When I was 5 years old in the final days of August 1963, we visited Daddy’s relatives who lived just outside Washington, DC, in Silver Spring, Maryland.
My family was not politically aware: Daddy concerned himself with trying to make a living as a hardware supply company bookkeeper, and Mama was busy with church work and raising two girls. So my parents had no idea we would be in Washington at the same time hundreds of thousands of African-Americans and their supporters were marching for their civil, economic, and voting rights. This was the occasion that Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his stirring “I Have A Dream” speech.
I wish I had been older and had understood the significance of this historic time, but as a 5-year-old girl I remember only a few things from this trip: the grown-ups talked about my starting first grade in a week, Daddy solved an aching tooth by having it pulled by a local dentist, and my movie-loving father took us to see the Disney movie “Summer Magic” with Hayley Mills and Burl Ives.
My memory is hazing, but I think this was the first movie I saw which was the beginning of the countless movies I have seen since. Movie touchstones that changed my life and thinking about the world included: Omar Sharif in “Doctor Zhivago,” Clint Eastwood in “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” Robert Redford in “Jeremiah Johnson” and “Three Days of the Condor,” Paul Newman and Redford in “The Sting,” and Mary Tyler Moore, Donald Sutherland, and Timothy Hutton in “Ordinary People.”
Linda Hamilton in “Terminator” and Sigourney Weaver in “Aliens” showed me that women can kick ass and save the world. This concept helped me do the same as a single parent working full-time as a secretary while I earned my bachelor’s degree at the University of Tennessee.
As I got older, I watched the 1930’s and 1940’s movies I missed by not being born earlier: Jimmy Stewart in “Harvey” (!), Cary Grant in “Arsenic and Old Lace,” and Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca”. I fell in love with foreign and independent films such as “Queen Margot,” “Moonrise Kingdom,” and “The Dancer Upstairs.”
Each year I watched all the movies up for Academy Awards, and only missed one airing of the Oscars when I was in Belgium during the show. Increasingly in the last few years, however, the quality of films has steadily decreased.
For most of my adult life I have gone to the movies two or three times a month, but this year we have seen far fewer movies and many of the films that fill the national critics’ “best of” lists lack any of the qualities I look for in a film: a great story, well-written dialogue, narrative sweep, and actors who make you feel their angst or joy.
The most important element of a good film was articulated magnificently by my favorite UT professor, a former screen and television writer (and proud Welshman!) Jon Manchip White who told us a film fails if you do not care about any of the characters. Amen and hallelujah! Ever so true.
Under the Manchip White standard that has rang true for me 99% of the time, I share with you my best and worst movies of the year.
Best Movies I Have Seen This Year
“Boyhood” – Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane (fantastic name!), and Ethan Hawke (directed by Richard Linklater and shot over 12 years, a never-before-attemped achievement that works beautifully) – *****
“Beyond the Lights” – Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Nate Parker, and Minnie Driver (directed by Gina Prince-Blythewood) – a young superstar singer escapes the overbearing clutches of her stage mother and plastic stardom for music and life on her own terms – ****
“A Walk Among the Tombstones” – Liam Neeson – the incredible Irish actor doing what he does best with a strong story and cast – ****
“Guardians of the Galaxy” – Chris Pratt – funny, moving, good songs from the ’80s, and the guy can dance! – *** 1/2
“Belle” – Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Wilkinson, Matthew Goode – illegitimate daughter of a British admiral and the black woman he loved finds her own life on her own terms and fights to end slavery in Britain; from a true story – *** 1/2
“Chef” – Jon Favreau, Sofia Vergara, Dustin Hoffman – gourmet chef takes his show on the road (literally) by starting a food truck business – *** 1/2
“Whiplash” – Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons – hard to watch, not believable at times, nevertheless incredible performances by Teller and Simmons, should be seen once – ***
“Top Five” – Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson – (written and directed by Chris Rock) – funny, good dialogue, Dawson holds her own with Rock – ***
Worst Film I Have Seen This Year
“Birdman” – Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone – incredible cast in totally unbelievable plot, playing despicable characters, sound-and-fury dialogue signifying nothing, I didn’t care about any of the characters. Keaton walks through Times Square in his underwear and has a fistfight with Norton in tiny briefs–still signifying nothing. Emma Stone punches her role in a relentlessly downbeat mess. Highest rated disappointment I have ever seen, and I know Keaton will win the Oscar for it, but it is still a failure of a movie. – * 1/2
Caveats: I haven’t had a chance yet to see “The Imitation Game” or “Selma”, and some of the best small films have not opened in Knoxville, Tennessee.
The best movies are the ones you want to see over and over again and yet find something new. My shortlist of those films right now are my two favorite Robert Altman’s films 1970’s “M*A*S*H” (could there be anyone ever as cool as Donald Sutherland’s Hawkeye in that movie!!!??? No.) and the 2001 “Gosford Park” (Clive Owen and Kelly Macdonald are a revelations, love the whole fantastic cast), along with Wes Anderson’s perfect film, “Moonrise Kingdom”.
Further, the best films have dialogue that sticks in your mind like an ear worm that you can’t get out of your head.
I have never forgotten Chief Dan George’s explanation of why Native Americans eventually fought against the United States in “The Outlaw Josey Wales”. I have quoted his character Lone Watie’s wit and wisdom at the drop of a hat throughout my life.
I wore this frock coat to Washington before The War. We wore them because we belonged to the five civilized tribes. We dressed ourselves up like Abraham Lincoln. You know, we got to see the Secretary of the Interior. And he said, “Boy, you boys sure look civilized.” He congratulated us and he gave us medals for looking so civilized.
We told him about how our land had been stolen and how our people were dying. When we finished he shook our hands and said, “endeavor to persevere!” They stood us in a line: John Jumper, Chili McIntosh, Buffalo Hump, Jim Buckmark, and me — I am Lone Watie. They took our pictures. And the newspapers said, “Indians vow to endeavor to persevere.”
We thought about it for a long time. “Endeavor to persevere.” And when we had thought about it long enough, we declared war on the Union.
I say to you at the end of one year and the start of another: endeavor to persevere. And if that doesn’t work for you, then declare war on all the obligations, slings, and arrows that keep you from truly living. And don’t bother to see “Birdman.”
//Anna — 12/27/2014