Sunday, March 22, 2020

Streaming Suggestion for the Day, March 22: All About Margaret Atwood

During these trying days of social isolation, I will be passing on recommendations on good films and shows to stream.

I've loved Margaret Atwood for what feels like forever, and it has little to do with The Handmaid's Tale.

So I was thrilled to find a comprehensive, highly entertaining documentary about the author newly dropped on Hulu.  Margaret Atwood: A Word After a Word After a Word is Power has an unwieldy title, but an efficient and engrossing approach to its subject.  There's a long, late section devoted to the worldwide popularity (and multiple stage and screen versions) of The Handmaid's Tale, of course. (This is a Hulu documentary, after all.)  But more importantly, it delivers a fascinating and full-bodied portrait of an exceptional woman - warm, loving, uncompromising, sharp-eyed, good-humored and insatiably curious all at once.  And it's a welcome reminder that, long before she created the tale of Offred and the handmaids, Atwood was a potent force for feminism in literature.

The highlights of this film are a recurring series of interview clips with Atwood over the years where she reliably shuts down condescending questions (mostly from men, but not exclusively) about the harshness of her work or the unlikability of some of her characters.  She is soft-spoken and blunt in the same moment - always cutting through the bullshit, but in a seemingly patient and nice way.  She steadfastly refuses to suffer fools gladly, but manages to do so without intimidating her questioners. I'll chalk that up to her being Canadian; either way, it's an admirable trait.

But it's not all feminist polemics here.  We also see Atwood cuddling grandchildren, taking bird-watching walks in the woods with her husband, travelling and chatting pleasantly with fans who approach her in public.  What emerges is not a just a tribute to her writing, but an inspirational portrait  of woman, now 80, who is comfortable in her own skin and who has created a full and vibrant life based on solid values, creativity and restless intellectual curiosity. I came away from it not just remembering how much I loved her books, but wanting to be more like her in my life.  She's a role model for a well-lived life.

For those who may only know Atwood from the recent, resurgent popularity of The Handmaid's Tale, this documentary provides a perfect introduction to the full spectrum of her literary achievements. She was first a poet who then became a groundbreaking feminist writer in the early 1970s with The Edible Woman, Surfacing and Lady Oracle.  Her dystopian literature is not limited to The Handmaid's Tale (or its recent sequel, The Testaments - check out her MaddAdam trilogy). She's written children's books and graphic novels, too.

Obviously, the best way to delve into Margaret Atwood's genius during these long days when we're all stuck in our homes is to read her books. Libraries are closed, of course, but Kindle and Ibooks downloads are available, as is delivery from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

As I mentioned above, my Atwood fandom has little to do with The Handmaid's Tale - though it's a very good book, it's not even in my top four of her works.  (In order, my preferred titles are: Alias Grace, Oryx and Crake, Cat's Eye and The Blind Assassin.)  But dig in wherever you feel motivated to start.  

And if you really aren't ready to crack a book, but want to experience her work, may I suggest you stream the Netflix mini-series of Alias Grace. It is a masterful adaptation of Atwood's novel, written and directed by fellow Canadian Sarah Polley who finds ways to make the story startlingly relevant to our current times.  See my review here, where I ranked it the best binge watch of 2017.

That's it for today. Remember - be kind, stay safe, don't hoard.  See you tomorrow.

Friday, January 10, 2020

My 40 Favorite Films of the Decade - a Very Personal List: UPDATED 3/14/20

(NOTE: This post has been updated to show where these films can be streamed - there is also a late-breaking addition to the list.)

I did not make this list using my brain. This list came straight from my heart.

I could have assembled a list of prestigious films representing the greatest artistic achievements in cinema from the years 2010 through 2019. Instead, I have listed the 40 films that sprang to mind when I asked myself  "If I had a week to do nothing but watch movies from the last decade, which ones would I most want to see again?"

So you won't see The Turin Horse, Lincoln, Boyhood, Tree of Life, Roma. Twelve Years a Slave or any number of other great and lauded films here, even though all of those films made my individual "year's best" lists.  What you see here are the films that have stuck with me, the ones I can't shake loose and can't stop wanting see again.

In fairness, it's still a pretty impressive list overall, with a significant number of widely celebrated cinematic achievements included.  But I hope the odd, idiosyncratic choices here and there will strike a chord with my readers as well.

For any of these films which I've reviewed previously, I've included a quote from my original review - the rest have some brand new verbiage to let you know why I loved them.

In reverse order of preference, they are:

40. Paddington 2 (2018, dir. Paul King) -"There is such a welcome sweetness to a film where the stakes are no higher than Paddington's quest to send his beloved Aunt Lucy an antique pop-up picture book of London. When was life ever that simple?" (Rent on Amazon or Apple TV)

39. Brooklyn (2015, dir. John Crowley) -
"Old-fashioned in the best sense of the word, this story of a young Irish immigrant learning about who she is, what she wants and who she loves is distinguished by a beautiful performance by Saoirse Ronan and a keen sense of storytelling that it sorely missing from the hipper films of our time. (Rent on Amazon, VUDU or Apple TV)

38. Under the Skin (2014, dir. Jonathan Glazer) - "It has little in the way of a conventional narrative or even intelligible dialogue, but it's seductively creepy and will more than reward your patience if you stick with it." (Netflix or rent on Amazon, VUDU or Apple TV)

37. Perfect Sense (2011, dir. David McKenzie) - "A melancholy apocalyptic love story in which humans gradually lose their senses of smell, taste, hearing and sight as the world hurtles towards the end days.  The last-chance romance between two lonely commitment-phobes (Ewan MacGregor and Eva Green) is ostensibly the main story, but even more compelling is the imaginative resilience of all the characters as they adapt to, cope with, and even rise above catastrophic changes." (Rent on Amazon)

36. Gloria Bell (2019, dir. Sebastian Lelio) - One of a trio of films on this list that perfectly captured my experiences as a fifty-something woman thrown back into the dating pool.  (I've seen the original Chilean version, and liked it, too. But Julianne Moore's performance here is a triumph.) (Amazon Prime)

35. Certified Copy (2010, dir. Abbas Kiroastami) - "A fascinating fugue on the nature of authenticity in art and relationships.  And if that sounds intimidating, be assured the film is not.  An engrossing brain teaser with a lovely, emotionally supple performance by Juliette Binoche." (Netflix or rent from Amazon or Apple TV).

34. The Handmaiden (2016, dir. Park Chan-Wook) - A gorgeous and erotic adaptation of Sarah Waters' novel Fingersmith, transported to early 20th century Japan. (Amazon Prime or rent from Apple TV)

33. Peterloo (2019, dir. Mike Leigh) - Leigh's political drama is informed by a strong, angry moral conscience; it speaks to the issues and injustices of our time as powerfully as to those in the historical era it depicts. (Amazon Prime)

32. The Congress (2013, dir. Ari Folman) - "Imagines a deceptively candy-colored but ultimately chilling and soulless future world whose harrowing consequences will only be meaningful to adults. Along the way, there's some moderately trenchant commentary on the way Hollywood disposes of actresses over 40 as well as the potential dangers of the ever-burgeoning pharmaceutical industry, There is also a testament to the enduring power of maternal love.  And about a third of the way in, the film morphs from live action to animation, employing a dazzling, sometimes nightmarish style that recalls the work of both Ralph Bakshi and Max Fleischer. Audacious, ambitious and haunting." (Netflix or rent from Amazon or Apple TV).

31. Moonlight (2016, dir. Barry Jenkins) - "A  beautiful, poetic, emotionally shattering coming-of-age drama of a young, gay, black man growing up in the projects of South Florida.  It's a linear narrative, but one that communicates most powerfully through images and wordless sequences." (Netflix, Kanopy, or rent from Amazon or Apple TV).

30. In the Fade (2017, dir. Fatih Akin) - " Diane Kruger gives a stunning, ferocious performance here as a grieving, traumatized woman whose Turkish immigrant husband and young son are killed by white supremacist bombers...Her character is equal parts broken-hearted and bad-ass - a tricky kind of duplicity to pull off, but Kruger dives deep to find the character's shattered soul and makes every step of her journey heartbreakingly transparent." (Rent from Amazon, Vudu or Apple TV)

29. La La Land (2016, dir. Damian Chazelle) - "Chazelle infuses La La Land with a spectacular visual beauty that underscores its themes of yearnings for love, for times and art forms that are passing away, for success and artistic fulfillment. That the film builds to a bittersweet climax in no way dashes the hopefulness that drives its narrative."  (Rent on Amazon, VUDU or Apple TV)

28. Of Gods and Men (2011, dir. Xavier Beauvois) - "A group of French monks in North Africa are caught between peaceful friendship with their Muslim neighbors, the violent activities of an encroaching Islamic terrorist group and a corrupt government.  Should they stay in their monastery and face whatever fate awaits them, or should they flee?  This is the question at the heart of this film, and it is not approached in any traditionally suspenseful way, but rather through a respectful and detailed depiction of the rituals of monastic life and the ways they shape and strengthen the men's faith."  (Rent on Amazon, VUDU or Apple TV)

27. Museum Hours (2012, dir. Jem Cohen) - A quiet, lovely film about friendship and the power of art, in which a Canadian woman and a Viennese museum guard strike up a friendship that alleviates their mutual loneliness. Starts out in “what is this movie and where is it going?” territory - but its emotional power sneaks up on you as you go.  (Rent on VUDU or Apple TV)

26. A Quiet Passion (2017, dir. Terrence Davies) - "In the life story of poet Emily Dickinson, Davies has found his greatest female subject yet, and Cynthia Nixon gives an exceptionally complex and impressive performance in the role. Behind the period trappings and the florid, sometimes stilted dialog, we can see and feel Dickinson's passionate intensity struggling to channel and express itself within a rigid society and under the specter of her declining health." (Amazon Prime or rent from Vudu or Apple TV)

25. The Ghost Writer (2010, dir. Roman Polanski) - "Polanski's political thriller crackles with energy, tension, dark humor and edge-of-your-seat suspense. It's a throwback to the best kind of old-fashioned storytelling and one helluva entertaining film."  (Rent on Amazon, VUDU or Apple TV)

24. The Shape of Water (2017, dir. Guillermo delToro) - "Del Toro's gorgeous fantasy film is a fairy-tale for grownups, embracing both the enchantment and the darkness that true fairy tales possess. It ultimately celebrates love, goodness, tolerance, and the movies themselves, while dazzling us with its gorgeous visuals and heartfelt performances."  (Rent on Amazon, VUDU or Apple TV)

23. BPM (2017, dir. Robin Campillo ) - "It's full of righteously angry characters given to fiery debates, yet the film itself never feels angry or polemical.  It does, however, have energy and a well-calibrated rhythmic intensity as it cycles through scenes of Act Up meetings, dance clubs, and intimate encounters between the two lovers at the story's center.  These particular types of scenes recur at predictable intervals, and yet the shape and focus of those scenes evolves as the stakes become more desperate."  (Rent on Amazon, VUDU or Apple TV)

22. The Great Beauty (2013, dir. Paolo Sorrentino) - "Paolo Sorrentino's rambling meditation on modern-day Italy as seen through the eyes of an urbane, insouciant writer named Jep Gambardella.  I could follow Toni Servillo's Jep around forever; he never runs out of interesting friends, gorgeous places to visit or profound reminisces.  And it opens with what is possibly the greatest party scene in film history, a wildly exhilarating rooftop extravaganza for Jep's 65th birthday that makes you wish you were there." (Criterion Channel, or rent from Amazon, Vudu or Apple TV)

21. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018, dir. Marielle Heller) - "Heller infuses the film with a palpable sense of melancholy in everything from the low-lit bars that Lee and her drinking buddy  frequent to the perfectly curated, jazz-inflected musical soundtrack.  From start to finish, it's a sad valentine to the end of an era in New York: a time when books and writers truly mattered and it was possible to live in shabby-genteel poverty on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Melissa McCarty and Richard E. Grant are wonderful together. (HBO Now or rent from Amazon, Vudu or Apple TV)

20. Margaret (2011, dir. Kenneth Lonergan) - "Brilliantly captures the heightened, desperate emotions of a young person's first experience of tragedy (a tragedy she may have, unwittingly, helped to bring about) against a richly detailed landscape of post-9/11 Manhattan. It's a long and meandering film, but it's ambitious in scope and rarely dull." (Rent from Amazon, Vudu or Apple TV)

19.  A Separation (2011, dir. Asghar Farhadi ) - "I clearly remember siting in my theater seat though the closing credits as if shell-shocked.  I couldn't move and I didn't want to leave.  It is very rare for me to be so completely moved and engrossed in a film that the world falls away and I become totally involved in the character's lives  - without thinking, at all, about whether I like the film as I'm watching it or what I'm going to write about it later.  That's what seeing A Separation was like for me." (Netflix or rent from Amazon, Vudu or Apple TV)

18. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014, dir. Wes Anderson) - "It's set in early 20th century Europe, awash in the kind of Old World elegance that I'm a complete sucker for.  But there's an undeniable heart and a sadness beneath its deceptively shiny surface. Set in a fictional middle European country on the brink of war, its hijinks are almost reminiscent of early Lubitsch comedies, but with elegiac undercurrents to remind us that this sort of civilized elegance will soon give way to brutality and never be seen again." (Rent from Amazon, Vudu or Apple TV)

17.  The Lobster (2016, dir. Yorgos Lanthimos) - "In this oddball dystopian tale, single people are rounded up and taken to a remote hotel where they have 45 days to find a mate or else be turned into a animal of their choosing. If you (like me) are a single person, you'll especially appreciate how Lanthimos finds the absurdities in society's disapproving take on the unattached and cranks them to a lunatic nth degree." (Kanopy, Netflix or rent from Amazon, Vudu or Apple TV)

16. Let the Sun Shine In (2018, dir. Claire Denis) - "Much the same as Juliette Binoche's character here, I did a lot of dating in 2018, and ultimately none of it turned out very well. It was oddly comforting to watch a chic, gorgeous Frenchwoman having all the same disappointments and frustrations in her dating life that I've experienced in mine.  For me, it will always be the French film version of my year on" (Rent from Vudu or Apple TV)

15. Nebraska (2013, dir. Alexander Payne) - "Nebraska is very funny and, at the same time, sad and elegiac, a perfect evocation of small-town life in the flyover states as lived by a generation that is aging into oblivion.  It may play like satire to those unfamiliar with the territory, and some may dismiss it as more of Alexander Payne's condescending comedy at the expense of rubes, but they'd be wrong on both counts.  Nebraska, a deceptively simple film, evinces a profound understanding of its characters - their unspoken dreams and disappointments, their hard-nosed common sense - as well as the slow, quiet decay of the American small town." (Kanopy or rent from Amazon, Vudu or Apple TV)

14. Clouds of Sils Maria (2015, dir. Olivier Assayas) - "I've recommended this film to a few friends; their reactions have been evenly split between "WTF was that?" and "That was AWESOME!"  I can't predict which of those camps you'll fall into, but maybe, like me, you'll wind up watching it four times in the space of a couple weeks. Juliette Binoche is an aging actress, Kristen Stewart is her assistant and Chloe Grace Moretz is the Lindsay Lohan-esque youger actress cast opposite Binoche in an upcoming play. Binoche and Stewart take a house in the Swiss Alps where they run lines, often while hiking in the Alps; they are electric together and fascinating to watch, sparks fly off their interactions." (Criterion Channel, Netflix or rent from Amazon, Vudu or Apple TV)

13. Frances Ha (2013, dir. Noah Baumbach) - "Frances Ha is a joyous and charming fable of deferred adulthood shot in the manner of a French New Wave film, right down to the black-and-white photography and the Georges Delerue score.  Gerwig - gawky, goofy and good-hearted - gropes her way towards stability through a series of odd jobs and bruising mishaps, including a literal pratfall in the street. Her full-out run through the streets of New York's Chinatown to the accompaniment of David Bowie's "Modern Love," punctuated with the occasional ecstatic pirouette or jete, was one of my favorite film moments of the year." (Netflix or rent from Amazon or Apple TV)

12. Enough Said (2013, dir. Nicole Holofcener) - "Anyone who's been on a date in middle-age will recognize themselves in the characters portrayed by Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the late, great James Gandolfini. Director/writer Nicole Holofcener and her actors recreate the nervous mating dance of battle-scarred-but-hopeful, forty-something singles with exhilarating accuracy, right down to the skittish, defensive comic riffs that pass for flirtation."  (Rent from Amazon, Vudu or Apple TV)

11. Never Let Me Go (2010, dir. Mark Romanek) - "An exceptionally fine screen adaptation of Kasuo Ishiguaro's acclaimed novel, "Never Let Me Go" is a dsytopian tale with a deeply broken heart. Set in a meticulously rendered alternative version of 1980s Britain and suffused with a deep and pervasive sense of melancholy that never once abates, it lays out the terrible secrets of its characters' fates in haunting and deeply moving fashion." (Netflix or rent from Amazon or Apple TV)

10. The Death of Stalin (2018, dir. Armando Ianucci) - "Even if you've watched one of Iannucci's television shows (e.g.Veep, The Thick of It or the Alan Partridge comedies), you won't be prepared for the undercurrent of true horror in this very black political comedy.  This time, the history is true (mostly) and the stakes are real; you can hear people pleading for their lives and/or being shot just off camera even while breathlessly funny bureaucratic squabbles play out before your eyes.  It takes a particularly masterful director to get that balance right - Iannucci is up to the task." (Rent from Amazon, Vudu or Apple TV)

9. A Dangerous Method (2011, dir. David Cronenberg) - "David Cronenberg's drama of the interconnecting relationships between Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Jung's patient, Sabina Spielrein -  brilliant in her own right and an underappreciated influence on both men's work - was a film of ideas, driven by superlative performances.  It's thrilling even when it's doing no more than reconstructing actual correspondence between the doctors; Cronenberg finds a visual rhythm that keeps these frequent epistolary passages from stopping the film dead." (Rent from Amazon, Vudu or Apple TV)

8. Carol (2015, dir. Todd Haynes) - "I was unprepared for how beautifully screenwriter Phyllis Nagy adapted and even improved on Patricia Highsmith's odd, difficult stream-of-consciousness novella about the forbidden love between a young woman behind a shop counter and the older, affluent woman who meets her while Christmas shopping. Haynes and Nagy have created a classic love story in which both women's yearnings and heartache are distilled into the simplest, most subtle expressions and gestures, as the times they lived in would require. Ultimately it is a story about passion that is transmuted into genuine, mature love as both characters grow and sacrifice to be true to themselves while protecting the ones they love." (Netflix or rent from Amazon, Vudu or Apple TV)

7. Lady Bird (2017, dir. Greta Gerwig) - "You could call Lady Bird a coming-of-age story or you call it a mother/daughter drama; either or both is true, but confining it to a neat category would reduce and misrepresent what it achieves.  It's really a story about being human - about being young, unformed, hopeful and figuring life out - while at the same time, it's about the disappointments of adulthood and the anxieties and hopes that parents have for their children." (Amazon Prime or rent from Vudu or Apple TV)

6. The Master (2012, dir. P. T. Anderson) - "An enigmatic work of flawed genius, P. T. Anderson's epic was a thing of beauty, graced with exceptional acting by Joaquin Phoenix and Phillips Seymour Hoffman.  I still don't fully understand it, but I could look at it all day." (Netflix or rent from Amazon, Vudu or Apple TV)

5. Another Year (2010, dir. Mike Leigh) - "At first glance, not much seems to be happening in Mike Leigh's portrayal of a year in the life of a happy marriage.  But, as is the case in Leigh's best work, there's a lot going on beneath the surfaces of things, and the brilliance of the ensemble cast brings them sharply to light. It's a film that richly rewards repeat viewings, and shows Leigh's reliable repertory of players (Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen, Lesley Manville) doing some of their finest work yet."(Rent from Amazon, Vudu or Apple TV)

4. Phantom Thread (2017, dir. P. T. Anderson) - "I don't just watch this film - I luxuriate in it.  It's big and gorgeous, with a lush, romantic musical score... and a few distinctly creepy plot twists involving lightly poisoned mushrooms being fed to a cranky man to keep him in line.  P.T. Anderson borrows heavily from both Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean for this strange romance between a fussy fashion designer (whose life is carefully managed by his icy, controlling sister) and the deceptively mild, mouse-like woman he falls for." (Rent from Amazon, Vudu or Apple TV)

3. First Reformed (2018, dir. Paul Schrader) - "I'm going to come right out and say it: this isn't a film for everyone, or even for most people.  Sure it's won its share of critical acclaim, but that's largely from people who've seen and studied the two European films on which it's directly based (Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest and Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light). It's austere and formal, deliberate in its pacing and sometimes downright bizarre.  But if you're inclined to give it a chance - and willing to embrace its slow rhythms and intellectual challenges - you may find yourself richly rewarded. Schrader seriously confronts questions about our responsibilities to God and one another; his film is brutal and phantasmagorical by turns." (Amazon Prime)

2. A Hidden Life (2019, dir. Terrence Malick) - This is a impressionistic art film about the terrible, lonely cost - and the ultimately transcendent value - of true Christian discipleship. It's based on the true story of a simple Austrian farmer who refused to serve in Hitler's army and the steep price both he and his family paid for that act of defiance. Yet it's not tortuous to watch; it is, in fact, a stunningly beautiful film made up mostly of quietly observed moments and details.  Malick weds his penchant for fluid tracking shots and jittery, fleeting images to an uncharacteristically (for him) linear narrative and succeeds brilliantly. It was the most intense emotional experience I've had in a movie theater in years. (Rent from Vudu or Apple TV)

1. Melancholia (2011, dir. Lars Von Trier) -  If you have the time, read my essay (linked here) from the 2016 countdown of the gratest sci-fi films at Wonders in the Dark - that article says it all.  (It's not really a sci-fi film though - the essay tells you why...) (Kanopy, Netflix or rent from Amazon, Vudu or Apple TV)


I saw it too late to include it in the original post, and someday I'll figure out where it ranks on this list... but I need to add one more recommendation for ...

Rank TBD. Parasite (2019, dir. Bong Joon-Ho)

Carve out a few hours of your coronavirus-avoiding social isolation for this brilliant tragi-comedy, and see what all the fuss and jubilation at this year's Oscar ceremony was about.  Highly entertaining, provocative and sad, this tale of one South Korean family's doomed attempt to transcend their social class is a compelling and chilling wild ride.  Even my friends who normally hate sub-titled foreign films have embraced it.  One friend aptly described it thus: "If Dostoyevsky wrote a screenplay and Alfred Hitchcock directed it, it would be Parasite."  I can think of no better recommendation - see it for yourself. (Rent from Amazon, Vudu or Apple TV)