My Summer Project: 75 Films in 72 Days

It’s the last day of my summer break (I’m a teacher, if you didn’t know), so it’s time for me to share the results of my secret summer project: quite simply, watching as many movies as I could for the first time.

I originally called this “72 Films in 72 Days,” but my final total was actually 75. It includes theatrical releases, attempts to fill in gaps in my cinema knowledge, and a few that I just felt like checking out.

THE 39 STEPS (Alfred Hitchcock, 1935, FilmStruck)
The first of the three early Hitchcocks on my list, and the forerunner of the “Wrong Man” plot the director would deploy on North by Northwest and so many others.

THE ACCOUNTANT (Gavin O’Connor, 2016, Cable)
I thought it would be crazier, to be honest. Aside from that one “Affleck Does Accounting” montage, a couple of preposterous plot twists, and where J.K Simmons delivers a solid 20 minutes of exposition in the second act, it was mostly a bore.

THE AFRICAN QUEEN (John Huston, 1951, Netflix)
I understand why this is so beloved, and Bogart and Hepburn are great. But the stories surrounding the film’s production are more interesting to me than the film itself.

THE ANGEL’S SHARE (Ken Loach, 2012, FilmStruck)
The first of many UK/Ireland-set films I watched this summer, and certainly the most fun – a heist story about amiably shady characters who attempt to siphon a priceless whisky from a Scottish distillery.

THE APARTMENT (Billy Wilder, 1960, FilmStruck)
A pitch-perfect screenplay, fantastic performances from Jack Lemmon & Shirley MacLaine, a searing indictment of Mad Men-era corporate misogyny, effortless transitions from comedy to pathos and back again… this Best Picture winner has it all. A stone-cold classic I can’t believe it took me this long to see, and one of my ten favorites of the summer.

Overlong, but fascinating. Career-high performances from Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck as the legendary outlaw and his murderer, respectively. And, of course, the stunning cinematography from Roger Deakins. This one stuck with me for a while.

BABETTE’S FEAST (Gabriel Axel, 1987, FilmStruck)
In a tiny, religiously repressed Danish village, a French refugee prepares the meal of a lifetime for the two sisters she serves. More than just an intimate “foodie” film, it’s also one of the best ever made about the heart of the artist: “Give me leave to do my best.”

BABY DRIVER (Edgar Wright, 2017, Theatrical)
A blast. My original review here.

BLITHE SPIRIT (David Lean, 1945, FilmStruck)
This early (pre-epic) David Lean comedy stars Rex Harrison as writer who invites a medium over for research purposes, but is soon haunted by the mischievous ghost of his first wife.

BLOOD SIMPLE (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1984, FilmStruck)
The first of three Coen films on my summer list, this one also being their first feature, period. It has a scrappy indie sensibility where you can see the brothers’ potential, and a great young Frances McDormand performance, but the film didn’t do much for me as a whole.

BURDEN OF DREAMS (Les Blank, 1982, FilmStruck)
This fascinating documentary on the making of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo shows how the director was only marginally more sane than his main character. He really did drag a boat over an Amazonian mountain.

BURN AFTER READING (Ethan & Joel Coen, 2008, Netflix)
This is certainly minor Coens, putting their idiot characters in an ant farm and shaking it around. I love goober Brad Pitt, but the rest of it is pretty forgettable.

CAMERAPERSON (Kirsten Johnson, 2016, FilmStruck)
The only documentary I’ve ever seen that’s *all* subtext, a memoir of Johnson’s career as a camera operator that connects themes and ideas across decades and continents. Brilliant stuff.

CARS 3 (Brian Fee, 2017, Theatrical)
It’s…fine? Certainly better than the second film. My original review here.

LE CERCLE ROUGE (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1970, FilmStruck)
This French caper is pure 70s cool. A fugitive crosses paths with a master thief fresh out of prison, and the pair hatch a plan to rob a jewelry store – an event which plays out in about 30 minutes of near-total silence on screen.

CITY OF GOD (Fernando Meirelles & Katia Lund, 2002, Amazon Prime)
I wasn’t sure I liked this film at first viewing; it’s a challenging window into the child gangs of Brazil, sure, but seems to revel a little too much in the violence and sadism it depicts. On the other hand, its bold visual style deserves a revisit in the future.

THE COMMITMENTS (Alan Parker, 1981, Netflix)
A musical time capsule about the creation of a fictional soul band in Dublin, featuring a young Glen Hansard, Maria Doyle Kennedy, and the powerful pipes of 16-year-old(!) Andrew Strong. Lightweight, but entertaining.

THE DARK TOWER (Nikolaj Arcel, 2017, Theatrical)
It’s just a bummer, man. My original review here.

DAYS OF HEAVEN (Terrence Malick, 1978, FilmStruck)
I haven’t watched much Malick; this is only the second I’ve seen after The Thin Red Line. But it’s stunning – less for its story, which is pure melodrama, than for its visuals. Néstor Almendros’ Oscar-winning cinematography (revolutionary for being filmed almost entirely at “Magic Hour”) is one gorgeous shot after another.

DOCTOR ZHIVAGO (David Lean, 1965, Cable)
The third of David Lean’s “epic trilogy” (following River Kwai and Lawrence) is also the least of the three, but it still stars Omar Sharif, and one Maurice Jarre melody goes a long way. Yet Lean, a strict disciplinarian on set, was so rattled by the negative reviews it sent his career into a tailspin he’d never fully recover from.

DUNKIRK (Christopher Nolan, 2017, Theatrical)
My affection for it has only grown since I saw it in IMAX, but you can find my original review here.

EX MACHINA (Alex Garland, 2014, Amazon Prime)
Many films in my queue were added at the behest of my buddy Chase Branch, but the top priority was this Oscar-winning dark sci-fi. I dug it. Didn’t love it, but I dug it.

A FEW GOOD MEN (Rob Reiner, 1992, Cable)
I know, I can’t believe it took me this long either. I knew all the famous scenes, of course. But it was pretty obvious after just a few minutes why this is perhaps the seminal “stop your channel surfing here” movie. Now I’m part of the club.

A FISH CALLED WANDA (Charles Crichton, 1988, FilmStruck)
Kevin Kline is a comedy tornado here, and won an Oscar to prove it. The rest is a cacophony of screwball antics that haven’t all aged well…though, I must admit with some chagrin, I laughed pretty hard each time Michael Palin accidentally killed a dog.

THE FISHER KING (Terry Gilliam, 1991, FilmStruck)
It’s very Gilliam, of course. But Robin Williams is great, Jeff Bridges is great, and it’s got more than one sequence worth the price of admission even if the entire film doesn’t quite hang together.

FOR ALL MANKIND (Al Reinert, 1989, FilmStruck)
Assembled from millions of feet of archival footage and hours of interviews, it’s the defining documentary of NASA’s Apollo program – focusing not on the details of the missions, but the experiences of the men who flew them.

FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940, FilmStruck)
Perhaps best-known for being constantly re-written on the fly as Europe barreled toward war, it also has its share of iconic Hitch sequences (like the climactic plane crash) and witty banter between Joel McCrae and Laraine Day.

GET OUT (Jordan Peele, 2017, Rental)
Currently in pole position as the best film of the year, and I only regret I didn’t go see it in the theater with a big crowd. It’s a perfectly calibrated genre masterpiece.

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO ST. MATTHEW (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1964, Amazon Prime)
Who would have thought that the greatest “Jesus film” ever made, a beautiful, stirring, and sincere depiction of Christ as an unconventional revolutionary, would be written and directed by a gay Marxist atheist? With unparalled realism, it unfolds almost like a documentary.

THE HIDDEN FORTRESS (Akira Kurosawa, 1958, FilmStruck)
The first of five Kurosawa films I watched for the first time this summer. The plot inspired Star Wars: a general (Toshiru Mifune) escorts a princess across enemy lines, with a pair of greedy peasants in tow. This princess is super annoying, though.

IKIRU (Akira Kurosawa, 1952, FilmStruck)
This was the only modern-day Kurosawa I got to this summer (though I have several more in my queue), but it was also my favorite, second only to Seven Samurai for me in the director’s filmography. Takashi Shimura plays a government bureaucrat who finds out he’s dying of cancer and tries to find meaning in his life; the film’s final third, where his co-workers try to piece together the clues he left behind and take their own lessons from it, is wonderful. I’d be pressed to think of a more beautiful final image than Shimura on that park swing, with snow falling around him.

IN A LONELY PLACE (Nicholas Ray, 1950, FilmStruck)
Humphrey Bogart is at his shady best in this Hollywood Noir, where he plays a writer suspected of murder. His attractive neighbor vouches for him, but she eventually begins to doubt his innocence.

INSOMNIA (Christopher Nolan, 2002, Cable)
Nolan’s most straightforward film, with great performances from Pacino and Robin Williams, memorable cinematography, and not a lot more.

KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD (Guy Ritchie, 2017, Rental)
Eh. I gave this a spin last week because I hoped I would at least enjoy Jude Law’s preening performance as Vortigern, which I did. The rest, though, is nonsense and too clever by half.

THE LADY VANISHES (Alfred Hitchcock, 1938, FilmStruck)
The third, earliest, and least of the Hitchcocks I checked out. The most interesting thing about it isn’t the train murder mystery, but Margaret Lockwood.

THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN (Basil Dearden, 1960, FilmStruck)
The antecedent of the original Ocean’s 11: a group of war veterans, all strangers, who use their military precision for a bank robbery. Fun character beats from Richard Attenborough and Jack Hawkins, but not that memorable for me.

THE LION IN WINTER (Anthony Harvey, 1968, Rental)
This was my favorite film I watched all summer, and immediately one of my favorite films of all time. An absolute feast of razor-sharp dialogue and career-best performances, Peter O’Toole plays Henry II, who spends a Christmas holiday attempting to outmaneuver his squabbling sons and scheming wife (Katherine Hepburn, who won an Oscar for this role) over who will succeed him to the throne. It’s an exhilarating story of bluffs, double bluffs, and wheels within wheels; it’s also the first screen appearances for Anthony Hopkins AND Timothy Dalton. How the heck did this lose Best Picture to Oliver?

THE LIVES OF OTHERS (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006, FilmStruck)
This German Oscar-winner is the real deal, and one of the best foreign films I’ve ever seen. Set in 1984 Berlin, Ulrich Mühe plays a surveillance officer who, while keeping tabs on a writer and his girlfriend, finds himself beginning to obsess over their lives and performing small acts to protect them. It’s exceptionally written, with inner and outer conflicts that build on themselves over time. Top 10 of the summer.

THE LONG GOODBYE (Robert Altman, 1973, FilmStruck)
Elliot Gould stars as a younger Detective Philip Marlowe, who gets tangled in a web of Hollywood intrigue, yada yada. You know the drill. But it’s fun!

MICHAEL COLLINS (Neil Jordan, 1996, FilmStruck)
Anchored by Liam Neeson and Alan Rickman, this could have been the defining film of the Irish Revolution if it wasn’t so ham-fisted…and Julia Roberts didn’t look so lost.

A MOST VIOLENT YEAR (J.C. Chandor, 2014, Amazon Prime)
Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain are great in this potboiler, set in the surprisingly cutthroat world of 1981 New York’s heating oil industry.

MY DINNER WITH ANDRE (Louis Malle, 1984, FilmStruck)
Just two men at a restaurant table; one (Andre Gregory) has seemingly infinite anecdotes about his life and creative process, the other (Wallace Shawn) mostly listens. Somehow, this is marvelously engrossing.

MY FAVORITE YEAR (Richard Benjamin, 1982, FilmStruck)
Peter O’Toole is delightful in this broad showbiz comedy, playing a perpetually sozzled film icon — a cross between himself and Errol Flynn.

NO MAN’S LAND (Danis Tanovic, 2001, FilmStruck)
Another Oscar-winner for Foreign Film, this one about a Bosnian and Serbian soldier who find themselves trapped on the battlefield between their lines, the UN soldiers who try to intervene, and the reporters who turn it into a sensation. Not a true story, but a darkly comic allegory with a sucker-punch of an ending.

ODD MAN OUT (Carol Reed, 1947, FilmStruck)
James Mason is a wounded IRA leader on the run in Belfast; the BAFTA-winning Noir has its share of thrills, but it’s its third-act turn toward surreal religious imagery that sets it apart. Any suspicion that Reed didn’t really direct The Third Man should be dispelled.

OF GODS AND MEN (Xavier Beauvois, 2010, Rental)
Based on a remarkable true story of faith and sacrifice, we follow a group of Trappist monks serving a village in war-torn Algeria. Threatened by terrorists, they must decide whether or not to stay. One of the best spiritually-minded films out there you can find.

THE PLAYER (Robert Altman, 1992, FilmStruck)
My second Altman of the summer is his classic crime film about the dark underbelly of Hollywood, overflowing with celebrity cameos and that wickedly cool tracking shot in the opening scene. Entertaining, but also kind of mean-spirited.

THE QUEEN (Stephen Frears, 2006, Netflix)
Frears, Helen Mirren, and Elizabeth II: As an Anglophile, I couldn’t resist that combination. It focuses on the monarch in the wake of Princess Diana’s death.

QUEEN OF KATWE (Mira Nair, 2016, Netflix)
Straightforward sports movie about a Ugandan girl who becomes a chess champion. It was fine. Watched it with my daughter, but it didn’t entirely hold her attention.

RASHOMON (Akira Kurosawa, 1950, FilmStruck)
The third Kurosawa in my queue became shorthand for its own form of storytelling, presenting the same event – a bandit’s attack on a woman and her husband’s death – from multiple points of view. But it’s far more than a gimmick, as its melancholy ending shows.

ROME, OPEN CITY (Roberto Rosselini, 1945, FilmStruck)
The film that kicked off the Italian Neo-Realist movement, using locations still smoking amidst the second World War and actors found on the street. The protagonist may be a resistance leader looking for refuge, but the main character is the city itself. Also features one of the great cinema priests, Aldo Fabrizi’s Don Pietro, and a stunning ending.

RONIN (John Frankenheimer, 1998, FilmStruck)
With a stacked cast (De Niro! Jean Reno! Sean Bean!), European locales, and some crackerjack car chases, it’s certainly one of the better shoot-em-ups of the 1990s. Don’t try to follow the plot, though.

THE ROOM (Tommy Wiesau, 2003, Um…the internet)
Yep, I saw The Room. By myself, which I do not recommend. I don’t exactly recommend the film, either, which is a watch-through-your-fingers trainwreck of nonsensical writing and fifth- and sixth-rate performances, beginning with writer/director/star himself, Wiseau – the 21st Century Ed Wood. But it is a thing to behold, and I’m looking forward to James Franco’s making-of film, The Disaster Artist.

A SEPARATION (Asghar Farhadi, 2011, FilmStruck)
This Oscar-winner (Best Foreign Film, Iran) is a series of trap doors, each more brutal than the last, disguised as a domestic drama. It centers on a married couple – one who wants them to leave the country with their daughter, the other who feels responsible for his addled father – and how an act of accidental violence sets in motion a chain of events neither can escape. A scorcher.

A SERIOUS MAN (Ethan & Joel Coen, 2009, Cable)
The third Coen Brothers film in my queue was their blackly comic take on the story of Job, starring Michael Stuhlbarg as a mild-mannered physics teacher whose life begins to crumble beyond his control. I wouldn’t call it “fun,” but I was highly entertained.

THE SEVENTH SEAL (Ingmar Bergman, 1957, FilmStruck)
You likely know it for its iconic seaside chess match verses Death, but Bergman’s masterpiece is philosophical throughout, asking unanswerable questions about life, suffering, and the existence of God against a timeless allegorical backdrop.

SHIMMER LAKE (Oren Uziel, 2017, Netflix)
Watched it for my Netflix Movie Roundup in June. Semi-clever gimmick in telling its story backwards, but it doesn’t do much with it.

SOME LIKE IT HOT (Billy Wilder, 1959, Cable)
Finally got around to seeing AFI’s #1 Comedy, and…I liked it? I feel bad, like I should have liked it more, but it’s a film very, very much of its time. Curtis, Lemmon, and Marilyn Monroe are delightful, however.

STAGECOACH (John Ford, 1939, FilmStruck)
I’ve never been a big John Wayne guy, but I made time for this early entry, which is better-known for its iconic third-act stuntwork than its story, or even Wayne himself.

SWINGERS (Jon Favreau, 1996, FilmStruck)
Bizarre to watch today, and not just because the swing music resurgence has long come and gone, or because Vince Vaughn is younger here than I am now. Dudes don’t call each other “Money!” anymore, thank goodness. But the basic story, and especially the ending, holds up.

TEN (Abbas Kiarostami, 2002, FilmStruck)
A fascinating minimalist experiment starring Mania Akbari as a driver in Tehran; the entire film is just a series of improvised conversations (ten, to be precise) between the woman and her passengers, including her argumentative young son.

THRONE OF BLOOD (Akira Kurosawa, 1957, FilmStruck)
Kurosawa’s famous adaptation of the Macbeth story is evocative, drenched in fog, and boasting a volcanic performance from Toshiro Mifune. Why he isn’t regularly mentioned in the same breath as Humphrey Bogart and Marlon Brando, I’ll never understand.

TOKYO STORY (Yasujirô Ozu, 1953, FilmStruck)
Widely regarded as one of the greatest films ever made, this is a surprisingly intimate family drama: an older couple takes a trip to visit their adult children in the city, but the only one happy to make time for them is the widow of their son who died in the war (a luminous Setsuko Hara). Ozu’s style is remarkable for its simplicity. Every angle is from floor mat-level; characters seem to be delivering dialogue directly to camera; there’s little regard for screen direction or overlapping edits. But the film’s power is undeniable, evolving in its third act into a moving meditation on mortality. “Isn’t life disappointing?” asks the youngest daughter. “Yes, it is,” replies Hara’s widow, but with a smile.

UMBERTO D. (Vittorio di Sica, 1952, FilmStruck)
Another Neo-Realist classic from the director of Bicycle Thieves, this one is a similarly intimate story about an old man and his dog. And it’s a very, very, very good dog.

THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG (Jacques Demy, 1964, FilmStruck)
This sung-through French musical about love and regret was a key inspiration for La La Land, and rocketed Catherine Deneuve to stardom.

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (Matt Reeves, 2017, Theatrical)
Powerful, poetic, and a pretty great Moses story. My original review here.

WELCOME TO SARAJEVO (Michael Winterbottom, 1997, FilmStruck)
Here’s a film that doesn’t know what it wants to be. Is it a war film? Is it a comedy about a hotshot reporter (Woody Harrelson?) Or a drama about another journalist (Stephen Dillane) trying to smuggle a child out of the country? Less than the sum of its parts.

THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY (Ken Loach, 2006, FilmStruck)
The second, and far superior, film I watched about the Irish War of Independence. Loach smartly focuses on two brothers (Cilian Murphy and Pádriac Delaney), who join the IRA together but whose aims begin to drift apart, leading to the film’s unavoidably tragic conclusion. It left me emotionally rattled for days afterward, but it’s Barry Ackroyd’s lush images that are with me still. Top 10 of the summer.

WINTER LIGHT (Ingmar Bergman, 1963, FilmStruck)
In a small town in Sweden, a priest struggles with his faith. Bergman continues to ask the questions posed in Seventh Seal and all across his work, and next to St. Matthew and Of Gods and Men, it’s another Christian-themed masterpiece I wish more evangelicals would check out.

WITHNAIL & I (Bruce Robinson, 1987, FilmStruck)
Richard E. Grant and Paul McGann are out-of-work English actors who decide to take a spontaneous holiday to the country, where they quickly find themselves unable to fend for themselves – or fend off the solicitations of Richard Griffiths’ Uncle Monty. Watching this felt like witnessing the birth of “layabout” comedy, which would be picked up again decades later by Judd Apatow and crew. Very funny. One of my top three favorites from this summer.

WONDER WOMAN (Patty Jenkins, 2017, Theatrical)
Awesome, as you know. DC finally, finally got one right. All hail Gal Gadot!

YOJIMBO (Akira Kurosawa, 1961, FilmStruck)
The fifth and final Kurosawa this summer was another Samurai classic, with another crafty Mifune performance. Bonus: it was based on an American Film Noir, and later remade as a Spaghetti Western. Isn’t cinema great?

Z (Costa-Gavras, 1969, FilmStruck)
The story around this film is just as exhilarating as the one it depicts. Costa-Gavras, the Greek master of the politically-minded docudrama (Paul Greengrass before Paul Greengrass), depicts here the assassination of a progressive politician, the military coup that ensued, and the dogged investigation that provided only temporary relief. Because the CIA was supporting that junta at the time of Z’s release, J. Edgar Hoover had stated that no truly loyal American would pay to see it, even placing actor Yves Montand under “protection” when he came to America. That didn’t stop the Oscars from making it its first foreign-language Best Picture nominee. Top 10 of the summer.

ZODIAC (David Fincher, 2007, Netflix)
And finally! I had just never gotten around to watching this one, but I’m glad I did now. It’s my #2 Fincher behind The Social Network, and its unconventional structure – not to mention ambiguous ending – had me online for hours after reading about it, and the status of the actual Zodiac investigation. Also, Mark Ruffalo’s wardrobe is fantastic.


The Top 10 (non-2017):

  1. The Lion in Winter
  2. The Wind That Shakes the Barley
  3. Withnail & I
  4. Ikiru
  5. The Lives of Others
  6. The Apartment
  7. Z
  8. Tokyo Story
  9. Zodiac
  10. The Gospel According to St. Matthew

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