The Best Movies I Watched Last Month
What a month! I didn’t have the opportunity to watch as many films as I wanted to, but the ones I did watch were pretty solid. I knocked a few off my list (like Captain Fantastic and Anomalisa) and found a few I hadn’t heard of before (Distant Voices, Still Lives).
Upon picking my favorites and writing my reviews, I noticed a pattern: The films I fixated on the most are about breaking away from the monotonous, the average, the conventional. Now that we’ve spent over a year and a half settling for a sub-par version of our routines (and our lives in general, if we’re being honest), it appears that my subconscious is screaming at me to break away. And it’s doing that by drawing my attention to certain titles in my Netflix (and Mubi and HBO Max and Hulu) queue.
Here’s to (hopefully) putting COVID to rest soon. And here’s to all of us finding ways to break from the tedium.
Captain Fantastic (Matt Ross, 2016)
I’ve never seen such a hopeful movie about going to a funeral.
I had a feeling I would like this film, but I was still taken aback by how much I enjoyed it. Viggo Mortensen plays an extreme hippie father of six who struggles with his socially conservative in-laws in the wake of his wife’s suicide. An oddly uplifting yet unapologetic look into child-rearing, grief, and mental illness, this film toes the line between absurdity and realism — a line that one assumes would be distinct.
One of the best aspects of this film is the extent to which we find ourselves sympathizing with each of the characters — adults and children alike, even when they’re at odds. Captain Fantastic reminds us that there is no right or wrong way to live life, to raise kids, or to love.
Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson, 2015)
Anomalisa has all the eeriness and trippy psychological implications of Kaufman’s more mainstream work, like Being John Malkovich (1999) and I’m Thinking of Ending Things (2020). At first, it appears to be a stop-motion animation film about a man having a mid-life crisis, but it’s much more than that. From my perspective, it’s about the maddening mundanity of a person who’s settled in life and who never took time to search within himself. Our main character, Michael (David Thewlis) works a 9-to-5 he doesn’t care about, goes through the motions in his marriage, and seeks dopamine boosts by calling up an old flame.
But Anomalisa, in the end, is also about the rarity of true soul-level connection. This becomes obvious when we meet Lisa, who is voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh, while literally every other character is voiced by Tom Noonan.
Anomalisa is touching, disturbing, and thought-provoking all at once. It’s a prayer for change just as much as it’s a wake-up call for those of us who fear we’re settling for less.
Claire’s Camera (Hong Sang-soo, 2017)
Simon Abrams criticized this film, with good reason, for how it squandered its potential to meaningfully examine the relationship between an artist (in this case, Isabelle Huppert’s Claire) and her subjects (the primary of which is Kim Min-hee’s Jeon Manhee). It also could delved deeper into the sexual politics and gender dynamics of Manhee’s relationship with Director So (Jeong Jin-yeong).
But in my view, Hong Sang-soo intentionally made Claire’s Camera lighthearted, and its more serious implications were supposed to be just that: implied. The film’s tone, which is disproportionately jovial when held up against its themes, hearkens back to French New Wave films like Varda’s Le Bonheur (1965) and, of course, Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee (1970).
The Basilisks (Lina Wertmüller, 1963)
This film is genius in its simplicity. At once the story of a group of young men and a critical exploration of an impoverished town in South Italy, The Basilisks quietly studies why it’s so difficult for people to leave the places where they grew up. Our main characters pace aimlessly around the town like caged animals, criticizing the older generations for spending their lives going through the motions. They, too, however, live out the very same repetitions, incapable of leaving the confines of their small, stale town.
Later, Antonio (Antonio Petruzzi) gets the opportunity to move to Rome and lives the life he’s always dreamed of. His town, however, pulls him back, and soon enough he finds himself falling back into the monotony of his upbringing.
A bleak look at rural life lacking any romanticization whatsoever (this is Italian neorealism, after all), The Basilisks hit me right in the chest.
Distant Voices, Still Lives (Terence Davies, 1988)
Man oh man, this is a brutal film. It’s not that it’s particularly gruesome — but it’s like The Basilisks in that it’s an unflinchingly honest look at mainstream society. It explores topics that most people would rather leave unexplored.
Distant Voices, Still Lives is largely based on Terence Davies’ life. It’s about a working-class Catholic family in Liverpool during the 1940s and 50s, and it shatters the Norman Rockwell brand of faux-perfection endemic to that era by shining a light on domestic violence, poverty, and dissatisfaction. The only things that these characters have going for them is their routine visits to the pub, where they sing popular music in unison. These are the only opportunities that our characters have to break their repressive, habitual silence.
Davies’ film can be difficult to get through, because at times its attention to everyday tedium rivals that of Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman (1975). However, its themes are supremely important, its execution raw, and its moments of violence and ecstasy unbelievably moving.