In order to have a meaningful conversation about cinema and grow as a cinephile and film critic one must become fluent in the history of the art. If I hadn’t watched the “40 Year Old Virgin” this year, I may have never understood the relevance of Judd Apatow and the type of comedy he helped usher in the mid-2000s. If I hadn’t watched Todo Sobre Mi Madre (All About My Mother), I would continue to believe (wrongly, I may add) that as good a filmmaker as Pedro Almodovar has shown me he can be, he was incapable of crafting a story that was truly moving and personal. Instead, I learned that Almodovar is much more than a provocateur with a keen eye. At his best, as he proved in Todo Sobre Mi Madre, Almodovar can take the tale of a grieving single mother and make it both intimate and universally inspiring.
Each year I try to expand my film vocabulary by watching works released in years past that I have missed. For the purpose of this post and future ones like it, I will consider a blind spot any film older than 5 years that I had not seen.
At the start of the year I gave myself the goal of watching at least 30 films released in 2013 or before. As of the writing of this post (December 16th), I managed to watch only 21 films.
More than in previous years, my vagaries to cinema’s past paid off. Of all of the blind spots I covered I only disliked two: The Double (2011) and We Own the Night (2007).
Below I give you the ten best blind-spots I covered in 2018 followed by some honorable mentions.
10. RUSHMORE (1998) [ 3.5/5 ]
All of the quirkiness and unique stylistic vocabulary of the now-great Wes Anderson is in full display in Rushmore. Parts of the film lost me but, overall, it is a showcase for a lot of great talent that hints at an even greater and more polished future for the man at the helm. Definitely worth seeing, specially for those interested in the work of Wes Anderson.
9. MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO (1991) [ 3.5/5 ]
There are two films contained within Gus Van Sant’s seminal film. One is the offputting modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear, and the other an absolutely gorgeous and devastating film about young male alienation, loneliness and love. You can guess which one I liked better. Had Van Sant abandoned the Shakespearean references, perhaps My Own Private Idaho would now be considered among the best films of the last 30 years.
8. DARK CITY (1998) [ 3.5/5 ]
The intelligence of the ideas contained in the film are perhaps superior to the execution, which was surely limited by budget and scope. However, there’s something to be said about a work of art that invites analysis and introspection. After I was done watching it, I found myself trapped in its riddles and troubled by the scope of its tragedy. Few films in 2018 were as interesting and mysterious as this one.
7. THE 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN (2005) [ 4/5 ]
Of all of the young adult male comedies that have made an impression in mainstream audiences in the last 10-15 years, few scripts are as tightly conceived and better executed as the 40 Year Old Virgin. The film is also responsible for elevating the careers of one Judd Apatow and Steve Carell. Watch it for the laughs, and stay for the influence it had on the many lesser comedies like it that followed.
6. AKIRA (1988) [ 4.5/5 ]
Of all of the blind spots I watched in 2018, Akira is perhaps the one I wish I had the opportunity to watch on the big screen the most. In many ways, Akira is a typical anime with a fantastical high-stakes story at its center and an all-powerful evil to confront. The difference here is that the team led by Katsuhiro Otomo delivers a deeply violent yet kinetic experience that is hypnotizing to watch. No other animated film has transported me to its fantastical world as much as this one has. A must-watch for anyone with even a mild interest in animation.
5. TODO SOBRE MI MADRE (1999) [ 4.5/5 ]
Of the Almodovar films I’ve had the opportunity to watch, no other has felt so close and personal. Like its title suggests, Todo Sobre Mi Madre is an ode to Almodovar’s own mother and the incomparable strength of mothers everywhere. Immediately, the film is devastating, hitting us with a gut punch that gives the story a reason to exist, but from which we never fully recover from. The rest of the story is filled with personality and intimacy, as if the film came straight from Almodovar’s heart-beats. If that weren’t enough, the film is gorgeous to look at. Each important moment between characters leaves a lasting impression because the script is enhanced by the craft of the cinematography and the quality of the acting. The performance by Antonia San Juan as Agrado, the quick-witted and sharp-mouthed transgender best friend, is easily one of my favorites of the year.
4. BEFORE SUNSET (2004) [ 4.5/5 ]
The sequel to one of the most romantic films of all-time had a lot to live up to. At first, it struggles to lift off because the characters had a lot of territory to cover. For most of its running time, it is an exposition of two ex-lovers, catching up, exchanging suspicious glances, making timid romantic advances, but never quite reaching for the stars. The film exercised patience so that the rekindling of a once-in-a-lifetime connection would feel organic. In doing so, Before Sunset captures the magic of the original by staying true to its naturalism. The film never feels like a production. The dialogue feels true and genuine, and the performers as credible as the first time we meet them.
The last 20-30 minutes of the film floored me. Easily the best ending I watched all year.
3. GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES (1988) [ 5/5 ]
This is THE animated film I had always been waiting for. In 89 minutes Studio Ghibli and the legendary Isao Takahata gave the art form a different dimension. It challenges for me, and for the many others who have been moved by it, the notion that animated films cannot compete with live action when it comes to portraying and recording the human experience.
As painterly and playful as the animation style is, Grave of Fireflies uses its hand-drawn colorful compositions to find beauty in the most horrible of circumstances. The film is ever careful not to diminish the impact of war, but rather than focus on the spectacle, it softens it, while it pulls at your heartstrings with a harrowing human story of perseverance, love and immeasurable tragedy. In that sense, I was glad Grave of Fireflies was animated. If it hadn’t, the film would have lost its charm and its gravitas. The tragedy would have been too great, and the pain on display excessive.
A longer review will be forthcoming.
2. STOP MAKING SENSE (1984) [ 5/5 ]
On a typical year, a film like Grave of Fireflies would have been the best blind spot of the year. In fact, I now consider it to be the best film I have watched released in 1988. However, if 2018 proved anything is that there are many gems I still need to explore and that, in some cases, the films waiting for me can have life-altering effects.
Stop Making Sense didn’t change my life, but it enriched it greatly. For starters, it changed my impression of concert films forever. What Jonathan Demme did was to let the camera speak and follow and enhance the music; its presence both a critical part of the experience, and a silent complement to the enjoyment. In addition, Stop Making Sense introduced me to the exuberant talent of The Talking Heads in the mid 1980s, when they were at their best, led by the frenetic eccentricity of David Byrne.
Pauline Kael was right when she said that Stop Making Sense was “very close to perfection”.
1. BEFORE SUNRISE (1995) [ 5/5 ]
For readers of film criticism and those familiar with Hollywood’s history, it must be tiresome to read the near universal praise that some films receive. After all, how many reviews of The Godfather do we need? How much praise is too much praise? For every review of a little-seen movie, there is a dozen of people sharing their opinion on The Godfather or Pulp Fiction.
To praise Before Sunrise is easy though. As much I occasionally enjoy being against the mainstream current, one must surrender to the power of beauty when one sees it.
Before Sunrise is a perfect romantic film. The most perfect of all. It’s naturalistic, believable, based on youthful dreams of happiness, carnal desire and that inexplicable chemistry that pulls two souls together.
If you had me choosing 10 favorite moments in film, I’d be quick to tell you about the poetic simplicity of the listening booth shared by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy early in the film. The moment tells me everything there is to know about how they feel, but it also captures that elusive feeling of wanting, without the certainty of acceptance.
Before Sunrise is Richard Linklater’s greatest gift to us all.
Honorable Mentions include:
ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (1981), FRANCES HA (2012), BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (1961), CARNAGE (2011), HALLOWEEN (1978), BEFORE MIDNIGHT (2013)