In 2015, I fell back in love with the movies
I suppose it’s wrong to suggest I ever fell out of love with the movies. But coming into this year I was beginning to worry if the movies still had to ability to level me they way they did when I was first falling in love with them as a teenager.
If you love movies, that period of discovery, when you consume every classic and discover films you love hidden away in the shadows, is an insurmountable time of joy. It sets a standard that the movies can’t possibly live up to afterwards. I discovered The Godfather, On the Waterfront, Spirited Away, Pulp Fiction, and Fargo within a few months of each other. Not even the best year of new movies can match that. I don’t expect them to. What I hope for in any year is for two or three to burrow into my soul and fit snugly and stay there. I want movies I’m still reacting to the next day, that I want to write about the next week, that I want to talk about the next year. In recent years, I haven’t found many new films that sparked that feeling. Snowpiercer bowled me over. 12 Years a Slave made me distraught. Beasts of the Southern Wild engulfed me in its endless shower of sparks. But far more movies that I thought I’d love inspired more admiration than adoration. Going to the movies lost that feeling that once drove me to the cinema every week: the possibility of falling in love with something new.
I don’t know or care how film critics and historians view 2015 as an overall year for movies. All I know is that four films this year made me feel a range of emotions that I had not in a long, long time.
Before this year, the last time I felt awe in a movie theatre was when I saw The Tree of Life. Malick’s vision of of immense scope and visual poetry leveled me, made me feel tiny in the face of its ambition. I left the theatre feeling almost a divine fear, of having witnessed an conversation that was cosmic in its intention. Think Mucha’s Le Pater engravings and you’ll have an idea.
Making the audience feel awestruck is so difficult to achieve in this modern age of filmmaking where any image can be conjured. It’s not simply enough to make us think “how did they do that?”, since that’s a question we rarely ask anymore. Directors have to commit to a vision that we have never considered and create images we never could have imagined. With Mad Max: Fury Road, George Miller did just that. The film is an art museum of Miller’s own creation, only every new piece injected a dose of adrenaline into my heart. Every shot had the potential for something beautiful, something harrowing, something simply wonderful in its own regard. And yes, at times I wondered, for the first time in forever, “how did they do that?”
The last time I felt sorrow in a movie theatre was when I went to see 12 Years a Slave. Steve McQueen’s masterpiece of historical immersion held the horror of slavery where no movie before had dared; in front of our eyes, unrelenting, without a moment to let us catch our breath. It defied the convention of a kindly white character to let our white ancestors off the hook. It had the effect of watching a documentary. It was searing, visceral, confrontational filmmaking. It worked. I trembled where I sat. I tried not to look away. At times, I faltered.
This year, I felt that again. Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight reopens the wounds of the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal, and rightly so. Some wounds should never be salved, lest we forget their horrors. It does so without sensationalism; it disappears into the world of investigative journalism, letting us discover the horrors of the Church’s cover-up in real-time with the characters who are writing about it. The film has come under some fire for dismissing some of the crucial investigative work of Boston Phoenix reporter Kristen Lombardi, criticisms that are fair. But as a work of art, it is one of the best films I’ve seen this year, for how deftly and respectfully it examines a crisis on unimaginable scope and evil, and how it had such a monumental emotional effect on me. At times, I wanted to look away, but there was nowhere to look. There were only faces on a screen, reacting in real time to horrors that had already happened.
One of my all-time favorite films is Only Yesterday, a forgotten little gemstone by Isao Takahata for Studio Ghibli. It is one of the best films about growing up and coming to terms with adulthood ever made. I first watched it in the attic of my home in the summer of 2004. It was not available in the United States at the time, and for my birthday my parents had purchased it from Japan on DVD, and then gotten me a region free DVD player. I watched it with three other films they got me: My Neighbor Totoro, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, and Whisper of the Heart. Few weeks have ever been so formative to my movie education. All those films are wonderful. But Only Yesterday holds a special spell over me. Its balance of tones, its insight into the little driving forces of human emotion and how oddly specific memories are make it one of the wisest of all movies. I see myself in it, even though I am definitely not a 27 year old Japanese woman, because in focusing so intently on the world of its protagonist it finds truths that anyone can find in their own lives. Movies like this help foster empathy. They are a calming salve. I return to Only Yesterday every few years, when I need it. It’s always there for me.
I think I will be returning to Brooklyn in much the same way. In telling the story of one Irish woman immigrating to America, it reminded me of years of stories my own mother told me. Like Only Yesterday, it held a mirror to my soul and I saw truth and beauty in that. It never goes for the throat. There’s a moment in the film where a man stands up during a Thanksgiving dinner and begins to sing and old Gaelic tune. Everyone on screen stops and reflects as the song transports them, for a moment, back home. Brooklyn has the same effect on me. Movies like this are rare and precious, and particular from person to person. Like a keepsake, I will seek it out when I need it.
Lastly, there is always Star Wars. I don’t know or care if Star Wars: The Force Awakens is my favorite film of the year. I could give you a long list of reasons why it doesn’t measure up artistically to the films I have listed above. But I could do the same for the original films. One beauty of the movies is that they can make us feel many ways; so long as they make us feel, they are doing something wonderful. I have seen The Force Awakens three times, and each time has been, simply put, delightful. Yes, it is nostalgic. We need to stop thinking of that word as pejorative. It doesn’t simply hearken to a simpler time; it achieves what movies that once brought us joy did themselves. It tells a simple, universal story. It gives us lovable characters played by completely charming actors. It gave me the thrill I used to feel being told a good bedtime story as a child. It gave me the sensation that only science-fiction and fantasy can achieve, the out of body experience of being completely transported into its world. This is a film that can be nit-picked to pieces to find its “true and proper” place in the Star Wars canon. I, for one, refuse to play these games. I can’t remember the last time a movie filled me with so much joy.
PS: I need to thank my readers for bringing this blog to life for me this year. I’ve been writing on it for four years now, and this year was the first that I consistently put out writing that I was really proud of, and I have to you guys to thank. Special thanks to Anna at Film Grimoire and Jay from the Assholes Watching Movies crew for their terrific feedback AND the exemplary work they do with their own blogs. Here’s to falling even more in love with the movies in 2016!