The Films of 2015: Mistress America

Somehow, seemingly overnight, Noah Baumbach has become one of the cinema’s finest observers of young people.  At a time when theaters are flooded with adaptations of YA novels about teenagers suffering from terminal illnesses or trapped within hellish dystopias (all of which seem to star Shailene Woodley), Baumbach’s films quietly and efficiently nail the experience of young adulthood—the frustration of not yet knowing what your place in the world will be, and the exuberance of discovering the people, things, and ideas that turn you on.  His new film Mistress America is an unofficial companion piece to 2013’s beguiling Frances Ha, both of which form a loose trilogy with 2005’s The Squid and the Whale as films about brainy kids lost in a New York City ripped from the pages of E. L. Konigsberg and Louise Fitzhugh.    


The Films of 2015: Queen of Earth

Queen of Earth, a thoroughly nerve-wracking new film by Alex Ross Perry, takes place at a secluded lake house where Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) has come to stay with her best friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston).  In flashbacks set during the previous summer, Catherine appears happily coupled and Virginia is anxious and testy.  But now their roles seem to have reversed: Virginia has become quieter, more distant, and Catherine, who has since lost her boyfriend to a former lover and her artist father to suicide, teeters on the brink of sanity.  The presence of Virginia’s new boyfriend Rich drives a wedge between the two women, whose relationship has already begun to fray.  The film might otherwise have been a prickly comedy about a passive-aggressive friendship; instead, Perry makes Catherine so paranoid and resentful, and Virginia so enigmatic, that it comes to feel like a psychological thriller.  


The Films of 2015: The Diary of a Teenage Girl

The Diary of a Teenage Girl is a film full of first times.  Set in San Francisco in 1976, it begins with fifteen-year-old narrator Minnie Goetz announcing with pride and wonderment that she has just had lost her virginity…to her mother’s boyfriend Monroe.  Their affair, which goes on for what seems to be the next several months, begins innocently enough: sitting on the couch in front of the TV, Monroe puts his arm around Minnie and his hand lands on her breast.  It’s not made clear whether this is an accident or a calculated move on Monroe’s part.  Either way, it serves to kickstart Minnie’s raging hormones.  She finds herself obsessed with thoughts of Monroe, onto whom she impulsively projects her desires for sexual pleasure, love, and attention.  When she finally propositions Monroe and he complies, she explains in voice-over that she wanted to seize the opportunity to lose her virginity because she wasn’t sure she would ever get another one.  


The Films of 2015: Phoenix

Christian Petzold’s Phoenix falls short of being a truly great film, but it has some wonderful things to recommend it—chief among them being a final scene that is as cleverly deployed as it is poignant.  It also sports a quietly intense performance by Nina Hoss as Nelly, a German Jew who, when the film opens, is being brought back to Berlin from Auschwitz after the war by her friend Lene.  Nelly’s face has been so badly damaged that her doctor tells her she will never look exactly the same as she once did.  While Lene responds to the trauma of the Holocaust methodically and logically—she researches the whereabouts of other prisoners, offers to help Nelly settle her finances, and looks forward to resettling in Palestine—Nelly is haunted by the wish to re-inhabit her former life.  She longs to track down her husband Johnny, a pianist, even after learning that he was responsible for her arrest by the Nazis.  And when, after she finds Johnny working as a janitor at a cabaret, he fails to recognize her, Nelly agrees to pose as herself in order to help him collect her restitution money. 


Historicizing "Point Blank"

I watched John Boorman’s 1967 classic Point Blank for the first time this week, primarily because it was one of the two hundred or so films on this list that I’ve never seen.  Working my way through the list I’ve made some happy discoveries and met with some disappointments.  Point Blank was more of a disappointment than a happy discovery.  I don’t know much about the foundation on which this film’s reputation as a classic rests.  (Had I more time, I might have listened to the audio commentary by Boorman in conversation with Steven Soderbergh, who I assume is a fan of the film.)


My summer with Paul: Reassessing "The Master" (2012)

Thursday night I had the privilege of attending a 70mm screening of The Master at the Somerville Theatre.  It’s actually the third time I’ve seen the film in 70; I was lucky enough to see it projected in that format twice during its original theatrical run at Brookline’s Coolidge Corner Theater.  Those screenings ended up being the high points of the 2012 film season for me.  Until last night, I hadn’t seen The Master again, in spite of the fact that I own a copy of the Blu-ray.  


"Accatone," Bach, "Casino": or, a short history of the St. Matthew Passion in cinema

Because I live with a professional musician I get to listen to a lot of music (as well as a lot of conversations about music).  A couple of weeks ago my boyfriend was talking to me about Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and playing a bit of it on our piano.  Somehow we go to talking about Bach’s music being used in films.  Joe didn’t seem to be aware of many films that had made use of this particular piece.  The only one I could think of was the opening sequence of Martin Scorsese’s Casino.  So I was particularly surprised when I began watching Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Accattone (1961) for the first time this week and heard, over the opening credits, the strains of (what else?) the final movement of the St. Matthew Passion.  (From the other room Joe’s antennae went up, as they do whenever Bach is played within a radius of a mile.)


Rossellini and melodrama

In addition to attending the Somerville Theatre’s Paul Thomas Anderson retrospective, I’ve been spending this summer catching up with various other films I’ve never seen before—everything from the four-hour political documentary The Hour of the Furnaces and Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic 1900 to Le Cercle Rouge and The Hustler.  I just finished Roberto Rossellini’s Stromboli (1949), which, in addition to being a great film, is noteworthy for having occasioned Rossellini’s scandalous affair with Ingrid Bergman.  


My summer with Paul: On "There Will Be Blood" (2007) and prestige pictures

I remember when the trailer for Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood dropped in the fall of 2007.  It had been approximately five years since Anderson’s last movie, but it felt like an eternity ago, long enough that I wondered if something had happened to him, and whether he would still know what he was doing.  I watched the trailer and my heart sank further.  What was this Oscar-bait prestige-picture costume drama supposed to be?  Frankly, it looked boring—the last word that I thought would ever have to use to describe a PTA movie.