. But I’ve also made friends, started a career and built a life in this new place, and felt with unshakeable certainty that this is where I am meant to exist right now.

In the article, Tóibín describes Ronan (in comparison with her Brooklyn character) “as someone familiar with rural Ireland who was also intensely glamorous and ready to be transformed.” That phrase “ready to be transformed” leapt out at me. My transformation has been less a physical transformation than one of attitude, one of thought. I have changed since moving to New York in ways I did not expect, but the more I thought about Tóibín’s words, the more they rang true. The expectation of some kind of transformation was inherent in my longstanding desire to move to New York.

The strangest parts of being home are those subtle moments when I realize how much I’ve changed. I’ll notice moments when I say something, or react to a comment, or take an action that makes so much perfect sense to me now, that I only realize later how out-of-character that would have been for the pre-New York me.

I left the theater after Brooklyn concentrated on one shot: Eilis, briefly back in Ireland following a family tragedy, running errands around her sleepy town in a bright dress and sunglasses. It embodied the transformation she’d undergone in Brooklyn; not just that she now wore sunglasses, but that it was only natural for her to wear them in public, even in rural Ireland.

saoirse ronan brooklyn sunglasses

I’ve thought about that shot for days. In the context of the film, it says more about homesickness and reinvention than I ever could with words, and I grinned when I got to the end of Tóibín’s New York magazine story and saw he referenced it:

Sometimes she tries to fit in, to pretend that she has not changed at all and that being away is no big deal; other times she flaunts her new self. There is one moment when she walks through the small Irish town wearing sunglasses and a brightly colored dress when she seems like a returned Yank…ready to gather the poor natives around her to show them the style she has acquired.

I’m still working on the literal style part of my transformation (I do think I dress better than I did in college, though when I made this observation to some friends I visited at home over Christmas, I realized I was wearing a plaid Gap button-down technically made for men) but in the broader sense, this is exactly what I experience any time I’m home, or when I’m in New York and stop to think about how I am different because of this city.

The Tóibín piece can be enjoyed apart from deep reflection on self-reinvention, though. His turns of phrase alone are a joy to read. A few of my favorite parts:

On observing people like a childhood neighbor in Ireland, who emigrated to America but would come back to visit: “They had white teeth and good suntans. They thought life was short.”

On the specific childhood neighbor, compared with her sister who moved from Ireland to England: “The American sister, on the other hand, was all glitter and fascinating talk.”

On the realization Irish immigrants to America had when fully understanding their freedom in the new country – no family members to bump into on the street, etc.: “You could invent yourself here, even if the term self-invention was not yet understood by you.”

On Saoirse Ronan in this moment: “She has come home to a place that is neither Brooklyn nor Ireland but rather a place that she herself has imagined and embodies.”

And more on Saoirse: “She invites envy, she lives in light, she loves glamour, but she also moves easily into the shadows.”

Read the whole thing yourself, and enjoy. And see Brooklyn while you’re at it.

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.

Multi-Movie Weekend – Magnolia, Hard Eight, and Secret Honor

Thanks to a vicious head cold, I left work early on Friday and spent the next, say, 53 hours on my couch or on my bed, consuming a steady diet of chicken broth, television, Sudafed, and movies. The movies were especially enjoyable; I watched three, all connected in a way, and they gave me my first taste of Paul Thomas Anderson films.

Early this summer, I listened to Marc Maron’s WTF interview with Anderson, which was released in January of this year when he was promoting Inherent Vice. At the time I was intrigued by Inherent Vice (still haven’t seen it) and as far as Anderson’s works go, had only seen part of The Master. But the interview was fascinating. Anderson seemed cool, smart, and thoughtful, and was really open about his movies, his process and his inspirations.

My first Anderson movie of the weekend was Magnolia. I wish I could remember the first time I heard of Magnolia but I can’t; I’m guessing it was on Jason Robards’ Wikipedia page. I remember thinking, though, that I had never even heard of this movie, yet Ebert named it to his “Great Movies” list, and it featured tons of actors I love, and it was Robards’ last film. Those all felt like reasons to see it someday.

I can’t say I am putting it on my personal Top 10, but there was something about Magnolia I really appreciated. It was different from any movie I’ve ever seen, and it was a story told honestly. The characters – and in turn, the performances – are great. It’s interesting to watch with hindsight and know it was Robards’ final role. Honestly, I probably need to process it more before I make any serious judgments or interpretations, but I at least like knowing that I have finally seen this film.

One of the great performances in Magnolia is by Philip Baker Hall, and he inspired my next movie choice: Anderson’s first feature, Hard Eight. Hall stars in it. In his first scene in Magnolia, I wasn’t sure who he was, but his voice instantly caught me. He has a great voice; fitting for his character, who’s a TV game show host. I searched his name and remembered Anderson talking about him in the Maron podcast. He knew after seeing him in Secret Honor (spoiler alert: the third movie I watched this weekend) that he loved him as an actor and wanted to write something for him.

Like Magnolia, this one is all about the characters. Sydney, Hall’s character, is magnetic. You wonder about him, and root for him, and love listening to him talk. I think he’s especially great in scenes opposite Gwyneth Paltrow, who’s fantastic in this movie as a waitress at a casino Sydney frequents.

Hard Eight contained a whole bunch of elements I am prone to love – fabulous characters and performances, a plot that is about something but the movie’s not really about that, lights (the fact that I love cool use of lights in movies actually dawned on me during this film; like Michael Keaton walking into the liquor store in Birdman, and The Big Lebowski‘s bowling alley stars – in Hard Eight I loved the glimmer of slot machines), and music that fit perfectly. And, the dialogue – John C. Reilly especially had some lines that made his character clear to me. “I know three types of karate, ok? Jiu-jitsu, Akido, and regular karate.”

And the last movie, Secret Honor. It’s a Robert Altman movie from 1984, with Philip Baker Hall in a solo performance as Richard Nixon. I mean, come on! It’s the movie Anderson mentioned as one in which he saw Hall and knew he was for him. He had to make something for him, and he wrote the Sydney character in Hard Eight specifically with him in mind.

Secret Honor is Hall, as Nixon, walking around his study, drinking scotch, ranting about everything from JFK to Kissinger to his mother. It’s wacky. Hall gives an incredible performance, and not just because he carries a 90-minute one man show and keeps it interesting the whole time. From what I’ve read about Nixon, he gets the mannerisms down perfectly; one moment early on, he pours a glass of scotch, but starts walking off with the bottle instead of the glass, absentmindedly. That’s one small example, but it showed he knew the character.

Perhaps my favorite part of the film – or rather, the overarching reason I found it so fascinating – was a screen before the title, a disclaimer of sorts, explaining the film did not depict an actual scene from Nixon’s life, but was “a work of fiction, using as a fictional character a real person, President Richard M. Nixon – in an attempt to understand.” The film doesn’t spare Nixon, exactly, but it comes from a sympathetic place. Altman and the writers didn’t make anything up in an attempt to indict Nixon; they just wanted to understand him better, and this film and this performance seem an appropriate way to do so.

MagnoliaHard Eight, and Secret Honor – I recommend them all. And hope you watch them in good health.

My September of Gerwig-Baumbach Movies

I have found a new spirit animal, and it is Greta Gerwig from this scene in Greenberg, the first of a trio of Gerwig-Noah Baumbach (all starring and sometimes co-written by her, and all directed by him) movies I have seen and loved in the month of September:

Because who among us has not danced and sung along to a Wings song while alone in her apartment.

Actually, the circumstances surrounding the Admiral Halsey dance are a little melancholy, and of the three films I’m thinking of (the other two being Mistress America and Frances Ha), Gerwig’s character in Greenberg is the one I saw the least of myself in. And yet, the film as a whole still fascinates me. All three of these films seem to have met me in perfect timing over the past few weeks.

I saw Mistress America first of the three, at the picture-perfect Lincoln Plaza Cinema on the Upper West Side. I remember first seeing a preview for it when I saw Love and Mercy in June, and at the time I remember enjoying a couple of the lines and realizing, oh, that’s Greta Gerwig, the girl from Frances Ha and the forgotten How I Met Your Mother spin-off. Frances Ha came less than a week later. It was Sunday of Labor Day.

Together, those movies represented my current life phase better than any movies ever had. Never had two films spoken so articulately to the phase in which I found myself at the time of viewing them – Mistress America in a broad sense, and Frances Ha more in the specifics.

Since I saw Mistress America in theaters, I haven’t been able to go back and recall the exact wording of several lines that made my eyes widen in recognition. I’m stuck with the lines I typed furiously in a note on my phone as I left the theater, and with what I’ve been able to dig up from tumblr and trailers. But the overall feeling, of being a young person trying to figure it out in New York, resonated to my core. Gerwig’s character, Brooke, has a line (maybe several and I’m only remembering it as one) about how she loves so much, but none of what she loves or seems to be good at is something that the world, at least from a work perspective, finds valuable. I also identified with the characters of Tracy and Tony, two college freshmen, who realize they’re kind of the worst right now and just want to grow up, fit in, and be good at something.

And Brooke’s New York is the New York I think a lot of people glimpse and have in the back of their mind every time they dream of moving here. She lives in Times Square and gets by purely on her commitment to her artsy ideas. There’s a shot of Brooke and Tracy in the middle of Times Square one morning, parting for the day as any friends might outside an apartment building, and that image is stuck in my mind because it’s exactly how I first envisioned living here. Even the mundane things, like heading out for a morning gym class, happen against the big, bright backdrop of the city. As Brooke, and everyone else in New York eventually learns, this does not retain its glamour.

I’m making it sound like Mistress America drove me to an existential criss, but much of the film is great just because it’s enjoyable. Lines like, “If you live in suburbia, you really have to love your house,” (said by Tracy) simply made me laugh because that’s an idea that has crossed my mind as I’ve schlepped stuff from one apartment to the next in New York City. (In The New Yorker, Richard Brody wrote, “While watching the film, I wanted to transcribe the dialogue in real time for the pleasure of reading it afterward.”)

A few days after seeing Mistress America, I decided to watch Frances Ha. I’d been meaning to watch it for months, since I knew it had been well-received, and I’d heard rave reviews from a movie-loving friend. Mistress America made me even more willing to dive in.

If I’m judging a movie based on how well it delivers what I most want out of a film, Frances Ha is as perfect as they come. Shot in black-and-white, set in New York City, insanely well-cast, highlighting people who are a little bit aimless…it’s all there.

It’s almost hard to find words for how well this movie depicts New York life in a specific way. I didn’t have quite the same ahhhh what am I even doing here?  feelings as I did with Mistress America, but had more moments of, oh, yes, I have experienced exactly that crappy or amazing thing while living in this city. Like waiting an eternity on the subway platform before realizing that line isn’t running this weekend. Or having your eyes bug out with excitement the instant you realize your tax rebate has come.

Greta Gerwig is from Sacramento, and the movie features a whole montage depicting Frances’ trip home for Christmas (her real-life parents play Frances’ parents). I have never seen the spirit of a holiday trip home from New York City shown in such a lovely way on film. Joy, family, fun, Christmas decorations, walks around the neighborhood, twinges of melancholy. I’m finding I want to end every sentence I write about this film with sigh, it’s perfect.

In the past year (and some change) in which I would say I’ve become legitimately interested in film, I’ve basically just followed movies from one to the next, going after whatever directors or actors or styles hold my obsession that moment. I can’t even remember why I first stumbled upon Greenberg, but something in my movie knowledge quest led me to it on Netflix awhile ago. I didn’t actually watch it until last week, completing my September Gerwig-Baumbach trifecta. This is actually the oldest of the three films I watched, and the only one set in Los Angeles. What I loved about it was less about how it connected to me – since I noticed fewer similarities between its characters and myself – and more about the movie as a whole and its specific performances. Like the aforementioned dancing to Admiral Halsey.

There’s an underlying uncomfortableness to it since Greenberg, Ben Stiller’s character, is so unpleasant. Even Greta Gerwig’s Florence has her difficult moments. But there’s a scene where she and Greenberg are talking in her apartment, and she’s describing a time she and her friend went out and pretended to be slutty girls at a bar, and Greta Gerwig in that scene just blew me away. (I came across this piece in the New York Times by A.O. Scott, written at the time of Greenberg‘s release, which eloquently describes the scene and the heart of Gerwig’s greatness in it.) It’s not that I didn’t appreciate Gerwig’s acting in the other two films, but in this one, it’s just more apparent, or at least it’s the element that most resonated with me.

It’s the end of September now, but not the end of my quest to see more of the Gerwig-Baumbach catalogue. I’ll have to shift to movies they did separately; I’m most excited to watch earlier Gerwig performances, and Baumbach’s While We’re Young (bonus points for even more Wings music in the trailer). But these three they did together have been added to heavy rotation in my movie world.

When Life Gives You Lemmon

Whenever I’m not feeling well, I have this compulsion to watch old movies. I don’t know what it is. An expected level of comfort, of relatively uncomplicated plot? The idea that something might remind me of a happier time? I can’t diagnose it. But I know I felt pretty awful on Sunday, so I watched an old movie.

Said movie was The Apartment, Billy Wilder’s 1960 film. I don’t know why I chose that title specifically for my sick-day viewing, but I’d scrolled through it on Netflix so many times and always said, “oh, I’ll get around to it.” Sick days are made for watching the stuff you never otherwise get around to.

I absolutely loved every second of The Apartment, and it was pretty much all because of Jack Lemmon’s performance. It was a sight to behold.

When I think about why I love the movies I love, I gravitate toward a film’s overarching theme, or a certain funny scene, or a quirky character, or the way a movie channels history. I’m trying to get better at appreciating performances – recognizing when an actor is just going for it, and it is not the character I love but what the character is because of the performer.

Does that even make sense? Well, it’s all I could think of when watching Lemmon play C.C. Baxter. I loved his physical comedy, not just the way he moved about a space, but his facial expressions, too, and quick gestures. And I loved the way he played Baxter’s sweeter, softer side. That it never came on too strong, but was always a believable part of his whole character.

Actually, I loved that about Shirley MacLaine’s performance, too. Sometimes with older movies, it’s hard for me to buy the way characters turn on a dime to realize this person they despise or simply tolerate is actually the person they love. With Kubelik and Baxter, I totally believed it. I’d seen them weather enough together and apart to believe their story could happen.

Watching The Apartment made me realize how long I’ve now been cheated out of appreciating Jack Lemmon. I think I have a pretty solid knowledge of old Hollywood stars, but Lemmon actually falls outside the window of time inhabited by the ones I knew best, like Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant. If Jack Lemmon came up in conversation before Sunday, I could say, “Oh, yeah, I know who he is,” but I couldn’t have pointed to his photo.

But now I can, and I can’t wait to become well-acquainted with his work. Actually, when I reading about him after the movie, I realized that day – February 8 – would have been his birthday. I’m choosing to view that as a sign from the movie universe that I need to watch more of his stuff. And I will, once I’m recovered from my obsession with The Apartment.

Christmas Break Catch-All: Movies, Books, 2015.

Time acts in strange ways. Certain days can last forever, certain weekends are gone with the blink of an eye, certain months can feel like they never even happened. What always seems strangest is when time makes you feel as if you’ve lived whole lives between a point A and a point B, when in reality, that span of time only lasted two weeks.

That’s how I feel about this holiday break. I am lucky to have a job where things slow down around Christmas and the New Year, so I spent a week at home in Oregon and then spent a few days hanging out back in the city.

Before I forget them (though I’m kicking myself for not doing this even sooner because now the Oregon portion of my break seems like a long time ago), here are a few highlights from the holiday…aka a rundown of the books and movies and moments I most want to remember.

1. Me Before You

In my parents’ neighborhood, there’s a house with its own little library out front, where people can take and leave books as they please. I passed it while on a walk with my mom and sister, and I took Me Before You by Jojo Moyes, a book I’d pondered buying before but held off because I was in the middle of something else. I was pages away from finishing Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and this was early in my trip, so I figured I could polish off Moyes’ book in time to return it before going back to New York.

Maybe it sounds dumb, but this book became like a friend to me. I just wanted to spend time with it. Before this book, I’d read the first two Hunger Games books (sounds easy, I know, but fantasy/dystopian books are just not my cup of tea) and A People’s History of the United States, so in hindsight I realize I was probably just overjoyed to have a book I could breeze through. But it was more than just an easy read. It was a delight. Just about every night I was home, I’d stay up late and read it in the light of the Christmas tree.

I’ve had a serious crush on England for the last year and a half, so I loved opening it to find the prologue set in London and the rest in an English country town. All its characters were distinct and developed, and the central romance was sweet – obvious the whole time, but built to in a much more satisfying way than I could have anticipated. Even cynics like myself need a good love story every now and then.

2) New Movies

Since I had some time on my hands the last few days, I wanted to get a jump-start on watching some great new movies in 2015. Instead, I mostly ended up re-watching old favorites (more on that below), but I did watch two movies for the first time and quite enjoyed both: Pulp Fiction and Thank You for Smoking.

Sometimes I view movies as opportunities to understand more cultural references. It seems like I hear about Pulp Fiction a lot, so I thought I’d watch it to expand my pop-culture horizons. I think I need to watch it again and again to pick up on everything, but I love movies where you just get swept into it, where you’re not realizing it but an hour has gone by and you’ve just been enjoying the story. That’s kind of how I felt about Fargo, too. You’re not expecting it, but you’re sucked in.

And Thank You For Smoking. Jason Reitman’s Juno and Up in the Air are two of my favorite movies, but this was the first time I’d watched his debut feature. I don’t know if it’ll become one of my favorites like those other films, but I still thought it was great. Dripping with cynicism, urging its viewers to question everything, filled with the same quick, intelligent dialogue that made me love the other Reitman films.

And since awards season is right around the corner, I saw a few movies in theaters over the break, too: The Imitation Game, Into the Woods, and Whiplash (which was by far my favorite of the three).

3) Old Movies

I’ve taken the last couple days to catch up on random stuff in my life – unpacking, cleaning the kitchen, organizing storage drawers, etc. – and it’s hard to watch new movies while doing those tasks because I can’t devote my full attention to the film. So I re-watched some old favorites, most notably Good Night and Good Luck, LA Confidential (clearly there’s a David Strathairn thing going on) and Manhattan.

The first time I watched LA Confidential was on a bus back to NYC after visiting Boston for a weekend. And I liked it even then. But this time, I appreciated so much more. Like Kevin Spacey. How did I not recognize its true greatness in my first viewing? Spacey’s is my favorite in a movie filled with incredible performances.

Before I went out to celebrate New Year’s Eve, I turned on Woody Allen’s Manhattan. I first saw it almost two years ago but since then I think I have developed a better appreciation for films and a better understanding of what it is to live in New York. The beauty and intelligence of the opening sequence was apparently lost on me the first time, because I hardly remembered it. Now, I just want to sit and watch it on loop. It’s breathtaking.

Other lines I loved: Tracy joking about not knowing who Rita Hayworth was, then Isaac reprimanding her. “Of course I’m joking!” She says. “You think I’m unaware of any event pre-Paul McCartney.”

And Isaac describing Mary as “the winner of the Zelda Fitzgerald Emotional Maturity Award.”

4) 2015

It is now 2015, and I can’t say anything feels much different. Maybe that’s good, though. Maybe the years where it doesn’t feel like much will change or improve are the years when big things happen. Or maybe by saying it out loud, I’ve ruined any chance of that. There are 361 more days to find out.