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.

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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.

“The End of the Tour,” “Trainwreck,” and a great summer for movies

This summer movie season is on point. Last year, I don’t think I saw a movie in the theaters between June and October. In 2015, I can’t keep myself away. And what’s better – everything I’ve seen has been terrific. Two movies I saw this weekend, The End of the Tour and Trainwreck, were especially satisfying, and they both inspired a lot of thoughts, so I’m just going to lay it all out. (Plus, one of the resolutions I made for my 25th year, which began last month, was to write about every new movie I see in that year. This post is relegated to movies I’ve seen in theaters, but I do need to get around to some new-to-me films I’ve seen recently.)

I remember thinking “oh yeah, that makes perfect sense” when I first heard Jason Segel was playing David Foster Wallace in a movie. Because it does make sense. Segel is not a dead ringer for Wallace, but he’s pretty darn reminiscent of him. Especially with the bandana. I was stoked for this movie from the get-go.

My first experience with David Foster Wallace came in college, when I was assigned part of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again in a class on travel writing. I distinctly remember reading a couple pages and then skimming only as much as would get me through the class discussion. I’m not proud of that now, but the class at least put his name in my brain. Pastors at my church reference a passage from his 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech with some frequency (“Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship….”). Most recently, Vulture re-published a short story Wallace originally wrote for Playboy in 1988, in which he writes from the perspective of a middle-aged actress appearing on Late Night with David Letterman. I fell in love with the piece and reading it marked the start of a few-week span where I seemed to hear mention of Wallace everywhere I went. This was around the time I first saw a trailer for The End of the Tour, so I’ve been anticipating the movie for a couple of months now.

Primarily because of Segel’s performance, I cannot recommend this film highly enough. That is not to say it is only good because of Segel, but that his performance is the best element of the film. You watch it and think, oh, he can do *that.* Not just How I Met Your Mother. (Marc Maron interviewed Segel for one of his episodes last week, and I wouldn’t have anticipated the thoughtfulness he revealed in that conversation, either.) David Foster Wallace in the film is a lovable dude, someone you’d love to chat with about life, writing and the expectations you set for both. The only thing about the film that kind of disappointed me was I felt the truest or deepest, especially David Foster Wallace-y observations were already revealed in the trailers (“What’s so American about what I’m doing”-type stuff). But as I write this, I realize I probably didn’t need more of that from the movie, anyway. I needed to see him play with his dogs, or devour junk food en route to the Mall of America, or explain why he decided to go by “David Foster Wallce” instead of just Dave Wallace. And that’s what the movie gives you.

I might not recommend this movie to someone who’s never heard of David Foster Wallace, but for everyone with even a basic idea of who he was and what he wrote, I’d say go. The End of the Tour brought him to life for me. It made me want to have finished Infinite Jest by the time I see Jason Segel get his Oscar nomination.

So, The End of the Tour was Friday. Saturday was kind of an aimless day and my roommate and I thought we’d try our hand at the lottery for a couple of Broadway shows. We struck out there and with rush tickets, so we wound up seeing Trainwreck, Amy Schumer’s new movie. By virtue of appreciating Amy Schumer, knew I would like Trainwreck, but I wasn’t sure if I would just like that it existed, or if I’d legitimately like the movie. I’m happy to report my feelings definitely fall in the latter category.

Amy Schumer is a gift to us as a culture. She’s hilarious and smart. Seems lovely and genuine. And now she made a terrific comedy that is packed with spot-on cultural references and finds delightful cameo roles for SNL stars. Not sure what’s not to love there. I know Trainwreck isn’t a perfect movie. It’s a little too long and sometimes makes awkward jumps. But that’s not the point. The point is that she shouts things like “You’re losing us the right to vote!” at basketball dancers, and makes an homage to Manhattan but with a serious bite, and describes her fear of someone seeing a “crime-scene tampon.” It all adds up to a comedy unlike one I’d ever seen before, and I loved it. I can’t wait to see what Amy Schumer does next.

Bill Hader deserves praise, too, for playing the doctor Amy reluctantly falls in love with. Give this man more leading movie roles! The review on Roger Ebert’s site makes a comparison between Hader in this film and a young Jack Lemmon. Thinking back on the film, that comparison is spot-on.

I’ve been seeing new stuff at a pretty good clip this summer (at least by my standards), and The End of the Tour and Trainwreck are more than worth seeing. Now, if you’ll excuse me – I still need to unpack my copy of Infinite Jest. 

Summer Brain Dump

I have no way of prefacing this except by saying it’s July now, and I haven’t written or debriefed about life in a meaningful way since May and a lot has happened in that time. And tonight I finally felt like writing it all out.

I have to move again, which sucks. No other way to put it. Our current landlords raised our rent $900/month ($300/person/month next year) so we had to find a new place. The good news is, our new apartment is in the same neighborhood. And, our rent will be cheaper. And, I get to stay with my wonderful roommates. The bad news is, we have to move everything from one apartment to the next. Little expenses keep coming up for things we took for granted in the old place that don’t exist in the new (like a toilet paper roll holder!). Plus, it’s summer and it’s hot and miserable and all your stuff is getting moved around. I sound really grumpy about this, don’t I? Well, I am a little. I told my roommates that if, this time next year, I have to move for any dramatic reason (i.e., another massive rent hike), I will recognize it as a sign from God that I am supposed to leave New York City. No sane person can tolerate four moves in as many years.

Perhaps moving is a little bit of my motivation for writing tonight. All my stuff is in boxes. Evidence of an upcoming transition is right in front of me. I want to write down what’s happened lately so I don’t forget it once things start to change.

So, item #1. Summer obsessions. I never notice it in the moment, but with a few years, months, or even weeks in the rearview mirror, I start seeing how clearly defined a certain time was by the cultural obsessions gripping me in that moment. At the beginning of June, I started an obsession with the WTF with Marc Maron podcast, which has carried me through the entire summer so far and taken up a lot of my cultural-obsession real estate. It started with Maron’s interview with Terry Gross, host of NPR’s Fresh Air. I’d known about WTF for awhile, even listened to a couple episodes, but the show re-entered my mind when I was doing some podcast research for work and I decided to listen to the Terry Gross episode on a run. They’re magic together, and it was the first time I appreciated Maron’s real skill as an interviewer. I was hooked.

The podcast has been a welcome companion on some of my summer travels. I got to visit LA for work and polished off his chats with Jason Schwartzman, Parker Posey and John Mulaney on the plane. I was in LA the same day he interviewed President Obama and relished the national conversation surrounding that episode. I started my Maron fandom just early enough that I could listen to the Obama episode as a devotee, not a bandwagoner. (Recent gems have included his interviews with Constance Zimmer, Ed Asner and Vince Gilligan, and the Obama post-mortem episode he recorded with his producer.)

Sir Ian McKellan is the guest on today’s episode, and he asks Maron about who typically listens to his podcast. “I don’t think I have a demographic; it’s more of a disposition,” Maron replied. I smiled when he said that because it made me think of a paragraph that caught me from his email newsletter earlier today: “It rained a lot here in LA the other day. We needed it. I get weird when it rains. My mind drifts. It’s not necessarily bad but it’s not great. I can’t really put into words what happens but there is sort of a romantic, hopeless feeling to it all and it’s okay. I need it. It’s a deep feel. I don’t think I could live somewhere where it rains all the time though. It would be hard not to become goth.” I pretty much identify with every sentence there, which I think means I am of the target disposition.

 

 

Another cultural interest this summer – I don’t know if I’d call it an “obsession” per se – has been the new movie crop. It’s a good summer, in my estimation. To date, I’ve seen Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Love and MercyInside Out and Amy and would recommend each one. (I saw Amy just this past weekend and it’s all I can think about, really. Incredibly well-told and sensitive, but watching it, your heart breaks for the brilliant Ms. Winehouse.)

To mark my 25th birthday earlier this month, I made a list of 25 things I want to accomplish in my 25th year, and one was to write about each new movie I see this year – whether it’s a new-new movie like the ones listed above, or a new-to-me movie, like Philomena, which I watched on the plane ride home from my trip to London and Paris (more on that later). I have some catching up to do in the writing department, but I feel like I’ve seen some meaningful films in the last couple months.

Item #2. The Europe trip. It was freaking amazing. I’d never been to Europe before but had been dying to visit. I really need to write a whole post about the trip – I have notes and thoughts scribbled everywhere but I should pull them together before I forget too much. Already, I find myself remembering little things here and there that I already started forgetting – meals we ate, cool subway stations I liked, that kind of thing. But the larger feeling is still intact. I hadn’t really gone somewhere new since moving to New York three years ago. I went to Disney World, or Portland, or Chicago – all places I’d already been. So it was invaluable to experience something completely new. To be somewhere with a language barrier. To spend almost two weeks away from the city, all its responsibilities and assumptions.

The place that felt newest was Versailles. Of course London and Paris felt new, but they were still cities. I could at least understand how they felt, in a way. Versailles was out of this world. I couldn’t believe I was on my own planet. There were gardens that stretched on forever and rooms walled with marble in a shade of purple that I can’t get out of my mind.

What struck me most about London was the constant juxtaposition of old and new. You get that in New York to a degree, but in London it’s amplified. It’s an awesomely designed Tube station in the shadow of a tower built in the 1000s. And it’s like that all over the city.

I fell in love with the museums in both cities. The Victoria & Albert Museum and Tate Modern especially drew me in during our London leg. In Paris, the Louvre and Musee d’Orsay. I discovered some new-to-me artists whose work I want to further explore, like the illustrator George Condo whose wry sketches fascinated me at the Tate, or the post-impressionist Felix Vallotton at the d’Orsay (that museum in particular had a layout conducive to better understanding the timeline of certain artistic movements).

There is oh-so-much-more to talk about when it comes to that trip. It whet my appetite for travel and I can’t wait to visit Europe again. In the meantime, I’m trying to take the wonder of that trip and apply the same feeling to my normal life. That’s going alright so far.

As “summer things” go, those are the biggest items. My head feels clearer having them down on the page. And now I need to finish packing.

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.

Becoming a Movie Person

Before 2013, I never would have considered myself a “movie person.” I used to say I’d rather watch the same ten movies on repeat than try something new. Movies seemed like such a big time commitment. Two hours?! At least with a TV show, you could quickly move on to something else if you didn’t like it. You had a beginning, middle and end in less than 30 minutes. Movies seemed to drag.

But over the past year and a half, I’ve come to love them. I think a lot of that has to do with Roger Ebert’s reviews, which have become my favorite pieces of writing because they approach movies as agents for unpacking truths about people and how the world works. Sometimes I wonder if Ebert uncovered subtleties in a performance, or nuances to a film’s meaning, that not even its own actors and directors noticed or intended.

The review that sparked my Ebert obsession was his piece on Lost in TranslationAfter seeing it for the first time, I knew I liked it, but didn’t completely understand it. I couldn’t articulate why I liked it. It turns out all the reasons were sitting in that review. I remember reading a sentence about the special bond strangers share and thinking, Yes. This is exactly how real life works: “We all need to talk about metaphysics, but those who know us well want details and specifics; strangers allow us to operate more vaguely on a cosmic scale.” That is a beautiful way to phrase a spot-on observation of the way humans operate. 

His second piece on the film, from 2010 when he named it a “Great Movie,” is even better. It makes the movie make sense. And, it opened my eyes to the brilliance of Bill Murray: “Without [Murray’s acting], the film could be unwatchable. With it, I can’t take my eyes away.” I knew Bill Murray was good, but this piece made me realize how good, and how his performance was essential to the success of Lost in Translation (which I’ve now probably watched about 50 times, and have grown more in awe of with each viewing). 

While I have tons of movies to see before I can reasonably be considered knowledgeable about film, I am consciously trying to become a smarter movie-watcher. Matt Zoller Seitz, the editor-in-chief of RogerEbert.com, wrote a piece a few weeks ago titled “Advice to Young Critics” that I’m now using as a guide for watching films critically and understanding how to write about them.

The article could really be titled “Advice to Writers in General,” but it talks about writing in the context of film criticism. His most convicting piece of advice? “Write for at least two hours a day, even if you don’t publish what you write.” He explains, “If two hours a day sounds like too much time, it means you don’t really want to do this for a living and should do something else instead.” 

The more warm-and-fuzzy advice was to voraciously consume movies and TV (or media of any kind), and to write down any thought you have while watching a movie. You never know what trail of thought it will lead to, or what inspiration it will spark.

My attitude toward movies has changed from “ugh why do I have to watch this can’t I just watch four 30 Rock episodes instead” to “this could be good, maybe great, and at the very least, I’m broadening my pop culture horizons.” At this point, there’s not much rhyme or reason to what I’m watching. My typical movie-watching strategy is to work my way through an actor’s catalogue after I randomly become obsessed with him (right now, the actor is Jack Nicholson), and watch only his works until I develop a new obsession. I should probably conquer some type of “best-ever” list, with Casablanca, Citizen Kane, et al, but right now I’m just trying to take away as much as I can from any films that cross my path.

Thoughts on “Saving Mr. Banks”

Since it’s 2014 and I resolved to blog more, I’m going to start with the kind of post I wish I’d written more of last year: thoughts on movies.

I saw “Saving Mr. Banks” yesterday, and while I didn’t LOVE it, I enjoyed it quite a bit – and have enjoyed thinking about it in hindsight even more.

I want to say that I first heard of the movie shortly after the Oscars last year, in some kind of “What Movies Will Contend in 2014” slideshow, but it may have been later in the year. At any rate, I remember reading a positive early review of the film this past October. I had high expectations: It’s got Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson, it’s a movie about the movies, Disney made it, and who doesn’t like “Mary Poppins”? It was on my shortlist of movies to see in advance of awards season.

As more reviews came out, my expectations dulled – it seemed like more of a kids’ movie, and I wasn’t sure I’d like the backstory about P.L. Travers’ childhood in Australia, which the film used to explain the inspiration behind the Mary Poppins character.

We ultimately know how “Saving Mr. Banks” ends, because “Mary Poppins” is an actual movie we all watched as kids. But “Saving Mr. Banks” makes you think for awhile that there’s no possible way P.L. Travers will hand Disney the rights to turn her book into a movie. That’s what I liked least about this film – it drags on a little with scenes showing how much she resents what Disney is trying to do with the story. And, while I ended up liking the use of flashbacks to her childhood, I thought those were also a little repetitive. The movie turned to flashbacks when something P.L. Travers encountered during her trip to Los Angeles reminded her of an event from childhood. They weren’t forced attempts at moving the story along, which I appreciated. Plus, I thought Colin Farrell was quite good as her father.

Many of the scenes depicting the author’s objections to Disney’s plan for a film adaptation occurred in a rehearsal room. Travers sat around a table with songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman and screenwriter Don DaGradi, listening to and summarily shouting down their ideas. This creative trio – with Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak as the Sherman brothers and Bradley Whitford (!) as DaGradi – became my favorite part of the film. Here are three guys who probably expected Travers to come in and fawn over all their brilliant songs and scripts. But even when her dismissiveness annoyed them to the core, they kept at it and found a way to please her.

And when they finally did please her, with the song “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” it was wonderful. For those few minutes, as the Shermans, DaGradi and Walt’s secretary perform the number for her, I was smiling wide and absolutely loving the film. The Shermans and DaGradi are just so happy – and probably relieved – to se P.L. Travers happy. Jason Schwartzman, who I’d say played my favorite character in the film, was especially wonderful it in that scene. (I wouldn’t be surprised if this video is taken down soon for some copyright violation, but here’s the scene I’m talking about.)

But really, let’s all have a good laugh at Josh Lyman singing and dancing to songs from Mary Poppins! Oh, it just kills me. Bradley Whitford didn’t make or break this movie for me, but every time he was on screen, I thought to myself, “This is the man who delivered the ‘bring me the finest muffins and bagels’ speech.” Same guy.

My final thought: Seeing it with a full theater audience provided an interesting commentary on how central Disney movies have been to American entertainment. You know the line, “Close your mouth please, Michael, we are not a codfish,” from “Mary Poppins”? There’s a line in a flashback scene that obviously hints at it, and everyone in the theater laughed knowingly. Disney can make “Saving Mr. Banks” so meta because everyone’s already seen and loved “Mary Poppins.” This movie seemed self-indulgent at times, but I didn’t care because I was entertained. Disney knows how to entertain pretty well.