Shortcut: Turn a Webpage into a Todoist Task

Shortcut Tile for Todoist Task from Webpage

The secret to using a task management system is to make it an everyday habit. My task manager of choice is Todoist and I put virtually everything I want to get done into it: work stuff, side projects, home repair tasks, kids’ school stuff, whatever. It all goes into Todoist, and I’m dipping in and out of that app to check off tasks and add new ones, every day, many, many times a day.

Creating new tasks quickly and easily is key, of course. I use virtually all of the many methods that Todoist offers for adding tasks, from Quick Add on my desktop (essential) to voice dictating tasks into Google Assistant (less essential). I’ve also created an iOS shortcut called “Todoist Task from Webpage” that has become an essential part of my productivity. I’m making it publicly available today and you can download it here for free and install it on your iPhone or iPad.

I made this shortcut because so many of the tasks I create in Todoist each day are based on what I come across in my web browser. On any given web page, I might find that I want to follow up on it at a later time, download something linked on the page, make a purchase, watch a video, or something similar. In fact, it used to be that a lot of the tabs I’d keep open in my browser were actually tasks in disguise: I’d want to keep them available so that I could take some action on them later. Obviously it’s more useful to turn these into tasks than to let them linger as tabs for days or weeks.

The key to translating a page you’re looking at into a task that you’ll actually take action on is quickly capturing the page’s URL. You can do this manually in Todoist by either adding the link as a comment on a task or, even better, embedding the link into the text of the task itself in Markdown form. This is straightforward, but of course the more quickly and easily you can create a task the better.

When you run this shortcut on iPhone or iPad by selecting it from the share menu in mobile Safari (sorry, Chrome on iOS doesn’t support the Shortcuts actions that make this possible) it grabs the URL and the title of the page and quickly formats them as a Markdown link. You can then choose from a list of actions with which to prepend that link, e.g., “Read,” “Follow up on,” “Purchase,” etc. to form the text of the new task. Another menu allows you to assign the task to one of your pre-existing Todoist projects, and the due date is automatically set as today. That’s it; with a few clicks, the page has been turned into a Todoist task.

Here’s what it looks like on an iPad:

Make a Todoist Task from a Webpage Step 1
From Mobile Safari, select the shortcut from the Share menu.
Make a Todoist Task from a Webpage Step 2
Editing the name of the page determines how it will show up in the text of the task.
Make a Todoist Task from a Webpage Step 3
Select a preset action to prepend to the page name to form the text of the task. You can also assign the task to one of your preexisting Todoist tasks (not shown).
Make a Todoist Task from a Webpage Step 4
Tasks are saved in the Todoist app on your device with the page URL embedded into the text.

Some other nifty details of this shortcut:

  • Tasks are assigned a due date of today unless you’re running the shortcut after 9:00p local time, in which case it automatically assigns the next day as the due date.
  • Turning a link on YouTube.com into a task is a little trickier, so the shortcut actually makes a quick call to the YouTube API to get the information necessary to create a new task. As a result, you can also use this shortcut from the the YouTube app. Tap on the share icon and then swipe over to the More action to find the shortcut.
  • In some cases where the preset actions don’t quite make sense to prepend to the page title, there’s a custom option to allow you to fully edit the text of the task on the fly.

I use this shortcut every day, multiple times a day, and it’s become an essential part of how I think about task management. I now stash all kinds of pages into tasks, from Adobe XD web prototypes that I want to review later, to YouTube videos that I come across during the workday, to Kickstarter campaigns I want to consider funding, and much more. If you’re using Todoist (and if you’re not, you should be) give this a try and let me know what you think.


This shortcut requires iOS or iPadOS 14.4 and the latest version of the Todoist app for iPhone or iPad. Note that if you’ve never run third-party shortcuts before, you’ll need to follow these steps. Also check out ExactPic my suite of image editing shortcuts

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HomePod Should’ve Been Marketed for Home Theaters

Apple HomePod by Mark Mathosian under Creative Commons License
Apple HomePod by Mark Mathosian under Creative Commons license

A brief note on home theater audio: news broke a few days ago that Apple’s HomePod has been discontinued in favor of its more affordable, younger sibling, the HomePod mini. The HomePod was never for everybody, but it’s an excellent product and it always struck me that it could have been for far a larger market than it ever won.

Rather than pitching it as a competitor to Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Nest lines of inexpensive, lower quality smart speakers, Apple might have had better success measuring it up to speakers from high-fidelity smart audio leaders Sonos—particularly that company’s home theater offerings. I’ll admit that I’m a longtime Sonos skeptic, but even an objective accounting of what it costs to add enhanced sound to a television setup shows that the HomePod offered great value.

As a baseline, consider what Sonos offers for this market. Its entry point product is the Beam compact soundbar for US$399, and its high end offering is the Arc, an enhanced sound bar for US$799. By all reports these are excellent products but the sound bar form factor, despite its popularity over the past decade, has never appealed to me. Sound bars demand to be placed front and center, they typically require wired connections, and despite all of the marketing, in my experience you just can’t replicate two stereo speakers strategically placed in opposite corners of the room with one sound bar sitting in front of your television.

To get that true surround sound experience with Sonos, you’d need to upgrade to a 5.1 surround sound set which includes a Beam, a subwoofer and two smaller speakers, pushing the price to US$1,359. A step-up Surround setup with the Arc instead of the Beam costs US$1,498. This is pretty rarefied air.

Meanwhile, you could get a pair of HomePods for US$299 each. Place those in any two opposite corners of your room and form a digitally linked stereo pair using Apple’s superb self-adjusting technology to fine tune the audio, and you’ve created an impressively immersive, wireless surround sound experience. Of course you’d also need an Apple TV 4K for them to work as the default audio output for your television. But even with the US$179 cost of that device, the whole setup totals just US$777.

If it wasn’t already obvious, this is what we’ve done in our home and it works great. Of course, the caveat is that a HomePod setup requires you to be committed to the Apple ecosystem while the Sonos is famously open and compatible with all sorts of other systems, a true advantage. But Apple’s approach is simpler, requires fewer wires and fewer boxes, no additional software, and is exceedingly easy for my whole family to use. There’s also no mussing with inputs and modes or, worst of all, juggling multiple remote controls, the typical banes of other “advanced” home theater setups. And it’s worth noting that the Apple TV, though much maligned for its pricing, is a truly excellent user experience. If Apple had bundled the Apple TV 4K with two HomePods and marketed them as an integrated home theater offering that offers significant value over similar Sonos offerings, I think it would’ve been a different ballgame.

Apple will continue to offer the smaller HomePod mini, which from reviews seems to be totally fine, but hopefully they’ll bring some of the same seamless integration with the Apple TV 4K to those devices too. Currently, you can’t set a HomePod mini stereo pair as the default audio output for the Apple TV, which is a big part of the seamlessness of the experience we enjoy so much in our setup. In the meantime, you can still find the original HomePods on sale while they last, or hunt ’em down on eBay. I wouldn’t hesitate to do that again if I needed to set up a new home theater today.

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Movies Watched, February 2021

Still from “Minari” Directed by Lee Isaac Chung

Writer and director Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari” is among the most emotionally honest movies I’ve seen in recent memory. In telling its story of Korean immigrants settling in Arkansas in the 1980s, where the father starts a family farm at the expense of his relationship with his wife and children, the movie intently and elegantly sidesteps nearly every temptation to sink into sentimentality or histrionics, while never feeling anything less than warmly empathetic and dramatically riveting. It’s also one of the best movies about the immigrant experience ever made and almost certainly the most resonant Asian American immigration story to make it to film.

I’m pretty certain every assertion I’m making here is objectively true even though this movie fired off my subjective biases in a major way. So much of this movie felt familiar to me, from the experiences of growing up in Reagan-era America, to the family’s uneasy assimilation into local culture, to the younger characters’ unwitting estrangement from their own identities. It felt almost exactly like my story, except that in so many ways it’s not: my family emigrated from Asia at roughly the same time as the semi-fictional family in “Minari,” but we came from Vietnam and not South Korea; we settled not in rural Arkanasas but in emphatically suburban Maryland; and my parents weren’t farmers but office workers.

That’s the magic of this movie though; it accomplishes that amazing trick of taking something incredibly specific—a semi-autobiographical account of Chung’s own life—and making it relevant and emotionally real for many, many people. There’s a moment in the first half of the film when a character starts crying at just the scent of food—not even food, an ingredient for cooking—from her homeland, and I have no doubt that it’s elicited countless tears from countless viewers hailing from dozens of countries all over the world. This is a wonderful movie.

Here are all twenty films I watched in February.

  1. The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1934) ★★★
    Full on showcase for the unidentifiable weirdness of a young Petter Lorre.
  2. Tenet” (2020) ★★★★
    Rewatched. Will need to rewatch again.
  3. Calamity, a Childhood of Martha Jane Cannary” (2020) ★★★
    From France, a visually stunning 2D animated tale of the old west.
  4. Vertigo” (1958) ★★★★½
    Rewatched. Hitchcock’s own raw, nearly unabashed neuroses on full display, and apparently everyone signed up for it.
  5. Time to Hunt” (2020) ★★½
    Fairly standard South Korean crime thriller with a post-apocalyptic flavor.
  6. The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956) ★★★½
    Rewatched. Technically superior to the 1936 original, and an unintentional indictment of the Jimmy Stewart hero.
  7. Captain America: Civil War” (2016) ★★½
    Rewatched. Risibly phony politics as a pretext for senseless fighting.
  8. Long Way North” (2015) ★★★★
    Another beautiful French animation production.
  9. Toy Story” (1995) ★★★★
    Rewatched. The animation looks worse with each rewatch, but remarkably the sterling storytelling is undiminished.
  10. The King and the Mockingbird” (1980) ★★★
    Truly bizarre animated parable from mid-century France that apparently was a big influence on Studio Ghibli.
  11. David Byrne’s American Utopia” (2020) ★★★
    The man who fell to earth and became an elder statesman of the arts at middle age.
  12. Follow That Bird” (1985) ★★★
    Totally great road movie homage.
  13. Minari” (2020) ★★★★
    Sidesteps just about every opportunity to indulge in melodrama or histrionics, and just focuses on its story with a clear-eyed emotional authenticity that’s deeply stirring.
  14. Inception” (2010) ★★★★
    Rewatched, with my daughter. Despite all the criticisms of Nolan’s focus on structural highjinks, the emotional beats work every time.
  15. Support the Girls” (2018) ★★★½
    Deeply compassionate story of dealing with the misery of being very good at a job you can’t stand.
  16. Faces Places” (2017) ★★
    Despite Agnes Varda’s charms, this is a hugely overrated cross between a reality television show and an electronic press kit.
  17. Judas and the Black Messiah” (2021) ★★★
    Electric performances from the two leads can’t quite give form to this frequently over-scoped historical drama.
  18. The Passion of Anna” (1969) ★★★★
    Hauntingly photographed foray into typical Ingmar Bergman territory, where solitude is the only answer to humanity’s inherent awfulness.
  19. The Lego Batman Movie” (2017) ★★★
    Rewatched. I didn’t like this much the first time but there’s so much packed in here that it rewards repeated viewings.
  20. The Sword in the Stone” (1963) ★★★
    Little more than an excuse for a series of excessively playful animated excursions, but amply engaging nevertheless.

This is the latest roundup of my monthly movie consumption. You can also see what I watched in January, in all of 2020, in 2019, in 2018, in 2017, and in 2016. You can also always keep up with what I’m watching by following me on letterboxd.com—where I’m also writing tons of capsule reviews.

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Designing a Family Cookbook

Printed Copy of “Thúy’s Family Cookbook 2020”

Last fall my eleven year-old daughter Thúy got the idea to solicit favorite recipes from family members and collect them into a family cookbook that she would gift at Christmas. She’s always been interested in cooking, and has great appreciation for the variety of food that she’s eaten throughout her young life from all over: Vietnam, France, Texas, Illinois and a random selection of cuisine enthusiasms that we’ve picked up as New Yorkers.

I was struck by the wide-eyed curiosity of the idea, and quickly offered to help her turn it into reality. Partly this was because I’m always eager to encourage her enterprising spirit, but I also saw the chance to put my design skills to use making something concrete and relevant to my family—and to Thúy, particularly.

Once she had all of the recipes collected and the copy ready (with invaluable editorial assistance from my wife), Thúy and I sat down with InDesign and basically designed it together. I handled the mechanical work of typesetting and layout, but she selected the various typefaces and effectively art directed the look and feel of the thing. Along the way I showed her the fundamentals of book design: chapter headers and sub-headers, page folios and how to make a table of contents. It was a blast talking about these fairly esoteric topics with my eleven year-old daughter and to have it come alive for her, demystifying the act of what it takes to create a “real” book.

Table of Contents from “Thuy’s Family Cookbook 2020”
Recipe Page from “Thúy’s Family Cookbook 2020”

For the cover, Thúy used a black Sharpie marker to draw a host of foods, ingredients and kitchen utensils on paper. We scanned those into Illustrator, converted them to paths, added color and then composed them together with the display type. The design is, stylistically, probably something that I never would have arrived at on my own. But I do adore it and of course it was a joy to discover the composition with her, as collaborators.

Drawings for “Thuy’s Family Cookbook"

From the start, the whole book was designed to match the standard printing sizes over at Lulu, where you can print on-demand for relatively cheap. Our book was 6 x 9-inches, twenty-eight pages in length, with black and white interiors and a color hardcover with a matte finish. The printing cost for each came to about US$9 each. That’s a very reasonable price point for Christmas gifts, but Lulu was so inundated for the holidays that we had to pay for express shipping in order to get the copies out in time, raising the per unit cost to just under $15. Lesson learned for next year, when we plan to update the cookbook with new recipes and possibly color photos.

The whole project was well worth the effort and cost though, not just for the obvious sentimental value to our family, but also for the experience of having created an utterly unique gift that, well, you can’t order on Amazon. But for me it was even more meaningful because it allowed me to do what I love with someone I love. When we got the book in the mail from Lulu and held it in our hands, that was a good day to be a designer.

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Movies Watched, January 2021

Still from “Tenet” Directed by Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” which I finally got to see last month via on-demand streaming after its somewhat tortured, mid-pandemic theatrical release, did not make a lot of “best of” lists at the end of last year. I’m only guessing here but that was possibly due to the fact that as a film it’s so narratively intricate as to inspire—or necessitate—the making of charts like this one that I came across on Reddit:

Tenet Timeline by Reddit user Pesteringneedles
“Tenet Timeline” from Reddit by User Pesteringneedles.

The film’s ostentatious complexity seems to confuse audiences, not just in their attempts to follow along with the plot as it unfolds on screen, but also in the mental framework through which they try to understand just what kind of movie “Tenet” is. Even people who enjoy purposefully obscure cinematic storytelling tend to believe that a movie that looks and feels like a blockbuster (which “Tenet” does and, with a reported production cost of US$200 million, does so in spades) should also work like a blockbuster. These film fans also tend to believe that a movie that works like an art film should look and feel like an art film too. Frustratingly for many, “Tenet” flouts both ideas: it’s a movie that looks and feels like a blockbuster and yet works like an art film.

The traditional guideposts of popcorn flicks are all there in “Tenet”: staggering action set pieces, espionage on a fantastical scale, copious amounts of gunplay and explosions, a villain hellbent on destroying the world, and a beautiful, vaguely dimensional femme fatale at the heart of it all. The movie’s obvious template is the James Bond series, though its execution is considerably more impressive than anything that franchise has turned out for decades.

What’s confounding though is that “Tenet” offers up these wares but perversely denies its audience the opportunity to grab hold of them. Its plot is not just structurally complex but the advancement of the narrative is also awash in vague, nearly incomprehensible exposition, delivered with Nolan’s characteristic disinterest in intelligible dialogue. Watching it—and listening to it—you get the feeling of a plot but it’s nearly impossible to grasp the details as they flit by at a torrential, garbled pace.

Confounding audiences with directorial conceits is nothing new, but the army of art house directors who specialize in this modality don’t make movies that look or feel like “Tenet” at all. A film by David Lynch, Claire Denis or Terence Malick will insist on a certain distance from conventional storytelling, but they almost invariably frame those choices in comfortably recognizable cinematic constraints: you know you’re watching an art film because of the moodiness of the milieu, the painterliness of the cinematography, the spareness of the script or the idiosyncrasies of the performance. In each of these aspects “Tenet” is as stylistically opinionated as any art house film, but it’s starker and higher pitched and volumetrically brighter and much more explosive. There’s more guns, car crashes and things that go ka-boom! Hollywood stuff, basically.

All of which is why I find “Tenet” so absolutely thrilling. Here is a film that’s playing on another level. It hijacks exorbitant financing from a major studio and deploys it in service of a true auteurist vision. And it’s willing to make a demand on its audience that virtually no other film even attempts. As Nolan has repeatedly done in his career, “Tenet” takes our well-worn familiarity with genre filmmaking and pulls it inside out, slashes it to pieces, and reassembles it into something new and unfamiliar, and then asks us to enjoy it for its sheer sensation. Why settle for watching yet another hyperbolic spy actioner (I’m a huge fan of hyperbolic spy actioners, by the way) when you can use the genre to launch yourself into an experience of a kind you’ve never seen before?

“Experience” is the key term there—not “watch.” In a now famous (or infamous) line from the script, one of Nolan’s characters implores the film’s protagonist (archly unnamed and referred to only as “The protagonist”): “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” That specific feeling you should be feeling is the thrill of disorientation, the upending of your assumptions. This is the most expensive art film ever made.

I’ll be the first to admit that I can’t explain everything that happens in “Tenet,” and having seen it twice now I’m not even convinced that a hundred percent of its plot withstands close scrutiny. But that hardly seems to matter. Watching “Tenet,” what I appreciate is the extremely gifted moviemaking, the incredibly charming performances, the sublimely pristine cinematography, and the deftness with which Nolan has assembled them all into an intricate composition. It feels very close to the inexplicable logic of the best modern art; imagine a Bond film reconstituted as a Robert Rauschenberg canvas and you start to get some idea of what Nolan is trying to do here. And like Rauschenberg’s famous combine paintings, “Tenet” seems, so far anyway, endlessly viewable. The more you look at it, the more you see, though you may never understand everything.

Here’s the full list of twenty-two movies that I watched in January.

  1. The Midnight Sky” (2020) ★★½
    Incredibly earnest, overly careful misfire.
  2. Panic Room” (2002) ★★★½
    Rewatched. Clockwork-like precision and tactility.
  3. Wira” (2019) ★★
    Malaysian action spectacle never manages to rise above the level of highjinks.
  4. Lost Bullet” (2020) ★★★
    Ridiculously fun car chase film from France. Basically “Le Fast Et Le Furious”; dumb as bricks but in a smart way.
  5. The Tragedy of Today” (1958) ★★★
    This post-war Japanese noir is like an otherworldly mix of amorality and social decorum.
  6. Tenet” (2020) ★★★★
    On another level.
  7. The Vast of Night” (2019) ★★★★
    A riveting, not-to-be-missed blend of horror vibes, sci-fi allusions and small town Americana.
  8. The American President” (1995) ★★½
    Rewatched. Over-budgeted and flat-out corny prototype for “The West Wing.”
  9. The Night Manager” (2016) ★★
    I watched this made-for-TV mini-series in honor of John Le Carre’s passing and largely regretted it.
  10. Promising Young Woman” (2020) ★★★½
    Confused but confident, go-for-broke revenge comedy with a terrific performance by Carrie Mulligan.
  11. Hugo” (2011) ★★★½
    Rewatched. Didn’t think much of it the first time, but on rewatch the CG holds up surprisingly well and the architecture of the story is more impressive than I remembered.
  12. I Am Waiting” (1957) ★★★★½
    A masterpiece of B-movie melancholia from Japan.
  13. Batman Begins” (2005) ★★★½
    Rewatched. Hardly perfect, but careens along with better ideas, script and casting than anything Marvel has done since.
  14. Mosul” (2019) ★★★★
    This would be remarkable for its story of war-torn Iraq told from the Iraqi perspective, but it’s also an uncompromising, first-rate action film by any measure.
  15. Oliver & Company” (1988) ★½
    When Disney animation was in the woods; excessively animated but poorly conceived.
  16. A Bug’s Life” (1998) ★★½
    Rewatched. Twenty-three years later, the primitive CG is shocking but you can see they tried to invest it with real artistry.
  17. Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) ★★★★
    Problematic but monumental epic that fully realizes its vision.
  18. Wolfwalkers” (2020) ★★½
    Gorgeously animated with tons of personality, sometimes beyond the point of usefulness.
  19. The Rusty Knife” (1958) ★★
    Grade school-level Japanese noir.
  20. Another Round” (2020) ★★★
    A compelling performance by Mads Mikkelson elevates a fairly dopey premise that feels less and less convincing the more you think about it.
  21. Next Gen” (2018) ★★
    I had low expectations for this Netflix back catalog kids film—and its story is forgettable—but the CG animation shows some real care and thought.
  22. The Cameraman” (1928) ★★★★
    Unceasing physical comedy inventiveness from Buster Keaton, undergirded by deft pathos.

This is the latest roundup of my monthly movie consumption. You can also see what I watched in 2020, 2019, in 2018, in 2017, and in 2016. Finally, you can always keep up with what I’m watching by following me on letterboxd.com—where I’m also writing tons of capsule reviews.

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My 2020 Movie Diary

Still from “The Assistant” Directed by Kitty Green

For five years now I’ve been recording every movie I watch in my film diary at Letterboxd. Each month, I post a recap of what I watched the previous month, and at the start of each year I run down the full list of what I saw the previous twelve months. This is that full list, including a ranking of my favorite movies of 2020 (that I’ve been able to watch as of this writing). But first, here is a mildly interesting graph that I created from all of that activity.

Total Movies Watched by Year

Chart of Yearly Movie Consumption

That’s a quick overview of how many movies I saw each year since I began actively logging my movie consumption in January of 2016. For those who are counting, that’s actually a total of 1,011 over five years, with “year over year growth,” as they say, for every year…except 2020. I’m not quite sure why.

In theory I had more time for movies than ever during the pandemic—and they were easier to watch, too. I was able to see all but two of my top ten favorites (“First Cow” and “Emma.”) from home in their first run. As a result I probably saw a greater number of genuinely good movies in 2020 than in previous years, when I would have to make the time to trek out to theaters. In fact, compared to previous years when only the top five or so on my lists were movies that I was genuinely enthusiastic about, this year almost the full list of ten fall into that category.

On the other hand, one thing that became clear to me though is that the streaming media platforms still struggle to deliver genuinely good, original productions. Eight of my top ten movies were originally intended for theatrical release but were ultimately diverted to streaming. And only one of the remaining two, Steve McQueen’s highly variegated “Small Axe” series, truly originated with a streaming service. “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was a thrill, and a triumph for Netflix—for my money among the best things that the service has ever done—but it’s an adaptation of a well regarded stage play by August Wilson. The streaming services have yet to prove that they can turn out quality beyond a very few of their most earnest prestige projects like these and 2018’s “Roma.”

Complaints aside, it’s worth remembering how lucky we are to have this virtually unlimited, on demand library of new and back catalog films to get us through this terrible pandemic. For my family and me, the luxury of retreating into movies while the world seemed to fall apart outside was essential to coping with last year’s lockdowns and the loss of social intimacy. We were even luckier in that before the pandemic hit, we had set up a projector in our basement that allowed us to simulate a small movie theater in the comfort of our own home. And when the weather turned warm, I brought that projector out to the backyard, hung an inexpensive screen on the fence, and we were able to watch movies after sundown in the warm summer air. All in all, I was more grateful for movies in 2020 than ever.

Back Yard Movies

Top Ten

Okay, here’s my list. You can see my full ranking of movies made in 2020 here.

  1. The Assistant” An ordinary but harrowing day in the life of an idealistic young office worker employed by a horrible person. Extremely subtle and even non-specific while still managing to incredibly explicit.
  2. First Cow” A lovely, heartbreaking tale of a friendship between two otherwise overlooked bit players in the gold rush of the late nineteenth century.
  3. Sound of Metal” A drummer in a rock band loses his hearing and the audience joins him in his journey in a way that’s startlingly novel and real.
  4. Bacurau” A genre picture so weird and unusual that it seems to invent itself as it goes along. Thrilling.
  5. Tenet” A massively ambitious art film disguised as a summer blockbuster.
  6. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” An impressively cinematic translation of a stage play, bolstered by amazing performances.
  7. The Vast of Night” The amazing technical chops that this indie sci-fi thriller pulls off with its tiny budget is impressive, but what’s even better is the wonderfully vivid characters and dialog that sweep you up into the period setting.
  8. Emma.” They’ll be making new renditions of this endlessly entertaining story forever, but this one is directed with brilliant, lively panache.
  9. Small Axe: Lovers Rock” By far the highlight of this five-part series because it evokes a deep, joyous mood that we rarely get to see. There’s also an early morning bicycle ride that took my breath away.
  10. Mank” A potent re-creation of a lost era of artistic industry.

And below you’ll find the rundown for all of 2020. You can also see Letterboxd’s automatically generated overview of my year here. Or You can turn back time and see what I watched in 2019, in 2018, in 2017, and in 2016. Finally, you can always keep up with what I’m watching by following me on letterboxd.com—where I’m also writing tons of capsule reviews.

January 2020

  1. Beirut” (2018) ★★
    The bones of a complex script smothered in Hollywood clichés.
  2. Teen Titans Go! To the Movies” (2018) ★★★½
    Rewatched. Best DC movie since Nolan.
  3. Blaze” (2018) ★★★½
    Fully committed and exquisitely made, but it’s a lot.
  4. Before Midnight” (2013) ★★★★★
    Rewatched. So many truths.
  5. 1917” (2019) ★★★★
    At first I thought it was a bit of a gimmick, but it swept me up.
  6. Little Women” (2019) ★★★½
    Its credentials are better than its execution, in part due to some pretty egregious miscasting.
  7. Smiles of a Summer Night” (1955) ★★★
    Social deviants hiding in polite society.
  8. Wild Strawberries” (1957) ★★★★
    Everything you could want in a Bergman film.
  9. Toy Story 3” (2010) ★★★★
    Incisive farewell to childhood.
  10. The Assassin Next Door” (2009) ★★
    Schlock city, but I’ll watch Olga Kurylenko in anything.
  11. Before Sunset” (2004) ★★★★★
    Rewatched. Exquisite articulation of growing into yourself.
  12. Crisis” (1946) ★★
    Maudlin excuse to objectify youth.
  13. The Natural” (1984) ★★
    Reagan-era hokum on the baseball diamond.
  14. Yesterday” (2019) ★★★½
    Empty-headed but irresistible.
  15. Paris, Je T’Aime” (2006) ★★½
    As expected for an anthology film, a mixed bag.
  16. A Ship to India” (1947) ★★★½
    Brutal youth.

February 2020

  1. Paddington 2” (2017) ★★★½
    Rewatched. This is a very entertaining movie.
  2. The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years” (2016) ★★★
    Rewatched. Aside from some previously unseen footage, there’s not much new here.
  3. The Secret Life of Pets 2” (2019) ★
    Appalling.
  4. To Joy” (1950) ★★★½
    Bergman rips your heart out in the first scene and then shreds it bit by bit for the rest of this tale of romantic decay.
  5. Quantum of Solace” (2008) ★★★
    Rewatched. Not perfect, but one of my favorite Bond films.
  6. Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn)” (2020) ★★★½
    Probably thirty minutes too long, but continually inventive in how it allows its characters to carry themselves.
  7. The Philadelphia Story” (1940) ★★★★½
    Rewatched. Marred by a few low moments, but otherwise magical.
  8. Monsters, Inc.” (2001) ★★★½
    Rewatched. The huge doors set piece in the last act is still pretty wonderful.
  9. Summer with Monika” (1953) ★★★★
    Captures perfectly the flawed notion of youthful romance.
  10. The Pilgrim” (1923) ★★★½
    Just a regular day inventing cinema for Charlie Chaplin.
  11. Emma.” (2020) ★★★★
    Delightfully buttoned up.
  12. Force Majeure” (2014) ★★★½
    Like dissecting a frog for no other purpose than to cut it open.
  13. Seven Psychopaths” (2012) ★
    Writer-director Martin McDonagh thinks himself very clever, which is the sole reason this movie ever got made.
  14. True Grit” (2010) ★★★★½
    Rewatched. Sentimentality suits the Coens surprisingly well in this minor masterpiece.
  15. The Farewell” (2019) ★★
    Lovingly made but little more than a string of tasteful clichés.
  16. Casino Royale” (2006) ★★★
    Rewatched. Demonstrates how casting can triumph over a half-baked script.
  17. Bad Times at the El Royale” (2018) ★★★½
    Rewatched. Satisfyingly punchy B-movie.
  18. Blackhat” (2015) ★½
    Rewatched. I hope Michael Mann doesn’t end his theatrical film career with this clunker.
  19. The Bourne Ultimatum” (2007) ★★★★
    Rewatched. Sequels define franchises.
  20. Skyfall” (2012) ★★★
    Rewatched. The cinematography is an achievement but the script and direction are not.
  21. Coco” (2017) ★★★★
    Rewatched. Wonderful.
  22. Furie” (2019) ★★
    Incomprehensible but fascinating action thriller from Vietnam.
  23. Destroyer” (2018) ★
    A pointlessly long prestige film predicated on a pointlessly showy performance.
  24. Wreck-It Ralph” (2012) ★★★
    Rewatched. I enjoyed this more than I did the first time.

March 2020

  1. Early Man” (2018) ★★½
    Charming but weightless, and disappointingly short on ambition for an Aardman film.
  2. Zazie dans le Métro” (1960) ★★★½
    Bananas dream logic from the dawn of the French New Wave.
  3. Hidden Figures” (2016) ★★
    Does everything by the book, which means it contains almost zero surprises.
  4. Contagion” (2011) ★★★★
    Rewatched. Its prescience is frightening and illuminating but it’s also maybe the best medical thriller ever made.
  5. Onward” (2020) ★★★★
    Doesn’t broadcast its artistry as loudly as Pixar’s more prominent features, but still deeply felt and satisfying.
  6. Clockwatchers” (1997) ★★★½
    Mostly excellent meditation on the mundanity of office life a quarter century ago(!?). Worth it just to see Parker Posey at the height of her powers.
  7. Dora and the Lost City of Gold” (2019) ★
    Who was this intended for? Not even the filmmakers had a clue.
  8. Shoulder Arms” (1918) ★★★★
    Chaplin at the battlefront. Filmed a century before Sam Mendes’s “1917” and every bit as technically accomplished, plus funnier.
  9. Jojo Rabbit” (2019) ★★½
    Seems to have been made on a dare because there can be no other reason for this movie to exist.
  10. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” (2019) ★★★★
    What could have been mawkish turns out to be exquisitely genuine.
  11. Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” (2018) ★★★★
    A wonderful balm in a time of crisis.
  12. The Invisible Man” (2020) ★★½
    This movie seems to have a very important message of some kind. It was hard to tell amidst all the screamingly obvious clichés.
  13. Spies in Disguise” (2019) ★★
    A feast of CG texture mapping, and that’s about it.
  14. Birdman of Alcatraz” (1962) ★★★★
    Rewatched. An issues movie about penology that veers on the didactic, but Burt Lancaster carries the whole thing with his uniquely fragile hyper-masculinity.

April 2020

  1. Emma” (1996) ★★★
    I could watch another dozen remakes of this story.
  2. Tangled” (2010) ★★½
    Disney seems to think it can outsmart stereotypes by playing into them.
  3. The Lighthouse” (2019) ★★★½
    Sumptuously crafted but a disappointingly predictable rendering of lunacy.
  4. Based on a True Story” (2017) ★★
    Roman Polanski brings together two intensely watchable actresses, concocts a tantalizing conflict for them, and forgets to do anything with it all.
  5. Sons of the Desert” (1933) ★★★½
    The sheer delight of Laurel and Hardy’s slapstick genius, stretched to its narrative limits.
  6. Vendetta of a Samurai” (1952) ★★★★
    An unsparing indictment of the falsity of combat glory, wrapped inside a samurai flick.
  7. Knives Out” (2019) ★★★★
    Rewatched. Had a ball again.
  8. Dogtooth” (2009) ★★★½
    Yorgos Lanthimos anticipates quarantine living.
  9. Parade” (1974) ★★★½
    Jacques Tati as ringmaster of a circus and the director of a movie about that circus…difficult to describe but delightful.
  10. Holes” (2003) ★★
    Watching this adaptation, I really felt like I was cheating myself by not reading the book.
  11. Ready or Not” (2019) ★★★
    A dumb slasher thriller but also a perfectly fine example of what movies are meant for.
  12. Mon Oncle” (1958) ★★★★
    Rewatched. Satirizing the tipping point of the 20th Century.
  13. The Whistlers” (2019) ★★½
    So conceptual it forgot to be original.

May 2020

  1. Sonic the Hedgehog” (2020) ★
    Mercilessly pointless.
  2. The Assistant” (2019) ★★★★
    Superb.
  3. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” (1985) ★★★
    Rewatched. Better than I remembered.
  4. The Lion King” (1994) ★★★
    First time seeing this.
  5. The Avengers” (2012) ★★★
    The only Marvel movie with a real script.
  6. Jerry Seinfeld: 23 Hours To Kill” (2020) ★★★½
    Sharp as ever.
  7. The Incredibles” (2004) ★★★★
    Rewatched for the umpteenth time and at first reluctantly, but by the end I remembered why this is so great.
  8. Moonraker” (1979) ★½
    Rewatched. Punishingly plodding.
  9. Ash Is Purest White” (2018) ★★★
    Quietly epic travelogue of change in modern China
  10. Bringing Up Baby” (1938) ★★★★½
    Rewatched. My kids did not really appreciate this, but I did.
  11. Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015) ★★★★★
    Rewatched. More and more, this seems like the best film of the last decade.
  12. Incredibles 2” (2018) ★★★½
    Rewatched. Doesn’t live up to its predecessor, but very good nevertheless.
  13. Tigertail” (2020) ★★
    A short film stretched to feature length and without good reason.
  14. Charlie’s Angels” (2019) ★½
    A disservice to women.
  15. Groundhog Day” (1993) ★★★★★
    Rewatched. Perfect.
  16. Onward” (2020) ★★★★
    Rewatched. Don’t sleep on this one. It’s great.
  17. Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai” (2011) ★★★½
    Worthwhile if not entirely successful remake of the original 1962 masterpiece.
  18. The Gold Rush” (1925) ★★★★
    Charlie Chaplin goes prospecting in Alaska, digs up remarkable pathos.
  19. Kuffs” (1992) ★
    An embarrassment to the 1990s.
  20. Kubo and the Two Strings” (2016) ★★½
    Compellingly mythic until its Hollywood ending.
  21. Apollo 13” (1995) ★★★★
    Rewatched. Irresistible confidence porn.
  22. Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound” (2019) ★★½
    Documentary about audio production for film is revealing but rarely inspiring.

June 2020

  1. Kiki’s Delivery Service” (1989) ★★★
    Cute as a button.
  2. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol” (2011) ★★★½
    Rewatched. Expertly balanced between adventure and humor throughout.
  3. Arctic” (2018) ★★★★
    Sturdy man versus nature drama.
  4. Bad Education” (2019) ★★★
    Superb direction can’t quite save this script from itself.
  5. Ali” (2001) ★★★★
    Rewatched. A bit meandering but nevertheless mesmerizing, especially the first ten minutes.
  6. Fast Color” (2018) ★★★
    Promising cast and premise, flat production.
  7. Spirited Away” (2001) ★★
    Yes it’s amazing! No it didn’t work for me.
  8. Ip Man 4: The Finale” (2019) ★
    Cheap, sentimental conclusion to a franchise that deserved better.
  9. Kedi” (2016) ★★★
    Irresistible documentary somehow manages to render street cats in Istanbul as more vivid characters than most movies starring people.
  10. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986) ★★★★
    Rewatched. What the grown up world was supposed to be like.
  11. Batman & Robin” (1997) ½
    Entirely deserves every last bit of scorn ever tossed its way.
  12. Batman Returns” (1992) ★
    Rewatched. Tiresomely fetishistic, and largely forgettable.
  13. Batman Forever” (1995) ★½
    Rewatched. Not a good movie, but the costumes were ace.

July 2020

  1. The Adventures of Tintin” (2011) ★★★
    Rewatched. Better and less distractingly uncanny valley-esque than I remembered.
  2. Missing Link” (2019) ★★
    Amusing but insubstantial, and quixotically stop-motion-animated by Laika Studio.
  3. Blood on the Moon” (1948) ★★★★
    A very manly Robert Mitchum-led western, gorgeously shot and begging for a proper film restoration.
  4. Greyhound” (2020) ★★★½
    Totally acceptable, sturdy, dad-optimized battleship thriller.
  5. Station West” (1948) ★★
    Noir-ish western with a completely implausible badass for a protagonist.
  6. The Old Guard” (2020) ★½
    Charlize Theron gives us so much, yet this overly serious movie serves her so poorly.
  7. Emma.” (2020) ★★★★
    Rewatched. Tried to figure out what annoyed some people about this movie, but I had too good of a time to bother.
  8. Captain Blood” (1935) ★★★★
    Bracingly entertaining, old fashioned pirate highjinks that my kids hated.
  9. Mad Max 2” (1981) ★★★★
    Rewatched. It would’ve been depressing if it wasn’t so excellent.
  10. Akeelah and the Bee” (2006) ★★★
    By the numbers but made with feeling.
  11. One Hundred and One Dalmatians” (1961) ★★★★
    Aesthetically gorgeous; I’m not sure CG animation has equaled it.
  12. Mission: Impossible – Fallout” (2018) ★★★★½
    Rewatched. Possibly the high water mark for action sequels.
  13. Da 5 Bloods” (2020) ★★
    So much talent and so much effort, and yet so many shortcuts taken.
  14. Duplicity” (2009) ★★★★
    Rewatched. Crackerjack little corporate adventure film from a time when they used to make movies for grown ups.
  15. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” (2007) ★★★★½
    Harrowingly authentic story of a young woman helping her friend seek an illegal abortion.
  16. The Secret World of Arrietty” (2010) ★★★
    Less ambitious—and highfalutin—than other Ghibli productions, for the better.
  17. Destroy All Monsters” (1968) ★★½
    A true cheese-fest featuring Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan and more kaiju in what amounts to an episode of “Star Trek.”

August 2020

  1. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000) ★★★★½
    Rewatched. Like a TV season finale so transcendent there’s no need to watch all the episodes that preceded it.
  2. The Little Prince” (1974) ★★½
    Not without its charms, but sunk by the irritating titular performer.
  3. Big Hero 6” (2014) ★★
    Rewatched. Its reverence for tech is not holding up well.
  4. Batman” (1989) ★★
    Rewatched. Tiresome.
  5. My Brother’s Wedding” (1983) ★★★★
    Imperfect but transfixing tragedy set in South Central LA.
  6. Never Goin’ Back” (2018) ★★★★
    A morally reprehensible but briskly made triumph.
  7. Extra Ordinary” (2019) ★★★½
    Yet another Irish indie in which an unattached driving instructor speaks to the dead and battles a one-hit wonder rockstar, to largely amiable effect.
  8. The Report” (2019) ★★★★
    Setting aside the vanity of a screenwriter directing a movie about a guy writing something so important that middle-managers and executives want to water it down, this meticulous reckoning with Bush-era torture is terrific.
  9. Speed” (1994) ★★★½
    Rewatched. A good example of how a dumb movie can achieve greatness.
  10. Top Gun” (1986) ★½
    This thinly plotted recruitment film remains aesthetically undimmed, but it’s also still just as empty-headed as ever.
  11. Uncle Buck” (1989) ★½
    Disappointingly few laughs; I added a half-star out of fondness for John Candy.
  12. Revanche” (2008) ★★★★
    A taut, expertly directed subversion of the revenge thriller form.
  13. Sullivan’s Travels” (1941) ★★★
    Rewatched. A pointed declaration of ideals about comedy vs. realism that’s not particularly funny or realistic.
  14. Bacurau” (2019) ★★★★
    Bonkers B-movie set in Brazil that continually reinvents itself, thrillingly.
  15. The Truman Show” (1998) ★★★½
    Rewatched. Charming but maybe most commendable for neutralizing Jim Carrey’s insufferability.
  16. Escape from New York” (1981) ★★★★
    Rewatched. A good time was had by all.
  17. Greed” (2019) ★★
    Steve Coogan as anti-hero is so entertaining that this message movie mostly forgets to deliver its message until the end when it skirts by with lip service.
  18. Castle in the Sky” (1986) ★★½
    Rewatched. Fantastic and inert.
  19. Variety” (1983) ★★★
    Fascinating document of post-noir cinema and pre-Giuliani New York.

September 2020

  1. Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011) ★★
    Rewatched. Supposedly benign but takes a lot of offensive liberties with race and history.
  2. Millions” (2004) ★★★
    Smartly directed fable of a kid’s experience dealing with the death of a loved one? I’ll take it. Corny sermonizing on the power of faith? Not so much.
  3. Monsters University” (2013) ★★★½
    I know these back catalog Pixar sequels are not supposed to be well regarded but I really liked this one.
  4. Motherless Brooklyn” (2019) ★★
    Edward Norton did his homework and he wants you to know it.
  5. I’m Thinking of Ending Things” (2020) ★★½
    Diverting for a while until it turns into a game of semantic Clue.
  6. The Shop Around the Corner” (1940) ★★★★½
    Rewatched. Warmly imagined romantic comedy about pre-War Hungary.
  7. Sleuth” (1972) ★★★★
    A delicious acting feast rolled up in a parlor room whodunit.
  8. Star Wars” (1977) ★★★½
    Rewatched. Enjoying this movie today requires not just suspension of disbelief but also summoning up a willful ignorance of all the crap sequels that have followed.
  9. The Birth of a Nation” (1915)
    Talk about complicated. A disturbingly well-made paean to hatred and bigotry.
  10. An American Pickle” (2020) ★★
    Starts off with crackle, then limps along to a whimpering finish.
  11. The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) ★★★½
    Rewatched. The best made installment of the entire series, but perhaps not essential at all.
  12. The Traitor” (2019) ★★½
    Goes deep inside the Italian mafia, reveals surprisingly little.
  13. How to Build a Girl” (2019) ★½
    Shamefully squanders a terrific premise: excavating the way British music weeklies used to build up and tear down bands.
  14. Dazed and Confused” (1993) ★★★
    A great hangout movie, sure, but in retrospect, quite toxic.
  15. The Violent Men” (1955) ★★★★
    An old western with a terrifying view of how power is amassed.

October 2020

  1. Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (2019) ★★★★½
    So astoundingly well made it’s almost distracting.
  2. Lost in America” (1985) ★★½
    Albert Brooks was ahead of his time, but not by much.
  3. Con Air” (1997) ★★
    Rewatched. Holds its audience in starkly low regard.
  4. Stop Making Sense” (1984) ★★★★
    Rewatched. Piercingly clear document of a band at a point where they finally figured out how to align their bizarre impulses with widespread accessibility.
  5. Only Angels Have Wings” (1939) ★★★★½
    Rewatched. An intoxicatingly grubby little story of people lost at the edge of the world.
  6. The Good Dinosaur” (2015) ★★½
    Technology in search of a problem.
  7. Enola Holmes” (2020) ★½
    I was totally signed up for this thriller about Sherlock Holmes’s super smart little sister, but it turned out to be not very smart at all.
  8. The Trial of the Chicago 7” (2020) ★★½
    Sorkin’s gotta Sorkin.
  9. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” (2020) ★★★
    Not a great movie, but a pretty great time.
  10. Death on the Nile” (1978) ★★★
    Pure formula, but satisfying.
  11. A Few Good Men” (1992) ★★★½
    Rewatched. Not a masterpiece but for a movie where not a lot really happens on screen aside from some shouting, it’s remarkably entertaining.
  12. Black and Blue” (2019) ★★★
    Pretty creaky policier, but there are still some vital ideas at work here.
  13. Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014) ★★½
    Rewatched. For every smart narrative decision it makes, it follows up with a really dumb one.
  14. Phantom Lady” (1944) ★
    Paper-thin noir peddling psychobabble as verisimilitude.
  15. Rebecca” (2020) ★★
    Not terrible except for the fact that it invites direct comparison with Hitchcock’s classic.
  16. Hanzo the Razor: Sword of Justice” (1972) ★★
    Toxic masculinity in samurai-era Japan.
  17. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982) ★★★
    Rewatched. Cynical in its sentimentality.

November 2020

  1. Jasper Mall” (2020) ★★★½
    Unpretentious, unassuming, unforgettable documentary about one year in the slow death of a shopping mall.
  2. On the Rocks” (2020) ★★
    I got this Sophia Coppola movie free for buying any Apple device!
  3. Return of the Jedi” (1983) ★
    Rewatched. Jeez did this franchise run out of ideas quick, and boy are so few people willing to acknowledge it.
  4. Lady and the Tramp” (1955) ★★★½
    The painted backgrounds are still astounding, and the story, such as it is, isn’t so bad either.
  5. Casablanca” (1942) ★★★★★
    Rewatched. Wondefully complex and elegantly simple at the same time.
  6. Spider-Man: Homecoming” (2017) ★★★
    Rewatched. I’ve seen way more of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark than I really need to.
  7. From Russia with Love” (1963) ★★★★½
    Rewatched. The most low key Bond. The best Bond.
  8. Empire of Dreams: The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy” (2004) ★★
    My kids are really into Star Wars! Sigh.
  9. Deathtrap” (1982) ★★★★
    A twisty murder thriller that’s maybe not so incredibly twisty, but it’s so tautly executed by the underrated Sidney Lumet that it’s a pleasure just to go along for the ride.
  10. Small Axe: Mangrove” (2020) ★★½
    It’s shocking to watch a movie by Steve McQueen, one of the masters of nuance and subtlety, that’s clumsy and obvious.
  11. The Phantom Tollbooth” (1970) ★★
    A swing and a miss at making a prestige picture from animation legend Chuck Jones.
  12. The Widow Couderc” (1971) ★★★★
    A mysterious stranger who happens to look exactly like Alain Delon comes to a small French village and meets a widower who happens to look like Simone Signoret. Nothing too surprising happens, but the emotional authenticity that emerges is palpable.
  13. Avengers: Age of Ultron” (2015) ★★
    Rewatched. My kids are also into Marvel! Serves me right.
  14. Tampopo” (1985) ★★★½
    A variety pack of Japanese love letters to good food. Defies description but delicious.
  15. Arsenic and Old Lace” (1944) ★★½
    Rewatched. I remembered this being airtight and laugh out loud funny, but on rewatch it’s wildly uneven and little more than amusing.
  16. John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection” (2018) ★★★½
    I’ve seen nothing else quite like it all year.

December 2020

  1. Small Axe: Lovers Rock” (2020) ★★★★
    Not everything quite lines up in this mood-first callback to West Indian nightlife in London ca. 1980, but it’s nevertheless a rapturous, irresistible romantic fairy tale on the order of “Before Sunrise.”
  2. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” (2016) ★★★½
    Rewatched. Unpopular opinion: this is the best thing Disney has done with this franchise.
  3. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace” (1999) ½★
    Rewatched. Shabby and uncaring in a way that still feels like a personal affront.
  4. I’m No Angel” (1933) ★★★
    Like a pop song that’s little more than an irresistible groove, this thinly plotted comedy rides Mae West’s charm and attitude until you can’t say no.
  5. Let Them All Talk” (2020) ★★½
    Steven Soderbergh asks: what if “Da 5 Bloods,” but by Woody Allen?
  6. Time Bandits” (1981) ★½
    Not sure if this was made for kids or Terry Gilliam’s id, but it’s really noisy and uneven.
  7. Mank” (2020) ★★★½
    Affecting re-creation of a lost Hollywood from David Fincher, our most underperforming auteur.
  8. First Cow” (2019) ★★★★
    A lovely, minor footnote of a story about the 19th century frontier. Beautifully soft spoken and then, in the third act, remarkably effective at building tension.
  9. My Favorite Wife” (1940) ★
    Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in a desperate attempt at recapturing the magic of “The Awful Truth.”
  10. Small Axe: Red, White and Blue” (2020) ★★
    Competent but largely unremarkable.
  11. The Grinch” (2018) ★★½
    This movie has no business being as halfway decent as it is.
  12. I’m Your Woman” (2020) ★★
    Tasteful but misguided attempt at telling a gangster story from the female perspective.
  13. The Peanuts Movie” (2015) ★★★½
    Rewatched. Really great.
  14. Miracle on 34th Street” (1947) ★★½
    Belief as a threat.
  15. The Muppet Christmas Carol” (1992) ★
    When Gonzo is the straight man, things are not particularly Muppet-y, and not particularly fun.
  16. Back to the Future” (1985) ★★★★
    Rewatched. A marvel of set-it-up and pay-it-off Hollywood storytelling.
  17. Other Music” (2019) ★★★
    A sweet requiem for the lost hipster paradise of the world’s coolest record store.
  18. To Catch a Thief” (1955) ★★★★
    Rewatched. Staggeringly gorgeous. One of the rare times when the form itself is so refined it matters more than the content.
  19. Soul” (2020) ★★★★
    A hodgepodge of different movies. The least interesting of them is Pixar’s standard “secret, anthropomorphized world of things you usually don’t pay attention to” redemption tale. But when it lets its human characters actually be human, it soars.
  20. Mulan” (1998) ★★
    Not particularly memorable, though not particularly terrible.
  21. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (2020) ★★★★
    A thrilling cinematic adaptation of a powerful stage script.
  22. Sound of Metal” (2019) ★★★★
    At times this largely humorless drama about hearing loss threatens to be standard humorless indie fare, but it surpasses all of that by expertly putting the audience in its protagonist’s shoes. Also, absolutely killer opening scene.
  23. Small Axe: Alex Wheatle” (2020) ★★★
    Another example of a story that would have been much better served as its own full-length feature than as an installment in an overly ambitious mini-series.
  24. It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) ★★★★★
    Rewatched. I’ll never be able to not cry when I watch this, I guess.
  25. Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones” (2002) ½★
    Rewatched. Nothing here works, because nothing was conceived with any sense. Or taste.
  26. Small Axe: Education” (2020) ★★★½
    Strikes the best balance of the series between issues and emotion.
  27. Treasure Island” (1950) ★★★
    I just read the book with my kid. This is not quite the book.
  28. Wonder Woman 1984” (2020) ★
    A huge, boring, shambolic disappointment.
  29. Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone” (1990) ★★★
    As much as I wanted this new cut to reveal a hidden masterpiece, there are inherent flaws here that could not be fixed in the editing room.
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Movies Watched, December 2020

Still from “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”

With the year finally slowing down a bit, I managed to watch twenty-nine movies in December. That might be a personal record. It’s awards season too, a time when I would normally be heading out to theaters to watch some of the best movies of the year, but of course most of them have been going direct to streaming in 2020. I sorely miss theaters, but I have to admit it was really satisfying to be able to watch these from the comfort of home.

One of the major highlights was “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” starring the magnificent Viola Davis and the sadly departed Chadwick Boseman. It smuggles a searing, tragic look at the experience of early 20th century black musicians inside a beautiful, late career Spielberg-style photographic sheen. I’ll never tire of watching Davis—she’s among the most compelling performers working today—but it was painful to watch Boseman’s last performance before his premature passing. This was a worthy final performance.

“Ma Rainey’s” shares something with three other newly released, would-be Oscar hopefuls: “Sound of Metal,” a bare-knuckled drama about a musician who loses his hearing; “Soul,” Pixar’s newest fantasia about a musician who contends with fulfilling his lifelong career ambitions; and “Mank,” which recounts the career of the putative writer of “Citizen Kane.” None of these are perfect, but in addition to representing some of the most exciting filmmaking I’ve seen all year, they, like “Ma Rainey’s,” examine the cost of making a living in the arts. I guess that’s what appeals to the Academy at this time of year.

Finally, I also finished watching Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe”, a five-part series of short films about West Indian life in London in the 1970s and 1980s (I watched the first one, “Mangroveback in November). I found all of them extremely frustrating, though not because they’re bad. There are some real flashes of profundity in this series, but more often than not the suffocating constraints of their television origins are visible in the seams. There’s a debate about whether “Small Axe” is television or cinema but whatever you call it, to me it’s obvious they were budgeted and scheduled like television. Meaning: the lack of time, attention and care shows. McQueen’s talent as a storyteller is immense though, and in some instances he manages to transcend his constraints. But more often than not, the threadbare scripting and overly obvious dialogue suggest a creative process under duress. All five of these installments would have been much more successful as full-length, fully fledged feature films. It’s a shame that they didn’t get that opportunity.

Here’s the full list.

  1. Small Axe: Lovers Rock” (2020) ★★★★
    Not everything quite lines up in this mood-first callback to West Indian nightlife in London ca. 1980, but it’s nevertheless a rapturous, irresistible romantic fairy tale on the order of “Before Sunrise.”
  2. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” (2016) ★★★½
    Rewatched. Unpopular opinion: this is the best thing Disney has done with this franchise.
  3. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace” (1999) ½★
    Rewatched. Shabby and uncaring in a way that still feels like a personal affront.
  4. I’m No Angel” (1933) ★★★
    Like a pop song that’s little more than an irresistible groove, this thinly plotted comedy rides Mae West’s charm and attitude until you can’t say no.
  5. Let Them All Talk” (2020) ★★½
    Steven Soderbergh asks: what if “Da 5 Bloods,” but by Woody Allen?
  6. Time Bandits” (1981) ★½
    Not sure if this was made for kids or Terry Gilliam’s id, but it’s really noisy and uneven.
  7. Mank” (2020) ★★★½
    Affecting re-creation of a lost Hollywood from David Fincher, our most underperforming auteur.
  8. First Cow” (2019) ★★★★
    A lovely, minor footnote of a story about the 19th century frontier. Beautifully soft spoken and then, in the third act, remarkably effective at building tension.
  9. My Favorite Wife” (1940) ★
    Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in a desperate attempt at recapturing the magic of “The Awful Truth.”
  10. Small Axe: Red, White and Blue” (2020) ★★
    Competent but largely unremarkable.
  11. The Grinch” (2018) ★★½
    This movie has no business being as halfway decent as it is.
  12. I’m Your Woman” (2020) ★★
    Tasteful but misguided attempt at telling a gangster story from the female perspective.
  13. The Peanuts Movie” (2015) ★★★½
    Rewatched. Really great.
  14. Miracle on 34th Street” (1947) ★★½
    Belief as a threat.
  15. The Muppet Christmas Carol” (1992) ★
    When Gonzo is the straight man, things are not particularly Muppet-y, and not particularly fun.
  16. Back to the Future” (1985) ★★★★
    Rewatched. A marvel of set-it-up and pay-it-off Hollywood storytelling.
  17. Other Music” (2019) ★★★
    A sweet requiem for the lost hipster paradise of the world’s coolest record store.
  18. To Catch a Thief” (1955) ★★★★
    Rewatched. Staggeringly gorgeous. One of the rare times when the form itself is so refined it matters more than the content.
  19. Soul” (2020) ★★★★
    A hodgepodge of different movies. The least interesting of them is Pixar’s standard “secret, anthropomorphized world of things you usually don’t pay attention to” redemption tale. But when it lets its human characters actually be human, it soars.
  20. Mulan” (1998) ★★
    Not particularly memorable, though not particularly terrible.
  21. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (2020) ★★★★
    A thrilling cinematic adaptation of a powerful stage script.
  22. Sound of Metal” (2019) ★★★★
    At times this largely humorless drama about hearing loss threatens to be standard humorless indie fare, but it surpasses all of that by expertly putting the audience in its protagonist’s shoes. Also, absolutely killer opening scene.
  23. Small Axe: Alex Wheatle” (2020) ★★★
    Another example of a story that would have been much better served as its own full-length feature than as an installment in an overly ambitious mini-series.
  24. It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) ★★★★★
    Rewatched. I’ll never be able to not cry when I watch this, I guess.
  25. Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones” (2002) ½
    Rewatched. Nothing here works, because nothing was conceived with any sense. Or taste.
  26. Small Axe: Education” (2020) ★★★½
    Strikes the best balance of the series between issues and emotion.
  27. Treasure Island” (1950) ★★★
    I just read the book with my kid. This is not quite the book.
  28. Wonder Woman 1984” (2020) ★
    A huge, boring, shambolic disappointment.
  29. Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone” (1990) ★★★
    As much as I wanted this new cut to reveal a hidden masterpiece, there are inherent flaws here that could not be fixed in the editing room.

This is the latest roundup of my monthly movie consumption. You can also see what I watched in November, in October, in September, in August, in July, in June, in May, in April, in March, in February, in January, and a full list of everything I watched in 2019, in 2018, in 2017 and in 2016. And, if you’re really interested, you can follow along with my movie diary at letterboxd.com.

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Movies Watched, November 2020

Still from “Jasper Mall” directed by Bradford Thomason and Brett Whitcomb

Back in July I wrote about my overall low regard for documentary films. My argument mostly amounted to a frustration that documentaries, despite frequently adopting the guise of journalism, rarely acknowledge how little their narratives usually conform to actual facts. As a result I seldom choose to watch them; I’d just rather be watching something more transparently fictitious.

However, last month I saw two documentaries that frankly delighted me. First was “Jasper Mall,” directed by Bradford Thomason and Brett Whitcomb and released earlier this year, which captures a year in the slow, ignoble death of a shopping mall in suburban Alabama. Then, at the end of the month, I watched John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection,” directed by Julien Faraut in 2018, which is ostensibly a sports documentary but in reality is an indescribably unique meditation on the nature of filmmaking.

These are two very different kinds of documentaries but what they have in common, and what worked for me so well, was their honest disinterest in being journalistically comprehensive. “Jasper Mall” makes no pretense that it’s telling a complete story about how or why this particular shopping mall is in economic free fall—much less why countless more malls across America are undergoing similarly catastrophic decline. The movie features no suspiciously simplistic statistics or flashy animated charts, no authoritative voices chiming in on the economic underpinnings of the ongoing retail collapse, and no corny reenactments of historic events. There’s also no “investigative reporting” that tries to bend events into convenient narratives, and no reductive mischaracterizations of real people for the purposes of setting up simplistic villains.

Instead, “Jasper Mall” is just an extended set of visits with the shop owners and workers who are trying to make the best of a deteriorating decision, with the mall operators who are quixotically doing their level best to reverse the trends, and with the idle patrons who can do little more than witness the collapse. Each person tells their story simply and straightforwardly, with no pretense and no artificial drama. There’s no judgment, no admonitory message, no call to action.

If anything, “Jasper Mall” is really more like a horror film, just one where the terror moves in slow motion and the victims fade away quietly. Most horror films trap their characters in buildings or towns that allow no escape. Similarly, “Jasper Mall” never leaves the mall grounds, and at times it feels like the mall’s deep, moat-like parking lot forms the very edge of the world. The characters themselves disappear one by one, whether because shops close or because they literally pass away, and there’s a feeling that the end is near for all of them. It’s sad and sweet and a little humorous, and also unforgettable.

Julien Faraut’s “John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection” also works within a circumscribed scope in that it deals only with a few specific moments in time—specifically, the occasions on which the tennis great competed in the French Open in the early 1980s—and goes no further. We get no back story on McEnroe’s early tennis training, no commentary from mentors, peers or competitors, and virtually no context on McEnroe’s career beyond these appearances at all.

In fact, the entirety of the film is composed from training footage captured by a filmmaker-tennis player named Gil de Kermadec, who served as technical director of the French Tennis Federation during McEnroe’s peak years. Throughout his tenure de Kermadec made it a practice to capture countless hours of footage of players at the French Open in order to better understand how the body moves during play.

A tremendous amount of what de Kermadec captured was of McEnroe on the court: his famous tantrums and the confoundingly off handed elegance of his swings. From this source material, rediscovered just a few years ago, director Faraut fashions an utterly original film. The subject is ostensibly McEnroe, and indeed the player is rarely not on screen. But in actuality the documentary is an impressionistic essay on what it means to make a film, as Faraut is even more interested in what it means for the camera to witness a live sporting event than he is in McEnroe’s playing.

Faraut’s film is actually about the making of de Kermadec’s film project—which itself is really only partially about McEnroe. In many ways the true star is the footage itself, salvaged from nearly forgotten archives, and restored to its grainy, gorgeous 16 mm glory. Faraut occasionally slows it down and overlays an otherworldly guitar soundtrack on top of McEnroe’s ground strokes, and the results feel as if he’s pulling on and stretching time like silly putty. You feel transported to the matches, but more aware of the abstraction and artistic license that the camera imposes on events than in most any other documentary. I haven’t seen another movie like it all year, if ever before.

In all I watched sixteen movies in November. Here is the full list.

  1. Jasper Mall” (2020) ★★★½
    Unpretentious, unassuming, unforgettable documentary about one year in the slow death of a shopping mall.
  2. On the Rocks” (2020) ★★
    I got this Sophia Coppola movie free for buying any Apple device!
  3. Return of the Jedi” (1983) ★
    Rewatched. Jeez did this franchise run out of ideas quick, and boy are so few people willing to acknowledge it.
  4. Lady and the Tramp” (1955) ★★★½
    The painted backgrounds are still astounding, and the story, such as it is, isn’t so bad either.
  5. Casablanca” (1942) ★★★★★
    Rewatched. Wondefully complex and elegantly simple at the same time.
  6. Spider-Man: Homecoming” (2017) ★★★
    Rewatched. I’ve seen way more of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark than I really need to.
  7. From Russia with Love” (1963) ★★★★½
    Rewatched. The most low key Bond. The best Bond.
  8. Empire of Dreams: The Story of the Star Wars Trilogy” (2004) ★★
    My kids are really into Star Wars! Sigh.
  9. Deathtrap” (1982) ★★★★
    A twisty murder thriller that’s maybe not so incredibly twisty, but it’s so tautly executed by the underrated Sidney Lumet that it’s a pleasure just to go along for the ride.
  10. Small Axe: Mangrove” (2020) ★★½
    It’s shocking to watch a movie by Steve McQueen, one of the masters of nuance and subtlety, that’s clumsy and obvious.
  11. The Phantom Tollbooth” (1970) ★★
    A swing and a miss at making a prestige picture from animation legend Chuck Jones.
  12. The Widow Couderc” (1971) ★★★★
    A mysterious stranger who happens to look exactly like Alain Delon comes to a small French village and meets a widower who happens to look like Simone Signoret. Nothing too surprising happens, but the emotional authenticity that emerges is palpable.
  13. Avengers: Age of Ultron” (2015) ★★
    Rewatched. My kids are also into Marvel! Serves me right.
  14. Tampopo” (1985) ★★★½
    A variety pack of Japanese love letters to good food. Defies description but delicious.
  15. Arsenic and Old Lace” (1944) ★★½
    Rewatched. I remembered this being airtight and laugh out loud funny, but on rewatch it’s wildly uneven and little more than amusing.
  16. John McEnroe: In the Realm of Perfection” (2018) ★★★½
    I’ve seen nothing else quite like it all year.

This is the latest roundup of my monthly movie consumption. You can also see what I watched in October, in September, in August, in July, in June, in May, in April, in March, in February, in January, and a full list of everything I watched in 2019, in 2018, in 2017 and in 2016. And, if you’re really interested, you can follow along with my movie diary at letterboxd.com.

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New York Design and Me on Television

Behind the Scenes on the “New York by Design” TV Show

Two things that you don’t normally see on television very often are now on television: design and yours truly. The new series “New York by Design” (which follows last summer’s “California by Design”) is five episodes of stories about all kinds of design innovation: architecture, industrial design, consumer products, electronics, software and UX, and more. As it happens, I appear on the show as a presenter and a judge (Adobe is a series partner), along with some terrific company including Debbie Millman, Stefan Sagmeister, Tucker Viemeister and many more.

The show airs Saturday evenings on CBS Channel 2 New York and the full season will stream on Amazon Prime next February. You can actually see the first two episodes embedded below. In episode one, I talk with designer David Benjamin about Mycelium bricks, an organic building material made out of what would otherwise be discarded compost material. And in the second episode I pay a visit to Zimmerman Workshop founders Adam and Sofia Zimmerman, who designed a one-of-a-kind staircase that’s part architecture and part art installation. (The behind-the-scenes photo above is taken at the top of that staircase.) For more information about the series, and to watch future episodes posted after their original air dates, visit newyorkbydesign.com.

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Movies Watched, October 2020

Movies Watched, October 2020

My wife and I had tickets to go see “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” back in March. We’d booked them several days in advance and leading up to that Friday we debated endlessly whether it was something we should even be doing. The pandemic was starting to tighten its grip around New York, and the wisdom of a subway ride and a movie theater outing was starting to seem dodgy.

Ultimately we opted not to go, which in retrospect was the right decision. But how I wish we’d been able to see this big, gorgeous, astoundingly well made arthouse film on a large screen, because it very much is a work of art. Nearly every frame of writer and director Céline Sciamma’s romance about painting is composed like an Andrew Wyeth canvas, though imbued with an otherworldly warmth that Sciamma and cinematographer Claire Mathon crank up with precise care.

At times, the pristine visual craftsmanship is almost a distraction—several shots of a a raging, preternaturally blue ocean practically shout above the acting. On the whole though, the dramatic tension more than justifies the aesthetic conceit: the movie’s characters are effectively stranded on an island with few expectations, and yet they’re able to realize immense beauty from their circumstances. This seamless joining of form and content is rare—and stunning.

Of the sixteen other movies I watched last month, it’s worth noting that the ones that debuted on streaming channels—the atrocious “Enola Holmes,” the diverting “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” and the flavorless “Rebecca” all support my running theory that the Netflix-age of original releases is one of underwhelming, slapdash quality. These movies are very rarely more than “fine,” and while it’s amusing to get easy, immediate access to them, the repeatedly empty calories-like sensation of disappointment is also getting really tiring. I can’t wait for this pandemic to be over.

  1. Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (2019) ★★★★½
    So astoundingly well made it’s almost distracting.
  2. Lost in America” (1985) ★★½
    Albert Brooks was ahead of his time, but not by much.
  3. Con Air” (1997) ★★
    Rewatched. Holds its audience in starkly low regard.
  4. Stop Making Sense” (1984) ★★★★
    Rewatched. Piercingly clear document of a band at a point where they finally figured out how to align their bizarre impulses with widespread accessibility.
  5. Only Angels Have Wings” (1939) ★★★★½
    Rewatched. An intoxicatingly grubby little story of people lost at the edge of the world.
  6. The Good Dinosaur” (2015) ★★½
    Technology in search of a problem.
  7. Enola Holmes” (2020) ★½
    I was totally signed up for this thriller about Sherlock Holmes’s super smart little sister, but it turned out to be not very smart at all.
  8. The Trial of the Chicago 7” (2020) ★★½
    Sorkin’s gotta Sorkin.
  9. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” (2020) ★★★
    Not a great movie, but a pretty great time.
  10. Death on the Nile” (1978) ★★★
    Pure formula, but satisfying.
  11. A Few Good Men” (1992) ★★★½
    Rewatched. Not a masterpiece but for a movie where not a lot really happens on screen aside from some shouting, it’s remarkably entertaining.
  12. Black and Blue” (2019) ★★★
    Pretty creaky policier, but there are still some vital ideas at work here.
  13. Captain America: The Winter Soldier” (2014) ★★½
    Rewatched. For every smart narrative decision it makes, it follows up with a really dumb one.
  14. Phantom Lady” (1944) ★
    Paper-thin noir peddling psychobabble as verisimilitude.
  15. Rebecca” (2020) ★★
    Not terrible except for the fact that it invites direct comparison with Hitchcock’s classic.
  16. Hanzo the Razor: Sword of Justice” (1972) ★★
    Toxic masculinity in samurai-era Japan.
  17. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982) ★★★
    Rewatched. Cynical in its sentimentality.

This is the latest roundup of my monthly movie consumption. You can also see what I watched in September, in August, in July, in June, in May, in April, in March, in February, in January, and a full list of everything I watched in 2019, in 2018, in 2017 and in 2016. And, if you’re really interested, you can follow along with my movie diary at letterboxd.com.

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