2011 in Film

December 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

  1. The Best Years of Our Lives
  2. True Grit (2010)
  3. On the Waterfront
  4. Ben-Hur (1959)
  5. Valentine’s Day
  6. Let’s Be Happy
  7. The Earrings of Madame de . . .
  8. Last Summer
  9. The King’s Speech
  10. Tammy and the Bachelor
  11. Triumph of the Will/Triumph des Willens
  12. Samson and Delilah (1949)
  13. Lost Horizon
  14. The Adventures of Hajji Baba
  15. The Student Prince 
  16. The Rains of Ranchipur
  17. Having Wonderful Time
  18. The Jungle Book (1942)
  19. Clambake
  20. She’s Working Her Way through College
  21.  Project Nim
  22. Holiday in Mexico
  23. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
  24. Romance on the High Seas
  25. Stage Door
  26. Teenage Rebel 
  27. The Godless Girl
  28. Duchess of Idaho
  29. Pagan Love Song
  30. High Time
  31. Easy A
  32. A Yank at Oxford
  33. Million Dollar Mermaid
  34. On Moonlight Bay
  35. Skirts Ahoy!
  36. Bridesmaids
  37. A Summer Place
  38. Valley of the Dolls
  39. So Long at the Fair
  40. Ever After
  41. Shutter Island
  42. Springtime in the Rockies
  43. Flight of the Lost Balloon
  44. Senior Prom
  45. June Bride
  46. Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead
  47. Four Weddings and a Funeral
  48. Picnic at Hanging Rock
  49. Horrible Bosses
  50. A Regle du Jeu/The Rules of the Game
  51. Ugetsu
  52. The Passion of Joan of Arc
  53. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
  54. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
  55. Broken Blossoms
  56. Dial M for Murder
  57. Those Redheads from Seattle
  58. King Richard and the Crusaders
  59. Rocket Science
  60. Cars
  61. Big Trouble in Little China
  62. Tangled
  63. Wild Cherry
  64. The Girls on the Beach
  65. Campus Rhythm
  66. St. Elmo’s Fire
  67. Our Idiot Brother
  68. Howl’s Moving Castle
  69. Moneyball
  70. By the Light of the Silvery Moon
  71. Tickle Me
  72. Footlight Parade
  73. Smile (1975)
  74. Kismet (1944)
  75. Christmas in Connecticut
  76. Mulan
  77. Pigskin Parade
  78. The Shop around the Corner
  79. Week-end in Havana
  80. Mildred Pierce
  81. Pretty in Pink
  82. Anne of Green Gables (1934)
  83. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
  84. Holiday Affair
  85. Jailhouse Rock
  86. How to be Very, Very Popular
  87. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1949)
  88. The Man Who Came to Dinner
  89. Hugo
  90. The Oppposite Sex
  91. Your Cheatin’ Heart
  92. Der Tiger von Eschnapur/The Tiger of Eschnapur
  93. Let’s Go Collegiate
  94. The Far Country
  95. Heidi (1937)

Let’s just compare the first five movies of the year to the last five. I think we can all agree that the trajectory of this year has been, uh . . . downward. (Of course, the atrociousness of Valentine’s Day, which my sister forced me to watch, might balance out the three confirmed classics and the one that seems destined to become one.) Actually, maybe that’s not true–the biggest lull came in August and September, when I was traveling and then moving, and barely watched anything for two months. Things picked up again in quantity, if not in quality, as the weather turned cold.

Notes on what I list: Any movie that I see in full for the first time. If I’ve seen it before but don’t remember it, it counts. If I’ve seen it before but remember the vast majority of scenes, I don’t.

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2011 in Books

December 29, 2011 § Leave a comment

  1. Moby-Dick, Herman Melville
  2. The Silver Chair, C.S. Lewis
  3. Sweethearts, Sara Zarr
  4. Paper Towns, John Green
  5. Vida, Patricia Engel
  6. Catching Fire, Suzanne Collins
  7. Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins
  8. How to Say Goodbye in Robot, Natalie Standiford
  9. March, Geraldine Brooks
  10. On the Jellicoe Road, Melina Marchetta
  11. Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, Peter Cameron
  12. The Once and Future King, T.H. White
  13. Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool, Taylor Clark
  14. My Latest Grievance, Elinor Lipman
  15. A Great and Terrible Beauty, Libba Bray
  16. How to Marry an English Lord, or How Anglomania Really Got Started, Gail McColl & Carol McD. Wallace
  17. Anna and the French Kiss, Stephanie Perkins
  18. The Million Dollar Mermaid: an Autobiography, Esther Williams
  19. Please Ignore Vera Dietz, A.S. King
  20. Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer
  21. The Mystery of Nancy Drew: Girl Sleuth on the Couch, Betsy Caprio
  22. Dark Summit: the True Story of Everest’s Most Controversial Season, Nick Heil
  23. Alice I Have Been, Melanie Benjamin
  24. Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, Doris Kearns Goodwin
  25. Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, Suketu Mehta
  26. The Girl Who Was on Fire: Your Favorite Authors on Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy, Leah Wilson
  27. A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan
  28. The Magician King, Lev Grossman
  29. Tarzan of the Apes, Edgar Rice Burroughs
  30. A Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin
  31. The Cookbook Collector, Allegra Goodman
  32. A Clash of Kings, George R.R. Martin
  33. Stranger Things Happen, Kelly Link
  34. St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, Karen Russell
  35. The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides

A lot of young adult in the first half of this year, which wouldn’t have been a bad thing except that most of the Y.A. I read was less compelling than I’d hoped for. The major exception was Paper Towns by John Green, who is an obvious and perennial exception to the dashing of my hopes. (I’m almost worried that my expectations are so high for his upcoming The Fault in Our Stars that the inevitable expectation-dashing is coming.) Natalie Standiford’s How to Say Goodbye in Robot was also charming. The later forays into more adult fiction, although equally uneven, were more rewarding.

What I really loved: Into Thin Air continued my tradition of finishing Krakauer’s books in a day. How to Marry an English Lord, the most embarrassingly titled selection on my list (scratch that–that award clearly goes to Anna and the French Kiss), was perhaps the most enjoyable surprise of the year, a really readable account of the Gilded Age trend of American heiresses marrying British lords. And Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream, which I read at the continued insistence of Dead Presidents’ Anthony Bergen, was incredible. Clearly I need to be reading more non-fiction. On the fiction side, the book that blew everything else away was Allegra Goodman’s The Cookbook Collector. While by no means a perfect book (like most people, I’m rationally annoyed by surprise crop-ups of 9/11-related plotlines), it was still addictive, romantic, charming, funny and smart. March, A Visit from the Goon Squad, and The Once and Future King round out the fiction portion of my “loved” list.

2011 in Theater/Ballet/Opera

December 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

  1. Misericordes, The Bolshoi Ballet, 2009
  2. Jewels, The Paris Opera Ballet, 2005
  3. Carmen, The Metropolitan Opera, 2010
  4. Veronique Doisneau, The Paris Opera Ballet, 2009
  5. Of Mice and Men, American Players Theatre, 2011
  6. Romeo and Juliet, The Royal Ballet, 1984
  7. Beauty and the Beast, U.S. tour at the Overture Center, 2011
  8. The Nutcracker, New York City Ballet, 2011
  9. The Nutcracker, Joffrey Ballet, 2011

Bold means I saw it live.

The sad thing is that this weak little list is a significant improvement over 2010, which topped out at five performances. In 2010, though, I had an excuse–I was poor! This year, I was making enough money to attend more performances; I was just too lazy to actually follow through. But I have plans for 2012!

Dance: A number of ballets are coming up on my Netflix queue. Netflix clearly isn’t buying any new ones, and I want to watch the ones in my queue before they go missing, so the next few months will be ballet DVD-heavy. I’m also leaning towards buying tickets for ABT’s Giselle when they come to Chicago.

Opera: Opera in my city is actually more reasonably priced than I thought, so I have no excuses not to go to at least one live event. Beyond that, I’ll be relying mostly on public television–I have several operas recorded from PBS, bless their hearts.

Theater: My family goes to American Players Theater every summer, so that’s a given, regardless of what actually ends up being on their schedule. The university theater is doing Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which, given my August Wilson obsession, is definitely on my go-to list. I’m not particularly thrilled with the big-tour musicals on our local venue’s slate; it’s all stuff I’ve already seen (Fiddler on the Roof) or have absolutely zero interest in seeing (Cats). Otherwise, it’s up to the smaller theaters to entertain me this year–it’s my goal to go to at least one local production.

This Is No Weather to Be Chasing Monkeys.

July 26, 2011 § Leave a comment

From a 1936 article from my local paper on the heat wave then: “Officials at the Vilas Zoo declined to go after a monkey that had escaped its cage and the zoo confines. Zoo director Fred Winkelmann said, ‘This is no weather to be chasing monkeys.’ “

The last of Netflix Instant’s Criterion Collection films in my queue were removed last week, and I committed to sitting down and knocking out the remaining few before they got deleted. Fortunately, it came at the perfect time. Last week’s temperatures changed from 90 to 100 with a heat index soaring over 110 on some days. I know, I know: those of you who live in Arizona and Texas are already laughing. “They think that’s hot? That’s springtime weather where I live.” What you fail to understand is that a Wisconsin 95 is the equivalent of 115 anywhere else. A Wisconsin 95 is hot, sticky, muggy, and gross. Back when I lived in Portland, we had a “heat wave” where the temperature hovered between 100 and 110 for a solid week–but it was a dry 110, and we managed to make it through without an air conditioner. Here, on the other hand, we start cranking the A.C. at 85.

The only room in my house with air conditioning is the bedroom, so I spent all leisure time last week hiding out in there, watching movies on my boyfriend’s laptop and praying that my shifts in the beer garden at work would be cancelled. Fate was on my side and, through a combination of heat and thunderstorms, I managed to make it through all but one of my remaining Criterion films before they disappeared. (The 400 Blows will have to wait, as I made an impromptu road trip down to Illinois to watch the last Harry Potter with my sister instead.) Here’s what I watched:

  • Picnic at Hanging Rock: Turn-of-the-century Australian schoolgirls depart for a picnic at a nearby rock formation, and not all of them return. A period picture with vaguely feminist undertones, pretty dresses, and a mystery? Sign me up. I’m not sure why I’d put this one off, since I’d sensed that I would love it from the time I added it to my queue–and I was right. It’s the kind of film that left me with just enough questions that I was immediately scrambling to the internet to find out more–and that was just as interesting as the movie itself.
  • La Regle du Jeu: Often listed up there with Citizen Kane and Vertigo as one of the best films ever made, I knew I’d get to this French comedy of manners satirizing the trivial affairs of pre-World War II aristocrats eventually. Now that I’ve watched it, though, I’m still not sure I got it–even after I followed up by reading multiple articles that supposedly explained it to me. While I can appreciate the film’s technical genius–its intricate choreography, its framing of scenes–it’s probably worth a few more views before I make any attempt to judge its storytelling.
  • Ugetsu: Set during Japan’s Sengoku period, this cautionary tale about the dangers of caring too much for money takes a supernatural twist. I wasn’t sure I’d like this one, and had actually just added it to my queue on a whim a week earlier–but I ended up being spellbound the entire time, and the last shot still haunts me. I’m really excited to check out Mizoguchi’s other films now.
  • The Passion of Joan of Arc: This is the kind of film you don’t enjoy so much as appreciate. Based on real transcripts from the trials, the movie follows Joan’s story from the court to the stake. While this is somewhat tedious at times, especially for someone like me who has a limited knowledge of Catholic theology, it’s a beautiful film–made all the more impressive for the fact that the initial cut was destroyed and Dreyer pieced together this version from shots he’d previously rejected. It was interesting to compare this to other films of the time period and see how far ahead of its competition it really was.

Prior to this, I’d been watching a lot of fluff lately: musicals, a lot of Esther Williams I’d taped off of TCM in May and was just now getting around to, some mediocre screwball comedy, anything with a wedding-themed plot. And while there’s obviously nothing wrong with that, the reasons I was avoiding more challenging fare were questionable. Exhausted from work, I wanted to avoid overtaxing my brain any more than I had to. But as this last week demonstrated, watching more serious, complex movies didn’t tax me at all. In fact, it felt far more rewarding than the steady diet of sugar I’d been subsisting on before. Bring on the good stuff!

Don’t tell me the lights are shining anyplace but there: the World’s Fair on Film

June 24, 2011 § 2 Comments

Chicago’s White City of 1893 was a quintessential American city, forced up out of marshland by sheer willpower and molded into Venetian-style waterways framed by magnificent Beaux Arts buildings just in time for the World’s Columbian Exposition to open, then abandoned to fire and decay as it drew to a close. It was a beautiful spectacle. One visitor described it:  “. . . there are some people who are letting the chance of seeing this White City, that rose like a Venus from the waters of Lake Michigan, slip from them forever. They are missing the greatest event in the history of the country since the Civil War.” It inspired two of America’s greatest wonderlands: L. Frank Baum’s Emerald City of Oz and Walt’s Disneyworld. And yet despite this, it’s never been the setting for a film. That drought will allegedly end in 2013, when Leonardo DiCaprio adapts Erik Larson’s spectacular book The Devil in the White City to the screen. In the meantime, I set out to find a few other fair-set films to enjoy . . .

Centennial Summer (set during the Centennial Exposition, Philadelphia, 1876)
The film: Fox’s response to the popularity of Meet Me in St. Louis (see below) was to put out their own world’s fair-set period musical. Jeanne Crain and Linda Darnell are sisters who compete for the love of a Frenchman who’s come to town to prepare the French pavilion for the Centennial Exposition. The fair: Despite fears of an international boycott, the United States’ first official world fair went off without a hitch. This exposition was the first to feature a women’s pavilion, and Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and Heinz ketchup both made their debuts. The arm and torch of the Statue of Liberty were on display during the latter half of the fair, and for fifty cents, you could climb up to the torch’s balcony; these fees helped to fund the creation of the rest of the statue.

So Long at the Fair (set during the Exposition Universelle, Paris, 1889)
The film: This 1950 British suspense film features Jean Simmons and David Tomlinson as siblings who venture to Paris for its world fair. After a night of Paris revelry, though, Jean awakens to find that every trace that her brother ever set foot in Paris–from his signature in the hotel’s guest book to his hotel room itself–has disappeared, and the hotel’s owners claim he was never there. Jean teams up with Dirk Bogarde–the only other person in Paris who remembers interacting with her brother– to solve the case of his disappearance. The fair: Held to celebrate the centennial of the storming of the Bastille, the Paris Exposition of 1889 is most famous for introducing the Eiffel Tower to the Parisian skyline. At the time, the statue was much hated and considered an eyesore. Writer Guy de Maupassant, when asked why he ate lunch at the Eiffel Tower’s restaurant most days despite hating the structure, responded that the reason he ate there was that it was the only place in Paris where you couldn’t see the Tower! Overseas, things were a little different–four years later in Chicago, the desire to outdo the Eiffel Tower led to the creation of the first Ferris wheel.

Meet Me in St. Louis (set during the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, St. Louis, 1904)
The film: This is, of course, the mother of all fair films, but the fair itself is mostly a framing device that only truly appears in the charming last scene of the film. The plot is a loosely connected series of vignettes about the Smith family and their five children (including Margaret O’Brien and Judy Garland at her most wonderful), culminating in Mr. Smith’s anguish-inducing announcement that he’ll move the family to New York for a job, taking them away from all their friends and new beaux–not to mention causing them to miss the upcoming world’s fair!. The musical, which used a mix of period songs (“Meet Me in St. Louis, Louis,” “Under the Bamboo Tree”) and ones written specifically for the film (“The Trolley Song,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”) to great effect, inspired a number of other period musicals over the next few years, including On Moonlight Bay, The Belle of New York, and the world fair-set Centennial Summer. The fair: The 1904 Olympics, which had originally been awarded to Chicago, were relocated to St. Louis in order to be held concurrently with the exposition. Things were run so poorly–with the events being spread out over months and many non-American athletes not attending–that it nearly killed the Olympics off entirely. The fair was well known for popularizing ice cream served in waffle cones, and many other food products–from peanut butter to Dr. Pepper–were introduced or popularized there as well.

Charlie Chan at Treasure Island (set during the Golden Gate Exposition, San Francisco, 1939)
The film: Sidney Toler stars as the controversial Chinese-American detective, who investigates the death of his friend after he supposedly commits suicide on a flight home to San Francisco. This film, like the Elvis one below, was not a period piece, being filmed and released at the same time it supposedly took place. The world’s fair setting is mostly a gimmick, since it barely appears. The fair: This exposition celebrated the completion of the city’s two new bridges, the Oakland Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge. Treasure Island is an artificial island created specifically for the fair; afterwards, it was used as a naval base.

It Happened at the World’s Fair (set during the Century 21 Exposition, Seattle, 1962)
The film: Of all the world’s fair films, this Elvis Presley vehicle actually gives us our biggest glimpse at the fair itself–from the Space Needle to the monorail–as Elvis and his friend spend most of the movie hustling for money to buy back their cropduster. (Yeah, I think they were running out of plots at this point in Elvis’s career.) Taking the “cute kid” conceit of earlier Elvis films to its logical extreme, Elvis plays baby-sitter to a girl named Sue-Lin, who herself plays matchmaker between Elvis and Joan O’Brien, a nurse working at the fair. The fair: The Cold War colored all aspects of the 1950s, including the plans for this fair. Its intention was to prove that the United States wasn’t behind the Soviet Union, science and technology-wise, which led to this exposition’s focus on the future. The Cold War would play an additional role in the closing ceremony of the fair, when John F. Kennedy’s scheduled appearance was canceled due to what was later discovered to be the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Seattle fair also included an “adults only” portion, including naked “Girls of the Galaxy” and an R-rated puppet show. Don’t wait for any of that to show up in the Elvis film, though!

White Folks in the Tropics: a Cinematic Celebration

April 4, 2011 § 2 Comments

I’ve discovered a new mid-century film subgenre! For the time being, let’s call it Jungle Love. (No, not that kind of jungle love. Given that the title of this blog includes the word “sex,” though, I have plenty of kinky Google searches leading to it. Might as well add to it!) This subgenre I’ve discovered combines elements of the romance, adventure, and melodrama genres into one entirely new fusion. Here are the essential elements:

  • Pretty white people. Often, a 25-year-old actress paired with a 50-year-old leading man.
  • An exotic, tropical setting largely populated by brown people. Often a plantation. India or Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) is the most common, but the rest of Asia, Africa, or even the Caribbean can substitute in a pinch. (For some reason South America is vastly underused for this purpose–maybe because the Brits never owned it.)
  • Romantic Complications. Usually this takes the form of a love triangle, but it can also consist of double love triangles (whoa!), love quadrangles, or simply one of those classic I-love-you-I-hate-you, back-and-forth pairings.
  • The interference of nature: generally a natural disaster, a plague, or a wild animal attack. Some ambitious films (I’m looking at you, Rains of Ranchipur) manage to cram in all three. This interference is generally meant to up the emotional stakes for the romantic leads (and maybe even kill off the unchosen party of a love triangle), but to a post-colonial viewer, just highlights the extreme self-centeredness of the protagonists, who keep blathering about their love lives even as thousands of “natives” die off in the background shots.

Bonus points awarded for:

  • Minor royalty.
  • Prostitutes/”good time girls”/”companions” (if we’re in the Hays Code era).
  • Blackface. Or yellowface . . . in most cases, literally orangeface, as the 1950s Hollywood attempt at making white characters look Indian was to spray them with a particularly garish, neon shade of self-tanner.

Need examples? Keep reading.

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The Year of Judy (Goodbye 2010)

December 31, 2010 § Leave a comment

2010 was the year of Judy Garland for me: I watched no less than six of her movies, which was rivaled only by Lauren Bacall (also six), Gene Kelly (four), and Elvis Presley (four). Clearly I was stuck on musicals this year. It felt like I watched a lot of Cary Grant movies this year, but when it came down to it, apparently there were only three. It seemed more like eight. A little Cary Grant goes a long way.

Of the 135 movies I saw for the first time this year (full list here), these were my top 15 favorites:

  • Queen Christina
  • Johnny Guitar
  • To Have and Have Not
  • The Pirate
  • Gwoemul/The Host
  • A Place in the Sun
  • The Harvey Girls
  • Giant
  • The Women
  • The Searchers
  • The Letter
  • Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
  • North West Frontier/Flame over India
  • Black Narcissus
  • and an honorable mention for A Little Princess (1995), which I’d seen as a child but forgotten about.

Basically, Western influences, bright colors, exotic settings? Check, check, and check.

For 2011, my movie goals are:

  • To watch more late ’60s/’70s films. I avoid them because I think I don’t like them, but whenever I’m actually roped into watching one, I always end up enjoying it.
  • To watch more foreign films. I know there’s more out there than Almodovar and Kurosawa; why aren’t I watching it?
  • To watch more Bette Davis movies. Self-explanatory.

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