At this point, I should start calling this a movie backlog. Seven months after the last one, I’m back with sixteen films — and have avoided a more embarrassing number only by omitting titles from the holiday movie roulette.1Every weekend last December, some friends and I would hop into Discord, spin a wheel, and watch a random holiday movie from the category we’d landed on. Good fun! Weird movies.
This is going to be long. Let’s get started 🙂
Happy Old Year (ฮาวทูทิ้ง..ทิ้งอย่างไรไม่ให้เหลือเธอ)
I watched this film last August, a few months before its themes would even start feeling particularly relevant to me. It hit hard anyway.
Happy Old Year is about moving on and how thorny a process that can be, no matter how determined or well-intentioned your efforts. We accrue a surprising number of possessions over time, and that may lead us to believe that growth (whatever that may mean) is a simple matter of clearing out what’s no longer useful. In that light, the protagonist Jean’s ruthless decluttering looks perfectly reasonable.
But the film (and the characters surrounding Jean) spends its time quietly reminding us that it’s not that easy. Whatever things we want to clear out are inevitably tied to people, and disentangling ourselves from those objects and memories can never be simple, because we aren’t lone owners. 2Jean tries, but as her ex-boyfriend points out, even the attempt to clear out bad memories with an apology can be more self-serving than considerate. What do you do, then, when letting go turns out to be less a process of disposal and erasure, and more of a protracted re-negotiation of these objects’ — these memories’, these people’s — place in your life?
I probably should have watched this film a little later. I’m glad I didn’t.
Us and Them (后来的我们)
Speaking of entanglement, this is another film that I watched some time before it ended up becoming personally relevant. Am I grateful for this pattern of missed opportunities to suffer? Maybe, haha.
The same question lingers for this film’s protagonists: what to make of the missed connections that have marked their relationship over the years. Cutting between the past and the present, the film gives the impression that they hadn’t really addressed that question until circumstances threw them together again. Like Happy Old Year points out, there are some resolutions that you cannot reach alone.
In the later half of the film, Xiao Xiao notes that maybe she and Jian Qing were destined to meet, and maybe they were also destined not to end up together. This point hews closest to the themes of Happy Old Year, I think: at some point, you have to learn how to accept and make peace with certain realities that you might have preferred not to think about at all.
It’s a well-acted, well-crafted film, though I wish the script had fleshed out the protagonists’ shifting perspectives more, or paced the evolution of their relationship better. That said, the real highlights of the film have little to do with the romance at all: Mark Lee Ping-bing’s cinematography is breathtaking, and the storylines and performances involving Jian Qing’s father arguably steal the show in terms of emotional heft.
Where is the Friend’s Home (خانه دوست کجاست)
It is extremely difficult to find a slow film that does not portrait a lonely character, removed from his or her environment.Nadin mai, from a talk on slow cinema
Mai’s assertion about the genre of slow cinema comes to mind here because this film, directed by one of the genre’s originators, seems to go so stoutly against it. The first in the director Abbas Kiarostami’s “Koker trilogy,” Where is the Friend’s Home follows a schoolboy, Ahmad, on a quest to return his classmate Mohammad’s notebook in time to save him from punishment at their strict teacher’s hands. Along the way, Ahmad weaves through the landscapes, alleys, contradictions, obligations, and hierarchies that make up the world of the adults he desperately seeks directions from.
In short, Ahmad is the farthest thing from removed: he is, instead, repeatedly caught up in the intricate and chaotic systems that can transform even the most well-meaning person into an unhelpful mess. From authority figures giving out misleading advice, to naive acquaintances burdened with responsibilities that keep them from knowing any better, Ahmad’s attempt to do good runs into obstacle after obstacle. What carries him through is a firm, uncomplicated morality: loyalty to his friend, and a resolve to do right by him.
Ahmad’s journey, then, plays out as a gentle but clear-eyed critique of his environment. Consider the Koker that Ahmad — and the rest of the trilogy that this film is part of — inhabits: a village in northern Iran, caught in the middle of the country’s lurch from authoritarian rule to revolution. In this web of contradictory rules, muddled duties, and unquestionable impositions, Ahmad’s insistence on returning Mohammad’s notebook offers a quiet suggestion: the way to make a difference is to do our best to care for one another.
Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop
Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop is mostly quiet. The protagonists themselves are various shades of muted, anxious to keep key parts of themselves away from the rest of the world; the conflict is mostly internal, revolving around the characters’ respective insecurities. But the film’s charm lies in how it uses fresh, vibrant animation that draws out the emotional intensity its characters struggle to express.
I’d like to think this film is less about teenage romance than about the possibility of building lasting connections with the people around you. The story plays out over a summer, with the season’s approaching end colouring every relationship — romantic or otherwise — with impermanence. Each character’s arc then proceeds to unfold through small but persistent efforts to push back against that impermanence, deliberately or otherwise. Whether through seeking out a long-lost vinyl record for one of their elders, or tagging the streets with haiku for a friend who’s moving away, they carve out space in their lives for the people they’ve come to care about. It’s not a new story by any means, but the film’s great accomplishment is in its vivid portrayals of the enduring warmth that runs through these characters’ efforts.
It’s impossible for me to watch this film from a safe emotional distance. I have no living grandparents left; I was able to help care for three of them as they faded away. The complicated question of how to accept and ease the impending passing of a loved one will always sting like a fresh bruise.
There are different ways to tackle that question, and one of the film’s strengths is how it considers opposing answers without judgment (for the most part). Small, telling moments colour in the dynamics between various members of the family, presenting a careful portrait of the motives and backgrounds informing each character’s stance on, well, the prospect of death. (There are some slips into that false, simplistic dichotomy of “West vs East,” but the film doesn’t linger there.)
Zhao Shuzhen is the standout here as the luminous matriarch at the heart of the story. Hers is the one character who doesn’t have to grapple with the question the film poses3 (Considering it’s her impending death that everyone’s struggling with), but there’s an ever-present glint in Zhao’s eye that suggests her bracing, heartfelt performance is also an attempt at an answer.
Holiday movies follow a pattern. So do romantic comedies. When these genres overlap4See also: Happiest Season, it’s a matter of fulfilling long-established expectations while finding ways to do something new.
It’s a tough job, and Love Hard doesn’t always succeed. The premise is a transparent attempt to be trendy, what with its take on dating apps, catfishing, and all the troubles of modern love. The problem is that, in attempting to be fresh, the film also unwittingly sets itself up for romances fuelled by attempted deceptions that are dealt with a bit too lightly. If someone catfished you, would you agree to stay and enlist their help to catfish (sort of) somebody else? Come on.
But there are charming moments (for example, a cute duet with a modified version of Baby It’s Cold Outside), and the cast do their best to salvage a subpar script. Dobrev and Yang, in particular, have great comedic timing, and they build up a convincing chemistry as the film goes on. A lot of threads remain unresolved or unaddressed (e.g., the awful sibling dynamic between Yang’s character and his older brother), but this does feel like the kind of film that doesn’t expect audiences to care by the time it ends.
Double Dad (Pai em Dobro)
This film operates in a world that’s kinder than the one we live in. Haha. It’s a bit of Mamma Mia for the Gen Z crowd, with a little less ABBA and a little more overt effort to subvert expectations. (A savvy financial advisor almost immediately accepting a long-lost child showing up out of the blue? Yeah, duh, it’s 2021, you can almost hear the film say.)
What I appreciate most about this film is how refreshingly un-cynical and wholesome it is, and how it manages to do that without being annoying. That’s largely thanks to Maisa Silva, who takes on the lead role with aplomb, playing a hopeful, yearning teenager with so much earnestness that you can’t help but root for her. Vicenza could easily have been insufferable, her optimism hewing close to naïveté often, but Silva sells the heck out of the role. The rest of the cast complements her performance well: Vicenza ends up surrounded by people who are similarly sweet, kind, and open without feeling like they’re trying too hard.
It’s all in the title: A crushing sense of anxiety pervades this film about Jonathan Larson, the talented and ill-fated creator of Rent who died shortly before that hit musical premiered Off Broadway. Based on Larson’s autobiographical work of the same name, Tick, Tick…Boom! talks about an artist’s urgent, often-frustrating drive to share meaningful stories with the world.
If that sounds a bit self-important (musical theatre doesn’t really save rainforests, as one of the characters points out), it is. Or, well, the particular artist here is. Andrew Garfield puts in a superb turn here, deftly capturing the burning desperation to create a worthy piece, but even then, his Larson doesn’t quite stay within the realm of “sympathetic.” There are too many consequences to his single-minded pursuit of his artistic dreams — too many relationships burned, too much asked that feels somewhat unearned — that it’s hard not to tip into cynicism. Can somebody earn success by throwing so much away?
But that might just be my bias against “great man” types of stories. I’ve always hated the trope of the tortured artist, as if the ambition to produce astonishing creative work somehow excuses arrogance and thoughtless behaviour. In the particular realm of musical theatre, where a successful production relies on so much more beyond a single creator, I would’ve thought the lure of such a storyline would’ve been easier to resist.
The Handmaiden (아가씨)
There’s an aspect of The Handmaiden that reminds me of Parasite. No, it’s not just because both happen to be some of the biggest Korean titles to blow up internationally in recent years. It’s the geography of these films: similar to the dizzying rooms and streets that set out the economic disparities that Parasite critiques, The Handmaiden‘s lush puzzle-box of an estate perfectly reflects the dense, intricate mechanisms of control and deceit that its characters try to manipulate in their respective bids for freedom.
What that freedom actually looks like varies, as the film delves into the codes and constraints of economic class, colonial occupation, and good ol’ sexism and misogyny. The film leans into that by letting different characters take on the role of (terribly unreliable) narrator, allowing audiences to peel apart not just layer after layer of ingenious scheming, but the circumstances that have made these shifting tactics and allegiances necessary for each character in such particular ways.
The film can be brutal, violent, perverse. It is — from its sly camerawork to its tight script — frankly untrustworthy. But there’s also an incredible precision at work here, dissecting so many variations of excess with impossible restraint. It’s what allows the film to maintain a steady emotional core, and to be genuine and tender. Amidst all the spectacle, the project remains the same: to unravel these characters enough to expose the fears and vulnerabilities they are trying desperately to shield, to peer at the hopes they would go to such lengths to make real.
Silver Skates (Сере́бряные коньки́)
This marks the start of a long (possibly ongoing) period when I didn’t have energy to watch anything but the most ridiculous, undemanding films. 😂 Sometimes you just don’t want to think, you know? Then you find a film with an absurd premise, and you just nod along as young people run around on magical skates, finding love and spouting revolution in 19th-century Saint Petersburg.
Silver Skates approaches turn-of-the-century Russia the way Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock films approached 19th-century London: history isn’t a guide so much as an aesthetic to borrow costumes and visual cues from. Characterisation is thin, plot is largely predictable, and both serve as excuses to stuff romance and coming-of-age tropes into a superficially “new” skin. That’s fine, because the film invites no expectations about historical accuracy or depth in the first place. Not noteworthy by any means, but a fun enough way to burn through a couple of hours.
Tall Girl and Tall Girl 2
Is there a concept too dull, too insubstantial to turn into a film? Apparently not, if the existence of these titles is any indication. I have no idea why Netflix turned “I’m taller than most of my peers” into a 102-minute-long story, let alone two movies, but it did. It shouldn’t have, but it did.
There’s no point debating whether these movies deserved to be made — they’re already here anyway. Let’s just say I went into these wondering how Netflix tried to pull things off. Spoiler alert: it didn’t. The paper-thin premise allows little room for meaningful character growth, so the film has to fill out its runtime by whipping up contrived problems to keep its characters occupied. This gets even worse in the sequel, when any halfway-interesting situations have already been used up in the first film and the scriptwriters have to try even harder to find anything new to do with the story.
(The only way I’ve found to redeem any viewing experience involving these films is to make sure you watch with friends. Then, at least, you can poke fun at the gigantic mess unfolding onscreen.)
Out of My League (Sul più bello)
Italy tries to do Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain and stumbles. This film’s whimsical protagonist and her quirky haircut invite comparisons to the French classic, but the films are in different leagues. (Sorry, I couldn’t help it.)
That much whimsy needs something to ground it — some kind of grip for audiences to latch onto. In this case, the film tries to use another trope: debilitating illness, and a protagonist whose quirkiness stems from feeling like she has nothing to lose. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t quite sell it, and its paper-thin development of the central romance, as well as the ridiculous subplot it gives its supporting characters, further strains disbelief. Ludovica Francesconi salvages the film with an endearing turn in the lead role, but her efforts can only do so much.
By all accounts, this film should have been a clunky mess. Cobbling together bits and pieces from well-trodden teen movie and dance movie plots, Work It could’ve just settled for throwing a fresh coat of paint on its patchwork premise and called it a day.
Instead, it speeds along with genuine energy. The cast throw themselves into their assigned stereotypes and ridiculous dialogue, and their earnestness is endearing. The stakes are low5The protagonist wants to stand out among the cookie-cutter high achievers applying to her dream university; the outcomes are predictable. The film’s biggest surprise is that it still manages to be a heck of a lot of fun.
Fun fact: this film drove Andrew Lloyd Webber to get a therapy dog. After watching this disaster, I wanted one too. Anybody curious about the limits of human rationality should watch this film and ponder how — despite all the decision-makers involved, and the layers of approval a project like this needs to pass through — it still got made.
There are no answers to be found, but the film does raise endless questions such as:
- Who thought grafting people’s faces onto grotesque CGI cat bodies was a good idea? How did enough people ever agree with them?
- Who managed to convince luminaries like Dame Judi Dench and Sir Ian McKellen to still be part of this?
- Why did Tom Hooper get the green light to direct another musical when he had already demonstrated a staggering misunderstanding of genre, theme, and even the basics of camerawork and music direction in Les Miserables? 6That film was, on the whole, a mess, saved only by specific performances.
- How long will it take somebody to recover from watching this cinematic trainwreck?
I don’t have answers to any of these either, especially that last question. (I don’t think I’ll ever recover.) What I can offer is this video essay that a friend shared, which talks about the many things Cats does wrong:
The Summit of the Gods (Le Sommet des Dieux)
The Summit of the Gods is a gorgeous meditation on ambition and obsession. The film swoops around snow-capped mountain ranges and zooms in on rugged cliff faces, capturing both the wonder and gristle of mountain climbing. It carries that keen eye to its characters as well, delving into the particulars of their respective fixations: the protagonist Makoto Fukamachi, whose quest to recover the ill-fated explorer George Mallory’s camera leads him to track down a mysterious climber named Habu Joji; and Habu himself, who’s driven by an almost inexplicable need to scale Mount Everest.
But that’s where the film’s cinematography and its writing diverge. The latter sketches out character detail, but it never quite elaborates on the why that all these present-day details stem from. The psychological underpinnings of both Fukamachi’s and Joji’s obsessions are left vague and unexplored, to the point that the pursuits we see them undertake garner little sympathy. Here are the lonely characters of Mai’s slow cinema, ironically cut off from their environments even with — in fact, because of — their resolute attempts to understand and master these.