Imitation of Life (1959) Written by Eleanore Griffin & Allan Scott Directed by Douglas Sirk
This was the final film from Douglas Sirk. He didn’t die following its release. He just left the United States and lived in Switzerland for the next twenty-eight years when he passed. He taught briefly in the 1970s at Munich’s University of Film and Television. But this was it. When asked about this stint in America making movies, Sirk said in a 1975 interview: “When I went to the United States, I was making films about American society, and it is true that I never felt at home there, except perhaps when my wife and I lived on a farm in the San Fernando Valley. But I always wanted my characters to be more than ciphers for the failings of their world. And I never had to look too hard to find a part of myself in them.” Sirk and his wife, Hilde, would quickly become tired of the Hollywood scene and return to Europe, but never Germany for too long. The memories were too harsh.
Written on the Wind (1956) Written by George Zuckerman Directed by Douglas Sirk
Is melodrama something that naturally occurs in real life? Our inclination is to say, “No, people behave melodramatically. Life isn’t that way on its own.” But sensationally strange things happen in the real world all the time. What we often attach to melodrama are the characters’ reactions to the dazzling explosions of emotion. People, especially Americans, flock to melodrama. Look at the popularity of sensationalist politics and reality television that has only built over the last two decades. It could be argued that America is the most melodramatic country on the planet. Check out the frequency of road rage, mass shootings, political violence, racism, and the list goes on & on. My personal view is that Americans are drawn to this exaggeration of life because it makes the mundane misery of their actual existence feel somewhat more important. Rather than engage in the collective struggle to improve life for themselves and their fellow human beings, Americans fall listlessly into an opium-like fantasia where they are central characters in a big story.
All That Heaven Allows (1955) Written by Peg Fenwick Directed by Douglas Sirk
There is a way to use the tools laid out for you by fascism to strangle it. As mentioned in my Magnificent Obsession review, Douglas Sirk left Nazi Germany when it became intolerable. It was harder to protect his Jewish wife, and his ex had used the law to make it illegal for Sirk to see his son. Eventually, Sirk would find his way to “women’s pictures.” While not as strong a genre as it once was, these types of domestic slice-of-life stories still exist, mostly on television more than in movie theaters. There’s a wide variance in quality these days, with some being prestige cable dramas while others being formulaic churned-out Hallmark Movie trash. Sirk himself commented on this perceived schism in art: “This is the dialectic—there is a very short distance between high art and trash, and trash that contains an element of craziness is by this very quality nearer to art.”
Magnificent Obsession (1954) Written by Robert Blees, Wells Root, Sarah Y. Mason, Victor Heerman, and Finley Peter Dunne Directed by Douglas Sirk
Douglas Sirk discovered a love for the performing arts at a young age. While being born to Danish parents, the future director’s homeland would be Germany. In his teenage years, Sirk discovered Shakespeare and went to the cinema more often. He would speak about this period as introducing him to the intensity of emotion and the drama that comes with that. After that, Sirk studied the law and wrote for his father’s newspaper but kept wandering back to the arts. By the early 1920s, he would be directing stageplays, set on the path the rest of his professional life would follow. But, if you know anything of history, then you know Germany in the 1920s was a prelude to something terrible, and Sirk experienced it in a cruel & painful way.
This special reward is available to Patreon patrons who pledge at the $10 or $20 monthly levels. Each month those patrons will pick a film for me to review. If they choose, they also get to include some of their thoughts about the movie. This Pick comes from Bekah Lindstrom.
Eternal Summer (2006) Written by Leste Chen Directed by Hsu Cheng-ping
I know this is likely several people’s favorite movie, if not that, at least something they watched as a teenager in the mid/late-2000s, and it shaped them in some way. However, this soap operatic melodrama is so corny. It’s harmless but not close to how real life and relationships play out. Oozing with broody teen angst and wallowing in the drama, Eternal Summer was certainly not a movie made for someone like me. That’s fine, but if this is a picture you enjoy, you probably won’t enjoy my review because I did not like this movie.
Three Colors: Blue (1993) Written by Krzysztof Kieślowski & Krzysztof Piesiewicz Directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski
My first thought when I decided to watch Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors trilogy was why this Polish filmmaker chose to make a series centered around the three political ideals of France: liberty, equality, fraternity. His explanation reveals a lot about how the director approaches his work. Kieślowski said he chose these themes because the funding he received to make the pictures were in francs which bear these three ideals as France’s motto. Kieślowski had no interest in making nationalistic propaganda for France, and instead, these ideas are often presented with a sense of irony in the trilogy, exploring them in ways that feel antithetical but ultimately uphold their meaning. Even stranger is that only one of these movies takes place in France; White is set mainly in Poland, while Red is about people living in Switzerland. While The Three Colors trilogy isn’t attempting to be overtly political, it is set against the backdrop of the most significant change to Europe since World War II, the formal treaties signed to create the European Union, a political body that has reshaped life in the continent.
Babylon (2022) Written & Directed by Damien Chazelle
Never before in the history of cinema have movies been so technically proficient. Cinematography is always reasonably strong when you come across a studio-produced film. The lighting is pitch-perfect. You cannot beat today’s sound design. All production design elements are spot on, from set dressing to costuming to make-up. The behind-the-scenes people deserve far more credit than they get. They are the laborers who make it feel effortless while putting their total energy into the job. I wish I could say the same about the directors & screenwriters of these big Hollywood pictures, though, but that would be a lie. From Black Adam to Don’t Worry Darling to the seemingly endless Marvel movies to the litany of reboots/sequels/reimaginings, there is a dearth of actual talent steering these movies. I have never been the biggest Damien Chazelle fan, but I enjoyed Whiplash, La La Land, and First Man. They were well-made movies with some strong performances. And then we have Babylon. This is where I get off the Chazelle train.
My Brother’s Wedding (1983) Written & Directed by Charles Burnett
The career of Charles Burnett has always been one plagued with obstacles. When he was coming up, you couldn’t be a Black filmmaker with deeply artistic inclinations and not have a ton of shit thrown in your path. Today, Black filmmakers benefit from how he carved out a way, and they routinely express their admiration & gratitude for what Burnett did. Killer of Sheep did incredible in the foreign film festival circuit, but when Burnett returned to the States, there wasn’t even a whisper about the movie. In his homeland, he would work in obscurity, a seeming refusal among the white film critic establishment to even acknowledge his work existed. In the 1980s, Burnett was still working, making movies that spoke to him with little focus on their bankability. He definitely would like to have been given the acclaim his white peers received, but that would never happen.
The Wonder (2022) Written by Emma Donoghue, Sebastián Lelio, and Alice Birch Directed by Sebastián Lelio
You will not be able to predict the opening shot of this movie if you haven’t heard about it already. But that first image immediately puts the viewer in a place where their expectations are gone. What you think this movie is and what it will be about are all flushed, creating an open canvas for your mind. Now you are just going with the picture, discovering it simultaneously as it happens before your eyes. We rarely get this sort of film anymore, especially from Netflix. By the end, you may not fully grasp what has happened, and that’s okay. The ideas in The Wonder are big & essential, but you need to sit with them for a while. That’s also not an experience many popular films are providing for their audiences, and we need it.
While we are in the midst of watching Better Call Saul, I decided to hold out on including it on a list until we finish in 2023. It would be on here if I didn’t. That said, there are some incredible shows I got to see in 2022. In a media landscape that is exploding like the universe after the Big Bang so many things get lost in the shuffle. Have you ever just browsed Netflix and found dozens of shows multiple seasons in that you have never heard of before. Warner Discovery started what could be a horrific trend this year, by shelving completed and close to finished projects for the sake of tax write-offs. I am guessing it is scary time to want to develop your own series, afraid to pursue you passion project as it might become someone’s tax loophole and your potential audience never sees it. In these instances, piracy is an ethical act, a form of curation & preservation that the major media conglomerates are blind to. There were animated series made by queer & BIPOC creators that got trash canned by Warner this year, even physical DVDs pulled off the shelves. Fuck that corporation and fuck the new owners. My hope is we can see creative people using the self-distribution models and smaller streaming platforms to get their passion projects out there. Let the big boys starve to death. They deserve it. On to my favorites.