Swimming the Channel
If you'd rather just read about 5 old movies I absolutely loved this year and 10 more I think are worth watching, scroll on down. If you wanna read some rumination on film and routine and time marching ever onward I have just the Substack post for you….
I’ve been a devoted subscriber to The Criterion Channel since 2020. I subscribed early on in the pandemic because I figured hey, I’m already pretty annoying. Letterboxd is already my most used app. Why not?
After a few months of feeling like my $99 was going down the drain, I found a Letterboxd user by the name of Ben who had a list called The Criterion Challenge 2021. The premise was simple: 52 weeks of the year. Each week you choose a film in the Criterion Collection based on the corresponding category and watch it. Week One might be “watch a film released the year of Criterion's inception.” Week 9 might simply be “1940s.” Another week you might choose something from Bong Joon-ho’s Top 10 list. At the end of the year you’ve watched 52 Criterion Titles. My girlfriend Maureen and I thought it’d be a good way to watch a bunch of things we might not otherwise see, to dig deep into the canon of film history, and, if nothing else, to pass the hellish time that was early part of the pandemic.
2021’s challenge was all about compromise: my girlfriend and I had to agree on a title to watch during our weekly Tuesday night viewing. She didn’t care much for me running the defense on the merits of a 3-hour piece of impressionistic Soviet filmmaking. We watched the movies that sounded interesting to us which lead to a list of carefully considered and curated choices. By the end of December we had watched 52 great movies.
2022’s theme was, honestly, Best of the Best. The early days of COVID were a distant memory. Maureen had a “real job” and couldn't “sit down” to “watch” movies “every week” or whatever. Left to my own devices, if there was any title I deemed “significant” to the canon in any way, shape, or form I watched it without second thought. I didn’t really give a shit what the plot was. I didn’t need context. I saw a title like La Jetée or Throne of Blood or The Third Man and sent it. I tried my best to watch on the same day each week, but that quickly fell apart.
This brings us to 2023. It was a weird one. On the one hand I had a pretty busy year and found it impossible to choose a weekly viewing time. But in some ways this may have been my best year of the challenge. Trying to make this list I could hardly narrow down my favorites because there are at least 25 movies that I’d be thrilled to watch again. But part of me feels like this year lacks identity. Four out of five of my favorite watches come from the 1990s. I guess I feel like if this is a snapshot of my journey into the world of film it’s kind of a homogeneous one. I definitely feel I could’ve stretched myself a bit more. Maybe I played it a little too Safe (Haynes, 1995).
It’s no coincidence that basically all of the recommendations you’ll find below are in English. When faced with a decision between a foreign language film and an English language film, unlike in years 1 and 2, I almost always chose English. I’m a global citizen, damn it. I’m not afraid of subtitles! But this past year my attention span was non-existent. I spent the first half of the year in a show on Broadway (awesome!) and the second half of the year navigating the perils of unemployment and caring of a cute but needy new dog (different!). I figured if I chose something in English at the very least I could scroll on my phone and still follow 80% of the plot.
I also think there’s something to be said about the actual ways in which I consumed these movies. I’m ashamed to admit that I watched a few of these on my phone, like The Ballad of Narayama, an expertly composed Kabuki style fable shot in technicolor on a theater-like sound stage, which I watched while on a bus from Midtown to the Jersey Shore. What the fuck was I thinking! I’m even more ashamed to admit I watched at least one movie while running on a treadmill. Sometimes I’d sit down on my couch on a Tuesday 11:15 am fire up a 90 minute flick, and not finish until 3pm.
All of this has got me thinking: maybe I’ve lost the passion for the challenge. Maybe my brain has been turned to gray slush from countless hours and years staring at my phone once and for all. Maybe I’m just stupid. Whatever the reason may be, I don’t feel like 2023 lived up to the first two years of the challenge. And that pisses me off.
I’ve spent the first four days of our nascent 2024 feeling kinda down and uninspired. I’m the type of idealistic idiot that gets excited by the passage of time and the cycles of life. But for some reason the concept of renewal isn’t doing anything for me so far this year. I could hardly even think of a resolution when I tried.
As the final weeks of 2023 came and went I found myself struggling to shell out 2 hours to watch movies for the challenge. I wondered if it was even worth doing it again. But then I found a way to turn this into a resolution of sorts.
I know all 3 people who have read this far will be relieved to find out: I am committing to another year of the challenge. It’s year four, baby! Senior Year Criterion Challenge. I’ve only just scratched the surface.
Gone are the days of watching 40 minutes of a Samurai Movie on my iPhone while running at a 7:35/mile pace. Gone are the days of scrolling X, the app formerly known as twitter, while half-listening half-watching to an early-90s erotic thriller.
2024 is about watching films from start to finish without stopping. It’s about stashing your phone in your bedside table for 135 minutes. It’s about digging deeper into the works of filmmakers I love and discovering new ones along the way.
I don’t know if 2024 is gonna “be my year” or whatever. But come what may, I’ll be sitting my ass down each week, firing up the Criterion Channel, and going to town.
Without further ado, my recommendations:
The Long Good Friday (United Kingdom, John Mackenzie, 1980)
Watched for week 12: Double Features. The collection was “Just When I Thought I Was Out”
This movie fucking RIPS. As far as plot goes it’s pretty standard crime fare. Bob Hoskins, who went from guy I didn’t really know to personal Fella Hall of Fame, plays a cockney crime boss in 1970s London who finds his empire under attack and ain’t gonna stop at anything to get back at his antagonizers. He’s flat-out incredible. There’s also a character named Razors. If you weren't convinced before, I do hope Razors does the trick. Or maybe a young Pierce Brosnan as an IRA henchman with no lines? The sexy, sleazy saxophone score is an all-timer too. Just watch it. You won’t be disappointed.
Streaming on Max, Criterion Channel
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (USA, Jim Jarmusch, 1999)
Watched for week 16: American Independent Cinema
Every once in a while a movie comes along that you finish and think to yourself, “I guess this will be my personality for the next 8 months.” Ghost Dog is one of those movies. Straight up one of the smoothest and coolest movies ever made. Forrest Whittaker plays the titular Ghost Dog, a mob hitman who tends to a pigeon coop, lives off the grid, and adheres to the ancient code of the samurai. With a soundtrack by RZA (and an amazing cameo, too) and the GOAT Robby Müller behind the lens, this movie oozes cool. Jarmusch became one of my all time faves this year. Shout out to the two other Jimmy J bangers I watched this year: Dead Man and Night on Earth. Any of them are well worth your time.
Streaming on Max, Criterion Channel
Safe (USA, Todd Haynes, 1995)
Watched for week 23: Gaspar Noe’s Closet Picks
There’s a simple equation in modern cinema: Haynes + Moore = perfection. This movie is horrifying. It’s a perfect metaphor for about 50,000 things in our modern world today and it was released ALMOST THIRTY YEARS AGO! I happened to watch it on a day when New York was under a thick, apocalyptic cloud of bright orange smoke from wildfires in Canada. I would say as long as you can avoid watching it under those circumstances it’s a must see.
Available to rent only
Ratcatcher (United Kingdom, Lynne Ramsey, 1999)
Watched for week 21: British Realism
This movie really messed me up. I couldn’t stop thinking about it for about a week after watching it. Set against the evocative and smelly backdrop of the 1973 Garbage Strike in Scotland, Ratcatcher is a coming of age story about poverty and tragedy told with extreme humanity and care. And boy oh boy does Lynne Ramsey know how to compose a shot. There’s one scene in particular featuring a field of wheat that may be my favorite image I saw in a movie this year (a category I just made up). It’ll break your heart…but as Nicole Kidman always says……..
Streaming on Max, Criterion Channel
Miller’s Crossing (USA, Joel and Ethan Coen, 1990)
Watched for week 37: Crime
Here’s a real line of dialogue from Miller’s Crossing:
“Straight as a corkscrew. Mr. Inside Outsky straight as an arrow picking up his orders from a Bolshevik at yegg central.”
The Coen Brothers are known, among many things, for dialogue that flies off the page. I think this is probably the best showcase of that in their entire filmography. I kept pausing and rewinding to hear characters say lines throughout the run of the movie. Miller’s Crossing is a sleak, noir-ed up crime thriller set in unnamed city during Prohibition. The cast is outrageous: Gabriel Byrne is cool and quiet (a theme for my faves this year, I guess). John Tuturro is nuts, John Polito is perfect, Marsha Gay Harden goes Hard In the mf Paint, and J.E. Freeman’s Eddie Dane is the only Coen Brothers villain who can hold a candle to Anton Chigurh. Carter Burwell does his mf thing like always. Simply put: I have no idea why people aren’t talking about this as one of the very best Coen Brothers films.
Streaming on Paramount+
Other great watches this year that I think you might enjoy
Tampopo - Hilarious, delicious. (Max, Criterion Channel)
Paths of Glory - Kubrick doesn’t miss. (Tubi? Freevee? One of the weird ones)
Life Is Sweet - Mike Leigh doesn’t miss. (Criterion Channel)
To Be Or Not To Be - Honestly perfect. I think everyone needs to see this before they die. (Max, Criterion Channel)
A Woman Under The Influence - Gena Rowlands might make a case for one of the all time greatest film performances in this. Wouldn’t recommend if you’re experiencing marital strife! (Max, Criterion Channel)
The Red Shoes - ROCKED MY SHIT! Technicolor cream dream. (Max, Criterion Channel)
Police Story - Probably the most fun I had watching a movie this year. (Max, Criterion Channel)
Metropolitan - TFW you’re a faux-intellectual pedantic male manipulator coming of age in the elite sphere of 1990s New York. (Max, Criterion Channel)
Through a Glass Darkly - I have the Ingmar Bergman Box Set and it’s my goal to watch every disc in there. This one rocks and will make you insanely depressed!!! (Criterion Channel)
Wings of Desire - another gorgeously poetic flick for anyone who ever said “study abroad changed meeeeeee” (Max, Criterion Channel)
If you feel like following along for Year 4 here’s the link to my own personal list.
And if any of this sounds cool to you I highly encourage trying it out. We could even text about movies if we’re cool like that…….
My favorite movies of the year
Trolls: World Tour - didn’t see this one, but it sounded cool. It’s about trolls (Max, Criterion Channel)
This was fun to read, because actually, for me, 2024 is going to be the year of no external consumption—I’m going to close my eyes and plug my ears/nose and only think about what is already inside me, nothing else.