My Favorite Movies 2020 Edition, pt. 7 (10-16)

In continuation of the topic from yesterday, let’s talk a little bit about how much movies cost to make.

Irishman was one of the Best Movie Oscar nominees this year. DeNiro and Scorsese have talked openly about the problems of finding a financeer. And I get why. The budget was $158 million. That’s not an unusually large budget these days, but it is unusually large for the kind of movie they were making. On top of that, Scorsese is one of the most respected working directors, but his box office results don’t really reflect that. Usually he’s movies do fine. They just about make their money back in theatres, so they are probably profitable in the home market. His previous movie, The Silence, was made with a much smaller budget of $46.5 million, but only managed about half that in box office.

Let’s take the other Best Movie Oscar nominee (and in my opinion the better movie) from Netflix: Marriage Story. It also had an accomplished director, even if Baumbach isn’t on the level of Scorsese and is in no way bankable, and had big stars, who are actually probably as bankable as stars can be these days in Johanssen and Driver, but was made on a budget of $18 million.

Why the disparity? Of course, a longer movie requires more shooting and the just having scenes with a lot of people is expensive. Then there’s the deaging, which must be costly, and the actors, who probably were overpaid. Gladly, Scorsese is skilled enough that the movie isn’t just self-indulgent bullshit it could have easily become in the hands of someone else.

Still, the difference between these two just feels absurd. Financially, the budget on Irishman is just ridiculous. Sure, Netflix got some recognition for it, but how much great content could they have gotten for that kind of money?

This trend has recently died out a bit, but for some time, there was this weird gap between small and huge budgets. We had movies which cost 20 million tops and we had movies which cost from 100 million upwards, but there wasn’t much between. We had dramas and horror at the low end and huge tentpoles at the high end. Sure, we would have something in between every once in a while, but based on various analysis, bigger budgets would bring bigger yields.

However, this is partly self-perpetuating. The analysis I’ve seen didn’t really take marketing costs into account. Movies with bigger budgets would (in gneral) also receive a much higher marketing push, so they will make more money.

DC has tried to change these in recent times. You can make high quality films without putting too much money into them. Shazam!, Joker and whatever the name of that Birds of Prey movie is now were all made on relatively low budgets (betwen 40 and 80 million). This is an approach, which negates much of the risk of the higher budgeted movies. I guess studio structures and finances are such that they sort of push you into the direction of the bigger movies, but at the same time, I liked these three movies and while only one of them was a huge hit, the other two were probably profitable or will be during their home market run.

Still, it’s hard for the studios to change their approach. They have a lot of staff, which costs money, and they have stockowners, who want return for their money. Scaling back is difficult in that situation. There’s also a limited number of weekends in a year and not every weekend is the same. You want to get the most out of the most lucrative weekends, so if you can get one (if, for whatever reason, Disney hasn’t planted their flag on it yet), you will push it as far as possible.

I guess part of the move to lower costing movies is the attempt to monetize on the times which have historically been slower. Summer has been the best time (although, in my childhood, movie theatres would actually shut down during the summer, because everyone is at their cabins) due to air conditioning and after Titanic Christmas time somehow became another traditional time to open big movies. Movies like Black Panther and now Joker have been changing this. Perhaps I should be using the word self-perpetuating again. If you only release garbage during certain times, your audience is not going to go, but the audience isn’t aware of the philosophy behind release dates. If they are interested in a movie, they will go out and see it. Sure, they have more time during the summer and Christmas time, but how important is that? You are more likely to want escapism during the semester or after work.

16. Reservoir Dogs (United States 1992)
Director: Quentin Tarantino

Six men, brought together by Joe Cabot and his son, plan out and commit a heist. However, something goes wrong. Couple of them die and when the rest finally get together in their safehouse, they soon realize one of them must have betrayed the others.

Ever seen a movie being advertised with a set of posters, each for a different character? This was the first one to do it.

This is often seen as the second greatest directorial debut (after Citizen Kane). While Tarantino had tried his hand at a movie beforehand, five years prior, it didn’t pan out. Both Tarantino and Bender, his producer, were very inexperienced (Bender had actually produced two movies before, one of them a completely forgotten movie based on poems by Charlie Sheen and no other writing credits). This might often lead to a situation where others try to impose their views on the film in various ways, but apparently, the two handled the situation quite well.

Some also call the movie very influential, but I’m not sure about that. How influential can a movie be, when practically no-one saw it at the time? It was a small hit in the UK, where id did have influence on variety of movies, but in general, I think it pales in comparison to Pulp Fiction in this regard, as most weren’t even aware of this beforehand and most people at the time saw it only after seeing Pulp Fiction, which was a huge hit at the time.

Some even call this one of the great heist movies, but that can’t be true as there is no heist. It happens between scenes. Tarantino himself seems to relinguish this appreciation, though. The heist doesn’t really matter, as this is all about the interactions of the characters. Heist is just an excuse to bring them together. This does mean that the movie can also just forget the tropes surrounding such movies. There was a time when they were fun, but they have become clichës at this point, so a different viewpoint on this kind of a situation is interesting.

As a crime movie it works quite well. Mr. Blue’s actor, who was a career criminal, was of the mind that some of the things were really unrealistic for professionals, but at the same time, I’m not a criminal, so it sells the world nicely to me.

The caliber of actors they got is very nice considering the amount of money they had. These people might not have been big stars, but they were definitely working actors with a plenty of credits, with Harvey Keitel having worked since mid-60s.

15. It’s Such a Beautiful Day (United States 2012)
Director: Don Hertzfeldt

At first this seems like a pretty banal observational comedy, but it soon devolves into something much, much darker, as we begin to learn about all the problems our central character, Bill, is having.

This is mostly a quite simple animation, but the simplified style also lends itself surprisingly well to the story. It’s not very long at just over an hour. It doesn’t really need to be any longer than that. The message is received quite loud and clear within this time.

Actually, the simple animation might be an important quality of the movie. There’s a book called Understanding Comic by Scott McCloud. One of the many subjects it tackles is iconic characters. A character with a lot of detail represents one human or few at most. A simple character can represent anyone, so Bill could be anyone of us. I guess the name and comparative size might exclude a lot of people, but even with that we’d still probably have billions of people left.

I can’t really call this animation, when talking about genres. Animation is a production method or a series of production methods. Sure, you could say there are enough similarities between various Disney animations to call them a genre, but this movie has nothing to do with them, nor Pixar movies or Anime or whatever one might conjure to their minds when talking about animation.

Calling this psychological horror, like I’ve done, is not really fair either, even though that might be quite literally true. This just lacks in the usual things horror movies have. Still, this is also one of the most horrific movies I’ve seen, if you think about what the movie is saying. Having chosen a unique approach to the movie, Hertzfeldt is able to convey things no other movie I’ve seen has been able to.

I’m partly calling this psychological horror, because it manages to invoke pretty much the only fear I have. I like to think I’m smart. I live a comfortable life with a career I enjoy and interesting hobbies. However, this is all dependent on my brain functioning properly (enough). If that breaks down… Well, that’s it. What if I can’t trust my own thoughts? I also know enough to understand that I really shouldn’t trust my brain, but I also have to. No-one has ever come even close to portraying this as Hertzfeldt.

Hertzfeldt’s style is quite unique. If you are interested in this kind of a movie, you should also try to get your hands on The World of Tomorrow, his short movie about a third generation clone going back in time to meet the first generation. There is also a sequel, but I have not seen it. Actually, this movie was a trilogy of shorts before being edited into one. You wouldn’t know it though, as it works so seamlessly.

14. Rear Window (United States 1954)
Director: Alfred Hitchcock

L.B. Jefferies has been in an accident and is bound to a wheelchair in his apartment. Without anything else to do, he spends his time observing (to use a polite word) the people of the apartment building across the yard from his own apartment. While doing this, he believes he might have witnessed a murder, but the problem is that he can’t investigate due to his condition. So, he drags in his girlfriend, Lisa, and a detective Doyle, who don’t really buy his story, but try to help as much as they can.

The premise is already intriguing. There’s a whole plot here, but as our protagonist can’t move, we aren’t moving either. We only see what he can see from his apartment. He is quite isolated from his neighbors, as he doesn’t actually know the name of any of them (which I guess is kind of usual in urban situations). He just has various nicknames he came up with based on various surface observations (Songwriter, Miss Torso, Miss Lonelyhearts). He wasn’t interested in them before. As a photographer he has visited various exotic locales, so he didn’t feel a need to pay any attention to what’s happening right around him.

There’s also the incredulity of Jefferies’ findings. Is he just having cabin fever being forced into staying in the confines of his apartment, when he wants to travel the world to witness whatever is going on somewhere out there. I guess you could also read this as a message that bad things can happen anywhere, but I don’t think that was what Hitchcock was going for.

In a way it’s weird I like this movie more than any other of Hitchcock’s. Although it’s externally of a same genre as most of his films, it’s not really that closely related to Psycho or Vertigo, for example. Rear Window is more about fun. If you look at this is list in general, I tend to go for the darker ones. Despite being about a murder, this is quite light. Grace Kelly gets to be adventurous (because Stewart obviously can’t). There’s no murder on-screen, nor do we see blood or bodies or anything. This is partly due to the premise, as Jefferies can only have hints about the possible crime, but still, it has a noticeable effect on the feel of the movie.

13. A Clockwork Orange (United Kingdom 1971)
Director: Stanley Kubrick

Young Alex is a naughty boy. He spends his nights with his gang (his droogs) drinking spiked milk (milk-plus or Moloko), fighting other gangs (ulta-violence), robbing houses and raping women (bit of in-and-out), while his days are mostly occupied by sleeping in and listening to Beethoven. This is fun and all, but Alex goes too far, alienating his own gang, who leave him behind to the police. While in prison, Alex becomes a model prisoner and is thus selected to participate in an alternative treatment to remove his violent desires.

If this all seems transgressive, the book goes further than that. Well, at least on one point: Alex is still 15. Malcolm McDowell is a fine actor, but can’t really pull that off at 28. On the other hand, in the movie Alex is pretty much returned to as he was, but in the book he finds himself bored of his earlier lifestyle. Another big change is that Kubrick chose to make the movie dreamlike and sinister, instead of making it a grounded, if speculative, look at the future.

People really do seem to identify with Alex, despite his villainy. Kubrick even decided to pull the movie from theatres in the UK after stalking and harassment from enthusiasts, as well copycat criminals, but he also did plan it this way. Everyone else is dull in either sense of the word, while Alex is energetic, charming and well-read (he knows Singing in the Rain, something Gene Kelly didn’t appreciate according to McDowell). He is free in a way no-one else in the movie is. Well, until the treatment, which takes away his freedom of choice.

In this way Kubrick and the book are criticizing certain religious sentiment. They want to take away the choice to be evil, but they forget that if you can’t choose to be evil, being good is not a decision either. It’s just enforced on us. While it would be nice for everyone to be good, there is the problem of not having universal rules on what is actually good and what is not. While we can’t really argue that Alex’s robberies, murder and rape are good, is recreational drug use actually bad?

This is one of those movies which are just so iconic that even if you haven’t ever seen the movie, you still know much of it. You know the slo-mo visual of the gang, their masks and overalls, and you know the Ludovico technique. Kubrick’s visuals are just that strong.

12. Children of Men (United States 2006)
Director: Alfonso Cuarón

It’s year 2027 and there hasn’t been a child born in 18 years. Humanity has fallen into despair and United Kingdom has isolated itself from the rest of the world. When Theo is recruited into protecting a young immigrant woman (Kee) and finds out she is actually pregnant, he is left in a difficult situation, not really knowing who to trust, while he does his best to deliver her to safety.

The movie is known for certain scenes which stretch the technologies and techniques used in filmmaking, but when watching the movie, they fall quite flat when compared to the more emotionally devastating moments. The key one being the ceasefire near the end of the movie.

I like the worldbuilding here. Much of the history is told through various newspaper clippings. Sometimes they are clearly in view, but at other times they are just in the background. We get to see the dystopian society through self-harming religious fanaticism, suicide kits handed out by the government and police brutality keeping everyone in line. Most of the people have lost hope and are therefore basically just drones going on with their work, but the ruling class still seems to cling on to their power, even if it doesn’t really mean much. This worldbuilding extends to the very end, where Theo has to teach Kee things about babies we all know, as she has never even seen one before.

I like how Theo finds hope again. He sees both his estranged wife and his only friend die in front of his eyes and this is after seeing the whole world collapse around him. He is not the most heroic of characters, but in the end has to find it in himself to save the world. At the time of release, this represented everything I wanted from a sci-fi movie. A nice What if? scenario, with real emotional impact and not just theoretical pondering, which I found interesting as a teen, but also found the hard sci-fi books of 60s and 70s quite tedious.

11. The Full Monty (United Kingdom 1997)
Director: Peter Cattaneo

Gaz and Dave are unemployed. A troop of male strippers arrive in town and they take note of how popular the gig is. Gaz is in a dire need of money, as he’s been unable to pay alimony (it this the right word? I’m not a native English speaker, but you get what I mean) for his son and is in danger of losing meeting privileges. So, what’s a man to do? Put on a strip show. For this purpose he recruits a band of outcasts, who mostly don’t look like the usual people you’ll see in the posters (nor the two male strippers I’ve actually seen perform). Together they learn the trade.

I can’t really tell you why this is the ultimate feelgood movie for me. Well, depending on how you demarcate this as there is one movie you could see as such later on in the list. Brits in general seem to be very good at this. After all, they made movies like Love Actually, Billy Elliott and The King’s Speech. Not that there haven’t been good ones done elsewhere. Jeunet has some excellent ones, despite having a very otherworldly feel, and even David Lynch tried his hand at this with A Straight Story. These always have similar elements: Normal people overcome pretty normal problems. In this particular movie, we have obstacles such as uemployment, father’s limited rights and body image. Other characters have their own problems regarding homosexuality, impotence and depression. Behind much of this is working class culture and how it affects people with it’s own expectations. These men were the providers for their family, but they’ve lost that and it was a huge part of their identity. Not only that, but there hasn’t been expectations previously. They didn’t need to be active fathers, they didn’t need to care about their bodies and homosexuality is alien to them. The world just changed around them.

I can’t really say the themes hit me personally, as I don’t really consider myself working class, despite being from a working class family (although there was always a weird confusion about this), nor does any of the other themes, but this is one of those things where the characters are portrayed sympathetically enough for me to care. The movie is light comedy, but the problems are not themselves made light of, even if in some cases there is humor surrounding it. Dave is not funny, because he is fat, nor are the two men who find their homosexual side funny because they are gay. The movie is a comedy more on general mood than actively trying to find reasons to laugh at these people.

Weirdly, for a short period, this was the biggest hit of all time in the UK (this didn’t last long as Titanic overtook it later in the same year). It’s sort of refreshing and a movie like this can do that well. Mostly the big movies also have big budgets, which mean that they also have big marketing and in the current Disney lead era there’s also a lot of pressure for theatres to push those big movies. Still, back in the late 90s, this one little movie really could. The themes must hit home for quite a few. Sadly, most of these movies don’t do that well, so we don’t see enough of these.

10. 4 luni, 3 saptamâni si 2 zile (Romania 2007)
(4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days)
Director: Cristian Mungiu

Gabita is four months, three weeks and two days along in her pregnancy. Otilia has promised to help her with getting her an abortion. However, this is Ceaucescu’s Romania and if you don’t know what that means, you should look into it. The whole process is quite convoluted, as they can’t risk getting caught.

You can’t really call it a genre, but in a way it is: There are some movies you like, but can’t really watch again. The first movie I heard depicted this way was Requiem for a Dream. Festen (previously on this list as well) is such a film, and so is this. I do watch these every once in a while (usually for these lists), but not very often.

The movie itself is quite simple, probably out of necessity, as the production probably didn’t have much money. No trickery required, however. Quite the opposite. There’s a long scene, where Otilia is simply sitting with her boyfriend’s family, she just met. She was just raped by the abortionist, but she has to endure the situation, because she can’t leave any clues about what she’s doing with Gabita. How does the director handle this? He just plants the camera there, pointed at Otilia’s face. She just sits there, trying to contain herself as best she can.

Much of the rest of the film is also shot with a stationary camera, which nicely let’s the scene’s play out on their own strength. It’s like we are witnessing these things ourselves.

This is what I love about European and Asian drama versus American ones. In American drama, you always need that moment of melodrama, where someone has an emotional and uplifting speech, but that also feels like the filmmakers feel like the audience can’t handle the drama and need to feel good when leaving the theater (as if someone saw dramas in the theater any more). Bit like the serious equivalent of a rock song ending an action movie. How does this end? Gabita just makes everything that much worse for both of them. Instead of making us feel good about how we are good people and feel sympathy for these people, we get to wallow in the misery just a little bit more.

Not that the whole movie is like that. We actually get quite a bit of Otilia’s daily life in the student dorm, where she knows everyone and basically the whole dorm is a huge black market with everyone dealing in some good or another.

I haven’t seen many Romanian movies, but Ceaucescu’s rule and it’s consequences seem to be a popular topic, which is quite understandable. Also, it’s an interesting topic from an outsiders point of view, so these are probably the ones that get international releases.

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