One for the Books

Published on July 19th, 2018

Alex writes about all the movies he has seen since 2009.

So here we are.

I am sitting down to write during the NBA Finals, having just returned from seeing a new Diablo Cody movie, as one does. On my television, LeBron James is playing basketball better than anybody has this millennium, as he does. Since I cannot stand the sound of Mark Jackson, I am obsessively listening to Pusha T over the sound of the game, as I do. I am publishing this long after this actual occurrence, because it occasionally takes me a lot of time to write these and I become attached to references chosen for the first draft.

The only thing that has changed is nothing at all.

There is no grand point to this essay, no particular subject in question, merely a series of observations from somebody who has lived a life of inaction, a life full of such observations. The observations, unsurprisingly, are repetitive, and invariably I ask myself the same few questions each time I watch a new film.

  • Is this film unique when compared with the thousands of others I have watched over my life? (The best-case scenario here is that the answer is ‘yes,’ but the answer to this question is almost never an unqualified yes. On to the next one.)
  • Does this film repurpose ideas I have ingrained in my brain in a fascinating, new way? (More occasionally, but still not very frequently, this answer is ‘yes.’ Alas, with most films, I move on to the following, unanswerable questions.)
  • Why am I watching this?
  • Why do I sit down to watch something that has a high chance of being exactly like something I have already seen before and mostly forgotten?
  • Why do I go to the movies?

The past couple months have been rough for somebody like myself who likes to hit the multiplex but is no longer particularly interested in the few movies studios produce for said multiplexes. I had no interest in seeing Solo, and snuck into Infinity War only because I hate myself. Ant-Man & The Wasp has been roundly ignored. I saw First Reformed, I saw Tully, I saw You Were Never Really Here. I saw Tully again and I saw You Were Never Really Here again. I saw Hereditary, and I saw Hotel Artemis for no real reason other than it was there. And that’s about it.

In fairness, there have been films released in the past couple months that I loved. You Were Never Really Here is a deeply impressive cinematic experience. I truly loved Tully and desperately want to interrogate Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman about a couple of key decisions they made. These highs can still be found at the cinema, but even then something feels amiss during screenings of films I love, let alone all the films I see because I have a free Wednesday afternoon, films that have only begun to feel more and more obligatory.

In the eyes of the reader, some secondary questions have surely arisen:

Why don’t you go see smaller films? Why don’t you see foreign films? Perhaps watch whatever documentaries come your way? (I do, I do, and I do. Those simply do not tend to be the films I get the most excited about, and this is explicitly a piece about me seeking cinematic excitement. The discussion has to come from a Hollywood-leaning, or at least Hollywood-adjacent position. I want unique movies, but unique movies starring and made by faces that I recognize. If this is an insufficient answer, so be it.)

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So there is a core question at the heart of this roundabout personal discussion: have movies actually changed? Have movies gotten worse for somebody who has particularly Hollywood-ish leanings? My gut tells me unequivocally yes, but my brain is also smart enough to know this could all simply be contained in my cranium. Almost a full decade ago I would rebuff such proclamations by saying things along the lines of, “Well, the 1970s had plenty of terrible American movies too, you just remembered The Godfather and forgot Any Which Way But Loose.” Time has a way of wiping away the chaff, I said then, I believed then, even wrote about then using that specific cinematic contrast. This was in 2009.

The period of 2009 to 2018 will certainly go down in history as the prime of my moviegoing existence. I had just enough money and more than enough time to see everything, so that’s what I did. In order to properly answer my question about my degrading view of cinema, though, I have to get analytical with it. I can no longer approach these queries like I approach most of my wannabe criticism, with ethereal ruminations on the lack of control one has over their own existence, because this is something where I can actually find hard (but admittedly still kind of subjective) facts. I must be Billy Beane talking about walk rates, not the aging scouts talking about how a player has good face. I can still distinctly remember the person I was in 2009 and the person I am today, and I can still comfortably compare the way each of those people watched movies. I have to do this now, before I end up too firmly in one category instead of the other.

This is the only way. This is the only way.

Despite my preferred method of avoiding numbers in any way when judging a movie, in this case there was no work around to be had. That said, instead of ranking every movie I saw in a given year and then averaging out those numbers to give the year an average ranking, I preferred a broader approach. In casual conversations about movies, I tend to talk about them in four different ways, so I built the following system of classification.

  • Movies I liked but will probably never watch again: This includes any movie I didn’t love but didn’t hate. There is a lot of range in this category: I liked Away We Go a lot more than I liked Jennifer’s Body, say, but I didn’t love Away We Go and I didn’t hate Jennifer’s Body. They were simply movies that both came out in 2009 and that I generally enjoyed watching.
  • Movies I loved and would conceivably watch again: These are movies that will pop into my head for no reason, movies that I could see myself watching a handful of additional times over the rest of my life. If it’s a Sunday afternoon and I have nothing to do but eat a pizza and watch a movie, more often than not said movie is one of these.
  • Movies I hated: These are movies I can specifically recall feeling physically enraged by. Merely annoying films still end up in the “liked” category.
  • Personal classics: These are movies that I think about at least semi-constantly, movies I like to a point that it might be debilitating to the way I am viewed by others. If somebody were to voice a contrary opinion about one of these movies at a luncheon, I would argue my position to the point of being removed from said luncheon. No egg salad is worth dealing with a person who refuses to accept Ruby Sparks as a great film.

The full list of films is broken down separately here, but for now here is the summary for each year.

2009
Movies I liked but will probably never watch again: 28
Movies I loved and would conceivably watch again: 7
Movies I hated: 12
Personal classics: 4

2010
Movies I liked but will probably never watch again: 33
Movies I loved and would conceivably watch again: 4
Movies I hated: 5
Personal classics: 7

2011
Movies I liked but will probably never watch again: 36
Movies I loved and would conceivably watch again: 4
Movies I hated: 13
Personal classics: 7

2012
Movies I liked but will probably never watch again: 46
Movies I loved and would conceivably watch again: 9
Movies I hated: 11
Personal classics: 4

2013
Movies I liked but will probably never watch again: 46
Movies I loved and would conceivably watch again: 2
Movies I hated: 12
Personal classics: 6

2014
Movies I liked but will probably never watch again: 39
Movies I loved and would conceivably watch again: 5
Movies I hated: 8
Personal classics: 4

2015
Movies I liked but will probably never watch again: 33
Movies I loved and would conceivably watch again: 8
Movies I hated: 13
Personal classics: 6

2016
Movies I liked but will probably never watch again: 42
Movies I loved and would conceivably watch again: 12
Movies I hated: 11
Personal classics: 4

2017
Movies I liked but will probably never watch again: 46
Movies I loved and would conceivably watch again: 9
Movies I hated: 7
Personal classics: 1

2018 (so far)
Movies I liked but will probably never watch again: 17
Movies I loved and would conceivably watch again: 4
Movies I hated: 2
Personal classics: 0

(A note on research: this research was primarily done by scanning the lists of “[year in question] in film” Wikipedia page. Often, I found a film forgotten by this list – it notably tends to exclude most foreign films and documentaries – so I would add it in to mine. That said, I cannot say this research is 100% accurate. Even I’m amazed I remember that the Kristen Wiig-starring pile of nothingness known as Welcome to Me exists, so I can only imagine there are a few films I missed entirely. That said yet again, I tend to be approaching this from a Hollywood-centric position, so the movies that are forgotten are not the ones where my concerns lie anyway. The research is technically lacking, but not in any way I would consider important.)

Nothing all that shocking to be learned here, I suppose. It turns out that each year, I see approximately 60 new films, and I tend to like/love approximately the same number of films each year. The most notable variance – and presumably the one subconsciously dictating this entire exercise – is the high number of personal classics released in 2010 and 2011, contrasted with 2017 lacking them almost entirely. The majority of years have four movies that I consider near and dear to the chest cavity where my heart is alleged to reside, and 2017 had but one (coming early in the year – Terrence Malick’s Song to Song, released in March 2017). 2010 and 2011, on the other hand, have seven classics each. Conveniently, those two years come early in the sample while the year with the lone classic comes late, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that films are getting worse with time – 2009, the beginning of this experiment, comes in at the perfectly average number of four classics.

What I’m saying is that we are pretty much exactly where we used to be, albeit minus half a pot of coffee.

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One could argue that these movies are able to become personal classics simply by seeing them more times than I would today, so naturally having more distance from 2011 allows these films to ferment into classics. That person would definitely be making an argument that I would deem wise. But looking at the lists of films that fall into my personal classic category, I knew pretty much immediately that I loved these films. Rarely do I discover with time that I love a movie; usually it becomes apparent during the initial screening or as I walk home. In some cases – The Social Network being the most notable example, which I foolishly did not love at first sight – it takes a little time, but that is exceedingly rare. When a movie does come out that I adore, I see it as many times as possible before it vanishes from the multiplex.

Rarely do I rewatch movies outside of the theatre today, regardless of how much I love them – typically, once a film ceases its theatrical run, my total viewing count stays the same for the rest of my existence. I do not often feel the time spent rewatching a movie from four years ago is more valuable than watching a movie I have not yet seen. There are fifteen Kurosawa movies out there I’ve never seen, so it feels a little shitty to watch Somewhere again over Rashomon. This seems pretty obviously to be an indicator of aging: when you are younger time is immaterial, and watching Collateral for the 4148th time means nothing. It’s just something to do while you eat a whole bag of delicious garlic infused pita bread, because you are young and eating whole bags of bread is something you can do. But by the time you’re in your thirties, you’re saying that watching Collateral for the 4149th time is more important than watching something new because, in short, now you have less time left before you die. As you get older, time gets more valuable, and this is something pretty much everybody can agree with.

Occasionally though, I will watch a non-classic from a few years past, be it because my brain is too tired to ingest entirely new thoughts or (in most cases) because I want to watch a reliable comedy. Recently I rewatched 2015’s Judd Apatow/Amy Schumer joint Trainwreck, because I wanted to chuckle while I ate a post-basketball shawarma. I always enjoyed Trainwreck, and saw it multiple times in the cinema in 2015, appreciating (in reverse order) the care taken in the 35mm cinematography and the jokes LeBron told and the very good performances of Bill Hader and Amy Schumer. I knew the movie was funny and I knew watching it again would be a success, so it was a low-risk, high-reward sort of Tuesday evening.

Only three years have passed since I last saw this film, but it felt suddenly as though the film was in my head. It was too close to my cerebral cortex, and at times it felt as though things I used to think were simple one-liners were now perfect representations of ongoing internal conversations. The more things stay the same, the more things change, it seems.

tully4

A day or two later, I was running an errand when I ran into somebody I hadn’t seen in years. This person – Ari, let’s say – and I were never friends, but we worked very closely together for the duration of a particularly intensive, tiring project in 2011, and as such we remember each other in a way it is unlikely you would remember somebody in a normal job lasting the same duration. We caught up on the sidewalk under mid-afternoon sun, sent an apparently obligatory selfie to another mutual friend, and went on our separate ways. It was a simple, pleasant run-in.

Two years previous to this more recent run-in, a good friend of mine and I had been confused by a reaction Ari gave after bumping into us. Ari had just reacted to seeing us for the first time in a while with a level of excitement that could only be described as ‘shocking.’ (In fairness, Ari is a high energy human.) My friend and I were surprised, and we thought the reaction was odd. I think at the time I probably said something along the lines of, “That seemed unnecessary,” because it did. We chuckled, we moved on.

But back to last week. Immediately after running into Ari for the first time since that meeting two years ago, I ran into Rian, another person from the same 2011 job who I also hadn’t seen in years but who I also remembered very well. She was locking her bicycle to a stop sign next to my office, moments after I separated from talking to Ari. I was flummoxed. Flashing back to this job in 2011, Rian and I were as young as we were inexperienced, and we were excited about the job we got to do, and we both enjoyed talking to one another for the extended periods of time that particular job made us talk to the person next to us out of sheer boredom. It ended, so we drank approximately fourteen cases of Stella Artois in the span of three hours and went our separate ways, presumably confident we would never see each other again. This did not turn out to be the case.

As she locked her bike to a stop sign, right in my path, I looked closer to try to ensure I was right, and I know that I was. Rian and I made eye contact, and I was going to say hi, but she looked up and walked away.

It is entirely possible Rian didn’t recognize me, or that she had totally forgotten I existed, but the look in her eye made that unlikely. The fact that I look almost the same today and still wear the same gigantic signifying headphones I did seven years ago makes that more unlikely. I recognize it is also possible this wasn’t the person I thought it was, but that is also unlikely because there are simply not a lot of people who look like Rian.

When I ran into Ari a couple of years ago, this is what I thought I wanted. Today, I realize this is no longer what I want. I thought I wanted to be ignored, for fear of any excitement seeming feigned. Today I will talk about something with somebody because it is sometimes better than talking about nothing.

filmreel

The question up top is a bit of a misnomer. I lied to you, fair reader, but I did so accidentally and, alas, there is no fair reader, no reader to be found of any sort. The question of why do I go to the movies, why I watch movies, is hardly worth asking because the answer is obvious: movies are the only thing I really love. This seems to make me a louse when I put it into writing, but I’d rather be a louse than a liar.

The answer of why I continue to go to the movies is tied into the same thread, of course, as going to the movies is the most ideal way to watch a movie. You pay your money, you enter into a collective social contract to all care about a single movie for two hours (even if that movie is something terrible like Uncle Drew), and you quietly observe. Not everybody follows the unwritten rules of that social contract, but that’s also what makes the experience different from watching Netflix on your couch.

The feeling of boredom I have had in movies for the past little bit will hopefully wane, as I will continue to go to them. The exercise made me realize that I was right in 2009 – this is simply how it goes. As time continues to march on, the movies I care about will be harder and harder to find in a cinema, but I will simply have to adapt to how I watch them. The movies themselves will still be there.

The real question, I have found, is this: why do I write about movies? I have spent weeks working on what you are currently reading with various levels of dedication, and when an ending wasn’t right I took a whole week away to try again. Why? I am doing this for literally nobody, and I write in a common, self-obsessive, the regular-person-is-the-real-expert sort of style that has now taken over internet writing, something that has become a type of voice I now believe is actively making the world worse.

Then last night I saw a particularly good new film in a packed 300 seat theatre. Watching the film was a tremendous experience, as people laughed at the jokes they got, were stymied by some of the weirder elements of a movie that is roundly pretty fucking weird, and at the end I walked out immediately to see all the faces of people behind me trying to piece everything together. The whole thing made me smile for an hour.

I write about movies because I want to extend that excitement. Feeling like I’m seeing something new for the first time is wonderful, as is stewing in a room of people recalibrating their expectations in real time. Writing about movies is the way to make that smile last for more than an hour, but the movie still needs to be there in the first place. When a dearth of movies exists, the piece you are currently finishing is what comes out of my brain until the next movie comes into my world.

Movies I care about will eventually be released into a void even more so than some are now. If a tree falls in the forest in an unseen Josh Brolin Netflix movie, does it make a sound? Do I need the sound to exist around me, or will the internal screaming into a void suffice? I don’t know. The only thing that changes is nothing at all.

So here we are.

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