Leaving TV for Movies
The five best films I have seen so far this year.
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At the start of 2021, I decided I wanted to move from binging television shows to watching more movies. This decision was driven by a combination of factors.
Most pretentiously, I read E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction by David Foster Wallace at the end of last summer and concluded that I was watching too much TV and wasting my life. Whether switching up my media habits and watching two or three movies a week is any less of a waste is open to interpretation.
More significantly, I didn’t have any compelling shows left to watch. In the first ever instance of me being ahead of the curve, I finished The Sopranos, the last show I truly loved, before the pandemic started and the rest of Twitter decided to watch or re-watch the classic mob series. I enjoyed Netflix’s ambitious spring 2020 trash TV output, ranging from Tiger King to Love is Blind, but as the pandemic wore on, the garbage started to stink.
Put simply, I was bored of TV.
My brothers are both broadcast production students, which means sometimes for homework they have to watch movies. I have never been able to get films before, and have always been in awe at the symbolism and techniques film students and cinephiles alike observe each time they watch a movie. I could confidently author an essay on the meaning behind the flashing green light on Daisy’s dock, but I would be utterly lost if asked to explain why Baz Luhrmann used specific camera framing to showcase Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jay Gastby.
To improve this gap in my cultural knowledge, I could either enroll in film school or watch more movies. And while I am in California, I am also a diehard University of Southern Cal hater, so watching more movies was my decision.
As it turns out, if you move across the country to a city where you don’t know anyone during a pandemic while you are also not watching TV anymore, you will have a lot of time to watch movies. Already this year, I have watched 45 films. Many were fantastic. Many more were terrible. These are the five best films that I have watched so far in 2021. I only included movies I watched for the first time.
5. Judas and the Black Messiah
One of two films released in 2021 on my list, Judas and the Black Messiah is a biographical drama about Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. Starring Daniel Kaluuya, who first cemented himself in my brain in the “Fifteen Million Merits” episode of Black Mirror, and Lakeith Stanfield, the movie did a fantastic job telling one of the many stories I wish we had covered in high school history class.
Striving to keep the story as accurate as possible, the writers worked with Hampton’s family to source reliable information. The film’s assumptions largely concern Stanfield’s representation of William O’Neal, the FBI informant, as O’Neal committed suicide in 1990 shortly after revealing his cooperation with the FBI to the remnants of the Panthers.
One of the biggest challenges for historical dramas, especially biographical stories, is how to maintain suspense and audience engagement when the ending of the film may be widely known. Fred Hampton’s death is no secret, nor is the FBI conspiracy against him and the Panthers. But director Shaka King succeeds where others have failed and keeps Judas and the Black Messiah gripping and tense throughout the entire film.
King accomplished this intensity in two main ways - through a powerful soundtrack and by varying the pace of the film. H.E.R.’s “Fight for You” won the Oscar for Best Original Song, while fragments of O’Neal’s meetings with the FBI are interspersed throughout the larger story of Hampton’s work with the Panthers, compressing the anxiety the viewer feels for Hampton into painfully tough two or three minute scenes.
I recommend this movie to anyone, but especially those who are looking to learn a little more about one side of the civil rights movement not typically covered in classrooms.
4. American Graffiti
The movie American Graffiti could not be more different from Judas and the Black Messiah. Taking place over a single night in Southern California in 1962, American Graffiti was the first major directorial release by Star Wars creator George Lucas. The film tells the story of four young men recently removed from high school and anxious about the next stage of their life.
American Graffiti stuck with me longer than I expected for a few reasons. I am a sucker for period pieces, and the movie does an excellent job capturing the colors and sounds of 1962 in suburban America, to the point where I was enjoying references to cultural touchstones that predate me by nearly 40 years. The film is also an undeniable predecessor to the classic teen movie Dazed and Confused, a movie beloved by me and my friends.
But what gave American Graffiti serious staying power for me is the success the film has in demonstrating that the anxieties and fears felt by young adults are largely unchanged across generations, even if these fears manifest in different ways. Curt and Steve were terrified of leaving home for college, just as I was five years ago. Terry and Milner are each awkward in their own way with the women they meet and try desperately to impress, which is at times too relatable.
No spoilers, but the very end of the film did an excellent job serving as a segue between the booming, carefree attitudes of the 1950s and the more painful 1960s and 1970s that were creeping up on the young men of the film without them realizing.
The film many remember for the gaffe behind its award for Best Picture, Moonlight is a powerful story broken into three distinct acts. It tells the story of a man named Chiron, as we watch him come of age and struggle with his sexual identity during three crucial chapters of his life.
Someone on Letterboxd commented that Moonlight is a Frank Ocean album in cinematic form and I cannot think of a better, nor more complimentary, way to describe this movie. Director Barry Jenkins made such deft use of lighting and color to differentiate each of the three acts that even a total film novice like myself could appreciate his choices.
What I most love about Moonlight is its tender depiction of masculinity. Too often, masculinity on the screen is reduced to over the top bravado, a competition between various movies to see who can show the manliest man to ever man as he conquers women or war or his own body. Moonlight wholeheartedly rejected ugly cultural norms for masculinity and gave us Chiron, one of the best examples of what a good man looks like as I have ever seen in film. I am especially partial to Ashton Sanders (also seen in Judas and the Black Messiah) and his portrayal of teenage Chiron.
If you are like me and worried that you aren’t cultured or refined enough to appreciate Moonlight, or if you are a salty La La Land fan who still hasn’t moved on, watch just the first act of this movie. If you aren’t hooked after that, you aren’t paying attention.
2. Bo Burnham: Inside
This movie is different from the others on my list in a few important ways. I just watched it this week, as it only debuted on Netflix days ago. It’s not a fictional story like the other films on this list, but rather a self-described “comedy special”. And its entire cast consists of one person, Bo Burnham.
Burnham rose to fame on YouTube about 14 years ago. As one of the first viral stars, he has held a front row seat to the development of social media as a viable platform for talented people to find their audience and the ways this instantly accessible fame has impacted our collective psyches. Burnham gives prescient commentary on this and other issues, including an entire opening act dedicated to attacking the irony of acknowledging your position of social privilege while still trying to help. He also performs a catchy riff sarcastically exalting Jeff Bezos stuck in my head days later.
At this point, I would consider myself a Burnham stan. I loved Promising Young Woman, which featured Burnham in a more conventional supporting actor role and was another 2021 Best Picture nominee. Eighth Grade, his debut big screen work, is the best movie about being a teenager in the 21st century that I have ever seen. I love Burnham for the honesty and openness with which he attacks the topic of mental health. And I so appreciate the way he vocalized what me and millions of other young people have been feeling over the last 18 months; our deep rooted anxiety over the time we have lost forever to this pandemic will never truly fade.
To call this film a comedy doesn’t feel exactly right, but to call it a “social commentary” feels far too “freshman in Film 101 trying to sound smart”. I have never been more positive I will rewatch a movie than I was when I finished Bo Burnham: Inside, and you too should watch it and discuss it with me.
1. No Country for Old Men
No Country for Old Men is divisive. There are viewers who do not appreciate the hyper-violent, Tarantino-esque cinematography the Coen Brothers bring to the modern Western genre. There are others who hated the somewhat ambiguous ending of the film, a complaint which ignores both the fabulous source novel from Cormac McCarthy and the overall message of the movie itself.
What I think is most brilliant about No Country for Old Men is how it hides its true protagonist until the very end of the movie. As the story is building toward its climax and the pieces of another cliché action movie appear to be falling into place, the film violently rejects your preconceived notions, “subverting expecations” in the best way. The Western is the most American of American film genres, yet No Country for Old Men covers so much more than the standard fare of setting out on one’s own or starting over that we are fed in typical Westerns.
A film with no soundtrack and an opening sequence of approximately 25 minutes with hardly any dialogue, every word spoken in this film is carefully considered. No Country for Old Men is the single best example of an action movie as art that I have seen.
Have you seen any of my top five? Or do you have other suggestions for me to enjoy throughout the second half of the year? Add me on Letterboxd so I can steal your favorite movies.
Things I Enjoyed This Week:
Three Groovy Girls, a lifestyle blog from clever friends of mine
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