New Year's Day is my favorite holiday, unless you count the Oscars, and the day the Oscar nominations are announced. In fact, as my Mom has told me, New Year's has always been my favorite holiday. My birthday is October 9, if you know what I'm saying. (Count backwards, people.)

Compared to how much information that is, it shouldn't be too much for me to admit that my favorite (and heretofore private) New Year's ritual is to make lists for myself of movies I'd like to see and books I'd like to read in the coming year. Yes, I used to be one of those who promised to exercise more and floss better and that kind of thing, but you get to the point, right, where you're either going to do that stuff or you're not, and resolutions don't really help. Whereas viewing and reading resolutions, those are actually fun to keep, because I pick things I've wanted to see or read for a long time but have just never gotten around to. That's where the little OCD part of me comes in, because I do love to check things off once they're on lists, so this remains a kind of constant incentive plan.

I should admit that I never, ever finish my lists, which are a little ambitious anyway: for the past few years, it's been 24 English-language movies, 24 foreign-language movies, 24 novels, 24 plays, and 24 academic or nonfiction books. "Two a month" seems like a reasonable pace, especially since I'm an academic and am therefore paid to read and watch regularly (for me, this is "research"—what a great racket!) Of course, when you add it all up, it's much too much, but just the idea that I might finally encounter these delicious-looking works of art and peaks of critical thought is inspiring in itself. Call me a nerd. You wouldn't be the first.

This year, I've decided to post my lists, not only to build in that much more incentive for myself, but to invite you, my readers, to dip in and check something out with me. It would be fun to have someone to talk to after I see one of these movies. (I'm leaving the printed material to myself, but I'll tell you if you're curious.) Or maybe you've already seen some of them and have an opinion, an encouragement, or a warning to share: the idea is basically to bone up on classics I've missed, fill out bodies of work by directors I already like, or investigate up-and-comers whom I've heard good things about. Either way, I'm raring to go, and I welcome any feedback or participation you'd like to contribute... or, if you make your own lists for yourself, feel free to share them with me!

January Viewings: Secret Things
February Viewings: Days of Being Wild
March Viewings: The Tin Drum
May Viewings: Fanny and Alexander
August Viewings: Broken Blossoms, The Docks of New York, The Jazz Singer
September Viewings: An Unmarried Woman
October Viewings: Almanac of Fall
November Viewings: Tokyo Story
December Viewings: L'Argent, Easy Rider, Outrage, Suture, Tropical Malady

Director, Country, Year
Date Seen
Ace in the Hole Billy Wilder, USA, 1951
Broken Blossoms

D.W. Griffith, USA, 1919 Aug. 22 However maudlin and romantic on the surface, and even at several layers below the surface, Broken Blossoms nonetheless evinces surprising subtleties and ambiguities at its core that make this seemingly simple melodrama deceptively complex. Griffith, still refining the art of narrative continuity, also uses matching shots and cross-cuts to align characters or draw out analogies that you'd never expect from the plot; the juxtaposition of Donald Crisp's vicious boxing match and the near-consummation of the scandalous love between Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess adds surprising layers to both scenes, and to the film as a whole. Grossly sentimental and politically dubious he may have been, but Griffith's uncanny formal intelligence make all of his movies, even his dimestore tragedies like this one, surprisingly resonant and deserving of attention. A–
Crumb Terry Zwigoff, USA, 1994
The Docks of New York

Josef von Sternberg, USA, 1928 Aug. 24 Sublimity—almost certainly the best movie I have seen all year, on the big screen or small (though Fanny and Alexander, below, is stiff competition). Popular awareness of Sternberg has crystallized intensely around the Dietrich collabos, but Docks is more confidently hypnotic than almost all of them, impeccably elegant in its own blowziness, and it's got a wicked sense of humor to boot. Briefly, ship stoker George Bancroft hauls self-destructive hot ticket Betty Compson out of the water, and the two of them get married in a late-night saloon ceremony that they may or may not remember in the morning. Meanwhile, enough lurid subplots unfold in the margins of the story and of the shots themselves to propagate three or four "Cell Block Tango"s, and Harold Rosson's camerawork frames all of it with a typically Sternbergian sinuousness that nonetheless doesn't treat the actors like pedestal objects. It's one of the few Sternberg movies you could reach out and touch; you'll certainly want to. Mesmerizing signs of images to come in Morocco and Blonde Venus in particular. Priceless. A
Drylongso Cauleen Smith, USA, 1998
Easy Rider

Dennis Hopper, USA, 1969 Dec. 17 Falling somewhere between the envelope-pushing of Midnight Cowboy and the heel-cooling of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Easy Rider is probably best likened to Antonioni's Zabriskie Point as a snapshot of the American roadways, coursed over by protagonists whose interiority is only hypothetical, ending with romantic explosions that capitalize on late-60s anger without taking too much trouble to articulate, much less explore, what that anger was about. It would also make a great double-feature lead-in for Five Easy Pieces—same cinematographer, same anomie, and Nicholson, too—though Bob Rafelson shapes and complicates his tones in a way that Hopper doesn't necessarily try for. The closest Easy Rider gets to suggestions of depth are the lingering close-ups on Peter Fonda's utterly opaque introspection; if Fonda looked like he were trying harder, it would be a sorry irony that Nicholson's chuckly and riffy acting style, redolent for me of Seymour Cassel's work in Faces, implies so much more going on inside. Why do I keep reaching for so many comparisons and intertexts? Because Easy Rider is a reasonably poignant mood-poem that still feels like it might drift permanently into outer or inner space if it doesn't attach itself to something, anything, a little more sturdily. B
Fast Company David Cronenberg, Canada, 1979
The Jazz Singer

Alan Crosland, USA, 1927 Aug. 23 Is it possible to talk about The Jazz Singer without ceding the conversation entirely to the revolutionary technique of synchronized sound? That leap forward is so momentous, it's almost hard to evaluate the picture on any aesthetic level, though it's worth noting that the film's conflict—concerning whether Al Jolson's character will accede to the family tradition of becoming a cantor in his synagogue, or whether he will flee for the jazz rhythms and Great White Way that so entice him—essentially duplicates the crisis of tradition and innovation occasioned by the film's own barrier-breaking creation. The cultural particularity of the film, drawing Jolson's dilemma in clear religious terms, is interesting in itself, and if the picture is not especially memorable for any other reason of structure, performance, or execution, it is judicious and charming (blackface interlude aside) in handling its simple plot. B
Jubilee Derek Jarman, UK, 1978
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie John Cassavetes, USA, 1976
The Killing of Sister George Robert Aldrich, USA, 1968
Lost Highway David Lynch, USA, 1997
Monsieur Verdoux Charlie Chaplin, USA, 1947
Mrs. Miniver William Wyler, USA, 1942

Ida Lupino, USA, 1950 Dec. 22 The novelty value of a woman-directed film from 1950, distributed by RKO, chronicling the rape and subsequent breakdown of a perky secretary is enough reason to watch with interest. You hate to feel that novelty value is all the movie has to offer, and for the first long while it isn't. Early scenes that seem only loosely expository of gruff chauvinist realities are in fact planting key narrative information, wisely capitalizing on our own tendency—shared by the protagonist—to dismiss signs of danger as merely signs of the times. Tricky POV shots, followed by a crafty use of handheld tracks and disruption of space in the assault sequence, also speak well of Lupino's tough, quick shooting and editing style, as though she'd apprenticed under Samuel Fuller, or indeed, he under her. As with Fuller, though, tone and erratic plotting become a problem. Mala Powers is directed much too strongly toward histrionic hysteria—Eleanor Parker's arc in Caged, made the same year, might have suited this story much better—and one's interest deflates under the studio-stamped "redemption" through wage labor, dim religious rhetoric, a kindly man (with, nonetheless, remarkably little sense of decorum given the circumstances), and a bus ticket right back home. B–
Parting Glances Bill Sherwood, USA, 1986
Performance Roeg & Cammell, UK, 1970
7 Women John Ford, USA, 1966
The Steel Helmet Samuel Fuller, USA, 1951

McGehee & Siegel, USA, 1993 Dec. 2 Only hours after returning home from McGehee and Siegel's third feature Bee Season and finding that it was much better than all the critics save Manohla Dargis had allowed, I finally made good on a years-old promise to watch their first movie, widely regarded as their finest. Talk about equal and opposite reactions: I found Suture to be discomfitingly bloodless, not just because it's a film ideas more than about characters or story, but because even the ideas don't have much marrow in them. In film theory, "suture" is the term for how films induce us grammatically to lash shots into coherent spaces and scenes, scenes into sequences, and fragmented people—both characters and audiences—into whole and relatable subjects. Suture, via its elliptical "wrong man" thriller plot, marches haughtily to the mic to say some things about suture, but what does it say, and why? The race-baiting aspect of the film's conceit isn't offensive so much as it seems hollow; the movie doesn't really have anything to say about race. Some of the shots look good, and Haysbert is typically good, but for all the accusations that The Deep End and Bee Season are remote and intellectualized, there's an emotional connectivity to those pictures, internally and with their viewers, that Suture wholly denies itself, with nothing of any weight supplied in its stead. C
Thieves Like Us Robert Altman, USA, 1974
32 Short Films about Glenn Gould François Girard, Canada, 1993
To Each His Own Mitchell Leisen, USA, 1946
An Unmarried Woman

Paul Mazursky, USA, 1978 Sep. 23 With Jill Clayburgh suddenly resurfacing in a bevy of high-profile projects—Dirty Tricks and Running with Scissors on next year's movie slate, Neil Simon and Richard Greenberg plays on Broadway—it seems an especially apt time to visit her career-defining performance in what remains for many an emblematic movie of its moment. This is probably a fair reputation, but that's both a good and a bad thing. Mazursky's writing is careful and refreshingly unhurried, treating divorce and the quotidian hardships of its aftermath with a timely and still-contemporary attitude, at least among this social set. But as a director, Mazursky is sheepish and inclined against any intervention, which frankly leaves Clayburgh as something of a problem: she's a rather vague performer, like a boring word ("nice"?) that you wish someone would revise and distill. Alan Bates' late entry into the picture improves the whole thing from top to bottom, but you hate to get excited about An Unmarried Woman because the right man—the actor, not necessarily the character—shows up in the nick of time. B–

Director, Country, Year
Date Seen
Almanac of Fall

Béla Tarr, Hungary, 1984 Oct. 26 In a spacious, well-ornamented, but mustily decrepit apartment, five lost souls wander the rooms and pair off into tough, Strindbergian conversations about their disappointments, their resentments, their secret bits of knowledge, and their palpably fleeting commitments. From this acrid pentagon of frustrated pleasure-seekers, Béla Tarr fashions a bleak but involving drama that eventually takes shape as a rather brilliant anatomy of domestic scapegoating. It turns out that four is company but five is a crowd, and with equal parts irony and predictability, the resident who most honestly confesses his sins and commits, in many ways, the most pardonable crime is hauled off by police; meanwhile, the four survivors waltz in a sort of dour dream sequence to the strains of "Que Sera Sera." Through color filters, simple framing, and spare edits, Tarr draws out the implicit and occasionally explicit violence of all this, and if he occasionally verges on a frustrating literalism—a shift in tint that corresponds to a swerve in allegiance, etc.—the magnificence of the acting and the gathering force of both plot and theme making for gripping viewing. A–

Robert Bresson, France, 1983 Dec. 23 L'Argent seems early on like one of those simplistic movies that aims to trace a wholly predictable arc through social classes or idioms by following a single object—in this case, a forged 500F note—as it passes from hand to hand. I'm never quite prepared for Bresson to be in color, and like The Devil Probably, this parable of modern French society seemed to lack that spark of sublime imagination that Bresson, almost alone among filmmakers, so regularly achieved in several of his films. However, as the narrative pauses on a single character and burrows into his own desperate evolutions, first as the dupe of a criminal prank and then as the perpetrator of his own crimes, Bresson's hallmark shooting and editing styles illumine unexpected layers in the film rather than seeming imposed from the outside, and the concluding passages, though austere and somewhat cryptic, summon an intellectual and emotional power comparable to Bresson's best work. A–
Bandit Queen Shekhar Kapur, India, 1994
Céline and Julie Go Boating Jacques Rivette, France, 1974
Code Unknown Michael Haneke, France, 2000
Dakan Mohamed Camara, Guinea, 1997
Days of Being Wild

Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong, 1991 Feb. 10 I'm starting to suspect that your favorite Wong Kar-wai films are destined to be whichever ones you saw first. After a while, his stylistic touchstones and obsessional motifs (clocks, food, meet-cutes, more clocks) have begun to grate a little in their sheer, self-conscious uniformity from film to film. Still, this desultory melodrama is dreamily enjoyable, drawing its characters together on diaphonous strands of coincidence and passing fancy and then just as capriciously breaking these ties as the film makes its strange, languid voyage across national and emotional borders. The more psychology Wong attempts the less I'm interested, but the framing and color composition are reliably seductive and the seeds of his fullest accomplishments (Happy Together, In the Mood for Love, and Chungking Express, in that order) are already here. Maybe this is Wong's Shadows: absolutely seminal to his oeuvre and his entire poetics, but not the first one you recommend to your friends. B+
Death in Venice Luchino Visconti, Italy, 1971
Faat Kiné Ousmane Sembene, Senegal, 2000
Fanny and Alexander

Ingmar Bergman, Sweden, 1982 May 2 From my blog: "A jaw-dropper: one of the best films ever about theater, one of the best about family, one of the best and subtlest about the adolescence of an artist, and surely the only Bergman film likely to please fans of Persona, Dynasty, and Lemony Snicket. The time is the first decade of the 20th century. The opening moments have as many hues of red as Cries and Whispers does and the same eerie, cavenous quiet as The Silence, and yet it's clear from the outset that Bergman is headed in warmer directions. The hushed preparations for a holiday dinner give way before long to a thoroughly charming theatrical interlude and then to a sprawlingly sharp-minded family circus that George Eliot might have written in an atypically frisky mood, perhaps after a few mugs of nog. The mini-saga that follows is full of wisdom and chill, widows and ghosts, finery and asceticism, possibilities and impossibilities. The human canvas is probably Bergman's richest since the comparably fizzy Smiles of a Summer Night, even though the familiar abyss of Bergmanesque terror and doubt is still palpable beneath both movies." A
Gertrud Carl-Theodor Dreyer, Denmark, 1964
Ivan the Terrible Sergei Eisenstein, USSR, 1944/46
The Marriage of Maria Braun R.W. Fassbinder, W. Germany, 1979
Matador Pedro Almodóvar, Spain, 1985
Open City Roberto Rossellini, Italy, 1945
Orpheus Jean Cocteau, France, 1950
Pandora's Box G.W. Pabst, Germany, 1928
Raise the Red Lantern Zhang Yimou, Hong Kong, 1991
La Ronde Max Ophüls, France, 1950
Secret Things

Jean-Claude Brisseau, France, 2002 Jan. 27 After beginning with the most authentically erotic stripshow performance I've ever seen in a film, Secret Things continues to pursue its sociological and primarily sexual theses about power, capital, and curiosity. Its conviction is both its strength and its folly; serpentine plot-twists and elaborately concocted sex scenes occasionally maroon the viewer and compromise the seriousness of the film's ideas. But that seriousness is sharply achieved elsewhere, and the film manages some surprising laughs and some real heat on its way toward what we'll call its memorable climax. B
That Obscure Object of Desire Luis Buñuel, France/Spain, 1977
The Tin Drum

Volker Schlöndorff, W.Germany, 1979 Mar. 18 I've never read Günter Grass' legendary novel, but Schlöndorff's film makes it easy to see what a great book it must be, full of scenes that are raucous, emotionally rich, and politically trenchant at the same time. From the opening bit with a fugitive soldier hiding under a peasant woman's skirts to the closing scenes in bunkers, graveyards, and trainyards, The Tin Drum is full of incident, despite excluding the final third of Grass' story. Schlöndorff illustrates all of this with exaggerated colors and stylized acting, but not too much in the way of a distinctive director's point of view. The implication throughout is that the movie is not as meaty as its source, and in truth, some of the allegory is a bit too obvious to provoke much thought—an agnostic former Nazi choking to death on his party pin, etc. Still, The Tin Drum is vivid filmmaking, driven by earnest critique and solid craft, built for global export but still staunchly addressed to its admirably receptive home country. B+
Tokyo Story

Yasujiro Ozu, Japan, 1953 Nov. 26 My track record in mid-century Japanese cinema is truly pitiful: this was my first Ozu, and I still have yet to see any Mizoguchi, any Naruse, any Ichiwaka, and any more than three or four apiece by Kurosawa and Imamura (whom I much prefer). Happily, Tokyo Story lived up to its considerable reputation; even if Ozu's traditional Japanese aesthetic of static frames and horizontal compositions never becomes a personal passion, the depth and delicacy of the feelings captured in this film are things of wonder. The "story" of Tokyo Story is no more than the arrival into the city of an elderly couple from a small country town. They plan to visit their two eldest children and the widow of their deceased son, but the mundane demands of life, the call of work, and the vague discomfort of the grown son and daughter around their simple, aging parents keep complicating the trip. The elders move from house to house in an attempt to stay out of the way of the loved ones they are supposed to be sharing time with, who at one point farm their parents off to a seaside resort full of gambling and the noises of youth. The growing cast of the movie is full of subtle, evocative actors achieving fragile but powerful epiphanies, and just when the officious daughter Shige and the beaming widow Noriko seem overly reduced to stereotypes of villain and angel, further sea-changes in the film's emotional watercolor refract our feelings about what we're watching, who these people are. A mite bathetic, but culturally specific, judicious with plot and character information, and the humble aesthetic is as unassumingly powerful as that of The Bicycle Thief. A
Tropical Malady

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2004 Dec. 16 I had read the name Apichatpong Weerasethakul—who, after all, could forget it?—before Tropical Malady won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2004, but this is still the film whose tantalizing descriptions made me intent on catching all three of his features as quickly as possible. I love strange formal gambits, toe-dips in the water of queer sexuality, and films from other countries that don't seem pre-fitted to please narrative-centered American audiences, so I was pretty confident of relishing Tropical Malady. Relish it I did, though somewhat less, it turns out, than the scrappier movies he made earlier: 2000's Mysterious Object at Noon, a pseudo-documentary chronicle of an "exquisite corpse" fairy tale, and 2002's Blissfully Yours, a bitter but funny immersion in the aggravations of lower-middle class Thailand that suddenly jumps ship and becomes a humid, tactile, and remarkable romantic escapade. Tropical Malady, famous for its own two-part structure, also works as a double-helix synthesis of these two movies: like Object, it is principally fascinated with shaking the traditional shapes and trajectories of narrative, and like Blissfully Yours, its cleverly, richly mundane first half gives way to a potently sexual reverie in the deep jungle. As an aesthetic experience, Tropical Malady didn't hold together for me as strongly as Blissfully Yours did, and despite its bold conception, it doesn't tamper with screen conventions with the same depth or charm that Object does. Still, it's a stirring visual and cultural experience, dotted all over with symptoms of internal connection that seduce with the possibility of an overall "sense" for which I wouldn't really hold my breath. The movie is what it shows, a jungle full of portent and play, and it ably continues to build the delicious mystery of Apichatpong's blooming career. B+

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