With the year finally slowing down a bit, I managed to watch twenty-eight 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, “Mangrove” back 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.
“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.”
“The Muppet Christmas Carol” (1992) ★ When Gonzo is the straight man, things are not particularly Muppet-y, and not particularly fun.
“Back to the Future” (1985) ★★★★ Rewatched. A marvel of set-it-up and pay-it-off Hollywood storytelling.
“Other Music” (2019) ★★★ A sweet requiem for the lost hipster paradise of the world’s coolest record store.
“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.
“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.
“Mulan” (1998) ★★ Not particularly memorable, though not particularly terrible.
“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.
“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.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946) ★★★★★ Rewatched. I’ll never be able to not cry when I watch this, I guess.
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.
“Jasper Mall” (2020) ★★★½Unpretentious, unassuming, unforgettable documentary about one year in the slow death of a shopping mall.
“On the Rocks” (2020) ★★ I got this Sophia Coppola movie free for buying any Apple device!
“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.
“Lady and the Tramp” (1955) ★★★½ The painted backgrounds are still astounding, and the story, such as it is, isn’t so bad either.
“Casablanca” (1942) ★★★★★ Rewatched. Wondefully complex and elegantly simple at the same time.
“Spider-Man: Homecoming” (2017) ★★★ Rewatched. I’ve seen way more of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark than I really need to.
“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.
“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.
“The Phantom Tollbooth” (1970) ★★ A swing and a miss at making a prestige picture from animation legend Chuck Jones.
“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.
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.
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.
Yesterday around midday I was at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn not long after the Associated Press called Pennsylvania for Joe Biden. There was a large throng of revelers there, pumped up with the adrenaline of a victory that millions have been anticipating for four long, painful years.
Traffic was knotted all around as the crowds converged on the the southern tip of the plaza, but no one seemed to mind—you could hear car horns blaring and drivers and passengers yelling out their windows, but out of jubilation, not anger. The crowd converged on the iconic Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch, where people danced and chanted and clapped to music. A number of folks had brought drums and percussion instruments from their homes and they were beating a powerful tattoo that rang throughout the air, seemingly for miles.
Nothing had been organized but everyone was in unison, and people took turns dancing at the center, directly under the arch, passing around a huge American flag and waving it to the delight of hundreds of onlookers.
This woman danced with her infant child strapped to her back. I tried to get a closeup shot that showed the baby’s face, but I think I was too overwhelmed with the magnificence of her movements.
At one point this man stepped into the center. Even without the flag, he instantly drew everyone’s attention and he proceeded to lead the crowd in an exhilarating, impromptu speech about the triumph of truth. Several times he coaxed the crowd into kneeling down with him, and then together everyone jumped up with a burst of energy, shouting at their top of their lungs with joy.
When the news alert had come through earlier in the day, around 11:30a, I wasn’t even able to emotionally process the victory. My mind had been in such a despondent state since Election Night, both frustrated by the unresolved vote counts and the fact that millions of Americans saw no reason why Donald Trump’s lies, deceit and dereliction of duties should not be rewarded by another term in office. If I’m honest, it just disgusted me. But being there at Grand Army Plaza, surrounded by people of every race, color and creed, I was finally able to enjoy—at least for an afternoon—the wonder and beauty of a truly meaningful moment of progress in a much longer campaign to set the world right again.
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is a terrific movie title for a year in which each month that passes has taken a “hold my beer” alacrity to one-upping the awfulness that preceded it. The fact that the movie was directed by perpetually inventive misanthrope Charlie Kaufman would seem to promise at least a diverting, brain puzzle-type examination of human experience.
For a while, this movie is that, but then it gets lost in its own head (something which you’d actually expect to happen to Kaufman movies more often than it does). It starts out as a fairly compelling two-hander, with its leads bantering on an extended drive to visit family, interlaced with a surprisingly deft voiceover (voiceovers are never surprisingly deft). Eventually though it starts falling back to standard Kaufman shorthand: dream logic blocking, elliptical editing, jump scare cutaways etc.
No one else can do this stuff like Kaufman can and so few even try, so it’s somewhat forgivable that little of it rises above the amusing. But the last third, which is by turns reminiscent of a rather unenthusiastic David Lynch or Jean-Luc Godard flick, feels much less assured as it devolves into a game of semiotic Clue, leaving the viewer to match up wryly dropped hints with narrative twists. Kaufman does not want to telegraph the “meaning” of it all or do all of the expository work for the viewer, which is fair, but I’m not convinced he’s fully doing his job as a storyteller, either.
“I’m Thinking of Ending Things” is a disappointment but then again most of what we’re getting to see this year has been disappointing. I wrote in August about how subpar most of the direct-to-Netflix fare has been in general, but we’re also living through a pretty rough drought of genuinely entertaining movies that may stretch on for a long time. On the one hand, studios are holding back their most anticipated films until such a time when theater-going is a thing again. And on the other hand, the pandemic has surely paused or deferred production for a ton of what would have been entertaining to see next year, too.
Sorry, didn’t mean to be such a downer there.
In total I watched fifteen movies last month. Here’s the full list.
Here’s a project that my team at Adobe has been working on for a long time. In addition to steering the design of Adobe XD, our design and prototyping tool for UX/UI designers, late last year we also took on the task of refreshing its visual identity. You can see the results on our new website at Adobe.com, but you can get a sense for the visual and motion vocabulary we created in this video reel.
If you’re interested in learning more, I wrote about the thinking that went into this work over at XD Ideas. And keep an eye out for more applications of this identity across Adobe XD and related sites and touchpoints soon.
What’s happening with film distribution during this pandemic is pretty fascinating. There are first run movies debuting on all kinds of services and at all kinds of price points. Earlier this year I rented “The Assistant” (superb) on iTunes for US$5.99. Just a few weekends ago “Bill & Ted Face the Music” debuted for home viewing for US$19.99. And Disney is even charging a hefty US$29.99 to rent “Mulan” to customers who are already paying a monthly subscription fee for Disney+. In contrast to the pre-pandemic world where the cost of a ticket was more or less completely dissociated from the actual movie you’d be watching, the perceived value of a given film is more apparent than ever in these rental prices.
I’m not exactly sure then what to think when a movie is free, but I have to say I was very pleasantly surprised when Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles’s independent film “Bacurau” debuted on The Criterion Channel last month. I’ve been an enthusiastic subscriber of that service since it launched but I’ve thought of it primarily as a terrific catalog of classic and international films, not a platform for releasing new movies that, in a pre-pandemic world, would have debuted in theaters.
I’d heard a lot of great buzz about “Bacurau” and in fact had hoped to be able to see it in a theater one day, so it was a treat to get to watch it from home at no additional cost. It’s a truly odd movie that combines elements of social documentary, science fiction, spaghetti westerns and more to tell the near-future story of a village in Brazil that, soon after burying one of its matriarchs, suddenly finds itself missing from regional maps. That description not only fails to do justice to the premise, but is only a hint of what follows, which I found to be thrilling and weird—so weird that when legendary weirdo Udo Kier shows up halfway through, I was shocked to realize that there would be even more weirdness to come. The movie is not perfect, but it’s so fearless in its willingness to mash up and subvert genres that it seems to be reinventing itself as it unfolds. If you have an appetite for disorientation, I recommend it highly.
It’s worth remembering too that “Bacurau” represents just a tiny fraction of the immense wealth of worthwhile film to be found on The Criterion Channel. Even if you subscribe for only a month or two to watch a few films, you’re coming out way ahead.
All told, I watched nineteen movies in August. Here is the full list.
“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.
“The Little Prince” (1974) ★★½ Not without its charms, but sunk by the irritating titular performer.
“Big Hero 6” (2014) ★★ Rewatched. Its reverence for tech is not holding up well.
“Never Goin’ Back” (2018) ★★★★ A morally reprehensible but briskly made triumph.
“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.
“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.
“Speed” (1994) ★★★½ Rewatched. A good example of how a dumb movie can achieve greatness.
“Top Gun” (1986) ★½ This thinly plotted recruitment film remains aesthetically undimmed, but it’s also still just as empty-headed as ever.
“Uncle Buck” (1989) ★½ Disappointingly few laughs; I added a half-star out of fondness for John Candy.
“Revanche” (2008) ★★★★ A taut, expertly directed subversion of the revenge thriller form.
“Sullivan’s Travels” (1941) ★★★ Rewatched. A pointed declaration of ideals about comedy vs. realism that’s not particularly funny or realistic.
“Bacurau” (2019) ★★★★ Bonkers B-movie set in Brazil that continually reinvents itself, thrillingly.
“The Truman Show” (1998) ★★★½ Rewatched. Charming but maybe most commendable for neutralizing Jim Carrey’s insufferability.
I’ve been in a bit of denial about the end of summer so I’m having to catch up quickly here on our two latest episodes of “Wireframe.” You can listen to them below but you should also subscribe at adobe.ly/wireframe or in your favorite podcast app.
First up is this newest installment, just out this week, all about designing apps that purport to help people rest easier at night. Sleep is a multi-billion dollar industry so it’s no wonder that there are a host of apps out there that are trying to help all of us sleep more soundly—especially in this time when the world seems to be constantly on edge.
It was fascinating to hear from folks like Ian McConchie, VP of design at Headspace, about the way they think about calming people, relieving stress and improving sleep. We also talked to Lucas Guarneri, who’s working on sleep trackers at Withings, Ania Wysocka, a designer who created her own app—Rootd—to help people manage anxiety, and more.
A couple of weeks ago we also had this terrific episode (one of my favorites this season) on designing the streaming media experiences that are consuming so many hours of our quarantine living this year. We had a terrific, illuminating conversation with Thomas Williams of Ostmodern, a design shop that specializes in video streaming experiences. We also talked to Dan Rayburn, an analyst and journalist who knows the world of streaming media—and streaming apps—inside and out. And we talked to writer Suzanne Scacca about tracking the Netflix user experience and how it impacts what we choose to watch.
For that episode, the “Wireframe” producers and I also did a trial run of a service called Scener, a free Chrome extension that makes it easy for remote groups of people to co-watch content on services like Netflix, Disney+, Hulu, Prime Video etc. This way of consuming video has become more popular lately for obvious reasons, and in fact I had a more in-depth experience with Scener just last weekend when we used it to host a remote movie-watching birthday party for my daughter. She and eight or so of her friends used Scener to video and text chat while the app also kept a stream of “Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse” in sync. It was a bit janky at first, especially as I was scrutinizing it for all of its UX and design imperfections. But ultimately it worked really well, and you could absolutely imagine this becoming a much more common way of friends spending time together, pandemic or no.