movies

Is Un Chien Andalou 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 1929, you weren’t supposed to like Un Chien Andalou. You were supposed to experience it, maybe, but “like” is probably too strong a term. Director Luis Buñuel has seven films included in the top 250 films according to Sight & Sound and co-writer Salvador Dalí, well, you know him, too. The two men met and described dreams to each other and used the images to craft a movie. You get the sense in reading about it that they felt they had to share their images with the world.

Un Chien Andalou is, inarguably, a bunch of images. It’s a surreal 21-minute set of images, totally devoid of story or timeline. Scenes shift in time, with title cards that tell you one scene is years before another scene, but the cast may or may not be the same from moment to moment. Reviews of the film take great care to point out that just because one scene shows someone look out a window, the next scene does not necessarily show you what they are looking at. We’re conditioned to expect that and we certainly were in 1929, which is what makes the fact that it may not be true all the more interesting.

But that opens the question, really, because we have to ask if it actually is interesting, almost a hundred years later. It’s a ridiculous film, but it also was then. If you read user reviews in the usual places you’ll see people excited to tell everyone how much they get it with their five-star reviews and people who are frustrated and confused with their one-star reviews. I don’t feel like either is strictly necessary, but a lot of the one-star reviews express criticism that I have to assume Buñuel and Dalí would have agreed with. People are frustrated there’s no story and it’s all disconnected images. They’re right.

There are two movies we’ve watched in this space that I was reminded of: Battleship Potemkin and Last Year at Marienbad. The former is another piece of dated cinema but an undeniable classic. The latter is another divisive art film that’s just as likely to skew viewers in one direction as the other. Un Chien Andalou is a singular thing, but it occupies the same space as a lot of great works. The difference is in intension. The men behind this movie wanted it to do what it did to everyone who saw it, like it or hate it. If your anger is that it makes no sense and it’s just a dumb, random collection of images, it “worked,” whether you like that or not.

That said, it’s fairly impossible to ignore the more extreme elements. I knew to expect the most famous images, with an eye being sliced open and some equally creepy imagery around body parts. I did not know to expect a man dragging two pianos with two rotting donkeys. Is this a representation of sexual frustration or animal instinct? I have to go back to the men behind it who would insist that absolutely any digging is of your own accord, they don’t intend anything. This isn’t even a sly joke, very specifically, it isn’t that you don’t get it, it’s that there’s nothing to get.

This kind of directorial intent resists criticism. Did you hate it? Excellent. Did you love it? Excellent, maybe even equally so. There is an argument to be made that by intending no meaning, they’ve made a perfect puzzle box. You can keep trying to find ways in, but it’s constructed perfectly. You cannot find what does not exist to find.

It’s all striking and it’s interesting and it’s worth the time, still, especially because the time is one minute shorter than an episode of network television minus commercials. Film students over the world watch this because it’s so central to the start of everything, but you may as well watch it because it’s free and it’s short. Maybe the images will connect with you. Maybe you’ll insistently find meaning, defying the authors. Maybe you’ll just marvel at the audacity and imagine one hundred years ago, the guts it must have taken to say that this was it, come see it.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? I don’t think so, now. Minnie and Moskowitz is not one of my favorite movies or even one of my favorite movies by Cassavetes, but it’s hard to rate Un Chien Andalou these days. It’s barely a movie, arguably not a movie by the terms we’d use today. I can appreciate the audacity, but that’s about it.

Is it the best movie of all time? No. It’s on several top 100 lists because directors vote on those and they all want the world to continue to allow for space for something like this. I can completely appreciate that and I do think they mean it when they say this is one of their favorite movies. I think it is pretty difficult to offer a fair analysis of this movie today, which is why Persona, which owes it a very heavy debt in the striking images department, is still my vote.

You can watch Un Chien Andalou for free on YouTube. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Minnie and Moskowitz 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 Wikipedia article for Minnie and Moskowitz says that the film received “generally positive reviews” but offers no proof of this claim. Pauline Kael and Vincent Canby, the reviewers for the New Yorker and New York Times, respectively, both hated it. Roger Ebert loved it and contrasted it with Husbands, the most recent film by director John Cassavetes. Ebert said Husbands was overrated and I completely agree, I found it difficult to watch and even more difficult to appreciate in a modern context. It feels long and unedited, with frequent indulgences that feel spiteful to the viewer.

Cassavetes followed up his homage to male friendship and masculine rage and disappointment with the much sweeter Minnie and Moskowitz, a story about unlikely love. Gena Rowlands plays Minnie Moore, a detached, distant woman who is in an affair with an abusive married man. Seymour Cassel plays Seymour Moskowitz, an emotional, simple man who just wants to park cars for living and eat hot dogs. They meet through a chance encounter and strike up a relationship that progresses quickly.

It’s supposed to be a story of oil and water, which is familiar territory for a love story, but this really stretches credulity. Minnie’s relationship is horrible, with a cartoonishly evil man who is wasting her time and is completely unaware of how to connect with others. The physical violence is shocking, but it works to establish Minnie as having a difficult time of life. She’s not sure what she wants, but she imagines romance as something she’s open to and increasingly hopeless about at the same time. We see her have a blind date that is beyond terrible, with a man who seems to have never interacted with anyone in his life. He shouts constantly, babbles, and says things no person would say to another person. Minnie is not polite but also shouldn’t be, given the circumstances. At the halfway point through the movie, all we know about Minnie is that her life is terrible and that she seems very sad, all of the time.

Moskowitz, however, seems a little more joyful but also so much worse to be around. He eats hot dogs for every meal and ambles through life with no ambition. His mother calls him stupid even at the moment that’s supposed to provide the movie’s emotional peak. Minnie doesn’t seem to like anything about him, but he saves her from a violent, offensive tirade at the end of the blind date and their lives become intertwined. He calls her beautiful, she says she’s not interested, but he just won’t go away.

This is supposed to be an offbeat romance, but it never gets funny or sweet enough to really qualify. Minnie seems so sad, even when we’re supposed to find the whole thing charming, and Moskowitz is so oafish and frustrating that even when it’s supposed to have a kind of Moonstruck quality to it, it feels like she needs to get away from him to have any chance at all. You never want these two people to be together or feel any reason to think that they should be together except for a sense that neither is happy anywhere else.

There are fun moments, like a plane trip where Moskowitz tries to convince a child to eat carrots by acting silly. Minnie never gets these moments, short of a romantic, drunken discussion of what movies tell us about romance. Moskowitz flits between these sweet, silly moments and moments that tilt very far in the other direction. Within the first ten minutes of the movie we see him barge into conversations and insist everyone knows him as he drinks out of people’s drinks. I know this is supposed to establish him as not your average loser, but man, I really hated him the entire way through. I couldn’t stop picturing the real Seymour Moskowitz and imagining how awful he would be to be around.

Your enjoyment here will depend on if it bothers you that these people are so sad and so wrong for each other or not. The whole point of a movie like this is watching the friction as opposites attract. The story of a frustrating man wearing down a sad woman through extreme acts and broad gestures is not a story I want to watch, even well-performed as this one is. I really didn’t like the message of Husbands and I think there’s more to like here, but this still isn’t for me. I see the message here, but I don’t buy it at all.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Once Upon a Time in the West is a little bloated and borrows so much that it feels complex, whereas this is really just two people slowly falling in love. No one in Minnie and Moskowitz other than the title characters is present for more than five minutes. That said, Timothy Carey (the gunman from The Killing as well as other Kubrick and Cassavetes films) plays an oddball who bothers Moskowitz during a meal at a diner and steals the show. I’ll remember his small part more than anything else here, but overall this just won’t stick with me.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, not at all. Persona keeps the crown and I think other than Husbands, this is the least I’ve enjoyed a Cassavetes movie. Both Persona and Minnie and Moskowitz have elements of horror in them. I found myself hoping the two characters could separate in both films before they could do more damage to each other. In Persona that’s at least intentional.

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

Is Once Upon a Time in the West 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 was a teenager, my favorite director was Quentin Tarantino. That’s probably a sentence a lot of people could write. If you Google the director now, you get dozens of stories from just the last few days offering to distill his appearance on a popular podcast or explain why one of his popular movies “needs” a prequel. Tarantino is effectively a vessel for film for a lot of people, which his personality definitely supports. He’s probably the first director a lot of people would be able to name.

Tarantino the man is more divisive than Tarantino the director, but he’s overall a little difficult for people because of his entire approach to film. Patton Oswalt once talked about a year where he saw hundreds of movies in the theater and the impact it had on him, but this seems to be Tarantino’s normal life. His films are stuffed with references to the point where no viewer could be expected to get all of them. As a teenager, I didn’t get any of them. I smiled when characters referenced jingles I recognized, and this level of recognition spirals out depending on your level of film literacy. I’m not even sure the point is anything more complicated than Tarantino saying his version of “have you seen this other movie?”

Once Upon a Time in the West is a Western by Sergio Leone, who didn’t want to make any more movies in the genre after his Dollars trilogy. Once you make The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, you don’t feel like you need to keep telling stories about gunfighters, but Leone was given a chance to make a movie with Henry Fonda and he wanted to take it. Fonda was Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, and this along with dozens of other successes painted him as a classic “good guy.” Leone had other ideas.

Fonda plays Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West, a heartless, evil killer. It’s tough to see Fonda in the role, but by the end of the film he fully embodies the character. Fonda supposedly didn’t even want to do it, but Leone sold him by saying that was the whole point. Audiences would be shocked by seeing Fonda as a sociopath, he said, and they were.

The rest of the cast is more traditional. Jason Robards plays Cheyenne, a joking good guy who gets framed for a murder that Frank actually committed. Charles Bronson grimaces as a character just named Harmonica, who plays a few notes every time he’s on screen to fill out the unforgettable soundtrack by way of Ennio Morricone. Claudia Cardinale plays a former prostitute who inherits some land and a dream. Everyone’s either trying to support her or trying to rob her, which provides the standard Western plot.

I mentioned Tarantino because of the structure of Leone’s movie. The director didn’t want to make another Western but he did want to work with Fonda, so he had to come up with a way to make it work. The result is a Western that “borrows” from a dozen classics in the genre. Harmonica is clearly a lift from Johnny Guitar, but there are a lot of less obvious versions of the same thing. The result is a movie that never really feels like itself, but frequently feels like lots of other things you’ve seen.

When the film initially came out, critics panned the film for being long and confusing. This is a completely fair read of the film, especially as you watch Cardinale’s character try to interpret the motives of the three men in her life. It eventually becomes clear what everyone wants, but not necessarily why they want it. Harmonica is the exception here, as his backstory is specifically held back for a reason, but most everyone else is shadowy for no real reason. The performances are incredible, but the characters themselves feel flat. Robards is funny and fun in the role, but we never really grow to understand Cheyenne.

Cardinale is mostly wasted in the central role, which critics also called out. She’s a victim of circumstance and has to make the most of it, which is fair enough, but as the nominal lead of the movie, she mostly glares at men with guns. The plot is so borrowed from Johnny Guitar that it’s distracting, but for a movie that came out 14 years after the influence, the step backwards in agency for the female character isn’t great. Supposedly Leone wanted to film full-frontal nudity for Cardinale’s character and she refused and said that it wouldn’t add anything to the story, which makes you wonder how he felt about getting across who she was supposed to be in the film.

The mish-mash of Western stories here isn’t the same thing as what Tarantino does, but it’s supposed to make you feel the same way. The plot is very Johnny Guitar, but that’s not an accident. By doing it deliberately, Leone confronts a reality of Westerns that people don’t often confront. The genre is inherently samey. The guy in the black hat wants to kill everyone because he wants to kill everyone. The guy with the harmonica is named Harmonica and he’s got a mysterious backstory. The other guys are good because they like the pretty girl. The pretty girl is a pretty girl. Stop asking so many questions.

This is a reductive viewing of a classic, but I also think it’s a fair one. I am not predisposed to love Westerns, so a combination film that’s an homage to a dozen of them was never going to be my favorite movie. I think Once Upon a Time in the West is a successful version of what it’s trying to do and it’s especially notable because Fonda’s performance is unique and remarkable, but critics didn’t like it until they did and now it’s a classic. There are so many versions of this story and mostly you’ll find yourself agreeing with the rethinking. Here, I can’t follow the logic. The criticisms of the original reviews seem very valid to me, especially the read on Cardinale’s character. It’s by no means a bad movie, or even a bad Western, but I don’t think a movie with structural issues should be in the spot this one’s in on the lists it’s on.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? No. Vivre sa vie is better, as is, I think, Johnny Guitar.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, Persona retains the crown. I was definitely too hard on this one, but it’s a different question of “is it good” and “is it the best?” It’s good and you’ll enjoy it, but Leone made at least three better Westerns. The plot here is the biggest problem, you’ll find yourself frequently asking why characters are doing what they’re doing and what their reasons for supporting someone are. It’s all clear by the end, but it’s not my favorite way to tell a story.

You can watch Once Upon a Time in the West on Amazon Prime (subscription required). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is Vivre sa vie 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 started this project for two main reasons. First, I asked a dozen people what their favorite movie was and wanted to push myself to watch all of them. Second, I wanted to educate myself better about movies I wouldn’t otherwise watch. Over the last five years I’ve watched between 100 and 200 movies a year, which is already too many, but I wanted to work on gaps in my knowledge base. I simply spend the majority of time watching recent stuff in English, so I wanted to push into history.

Before I saw Breathless I read a lot about Jon-Luc Godard. There’s a steady thread through essays and retrospectives of his career that finds scholars and critics worried people will lose interest in Godard. This always seems overblown, especially given the way film history plays out. Most of these pieces are worried about people giving into blockbusters and popcorn films. The same arguments could be made today as thirty years ago. I don’t think this dark day is coming. It’s easier now to make an art film and it’s more likely today that you’ll find something that fits your specific tastes. It’s easier now to stream the classics, as well. This idea that people will watch more Marvel movies (or whatever the stand-in for Marvel movies was then) and fewer all-caps IMPORTANT movies is one people keep bringing up, despite it never fully happening.

Do people still watch Godard, and more importantly, does that question, asked that way, matter? If you want to understand cinema then you never stop trying to fill in these gaps and you will invariably start with someone like Godard. If you don’t care, you probably never were going to care. I don’t think one kind of movie really overlaps with the other and I don’t think any trend in popular film today makes the other less likely to continue. You don’t have to watch French classics, but if you want to, it’s easier today than it ever was. That’s a victory, no matter what you feel about what you imagine the desires of future cinephiles to look like.

Today’s film is Vivre sa vie, or My Life to Live in some countries. It stars Anna Karina, Godard’s wife at the time, as Nana, a woman who runs away from her family and struggles to connect with life around her. It’s an oversimplification to say it follows her career as a prostitute, but it must be said that is the narrative thrust. It more importantly follows her search for meaning, or at least understanding, through several artistic forms and philosophical discussions.

The film is told in twelve scenes, each prefaced with a title card. This artificially breaks up the film into distinct portions with clear breaks between moments. This is a technique Tarantino lifted, as are the camera angles behind Nana’s head as she speaks. These angles are deliberate, but they hide the conversation behind her head and force us to imagine much of what’s happening in the frame we can’t see. So much of modern film, especially quiet, character-driven work, owes just a tremendous amount to devices like these.

And it’s so watchable, even six decades later. Breathless is a caper, you know why you’re watching who you’re watching and you’re wondering what will happen to them. Vivre sa vie doesn’t have the same built-in tension, so it relies more heavily on Nana. The fact that it works is a tremendous testament to Karina’s performance, but also the overall production. Nana turns on a jukebox in one of the film’s most famous scenes and we see her dance around, briefly engaged in life a clear way though no one else in the room embraces the mood. Another, though opposite reaction finds her at the movies, seeing The Passion of Joan of Arc. Her date tries to put his arm around her as she is visibly moved to tears by the power of the silent film. Again, she is not on the same page with the men in her life, but we are inarguably on her page.

The 11th of 12 scenes is a discussion between Nana and a philosopher who apparently played himself. This approaches, but does not fully go over, the line of “too much.” For me, scenes like this will always fall into the same bucket as the strangest parts of David Lynch’s work. Out of context, a philosophical discussion about if thoughts and speech are actually different things is extreme stuff. In context, it’s a contrast to the matter-of-fact discussion of the rules of prostitution that Nana gets from another person in her life. I feel the same way about a man sweeping the floor for five minutes in Twin Peaks. You can choose to accept that as part of the work and wonder why it’s there or you can abstract it, that’s your call.

Overall, yes, you should still watch Godard, even if you’re starting with this one. It’s quick and beautiful, which aren’t necessarily terms that go together often in classic cinema. If nothing else, you’ll gain an appreciation for how many people have cribbed from this one, and that’s reason enough to experience it.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Yes, I prefer this to No Sudden Move. Very different themes at play in these two and the institutions that the characters battle are different. This is much more a story of internal lives, which goes back to the differences between this and Breathless. You could draw a connection, but it would take forcing one.

Is it the best movie of all time? No, I will still say Persona is better, though this is a much closer one than most have been. I really enjoyed this and it’s really inspired me to continue my trek through French cinema. Stick around, let’s do it together.

You can watch Vivre sa vie on HBO Max or The Criterion Channel. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

Is No Sudden Move 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.

Steven Soderbergh was on WTF with Marc Maron last week to promote his new film No Sudden Move. Maron spent a significant amount of the interview discussing the realities of filmmaking with the director. I’d encourage anyone with any interest in films to listen to it, as Soderbergh is more honest about his career than most people are willing to be in settings like a huge podcast with tons of listeners. He says that he’s failed a few times, which is nothing new to admit, but he talks about how failure changes your view of what you do next. David Mamet, years ago on the same show, said something that sticks with me still: “you can sink with your good ideas, but if you want to succeed, you better learn to entertain people.” Mamet arguably is not taking his own advice and obviously has some significant issues these days, but it all ties back to a conversation that Soderbergh goes much deeper on.

Soderbergh said that No Sudden Move is a movie, not a film. He also said that he hasn’t made a film since Che in 2008. All of his recent works are movies, not films. Maron pushed him on this distinction and the director said that films win awards. It seems to be like the classic definition of pornography: “you know it when you see it.” A film is a specific type of movie to Soderbergh, and honestly, this is a definition we can all probably live with in some way. The Academy even recently tried to make a new category for “popular” movies, which would definitely feature what Soderbergh would call “movies” and not “films.” Soderbergh has only made two movies that lost money, prior to the recent apocalypse for theaters, and those are Che, which he calls a film, and his remake of Solaris which we have discussed in this series before. I’m not sure if losing money is necessarily a defining point in the movie/film continuum, but there’s probably something there.

No Sudden Move is probably a better movie than Ocean’s Eleven or Logan Lucky, my two favorite Soderbergh movies (not films), but I don’t think I enjoyed it as much. Almost every review urges you to see it twice, which I normally balk at but this time I obliged. I don’t think you should have to see anything twice, but if you feel compelled some movies definitely reward repeat viewings. The twists here aren’t necessarily so confusing that you need to do it twice, but the second viewing will help you understand how some characters feel they fit into all of this. There’s still plenty unexplained, but that’s the nature of the genre. Sometimes when characters move past the double cross into the triple cross in a gangster movie, you’re not meant to keep track.

Don Cheadle and Benicio del Toro play small-time hoods who get called in for what should be an easy job. They’re supposed to “babysit” a family and collect a document from a safe. It’s easy, then it becomes difficult. This is run-of-the-mill stuff for a movie like this, but the art is in how you pivot. The heist itself is tense, as it requires a low-level employee (David Harbour, who you’ll recognize from Stranger Things) to leverage his affair with a secretary to gain entry to a safe. The safe is empty, onto the next twist. Things progress from there.

I won’t walk you through the plot, because movies like this are all in the plot. Ray Liotta is fantastic as the hot-heated schemer who put this all together, Brendan Fraser is an absolute highlight as a mid-level crook, and Amy Seimetz, Jon Hamm, and Bill Duke really make even smaller roles feel like significant, real characters caught up in a constantly expanding mess.

I do have to give away a cameo to talk about the best part, though. Matt Damon plays the money behind the muscle and shows up towards the end to explain what was really happening. This device can feel forced in lesser movies, but here it reads like George Clooney’s Danny Ocean moments where he tells everyone exactly what was happening during all the quick cuts and the jazzy music. This is less of a reveal after misdirects and more of a look in the boardroom, but it plays out the same way. It speaks to the larger politics of Detroit and the 1950s war between car companies that is all happening in the background of No Sudden Move and it makes this feel like a much more significant movie as a result. This isn’t just ten crooks all trying to rob each other, this is a story about a much, much larger robbery than any one person could pull off.

The leads are good and the supporting cast is even better, and ultimately this is just a very clever, very smoothly polished story about what happens when people try to take more than they’re given. There are several scenes where characters put words to the theme, directly pointing out to each other that they’re being greedy. It never rises to the level of the rat in The Departed, but it’s an interesting metacommentary on the film within the film. It’s worth seeing once, and maybe twice, but I see what Soderbergh means when he calls it a “movie” and not a “film.” Maybe you think that’s him being self-effacing, but I think it’s him moving the bar down. If this is just supposed to be a good time, it clears that bar with ease.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Yes, this is significantly better than Tropic Thunder. It will age better, too, which is interesting. The targets here (greed and corporate crime being more insidious than individual crime) are targets that will deserve ire for a very, very long time.

Is it the best movie of all time? I guess you could spin this question for a Soderbergh production, given his terminology. The best movie is significantly better than the worst film, using his terms, but I guess the best film ever is better than the best movie ever. Maybe we’re stretching this, but Soderbergh was not trying to dethrone Persona when he made this movie, so it’s fair that he didn’t do it.

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

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 @ gmail.com 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 @ gmail.com 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 @ gmail.com 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 @ gmail.com 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 @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.