The 5 Best Movies I Watched Last Month
The fall has been pretty crazy with work and the holidays, but I managed to squeeze in a couple of movies. There are still quite a few films out now that I haven’t seen yet (I’m looking at you, The French Dispatch), but December is young!
Nevertheless, between streaming and the actual movie theater experience, here are some of the most notable films I watched in November:
Hair (Milos Forman, 1979)
I saw Hair on Broadway when I was fourteen years old, and it completely changed who I am as a person. I’m not exaggerating.
For that reason, I put off watching the film for years because I couldn’t believe that it would live up to the live musical. But I watched it about a week ago, and although many of the characters are radically different and the order of the songs was changed for the film (some numbers were even cut altogether), this version works beautifully. The writers did an excellent job of re-contextualizing the soundtrack to suit a more narrative, cinematic structure. The final result drove home the play’s anti-war pleas with devastating resonance.
Where to stream: Kanopy, Tubi
Russian Ark (Aleksandr Sokurov, 2002)
People love talking about the way Russian Ark was filmed: In one long, continuous take, without any trick cuts [I’m looking at you, Rope (1948)]. The film takes place in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, and is a stunning tribute to Russian culture. It includes historical figures like Peter the Great (Maksim Sergeev), Catherine the Great (Natalya Nikulenko), and the Romanov princesses, humanizing them all with humor and frankness. I especially loved the inclusion of The European Stranger (who we ultimately peg as the Marquis de Custine, and played by Sergey Dreyden), who starts out critical of Russian culture before finally falling in love with it.
I do think that familiarity with Russian history would enhance the viewing of this movie, but it’s worth viewing even if you’re going in blind. If anything, you’ll walk away with a hunger to learn more about this rich, fascinating, diverse culture.
Where to stream: Kanopy, Prime Video
Shiva Baby (Emma Seligman, 2020)
To be honest, I knew I’d love this movie. Funeral humor is always great content (Neil LaBute’s 2020 Death at a Funeral is criminally underrated and I will fight anyone who says otherwise), and Shiva Baby’s plot of a young girl (Danielle, played by Rachel Sennott) running into both her ex and her sugar daddy at a shiva was too good to pass up.
What I didn’t expect, however, was Shiva Baby’s honest exploration of mental health. Danielle has a number of panic attacks during the film, and director Emma Seligman uses tight shots and jarring string music to communicate Danielle’s anxiety rather than reverting to the tired trope of shooting point-of-view shots through a fisheye lens. The film ends up feeling like a horror movie — a 78-minute panic attack — in the best way possible, while delivering on all the comedy and family drama that Shiva Baby promised from the start.
Where to stream: Kanopy, HBO Max, Hulu
Belfast (Kenneth Branagh, 2021)
What a gorgeous film. I used to live in Ireland, and wrote multiple thesis papers on the Troubles in Northern Ireland, so this was a must-see for me.
It’s always a little tricky filming from the perspective of a child, but Branagh managed to capture Buddy’s (Jude Hill) simultaneous fear and innocence. I loved Buddy’s fixation on films as well, and spied that semi-self-portrait that filmmakers so often incorporate when they make movies about children. I was especially impressed with the way he used music to transition between movies Buddy was watching and scenes in Buddy’s life. Belfast’s repeated references to High Noon (1952) were especially poignant to film lovers, as they transformed the emotional landscape of 1960s Belfast into that of a Western.
“Encanto” (Jared Bush, Byron Howard, & Charise Castro Smith, 2021)
I have a soft spot for films with Latinx representation, but Encanto was beautifully animated and did an excellent job of capturing the ethnic diversity of Latin American families. I will admit that I found the film’s climax and resolution a little underwhelming, but Encanto’s imperfections were overshadowed by the film’s impressive character development (especially considering the size of its ensemble) and Lin Manuel Miranda’s original and musically variegated soundtrack.
Bonus! An honorary mention:
Ghostbusters: Afterlife (Jason Reitman, 2021)
I did not have high hopes for this movie because, with very few exceptions, movie franchises diminish in quality once we start getting into third and fourth sequels. But this sequel did so many things right!
First of all, I liked that the writers maintained continuity with the original 1980s films — something that Paul Feig’s 2016 version of Ghostbusters failed to do in spite of cameos from the original cast. I hesitate to malign the 2016 film too much — because most of the criticism against that film came from misogynist purists who dismissed the all-female cast as gimmicky before even seeing the movie — but I did, indeed, yearn for an acknowledgment of original storyline, which this movie finally delivered. It was even directed by original Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman. I only wish it had found a way to incorporate the 2016 film (can you tell that I love consistency?).
Ghostbusters: Afterlife could have had a better title and could have written a less whiny and more convincing version of main character Callie Spengler (Carrie Coon), but overall it was a fun and moving tribute to the original films that gave me hope for Ghostbusters films to follow. I definitely recommend it to any fan of the originals, or to young audiences who have not yet been introduced to the Ghostbusters world.