Is The Royal Tenenbaums 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 had a friend in school who used to quote Wes Anderson movies all the time. “There are no teams,” he would tell me often, echoing a small, but important, joke from The Royal Tenenbaums. I was going to call Wes Anderson “divisive,” but that isn’t exactly it. It’s more that if he works for you, he really works for you. From the visual style to the vocal patterns, Anderson’s films are nothing if not specific. That specificity lends to a “universe” that people really connect with (or don’t).

My friends Mike and Eliza suggested this (and a few other movies) and I rewatched The Royal Tenenbaums for this review. I’ve seen it a handful of times and I count myself among the people still charmed by Anderson’s cutesy world. They don’t all work for me. I had a hard time sinking my teeth into The Darjeeling Limited and I only like, but don’t love, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, which seems to be a full-on crime. I think Moonrise Kingdom is his best, but Tenenbaums was the first one that really clicked with me, so it’ll always be special.

This should be terrible. On premise alone, a dysfunctional family modeled after J.D. Salinger’s Glass family is a frustrating space to spend time. Adding “rich” and “aloof” as primary descriptors for the cast does not improve things. Mix in Anderson’s aesthetic and Gene Hackman as our primary character, a deadbeat absentee father who lies to get back into his family, and really, ugh. Did I mention it’s all supposedly part of a novel that Alec Baldwin reads to you periodically, in the style of Franny and Zooey?

It’s amazing that it works, but it’s even more amazing the degree to which it works. The cast is outstanding, obviously, but I couldn’t isolate anyone who doesn’t nail what they’re given. Every role has a “thing” to it, which Baldwin narrates as a way of introducing the character. This could feel contrived, as we’re told that Gwyneth Paltrow’s Margot has been smoking since she was 12 and acts out to try to get noticed and has soured as a result of that failing or Ben Stiller’s Chas is a recent widow who has become obsessed with safety but was always high-strung, but they feel fully realized immediately. The narration is constant but never feels tacked on or distracting. This alone is a feat.

Mitchell Hurwitz saw the comparisons to his idea for Arrested Development when he saw Tenenbaums. On this rewatch I was surprised by how much of Michael, the central figure in Hurwitz’s ensemble comedy, is in Chas. Tenenbaums is a comedy, sorta, but really modern ensemble comedy owes a lot to the way that Anderson is able to show us terrible people and make us care about something beyond punishment or redemption. I’d seen the movie many times but still, this time, I found myself interested in every arc and hoping for developments, good or bad. There are a dozen or so people in the extended family structure and nearly all of them are memorable and fascinating. Another feat.

Anderson is well known for his soundtracks and Tenenbaums may be the centerpiece of his career. The playful “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” kicks up as Hackman’s Royal Tenenbaum picks his up grandkids to raise some hell. The somber “Needle in the Hay” plays during the film’s most shocking and upsetting climax. There are between two and fifty-five Nico songs, especially towards the end. This isn’t a viable criticism, but this effect has diminishing returns on rewatches. Nico is great, but I felt like every new scene found a new 45-second clip at an unnecessary pace towards the end. There’s no room to breathe, which I may only be noticing because of how many movies with longer, wandering paces I’ve seen recently.

This is not a scientific study, but if I had to guess, this is the most common answer people I’ve met have given for their favorite movie of all time. That alone is pretty remarkable, isn’t it? It’s only reflective of one person’s experience, which is in turn only reflective of one culture’s experience, but it’s still something. Most of the negative reviews don’t feel like Anderson nailed making his characters sympathetic or they hated how precious it was. Where’s the disconnect?

The first criticism first: Who says this is supposed to be sympathetic? Margot, the adopted Tenenbaum daughter, cheats on her miserable husband Raleigh St. Clair. You can read this as terrible behavior and feel for St. Clair or you can observe that he’s distant and doesn’t really understand her and infer that it probably never was a successful match in the first place. Margot is treated harshly by her father, even by his standards, and acts out. St. Clair tries to connect, but meekly and robotically. There are a dozen judgements to make, all correct. Probably most people feel like Margot is wrong here, but there’s no real attempt made to sell us on anyone being “good” short of Danny Glover’s character. Most everyone else is letting everyone down, in big or small ways.

The second: too cute? Anderson is the definition of A Lot as a director, to be sure, but buy the ticket, take the ride. As Wes Anderson movies go, this is practically boring from a style perspective. There’s no Sigur Rós underwater climax and no stop motion and no consistent-but-bizarre motif. The character who dresses the strangest, Eli Cash, is even remarked upon as essentially doing a bit, which is unheard of in the expanded Anderson universe. There are reasons, explained, inarguable reasons, for almost all of the strange choices. If you found this “too cute” I would imagine you are unable to abide the modern Anderson period where he’s learned that the choices absolutely do not need to be explained.

In my memory, this was much more affected, more “Andersonian,” than I found it upon rewatch. It also was much meaner as a distant idea than it is as a fresh film. I remembered less of a moral and more of a feeling of finality. I don’t know if multiple viewings or just a viewing as a much older person changed my mind, but I was really impressed. This is a movie that can grow with you and can reflect a different feeling towards family and forgiveness through different lenses. Most people I know have already seen it and it’s a fair bet you have, too, but try it again, no matter how cute you thought it was last time.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I’ve watched both Le Samouraï and The Royal Tenenbaums a few times. Both are impressive, but Le Samouraï is marked by how little happens. It’s a tone piece about suspense and waiting to see if the bomb goes off in the end or not. There’s little doubt in The Royal Tenenbaums that these wealthy characters won’t experience many real struggles but also won’t find much in the way of real connection. You know the ending from the start, if not the actions then the feeling. That should make it less interesting, but the fact that you still will want to follow dozens of plots and characters says otherwise. Is one a harder feat to accomplish than the other? No, not really, but Tenebaums is a movie I could recommend to everyone. Le Samouraï may require some explanation.

Is it the best movie of all time? It’s a strong contender, but no, I still will go with In the Mood for Love. One of the challenges here is that The Royal Tenenbaums is a movie I grew up watching. It came out when I was an older teenager and defined the way I saw film for many years. I’m too close to it, I too strongly want to nod towards it and call it perfect and capital I important and move on. I don’t have a good argument for why it isn’t other than the shock I felt then and the ton of bricks that lands on me now when I think about the ending to In the Mood for Love and how we got there.

You can watch The Royal Tenenbaums on Amazon Prime. 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 Le Samouraï 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.

This is the first suggestion in this series, from the author of Over-The-Shoulder. I recommend checking out their blog if you like this one, especially the discussion of if a small budget makes Reservoir Dogs a better movie than it would have been otherwise. I have a few other recommendations to get through, but if you’d like to add to the list, instructions are at the bottom of this post.

Today’s film is Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï, which provided heavy influence for the style of action movies today. The titular samurai is Jef Costello, played by the notoriously handsome Alain Delon. There is no description or discussion of Delon I can find that does not specifically call out this detail, which is fascinating. He’s great looking, obviously, but it’s interesting how consistently you see it called out when you read about his career. His charm is important, as he’s playing a laconic hitman with a curious code of honor.

Jef lives a stoic life. We see his apartment with a bunch of cigarettes and water bottles and not much else. He moves with determination, marching through life in a raincoat and hat and a grimace. We see him steal cars using a huge ring of skeleton keys and each time he stares straight ahead, clearly nervous but also intent on anyone watching seeing just another person. He must blend in, so even this distinctive look is intended to be forgettable among everyone else in Paris.

A handful of the better James Bond movies had just come out when Le Samouraï was released. The audience must have made the comparison, with this handsome gunman who oozes cool confidently entering scenes and demanding things of other characters. When Jef establishes his alibi before the hit, he tells a group of poker players that he never loses, not really. The “not really” is important, as it takes this beyond cliché and into a statement about who he is. Everything he does, from a simple apartment setup to the way he speaks with people, is tied up in an idea of himself as a lone wandering warrior. On the one hand, he kills for money, which seems inconsistent with any sort of code. However, it’s very clear he has no moral issues with this. He does what people ask and the rest will sort itself out.

Roger Ebert is almost always worth quoting, obviously, but here I want to pull out more than usual. He said Le Samouraï “teaches us how action is the enemy of suspense—how action releases tension instead of building it. Better to wait for a whole movie for something to happen (assuming we really care whether it happens) than to sit through a film where things we don’t care about are happening constantly.” I could not agree more and I feel like this is the most important element of the film. A “cool” and quiet hitman who doesn’t care if what he does is right or wrong is a pretty bad starting point for a story. In lesser hands than Melville’s, this would be a character that would be really difficult to root for and a plot that it would be hard to connect with beyond wanting few people to die.

It works because of how little happens. Jef trades in his car’s license plates several times and barely speaks with his handler. He establishes an alibi and outwits the police once he’s identified, but most of what happens is other characters moving the plot. Jef is shifty and odd, but Delon is so handsome you find yourself drawn in. It’s really important that we have this time to develop an interest in Jef’s success, because if he was shooting people and running down alleyways all the time, we wouldn’t care. He’d just be James Bond.

I saw Drive before Le Samouraï, and it’s a very weird experience to see the result before the inspiration. I suspect most people will fall into that group, but I especially encourage you to see Melville’s film if you liked Drive. There’s obviously a lot going on in Drive that’s different, notably Le Samouraï spends a lot of time silent where Drive is mostly the soundtrack, but the connection between the main characters is hard to ignore. There have been other quiet anti-heroes, but this is really an obvious lift.

When something finally does happen, you care about it. You don’t really know if the police will catch him or if he wants to be caught or if he has something else planned until it all pays off. The ending is important to not spoil, so I won’t, but I will say that it pays off Jef’s code and ties up everything in an unexpected way. Melville isn’t necessarily trying to say something here so much as to show us something, but that’s not a criticism. This story model and this character type come up again and again in action films, but you are unlikely to find one where the director delivers so completely on their intention. Almost every scene is tense, even though almost nothing happens. Melville teaches us to constantly expect something even without paying off that intention until we finally care whether it happens or not. It’s not all explosions and car chases, but it’s a grander accomplishment than a continuous surprise that isn’t surprising at all.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I don’t think so. Melville was an interesting character who played the interview subject in Breathless and he’s worth learning about if you aren’t familiar. He was fascinated by American cinema and there’s a larger discussion worth having about the influence of American film on Le Samouraï and vice versa. If more action films cared about their protagonist, I think we’d be much better off. In the Mood for Love is a totally different kind of movie that has a lot more space to breathe and to seep into your mind. It’s far less self contained and has a leg up for that, alone.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, but I think it might be the best action movie of all time. I’m not sure what my other pick would be, probably The French Connection. That’s a discussion for another day, but I think what draws me to Le Samouraï is that there’s enough of an internal consistency to what Jef does that he feels like a real character. We don’t see enough to learn why he does all this, though, and the fact that he’s in it for the money but lives such a cheap life is a fascinating element. It suggests that he really does view himself as a warrior who is intended to work this way. What would get you to that way of thinking? We don’t see, but that lets you fill it in yourself.

You can watch Le Samouraï on The Criterion Channel or HBO Max. 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 In the Mood for Love 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 lot of the discussion in this series so far has danced around what makes a film even eligible for the discussion. I don’t think it’s even possible to know, which is why this is an “eternal search.” As an American born in the 1980s, I have a specific perspective and most of the film I’ve seen is American film. I try to branch out when I can, but a lot of my background and a lot of what’s available to me is one kind of cinema.

The great lists are a place to start, but even that is imperfect. For every list, someone has a criticism. The most famous list used today is probably AFI’s “100 Years… 100 Movies” list. The “American” in “American Film Institute” should tell you one problem, but the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum offers many others in his rebuttal and alternate list. You could do worse than the list Sight & Sound puts out once a decade. Robert Ebert called it the only one that real cinema folks “take seriously.”

The detail I find most interesting in all versions of “great” lists is that recency bias works against you. On the one hand, this isn’t all that shocking. People are more likely to list films in the canon on their list than to put something they just saw on it and it takes a long time for any collective consensus to form around anything. The more democratic lists like IMDB’s Top 100 work the opposite way. Everyone’s favorite movie is the thing they just saw.

AFI’s top 100 lists exactly one move from 2000 or later: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. The Sight & Sound list only has three. IMDB’s lists 37. This is a bigger statement about IMDB than it is anything else, but it’s interesting to see how these things shake out over time.

Yi Yi and Mulholland Drive come in at #93 and #28 respectively on the Sight & Sound list, but In the Mood for Love beats them both at #24. The methodology is not built exactly this way, but as the most recently movie released ahead of it is from 1979 (Apocalypse Now), we are left to assume that Sight & Sound says this is the best movie of the last thirty years. Those are pretty big shoes.

Chow Mo-wan and Su Li-shen meet in a hallway in Hong Kong in the 1960s. They both are in marriages that seem to be stressed, but in ways we struggle to understand at first. We see only parts of life, and even then only for extremely brief moments. We see the passing of time made clear, but no progression seems to take place.

Chow is a journalist and Su is a secretary. Their spouses both work and are frequently away, which creates a space for a friendship except for the external forces against them. Their neighbors are in the hallway all the time, asking after each of them and their spouses, and the pressure of society drills into them over and over. Su frequently dresses up to go to the noodle shop down the alley and Chow finds himself running into her in ways he can’t avoid or really handle.

The experience of these run-ins is powerful. Director Wong Kar-wai really wants us to feel the social constraints of two married neighbors who have no one to talk to but also can’t really talk to each other without creating a scandal. The pair and the supporting cast encounter others over and over in cramped hallways and have short conversations. In another director’s hands we’d get this explained to us, but here we just see so many versions in a row that we feel overwhelmed by the experience. It’s a better way to convey the world around them and how they feel moving around in it and the experience really works.

It’s also important to see this to realize this isn’t a couple slowly forming, exactly. It becomes clear that each of them is in a failing marriage and that infidelity is likely, but then even more shocking realizations become even more clear. This could be the setup for a love-rectangle, but that’s not exactly it. The two form a partnership, more accurately, and pass time with clandestine, chaste encounters. They even become business partners, after a fashion.

The film eventually follows the pair as they pursue their own version of happiness, but it isn’t the conclusion you’d anticipate. It isn’t even the direction you probably would expect, with really “important” narrative pieces omitted. This omission isn’t confusing, but it is just enough to make you wonder how our cast made it through all this, and if they could have done any of it differently.

It’s a love story with less love than you’re probably used to seeing in a genre film, but it’s definitely still a romance. I found it beautiful, often, and shocking without being extreme. Most of the film happens in hallways and offices and it asks you to look at characters, often obscured by railings or door frames, who have to consider very carefully if they are willing to reach for something new. I don’t think “love story” really sets the tone correctly, but this is too complex for any one identifier. The most powerful emotion is the tension of possibility that runs through the whole thing and really, though all of our lives. There are so many moments where another decision in the past would change your present life, and In the Mood for Love shows both the really obvious paths not taken and the small, quiet moments that only turned out to be other paths much later.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Dick Johnson is Dead is “modern” even compared to a “modern classic” like this one. This would be a better question with a documentary. There are a few more documentaries on my current list and I’ll revisit the question then. I certainly liked In the Mood for Love more.

Is it the best movie of all time? There are a handful of scenes where the two main characters act out other conversations, but we only realize they were acting after one of them breaks the scene. The film would work without these, but they’re what will stick with me for a long time after seeing it. The performances are strong, and they’d have to be with this small of a cast, but they are never stronger than these immediate shifts between swept-up lovers and then their real characters, neighbors who might be falling for each other and might not. These small touches, including an ending that I won’t spoil, pushes this one over the top for me. It’s not my favorite movie I’ve ever seen, but it is, I think, enough to edge out Badlands from the current top spot on our list.

You can watch In the Mood for Love on The Criterion Channel or HBO Max. 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 Dick Johnson Is Dead 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.

Cinema is not important. Not really, at least. 2020 and 2021 have been strange for reasons that outpace even the craziest movie fan’s ability to suggest that the movies are what we’ve lost the most. It has been weird to not go to the movies, but it’s been weird for a billion other reasons that matter more.

That said, this is the first year in ten that I haven’t gone to the theater a dozen times in January to see all the Oscar contenders. It’s felt a little rudderless to not have to go see American Sniper or 1917 or whatever other brown-and-tan war movie is nominated this year that you wouldn’t otherwise see. The Oscars are ridiculous for a million reasons, but they are a useful tool to guide us into seeing movies. I once saw 45 Years at 11 a.m. by myself solely because it was the one movie nominated for a major award that I hadn’t seen. It was worth it. I wouldn’t have done it otherwise.

I don’t think most people think of movies this way, but I appreciate the guidelines. I queued up Dick Johnson Is Dead for a similar reason, to approximate the same experience. It’s on the lists and it probably won’t be on the final lists, but why not roll the dice on something, anyway? Every week is a month and every month is a year, so it’s time to get to the things you always say you’ll get to but you won’t.

It’s a documentary by a documentarian who is finally turning the camera inward, which is a genre that seems to be on the rise. I couldn’t stop thinking of HBO’s How To with John Wilson, which was one of my favorite shows of the year. Kirsten Johnson tells the story of her father, Dick Johnson, who is nearing the end of his life and suffering from memory loss with dementia. The movie is aggressively about death in a way that may put off some viewers. I don’t know what kind of trigger warning needs to be put here, but we are going to talk about death, exclusively, so if that is not your particular brand of coffee, you may want to leave.

The reviews are universally positive. I have not found anyone who said anything negative about this movie. This isn’t uncommon for a release like this, but it makes me feel stranger for asking a question that seemingly doesn’t need to be asked. Is this exploitative? Dick Johnson is clearly up for the premise, but the entire movie is about him not necessarily knowing what is appropriate and the loss of quality of life that accompanies that. It feels wild to say this because no one else seems to be bothered by it, but several times I felt genuinely sad for the premise of the film. On one long shot of him saying that an experience felt worse than the worst moment of his life, I had to wonder, do we really need to do this?

It’s a hard movie to talk about. The premise folds outward several times, with Kirsten telling a story about death through the lens of her still-living father. She films herself asking Dick if she can make a movie about him dying with him dying on camera, but not for real, and then films herself talking to people who can help simulate the experience. This folds out several times, with her filming her creating the documentary about her creating the film of an experience that will happen, but not exactly. Dick falls down stairs and is crushed by falling objects and so much more, but all of it happens interspersed with film about film.

This isn’t elder abuse, Dick clearly finds Kirsten’s premise funny and eats chocolate cake to simulate his life-changing heart attack and shakes his arm on command to make his fake corpse funnier. He’s along for the ride, but the documentary premise lets us see that he isn’t always super clear on what’s happening or why it would be interesting. This offers a small look at a much larger life, as we can imagine this is a version of a conversation that’s happened hundreds of times. The two are only on camera together a few times, but every moment is a story that we only see the slightest part of but fill in the gaps easily. It’s a love letter, which everyone says about everything, but this one really is.

The premise cannot be overstated. I think the best movie about the topic is Still Alice, which is the only movie I’ve ever sworn to never rewatch. I was haunted by it and still can’t really process it fully, it’s too close and too terrifying. It feels like Jaws and the ocean to me, with fears realized too perfectly and a validation of exactly what seems to be an irrationally large fear. You’re worried and then you see it and you realize you were right all along. Dick Johnson Is Dead stares at death and says that obsession is the right response. It says that it should consume you, not to rob the subject of fear, but to validate the grandness with the degree that it deserves. Death is the biggest thing in life and if you don’t make it huge in your own life, when it invades you will be entirely unprepared.

This may not work for everyone. I don’t think a movie where the premise is to make your elderly father think about his violent death to the point of enacting it with stunt doubles is going to connect with America. I assumed this would be an entry point to a larger conversation, but it isn’t. This is all of it, which isn’t a complaint. It’s just astounding that every brick laid on top of every brick in this movie is more death, more overwhelming fear of what might happen and how it might impact people. There’s a fake funeral where people seem to realize this isn’t necessarily fake, even if it is in the moment, and it feels really cruel to put people through all of this.

But that’s the most important thing about Dick Johnson Is Dead. Is it cruel? It’s awful to live in a cloud of death and fear of death, but it’s worse to pretend. Kirsten Johnson wants to be ready and her way to be ready is to do it all now. My father passed away unexpectedly and the only solace at all was that earlier he’d had a significant health scare that caused me to do some of the processing earlier. He lived, then, and so when he didn’t, I’d done some of the work. Kirsten Johnson has done way more work than that.

I went back and forth while watching it. I think it is too much and it’s clear from what the director leaves on the screen that her dad also thinks it’s too much. He also loves it, if not from a desire to be on camera then from a desire to spend time with his daughter. I think it’s an important movie and something that does something I haven’t seen done before. It’s not something I’d put someone through, but I don’t have this kind of relationship. The device always works even when some of the pieces don’t, and the fact that this exists at all is a testament to stories that need to be told even when they’re really difficult to tell.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? What would Howard Hawks have said? Hey, man, here’s a documentary from a year that starts with a 2 where a woman films her dad fake dying six times, what do you think? I will spend more of my limited time above ground thinking about the documentary than I will the story of a paleontologist being flustered into falling in love. It’s not really fair to Bringing Up Baby, but I do think this is a better movie.

Is it the best movie of all time? I want everyone in my life to watch this. I want people to talk about it and to hear what people think. I think this is one of those movies you can’t really “like” or “dislike,” you feel stronger than that in either direction. I rolled my eyes a little at some of the flashier fake sequences and I think some of that gets away from the story that really hooked me, so I am still going to stick with Badlands, but I really would be doing you a disservice if I ended this any other way than a demand that you give this an hour and a half. It’s grim, sure, but it’s not what you’re expecting.

You can watch Dick Johnson Is Dead 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 Bringing Up Baby 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.

Bringing Up Baby shouldn’t work. It has two animal actors playing three animal parts. It’s a comedy with Katharine Hepburn, who wasn’t comfortable being funny. It has Cary Grant as a paleontologist who wants a specific dinosaur bone. It’s an absurd premise with even more absurd moving parts.

At the time, it didn’t work. Much has been written about the failure of the film, the fallout of the director at the studio, and the damage done to Hepburn’s reputation as a bankable star. There’s recently been a backlash to this perception and it’s notoriously difficult to isolate the “feeling” of the public with regard to a movie. It’s simple enough to say that Bringing Up Baby seemed to not work, at least to the degree it should have with the stars attached, and it took decades for it to gain the reputation it has now.

It’s a staple of early Hollywood comedy, now. It’s one of the go-to examples for a “screwball” comedy, a term for a specific genre of comedy where gender norms are flipped and a female dominates a male through wacky situations and misunderstandings. It’s as “of the time” as a genre can get, but a lot of the comedy in Bringing Up Baby works today. That timelessness is important to the legacy of the film.

Comedy is not well-represented on the “great films” lists. Some of this is just the nature of humor, where something is only funny if the audience understands what the joke is lampooning. I don’t want to try to explain what jokes are here, I trust you to understand why comedies aren’t on these lists very often, but it’s worth examining for a minute why the ones that do get listed find the spots they find.

If any comedies make it into a top 100 list, they are likely to be Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin films or maybe a Marx Brothers movie. Only a handful have won Oscars, and the ones that have are more likely to win for individual performances rather than the bigger awards. I read someone claim that Tom Jones, a truly bizarre film that we’ll talk about another day, is the only “true” comedy to win Best Picture. Annie Hall, It Happened One Night, and The Sting are comedies, sure, but something about them set them apart in that person’s mind. You could get lost in this argument, but I mean to say that typically, we’re afraid to call a comedy a “great” film in the way that a drama feels appropriately “great.” The funniest movie you’ve ever seen may or may not be your favorite, but you may feel like it’s a different kind of art than The 400 Blows.

I promise I won’t try to explain what “jokes” are here, but Bringing Up Baby is funny because there’s a really big cat, but we’ll get to that in a minute. Cary Grant plays Dr. David Huxley, who opens the film with one minute of nearly uninterrupted exposition. He says he wants a dinosaur bone to finish his dinosaur and to make his museum truly excellent. He says he’s going to get married tomorrow, to Alice, who we meet for the first and nearly last time. He says he wants to get a million dollars from a significant investor he has to go play golf with. It happens faster than any movie I can think of and we’re into the plot, immediately.

Howard Hawks directed Bringing Up Baby, as well as films as different as Sergeant York and The Big Sleep. He’s one of the legends of American cinema, but I’d like to focus on His Girl Friday. Grant plays a newspaperman who has to win back his ex-wife played by Rosalind Russell. The dialogue is so fast as to be confusing, with subtitles suggested even for viewers who speak English fluently. It’s another acclaimed screwball romantic comedy and it helps explain what Hawks is trying to do with Bringing Up Baby.

The newspaper story is more relatable to audiences. His Girl Friday came later, after Hawks said he learned from the failure of Bringing Up Baby that not every character in a wacky movie should be wacky. You need normal people to reflect the craziness. His Girl Friday uses normal people to show how boring daily life is if you don’t pump it full of excitement. Bringing Up Baby has no normal people because they live in a crazy version of our world.

In Bringing Up Baby, Hepburn ruins Grant’s golf outing and wedding day by constantly showing up and getting him wrapped up in schemes. It builds and builds until she calls him to say she has a leopard in her room because she was sent it in a box. He doesn’t believe her until she bangs on the phone and pretends to be hurt. He rushes over and finds the story is true, there’s a leopard.

The straight-laced Grant is undone by the weirdness and tries to keep his reputation intact while the wild Hepburn tries to break his defenses and get him to have fun. It’s built on a love story that develops as she keeps telling him he looks attractive without glasses or that he should stay and break his wedding date, but Grant rebuffs her until the obvious point where he doesn’t.

Comedy has escalated in modern times to the point where a leopard may not seem that weird, but it’s extremely strange in the world of 1930s film. Side characters keep being frustrated by people telling them they’ve seen the leopard or that they want to see the leopard, similar to how a ghost or a monster would function in a different kind of movie. No one believes there’s a leopard in Connecticut, but then they slowly find out there is. That’s really all there is to it, but I cannot overstate how weird it is to see Katharine Hepburn in a shot with a big jungle cat.

You can’t be objective about comedy, which is a big reason the big lists are so full of dour stories about war and strife. Either you think a story about two folks from the city trying to figure out what to do with a leopard at a dinner party is funny or you don’t. The stars are undeniable, though, which you’d probably expect given the names. The story goes that Hepburn struggled with the “bigness” of the role until she figured out how to present the part as funny. She plays a flipped version of this pairing (in that she’s the straight-laced one) in The African Queen, and arguably that works better, though at a different point in her life. Hepburn defies simple descriptions, but I was surprised to hear that about the production given the final result.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I think it’s far better than The Searchers, but I think most people wouldn’t agree with that. You can’t root for John Wayne in The Searchers and I’m not entirely sure that you were supposed to be able to do so when it came out, but it’s a tough narrative to get into given that challenge. As Westerns go it’s a classic the same way this film is a classic of early Hollywood romantic comedy, but I don’t think I’ll go back to The Searchers for future viewings. I could see revisiting this.

Is it the best movie of all time? I think a comedy could be better than Badlands, but I don’t think this one is. The romance is fun to watch but unbelievable as presented and the side characters are hilarious but truly bizarre. I really love the storyline of an expert in psychology telling Hepburn that men who follow women around are obsessed and expressing it as a direct reference to her own plan and all the tiny moments like that, but it’s all just in too strange of a package for me to say it’s the best one. It’s shockingly funny almost a century later, though, and that’s a truly remarkable achievement.

You can watch Bringing Up Baby on The Criterion Channel (for now, it’s leaving soon) or Amazon Prime for $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 The Searchers 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.

My favorite John Wayne performance is in The Quiet Man, a fish-out-of-water comedy about a gruff cowboy going to Ireland and falling in love with a fiery woman. It’s a strange movie, but it’s also not all that much more complex than that line would lead you to believe. Whatever you feel about John Wayne, it would be tough to say he has “range” as an actor, but he pulls off the comedy of that story (and True Grit, obviously) well. John Ford won an Academy Award for directing it and it’s a certified classic as a spin on a few different genres. The climactic fight really needs to be seen to be believed.

John Wayne works best when everyone around him is as little like John Wayne as possible. The idea of American masculinity at the time (and still today, in a lot of ways) is wrapped up in what John Wayne showed on the screen. In most John Wayne pictures, he shows up and gets exasperated at people who want to talk and plan. He acts. He’s effective because you don’t need to spend a lot of characterization to understand what he wants or how he plans to get it. Just as Peter Lorre visually transmits a completely different idea, Wayne requires very little storytelling for an audience to understand “good guy cowboy.”

The Searchers doesn’t completely bend that idea, but it does complicate it. John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a proud Confederate soldier who comes home to Texas years later after the war is lost and the world is changed. The subtext of The Quiet Man allows for some space where a brash American wandering into another culture and making a mess of things is actually a bad thing, but John Ford’s The Searchers is careful to tell us this hero of American masculinity and strength is actually an American terrorist. The audience in 1956 wouldn’t have used that term, but Wayne’s character is openly hostile to the figures that represent order and what we’d consider “the good guys.”

This is a really fascinating place to start. It would be one thing to introduce Ethan as a character always at odds with authority and someone we should view as a rebel, but Ford goes beyond that. Ethan makes a joke late in the movie about Union soldiers retreating, which is extra fascinating in the context of who they both are and what they represent. The Union solder is the son of a commanding officer and is clearly young and green and offers a contrast to Ethan’s experience and earned respect. Even still, every mention of Ethan’s background is grounded in his defense, even after the loss, of a racist rebellion that was quelled.

We live in a much different time, both than when this movie is set and when it was released. It’s not productive or even useful to try to ask what The Searchers means to a modern audience. This is becoming a theme in these reviews, though, because it’s how you will consume the movie. Ethan was supposed to read to the audience as a rebel, literally, but also as someone tough and resourceful. At the start of the story, Ethan has been through a tremendous, difficult journey, but one that, if examined, we wouldn’t agree was worth it.

This is important. Ethan is the main character, but he’s an evil, relentless bastard who takes every opportunity possible to extend cruelty. We aren’t supposed to hate him, exactly, but we aren’t supposed to agree with him, either. He comes home to a world slightly changed, but one where everyone still thinks he’s a hero and a symbol of virtue. Ward Bond plays the local lawman (and reverend) and he’s the only one who offers resistance to these ideas. Even he says they’ll sort it all out down the line and eventually sides with him, anyway.

Ethan’s family is murdered by Comanche and he vows to save the two women they abduct. He gives chase and stays on their trail for several years, with only his adopted nephew by his side. Martin Pawley, the nephew, is one-eighth Cherokee and Wayne’s character consistently uses slurs and insults him through the movie. It would be worth commenting on, but it’s pretty small in comparison to Ethan’s larger ethos.

Ethan believes the Comanche are soulless murderers, subhuman beyond discussion. When he encounters a dead Comanche warrior, he shoots the eyes out of the corpse explicitly to prevent the warrior from entering the afterlife. It goes well beyond establishing Ethan and the Comanche as antagonists and well beyond any rescue mission idea. Obviously the plot is a murder-revenge story, so Ford’s story tells us there’s a reason for this belief structure, but Ethan is explicitly racist, even in contrast to other characters.

It becomes clear early on that only one of the two women might be saved. Ethan vows that he will save her or kill her, and it’s really not all that important which it is. The rest of the cast is horrified, and this is really central to what Ford is trying to tell us about Ethan. It would be one thing to paint this as a reasonable response, but The Searchers is about the open war between the white settlers and the Comanche as much as it is about the fading humanity of Ethan Edwards. John Wayne usually saves the day, but here he no longer cares if the day gets saved or not. He’s going to finish this task, day be damned.

There’s a critical consensus around The Searchers as the best Western of all time and it’s easy to see why. The shots are gorgeous, even during a weird diversion in the snow. The side characters fill out the world, with a few memorable oddballs that give that trademark Western so-bad-it’s-good performance that is required to make the West feel different and specific. Natalie Wood is especially strange with the impossible task of the “converted” Comanche that Ethan and company need to save.

In 2021 it’s an extremely hard sell to watch John Wayne as a racist, psychotic Confederate soldier as the hero. But he’s not, and he wasn’t even at the time. There’s a lot of people who probably saw it all as justified and we’re definitely led down that path, but John Ford wants us to reject that. I don’t know that the story pushes hard enough on that idea for me to say that I love it, but I see what people see in it. It’s influenced dozens and dozens of iconic directors and films. John Ford and John Wayne made a million of these movies, but nothing really exactly like this one.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I don’t think there’s a legitimate defense of Johnny Guitar as a better Western than The Searchers, but I like it more. It’s not a better movie, I suppose, and Wayne’s performance has a much higher degree of difficulty than what Crawford and Hayden turn in for Johnny Guitar. This is one of the highest rated movies of all time by just about any metric you choose, but I struggled with it even though the lens of what it’s supposed to be. When I first saw it years ago I didn’t care for it much and while I liked it a great deal more and found it more complicated this time, it’s still just not for me.

Is it the best movie of all time? I don’t even think it’s the best John Ford/John Wayne movie, so no, it’s not. I also don’t think it’s better than Badlands, another story about an evil protagonist that we find hard to identify with during murders. Badlands works a trick of making the unacceptable seem benign, while The Searchers asks how unacceptable different characters find truly unacceptable things. There are similar ideas here, but I’ll come back to Badlands more often.

You can watch The Searchers on HBO Max. 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 Johnny Guitar 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.

Nicholas Ray may be best known for Rebel Without a Cause, but also directed In a Lonely Place, an incredible noir story about a screenwriter with a temper. Humphrey Bogart plays the lead, and he’s charming in that way that only Bogey can be. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that this flaw will undo all of his efforts, but Gloria Grahame still wants to make this work. As with all noir, the style trumps the substance, but it’s a phenomenal piece of character work and it holds that tense, sad mood without falling off the edge.

Ray is a “director’s director” in a way, though he’s made a ton of great films he’s more often someone you’ll come across when you’re listening to another director talk about great filmmakers. Jean-Luc Godard said that Ray “is cinema” which is, I think, as high praise as you can possibly get.

In between In a Lonely Place and Rebel Without a Cause, Nicholas Ray made a handful of movies. The one that you’ll see on a list of “best” films of the era is the Western Johnny Guitar. I will confess to putting this one off for years, mostly based on the name. In a Lonely Place is one of my favorite movies, but this is a Western called Johnny Guitar. What can you possibly expect?

There are only a handful of Westerns on the lists of great films. It’s an inherently American genre, which cuts into the possibilities. It’s a genre that’s really heavy on tropes and established understanding. There are obviously exceptions to the rule, but even the iconic Westerns tend to end up following similar morality plays and similar paths to victory. This is by design, with “white hat” and “black hat” characters with limited complexity to get to the good stuff quicker.

You could make this same claim for any other genre (what great romance is truly more complex at the core than “the guy/girl gets the guy/girl”?) but it feels appropriate to describe Westerns this way when approaching Johnny Guitar. Many Westerns are more complicated than the A to B story I’m implying, but in the 1950s they didn’t always bend the genre. Nicholas Ray was just a few years past one of the greatest film noir stories of the time, so it makes sense that he’d try to find that sensibility within a Western.

Joan Crawford plays Vienna, the fiery owner of a local drinking establishment that offers “cards and whiskey” to the rough crowds that are willing to leave town to find fun. Sterling Hayden enters early as Johnny Guitar, a seemingly brash yet peaceful wandering musician. He carries no guns and may be the only person in the saloon without a drawn weapon and a desire to use it.

The local law threatens to shut Vienna down to keep the peace and to pacify Emma Small, the woman-in-black rival played by Mercedes McCambridge. It becomes clear that Johnny Guitar is actually Johnny Logan, famed gunslinger, and Vienna has to decide if she’s willing to fight with him to keep her way of life or if the opposition is too strong.

So far, this is all standard Western fare. The leader of the black hats is The Dancin’ Kid, played by Western mainstay Scott Brady. His gang has some other familiar players for the genre, but also Ernest Borgnine. It wasn’t his only Western, but he’s recognizable enough from his career of character work that he adds some humor and some off-kilter sensibility to the whole thing.

The reveal that Johnny Guitar is actually a legend of the West happens just about immediately and he never picks the guitar up again. He’s so famous that his name alone shocks every person that hears it, but not so famous that anyone recognizes him, somehow. These are the old days, just go with it.

Once the cast is established and it’s clear that Emma won’t let Vienna live, it becomes a story about the willingness to use violence to advance your station. The bad guys are bad because it’s a way to get by. Johnny was a gunfighter, but it made him twisted and he’s tried to go straight and deny the impulses. Even Vienna wants to get away from small-town stuff and industrialize her business before the railroad comes in and they lose the war on progress either way.

The townsfolk represent the resistance to the inevitable. They balk at making choices and they seem fine to preserve the status quo, even if it means a band of obvious criminals wanders around. This is what they understand, we come to realize, and everything else represents a fear to be avoided.

Crawford had been in films for three decades and this would be one of her last great works, but Hayden was still rising. Nearly everything he’s remembered for would follow Johnny Guitar. This isn’t either of their best work, but it’s compelling to see them work together. They have to sell you on a love from five years ago through small details, knowing looks, and a resistance to going back to those people in those days. It works, mostly, especially in shots where we see only the two leads in a room of dozens of people. Most of the acting is in these looks and the decisions we watch silently while Johnny Guitar has to decide if he’s going to be Johnny Logan again or not.

Everyone was either having an affair with someone else or deeply hated everyone else while making this, but not that you’d notice it in the finished product. McCambridge plays her role so one-note that she’s shaking with anger or screaming for blood in every scene, so it’s hard to imagine her being any way off screen influencing her choices. There’s very little attempt made to make us side with her, but in a movie so full of dashing rogues, she really has no shot.

Contemporary reviews called it a Western cliché, which is bizarre for how often it runs away from those ideas. They called Crawford “sexless,” similarly weird given how much time is spent on the suggestion that she slept her way to the top. She was a decade older (or more, her age is famously impossible to pin down) than her co-star, but she’s clearly the center of the movie. In the decades after the initial quiet, this became one of the greats of the genre and a movie that people steal and borrow from often.

This is a romance set in the West, not a Western with a romance in it, and it spends a lot of time on some really forward thinking concepts like the morality of industrialization and if you should run from progress or milk it. It’s not the director’s best work or any of actors’ standout pictures, but the sum of the parts is extremely watchable and really something special, even if you don’t typically enjoy Westerns.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Yes. Blowup is possibly held in even higher esteem and was more well-liked at the time it came out, but I don’t think it’s a better movie. Johnny Guitar really sets the bar with establishing scenes in a way I want to call out. I was frustrated by the first half of Blowup but really noted how immediately Johnny Guitar established the world it wanted us to understand. We care about why people react the way they do, even down to the cowardly townsfolk.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, it probably doesn’t bring enough to any genre to satisfy fans of just one, and McCambridge’s demonic villain is one-note. It’s inarguably great and surprisingly watchable, but not better than Badlands. It also ends with a song, which was fine for the time but is laugh-out-loud funny now. The ending is much more nuanced than the big beaming smiles and fun song suggest, which lands really strangely. It’s a small thing, but it’s something you’ll definitely notice. It’s exactly like Cat Ballou, but that was supposed to be a comedy.

You can watch Johnny Guitar on Amazon Prime. 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 Blowup 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, who just about never met another director he couldn’t quip about, said that Michelangelo Antonioni’s long takes were boring and that the director believed that “because a shot is good, it’s going to get better if you keep looking at it.” Ingmar Bergman said that Antonioni’s best works were masterpieces, but he didn’t get the hype behind the rest of them or Antonioni as a whole.

Antonioni is generally listed as one of the greatest directors of all time, but it’s fascinating to read great directors trashing each other. Welles has dozens and dozens of examples of comments like that and you have to cut through the bluster to figure out how he actually felt, but it’s easy to see what he’s talking about with Antonioni in Blowup. Frequently, Antonioni wants us to look at something for what feels like an obsessive amount of time. As a viewer, you start to reconsider each scene to wonder why you’re seeing it. Why are we at a concert now? Why are these characters speaking? What am I expected to learn, to experience, to take from this?

The Conversation is one of my favorite movies of all time. It’s an absolute masterpiece in tension and the ending is, for my money, the best ending in all of classic film. Gene Hackman plays an audio expert who accidentally learns about a murder. He doesn’t have all of the details, but he has enough to obsess over the material and to get caught up in a complicated world he doesn’t understand. We see enough to be interested, but never enough to know more than Hackman’s character.

I could go on and on about The Conversation, but I mention it here because of the influence it clearly took from Blowup. Francis Ford Coppola says it’s an influence, but it’s a full-on inspiration. Blowup follows an obsessive photographer who accidentally learns about a murder and has to determine his moral responsibility and next steps based on shaky evidence. Both Hackman in The Conversation and David Hemmings in Blowup struggle with an incomplete picture. Both men know they have to do something, but what?

The difference is the world around them. They are nearly exactly the same length, but The Conversation finds time to complicate Hackman’s character. We learn he’s an asshole, really, and we’re asked to care about his mission more than the man. He can’t relate to others because he’s locked in himself. It’s a bold choice that really works, but you shouldn’t need me to tell you The Conversation is a treasure.

Blowup deliberately avoids this route. Hemmings also plays an unlikable bore, but in a totally different direction. Antonioni says it’s the story of a man who struggles with his relationship with reality, and that really comes through. No one matters in Blowup. Most people don’t even have names, and no one has a last name. Our main character meets a few people, wanders around, and panics. The relationships in The Conversation are there to show us how things fracture and change, in Blowup they are absent to tell us that people aren’t important to this story.

Hemmings plays Thomas (no last name, of course), a photographer who is bored with all the beautiful women who want to sleep with him. Two women in particular follow him around and have a private photo session with them that turns sexual immediately. The scene is long and ridiculous, and inspired a legend that one of the women was fully nude in a shot. Roger Ebert’s website includes a letter from another actor in the film that explains this as a shot that was removed from the commercially available film, so people were imagining it as more explicit than it turned out to be.

The letter is very graphic about this detail, but I’m more fascinated by the claim it makes about the plot. Blowup centers on Thomas wandering into a park and accidentally photographing a corpse as he shoots a potentially illicit meeting between two lovers. The woman in the photo tries to get the negatives from him and Thomas becomes more and more nervous as he contemplates if he’s really seeing what he thinks he’s seeing. The actor who wrote the letter was in these scenes and claims that Blowup was intended to be more straightforward and include the murder itself and more explanation. What’s on the page is “incomplete,” this actor alleges. It’s better this way, to be sure, but it wasn’t the intention.

I have to hope that’s not true. Blowup, explained, as a straight-ahead action film would be much less interesting than what it ended up being. The Conversation includes much more than Blowup, but even then we don’t see the act that drives the whole plot. It’s critical to both movies that we be at least a little confused and unsure if it actually happened or not.

Blowup is an experience. Antonioni wants you to feel Thomas struggling, but I had a hard time caring about his struggle. I found him most interesting when he was buying a huge, ridiculous propeller at an antique shop and least interesting when he was complaining about how London is just so lame now, y’know? I know the intention is to drop you into someone’s life that’s all routine boredom and see it shaken up, but Thomas really doesn’t experience that much change. Even as he struggles to get people to care about this murder, he’s still at fancy parties and having anonymous sex.

It is an unfair criticism, I suppose, to say he’s totally unchanged. He is changed internally, but does it matter? He goes to a concert and can’t connect with what everyone else is connecting with. He picks up a piece of a smashed guitar and absconds with it into the street, chased by rabid fans. He realizes that it doesn’t actually matter and drops it on the ground. A passerby picks it up and also realizes that it doesn’t actually matter and also drops it on the ground. You feel Antonioni demanding you to “get it” through the screen in this scene. It would be impossible to not understand this significance, but here it is twice, anyway.

Blowup is on all the greatest lists. Roger Ebert picked it as one of the most significant films of all time. It’s impossible to have The Conversation without it, but I still couldn’t connect with Blowup. The entire first half hour is designed to tell us that Thomas is a bore who hates what should be a pretty exciting life. When Vanessa Redgrave’s character from the park shows up to demand the negatives, she assumes he’ll be motivated by sex and takes her top off. There’s an extremely long scene that follows where she covers up in various ways without getting dressed. It’s all shot beautifully and it’s a fascinating concept, but it feels so very empty. Antonioni says he wasn’t making a movie about human interaction, but humans still interact on the screen. The panic and the fear feel real, but whenever Thomas has to talk to someone, it just doesn’t work as well.

Towards the end, Thomas struggles to get people at a party to understand that he’s got something really significant to tell them. “Someone’s been killed,” he shouts, and his agent says “okay.” The exchange is excellent and it’s a great summary of how Antonioni wants us to feel. Thomas wouldn’t care if someone in his life told him this story, and now that he has it to tell, he’s frustrated by how the world responds to him. The Conversation tells us that the truth might not be the truth and that you need to navigate waters you don’t understand carefully, but Blowup shows that if you spend your whole life superficially, when it starts to matter you might not be able to deal with it.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I liked Mystery Train more. I don’t think I’ll come back to Blowup, but I’m curious as I see more Antonioni if I’ll fall in with Welles or not.

Is it the best movie of all time? No. I obviously like The Conversation more, but I also think Badlands is a better film. I love a lot of the little touches in Blowup, though. When Thomas goes to blow up the image to look closer, he does so without explaining what’s happening. He never tells anyone anything, he shows all of it. This may sound like a stupid thing to praise, but I feel like any movie from the last twenty years would feel the need to have another character there asking about photography to give Thomas a chance to say what a blow up is and what he’s looking for and so many other things. Blowup is an experience and a great work from a great era, even if it isn’t exactly right for me.

You can watch Blowup on HBO Max (subscription required) or on Amazon Prime for $1.99 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 Mystery Train 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 February of 2019, musician Julien Baker was interviewed by a publication in New Zealand. The interviewer asked about Baker’s hometown of Memphis, and specifically about cultural associations of Memphis like Jim Jarmusch’s film Mystery Train. Baker gave a long answer that you should read all of, but she said “The Memphis that people imagine and the thing that Memphis really is are sort of the same and sort of not. They’re sort of this quirky caricature of each other.”

Baker’s full answer includes two specifics: a local weirdo named Prince Mongo and a semi-landmark called Graceland Too. I grew up in Memphis and lived there for more than twenty years and both of those have deep history and are really resonant for me. Baker didn’t mention Mystery Train at all, but did tell the interviewer that people assume the experience of Memphis is like the film Hustle and Flow. I wasn’t familiar with Jarmusch’s portrayal, but I can vouch for Baker’s quote and say that the Memphis that I’ve seen on screen and in reference isn’t completely “not Memphis” but it isn’t exactly right, either.

Mystery Train is a fascinating choice for the interviewer’s prompt because it’s about people bringing their own notions of Memphis to Memphis and what they actually experience. It’s very literally a movie about examining the prompt the interviewer provided Baker with and how Memphis changes their ideas in exactly the way Baker answers. I have no idea if Julien Baker has seen Mystery Train, but there’s almost no better summary possible.

Mystery Train is a triptych where all three stories happen in Memphis and involve foreign characters. “Far from Yokohama” shows us a Japanese couple that wants to take in the music scene through Graceland and Sun Studios. “A Ghost” finds an Italian woman stuck overnight as her flight home with her husband’s coffin is diverted. “Lost in Space” follows three characters as they get drunk after a night gone wrong. All three sets of characters stay in the same hotel on the same night, which combines their stories very slightly.

Jarmusch says he didn’t try to find abandoned sets, but that in a search for bleak locations in Memphis he found the city to just feel like it was abandoned. In Criterion’s Q&A he talks about ghosts and the feeling that he had to make a movie with few extras and no traffic because that’s how he experienced the city. Any Memphian will be baffled by the traffic piece, especially, but the director is making a point about the part of Memphis Mystery Train is focused on exploring. This is a dangerous part of the world, is the suggestion, as the only times characters meet anyone outside of the hotel, something negative happens.

The Japanese tourists want Memphis to be a romantic version of a musical time gone by, but we also see them get off the train and hear that they’ve been to lots of places on a similar journey. This is what they do, is the suggestion, so their view of Memphis tells us more about them than it does the city. It’s still a smart introduction to Memphis, especially given the direction Jarmusch wants to take the story.

The widow speaks more of the local language than the Japanese characters, but she’s unavoidably not from around here. A shopkeeper nudges her into buying a comical stack of magazines, but it’s a particularly colorful grifter at a coffee shop that tells us what we need to know about this woman. He tells her a story about the ghost of Elvis needing a ride and telling him he would meet a woman bound for Rome. It’s hardly designed to be believable, but our heroine pays the fee anyway and tells him it’s in exchange for the story. Things break a little bad and the whole thing gets fairly magical, but she ends up back in the hotel with a new companion and certainly a complicated view of town. “I feel a little discombobulated,” she tells the hotel staff, and they commiserate and agree.

Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Cinqué Lee are really unforgettable as the staff. Hawkins is a larger-than-life figure in the music world but only had a few acting roles. It simply wouldn’t be a movie with anyone lesser in this role for Mystery Train. The pairing of capable boss and put-upon bellhop is nothing new, but there’s something about how Hawkins plays the role that reflects what’s actually the story of Memphis. Most of the characters get a confusing or frustrating experience, but they do okay by the hotel, more or less.

The final trio of Rick Aviles, Joe Strummer, and Steve Buscemi ties everything together, but I don’t want to say everything that happens there. The gang knows the staff and needs a place to lie low, and their drunken conversation feels more like what other directors would do with a plot like this. Aviles plays a character named “Will Robinson” and they discuss life, love, and the guy from Lost in Space. It finally goes somewhere, but it takes a long time to get there.

There are no great revelations in Mystery Train, but that is exactly the point. All six characters leave the hotel changed, largely by what Memphis isn’t rather than what it is. The Japanese characters are disenchanted by Sun Studios, or at least by the fast-talking, rote speech they get on their tour. They wanted something unique, something truly Memphian, but they got something they probably are likely to get on every music tour. The mysticism of Memphis is enchanting for the Italian woman, but she also experiences the darker side of Memphis and her best experience with a local is still pretty mixed. The three guys talk about the job market falling out and how nearly everyone they know is out of work in Memphis.

The reality is that Memphis is two things. It is a historical center of the music world, filled with history you can still really access and a world worth walking around in. It also is a rough part of the world that’s seen much worse days and wears those days in ways that are unavoidable, especially around the hotel the film is set in. Mystery Train wants us to want the exciting hope of what Memphis represents but to wonder why there aren’t any people or cars anywhere in certain parts. When Steve Buscemi’s character is hesitant to enter a poolhall and says he’s uncomfortable in this neighborhood, he tells us a lot in one line. When Joe Strummer pulls out a gun confidently but casually in the same bar, he tells us even more.

Mystery Train isn’t Memphis, but neither is Hustle and Flow. It’s not really just Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley, either, even if you’ll be consistently bombarded with The King if you go there. Even the Memphis of Mystery Train is more complicated than just that, but that’s the whole point of showing us slices of different experiences in the same place. There’s more to say, always, even just down the hall.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I do think this is better. When Marnie Was There is a strange movie to compare to Mystery Train because they really don’t have anything in common. I’ll always have a place in my heart for When Marnie Was There, but it’s a pretty messy movie even though it has a ton of heart in it.

Is it the best movie of all time? This is very close, but I think I have to stick with Badlands. Jarmusch’s film is frequently funny in a really surprising way and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins simply demands your attention, but Badlands is just so beautiful. You could make a really strong case here and my love of Memphis makes this hard for me to do, but if I pick “the Memphis one” we’ll be stuck in a loop here forever. Badlands really is a special movie, even if I think Mystery Train is more likely to make more people happy with the experience if they were to watch both.

You can watch Mystery Train on The Criterion Channel (subscription required) or on Amazon Prime for $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 When Marnie Was There 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 am really tempted to call out that this is the second anime within my first ten of these and to undercut the premise. Most of what I watch is not anime. Anime is not so critical to film as to merit 20% of these posts. But today I want to talk about Studio Ghibli, so here is When Marnie Was There.

I recognize that I have two hills to climb, here. The best movie of all time isn’t an anime, right? What’s even the point of this if we aren’t talking about Citizen Kane or The 400 Blows or something? I think you need an open mind, here in paragraph two, and I don’t know that I can make a case for “anime as an artform” if you aren’t willing to take that step. I’m just going to assume you’re willing to come that far. The second hill is the taller one, anyway, and that’s ranking the Studio Ghibli movies.

One thing I find frustrating about the pace of discourse now is that people often assume you are as deep in the subject as they are. This is how you have impassioned responses to things normal people aren’t even aware are positions. You can find yourself watching a YouTube video about how people are wrong about saying people are wrong about being wrong about something. I saw a comment yesterday where someone said they wouldn’t watch anything in black and white and said that people liking old movies were “virtue signaling.” I don’t even know where to start with that one.

I think When Marnie Was There is the best movie Studio Ghibli made because it’s a tougher nut to crack than the others. I think this is a defensible opinion, but I also think people will, maybe rightfully, call that a hipster opinion. I’m going to cut my preamble here, but you’ve got to believe anime is a defensible form of film to even get into the layer where you probably don’t agree with my niche opinion. I’m assuming you’re willing to hear me out.

For most people, it’s My Neighbor Totoro or Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke. They’re all masterpieces, but nearly everything Studio Ghibli touches turns to gold. I keep coming back to When Marnie Was There and until my last watch, I really couldn’t tell you why. Totoro is the greatest children’s story ever told, but it’s simplistic. I’m not going to condemn it because that’s insane, but everything works out, more or less, because magic is real. You don’t feel that when you watch it, which is why it’s so transcendent. I’ve seen Totoro a half-dozen times and every time it wins me over, but I don’t find myself thinking about it after I see it. It’s an experience.

When Marnie Was There sticks with me. It’s the story of Anna, a young girl with asthma who has to go to the countryside to heal and chill out. Her doctor says that it’s all stress-based, which seems to be the inciting conflict of a hundred different stories like this. What sets this apart is the unspoken truth about Anna’s depression. She’s a foster child and she has resentment for her parents even in death, and she’s willing to even say that. A lot of these stories ask you to feel that about their character, but few are willing to take this additional step.

Anna is hard to like. In the few interactions we see, she calls the only person who extends friendship to her a “fat pig” and runs away. It’s a brash way to make a main character’s pain feel real, and Anna is tough to root for until she gets lost in fantasy. She spends less time in the “real” world than many characters in Ghibli movies and we get to know her less as a result. She’s only in “the big city” for ten minutes and she’s only in the countryside town for one scene. She spends almost all of When Marnie Was There in the fantastical marsh house where the mysterious Marnie lives.

When Marnie Was There plays with expectations. I don’t want to spoil the turn, but it isn’t the romance that it sets up. You’re led to believe that Marnie and Anna are both outsiders in different worlds and they fall in love in the way that teenagers fall in love. They hold hands and have picnics and it’s young love, how we all remember it. That isn’t what’s happening here, but those emotions drive much of what you see until they don’t.

You can’t talk about an anime without talking about the art style. Marnie and Anna have bright blue eyes, to the degree where other characters comment on how striking this is. That’s a tell, and one I can’t get into without ruining it, but it’s interesting that it is commented on at all. Hayao Miyazaki, the iconic head of Studio Ghibli, said that Marnie’s appearance on promotional material was “cheesy” and that using a blonde, blue-eyed girl to promote the story was “outdated.” The original story was moved to Japan but the fantastical character remains very clearly white, to the point where other characters talk about how unique it is.

Marnie and Anna are mirrors of each other and they need to look similar, at least in some fashion, for that to work. There’s been some solid work done by other writers that I won’t crib from, but it is a very weird detail in the middle of the movie that stands out more and more on rewatches. Why move the setting but leave the characters unchanged? It’s clearly intentional, but it never feels that way. Studio Ghibli films are marked by the attention to detail, down to the beautiful animation in quotidian Japan, but the best explanation I can come up with here is that it’s supposed to be distracting. It’s a clue, I guess, to the ultimate mystery, but then you wonder about Miyazaki’s comments. It is very strange and you could chalk this up to part of the whimsy, but your mileage may vary.

Art aside, the story is slow and curious. We keep getting led down paths that end up with our main character passing out or getting lost, which is fitting for the story at the heart of the thing. It’s not a straight line, but that’s part of the point. Anna has to change for this to matter, and some of that is more complicated than learning to be nice to strangers. It’s about learning to forgive and to understand that other people’s lives had details that you never get to see.

Or do you? You, personally, won’t get to see them, but Anna does. There are two reveals, one to the audience and one to Anna, which leads to a climax that then gets explained again. The second one doesn’t have the narrative punch of the first one, but even on a fourth watch I found it really cathartic. There’s something in When Marnie Was There that really winds you up and lets it all out at the end, which is storytelling done the right way. It never feels like it’s going anywhere, especially with all of the wandering and secondary characters essentially guessing and getting it wrong. It’s only once you get there that you realize this was the story all along.

So what makes it the best Studio Ghibli movie? I think you have a strong case if you disagree with me, but the payoff is what does it for me. Other worlds are more fantastical (Spirited Away) and other characters are more interesting (Kiki’s Delivery Service) but I think this one is more satisfying. The journey is the same as so many other stories the studio has told, but I’m so much happier for this character for going through it. Anna needs this, really needs this, and that ending is what you crave when you watch a story like this one.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Targets is a personal favorite but it unravels at the end in a way that I don’t find satisfying. When Marnie Was There is the exact opposite. Both movies make some weird choices but are the better for the aesthetic they cultivate. I think When Marnie Was There is a better story, but these two are really different and I might change this answer depending on the day.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, I still think Badlands holds on to this crown. I think there’s a strong case for a few other Studio Ghibli movies being better than this one even though this is my personal favorite. I know it’s the style now to go hard and to demand your opinion is the only one, but When Marnie Was There doesn’t even make a strong case for why one of the main characters is a blonde British girl, so I can’t in good faith say it’s better than a masterpiece. It’s an incredible story and it will really overtake you if you let it, but it’s not perfect. It doesn’t need to be.

You can watch When Marnie Was There on HBO Max. 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.