Is Tropic Thunder the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

Space Ghost Coast to Coast is a TV show that needs a lot of explaining. The original Space Ghost was a Hanna-Barbera cartoon from the 60s that came and went. In the 90s, Mike Lazzo and Williams Street used the characters and settings from Space Ghost to create a faux late-night talk show where these ridiculous characters hosted an otherwise normal interview show. That version is Space Ghost Coast to Coast, which aired for years on Cartoon Network and eventually became part of Adult Swim, the nighttime block of “adult” programming that arguably gave way to what animation on television has become for the last several decades.

If you’re completely unfamiliar with it, all of that introduction probably still doesn’t help. Space Ghost the character is a bombastic idiot, a Falstaff figure if you really want to stretch the importance of a silly double-joke cartoon from the 90s, and his crew are all villains he’s imprisoned to work on this talk show. The internal reality of the show is ridiculous, but it is complete. Some of the guests (all real celebrities or cult figures) engage with it straight and some seem to have not been briefed on the premise at all. It works because both versions are consistent. It’s not “random,” a word that dogs comedy that had the guts to be anything other than the primary form at the time, but it is unexpected. In one episode Bjork plays Space Ghost’s wife, but it’s not clear how much she is in on the joke. It doesn’t really matter, they write the show around what the guest does, which allows for it all to spiral out.

I mention all of this because I was thinking of these several lenses you need to view that show through to even start to like it when I watched Tropic Thunder recently. I certainly think Ben Stiller’s war movie parody is more approachable than Space Ghost Coast to Coast, but the quality of both pieces of media is almost secondary. First, you have to buy in to the premise. You have to be willing to say “okay, it’s a talk show in space with cartoons, but everyone pretends they’re real” or “it’s a fake movie about a fake movie that’s mocking real movies that sometimes were also premised on real things that were misunderstood by real people.” The war in Vietnam was already complicated, that’s the premise that the original media about it always took, anyway, so abstracting it three more times is a hard place to start.

Tropic Thunder is about the filming of a movie called Tropic Thunder, where a cast of actor stereotypes goes to the jungle to film a serious war movie. Jack Black, Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., and others play as types that you’ll recognize even if the exact source material isn’t always all that important. We see Jack Black’s character’s success in The Fatties: Fart 2 and you know what, you get it. Ben Stiller’s character runs towards the camera and is shot in the back in slow motion several times as he extends his arms and yes, that’s Platoon. It’s all Apocalypse Now. I don’t think we need to run down where everything is “from” to appreciate this. It’s a broad parody but also has specific jokes. That part all lands and I am not going to spend any more time explaining why the funny movie is funny.

Roger Ebert said Tropic Thunder is “the kind of summer comedy that rolls in, makes a lot of people laugh and rolls on to video.” Obvious the “video” reference there dates this a little bit, but it’s as relevant a commentary overall today as it was in 2008. Comedy can feel disposable as it often requires you to understand cultural subtext that changes over time. Shakespeare feels inaccessible at times because the jokes are about a society that’s very different than our own. People call some comedy “timeless” but at the very least, the meaning changes even if it doesn’t diminish. Things that are funny will remain funny, but if you watch a comedy from more than fifty years ago today, you will hear at least one reference that you have no chance of understanding. There are so many of these examples in old Hollywood, where an aside from Cary Grant about a specific cigarette ad or a bon mot about a political figure of the time just sails over the viewer’s head. It’s just how this stuff works.

Tropic Thunder bridges enough gaps that it’s not exactly like that, but a lot of it is definitely “of the moment.” It’s still very funny over a decade later, and it’s especially crazy that this seemed like the peak of Robert Downey Jr. but absolutely was not. He was nominated for an Oscar for this, which really seems wild now, and was just a few months into his forever-job as Iron Man. That seemed big then, of course, but who could have possibly predicted that it would essentially alter popular film entirely from the ground up. I think arguments about that being good or bad are something else entirely, but imagine how much bigger a deal all this is now than in 2008.

Robert Downey Jr. plays his role in blackface as a character who is so oblivious he doesn’t see why that would be offensive. IndieWire wrote what appears to be a summary of a podcast appearance here where Downey said recently that he doesn’t regret the choice. Ben Stiller’s character in the film recently made an Oscar-bait film called Simple Jack which involves all of the characters repeatedly using a slur to discuss his character’s condition. The sum of these two parts, and a lot of other details, really, should add up to a movie that’s impossible to watch even a few years later, but that’s not the case. Ben Stiller said at the time that none of it needed defending because it’s all in service of mocking an industry that does this stuff all the time. Your views on that defense are your own, but I think it mostly holds up. You don’t have a movie here if you cut back on the envelope pushing, but I wouldn’t blame anyone who felt like it was all too much.

I didn’t know how I’d feel about revisiting this one, but I expected it to age poorly and it mostly hasn’t. The movie industry is still self-important and all of the “heightened” fake films still honestly feel like things you could see happen today. It’s not timeless comedy, but it’s at least comedy that sticks around. Maybe that’s more of a commentary on how little the industry and war films have changed, but even so, all the more credit to the film for knowing not just how it was in 2008 but how it would remain.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? The one bit of Tropic Thunder that has changed meaning in the last decade is the central slimy, evil executive character. It’s supposedly a parody of Scott Rudin, who at the time most of the audience may not have recognized. A few months ago his life exploded when several prominent stars came out with stories of his abusive behavior. The parody is still funny, but it’s a different kind of funny now. Things like that make this feel like a movie you can keep coming back to, which I think I can’t necessarily say of Weathering With You.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, but can a comedy be the best movie? My favorite comedy is Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, but even that requires so much cultural understanding that it feels like a tough sell as a universal best movie. This will stay Persona for now, but then again, there are different situations for a war movie parody and a complex, terrifying look at identity and the soul. You might want Tropic Thunder most nights.

You can watch Tropic Thunder on Amazon Prime (subscription required). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Weathering With You the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

I don’t really watch much anime these days, but that really depends on your frame of reference. If you watch no anime, ever, then I guess I watch a lot compared to you. I’ve featured two so far in this series, the mind-bending Paprika and the almost-a-love-story-but-really-something-else When Marnie Was There. It feels weird to talk about anime at all. It’s really impossible to get past the reality that it’s a very weird world with a high barrier for entry. I’ve never been to Japan and don’t know that much about it, but a lot of the best anime really does ask you to know some very specific things about very specific places.

Today we’re talking about Weathering With You, the 2019 follow up to the 2016 film Your Name. Both were written and directed by Makoto Shinkai and Your Name was one of the most successful films in Japan ever, not even just among anime. If you haven’t seen Your Name and you have any interest in doing so, I really can’t recommend it strongly enough. It’s probably the best anime from the last ten years, if not the best ever, and it’s certainly the one I’d recommend if someone was only going to watch one. It’s a romance for the ages and a concept that deserves more space than we have today. Go and do this thing.

But if you were going to, you probably already have, right? Your Name was a mega hit, as much as an anime can be, and the follow up was going to work no matter what. If anime isn’t your thing, you’re just going to have to trust me when I say this was big. The way we watch things has subdivided people’s attention to the point where the size of an audience is rarely, if ever, an indicator of quality, but Your Name really took off and deserved the success it found. How do you follow that up?

You apparently go much riskier, which is what Shinkai did with Weathering With You. It’s a story about climate change hidden in a teenage love story, but “hidden” might be overstating it. Hodaka Morishima runs away from home and wants to experience big-city Tokyo. Hina Amano is a girl who gives him a hamburger when he’s at the end of his rope, but more importantly she’s a magical being who controls the weather. One of the most fascinating elements of Weathering With You is how they treat this, with most characters doubting her but then coming around once they see her clear up the sky on command. This is the central magic that makes the movie go, so it’s really important to understand how other characters engage with this as a reality. Really bad anime messes this up more than almost any other detail, and it’s really critical that you see that she actually is magical, it’s not a coincidence or a trick they might double cross the viewer on later, but also just how that fact reads to her fellow man.

It rains in Tokyo all the time. It snows in the warmer months. It’s an apocalypse, but it’s also just another work day. This is another thing I want to spend what may seem like too much time on, but the world is really ending, at least how we know it, and it’s a bold choice to not have the end be an action movie. It’s just raining, more and more, and slowly but surely, everything will be unusable. This isn’t shown through catastrophe, it’s just something you pick up on given how everyone lives. By the end it scales up, sure, but even though the magical “sunshine girl” is the love story plot, this is really a movie about how climate change impacts us very slowly and it doesn’t really matter if we accept it or not. It won’t happen just like this, but it will happen, which allows for a non-moralistic depiction of something we don’t like to think about.

Hodaka and Hina set up a small business to use her ability to clear up a small area’s weather. People want to have a nice day at the park or to ensure a public event goes well without rain. These are small potatoes, but they really matter to the people living their lives. The world is slowly ending, filling with water and becoming more hostile to humans, but there are brief moments of respite. It comes at a cost to Hina, which drives the plot and complicates the love story, but my favorite parts of Weathering With You are these glimpses into the larger world.

Your Name is a much better film and was a much bigger success. One review said the only problem with Weathering With You is that it came second. These are good problems to have, but I think it’s a little lazy that most reviews haven’t really found a way to even talk about what this is, just what it isn’t. The love story here is less central to the plot, but also that allows for a bigger world. No one we meet in Your Name is nearly as memorable as the side characters in Weathering With You. They’re completely different films, and where Your Name owes so much to romances that came before it, Weathering With You feels like a love letter to some classic anime genres.

The art is gorgeous and impossible to overstate. Perfect Blue is one of my favorite films of all time and one wonders if people who were making anime several decades ago could have even imagined a film like Weathering With You. If you don’t watch a lot of anime you may not notice or care, but some of the landscapes may make you look closer at other drawn and constructed art. It’s crisp and almost photorealistic, which is a very different direction than the Pixars of the world are headed towards. Obviously this is a preference thing, as is your choice to watch the subtitled or English-dubbed version (the leads won’t be voices you know, but Alison Brie and Riz Ahmed play supporting roles, which is fun) but I found myself really struck by the thing as a whole.

You owe it to yourself to watch this movie and to not expect Your Name 2. If you’ve avoided anime in general, I’d recommend Your Name as a starting point, though I think both films are worthy of your time.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I love Touch of Evil and I can’t really say this is better. I don’t really want to know what Orson Welles would have thought about this comparison.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, still going to side with Persona. I didn’t turn on this movie expecting it to dethrone a classic, but I really have to say again that I was surprised by how much I liked it. I’d read the reviews saying it was a letdown as a follow up to one of the most beloved anime films of the last decade, and maybe if that’s how you evaluate things, it is. But why live your life like that? I guess this series is the answer to my own question: because every question is a grand one if you let it be.

You can watch Weathering With You on HBO Max (subscription required). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Touch of Evil the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

If there is a through line for this project, it is that I was surprised how many movies on the Sight & Sound list of the greatest movies ever made I had not seen. There are a few that I’d never heard of, but mostly I thought it was as good as any other list to serve as a checklist for movies to watch. I’ve come to find that most people seem to agree, though it is interesting the deeper you go into people’s opinions on opinions. The snakes eats the tail quickly, with discussions of merit for some of the more out there stuff and the rankings within it.

One of my favorite movies of all time is The Third Man, which comes in at #73 on the most recent version of that list. Persona, our current best movie of all time holder for the list we’re building, is tied with Seven Samurai at #17. It’s the nature of lists like this that you have to question some of it. Are there really 80+ movies better than Casablanca? I love Stanley Kubrick as much as the next person, but is 2001: A Space Odyssey one of the ten best movies ever? If you get lost in the minutia and the specifics you lose the beauty of these exercises. The point is, similar to the Oscars but with much more care, to offer an attempt at a list of things worth your time.

When I saw Touch of Evil on this list (#57) I was surprised. I like Touch of Evil, but it’s a little messy, even for an Orson Welles movie and even for the genre, and to see it ahead of Sunset Blvd. is hard to defend. I’m a pretty fervent defender of Welles the actor even beyond Welles the director, but I knew I had to revisit it to see if I still felt like that ranking was wrong.

Touch of Evil is the first movie I’ve seen in a movie theater in just under a year and a half. I’m fortunate to live near the Music Box Theatre in Chicago, where I was able to revisit this 1958 noir with a bunch of other folks who wanted to experience a very strange story about morality in policing. There’s a lot to unpack in how Touch of Evil reads in 2021. Primarily, Welles’ police captain Hank Quinlan was an undeniable villain at the time but now really challenges the viewer with the idea of “one bad apple” as a criminal in the police force. The structure around him backs him at every turn and his subordinates who are clearly less evil still support him, even when they can tell they shouldn’t. This was probably something contemporary viewers would pick up on, but it screams much louder in today’s world.

Welles played the villain as often as he did the hero. That distinction can get complicated at times, but Welles wasn’t necessarily interested in complex characters in that way. Hank Quinlan is huge, physically and metaphorically, and the only complexity we get for him is that he used to drink and that his wife passed away. There is a world where these elements, plus the decades on the job in a border town trying to keep a tentative peace, make us feel for Quinlan and at least understand how he got in this state, if not outright agree with his methods. Another director might lead the audience down that path, but it’s enough for Welles to just tilt at it. Quinlan “runs this town” as so many crooked cops do, but he doesn’t do it to further his own success or to grab power. He does it out of a compulsion and a misguided idea that putting away “bad guys” is the right move, even if they didn’t do this specific thing or you can’t pin it on them successfully.

You can’t feel bad for Quinlan, which gives Welles the space to mumble menacingly and to really command the screen even from a position of supposed weakness. Quinlan uses a cane and is drastically overweight, which serves to contrast him with Charlton Heston’s Miguel Vargas. This detail is hard to get past and I don’t want to handwave it away by saying this was 1958, but casting Charlton Heston as a Mexican cop is truly strange. Welles was originally just supposed to play Quinlan, but Heston suggested he direct as well. This led to him rewriting the script to change the hero into a Mexican character, but this all happened after Heston had signed on. I can’t find much about the choice to not recast the role, but this is just the reality of Hollywood at the time. There’s a true critique to lay on Touch of Evil that the only unquestionable hero of the film is a white guy playing a Mexican character. I think the reason this doesn’t get discussed more in the legacy of the film is that the only reason it exists at all is that Welles wanted to make a statement about the difficulty of relations between America and Mexico. It’s reaching to call this progressive, but it’s interesting. Heston’s legacy is also so muddled with how he spent the last decades of his life elevating monstrous beliefs and positions that unpacking this choice and how he must have felt about it would take us more time than we have here.

I love Welles’ performance here, but I ultimately don’t think some elements of Touch of Evil hold up as well under multiple viewings. Janet Leigh plays Susan Vargas, the new bride to Heston’s Vargas, and doesn’t really get anything to do except scream and fret. She plays the role well, especially shining in a conversation where she gets cornered by the remaining members of the crime family that her husband is prosecuting. Marlene Dietrich has the more interesting female role as Tanya, the fortune teller who knew Quinlan before much of what would lead to the sad state he’s in by the events of Touch of Evil. There’s a lot said by what’s not said in the scenes Dietrich and Welles share.

I still like Touch of Evil, but it is undeniably messy. The climactic scene where Vargas tries to get Quinlan to admit to planting evidence is thrilling but the twists and turns are a little harder to endure than other contemporary noir. Welles is the standout performer here, but much of what you’ll read about Touch of Evil focuses on his filmmaking. The film opens with a famous “tracking shot” that’s an extended zoom out of the opening car bomb that sets the plot in motion. The pacing suffers for modern viewings, but you will still find a lot to marvel at in how it’s all shot. It’s a marvel in many ways but also a product of when it was made. Where it goes beyond the time is why it is on so many lists of tremendous achievements, but you need to set your expectations correctly and your ability to love it completely with depend on your feelings about Welles and Heston, to some degree.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I do think it’s better than The Seventh Seal, which is probably blasphemy. Heston as a Mexican character is pretty ridiculous, especially knowing what you know about Heston as a political figure, but I really am amazed with Welles’ choices and his personal performance. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone hated this one and I think there’s enough in here to turn off a lot of people, but I think it’s one of the better Welles productions. And that’s saying something.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, I will keep Persona in this spot this week. If you like Orson Welles or noir at all, you should check this out. I feel like I’m waffling a little bit on this one even though I really enjoyed it and I think it’s worth your time. There are people out there who can’t stand Orson Welles as a performer, especially when he goes for it to this degree, but I’m on the record as a huge fan. The choice to have him talk over anyone he deems unnecessary and to bluster around but also act performatively confused when it suits him all constructs such a fully realized character. To do that for the villain that you’ll hate and grow to hate even more is what sets Welles apart.

You can watch Touch of Evil on Amazon Prime ($3.99) or YouTube ($3.99). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is The Seventh Seal the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

A few weeks ago after I watched Last Year at Marienbad, I sat with the experience after I finished it. I didn’t like the movie, but I got the sense that maybe you weren’t supposed to like it. “Challenging” is a word that gets thrown around a lot for movies like that, as is “experimental.” It’s certainly the former, with very little narrative structure, frequent inconsistency, and a constantly overwriting central truth. You are supposed to turn it over in your mind and try to solve it for yourself. At least, I think you’re supposed to do that. It’s the only way that movie makes sense to me.

I expected the same to be true of Persona, given the way people talk about the experience of watching it for the first time. People seem to be split on Last Year at Marienbad in a way they are not split on Persona, but both movies really demand a lot of the viewer in a way that a traditional story does not. Typically you see characters grow and change and your experience is determined by how you feel about what they experienced. We don’t interrogate this much because on a basic level it seems to be a stupid question. Asking yourself why you watch movies or read stories isn’t something you feel a need to do because you aren’t “buying into” an idea, it’s just what you do. Persona has a narrative, and arguably the core of it is just a look at personal identity and how we define ourselves. It spirals out from there and it compounds it with a structure that, yes, challenges you, and that’s why I find it so much more interesting.

It’s maybe a given that Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece is a better movie than Last Year at Marienbad, but this intro isn’t just to provide space for me to dunk on a movie I didn’t like or to praise a movie I did. Today we’re talking about The Seventh Seal, a movie that really doesn’t need an introduction. It’s Bergman’s first masterpiece, to reuse the term, and it’s the one where the guy plays chess with death. You are aware of it even if you can’t place it or haven’t seen it. It’s a scene that’s been redone so many times so explicitly that it transcends any space where you’d talk about classic film.

The Seventh Seal is the kind of movie that makes you think about film class. This is one of the starting points, where you go deeper than Pulp Fiction and you get your mind blown about what film can do. I expected the experience to be closer to Last Year at Marienbad than Persona, even though it’s Bergman. There are a lot of films on the lists of great films that are difficult, sometimes nearly impossible, to watch today. A true galaxy brain exploration of death including a literal chess match for your life never seemed like Monday night viewing. Even when you concede something is important or influential, it is sometimes a big ask to sit down and actually take it in. Whether it’s intimidating or you’re just worried you won’t like the original because you’ve seen so many derivatives, if you’re anything like me you put off eating your proverbial vegetables.

It’s not what I thought it was. I considered a few ways to present this information and I’ve decided it’s fine to look stupid. I expected this to be boring and to feel “important,” but not necessarily engaging. It’s anything but, much closer to a true narrative than the reputation suggests. Max von Sydow plays Antonius Block, a knight on his way back from the Crusades. He meets death and decides to play chess with him to delay the inevitable. He makes a bet as a play for his life, but there’s a sense that this isn’t really serious. We don’t know a single thing about Block when he sits down to play chess.

Block’s life becomes somewhat clear as he and his squire Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand) wander the countryside and experience what this land is like. They see horrible, unspeakable misery and a world ruined by plague and futile response to plague. We really only see the plague once, as a character screams and dies while other characters remark on being unable to even provide respite. The real tragedy is what happens in response, which feels a little close to home in 2021. In one town, the duo see an extended caravan of characters whipping themselves, dragging crosses, and moaning as they shamble into a ruined town. The message could not be clearer about what degree of hope exists.

I encourage you to experience it for yourself. That’s a simple thing to say about any movie, but I found it remarkable to watch Block’s journey and constant, seemingly reasonable demands for a sign. Christianity is often about resisting this impulse and the reality that the need for a sign is part of the journey, but the acceptance that none will come is part of the destination. Block asks a woman condemned to death due to belief that she has interacted with a demon if she can summon Satan. He is willing to tempt the darkness just to ask about the light. The Seventh Seal is undeniably a complicated story, but scenes like this are very clear. Block is the extreme version of the doubt and uncertainty about forces larger than our world that we all experience.

It’s not really about what it builds to, but I still will try my best to not spoil it. Block’s conversations with death are what remain in the public understanding, but it’s really about how Block sees himself and what he thinks he can do about it. The Crusades brought him only disillusionment and further proof that this world is a dark place. The world after this one eludes him, as it eludes everyone, and that’s not a story that has an ending other than the ending we’re all going towards. It’s not as bleak as all that, really, but it’s about finding the one thing you can control in a world where so much is chosen for you.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Yeah, I’d say it’s better than Rian Johnson’s modern noir Brick. I was genuinely surprised by how watchable I found it. I said in the main section that I’m okay sounding stupid and I think that’s just a risk you need to be willing to take when you barely scratch the surface of something that’s this huge. Brick is a movie I’ll come back to more often, but I’ll really sit with The Seventh Seal for quite some time.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, I prefer Bergman’s examination of identity in Persona more than The Seventh Seal. I think that’s probably a universal opinion, but this is the first time we’ve compared two films by the same director in this section. Obviously The Seventh Seal, and all of the other films, inform what Persona says about who is coming to save you and what you should do about it, but the setting alone of Persona makes it more relatable. The choice to set this examination in the Middle Ages and the set piece of a real chess game with the real, actual figure of death is an enormous swing, but it’s a testament to Bergman that is doesn’t feel pretentious or absurd. It’s a movie about asking questions that everyone will always be asking, so it’s timeless even with that abstraction.

You can watch The Seventh Seal on The Criterion Channel (subscription required). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Brick the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

In 2005, Sundance gave out an award called the “Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision” which they seem to have only given out in 2005. Every festival and award show has their own way of doing things, but I think that’s odd. The two films, however, make perfect sense for 2005. If you had to explain that time period to someone, I don’t think you could do better than with Rian Johnson’s Brick and Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know. Miranda July’s film is undeniably stranger, but it represents the high-water mark of weird films about normal life and how no one’s experience really is that normal. There are dozens of films like it and most of them don’t manage to toe the line between weird and specific nearly as well.

Rian Johnson’s career has had an interesting trajectory since Brick. He’s directed key episodes of Breaking Bad, made a film for indie legends the Mountain Goats, directed a Star Wars movie, and made one of the best movies of the last five years in Knives Out. You might have predicted Miranda July’s career in 2005, but that list for Rian Johnson is pretty bizarre. It’s not that he didn’t seem talented, it just seems like a surprising combination of things for anyone. You also might not have had a lot of hope for film as a whole in 2005, with the Oscars voting that Crash was the best film of the year. I’ve written pretty extensively about this before but I really just cannot say enough about how much I hate Crash. I mention it here to bring you back to the time period, along with Brokeback Mountain, Syriana, Walk the Line, and Hustle & Flow.

Brick is a 1930s crime story told in the 2000s. The style is identical and the language, which is the key to the entire genre, is intact. Every character says things like “keep your specs on” and quips fly constantly. You need to buy into this for Brick to work at all, but that’s not difficult to do. Joseph Gordon-Levitt wasn’t yet at the height of his powers in 2005, but he carries this as the Bogart figure at the center who is just trying to figure out what happened. There’s a dead body and a brick of heroin and a seedy underworld to wade through, but mostly it’s the story of the steady downfall of a detective. The good ones always are.

Roger Ebert gave it three stars and said it was great but all style and hard to engage with because the characters aren’t believable. He’s absolutely right, but it doesn’t matter as much to me. I saw Brick when it came out and loved it, but the details fell out of my head. I watched it again a few weeks ago for this review and had the same experience, so I watched it a third time. The murder and the drugs just don’t matter and that might be a problem for you. It matters that something holds the whole thing together, but just what it is feels less important. Good noir is all style, anyway, and Brick clears that bar with a ton of room to spare. Just who killed who and what it means for their future is a mystery, which this is, but it’s really not where your eye should focus.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Brendan, a high school student who gets pulled into what initially seems like a confusing plot but clears up into a pretty simple problem. Someone was murdered and it has a connection to him that threatens to bring him down. Further, it seems like everyone he runs into is connected and their exact involvement isn’t always what it seems. Like the detectives of old, Brendan has just enough information to be dangerous and he refuses to walk away when he’s given the chance. He has to get a little dirty to figure it out, but that’s a risk he knew he’d have to take.

The language is the point. When Brendan starts trying to find information he asks a woman if she is “still picking your teeth with freshman” and she offers that “if you’re ever looking to get back into things, I could use you.” It’s not exactly the slang of the 30s, but it’s highly stylized and often obscures what’s happening. You won’t follow every exchange, but you aren’t intended to. Just like the plot, the point is not that every scene shows you another beat until you see the murder and find the killer. These are clues that are sometimes helpful and sometimes not.

Brendan’s source of info is a guy in glasses who seems to know everything and says things like “ask any dope rat where the junk sprang and they’ll say they scraped it off that who scored it off this who bought it off someone and after four or five connections the list always ends with The Pin.” If this wasn’t all done perfectly it would be disorienting or annoying, but it flows like a language that you don’t fully speak but you can understand. The Pin is a drug dealer and through extended discussion and hinting, Brendan realizes he needs to get into that scene to find out what happened. He does, it goes poorly, and you can guess the rest.

The reason you should watch Brick is that you have to experience it. I don’t care about the murder and I largely don’t care about the ending. I think Ebert is right, as he usually is, and the film sputters out and doesn’t necessarily pay off, but the experience of getting there is really incredible. Richard Roundtree, Shaft himself, plays the vice principal who confronts Brendan when the situation gets hot. They have a conversation that both confronts the ridiculousness of the situation (when Brendan says he should “write him up” if he has a problem and directly asks the VP to not “kick in my homeroom door”) but also the seriousness of it (when the VP says there needs to be a fall guy to give to the police). Brick doesn’t hide from the conceit that this is a murder story with high school kids in it, but it never winks at the camera. It’s in moments like these that you remember how absurd this should be, but how it isn’t.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Both The Lady from Shanghai and Brick are murder stories where the murder is less important than the style of how you hear about it. Brick has the much harder task of setting a noir in a modern world and ultimately is a little easier to follow. They’re both worth your time for the same reason, but I think the older one is the better film. Rian Johnson came back to the “confusing murder story” genre with a more conventional take in Knives Out and that is a much better experience, but you probably already knew that. If you haven’t seen that one, whew, you simply must.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, Persona retains this title again this week, but comparing the two does raise the question of what you want out of a movie. Brick is a better choice for a Tuesday after dinner. If you just want two hours of an experience you aren’t likely to have elsewhere, this is near the top of the list. It’s not going to revolutionize how you think about film, which is hardly a criticism, and I think that’s okay for a modern noir. I watched it three times, though, so make of that what you will.

You can watch Brick on YouTube ($3.99 at the time of this writing) or Amazon Prime ($3.99 at the time of this writing). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is The Lady from Shanghai the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

Orson Welles was in almost every movie he directed, but his performing career extended far beyond that. His most notable performance, or at least I think it should be, is as the evil Harry Lime in The Third Man. Welles brings a sinister, yet aloof, quality to his villains, almost without fail. When he does go for the full serious treatment I think it tends to get away from him, but when he’s playing someone closer to the Bogart style of lead, it really works.

People didn’t know what to do with his performance in The Lady from Shanghai in 1947 and 1948. Welles produced, directed, and starred in it. He wrote the screenplay, at least in part, and narrated it as the very Irish Michael O’Hara. Welles as a one-man show was not uncommon, but this was one of the films that cemented why that might not always be a great idea. The studio was apparently baffled by Welles’ cut and asked for reshoots and further editing. The finished product wasn’t exactly what he wanted to make, but it is a masterpiece of crime drama and film noir.

Welles wanted it to be longer, but he always wanted it to be longer. The final confrontation in a hall of mirrors has become one of the most iconic scenes of the era and Welles designed it to be long and sprawling, but it is an abrupt climax in the finished product. Welles was already doing almost everything and it’s for the best that he didn’t have the final say here, but that raises questions that we don’t have the space to answer. Welles was a genius but maybe tried to do too much, and we’re all the better off that in this case, and maybe only this case, someone had the sense to keep the gold and dial some of it back.

Michael O’Hara (Welles) is a sailor who saves Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) in the park late one night. It turns out she was armed with a gun but didn’t use it, which O’Hara only discovers after they ride around in her carriage and flirt about their separate times spent abroad. We get the sense that they’re both fascinating characters with mysterious histories, but the gun and the discovery that Elsa is married is enough to send Michael home without even keeping her card. She asks to hire him on for a cruise on a yacht but he refuses, going so far as to tear up the card in front of her to remove all doubt.

The Lady from Shanghai is full of moments like this. It’s a beautiful moment because it tells us even more about Michael while keeping Elsa hidden. When her husband, in extensive leg braces, comes to find Michael the next day, we still don’t understand why there’s so much importance on this one Irish sailor. Against his instincts, Michael signs on to the yacht, but only after answering a question about what he drinks with “doesn’t have to be wholesome, just so as long as it’s strong.”

We only get backstory from Michael O’Hara in pieces. Mostly, we see Arthur Bannister (Everett Sloane), rich and famous defense attorney, and his business partner George Grisby (Glenn Anders) taunt O’Hara and offer confusing propositions as they get drunk at sea. No one here seems very happy, but what’s extra notable is the slow, almost nonexistent pacing of the love story. Elsa and Michael are young and beautiful and it becomes clear she was coerced into marrying Arthur, though it takes time to figure out what’s actually happening with this foursome.

This frustrated audiences and the studio and the movie was a failure. It’s been rethought, but that probably was cold comfort for Welles. The cuts robbed him of his exact vision and audiences didn’t like the finished product, though they wouldn’t have liked his version better, based on what was cut. The Lady from Shanghai can be tough to follow, especially once the actual mystery gets going, but that’s the point.

This is not a love story. This is the story of Michael O’Hara, a man who got roped into a very weird situation and never really got the whole story. If you were in his shoes, this is how you’d experience it. The narration helps, especially to set the tone but also to keep the ending on track. Welles mostly pulls off the accent, at least so far as it doesn’t get distracting, but he absolutely pulls off the character itself. This is one of my favorite performances of his and it’s almost entirely in how he rides out what other leading men of the time would have sold as confused or scared. Welles gives a tight performance, even during the extreme ending, and the result only makes us more interested in what Michael O’Hara was doing in Spain before he met this woman in the park.

The actual plot is only complicated in the moment, but in the end it’s all clear and directly explained. It’s the deeper elements, trying to figure out who is siding with who and at which moments, that makes it such a great story. Welles put his signature style on it and they let him keep a lot of it, but they couldn’t take anything out of his performance. Welles and Hayworth were on the brink of divorce while filming this and one imagines that helped sell what is a fire-and-ice love story to begin with, though that may be reading in too far. Whatever the case, the things people found tricky or frustrating about The Lady from Shanghai are what make it so great today. It’s a mystery and a love story but really it’s a character study, but it never goes too deep in any direction. The result is a breezy 88 minutes that holds your attention and makes you wonder about everything you aren’t seeing and the secret lives of these very strange people on this very strange ship.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? This is a lot better than I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Both could be called “confounding” and both are only wrapped up with meaning in the last five minutes, but this journey is more worthy of your time.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, still will go with Persona, though this is a tough call. I’ve seen this movie a few times and every time I rewatch it I find something new to love. This time it was the very big, overstated performance by Glenn Anders, who plays George Grisby. It’s an almost silly role, but that only lends to the difference between him and O’Hara. Welles is so tight, especially in scenes with Anders, that it reflects back on lines like “just tell them you were doing a little target practice” as an explanation, somehow, for why someone would be firing a gun in a public place. It’s all part of the tone and it really, really works.

You can watch The Lady from Shanghai on Amazon Prime (free with a subscription). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is I’m Thinking of Ending Things the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

The shortest review I can offer you for I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a comparison. Do you think Charlie Kaufman’s work is getting better or worse over time? If you think it’s getting better you are going to love this. If you don’t, that answer is probably complicated.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things is an adaptation of a short novel with a twist. Kaufman wrote the screenplay for the film and directed it himself, which seems to be a mistake. He’s the mind behind Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and (at least part of) Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, all masterpieces. He started to direct his own scripts after that, with the devastating Synecdoche, New York and the frustrating, messy, Anomalisa. I’m a fan of the former, though it really does ask a lot of you and I like it less than all three other films mentioned, but I really hated the latter. Anomalisa at least does challenge you. I thought about it a lot after I saw it. Even when I don’t like what he’s doing with the premise, I have to hand it to Kaufman on the premise itself.

I’m not alone in the opinion that he’s a better writer than director and it’s not uncommon for truly out there writers to benefit from someone who can reign in their impulses. I’m Thinking of Ending Things sets the bar really high with the combination of an adapted work and no one to tell Charlie Kaufman no. The result is a movie that is somehow both tedious and experimental, both frustrating and interesting, both extremely well-written and shockingly bad at times. It’s both ends of the spectrum, which is better than just being not very good, but it really just never settles into any lane for long enough to be something you will enjoy.

A theme of “classic film” that comes up again and again is that question: Are we having fun yet? Charlie Kaufman has absolutely no interest in making fun movies, which is fine. However, even from the guy who made Synecdoche, New York, this is dark territory. It’s made all the darker by what we don’t see.

Jake (Jesse Plemons) and his girlfriend (Jessie Buckley) are going to meet his parents. During the drive and dinner at their old farmhouse both Jake and his parents (David Thewlis and Toni Collette, both excellent in limited roles) call her multiple names, most often Lucy but also Lucia and Ames. She continually gets phone calls from people who may also have these names. Details change continuously, telling us things are not as they seem. For the first hour, the confusion is fascinating and slight enough that we are drawn in. It’s impossible to understand but not frustrating. The inaccuracies get bigger and bigger, with surreal elements that balloon into a full reality break. Both parents rapidly age and then shift back as they come in and out of scenes. Jessie Buckley’s character, who I am going to call Lucy though it’s important that you know she is not Lucy, can’t keep it together.

The title comes from Lucy’s inner monologue about potentially breaking up with Jake. At times he seems to sense this if not actually hear her inner monologue, though he pushes forward with inane chatter and long stories about poetry. This is supposed to be the pretentious conversation of this kind of person at this sort of age, but Kaufman falls into a trap by using two annoying characters in a two-person movie. Even if the joke is “can you believe how unbearable this is?” it doesn’t matter that it’s a joke, it’s still happening for really, really long scenes full of high-minded, lengthy quotes from scholarly works. It’s satire, sure, but it’s so much that it becomes the text itself.

We’ve talked before about how “pretentious” has come to just mean “bad” in criticism. This is not a bad movie, but it certainly is pretentious. If you buy the ticket to a movie that Charlie Kaufman has complete control over, this is what you’re signing up for. It’s hard to fault it on those lines, but I really have to insist in this case. The inner mystery of the film really is just variations of the question “what is happening?” The ending somewhat answers the question, but the drive there feels exceedingly long. A trip to the high school on the way out of town extends into a lengthy dream ballet in the style of An American in Paris. There is internal logic to why this happens, but I challenge you to not let out a groan when faced with a dream ballet in a Netflix movie in a year that starts with a two.

Pauline Kael was the film critic for The New Yorker and famously wrote the alternative history that led to the plot of Mank, though her positive contributions to film and criticism are extensive. That said, she was a film critic decades ago for The New Yorker. You don’t need to know who this is. You do need to know that one of the longest, most uncomfortable scenes in a recent film is the moment where Lucy quotes, at great length, Pauline Kael’s review of a John Cassavetes movie. She doesn’t attribute it in the scene, which does have some internal logic, just like the dream ballet, but even with an explanation, again, this is a long scene where someone rambles direct quotes of a movie review from five decades ago in the place of conversation. Writing for TIME, Stephanie Zacharek said “Who, out there, still reads Kael? Who will get his tricky little joke, and if you do, what do you win? Kaufman doesn’t care how smart you are, as long as you know how smart he is.”

On the other side, IndieWire wrote this bizarre piece that starts “Charlie Kaufman is not a fan of solving movies for his audience” and then solves the movie with spoilers in extreme detail and great length. It’s well written, but it’s a testament to the movie Kaufman made that he agreed to do a 3,000 word explainer that breaks down who characters are and what every scene means. If you aren’t going to watch this or already have, check that out, but really do not if you want to experience this first hand.

But should you? It’s way too long and frustratingly cute, though I did like some of the jokes and the central mystery hooked me more than it didn’t. The horror is muted and mostly contained in a retrospective look at what you just saw, especially once you realize what the different perspectives meant. I have a lot of patience for movies like this and even more for Charlie Kaufman, but ultimately I think this is too much. There’s a good story in here, probably the one in the novel that made him want to tell a slightly different story in the same space, but the end result is a meal that’s all spices and seasonings. A little goes a long way, and I cannot rightfully recommend wholeheartedly any movie where a major plot point requires you to be deeply familiar with the specific reasons Pauline Kael didn’t like A Woman Under the Influence in 1974.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I didn’t mean for this to follow a Cassavetes movie, but there’s a nice connection here. Opening Night is better than this. Both feature ambiguous endings, though I think you’re intended to walk away from this one with a more conclusive view of the world. The magic is all distracting and while every review I read seems focused on making sure you understand that the reviewer Definitely Got It, I stand by my point that even if the devices are devices, if we spend the whole movie with them then that’s the story you showed us, no matter what the point behind it all is.

Is it the best movie of all time? No. Sticking with Persona, and this is definitely on the lower end of the list. I liked it better than Anomalisa, but otherwise I think this is Kaufman’s worst work. A.A. Dowd said in his review for The A.V. Club that it would frustrate people who really liked Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and he is very much correct. Jessie Buckley especially is really fantastic in this and there are moments that I think are spectacular, but this movie needed a stronger hand from the editor very badly and probably a different director to sharpen Kaufman’s work rather than letting it sprawl out over 134 minutes.

You can watch I’m Thinking of Ending Things on Netflix. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Opening Night the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

When I wrote about Husbands, I’d only seen one other movie by John Cassavetes. I’ve seen a few more now, but I’m by no means an expert. After reading more about the cult of fandom around him, it’s clear that people who like him really, really like him. I was especially fascinated by finding what I thought was a term paper from a film class but was apparently the personal website of critic Ray Carney. Most people can’t name more than one or two film critics, but as I’ve gotten more interested in film over the years I’ve grown more familiar with the big names. Carney is a new one for me, distinguished by being seemingly the world’s premiere Cassavetes expert. He very literally wrote the book, but the list of directors he hates includes just about everyone I, and probably you, like. It’s clearly contrarianism, but some people love that approach.

This seems to be the thing, though. Even among outsiders, Cassavetes provides space for you to like an outsider. Most of his films, even the ones considered classics, seem to have flopped. He has several films on most top films lists, no matter who you side with for your list of greats, but he continually struggled to get audiences (and often critics) to be interested in what he was making. He made very different movies, but often with the same central cast and with the same ethos. He had a way of viewing the world and a bleakness that was central to the tone of his films. Just as Tarantino, who Ray Carney hates, is obsessed with style, Cassavetes could be said to be obsessed with tone. But that’s just my opinion, you should probably ask Ray Carney, to be sure.

Opening Night is the story of an older woman who would not agree with that description. Myrtle, played by Gena Rowlands, is a recognizable star and a big name, but now is doing a play in Connecticut. The Second Woman, a fictional play that we never see all of, is the story of a woman who may be confronting her age or may be running from it. We never see enough of it to discern the message, but that’s the whole point. Myrtle can’t find the heart of the character, saying she has lost the “reality of the, well, reality.” She especially struggles with a scene where her co-star Maurice, played by Cassavetes himself, has to slap her. Director Manny, played by Cassavetes staple Ben Gazzara, has to make this whole thing work.

Most of the film follows Myrtle, but we see Manny drink scotch and wonder what it all means with his wife. She does some physical comedy while Manny stays on the phone in the middle of the night to calm Myrtle down. The scene ultimately ends in an immediate cut to the next scene, virtually in the middle of his wife’s line about how they should stop pretending. I had to rewind three times to catch it, as I did a few other times with other seemingly important lines. Some of this is the style of the day for the late 70s, but it’s also a sign that Cassavetes doesn’t really care about what is said in these moments. Maybe Manny’s home life is cracking up and maybe it’s not, but that’s not what we’re here for. It should all carry a certain tone to it, but what people are actually saying over those glasses through bleary eyes is a little less important.

Myrtle either can’t or won’t do the play as written. She insists on inserting her own dialogue or surprising the supporting cast during previews. She tells everyone involved that the part doesn’t connect for her, but we are led to believe no one has a choice. The show is happening and it’s happening with the name that’s four times larger than the others on the billboard still attached. Manny has to figure out how to make this work, which includes loud, drunken discussions about art and meaning and aging just as much as it does agreeing to let Myrtle go see a spiritualist after she continues to mention the ghost of a young girl whose death she witnessed after a show.

Most of the reviews of Opening Night center the story around Myrtle’s drinking, and it would be impossible to ignore it. Myrtle is a severe alcoholic, surrounded by lesser drunks, but she has problems that alcohol doesn’t intersect with. The young fan who dies in the opening scene haunts Myrtle, which some reviewers chalk up to drunken mania. It seems to me to be a lot more than that and actually a pivot away from the booze being the problem. Myrtle drinks to avoid the elements of her life she actually struggles with, which are then compounded by the drinking. It’s not possible to fully separate all of this, but it’s important to see this as more than the story of a drunk falling down.

Myrtle does fall down, though, and shows up disastrously drunk to the actual opening night. To this point, she has not really performed this play. It stretches credulity that the cast wouldn’t be furious, but Cassavetes addresses this by showing us a side character saying that she’s more honest in her crazed, unreal version of the play than when he’s really on. Her co-star is far less gracious and directly says he’s going to do it as written. The whole film builds to the moment where both approaches are put to the test. We get resolution on both points, but it may not satisfy every viewer.

Rowlands is an icon. She was married to Cassavetes for more than three decades and was in almost all of his films. Her performance here is excellent, going beyond the typical requirements of what a person following the beats of a destructive artist would do on the way down. This is a complex performance to the end. The ending is unambiguous on screen, but I really do wonder if we’re supposed to take it at face value. Cassavetes said he and Rowlands performed the final scene three times for the audience and escalated it a little bit each time. The third one is the one in the final film. You really have to see it to see where it goes, because I assure you that you cannot guess.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I think so. I liked this a great deal more than Husbands and I do think I liked it more than First Cow, our last film in this series. I have fewer criticisms of First Cow, which maybe makes this feel like the wrong answer, but I feel pushed to see more Cassavetes after seeing this. I didn’t feel that going in, so it has succeeded in that regard.

Is it the best movie of all time? Nope. Persona retains the crown, though I think this is my favorite Cassavetes so far, except possibly The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. The main issue I took with Opening Night is that it never feels very real in a macro sense. The author of the play is available and never gets as flustered as you’d expect and we addressed the cast responses in the review. The dialogue is all excellent, a strength of Cassavetes even if he seems uninterested in it, and visually this is a really fascinating movie, but it does not feel true to how people would actually behave. That may bother you and it may not, but it didn’t interfere with me enjoying the elements I did.

You can watch Opening Night on The Criterion Channel (subscription required) or Amazon Prime ($2.99 at the time of this writing). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is First Cow the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

Metacritic does a roundup of top ten lists from critics every year. Last year, First Cow did better on this list than any movie other than Nomadland, the eventual Best Picture winner at the Oscars. Critical reviews aren’t everything and certainly echo chambers develop, but it’s still noteworthy. Don’t look too closely at that list if you’re the kind of person who gets mad at trolls. There’s a streak of contrarianism among people who make these lists that reduces their usefulness, but bonus points indeed to people who picked TV shows, movies that did not come out in the year in question, or even abstract concepts. You truly have advanced the discourse.

That said, First Cow is up there on these lists for a reason. It’s the kind of movie that wouldn’t usually find purchase, but in a diluted pandemic year, this is the perfect time to watch a movie about two people trying to make biscuits to build a better life for themselves. John Magaro (who I only know from smaller roles in Carol and The Big Short) plays Cookie, a man who studied under a baker and now hopes to build a life in the Pacific Northwest in the 1820s. We see Cookie’s life with a ragtag crew and the difficulty of the time. He saves a man named King-Lu (Orion Lee, in his biggest role to date by far; he does not yet have a Wikipedia page) from pursuers. King-Lu finds Cookie later and offers to repay the debt with a place to hang out and a bottle they can share. It’s a fast friendship, but one that feels very real both for the time and just how friendships actually develop.

The supporting cast is all fine, but these two have to do all of the heavy lifting. Cookie suggests he can make some baked goods, but he’ll need materials. Lu suggests they steal some milk from the only cow in town, owned by a dangerous, rich, boastful man. Cookie agrees and they do some light crime to develop a small number of biscuits. They’re a hit immediately and they start to build a small nest egg to pay for their big dreams.

It’s a simple story and there’s not really much more than that to tell. Magaro plays Cookie as a quiet, hopeful character. His performance only really gets to shine as he milks the rich man’s cow in quiet, friendly tones. He clearly respects this creature and tells her that her milk is going to great use. This tenderness is important because we need to root for Cookie, but it also extends to the friendship with Lu. Lee steals the show as the brilliant, resourceful King-Lu. He tells Cookie a lot about his life in Asia, but he also gets a lot done with brief details. We learn a lot about how these men see themselves and how they see their world. They tell little jokes to each other and they really, and this is important, seem like they’re friends.

There are a lot of movies about friendship, such that saying that sounds like a reductive description. It’s really not, this is just the story of two guys hanging out in the woods and making biscuits. They dream about opening a modest hotel for travelers. They clearly think about what they wish existed for them and want to provide that for others. Every part of the script and the performances serve to hammer home that these guys are really likable and they just want to steal a little milk to build a better life. No one will even miss it, right?

The conflict comes in when someone does start to miss it, but it’s largely beside the point. The very first scene of the film shows us a cameo from Alia Shawkat who tells her dog to “leave it” as it discovers two skeletons in a grave. It’s not exactly a spoiler to say that these two guys aren’t alive two hundred years later, but the choice to do this asks the viewer to start thinking about how they end up right away. The only other opening we get is a huge boat sailing across the screen in real time, an extended shot that doesn’t develop anything beyond a mood. This is the spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey all over again. Settle in, this shot tells you, two people are going to die, but we aren’t necessarily going to get to that point right away.

First Cow would not be in my top five of the year, but it does seem right to put it in the top ten. I find myself saying this in this series a lot, but this is another case of a movie being very good at what it wants to be, but that thing not necessarily being what I want to see. First Cow is the story of a friendship between two characters and it develops over two hours. Not a whole lot happens, but what does happen is worth experiencing. The performances, especially Orion Lee’s, are very strong. It’s just a good way to tell a small story in a world that feels real, and shouldn’t that be enough, sometimes?

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Is it very much better than Last Year at Marienbad. For all the “slight” and “slow” you can layer on top of First Cow, it does not open with ten minutes of ultimately meaningless repeated dialogue from unmoving actors. It does not do that. Even with an opening few scenes designed to set your expectations for a slow film, First Cow still gets going on a similarly small, but much more engaging set of events than the artiest of art films.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, it really does feel like a small story told patiently, and maybe too patiently. I walked away feeling pretty good about it but it doesn’t hold your attention very well during the runtime. There are confusing, frightening, and seemingly out-of-place images in Persona, but you find yourself hooked and return to it well after finishing it. First Cow is a great film, but it’s not necessarily designed with staying power in mind. It’s okay, it tells a story and that’s fine. That’s all it wanted to do in the first place.

You can watch First Cow on Amazon Prime (if you have Showtime; free trial available). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Last Year at Marienbad the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

In 2009, critic John Powers wrote, for my money, the best introduction possible to the 1961 film Last Year at Marienbad. He said he was “bored and baffled” by it and that it was “art cinema with a vengeance.” In recalling a conversation he had after it seeing it, he asked a question that really is such a smart way to phrase an exercise that comes up a lot when you watch “classic” film: “can something be great if it’s not any good?”

Last Year at Marienbad is a mess. It’s tremendously boring and feels very long despite being a short experience. Roger Ebert called it “a deliberate, artificial artistic construction” but says it’s possible to be bored when watching it. He listed it among his list of greatest films list but gave a review that makes it seem like he doesn’t seem to like it that much.

Just about all critical discourse I read follows Powers and Ebert in calling this a critical piece of cinema history and a true accomplishment but also a bore and, frankly, a not very good movie. Why and how have we constructed a world where it does not matter if your piece of art is entertaining? I will confess to liking a lot of movies that are not enjoyable (Magnolia is one of my favorites but I definitely ruined a party with it once) but there has to be something said for a baseline of “good,” right? We should care first if it’s a positive experience, if not also a pleasant one, to watch your film. You can certainly make art on top of that and you really should try, most of the time, but it should be a movie first.

There are three characters in Last Year at Marienbad. They are not named, but are traditionally referred to by single letters, though not in the film itself. X is a man who tells Y, a woman, that they met last year, possibly at Marienbad. Possibility is the theme, as Y does not believe they’ve ever met, but X is insistent. It is not clear who is correct, though X has a photograph of Y that complicates her story. M, who may or may not be her husband, may or may not believe either of them, and may or may not interfere as X tries to pursue Y.

The one positive thing I’ll say is that this is a bold choice. Nothing officially happens here, as every character is shown doing some things and not doing others, sometimes within stories. When X details what happened last year, at Marienbad, we see Y doing those things. This doesn’t mean it happened, but it also doesn’t mean it didn’t. Director Alain Resnais says it’s critical that you believe this did happen and seems to want you to think about why she would say that it didn’t. Writer Alain Robbe-Grillet says it didn’t happen and seems to say the director is tricking you. The inconsistency is part of all of this, as the text itself doesn’t answer the question. The trailer for the film at the time leans into this as a mystery for the viewer to solve, going so far as to say that you get to be a writer of the film yourself. This is a Choose Your Own Adventure Movie, which is to say that it is barely a narrative. Arguably it’s not even a narrative, as every version of the story is contradicted and subverted.

Powers’ review is scathing, but it concludes by saying this is something you have to experience for yourself. I don’t know if that’s true. If this sounds frustrating and silly to you, then you know already that you don’t need to see it. If you’re even slightly interested in a complex experience that honestly doesn’t pay off for everyone, then you do. A lot of care was put into this film, even if it’s not always in service of an experience you can recommend. The characters move through a haunting castle filled with background characters who mostly stand perfectly still and stare. It’s immersive despite being so stylized. It’s remarkable, in a way, but I kept expecting something to happen. Nothing happens.

I don’t think this is the worst movie I’ve ever seen, obviously, and it’s a classic for a reason. I’d much rather be frustrated by an art film than watch an actual bad movie, but I hope to not watch any bad movies for this series. Last Year at Marienbad is an oddity because nothing that makes a movie stand out is present. The performances aren’t necessarily memorable. The visuals are interesting but repeat over and over. The dialogue is often meaningless, when present at all. It’s all about the ultimate question of if the titular event happened or not, wrapped up in the fact that you aren’t even intended to get an answer.

That piece is what keeps me from suggesting you watch it. When you watch a great film with a question at the center, you are expected to form an opinion that changes your view of what you saw. That will happen here. You may believe this couple met last year and that this woman, deliberately or not, is blocking the memory. You may believe they didn’t and this is his way of hitting on her. You may believe she is married to the tall, serious man who appears to be her husband or you may believe he has kidnapped her or otherwise has control over her. You may find whatever conclusion you draw to be enough for you, but I did not. It all comes down to that question, which is possible to be answered in the affirmative. I just couldn’t get there, but I think it’s interesting that even for people who could, they still felt the need to acknowledge, even in a list of the greatest films of all time, that this one is a tough one.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? No. Judas and the Black Messiah is a great experience with a message worth hearing. People who take issue with it don’t like that it’s a story told through the lens of a betrayal, but I’m always fascinated at that kind of critique. It’s fair to not like what a movie chose to do, but that’s different than discussing what it actually did. Last Year at Marienbad does what the writer and director intended. I don’t like that, but it makes Ebert’s list because of execution, not intention.

Is it the best movie of all time? No. I think Husbands is a more compelling film to watch but might be the only movie I’ve watched for this series I enjoyed less than this one. I’m glad I saw it and I think the idea of a story that alternatively may or may not be true is obviously interesting, but Persona asks similar questions within an actual story. You walk away from Persona with some big questions and a sense that potentially what you just saw was not entirely real, but you have so much more to unpack. A movie does not have to be a pleasant experience to be worth your time, but it really ought to try to be a movie.

You can watch Last Year at Marienbad on Amazon Prime ($3.99 at the time of this writing). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.