Last year I rolled out my first-ever ERPs – Ethan’s Repertory Picks. They’re meant to be a supplement to the ongoing EMOs, recognizing that my year of movie-watching is defined just as much by repertory screenings, Netflix binging and Criterion classics as by new releases.
This is not a comprehensive rundown of every pre-2016 film I saw over the past year, but it is just an opportunity to give some notices and recommendations to movies that, for whatever reason, good or bad, stuck out to me. Then we’ll wrap things up with a Top 10 of classic picks – the most essential viewing experiences, good enough to deserve some legitimate thoughts thrown their way. Please enjoy!
For When You’re On a 90-Minute Sugar High And Literally Can Not Hold Your Attention For More Than Five Seconds At a Time: “The Transformers: The Movie” (1986), Nelson Shin
For When You Want to Feel Even More Shit and Terrified About the State of State Surveillance and Politics Than You Already Are: “Citizenfour” (2014), Laura Poitras
For Comfortingly Fictional Russian Spies: “The Deadly Affair” (1966), Sidney Lumet
For Uncomfortably Not Fictional Nazis: “Hitler’s Madman” (1943), Douglas Sirk
For a Terrifically Gerunding Double Feature: “Knowing Men” (1930), Elinor Glyn; “Designing Woman” (1957), Vincente Minnelli
For When You Want to Delve Into the Dark Side of the Expanded “Fast & Furious” Universe: “Better Luck Tomorrow” (2002), Justin Lin
For Adorably Mean Lucille Ball: “Dance, Girl, Dance” (1940), Dorothy Arzner
For When You’re Stuck in a Snowstorm in Donner Pass: “Trouble Every Day” (2001), Claire Denis; or “Ravenous” (1999), Antonia Bird
For Some Casually Sexist Superhero Bullshit That At Least Has Michael Peña In It: “Ant-Man” (2015), Peyton Reed
For Quality Family Time But You Really Need It To Be With Someone Else’s Family: “Monsoon Wedding” (2001), Mira Nair
For Golden-Age Hollywood Doofiness With Just an Inexplicable Dash of Surreal Horror: “By Candlelight” (1933), James Whale
For a Detailed Instruction Guide to Heisting Jewel Shops and Then Getting Ridiculously Shot For It: “Thief”(1981), Michael Mann
For Making A New York Introvert Feel Better About At Least Occasionally Going Outside In Order to Watch Movies: “The Wolfpack” (2015), Crystal Moselle
For An Eccentric Post-Apocalyptic Rock-Music Sci-Fi Thriller Featuring Strangely Attractive Dog-People-Hybrids That Literally Could Have Only Been Greenlit During Like a Ten-Minute Span in the ’80s: “Rock & Rule” (1983), Clive A. Smith
For When You Want to Watch “Titanic” But Don’t Want to Hear the Sound That Guy Makes When He Hits the Propeller: “A Night to Remember” (1958), Roy Ward Baker
For the Ur-Buddy Cop Comedy That Still Holds Up When Danny Glover Is On Screen and Less So When It’s the Other Guy: “Lethal Weapon” (1987), Richard Donner
For Bleak Hollywood-Style Film Noir With Better Accents: “Odd Man Out” (1947), Carol Reed
For Normal Adult White People Working Out Normal Adult White People Problems: “Enough Said” (2013), Nicole Holofcener
For A Nasty R-Rated Marvel Movie That’s Not Nearly As Full Of Itself as “Deadpool”: “Punisher: War Zone” (2008), Lexi Alexander
For Dubbed Burt Lancaster Looking Fly As Heck: “The Leopard” (1963), Luchino Visconti
Top 10 Repertory Picks of 2016
10. “Fantastic Planet” (1973), René Laloux
The allegory of Laloux’s cutout stop-motion masterpiece is thin, but broad (and, still far smarter than many of the derivative *coughAvatarcough* takes it inspired): in this tale of an alien planet where humans (Oms) are dominated and treated like animals by an advanced race of giant, blue-skinned Draags, you can easily spot the metaphors of racism, Cold War tension, etc. But the real reason to check out “Fantastic Planet” is the extraordinary psychedelic imagery, a batshit vision of surreal artistry. Wild, fantastic, savage – all the possible translations of the French title “sauvage” are appropriate here.
9. “The Ascent” (1977), Larisa Shepitko
The bleakest film on this list by a country mile, terrible in its beauty. Yet Shepitko’s fable of Belarussian partisan fighters during WWII finds something mystical, quasi-Messianic, in the resilience of the human spirit in the face of death (…only some spirits, though). Even without the overt, uncanny spiritual imagery of a snowy, freezing purgatory, one has to consider anything with Anatoly Solonitsyn’s piercing stare something of a religious experience.
8. “An Autumn Afternoon” (1962), Yasujiro Ozu
Ozu’s final film, and one of the most achingly lonely I’ve seen. Parents and children, husbands and wives – everyone’s well-intentioned, but no one communicates just right (particularly, you know…men). As Ebert wrote of “An Autumn Afternoon”: “We are here, we hope to be happy, we want to do well, we are locked within our aloneness, life goes on.” Only Ozu had a way of making such a profoundly fucking depressing statement seem tolerable – even oddly, gently, pleasant.
7. “Weekend” (2011), Andrew Haigh
Eloquent, alluring, perceptive – “Weekend” deserves mention alongside some of the best cinematic stranger romances (although real talk everyone – why is this such a staple?) Supremely empathetic in the specificity and care given to reclusive, semi-closeted Russell and gregarious, vexed Glen, and all the nuances of their brief, ecstatic relationship, Haigh’s feature debut is utterly tender yet unsentimental. It’s one of those improvised, casual indies that oozes technique; an attractive contradiction.
6. “Ali: Fear Eats the Soul” (1974), Rainer Werner Fassbinder
Watching this film last April nearly made me weep – I have to say I can barely fathom what it might do to me if I revisited it now (and how much higher it might climb on this list). Radically political in the simplest, most romantic of ideas – that a young Moroccan man and an older German woman can fall in love and the world just might not fall apart – Fassbinder’s reworking of “All That Heaven Allows” expands and, it must be said, triumphs upon Sirk’s source material in just about every way: in the ferocity of its social conscience, the delicacy of its character interactions, the exquisiteness of its aesthetics (OK, the last one’s a contest, but we’re talking about beautiful apples and gorgeous oranges here). Gently painful but ultimately, so, so endearing (and a tad surprising) in its fundamental optimism.
5. “Tampopo” (1985), Juzo Itami
What an utter joy of a movie. I had a smile plastered on my face from the first scene, where a gangster brings his meal of oysters and champagne into a movie theater while simultaneously chastising the audience (us) for being too noisy, and that grin stayed through the whole of Itami’s “ramen Western.” That (arbitrary, if catchy) genre description, doesn’t do justice to the play of styles, characters and plot points melded together, practically in sketch-comedy format, to create this assemblage of food-related picaresques. Nominally the center is trucker/cowboy/renegade chef Gōro’s quest to improve enthusiastic Tampopo’s ramen shop, but the true star here is Itami’s gleeful, energetic love of cinema, comedy and cuisine (do not watch unless you can immediately eat a true bowl of ramen immediately after).
4. “Portait of Jason” (1967), Shirley Clarke
There are people who transfix a camera, and few of them are movie stars. You probably know one – that gregarious friend of a friend who electrifies the party whenever they walk in, or can’t take a bad selfie. Escort Jason Holliday is one of those people, and for an hour or so it is simply enough to watch him talk (and talk and talk), charismatically owning Shirley Clarke’s camera with funny and poignant tales from his life. Then somewhere, the tone shifts. Clarke and her partner Carl Lee’s questions from off-screen get more aggressive, accusatory. And what you thought you were watching is suddenly very different from what you are watching. The ethical conundrum behind the filming of “Portrait of Jason” is a struggle, but one worth walking through for yourself. The reality is more complicated, and heartbreaking, than I can write here.
3. “Yi Yi” (2000), Edward Yang
At almost three hours and covering a year in the life of the Jian family, you could consider “Yi Yi” a chore, but you’d be delightfully, horribly wrong. Gently, carefully observed and stylish in an easy, graceful manner, Edward Yang’s film was one of the most comfortable, oddly familiar sits I had this year. This is the sort of film, along the lines of Chris Marker’s “Sans Soleil” or Tarkovksy’s “Andrei Rublev” (or, well….Tarkovsky’s anything?) that I wish I could just revisit once a year, because in familiarity just come more delight, insight and revelation in the details. Movies that indulge in such sensual pleasure rarely come this humanistic and understated.
2. “Hyenas” (1992), Djibril Diop Mambéty
Bona fide satire wrapped in an ethically fraught morality tale that leaves more questions than it answers – and that’s exactly as it should be. In the Senegalese village of Colobane, a popular local businessman sees his life thrown into disarray when the town’s most prominent ex-pat suddenly returns home with her considerable wealth – and a major grudge – in tow. To say much more would be to ruin the complex turns of character that writer/director Mambéty have in store (well, at least for those who are not die-hard Broadway fans and might recognize that plot description from the Chita Rivera musical “The Visit” – both Mambéty’s film and the musical are adapted from the same stage play), and dampen the considerable, scathing fun. A sharp and fraught examination of modernity and neocolonialism.
1. “Losing Ground” (1982), Kathleen Collins
If there were justice in the world, Kathleen Collins’ film would be considered one fo the great New York movies: spunky, intellectual, tense, it captures a time, place and community I can not recall seeing anywhere else in film. Following the domestic trials and slow liberation of a black, female professor of logic at City College, “Losing Ground” sifts through the haze of Manhattan in summer, picking out its scenes and encounters with utmost care. As one of the characters, an aspiring filmmaker, exclaims (in just one of the charmingly, casually authentic turns of Collins’ phrase): “Did you catch that subtle mise-en-scene, mi amigo?!” I did catch it, and you should seek out this absolute gem as well.