dust motes: january 2018

Dust Motes is a monthly post featuring mini-reviews of new film releases, as well as new-to-me movies, that I've watched over the past month.

This month I watched a total of 22 new and new-to-me movies and TV series; keeping up that current pace, I would be on track to watch a total of 264 for the year. In 2017, the first year I started tracking what I watched, I saw a total of 234 new and new-to-me movies and TV series.

I don't have any set goals about matching or exceeding last year's number. Instead, I'm most interested in breaking down my viewing habits by platform to see if there are any mediums I prefer over time. Keeping up with films and movies are hobbies that both have the potential to add up quickly; although I'm not worried about cutting back, necessarily, I'm curious to find out at the end of the year if I'm spending money on subscriptions I don't utilize as much as I should for the cost.

Last year was also the first time I wrote reviews for the films I watched, albeit only the advance screeners sent to me by my editor. Although I can accept and reject whichever titles get offered to me, I have no control over what actually winds up in my inbox. More experienced reviewers usually get the blockbuster releases, which means I often get a mixture of great indie finds and astonishingly bad movies. For that reason, I'd like to start sharing my thoughts on movies I picked for myself! This past January had its share of duds, but there were a few titles that stood out:

Phantom Thread (2018)
Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, Lesley Manville

Once every two to three years, I watch a film that utterly devastates me. The relationship between designer Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis) and his newest muse Alma (Krieps) distills via a two hour simmer that sees the power of obsession, and love, shift between them over time. Woodcock's sister (Manville) stays steadfast at his side, both professionally and personally, which creates a tripartite family whose strongest bonds also ebb and flow with the weeks...or hours. What makes Phantom Thread so utterly captivating is best enjoyed without any notion of its development, so even a short review must be frustratingly vague. The dynamics that exist between the Woodcock siblings and Alma are realized with such nuance by the three main players and taken to such satisfying lengths by the script (a collaboration between Anderson and DDL) that multiple viewings are a requirement. It took only one to catapult Phantom Thread into my all-time top 5 films. It's exceedingly rare to encounter this level of craftsmanship onscreen—from the script, to the direction, to the production design, to the performances, every contribution meshes perfectly in what will doubtless be considered a modern masterpiece.

Phantom Thread is currently in limited theatrical release.

Lost River (2015)
Dir. Ryan Gosling
Starring: Christina Hendricks, Ian de Caestecker, Matt Smith, Saoirse Ronan, Ben Mendelsohn

Middling reviews elsewhere couldn't keep me from digging deeper into the filmography of the stellar Ben Mendelsohn. Gosling's directorial debut deserves a fair amount of the criticism lobbed at it: the style apes, rather than pays homage to, filmmakers like David Lynch and Nicholas Winding Refn, and the script is a sometimes frustrating mix of convoluted and psychedelic. Yet, in spite of these shortcomings, I can't help but enjoy myself while watching Lost River. A delightfully garish seediness permeates the film, conjuring a neo-noir feel that the Safdie brothers successfully took advantage of in last year's Good Time. The main ensemble delivers performances elevated well above a middling script; Smith and Mendelsohn in particular gnaw (but don't chew) scenery as the two antagonists, and Ronan remains in fine form as the sensitive, yet unfortunately named, Rat. It's not a movie with broad appeal and I've watched similar titles without managing to finish them, yet something in the dark alchemy of Lost River appealed.

Lost River is currently available via Netflix DVD.

Capote (2005)
Dir. Bennett Miller
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffmann, Catherine Keener, Clifton Collins, Jr.

In Cold Blood has stubbornly lingered on my to-read list for over 10 years, much like Capote lurked on my to-watch agenda. While I greatly enjoyed the movie and agree with the excess of praise heaped on Hoffman's performance, I find myself regretting that I didn't read In Cold Blood first. All historical dramas take liberties with their subject: their primary goal is to entertain and tell a story, rather than present simple facts as documentaries (ought to) do. Throughout Capote I could not help but wonder how much license the filmmakers took with Capote's muddled feelings of guilt, greed, and sympathy for the two accused killers. (And Hoffman truly does capture those emotions and more with an eerily precise nuance, justifiably earning him an Oscar for the role.) That curiosity kept me somewhat apart from the drama unfolding onscreen, as I caught myself wondering if Capote could be so duplicitous and self-serving...or if that just made a better story. No matter how much truth director Bennett Miller infused into his true story, Capote is an excellent piece of cinema. Hopefully my appreciation will grow even more after gaining some much needed familiarity with the source material.

Capote is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

There Will Be Blood (2007)
Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, CiarĂ¡n Hinds

I was fortunate enough to watch There Will Be Blood on the big screen, eleven years late. A local theater chain hosted a Daniel Day-Lewis retrospective in honor of the release of Phantom Thread, so I jumped at the opportunity to give a second chance to a movie I dismissed as over-hyped when it first came out. Oftentimes screenwriters leap at the chance to tell, rather than show, a story; what a treat, then, that TWBB spends its first 15 minutes practically wordless! The "California" landscape (much of the film was actually shot in South Texas) and score combine for a stunning experience that surely diminishes when piped through the tiny speakers and screen of a television. Of course, the entire film hinges on a performance by Day-Lewis, tasked with making the megalomaniacal oilman Daniel Plainview not simply watchable, but relatable as well. Simply put, without the much-lauded devotion of Day-Lewis to the role, There Will Be Blood fails. With it, the film soars down into the darkest crevices of human nature to expose the truths of a man we all hope never to embody ourselves.

There Will Be Blood is currently available via Netflix DVD.

What did you watch last month? Any suggestions for what I should check out next? Share your thoughts in the comments down below!

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