I didn’t intend for my listing of favorite books and movies from last year to stretch out through the entire month of January, but between starting a new semester of teaching and still recovering from 2007 (see the introduction to My Favorite Books of 2007), it’s taken longer than I anticipated.
Anyway, here are the remainder of my favorite movies from those I watched last year:
11. Pan’s Labyrinth
This was one of the rare movies that I felt deserved the lavish praise that was heaped upon it. I found the ending heart-breaking, but it’s a beautiful film in almost every regard.
12. Pumping Iron
This is a silly film, a documentary about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s last (and once again successful) bid for the Mr. Universe title in the late 1970s, but I found it highly entertaining. And it gave us not just one but two stars of science fiction/fantasy/action film and television, even if Lou Ferrigno’s star faded before Schwarzenegger’s.
13. Shoot the Piano Player
A great film by Truffault. This is an example of an “art film” that succeeds in being good art in part by being a good and well-crafted genre film, in this case an engaging crime and gangster caper. (Another film similar in that one regard was Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon from a few years back. Part of what was different about the film was not actually the high-flying theatrical action. Anyone who had seen The Bride with White Hair or The Heroic Trio had seen similar action, also well done. What was different about Lee’s film, and arguably Truffault’s film, was getting audiences to experience a well crafted example of genre faire many of them normally never encounter.)
14. The Simpsons Movie
“Spider Pig, Spider Pig, does whatever Spider Pig does.” If you like and get The Simpsons, I don’t need to say anything else. If you don’t like or get The Simpsons, I don’t need to say anything else.
15. The Squid and the Whale
I was really prepared to hate this film. White, upper middle class angst in pop culture turns my stomach. For example, I found the similarly praised Sideways literally unwatchable – when I tried to watch it, I was able to recognize that it seemed like a nicely put together movie, but every moment I watched annoyed me more and more. Further, while family melodramas don’t necessarily actively annoy me, they do tend to bore me – the daily lives and travails of “ordinary” people are deeply meaningful to them, but most people’s lives aren’t worth making movies about. Put them together, and I feel like there’s often something highly narcissistic about white middle class people watching movies about the trivial details of lives of people like themselves and finding it somehow profound. So, I see the fact that not only did I not hate this film, but found it actually pretty gripping to be a sign of how good the movie is. (One caveat: when the oldest son plays an acoustic version of Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” at a school talent contest, proclaiming he had written the song, I found it absurdly unbelievable that no one in an audience of mostly middle aged white people recognized it until well after the fact.)
16. Trane Tracks: The Legacy of John Coltrane
This isn’t really a documentary or movie in any conventional sense. It’s simply a collection on DVD of video footage of the John Coltrane Quartet in performance, something there’s not a lot of, unfortunately. Some of the clips have been issued on other videos, though the highlight for me was a clip I had not seen before of the quartet performing “Impressions.” Much of the video footage throughout the performance actually focuses on drummer Elvin Jones. Jones was known as a highly virtuosic, polyrhythmic drummer, something that can be readily heard from any of his recordings with Coltrane (or for that matter on any of his recordings without Coltrane). Seeing this performance, though, in addition to hearing it, is to bear witness to a spectacle of musical beauty and nearly unbelievable athletic prowess. Between his two arms and two legs, Jones bangs out four distinct rhythms simultaneously, sometimes arguably five. It was one of those visual images that altered the way I heard things, heightening my sensitivity to Jones’ drumming.
17. Umberto D.
One of the bleakest films I’ve ever seen. An old man in post-war Italy struggles to pay his rent, and after a series of misfortunes ultimately ends up homeless, having nothing but his small dog, Flick. As the film ends, he resolves to kill himself and Flick by stepping in front of a train. As the train approaches, Flick becomes increasingly agitated, eventually leaping from the man’s arms and running away. The man desperately tries to catch up to Flick, but the dog nervously shies away from him now. At the very end of the movie, Flick finally comes back to the man (which is the only reason the film didn’t leave me crying for a week), but you know there’s no real future for this man and his dog.
18. I Vitelloni
An early Fellini film. It’s not one of his great films, but even decent Fellini is pretty good. This is a sort of coming of age story of five young men from Rimini, a sort of Italian Diner, except a better and more interesting movie.