After I wrote about my favorite movie of 2010 a few months ago, my friend Ursula commented that Kirk and I watch more movies than anyone else she knows. We probably watch more movies than anyone else we know too. In fact, I’ve often thought that one of us should become a movie reviewer, so that we can have a justification for it.
At a guess we view around a hundred movies every year, but very few that remain memorable. As I was skimming through our history on Netflix preparing for the this post, I was surprised at how many of the titles I simply could not recall seeing. Of course that could just be a sign of advancing age, or, as my father suggests, a lack of room for storage in the brain. But the little conceit that I was working with is that I should write about some of those movies that did manage to stick with me.
I suppose you could say I’m a geek who likes to watch movies about other geeks. All three of the following films feature interviews with people who are passionate and obsessive, but also masters of their chosen craft. Such specific knowledge appears increasingly rare in our culture of generalists, and I find it incredibly reassuring that there are still specialists out there in the world.
Helvetica. A movie about a typeface might not seem all that interesting at the outset, but this documentary about the font that is used ubiquitously in modern advertising had me captivated for it’s entire 80 minutes. The director uses helvetica as an example of how graphic design can incorporate not only aesthetics but also psychology, communication, and commerce. I loved the interviews with designers who are essentially unknown outside of their field and yet have such a tremendous impact on our visual culture. A truly perspective shifting experience!
It Might Get Loud. Jack White, The Edge and Jimmy Page interviewed separately about their history and process, and then filmed jamming together. Besides being completely intriguing characters individually, it was fascinating to see the three interact, particularly because it seemed almost like watching people speaking a language unique to themselves. I loved the contrasting portraits of these musicians who are at three different stages of life and career and I found myself thinking of the structure as a masculine version of the maiden, the mother and the crone.
The September Issue. Billed as the real life The Devil Wears Prada this documentary is ostensibly about Anna Wintour, the infamous editor-in-chief of American Vogue. The movie follows the development of the 2007 September issue of the magazine, from concept to finished product. Anna herself is an odd character, tense and obviously driven, though she rarely displays any overt emotion.
More interesting to me (and obviously to the makers of the film as well) is Grace Coddington, the phenomenally talented creative director of the magazine. We watch as she works to create elaborate visual fantasies in which the clothing is almost incidental, and then by turns charms, wheedles, and threatens Anna in order to keep them from the cutting room floor.
My favorite scene is of Grace sharing her New York apartment with the film makers, obviously so much more relaxed and joyful in her own space, surrounded by beautiful photography, art, books. Later, she draws the film makers themselves into a photoshoot, each pictured jumping in the air, next to a long, lanky model.
These next two films are achingly beautiful and are, I would argue, primarily about mood rather than plot.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Directed by the painter Julien Schnabel, a.k.a The Lion of New York, this is the film version of the memoir written by French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby when he was left unable to speak or move after a stroke at the age of 43. It’s hard not to be astounded that Bauby wrote and edited the book in his head and then dictated it letter by letter to an assistant by blinking as she calls out the alphabet. Using spare but beautiful shots and voice over (for once structurally fundamental rather than just lazy film making) Schnabel perfectly captures both Bauby’s claustophobic frustration and his burning need to remain undiminished.
In the Mood for Love. One of my favorite movies, ever. Set in the 60’s this is the story of neighbors drawn together as they slowly come to realize that their spouses are cheating on them with each other, and is told almost entirely without dialogue. The protagonists are reserved to the point of inhibition, in stark contrast to the visual richness around them, each scene full of vivid color, pattern and texture. One’s view is often partly obscured, the characters seen from a distance, building a feeling of isolation. Maggie Cheung is beautiful and aloof, wearing a series of cheongsam in period fabrics that get me drooling, and the heartbreakingly sad ending kills me every time.
Rabbit Hole. A recent addition to the list. Directed by John Cameron Mitchell, who is adept at capturing complicated and uncomfortable emotions in an unsentimental and yet compassionate way. Here he creates a portrait of a couple, struggling individually to find peace for themselves and together to find a way to rediscover their relationship with each other after the loss of their son. Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart both surprised me with the subtlety of their performances, which makes me wonder how other mainstream actors would fare with great material like this. Fair warning, this is pretty wrenching stuff – not normally a crier, I was outright bawling at the end.
Away We Go. This is a pretty straightforward, if a little quirky, road trip movie about a couple searching for a place to set down roots and raise their soon-to-be-born daughter. But it’s a sweet, funny, and well written, and I thought it captured that fumbling for adulthood, community and a home beautifully. Plus I love that Verona is a medical illustrator, and Maggie Gyllenhaal as an attachment parenting fundamentalist is hysterical, and worth the viewing alone.
I could keep going but my hand is getting a cramp in it, and really, dinner won’t make itself. Some of my other favorites are Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story (I LOVE Michael Winterbottom) Sunshine (and Danny Boyle too), Kung Fu Hustle, Let the Right One In, The Road and Pineapple Express. And by the way, this list doesn’t include all the fabulous television series of the last few years, so yeah there’s the making of a part two for this post. Oh, and since we watch so many movies, we’re always looking for recommendations, so if you have any, don’t be shy.