Year-end Wrap-up, or: How I Relearned to Stop Worrying & Love the Movies

A screencap from "Dr. Strangelove" showing a man in cowboy hat riding an atomic bomb like a cowboy as it's deployed

Although I’ve been mentally drafting my year-in-review, I suppose it’s only fitting that I finalize it while home for the holidays, spending many an hour in the suburban too-quiet family room that used to be occupied by my late father in the evening and myself overnight as a “troubled adolescent,” watching movies in the dark, sometimes obsessively, and cultivating both a deep appreciation for the art form and a number of deeply unhealthy relationships to it that I’ve long since grown past. For a variety of reasons (primarily a pandemic and a waning interest in weird fiction), my interests drifted back over to film this year, both in terms of consumption and writing production. I’ve always been passionate about film, but this year felt like a frenzied renewal of interest in a way that I haven’t experienced since I was a teenager first learning how to appreciate movies at the same depth as literature. I can’t remember a specific year in which I saw movies with a greater diversity of noted directors, genres, nations of origin, and time periods since then either.

Although it was far from my favorite movie, I have to give substantial credit to Uncut Gems, which I finally got around to seeing in February. For whatever reason, it unleashed a torrent of thought about how to deconstruct and understand the film’s effectiveness, and I began writing almost obsessively about it after a certain point at which I’d jotted down numerous random observations that began to point in some consistent directions. Those notes congealed into what I thought might be a blog post and eventually became the 2nd longest piece of discursive writing I’ve ever finished, coming in just a couple pages fewer than my “Titus Andronicus” thesis. There was a lot packed into the movie, and I enjoyed breaking it down in ways that I haven’t focused on in a while. I think it’s been 4-5 years since my last long-form book criticism, and 18 years since the last real film essay.  I should also mention Letterboxd, which is for movies what Goodreads should be for books, and I’ve found countless gems, if you’ll pardon the word choice, from reading there that I never would have heard of.

Coinciding with this specific movie was an interest in seeing more of Dario Argento’s films, as I’ve been a big fan of Suspiria for a long time and had never gotten around to seeing anything else by him. This then broadened into digging into the giallo subgenre as a whole (which makes a certain amount of sense because slashers–specifically Scream–were what kicked off my interest in film as a teenager), more independent modern horror films, and other classics that had long flown under my radar. Although long ago I had embarked on a quest to watch all of the movies on the original AFI 100 list, that took me about a decade to finally complete and afterwards I became a bit lackadaisical about pursuing great older films that wouldn’t have surfaced on the AFI list.

The enjoyment and intellectual development I got from digging into Uncut Gems continued in a bit of a flurry, with me setting goals for myself to publish some kind of film analysis in a venue or venues that I respect, and I cranked out a critical essay about Anything for Jackson (I Would Do Anything for Jackson (Yes, Even That): A Horror-Comedy Demonstrates Why Invoking Satan Rarely Goes as Planned and Can’t Solve Your Grief) that also became deeply personal. Alas, I fucked up with the somewhat nebulous deadline for the venue I intended to submit to, but this project nonetheless kept the creative momentum going and the more important thing to me is the experience of writing something I feel is fully developed to my own satisfaction. It’s how I learn best. I’ve also produced a lengthy essay about the excellent vampire film Byzantium that I need to get off my duff and keep shopping around.

While exploring gialli and overlapping genre film from the 70s and 80s, I discovered a whole lot of stuff that had long been informing the tastes I’ve had for most of my life, and furthermore I started to feel better able to appreciate certain movies with perhaps poor production/low budget/bad acting but other striking characteristics that stick out above those constraints and provide other elements worth appreciating, and worth learning how to appreciate.  This year I’ve trained my brain to be more fluent in some of this stuff, which has made me a better viewer overall. I’ve been on a bit of a B-movie rabbit-hole, and I’d be a fool not to mention how great the free streaming service Tubi is, especially if this is where your interests lie.

I’ve also found it a fruitful writing exercise to post capsule reviews to Letterboxd and Facebook of basically everything I watch, as much to point people to good things they might not have encountered as to reify my own engagement with the film in some way. You can look over all 213 movies I watched this year (as of this day and excluding a few minor things I didn’t need to log) if you like. Going along with this, I was delighted to be invited to be a regular guest co-host on Celluloid Citizens, a podcast about film. This has provided a forum for in-depth discussion that I don’t have many opportunities for, and led me to see things I’ve been meaning to see for 20 years or films I wouldn’t have otherwise known about.

Likely stemming from my interest in giallo, my wife’s recent interest in Indian cinema, and the excellent selection of international films available on Tubi (free), Kanopy (also free), and Criterion, I’ve watched more first movies from a nation new to me than probably any other year I’ve been alive. I’ve long since seen films from Japan, South Korea, France, and others, but this year marked my first film from the following countries:

  • Brazil (Bacurau)
  • Portugal (The Strange Case of Angelica)
  • Turkey (Baskin) (unless we count Midnight Express, which I watched often as a teen, but it was mostly British and American made)
  • Norway (Thelma)
  • Russia & USSR (Come and See, Solaris) (unless one counts Mute Witness, which is great and I saw long ago but I think is mainly a U.K./U.S. film with a Russian setting IIRC)
  • Switzerland (Sennentuntschi… Can’t believe I spelled that right on first attempt here)
  • Greece (Alpha)
  • Haiti (Kafou)
  • Chile (The Wolf House) (unless one counts The Motorcycle Diaries but that’s a Brazilian director and basically lists a dozen countries that they travel through and I didnt like it anyway)

Other countries of origin represented in this year’s viewing, in many cases several movies per:

  • Argentina
  • Thailand
  • Japan
  • China
  • Italy
  • Spain
  • France
  • Belgium
  • Germany
  • Austria
  • Ireland
  • S. Korea

And now the fun part: some more lists

New favorites of considerable personal significance:

  • Thelma (!!!)
  • Come and See
  • Last Year at Marienbad
  • Personal Shopper
  • Martyrs
  • Inferno
  • She Dies Tomorrow
  • The Perfume of the Lady in Black
  • Venus in Furs
  • New Rose Hotel

Favorite gialli (full list here)

  • The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh
  • Torso
  • Autopsy
  • The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears
  • Hotel Fear
  • The Perfume of the Lady in Black
  • What Have You Done to Solange?

Favorite under-discussed recent horror (released in last five years or so)

  • Thelma (!!!)
  • Pines
  • She Dies Tomorrow
  • Anything for Jackson
  • Cold Hell
  • The Eyes of My Mother
  • Vivarium
  • Pihu
  • Insane (2016)
  • Starfish
  • Fashionista
  • The Wailing

Top older films I saw that i haven’t already mentioned elsewhere:

  • The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant
  • Solaris
  • The Devils
  • La Jetee
  • Night of the Hunter
  • Carnival of Souls
  • Black Christmas
  • Hana-Bi
  • Angst
  • They Live
  • Nightmare on Elm Street

Favorite podcast discussions (full list of my own appearances here)

Favorite comedies seen this year (these are all horror-comedies since regular comedies stopped being made 12 years ago)

  • Bad Milo
  • Mom and Dad
  • The Editor
  • Cheap Thrills

Most rewatched:

  • Thelma (!!!)
  • A Dark Song
  • The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears
  • Inferno
  • Climax
  • Anything for Jackson

All told, I wrote around 30k words in essay form and the cosmos can only guess at how many more in the form of capsule reviews and similar.

Although I mentioned above I’ve drifted away from books lately, I’d be a fool not to mention how good Negative Space by B.R. Yeager is, which I read at the beginning of the year. It gets a lot of praise but it fully deserves it.

I guess that’s a wrap for now. Hope you found some worthwhile suggestions in here.

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