Though I often post these roundups of movies I’ve watched the previous month much later than I would like, I actually do start writing them almost immediately after the month ends. Inevitably though I get waylaid by the usual distractions of living life. For this post on February’s movies my first draft was in early March, which now feels like practically a lifetime ago already. In the few short weeks since, COVID-19 came to our towns and neighborhoods insistently and undeniably, shutting down most of the country and forcing change on the fundamental behaviors of society itself.
Missing one movie is a disappointment but the loss of moviegoing is a particularly painful change for me. Despite my busy schedule I’ve always tried to get out to theaters at least once a month and it’s rare that I miss that goal. I’m in love with movies in general but also just passionate about the physicality of cineplexes: the huge screens and immersive sound; the deep, uninterrupted focus that audiences give to a film; the smell of popcorn; and of course that unquantifiable social magic of experiencing a film with a roomful of strangers and feeling their reactions in real time, alongside my own.
I’m not adding anything new to the advocacy of movie theaters here, I know. Cinephiles have been rattling off these same recommendations forever and even doing so with elevated urgency over the past decade as streaming media has emerged. Nevertheless theater attendance has declined steadily and depressingly. The end of the road for moviegoing has felt like it was coming for a long time before even coronavirus was a thing.
In a world where most of us have been watching movies on our phones anyway—and maybe even preferring to anesthetize ourselves with repeat viewings of “Friends” instead of accessing the wealth of diverse historical and contemporary film that streaming media offers—I’m not particularly certain that many folks will miss the cineplex. Some will, I’m sure, but I think most of us will be more eager to dine again at that favorite restaurant or knock back a few at the local bar. Of course we can eat or even play mixologist at home during this “shelter in place” era for however long it’s going to last, but in most cases food or drink at public establishments is an order of magnitude more vivid, and certainly more social than those at-home versions of the same core activities. By contrast, for most people movies deliver more or less the same value whether you watch them on the toilet or in a theater. In fact in a theater you’d be sitting in a dark room where it’s socially forbidden to even talk to your companion anyway, which seems unlikely to feel like much of an upgrade when all of this social distancing is over.
Whether or not that turns out to be true, for the time being the best that we can do is appreciate movies, if not moviegoing. There are a million TV shows to watch and rewatch on Netflix of course, but in this time where we looked to filmed entertainment for comfort more than ever, there’s still something special about the idea of a real movie. With the exception of the more egregiously shallow franchises, movies are by and large a good faith attempt at delivering something truly special, executed to the maximum of the director, cast and crew’s abilities, and brought to a concise, compelling conclusion. That doesn’t always happen, of course, but even when they fail, there’s something ineffable in the trying, a sense that something truly unique was attempted.
One very minor bit of silver lining in this terrible pandemic is the fact that there are a few “real” movies that had been slated to appear (or in fact had already debuted) in theaters that studios have since fast tracked for digital rental. They are a mixed bag in terms of quality so the premium rental fee of US$20 t they’re charging may not always seem like much of a bargain. But as it happens I caught one of them in theaters in February: “Emma.,” a new adaptation of Jane Austen’s immortal comic novel, and I can tell you that it’s well worth the cost of admission, so to speak.
You could say that first-time director Autumn de Wilde has a little bit of an advantage here with ”Emma“ in that the basic narrative of her film, as conceived by Austen, is practically impervious to slovenly execution. Nevertheless, de Wilde directs the hell out of this movie; nearly every frame is gorgeously composed and thoughtful. And more than that, the cast is uniformly excellent and their performances are deeply felt. The climactic scene, where an unwise quip devastates practically the entire cast of characters, is so effectively shocking that I could practically feel the whole audience in my theater cringing with empathetic discomfiture.
I actually took my ten-year old daughter with me to see “Emma.” and she found it a bit talky and short on action, but pronounced it “good” enough. Of course fifth graders and period films are not always great matches, so the fact that she recognized the film’s virtues at all is a very favorable outcome, by my reckoning. For my part, as we were walking out of the theater, I knew right away that this would be the kind of movie that would reward her on repeat viewings; as she gets older and hopefully decides to revisit it, more and more of its sharp witticisms and subtle storytelling will reveal themselves to her. That’s what good movies do, of course. Now looking back I realize that “Emma” was the last theatrical outing that she and I would share before the onset of COVID-19, and possibly the last movie we’ll get to see together in theaters for quite a long time. It was a wonderful choice.
Here is the full list of all twenty-four movies I watched last month.
“Paddington 2” (2017) ★★★½ Rewatched. This is a very entertaining movie.