Seth’s Favorite Film Discoveries of 2021

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974, dir. Martin Scorsese)

From my full review: Scorsese delivers a pitch-perfect comedy-drama that never once feels phony. He ends up presenting one of the most honest mother-son relationships I’ve seen in a film. Alice is by no means a conventional mother, and she regularly engages in arguments with her son that seem more appropriate for a friend. She is still a parent and is determined to keep her son out of trouble while allowing him space to make mistakes and learn. The things she exposes her son to might cause some viewers to judge her for being immature and irresponsible. Tommy is present when Ben becomes violent with Alice. When Alice gets involved with David, Tommy is a part of their going out. It makes sense, though, because Alice’s life has a big chunk devoted to Tommy, so any person she might partner with is going to need to understand and get along with her child.

My Dinner With Andre (1981, dir. Louis Malle)

From my full review: The film’s overarching theme is the question, “Should people live in spontaneity all the time, taking life as it comes?” Andre says yes to this as he details the wild & fascinating theater exercise he’s taken part in and how they affected him in the years that followed. He describes a Halloween performance on Long Island that ended with members of the cast being mock buried alive by other cast members. You can see the conviction on his face that he went through a psychological death doing this and came out on the other end, having his thinking altered. There are also questions about the purpose of theater, and Andre believes that theater has a deadening effect.

The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948, dir. John Huston)

From my full review: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a fantastic film about what greed does to the souls of people. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I sat down to watch this, and my familiarity with Bogart led me to believe he was the hero of the story. While he is the protagonist, he is no hero and ultimately becomes the film’s biggest villain. While Huston had been overseas in the War, Bogart had become one of Warner Brothers’ top stars. He so enthusiastically leaped at the chance to play such a rotten character which is a testament to his love of acting. Bogart knew he didn’t have traditional movie star “good looks”; his face was one with character that had lived a life. He was best at playing cynical detectives or men who were conflicted.

In the Heat of the Night (1967, dir. Norman Jewison)

From my full review: In the Heat of the Night is a near-perfect movie. It manages to deal with the racism of the Deep South without ever becoming preachy. It keeps the story centered on characters rather than ideas. There is not a drive to make these people best friends or have Gillespie renounce his racist leanings. He is ultimately forced to acknowledge the superior intellect and skills of Tibbs. The implication being that with this softening, he will continue to rethink his previous ideologies. The town’s mayor remarks his disgust that Gillespie didn’t simply shoot Tibbs and claim self-defense after an altercation with Endicott. Gillespie eventually becomes more defensive of Tibbs and allows the detective to do what he needs to solve the case. Their dynamic should be used as an archetype in more films. They only know each other for a few days, but it becomes essential for them to understand each other, or they can’t help the widow find closure for her husband’s murder.

Playtime (1967, dir. Jacques Tati)

From my review: The first striking thing about Playtime is the color palette. Tati wanted the film to be in color but look like black & white. To accomplish this, he kept most of the colors in production design & costuming gray, blue, black, and grayish white with green & red as accent colors, making sure people and specific objects stand out. The next thing you’ll notice is that Tati shoots everything in medium shots on 70mm, which allows him to catch all of his actors in the fore & backgrounds so their movements can be captured. This is where the Where’s Waldo comparison comes in because there is so much happening in every single frame of this movie. It becomes a wonderful game to discover storylines happening in the background through the film.

Thief (1981, dir. Michael Mann)

From my full review: I always have a great appreciation for the technical elements of Mann’s work, and his world is so clearly his own when you see it on the screen. Lighting, often cold blues, and shadow are used to evoke a sense of danger. Most scenes are shot at night because that’s when his characters are most active. That time of day is also what makes his lighting stand out best. Mann had initially wanted to score the film with blues music but found the eerie Tangerine Dream electronic score to work better. It became a hallmark in his movie from here on that you’d get musical scores that were just a little bit ahead of their time, using electronic instruments to evoke a sense of looming danger.

The Bride of Frankenstein (1934, dir. James Whale)

From my full review: Bride is a fantastic movie because Whale floods the picture with characters and wild directions to the narrative. There’s so much humor in this movie that I think it isn’t really a horror movie; like The Invisible Man, this is undoubtedly a dark comedy. Pretorius especially is such a camp character which is no surprise. The actor, Thesiger, was an openly gay man who I believe was playing to some of the subtext Whale (who was also gay) was putting into the film. I don’t think the director was out to make some bold statement about homosexuality; I think he just wanted to make a silly movie that would entertain himself and people he knew.

Forbidden Planet (1955, dir. Fred M. Wilcox)

From my review: What blew me out of my seat first was the musical score for this movie. It is credited as the first fully electronic musical score ever made for a film. There are not sweeping themes or any of the orchestral cues we expect to hear. Instead, composers Bebe and Louis Barron, discovered in a beatnik nightclub by an MGM producer. Due to union rules, it is referred to as “musical tonalities,” but I think that is an apt description of how they sound. Instead of having harmonies, these pieces burst and recede, jerking around in strange angles and combinations. It reminded me of part of the Fantastic Planet score at its most alien & otherworldly. The second element that most impressed me was the special effects & model work. There are some brilliant shots early on of the United Planets ship flying through space, the camera moving around it that hold up to the best CG work I’ve seen today. The blend of models & matte painting really feels like it was done with a passion for the craft, attention to detail so that the strings & seams do not show. 

Nightmare Alley (1947, dir. Edmund Goulding)

From my review: The first thing that struck me was the cinematography done here by Lee Garmes. The use of lighting and the choice of how our characters are framed kept the film bobbing up and down in a swampy mire of depravity. A sense of bleakness soaks through the film, aided by a quasi-religious script that is really drilling down to the fundamental nature of human existence. The film particularly delights in presenting the old-fashioned concept of the Wheel of Fortune, that you will have an equally devastating failure for every success. The camerawork feels like something a couple decades ahead of its time, like a more contemporary film shot in the style of the late 1940s noir pictures. As soon as the film begins, it will be near impossible for the audience not to be swept up in the atmosphere.

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