Thoughts on life after the PhD
I really slacked on the movie-watching this year—in 2016 I managed to watch 73 movies, but in 2017 I only made it to 47. Chalk it up to a new job with a lot more administrative duties. I’ve already watched 9 in 2018, though, so if I can keep that momentum going I should have a much better track record this year.
Here are the ones I loved, not all of which came out in 2017:
It’s a rare movie that has me still wanting to spend more time with its characters after more than five hours. Not rare, maybe…nonexistent, until now? Happy Hour is no Lawrence of Arabia-style epic, just a story of four 37-year-old Japanese women dealing with the crises that come in that delicate period when they’re not young enough to be naive but not old enough to give up on the possibility of something better (or at least different) for themselves. It’s raw, beautifully filmed, and features amazing performances from everyone in the cast.
Hikaru Toda’s documentary about an Osaka law firm run by a gay couple had the audience on its feet and cheering after a screening I attended at the Tokyo International Film Festival. In a very, very dark year, this film—focusing on court cases related to civil rights issues, as well as the couple’s own day to day lives—gave me a much-needed shot of hope (while not sugarcoating the very harsh reality that many of its subjects face).
I’m still catching up on a very long list of Great Japanese Movies, and it was embarrassing to realize that Late Spring, generally considered one of the best Japanese films of all time, was one that I hadn’t seen yet. I’ve always had respect for Ozu as a trailblazer and all-around great filmmaker, but this was the movie that made me realize why so many people worship him like a god. Damn. I was speechless when this movie ended and felt like weeping every few minutes, not only because of the story, which is as usual poignant and bittersweet, but because of the mind-blowing level of filmmaking skill on display. If you’ve never watched an Ozu film, for God’s sake watch this one.
I was a huge fan of the Sarah Waters novel on which this movie was based, so I guess I was predisposed to like it, but damn, it was amazing.
Not much more to say that hasn’t already been said, but I think what I loved most about Moonlight (besides the gorgeous visuals) was the amazing way that so much was conveyed through what characters DIDN’T say, or through silent reactions to things that other people said. The way Janelle Monae shakes her head quickly when Mahershala Ali’s character is about to get just a little too adult in his advice to Little. The look of absolute joy on teenage Little’s face after he shares a kiss (and more) with the boy he’s been in love with for ages. The HUGE amount of subtext years later when that now-adult love interest says that Little “isn’t what he expected,” and Little replies, with just a hint of accusation, “What DID you expect me to be?”
The Wind Will Carry Us
From the minute Abbas Kiarostami’s movie begins it feels like it takes place on another planet, set as it is in a magical Kurdish village carved into a mountainside, with people climbing and jumping and balancing on narrow ledges to get from one dwelling to another. As a story about one man’s struggle to “authentically” document an ancient mourning ritual it certainly has a lot to say about filmmaking, but it’s also entirely possible to just get lost in its story of day-to-day life in a remote village among fascinating characters.
Train to Busan
This slick, very entertaining zombie movie from Korea had an unfortunate side effect: it reminded me of recent mainstream Japanese cinema’s many, many shortcomings. Everything about this movie was just…better than so much of what comes out of Japan’s major studios nowadays. Better performances from the actors, better writing, better production values. Sure, Train to Busan borrows a lot from virtually every zombie movie made in the last twenty years, but it livens things up a bit by a) setting the whole thing on a train and b) introducing plenty of Korea-specific sources of tension (corporate corruption, tensions between generations, an insistence by officials that everything’s fine when it’s not). The animated prequel, Seoul Station, is also solid, though a lot bleaker.
Again, not much more to say as this was the movie that inspired dozens of think pieces, but as a horror connoisseur I loved that Get Out finally came up with a reasonable response to the question “why doesn’t he just get the hell out of that strange house where people are clearly up to no good?” Well, because he’s a black man who’s probably been told again and again that he’s “overreacting” when he suspects some kind of racism-based danger, and he’s trying to ingratiate himself with his white girlfriend’s family and friends, so…he sticks around way longer than he should. Totally plausible, which makes everything that happens afterward even more terrifying.
I had fun at Thor: Ragnarok. I enjoyed Wonder Woman and may have even gotten a little weepy when Diana crossed the no man’s land between the trenches. But the superhero movie that I couldn’t stop babbling about was this one. It was funny, it was full of youthful energy, it didn’t bore us with endless details about Spidey’s origin story, and…hot damn Michael Keaton was good. It was fascinating to see a supervillain who wasn’t building some sort of doomsday machine but just wanted a kind of economic vengeance against a society that had chewed him up and spit him out. Also, for once I didn’t see the third act twist coming, and it floored me.
The Big Sick
Hands down the best movie I saw last year (though Late Spring is up there as well, and you really can’t compare the two). Just…everything. Funny and poignant and real and sexy, that rare rom-com where you’re just rooting for everyone and your heart is breaking for them when they’re in pain. And did I mention that it’s funny? Not funny like “this is charming, it got a chuckle out of me,” but written-by-highly-skilled-comedy-writers funny, with great joke-jokes but also a ton of humor that just seems to grow organically out of the characters’ relationships (which I realize didn’t happen magically, it’s also the result of really good writing). Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan are wonderful, but Holly Hunter deserves a fucking Oscar.
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