Corona Lockdown: Motion Picture Favorites

I’ve been in the most fortunate position since the beginning of the mid-March Minnesota quarantine, still miraculously employed during a time when upward of 40 million Americans have lost their jobs, and still holding onto my health — washing your hands, wearing a mask, and social distancing is key. Due to the type of job I hold, I am space dependent. There’s little a film specialist and projectionist can do outside of a quarantined museum that employs him, except do the thing that sparked his interest in film projection some 25 years ago: watch movies.

My department has held virtual meetings twice a week for the last two months: one day a week dedicated to institutional and departmental wide news, and the other a loose ‘coffee club’ hour to chat about this, that and the other thing. Last week we shared our favorite meals (mine, for those interested, Salmon Benedict from the now closed-for-business First Crack Cafe) and the week before that our favorite photographs. This week we’re each sharing our top three all-time favorite films; not a single all-time favorite film, not top five, but top three. The task of coming up with a list of favorites is both relatively simple and strangely daunting. As my views and tastes change over the years, my top of top favorites alter… slightly. There’s no criteria for sifting through a cornucopia of favorites, which could be twenty or thirty or forty, to find the top three, so I’ll leave it to the gut and ask: what films made the strongest impact on me?

Some of my absolute favorites from over the years include Clint Eastwood’s Boston-based neo-noir mystery Mystic River (2003) and his boxing drama Million Dollar Baby (2004) which rightfully won four Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor. In 2000, I was floored by the raw power of Steven Soderbergh’s interconnected crime drama Traffic and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s even more harrowing Amores Perros — Inarritu would go on to make two more beautifully joyless films with interconnected storylines with 21 Grams (2003) and my personal favorite Babel (2006), before winning back-to-back Best Director Oscars for Birdman (2014) and The Revenant (2015).

Other favorites through-out the years include Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1960) and Winter Light (1963), Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (1973) and Nashville (1975), Woody Allen’s Interiors (1978) and Husbands and Wives (1992), Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976), Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samurai (1967), Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997), Todd Field’s In The Bedroom (2001), David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread (2017), Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Chantel Akerman’s From the East (1993), Agnes Varda’s Mur Murs (1981) and Black Panthers (1970), Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982) and Casino (1995), Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991) and Elephant (2003), Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960) and Pierrot le Fou (1965), Robert Redford’s Ordinary People (1980), D.A. Pennebaker’s Dont Look Back (1967), Maysles Brothers’ Grey Gardens (1975), Al Reinert’s For All Mankind (1989), Arnaud Desplechin’s A Christmas Tale (2008), Bob Rafelson’s The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), Stephen Daldry’s The Hours (2002), Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise (1991) and Black Hawk Down (2001), Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia (2011), David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007), and Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998).

Excluded from the list above — next to the obvious lack of films directed by women — are films from 1999. I’ve often declared 1999 as one of the finest years in film history, which include several personal favorites: Michael Mann’s intensely introspective tobacco industry whistle blower drama The Insider starring Russell Crowe and Al Pacino, David O. Russell’s severely underrated gulf war comedy drama Three Kings, and Anthony Minghella’s extraordinarily suspenseful The Talented Mr. Ripley which features a wonderful Oscar-nominated turn from Jude Law and a devilish performance from Matt Damon; one where the monster of a man is directly below the perfectly harmless and welcoming exterior.

Taking a step back, 1999 also gave us The Sixth Sense, American Beauty, American Movie, Being John Malkovich, The Matrix, Fight Club, The Limey, All About My Mother, Bringing Out The Dead, Office Space, American Pie, Any Given Sunday, Sleepy Hollow, The Blair Witch Project, The Iron Giant, Boys Don’t Cry, Toy Story 2, Galaxy Quest, The Virgin Suicides, The Green Mile, Election, The Straight Story, Man on the Moon — which Jim Carrey was robbed an Oscar-nomination — and Stanley Kubrick’s final film Eyes Wide Shut.

1999 was also responsible for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Wild Wild West with Will Smith and Kevin Kline, and the most horrendous adaptation of “The Haunting on Hill House” with The Haunting, directed by Jan de Bont (Speed, Twister). As a fun fact, I took my very first date to see The Haunting — “took”, driven to by my mother is what I mean, which later she informed me I didn’t open the outside theatre door for my date, so take that as you will. Apologies, Kristie.

I give 1999 a tremendous amount of credit, as it was roughly the year I began watching films with critical awareness, transitioning from viewing movies as strictly entertainment to something far more, far deeper. It was in early 2000 that I saw a film for the first time that affected me like none-other. I find myself watching it several times a year twenty years after its release, and to this day remains one of my top three all-time favorite films.

Paul Thomas Anderson Magnolia (1999)

At its most basic, Magnolia is a grand mosaic of interrelated characters living their lives over a 24 hour period in the San Fernando Valley.

The set-up of Magnolia’s many characters is extreme, detailed, at once separate, but all occurring simultaneously. The story follows Stanley Spector (Jeremy Blackman) as a child genius put on the game show “What Do Kids Know” by his verbally and possibly physically abusive father Rick Spector (Michael Bowman). Former child prodigy and game show contestant Donnie Smith (William H. Macy) struggles with his place in life, unable to forge any meaningful relationships. Jimmy Gator (Phillip Baker Hall) is celebrating his 30th year as the host of “What Do Kids Know”, but has recently learned he is dying of cancer. Jimmy wants to break the news to his estranged, cocaine addicted daughter Claudia Wilson (Melora Walters) but his presence at her apartment proves too strenuous for her. Police Officer Jim Kurring (John C. Reilly) arrives at Claudia’s apartment to look into a disturbance a neighbor called in, and immediately feels a connection with Claudia. Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) a former television producer of “What Do Kids Know” is bed ridden, dying of cancer, while his eccentric and much younger wife Linda (Julianne Moore) is frantically trying figure out what comes next. At this same time, unbeknownst to Linda, Earl enlists hospice nurse Phil (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) to search for Earl’s long lost son, Frank T.J Mackey (Tom Cruise), a fast-talking and misogynistic motivational speaker and dating coach for men looking to pick up women.

As the film sets up from the get-go, the experience we’re in for is about severely damaged souls, destroyed family relationships and unforgivable past behavior, and the attempt to mend old wounds in a single day.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s story was extraordinarily ambitious for a 28 year-old, but for someone dealing with death and darkness in his life, it feels like a logical way to express grief. Anderson’s take on the lives of ordinary people was also no doubt influenced by his idol Robert Altman, who only six years prior released his own interconnected Los Angeles epic Short Cuts (1993), based on the stories of Raymond Carver, featuring 24 main characters. The two films couldn’t be more different. Altman’s “control” is the appearance of no control, allowing actors to explore and play, whereas Anderson’s finger is constantly on the dial, adjusting the most minute and melodramatic of movements. As a young director finding his stride — which by the time Boogie Nights came out two years prior he all but found, but would fine-tune and adjust with every film since then, maturing every year since There Will Be Blood — he succeeds gloriously with Magnolia. Perhaps through a youthful need to prove what he’s made of, you can feel Paul moving all the pieces, keeping the momentum constantly moving forward with incredibly rich performances, flashy camera work from Robert Elswit, and an operatic score by Jon Brion that pulls it all together under one umbrella.

Magnolia is not a simple film. It’s a multi-layered and intricate story that tackles regret, forgiveness and reconciliation. If you’re tortured by past behavior, are you allowed to confess and move on, or do you deserve to suffer? Sometimes the answer isn’t up to us, sometimes fate has a peculiar way of chiming in at the most unexpected moments in life. At times characters are teetering on the brink of falling into complete despair, while others are in a position to be saved completely. Magnolia is achingly beautiful, harmonious and heartbreakingly raw, and one I’ve never completed watching with a dry eye.

John Cassavetes Opening Night (1977)

In several ways, it feels like Paul Thomas Anderson has continued carrying a torch lit by writer/director John Cassavetes. Known in many circles as the godfather or pioneer of American independent film, Cassavetes proved unafraid of tackling subject matters audiences may have been less than enthusiastic about, like three middle-class white men collectively going through an emotionally vulgar mid-life crisis following the death of a friend in Husbands (1970) or mental illness with A Woman Under the Influence (1974). The pleasure of these films — and every film he made — is not only the rich stories, but watching his troupe of actors perform: Gena Rowlands (Cassavetes’s wife), Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk, and Seymour Cassel, plus often Cassavetes himself.

Opening Night stars Gena Rowlands as Myrtle Gordon, a famous theatre actress with a drinking problem previewing a new play called Second Woman. After signing autographs outside the theatre following a performance, Myrtle witnesses a young obsessed fan get struck and killed by a car. This single event will not only haunt Myrtle, but inform her every move and thought as she proceeds through the rehearsal process, frustrating the the play’s director Manny Victor (Ben Gazzara), leading man Maurice Aarons (John Cassavetes), and the elderly playwright Sarah Goode (Joan Blondell).

Prior to the accidental death of the fan, Myrtle was already traveling down self-destructive rabbit hole, afraid of aging, having troubles connecting to the motivations — and age — of the character she’s portraying in the play. Myrtle is in an unfortunate situation, receiving honest criticism and direction as an actress, but surrounded by those who are only fueling her alcoholism and manic behavior.

Through all the great films Cassavetes has made, Opening Night remains my favorite due in large part to the performances — watching these extraordinary actors play off each-other leaves me grinning out of sheer joy — but specifically Gena Rowland’s control of Myrtle’s slow decent downward and the struggle to bring the play’s character to life as written. Rowlands is, without a doubt, one of the greatest actors in the history of cinema.

Terrence Malick The Tree of Life (2011)

In many ways, it took me nearly one decade to accept the truth that the WWII drama The Thin Red Line (1998) was no longer my favorite Malick film. At the time of release, The Thin Red Line was something of treat, having been only the third film from Terrence Malick and his first since Days of Heaven (1978). Released the same year as the far more popular, manipulative and violent Saving Private Ryan, The Thin Red Line offered a more nuanced and ethereal approach to the war genre not seen before, where characters are internalized and many display a childlike fear and curiosity of the unknown. The Thin Red Line is a phenomenal achievement, but slowly and surely over the years The Tree of Life has taken over my thoughts and senses to become what I consider one of the finest films ever made.

The Tree of Life follows a most unusual narrative for the casual viewer. Shortly after a quiet introduction setting up the all universe-consuming conflict — one must choose the path of nature or the path of grace in life— Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) in the 1960s receives word that her nineteen year old son R.L. has tragically passed away. This news sends the family into an emotional tailspin, causing much pain and reflection. Mr. O’Brien (Brad Pitt) is found pondering his own past interactions with R.L, what good did his criticisms bring? Shortly thereafter, we’re thrust into the present day and introduced to Jack — Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien’s eldest son grown older — played by Sean Penn, meandering through his daily existence without focus, intimidated by bustling city movement and tall buildings, conflicted by a force decades in the making — the death of his brother R.L. in the 1960s.

From a broader perspective, The Tree of Life is about the meaning of life; showcasing the birth of the universe in a sequence that will never fail to bring me to tears, and the first instance of compassion in prehistoric times, leading into 1950’s Texas with the O’Brien family settling down, starting a family with the birth of Jack. No other film has so delicately put on display the complexities of discovering life from the point-of-view of a toddler; he experiences love, pain and when a new baby brother comes into the picture, a discreet jealousy. This kind of care and detail carries through as a third boy comes into the picture, and we watch Jack meander through his adolescence with a cautious curiosity, attempting to understand the world around him.

There’s no easy way to define Terrence Malick’s grand experimental opus of a motion picture. There’s an internal battle between the tenderness of grace and the brutality of nature, and how that conflict shapes one’s life, but The Tree of Life needs to be felt more than understood. One must abandon traditional narrative conventions and allow a tidal wave of memory and emotion wash over, only then can one be prepared for a deeply felt cinematic experience.

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Seldom do I keep written track of films I watch — save for a scattering of brief reviews or essays — but the devastating shape of the world has allowed me the time to focus on the small matter. Over the course of the lockdown for the last three months, I‘ve settled in with some of my favorite films — including the 4K Ultra High Definition restoration of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining — revisited others after a long time way, and watched many more for the very first time.

May 26 thru June 8th — 12 Weeks Strong, What Is Time?

Star Trek Beyond 4K UHD (2016), What About Bob? (1991), Johnny English (2003), The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), The World’s End (2013), Shockproof (1949), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban 4K UHD (2004), Jurassic Park (1993), Side Effects (2013), The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), All The Money in the World (2017), Jurassic Park III (2001), A Well-Spent Life (1971)

May 12 thru 25 — Ten Weeks

I Married a Witch (1942), Sabotage (1936), Robin Hood 4K UHD (2010), Young and Innocent (1937), Saboteur (1942), Too Much Johnson (1938), Magnolia (1999), The Lady Vanishes (1938), The Out-of-Towners (1970), The Dark Past (1948), Drive a Crooked Road (1954), Harold and Kumar Escape Guantanamo Bay (2008), The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part (2019), Angels Over Broadway (1940), Zelig (1983), Inherent Vice (2014), Gladiator 4K UHD (2000), Star Trek 4K UHD (2009) Star Trek Into Darkness 4K UHD (2013), Phantom Thread 4K UHD (2017)

April 28 thru May 11 — Eight Weeks On

Slightly French (1949), Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), The Tree of Life (2011) Extended Cut, Lured (1947), The Most Dangerous Game (1932)
Ocean’s 11 (1960), 2001: A Space Odyssey 4K UHD (1968), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Christmas in July (1940), American Gangster 4K UHD (2007), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), The Stranger (1946), The Lady from Shanghai (1947), Casino 4K UHD (1995), Bay of Angels (1963)

April 14 thru 27 — Two Weeks After The First Four

The Limey (1999), Cousin Jules (1972), Boxing Gym (2010), The Man from London (2007), Aspen (1991), Knight of Cups (2015), Memory: The Origins of Alien (2019), Edge of the City (1957), Missile (1987), Shaun of the Dead (2004), Valkyrie (2008), Killing Them Softly (2012), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), Road to Perdition (2002), The Money Pit (1986)

March 31 thru April 13 — The Next Two

Patty Hearst (1988), Roma (2018), La Pointe Courte (1955), The Lodger (1927), Uncut Gems (2019), The Shining 4K UHD (1980), The Inland Sea (1991), The Man of Aran (1934), Gerry (2002), Good Morning (1959)

March 16 thru 30 — COVID-19 Lockdown: The First Two Weeks

Odd Man Out (1947), Contact (1997), Elmer Gantry (1960), Water Wrackets (1978), White Vertigo (1956), True Stories (1986), Zodiac (2007), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), Elephant (2003), Jumanji: The Next Level (2019), On The Waterfront (1954), O’ Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), California Split (1974), Routine Pleasures (1986), Two Weeks in Another Town (1962), Targets (1968), Pictures of the Old World (1972), Solaris (2002), Of Time and the City (2008), Fail Safe (1964), Auto Focus (2002)

#StaySafeMN

Justin is the film specialist / projectionist for the Minneapolis Walker Art Center. Simultaneously, he is a documentary filmmaker and freelance video editor.

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