Movies Watched, February 2023

Still image of Bruce Lee from “Game of Death”

Mid-winter is usually a pretty rough time for worthwhile new movies, but all the same I’m surprised that I actually watched zero of them last month. The reason probably is that I had expended so much energy in January trying to get caught up on the best ones from the end of 2022 that when February came along I was just looking to revisit some familiar favorites—and also dig into some older movies that I’d never gotten to see.

To start with, I got a hold of Criterion’s Bruce Lee boxed set and finally, as an adult, tried to digest some of these seminal martial arts pictures that I’d only ever seen in bits and pieces as a kid. As is customary for Criterion, these five films have been heroically repackaged and annotated, and watching Lee’s fiery acrobatics presented so crisply is a thrill. But there’s no getting around the fact that the movies themselves—plot-wise, character-wise, filmmaking-wise—are creaky, to use a word. More often than not, they amount to little more than action footage—volcanic action footage, to be sure—strung together by drearily incoherent plot setups.

It’s all a reminder of how narrowly Western culture once valued Asian stars. Before Lee’s untimely death the film world clearly recognized the sheer spectacle of his screen athletics, but they had such low expectations for his marketability as an actor that they never bothered to write a fully formed part for him, much less put him in a movie with a real plot. Watching these sometimes tiresomely rote potboilers where Lee’s charisma nevertheless pops off the screen, it’s evident that he was bringing so much more than just action. His performances shined with a fierce magnetism and an unmistakable pathos far beyond what was written on the page. He could’ve have been a much, much bigger star than he got to be before he passed.

All of which is sober context for the amazing night that “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” one of countless inheritors of Lee’s legacy, had at the Oscars. I really try to avoid watching the Academy Awards but, despite myself, I felt compelled to tune in this year to see which if any of the Asian nominees would take home statues. I was particularly touched by Ke Huy Quan’s acceptance speech. I find his story so powerfully moving, and not just because, like me, he also immigrated from Vietnam to the States at a very young age. Despite early success, Quan effectively found himself in the professional wilderness for many years and had even been so hard up for work before “Everything” that he’d lost his health insurance. To land that part and then somehow to win and Oscar for it… that really is a fairy tale come true. I’m not the biggest fan of this movie, but its success is nevertheless very gratifying. It’s also a wonderful culmination, in its own way, of a journey that Bruce Lee started many decades ago.

Here’s the full list of twenty films I watched in February.

  1. The Silence” (1963) ★★
    Terrible title! I can never remember which movie this is. Now that I’ve looked it up again I’m reminded that this angsty, shadowy psychodrama is one of Ingmar Bergman’s more skippable works.
  2. Black Swan” (2010) ★
    All the dream sequences, jump scares, titillating innuendoes and body horror effects add up to a prestige flick that apparently very few people other than me recognize for its astonishing silliness.
  3. Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (2019) ★★★★½
    Rewatched. A magnificently constructed private world that’s made complete by just three young women, temporarily isolated from patriarchal constraint.
  4. Witness in the City” (1959) ★★★★
    Fantastic, gritty French noir that works like the aftermath to an entirely different crime caper.
  5. Enter the Dragon” (1973) ★★★½
    Before his life was tragically cut short, you could see in this explosive but imperfect martial arts bruiser how Bruce Lee was just starting to tap his full potential as a screen presence..
  6. Game of Death” (1978) ★½
    Gets an extra ½ for the iconic jumpsuit, but overall this cash-in on Bruce Lee’s legacy is a pretty pathetic enterprise.
  7. What About Bob?” (1991) ★★★½
    Rewatched. It’s easy to recognize how Bill Murray is at his off kilter best in this screwball psycho-comedy, but Richard Dreyfus also brings a wonderfully deft game as the straight man.
  8. See How They Run” (2022) ★★★½
    Rewatched. Maybe I’m just a sucker for whodunnits, but this admittedly not-revolutionary murder mystery is loads of fun.
  9. Big Time Gambling Boss” (1968) ★★★½
    Yakuza gangsters as principled salarymen. Fascinating.
  10. The Batman” (2022) ★★★★
    Rewatched. I do wish the plot were tighter but I like this more and more with each viewing. It’s like a great downer rock album that just nails its vibe.
  11. The Last of Sheila” (1973) ★★★★
    A deliciously snarky whodunnit with plenty of fascinating gay subtext thanks to a take-no-prisoners script from Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim. Yes those guys.
  12. The Big Boss” (1971) ★★½
    You’ve got to wade through a lot of brainless plotting and paper-thin characters to get to Bruce Lee’s explosive martial arts here, and even then there’s not a whole lot of that.
  13. Back to the Future” (1985) ★★★★
    Rewatched. Loads of Hollywood clichés heaped upon one another—and then executed with sterling, irresistible panache.
  14. The Favourite” (2018) ★★★★
    Rewatched. Maybe the best costume drama for a generation? Certainly the best one that’s also a cutting, contemporary historical allegory. Brilliant.
  15. Thoroughbreds” (2017) ★★★★
    Rewatched. Half a decade later, this early psychological thriller about two horrible young women looks like a classic.
  16. The Secret of Kells” (2009) ★★
    Beautiful but too grandiose for my taste.
  17. Bedazzled” (1967) ★★★
    Really enjoyed hanging out with Dudley Moore and Peter Cook mugging through some ridiculous scenarios in this swinging 60s sex comedy.
  18. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes” (1970) ★½
    A real comedown for Billy Wilder fans; this Holmes interpretation is not particularly incisive or revelatory in any way.
  19. Air Force One” (1997) ★★
    Rewatched. You really need to turn off your brain for this, at which point it’s pretty fun, and afterwards you feel pretty bad. Junk food, I guess.
  20. Lost Bullet” (2020) ★★★
    Rewatched. This is probably the best action franchise going right now (looking Mr. Diesel’s way).

This is the latest roundup of my monthly movie consumption. You can also see what I previously watched in January, in 2022, 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017, and 2016. Also, you can always keep up with what I’m watching by following me on Letterboxd—where I’m also writing tons of capsule reviews.