For me, thinking about films that affect me requires connecting them to the culture, the times they take place in, and my part in those times. I suspect that affects lots of reviewers but that they rarely reference those concerns. So I’m going to review the year that was as well as the films I saw and how they affected me.
Here we go:
Last January, after the winter rains stopped dead here in Northern California-Zero Dark Thirty, actually showed up in many theaters where us regular folk could see it. The Promised Land also made its wider if much briefer debut. I missed them both, Zero Dark Thirty, because I felt I already knew more than I wanted to about our torturing tendencies here in the land of the free and home of the rugged, mean-spirited individualist; and the Promised Land because it vanished so quickly. While I know that ZDT is still an important film, I probably won’t see it.
I did finally get to catch the Promised Land with Matt Damon and John Krassinski and was disappointed, it’s true. However, really, compared to most of the schlock like the Batman movies, anything with Melissa McCarthy (ok, yeah, she can make you laugh just before you throw up) or Carey Mulligan, it wasn’t terrible; but for a Damon message movie, it was a bit lame.
In February I saw No about the Chilean referendum in 1988 that ended Pinochet’s reign of terror with Gael Garcia Bernal. What I learned again is that a good soundbite is poetry in politics, pop culture is important, and sometimes the good guys win. Plus, you know, Bernal is always watchable.
Side Effects by Steven Soderbergh, still a cinematic darling to those of us who remember his old indie films, seems to have lost his knack. I just went back and reread the plot, sounds great-corporate malfeasance, betraying lovers, massive plot twists and turns-but lots went wrong or just got annoying. The Tomatometer on Rotten Tomatoes gave it an 84% rating, calling it a smart, clever thriller, but it was just too clever by half for my ticket. Don’t even bother to catch it on HBO.
Also that month we got a new pope. I say we, but I don’t know why. I’m barely a Christian and never more wedded to church than a Philadelphia Quaker can be. I tried not to follow the whole media blitz, but couldn’t help noticing that he was being called a Latino even though he is on the decidedly White side of that equation, as the son of Italian immigrants. Since then, despite the fact that Catholic orthodoxy has changed little under his rule, I have come to appreciate his candor on issues that real people must face in a world of heightening inequality.
But, by the end of February I found myself focused on the horror of an innocent teen who had been murdered in Florida. Things went from bad to worse over the next few months as we all witnessed the murderer go free, but I was heartened by the nationwide reaction against this injustice. I am sure we will see some of the news clips from that outrage and our response to it in future films depicting our times.
In March I saw the Sapphires, which is a movie I could see over and over, if only American cable channels would play it. It was based on the true story of young Australian Aboriginal girls who broke into showbiz while playing for the troops in Vietnam. Well, they only made it on the stage of the theater of war, but it was realistic about that war and the racism they experienced-while being joyously in love with its talented cast.
I waited impatiently for On the Road and then waited just as impatiently for it to be over. Thinking of all the friends I’ve been on road trips with, I exited relieved that it wasn’t with any of these guys. Some of the driving scenes even left me a bit nauseous, and the way women were treated despite, all the talk about freedom and experimentation, was downright depressing. How different are the Tea party misogynists from these guys?
Then came Patriot’s Day in Boston. I had just returned from a walk when my son who was living along the marathon runners’ route inexplicably called me in the middle of the day (if you have a grown son, you know what I mean) and told me he was okay. “What do you mean?” I responded. Then I turned on the TV and found out that the Boston Marathon had been bombed while he was attempting to walk home amid the terror and confusion.
He had been staying at a friends and had just left when he heard the explosions or what he thought might have been crashes. Confused about what he was doing when the bombs blew up, I asked if he had gone out to see what had happened-to which my biracial son replied, “Mom I’m only half White.” I laughed in relief but we both worried about him being on the street with a suitcase, suspicious looking as a man his color is assumed to be, of course.
The next day I flew to LA to join my daughter at a music biz function as we closely monitored the dragnet, manhunt and all out militarization of an American city on cable TV. I’ll admit I don’t remember much about movies that month, too much TV watching. I did see MUD but couldn’t really identify as a 14-year-old boy,a failing I routinely struggle against, given Hollywood’s penchant for their stories.
In May, I was excited to go see the latest of the Before, After and In-Between Midnights and, finally, a movie written by and about a woman’s point of view (Before Midnight). Maybe it just proves what we knew all along-romance is fun and kinda glamorous- relationships, marriage, and raising families are hard and sometimes not very pretty. I’m not sure I’ll go to the next one After the Early Bird Special. There was also The Great Gatsby with Leonardo Di Caprio, watchable in his beautiful shirts, and Carey Mulligan who’s not or did I mention that already?
One of the movies that touched me the most, though I didn’t expect it was, the East. Even though I border on elderly, I will never forget the years of hitch hiking, living off the land, on the cheap, experimentation with every aspect of our lives, and the accompanying moments combined with freedom/repression and exhilaration/despair. There’s a new generation going through those experiences but with electronics and in dark economic times, not those of post war affluence, yet they seem remarkably like us.
They are working hard to remake the world yet again; and I applaud them while wishing with all my brain that they could learn from our mistakes. The East wasn’t epic, but it was thoughtful and connected to the times in a way I really needed to see.
I haven’t seen The Act of killing, hadn’t even heard of it till recently, though it came out in July; but I do plan on seeing it to begin to understand the intersection of pop culture with the another important human invention, genocide.
One Friday night in July I was attending our Congresswoman, Barbara Lee’s birthday party with a couple hundred of her friends and admirers. The party had just gotten started when my daughter called me on my cell. She told me that the jury in Florida had just reached a verdict on the Trayvon Martin murder case. I could tell by her voice that the worst had happened-George Zimmerman would go free. I told the mayor and our congresswoman what had happened and felt the shock travel through the room. Congresswoman Lee made the announcement to an audience-prepared for the worst but still hoping for justice…somehow.
As it happened, it was opening night for Fruitvale Station at the Grand Lake Theater in Oakland that Friday. My friends and I had bought tickets, even knowing the verdict was near, better to be among our own kind in a place that reminded us of what held us together more than what pulled us apart. Our tears held us together that night even as subsequent nights began to pull us apart.
Perhaps it was not a blockbuster film, but it was one that told the story more truly than any Hollywood epic ever could of the real lives of struggling working families, and of young men who know that they live on the edge of the American justice system-a cliff over which they may be plunged at any moment.
I believed Michael B. Jordan, as Oscar Grant, when he promised his sister that he would find a way to help her with the rent, even though he had lost his job, and I truly believed Octavia Spencer when she walked down that hospital hallway one last time. I can’t separate my own feelings as an Oaklander and parent of young Black children, now grown, who grew up afraid to attend parties lest gunfire break out. Turns out, it often did-a fact from which they shielded me until recently.
And I can’t separate that night of horror and sadness with the camaraderie I felt sitting with so many Oaklanders who took this film to their hearts. For all those reasons, Fruitvale Station will be tops on my list of important movies this year.
If you want to read the rest of my Oakland year/movies in review, please see the next post-I can’t imagine anyone would read that long a blog (but this is flu season so some folks are bed-ridden). Kripes, this one is too long by half but it contains my impression of the effect Frutivale Station had on many of us Oaklanders, so maybe will you!