I watched 500 new films in 2019. Here are my takeaways.
I'm an amateur film lover, as I'm sure many folks are. Around the new year, I set a goal for myself. I'd realized how important films were to me, and decided that I was going to watch 500 new (non-rewatch) films in 2019. I would use it as an excuse to fill in some of the holes in my film knowledge, and see lots of foreign films, since historically I haven't seen nearly as many foreign films as US ones.
As of November 19th, I finally reached my goal (woo hoo). Excluding 4 short films and 45 rewatches, I've now logged 500 films in 2019. So besides the fact that Letterboxd is incredibly useful, what have I learned?
Film is more powerful, varied, and universal a medium than I ever knew.
I've chosen six films from different countries to show what I mean.
- Career Girls, 1997, UK. Mike Leigh has a strange process for most of his filmmaking, built from his origins in theater. When he starts a project, he finds his actors, and he works extensively with them to form characters and scenarios, without much of an initial script. The result is unique performances with unique characters. Both of his films I saw this year seemed aimless, but both packed a powerful punch because of how personal and intimate a relationship I'd developed with its characters and their lives. This one brought me to tears. I usually really like to plays adapted to film, but this is a slightly different beast, and I'd never seen anything quite like it.
- Zusje (Little Sister), 1995, Netherlands. Speaking of intimacy, this has to be the single most intimate film I've ever seen. I generally really hate found-footage as a gimmick, but this little film uses the form to its maximum potential, drawing you into the relationship between the filmer and filmed, forcing your perspective and making you complicit in their emotional struggle.
- The Assassin, 2015, China / Hong Kong / Taiwan. There is an unearthly silver glow permeating every frame of The Assassin, instilling it with life and vibrancy. Each shot was like a painting on celluloid; easily one of the most artistically beautiful films I saw this year. As I watched, my overwhelming reaction was that it deserved to be projected sky-high on a massive theater screen. For a wuxia film, motion played third fiddle to composition and color, and when motion did happen it came and went like a brushstroke. Considering its glacial pace, it somehow stayed captivating, even spellbinding, purely from its visuals.
- Wings of Desire, 1987, Germany. Pure poetry. The majestic union of motion, detached (and then attached) observation, voiceover, color (and lack thereof), metaphor, and philosophy is unlike anything I've seen in film. This is a marvelous example of universal truths composed entirely of intimate particulars.
- Nashville, 1975, US. Robert Altman manages to create something truly ambitious and epic: he captures and portrays an entire zeitgeist. Using country music and a documentarian style, he weaves between songs (some more satirical than others), the American music industry and its stars, the people of a Southern town, and the political movements that so effortlessly both represented and lampooned their time.
- Cinema Paradiso, 1988, Italy. If you want an exploration of the universality of cinema, there is in my estimation no better film. The magic of Tornatore's work here is that he takes a highly personal, autobiographical idea, and uses that coming of age story as an entry point to the experience and reach of film from the perspective of the audience. It's easy for a filmmaker to lose the thread when celebrating what film is and can do, but here, we see instead the magic of film by the effect it has on our relationships with each other. It's so affecting and arresting, I've only ever cried as hard from a movie watching Brokeback Mountain.
I've never given black & white filmmaking its fair due.
From films like The Night of the Hunter (Laughton) Bicycle Thieves (De Sica) and Rashômon (Kurosawa), to the more modern The Servant (Losey) Wings of Desire (Wenders) and The Addiction (Ferrara), black and white cinematography has a way of capturing the human face in a way I never appreciated before. In all of the above examples, I was so engrossed in the framing and composition of the material, and the uncluttered power of the performances, that it stopped bothering me in the way other B&W films I've seen did. The more modern films were pretty hit-or-miss when they used B&W stylistically, but sometimes, as is the case with The Addiction, it added an extra depth to the thematic storytelling. That work in particular focuses so much on moral relatavism, that the choice of black and white added profoundly to the starkness of the material.
I also never appreciated just how damn fun some older films really are. I find mindless slapstick kind of exhausting, but Bringing Up Baby was a riot and a half, and Chaplin's The Great Dictator was at once hilarious and moving. René Clair's I Married a Witch was a ravishing delight, and Cocteau's La belle et la bête made magic feel real with its rich texture and absolute earnestness. I had extremely limited exposure before actively seeking out these older titles, and there's a lot more variety out there—if you give them a shot!
There are a lot of gorram movies out there, and a lot of ways to watch them.
I'm lucky to live in a city with a massive non-profit movie rental store, which boasts a library of 120,000 titles. They range from music and documentary and sports to every conceivable narrative genre from the history of film and television. Walking the aisles I've found titles from around the globe, from tiny indie films to massive blockbusters. For the harder films to find, this place has been invaluable to me.
Besides that, there are a lot of resources I've used for watching movies, not the least of which is the movie theater where I work. Just this year I've seen 61 movies in theaters (some of them twice, some of them special Fathom events that are rewatches of classics not counted in my tally). I've also used Netflix (streaming and DVD by mail), Hoopla, Kanopy, the public library, the Criterion Channel, HBO Go, Redbox, Amazon Prime, and one movie at a friend's house on Hulu. There are a lot of movies, and there are more ways than ever of finding those movies.
Another biproduct of seeing so many movies is learning exactly how many movies I haven't seen. I watched 500 new movies, and there are now almost 1000 movies on my watchlist. Finding a director or actor interesting, I'd immediately start exploring their other films, which spiraled out.
This kind of exposure lead to some interesting comparisons in my mind: Why does this Almodóvar film succeed where this other Almodóvar film fail? Where was Louis Malle in his career that made movie X so engaging when I'm used to more documentarian detachment from him? I'd also heard the quote about the film Nashville that "Nashville is the film Paul Thomas Anderson has been trying to make for twenty years." I saw Nashville because of this quote, and proved a fascinating way to frame the experience. There are so many strings connecting the world of cinema, and it's a network that you can dive into from an entirely meta angle and find the experience satisfying and multifaceted. Still, I'm finding I like going into a movie completely cold; I avoid watching trailers, especially for things I see in the theater, and having a blank slate is almost as satisfying as reaching for all the connections from the start.
It's been quite a journey for me. Watching an average of about 1.7 movies per day does lead to a degree of burnout, with about one-a-day on days I worked and 2-4 on days I didn't. When it felt like I was eating my darts watching something I thought I should see, I'd try to pick something stupid that I didn't have to focus too hard on, or slip into the warm embrace of a film I'd seen and already knew I loved. That definitely helped me get back into the swing of things.
To tie it off, I've compiled my highest rated movies that I also "liked" (strongly affected me in a personal way) from the year. Every single one of them comes with a high recommendation to anyone with a passion for film. Several, I've already mentioned.
|The Red Shoes||1948||Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger|
|Nights of Cabiria||1957||Federico Fellini|
|The Umbrellas of Cherbourg||1964||Jacques Demy|
|Donkey Skin||1970||Jacques Demy|
|The Devils||1971||Ken Russell|
|Murmur of the Heart||1971||Louis Malle|
|Blow Out||1981||Brian De Palma|
|After Hours||1985||Martin Scorsese|
|Wings of Desire||1987||Wim Wenders|
|Cinema Paradiso||1988||Giuseppe Tornatore|
|Three Colors: Blue||1993||Krzysztof Kieślowski|
|Three Colors: Red||1994||Krzysztof Kieślowski|
|Zusje||1995||Robert Jan Westdijk|
|Career Girls||1997||Mike Leigh|
|Y Tu Mamá También||2001||Alfonso Cuarón|
|The Handmaiden||2016||Park Chan-wook|
|The Tale||2018||Jennifer Fox|
|Ready or Not||2019||Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett|
|Once Upon a Time In Hollywood||2019||Quentin Tarantino|
Obligatory link to my Letterboxd profile for those interested. Also, here is a list of the 500 films in order of viewing. If you have any questions or thoughts you'd like to share, please do; a big thing that kept me going was the impassioned conversation it let me have with others. My email is my first name at this domain.
Go watch something weird,