Best Movies of 2016

Now I’m going to talk about my favorite movies I saw this year. To qualify, the movie must have been seen in a movie theater. So I have also included movies here that are not new but reshown (usually at the Music Box or Gene Siskel)

  1. Peggy Guggenheim Art Addict
    1. This documentary talks about the incredible and amazing Peggy Guggenheim. I’ve been going to her museum for most of my life when I visit Venice. She played a fundamental role in the lives of early 20th century painters. She supported Pollock, made Rothko famous, married Ernst, helped save countless others from the Nazis…A well lived life.
  2. Sanjay’s Super Team (short)
    1. This Pixar short film was nominated for Animated Short Oscar. It’s a sweet film about cultural/generational differences between a young boy and his father.
  3. Bear Story (short)
    1. This animated short won best Oscar. It’s a heartbreaking tale of family and loss but told a bit like a story in a story.
  4. World of Tomorrow (short)
    1. It’s Don Hertzfeldt at his finest. It’s a strange short about time travel and meaninglessness/meaningfulness of human experience.
  5. The First Monday in May
    1. This documentary is about the Fashion Institute’s big show and annual gala at the Metropolitan Museum. It focused on their recent exhibition China: Through the Looking Glass. I’m still sad I did not go and see it so this was an attempt to make up for it. It’s a fascinating behind the scenes look at the Museum, the gala, and the figures behind including the famous Anna Wintour.  
  6. Deadpool
    1. I went in knowing little about Deadpool. I loved it. It’s snarky and funny in ways that I wasn’t expecting.
  7. Ghostbusters
    1. This was a fun film that gave me what I wanted. The four Ghostbusters were funny and sweet. The ghosts were silly (LIKE THEY WERE IN THE ORIGINALS!). My 8 year old self would have fallen in love with them just as I do now.
  8. Miller’s Crossing
    1. We saw this as part of the Film Noir festival at the Music Box. Directed by the Coen Brothers, it really lives up to their reputations and the genre. The main character is an amoral man who you aren’t sure where his motivations are.
  9. Pete’s Dragon
    1. This sweet film about the relationship between a dragon and the boy he cared for was a wonderful exploration about our relationship between animals and our environment. Plus Robert Redford is awesome.
  10. Kubo and the Two Strings
    1. This is a fun imaginative film about a little boy coming to terms with himself and his family. Beautiful animation with origami creatures.
  11. The Secrets in their Eyes
    1. This Argentine film had to be one of the best films I’ve seen all year. It won Best Oscar for Foreign film in 2009. It’s about a detective attempting to solve a case that eluded him and finding that it dregs up a harsh and difficult past during the Argentine dictatorship.
  12. Neruda
    1. Neruda is a strange film that defies categorization. It’s not a biopic nor quite a film noir. One critic said that it’s like a Neruda tale.
  13. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
    1. I’m a huge Harry Potter fan. I was really pleased with the film. It captures some of the wonder of the world. Plus many beasties. And I liked how it showed that good and evil aren’t stark contrasts. Darkness can lie in “good.” A movie for our times. I wish there was more diversity in casting however.
  14. Arrival
    1. Favorite new movie of the year. This is about a linguist who is brought in by the government to figure out how to talk to an alien species who has come to earth. It talks about language and love. And the importance of patience and compassion. It had me weeping at the end of it.
  15. Moana
    1. This Disney film is wonderful. It’s a princess movie but where she actually saves herself. Bonus: Fun music by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Almost Top Ten Movies of 2015

My next list of top media for the year will be movies. Now, it will be readily apparent that I have not seen many films this year. Again, these are based on movies that I have seen and rated an A or higher. I do exclude movies I saw the small screen. Maybe next year.

Top Nine Movies (in chronological order of seeing them)

  1. Red Army – This documentary explores the Soviet Ice Hockey Program. I’m fascinated by cultural practices under Communist or Socialist governments so this doc was everything I could have wanted.
  2. Song of the SeaThis Irish animated movie has to be one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen. It is a story about a little girl realizing her destiny and future in a fairy tale world. It’s from the same people who made The Book of Kells but the plot is stronger and the animations are even prettier.
  3. She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry

    This was probably one of my favorites of the year. It’s a documentary about the early years of the feminist movement in the US. It covers a wide swath of the movement looking at different racial, ethnic and LBTQ groups and their priorities, how these groups pushed at the movement and tried to make it more inclusive. It showed that the feminist movement was messy, exclusionary at times. It’s a movie everyone should see.

  4. East Side Sushi

    This film was with the Latino Film Festival in the spring. It’s about a young woman of Mexican descent who is a cook and has a real passion for it. She ends up working at a sushi restaurant and aspires to become a sushi chef. It’s a compelling story about identity, sharing of cultures, and more.

  5. Jurassic World – Yes, I’m putting this on here because I have a dinosaur obsession. Was it the best movie of the year from a critical standpoint? No. But I really had a blast with the film. It gave me what I didn’t even know I wanted. Because dinosaurs.
  6. Inside Out – This was the other top film of the year for me. This animated movie about the emotions inside a young girl is simply brilliant. It’s heartfelt and funny. The animation is tops.
  7. Mr. Holmes – This film is about an aged Sherlock Holmes, played by Ian McKellen, in retirement and dealing with his fading memory. The movie tracks him as he tries to figure out his last case. It’s a really moving story and painful at times in the way that good movies are.
  8. The Martian – While space stories aren’t usually my cup of tea, I really dug this one. This film is about an astronaut who is accidentally left behind (for dead) on Mars and he has to figure out how to survive with limited resources. It’s funny and a nice nod to the wonders of science. Science!
  9. The Suffragette – This film explores the life of a young working woman and her involvement with the suffragette movement in the UK in the early 1910s. It’s a hard movie at times to watch the treatment of the suffragettes, beaten and force fed in jail. But it’s an important piece of the story that is often forgotten.

 

That’s all for now!

Part 1: SWAN Week

This Saturday, March 28th, will be the 8th annual International SWAN Day. SWAN stands for Support Women Arts Day. All over the country and world, groups are getting together to celebrate women artists. This is an issue close to my heart. You can read more about the history of the day here: http://www.womenarts.org/swan/

So leading up to SWAN Day, I’m going to focus on women in the arts and history in my blog. On SWAN Day itself, I’ll have an important and exciting announcement so stay tuned!

I’m going to start with this incredible documentary film that just came out called She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry. Two weekends ago, I attended a special screening with the director and some other special guests at the Music Box. It was also a SWAN day celebration put on by the Chicago Area Women’s History Association (CAWHA).

The film focuses on the US women’s movement in the late 60s until 1971. While I’ve definitely seen films and have read about the movement, I learned a great deal from this film. One of the things that the film did was talk about the messiness of the movement. It brought in diverse voices including minorities and LGBTQ activists. They talked about how the movement left them out or ignored their issues and how these groups tried to bring their work to the forefront.

Too often movements are depicted as these monolithic entities; instead they are often times made up of people with their own prejudices and failings. The film didn’t spend a lot of time on personalities of the movement like Gloria Steinem. It did talk a little bit about Betty Freidan but it really didn’t focus on her as a personality, just noted the impact of her book and some of her later actions. It really tried to show the women’s movement as populated by people, like you and me, not just led by larger than life folks. I really dug that.

For me the most important scene was when one of the women interviewed talked about how radical history needs to be talked about. Change doesn’t just happen; radicals push for it. People need to know about this history because people get so convinced that they can’t do anything to change the world. These movements show what folks can do. Beautiful.

I also learned about some funnier elements of the movement. There was Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell or W.I.T.C.H.E.S.It was a mix of guerrilla theater and activism. Women in this group would go around hexing people. Hilarious and apt. There was also the “Ogle-In” on Wall Street. A woman was employed on Wall Street in the 60s who was receiving a lot of unwanted attention from men and newspapers. Newspapers wrote about her attractiveness, publishing her measurements; men would line up near the MTA station to catcall her when she left work. So a group of women decided to walk up and down Wall Street and catcall men to turn the tables. The footage is hilarious.

Another great thing about the film was that it talked about a variety of cities including Chicago. I learned a little bit more about the women’s movement here. It was nice to see the film try to give a larger perspective than just New York and San Francisco. In the Q&A, it was repeatedly mentioned that Chicago could have enough to make a documentary about Chicago itself. I certainly hope to see that.

So seriously, go out and see this film. It’s really an important film for all people, not just women.

Here’s the link to the documentary website: http://www.shesbeautifulwhenshesangry.com/

That’s all for now!

 

 

Waiting for Godot, Red Army, Folk Festival

So to continue the theme of awesome things in Chicago, I’m going to talk about three things going on right now. You can still catch them…if you go quickly!

The first is the Court Theater production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot directed by Ron Oj Parson. It’s all African American cast, an idea that had ruminated with the director and some of the actors for years. It’s fantastic. August Wilson and Allen Gilmore as Gogo and Didi were magnificent. I’d seen August Wilson before in Seven Guitars; it was such a pleasure to see him again. Anthony Lee Irons was sublime as Lucky or Pig. (Next line is a spoiler.) I always feel such pleasure when he goes from mute silence to thinking. It’s a magnificent moment in theater.

Waiting for Godot has to be one of my favorite plays. I’ve now seen it four times, the most for any play even Shakepseare. I’ve even put together my ideal cast. Nathan Lane as Didi, August Wilson as Gogo, John Goodman as Pozzo, and Anthony Lee Irons as Lucky. This production was better than the famous Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan show from 2013. Stewart and McKellan just weren’t convincing as Didi and Gogo. Alas.

The all African American cast gave it new layered meanings. It added some more tension with the already painful sequences between Pozzo and his slave Lucky. The director aptly writes in the Director’s note, “In its “absurd” way, this play is about the waiting we all do in life—waiting for life to resolve, waiting for love, waiting for peace, waiting for heaven, waiting for an answer, waiting for freedom, waiting for justice, waiting for change…Waiting…for Godot.” Goodness, it’s so good that it hurts.

Show ends February 15th.

The second show is the recently released documentary Red Army at the Music Box. It’s about the Soviet hockey program. I thought it was absolutely fantastic. I do have a fascination with Soviet Union cultural histories (or generally any cultural histories under socialist/communist regimes). Also, I do have a fondness for hockey. It focuses largely on famous hockey player Slava Fetisov, whose list of awards and medals covered the entire movie screen. It’s such a compelling story of the apparatus that supported these hockey players to become the best in the world.

You get the good and the bad. There’s a wonderful moment when the documentarian asks Slava Fetisov, “How was your first Olympics?” Fetisov’s face immediately falls. That Olympics was the famous “Miracle on Ice.” And you feel for these guys when they lost. I felt that it was an interesting critique of Soviet society. These men were playing hockey as a team for their country. Of course, Soviet society was repressive; one man wasn’t allowed to see his dying father. But teamwork was drilled into these men. Fetisov talks about his unhappiness with Soviet policies but he never chooses to defect. It’s amazing to see how much loyalty and pride he has to this day.

I don’t know how long it will be in theaters so check it out soon.

Last but not least, I just wanted to let you guys know that my favorite event in Chicago is coming up. The 55th annual University of Chicago Folk Festival is this weekend. Friday through Sunday nights, there will be incredible concerts of folk musicians from all over the country (and sometimes international). This was where I heard Irish music for the first time and learned that I really like Bluegrass. During the day on Saturday and Sunday, there are a series of workshops that cover a variety of topics from guitar theory, dance music, to Russian choral singing. The workshops are free and the concerts are affordable so consider checking them out.

That’s all for now!

 

Best Movies 2014

For my final trick of the year, I’ll talk about the five best films of the year. These are films I saw in the theaters though I didn’t include silent films I’ve seen. I will point out that 4 of the 5 are about women or by women. I don’t think that’s an accident. 🙂

I’ll be taking a bit of a hiatus until in first week of the new year. So have fun and be safe!

In no particular order:
1. Birdman
This film, staring Michael Keaton, is about a movie star directing and acting in his first Broadway show in New York. Michael Keaton’s character was once a star in a superhero franchise but has been trying to find himself in the larger field of art. The film is imaginative and strange at times; his superhero altar-ego talks to him. The movie itself is shot as if it were one long take (it fakes a lot of it sometimes). Brilliant. I hope he wins best actor in the Oscars.
2. The Girls in the Band
I’ve talked about Judy Chaikin’s documentary about women in jazz a few times this year. It’s just that good. It really brings to life a story that has been forgotten. Until I had seen the movie, I had never realized that I didn’t know a single female horn player. As a saxophonist and a woman interested in women in history, that’s really sad. This film remedied that and introduced me to so many amazing musicians like Melba Linton and Vi Redd.
3. Inside Llewyn Davis
This Coen Brothers movie is such a wonderful character study of a failing musician. No doubt about it Llewyn Davis is jerk, but it’s hard to watch his life fall apart. He has talent but he doesn’t have what it takes to become a star or even a somebody. Life is hard for him (though he helps make it hard for himself). Chicagoans will feel one scene in particular.
4. Hopeful Hopeless
This is a film that I saw through the Chicago Latino Film Festival written and directed by Coraly Santaliz. It’s a wonderful film from Puerto Rico about a sweet but desperate man who tries to rob a bank to pay for his wife’s surgery.  It’s funny and clever film that is told from multiple perspectives.
5. Finding Vivian Maier
This is a tricky film. I had never heard of Vivian Maier until I saw this film. It explores her troubled life and her amazing prolific work. But I’m not sure the film really tackles the issue that there are a lot of people making a lot of money off of her work who are not her relatives. I understand that significant work and money went into her collection but the casual attitude on part of the filmmaker and narrator was troubling. But it’s well worth checking out despite these issues.
Yes, I’ve seen many other films this year but these five were the ones that stood out. Honorable mentions should go out to  The Book of Life, and a Mockingjay Part 1 (fun film about propaganda).
Until next year, that’s all!

Review: The Book of Life

This past weekend, we went to see the newly released Book of Life. Yes, this is a mainstream movie with sound at a theatre. It happens sometimes! I was keen to see this because I was excited to see a celebration of Mexican culture and mythology. Plus it’s an animated film, which I also hold dearly in my heart. I liked the movie.

The basic story is about two men, one is a brave army guy and the other is a matador who really wants to be a musician. They are both in love with the same vivacious woman. Two Lords of Death (literally) decide to make a bet on who will win her heart, which will have impacts on how the underworld is run.I’m not sure it’s strictly adheres to Mexican stories but it feels in the spirit. Considering what there has been, it’s a nice change from European fairy tales and whatnot. I hope to see more movies about Mexican creatures and legends. Of course, I’m not sure how La Llorona would go down in a children’s film… (According to legend, she’s a weeping ghost who drowned her children in life. It’s a tale to tell to children to get them to behave).
But seriously, it’s a film about the importance of family, being true to one’s heart, and more. And I love the depiction of the underworlds or any other world. I always do. I love representations of the afterlife. Beetlejuice and Spirited Away are still my favorite movies after all these years.  I only wish they had spent more time there.
However, my qualm with the movie is that it did not pass the Bechdel test. For those of you unfamiliar with the Bechdel test, it was developed by Alison Bechdel in her comics. The basic rule is: does a movie have two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man? You can read about it here and why it is important. It’s surprising how many movies fail this test. And sadly, The Book of Life did in my opinion. You can make the argument that there storyteller talks to a group of girls and boys but that’s really stretching it. What makes this disappointing is that the movie is about this great fiercely independent woman. She is very much her own woman and knows what she wants. But the movie isn’t about her. It’s about the men who want to marry her. So boo.
However, don’t let that stop you from seeing the film. It’s still fun and it is about a different culture’s legends. So that’s awesome. Go see it! I’m sure it is in theaters for a few weeks.
That’s all!

Review: Why Be Good?

This past weekend, I attended a screening of the silent film Why Be Good? (1929) starring the amazing Colleen Moore as part of the Chicago International Film Festival. As readers of my blog know, I’m a big fan of silent films and I try to see as many of them as I can on the big screen. This film was well worth checking out.

Before the movie started, there was a conversation between David Robinson, biographer of Chaplin, and Michael Kutza, CIFF Founder, talked about Colleen Moore and her films. Michale Kutza and David Robinson theorize that the only reason we don’t know her as well as Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, or Buster Keaton is because her films didn’t last. Most of her films were lost, despite her own efforts. She had preserved her films by obtaining copies of them, and handed them all over to the MOMA many years ago. However, she discovered years later that many of her films had mostly disappeared from MOMA. There are theories on what happened to them but no one knows for sure. What a tragedy! This incident points to the importance of initiatives like WITASWAN (Women in the Audience supporting women artists now) that try to support the work of women in art. Here is another sad instance of a woman’s work lost due to indifference and perceived unimportance!

In this conversation, Michael Kutza talked about the influence that Colleen Moore had on the Chicago International Film Festival. She lived in Chicago towards the end of her life. She sort of served as a mentor for him, giving him advice and using her network of stars to help build the festival. So it was really neat that for the 50 anniversary, they could screen a film of hers.

A copy of her last silent film Why Be Good? was found. This screening was the North American premiere of the film, since it first came out in the 1920s. What a fun film! Spoilers ahead. Colleen Moore plays the quintessential flapper who meets a Rockefeller and they fall for each other. It’s a fun look at the jazz and flapper scene in the 1920s. She is such a joy to watch.

It was interesting to see how gender roles and expectations played out in the film. The film centers on Colleen Moore’s character, a working girl who enjoys the nightlife. She meets a Rockefeller who falls for her but is wary of her outrageous nature. Also he’s her boss. So there is some drama over that but ultimately he’s not sure if she is a “good girl.” At one point, Colleen Moore’s character, Pert, tells her mother, “I’m a good girl but I can’t let anyone find out.” In this film, a good girl is a woman who doesn’t have sex before marriage. It turns out all right because Pert was a good girl so all can live happily ever after.

I know that the film was trying to address how the flapper age brought a redefinition of women’s roles. Suddenly, there were women going out, drinking, even smoking, and behaving more aggressively than before. There are films from this era about fallen flapper women trying to seduce good boys; these flappers come to bad ends. This film along with Dancing Daughters tried to show that flappers could be good people to. However, it’s within a limited view of female behavior. In Dancing Daughters, one of Joan Crawford’s friends had sex before marriage with another man and the movie suggests that she is going to be dealing with that mistake for the rest of her life with her jealous husband. Never mind that it happened before she met her husband. And then the main plot centers around the male lead’s wariness of Joan Crawford’s outward behavior. Both movies show that outward appearances shouldn’t be taken for granted. Here’s a good flapper and a good boy. Now, it seems so limiting.

 

Anyway, Why Be Good? is still worth watching. I hope they find more of her films. That’s all for now!