The Tenacious Monthly Review of January 2021

Some people have decided that January is actually the 13th month of 2020, given how most of the woes of last year didn’t magically evaporate when our arbitrarily-appointed start-time for a “new year” rolled around. Funny that. It’s a nice idea — to think that we can write off this month by association with last year — but, the way things are going, I think if you want to carry that idea through you’re going to end up with a 2020 that has 17 or 18 or 19 months… perhaps even a full 24, who knows.

So, back in the real world, the inevitable “second year of shittiness” that is 2021 began with January. Here’s what I watched during it…


#1 Bill (2015)
#2 WolfWalkers (2020)
#3 Ernest & Celestine (2012), aka Ernest et Célestine
#4 Happy Death Day 2U (2019)
#5 Festen (1998), aka The Celebration
#6 You Only Live Once (1937)
#7 The Frighteners: Director’s Cut (1996)
#7a Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)
#8 Hotel Transylvania 3D (2012)
#9 Wolf Warrior (2015), aka Zhan lang
#10 Mission Control: The Unsung Heroes of Apollo (2017)
#11 One Night in Miami… (2020)
#12 Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)
#13 Joint Security Area (2000), aka Gongdong gyeongbi guyeok JSA
#14 Calling Dr. Death (1943)
#15 Under Siege (1992)
#16 Who? (1974)
#17 The Pinchcliffe Grand Prix (1975), aka Flåklypa Grand Prix
#18 Blithe Spirit (2020)
#19 Tower Heist (2011)
#20 The Social Dilemma (2020)
#21 3 Idiots (2009)
#22 Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
#23 The Secret Garden (2020)
#24 Cats (2019)
#25 Sansho Dayu (1954), aka Sansho the Bailiff
#26 Psycho Goreman (2020)
WolfWalkers

Joint Security Area

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Psycho Goreman

.


  • As should be self-evident, I watched 26 new feature films in January.
  • I used that exact wording for my opening note last year too, which I only discovered after I wrote the above sentence and then went to look up how I’d worded it last year. I guess you could call it consistency, or style, or something like that. “Unimaginatively repetitious” would be a less kind label…
  • Anyway, that tally actually edges January 2021 into my top 10 months ever, in 10th place. With 169 months in 100 Films history, that means it’s in my top 6% of months ever.
  • There are no other Januarys in the top 10 — which is another way of saying, this is my best January ever, beating 2016’s 21.
  • Naturally, that also means it obliterated the January average (previously 11.46, now 12.50), as well as toppling the rolling average of the last 12 months (previously 22.0, now 23.2).
  • As you may also have already extrapolated, being my best-ever January means this is the furthest I’ve ever reached by the end of January. It’s also the earliest I’ve passed the quarter-way point of #25, beating 6th February in 2016. (Though these days I’m ‘officially’ aiming for 120 Films in a Year, which makes the quarter-way point #30.)
  • As we know from past experience, trying to use any month to make a prediction about the whole year is futile. But, just for fun, if I kept up this rate for the entire year, I’d make it to #312. Well, never say never…
  • Another achievement: I watched a new film on January 5th for the first time in recorded history (i.e. since 2009, at least). Regular readers will know I’ve been tracking these ‘missing dates’ and ticking them off for a few years now (since July 2017, to be precise), and now there’s just May 23rd outstanding.
  • One thing I didn’t do this month was post any reviews of the films I watched. That comes after a 2020 where I performed similarly poorly in that regard, averaging 1.6 reviews a month of films I’d watched that month (it was zero or one review in eight months of last year, with better tallies in April, June, July, and August bolstering the average). At this rate, the 100-week roundups in 2022 are going to be chocka (heck, the 2021 ones are going to be pretty busy).
  • With Calling Dr. Death (#14), the Inner Sanctum Mysteries joins the list of film series I’m in the middle of watching, which currently numbers 23. I’ve got a list of them on Letterboxd, if you’re interested.
  • This month’s Blindspot film: Kenji Mizoguchi’s gut-punching folklore drama, Sansho Dayu (aka Sansho the Bailiff).
  • From last month’s “failures” I only watched WolfWalkers.



The 68th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
Cartoon Saloon have produced several excellent movies, but WolfWalkers may be their best yet — gorgeously animated, an exciting adventure, with plenty of heart too. Such a shame it’s buried away on Apple TV+ where most people will never see it.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
Wholly predictably, it’s Cats. I mean, really, did you expect anything else?

Worst Dinner Party of the Month
Sure, the antics of the couple at the heart of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? may be famously uncomfortable and wild and weird, but that’s nothing on standing up at your father’s birthday meal to announce to dozens of assembled friends and family that… well, that would be a spoiler. Suffice to say, Festen’s got this one.

Most Jingoistic Action Movie of the Month
Joint Security Area may deconstruct and expose the futility of war and nationalism, but that’s hardly stopped other action movies indulging in it aplenty. Under Siege comes with the prerequisite praising of America’s military might, but the villains are its own agents gone rogue, so at least there’s some acknowledgement of their own (potential) flaws. Wolf Warrior, on the other hand, sometimes borders on propaganda piece… although the fact they feel the need to send basically their entire army to track down a handful of insurgent mercenaries isn’t actually the great advertisement someone might’ve thought it was…

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
Now, normally I’m quite strict about this category — which means that if, say, I post something on the last day of the month it basically stands no chance of making it, because it doesn’t have as much time to build up the hits. However, I published my review of Death to 2020 at 11pm on December 31st — having only a single hour to qualify for last month’s count seems a particularly unfair fate. So that’s why I’ve declared it this month’s winner, especially as it got more than four times the views of the ‘genuine winner’, my Christmas TV post. (Talking of “posts on the last day not doing well”, the TV column I posted yesterday afternoon amassed enough views in that short time to come a close-ish second/third, which just goes to show, um, something.)


In case you missed them, I began January with my usual extensive multi-post review of the previous year…

Now, as for actual film reviews…


A new year means a new Rewatchathon, too. My goal of 50 rewatches means I need to average four a month, so this year isn’t off to the best start…

#1 Happy Death Day (2017)
#2 Crimson Tide (1995)

I rewatched Happy Death Day immediately before its sequel (see #4 on the main list). Their shared “reliving the same day” conceit means the second film has a lot of references back to the first, so they work quite nicely as a double-bill.

I’ve fancied rewatching Crimson Tide for a while, but it never seems to be available anywhere, so I gave in and bought it from Apple — it was only 50p dearer than renting it. Then they went and announced the Disney+ Star slate and it’s going to be on there. Oh well.


With cinemas still shuttered here due to lockdown, it once again falls to streamers to provide the brand-new releases. Netflix are promising at least one original movie premiere every week throughout 2021 (with some 70-odd films coming in total). Once upon a time you would’ve assumed that was based on a technicality — i.e. lots of cheap made-for-TV-style filler to bolster the numbers — but, so far at least, they’ve been keeping the standard at a level of noteworthiness. For example, January’s offerings included the hard-hitting drama Pieces of a Woman, which comes with plenty of awards buzz; blockbuster-ish sci-fi action with Anthony ‘the Falcon’ Mackie in Outside the Wire; adaptations of bestselling books like The White Tiger and Penguin Bloom; and they even wheeled out that good old Brit-flick formula of quality actors + period setting in The Dig, with Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, and Lily James starring in a true story from the 1930s. Meanwhile, Amazon had Dave Franco’s directorial debut, The Rental. Not quite as high-profile a slate, eh.

In terms of catalogue stuff, it was really the TV catch-up services that were catching my eye in January, including Korean Cold War spy thriller The Spy Gone North on iPlayer, alongside acclaimed sports doc Hoop Dreams, Beatles classic A Hard Day’s Night, and recommended gambling drama Mississippi Grind. Over on All 4, I missed some classics I’ve been meaning to see for years, like Animal Farm and Withnail & I, but still available (for a few weeks yet) are the likes of A Taxi Driver starring Song Kang-ho, and Danish crime thriller The Guilty, which is currently being remade for Netflix by Antoine Fuqua and Jake Gyllenhaal.

Because I don’t have enough to watch as it is, this month I subscribed to MUBI. Okay, I have plenty to watch, but the offer of £1 for three months was hard to pass up — I mean, at that price, watch just one film and it was worth it. I’ve already watched a couple, but films on my watchlist for the remaining time of my cheap subscription include Bacurau, High Life, Paterson, Rocco and His Brothers, Transit, and… Showgirls. Yes, Showgirls is on MUBI.

None of which stopped me from buying more stuff on disc, of course. In terms of brand-new releases, I’ve got The New Mutants in 4K, Arrow’s new edition of Southland Tales (including the longer Cannes cut), and the bells-and-whistles-less 4K reissue of Total Recall (the 1990 one, obviously), plus Eureka’s release of the Inner Sanctum Mysteries, which I have at least started (see #14). Watching JSA (#13) inspired me to plug some of the gaps in my Park Chan-wook collection, so I picked up I’m a Cyborg and Thirst nice and cheap; and Kind Hearts and Coronets (#12) prompted me to buy StudioCanal’s bells-and-whistles-full 4K edition of The Ladykillers. Finally, thanks to an HMV sale I continued to fill out my Ray Harryhausen collection with The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and The Valley of Gwangi. Between those and the various Indicator box sets, I’m only a couple away from owning all his feature film work. Just need to watch some more of them now…


Slightly belated UK releases for Promising Young Woman with Carey Mulligan, and Tom Hanks in Paul Greengrass’s News of the World. Hopefully I’ll have reviews of both.

Stoker (2013)

2015 #162
Park Chan-wook | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | 18 / R

Director Chan-wook “Oldboy” Park makes his English-language debut with this modern-Gothic thriller from the pen of Wentworth “yes, the guy from Prison Break” Miller.

When well-to-do architect Richard Stoker dies on his daughter’s 18th birthday, he leaves said insular daughter India (Mia “Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland” Wasikowska) stuck in their Tennessee mansion with her unbeloved mother (Nicole “the face behind the nose” Kidman). At the wake, both are surprised by the arrival of Charlie (Matthew “Ozymandias” Goode), Richard’s brother who Evelyn has never met and India has never even heard of. Nonetheless, he’s all charm and good manners, though when he moves into their home he begins to build up a slightly creepy relationship with Evelyn, and essentially stalks India. The Stokers’ housekeeper clearly knowns something about him, but then she disappears; and Richard and Charles’ Aunt Gwendolyn turns up wanting a word with Evelyn. Just what is going on with Uncle Charlie that everyone apart from India seems to know about?

And I’ve already said too much, maybe. Stoker isn’t all about its mystery and its twists — it’s at least as much about its carefully constructed Gothic mood; but part of that is the mystery, so, y’know. Indeed, it’s so moody and atmospheric that it seems to turn some viewers off. It’s certainly not thrill-a-minute, and it has a very particular pace and tone. I’m going to keep coming back to the word Gothic, because that really is the best word for it; whether that should be “modern Gothic” or “neo-Gothic” or “Southern Gothic” or what, I don’t know, but it’s definitely Gothic — with little more than cosmetic changes, I’m sure the story could be shunted back to a crumbling pile in 19th Century England. So precise is the mood of this secluded household, it’s kind of weird when, a little while in, we get to see India’s place of education: a typical US high school. In another film I might call this sudden change of locale a misstep, a breaker of tone, but in the world Park has created it just feels like a point of contrast.

Visually, Stoker is peerless. It doesn’t scream “beauty” at you, but the shot composition, Chung-hoon Chung’s photography, and Nicolas De Toth’s editing are all exceptional. The sound design is incredible too, with judicious use of ultra-heightened effects to imitate India’s skill for hearing small things others maybe miss. Finally, the music is perfection. A piano duet composed by Philip Glass is one of the film’s most memorable sequences, but Clint Mansell offers a doom-laden score, of a piece with his work on Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain (both of which I think I’ve written of my admiration for sometime previously), and there are some choice songs too: I’d never heard Summer Wine by Nancy Sinatra & Lee Hazlewood before, but it fits the film like a glove, as well as being fantastic in its own right; and Emily Wells’ Becomes the Color slugs in with a kind of perfect dissonance to the musical style to that point. A comment on iCheckMovies used the word “sumptuous” for all of this, and that seems apt.

I have a feeling “not for everyone” may be one of the most overused phrases on this blog, but, if so, I think that’s for good reason: some of the best movies are “not for everyone”. We may not agree on what those movies are, but that’s kind of the point: they fit our own individual tastes, not “everyone’s”. Stoker undoubtedly doesn’t have easy mass appeal — it’s got a 6.9 on IMDb — and even some people open to its charms deem it to only be style over substance. I don’t think it’s wholly lacking in the latter, though if you’re looking for some Significance then I don’t know if you’ll find it — it’s an artistically-made Gothic thriller, not a soul-bearing artistic portrait of humanity. And as for the style… well, I’ve already talked about that. Whether you can have “style” for style’s sake, or whether it needs to be in aid of something, is a debate for another day. Here, it is in aid of something: amping up the Gothicism of the inherently Gothic story, which in other hands could have just became any-old present-day-set family thriller.

Describing something as “an acquired taste” might well be another phase I’ve used often, especially as it’s essentially a synonym for “not for everyone”. Nonetheless, that’s what I’ll go for here. Stoker will most decidedly not appeal to all palates, but for the right viewer, it’s a dark, moody, sensuous, Gothic delight.

5 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Stoker is on Film4 tomorrow, Friday 30th, at 9pm.

It placed 7th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

Oldboy (2003)

aka Oldeuboi

2014 #123
Chanwook Park | 115 mins | DVD | 2.35:1 | South Korea / Korean | 18 / R

OldboyPerpetual drunkard, but also loving husband and father, Oh Dae-su (Min-sik Choi) is snatched off the street and imprisoned in a shabby bedsit without explanation. He learns that his wife has been murdered and he’s being blamed. His daughter lives, but he doesn’t know where. Then, 15 years later, and equally inexplicably, he’s released. He befriends a sushi chef, Mi-do (Hye-jung Gang), before being contacted by Woo-jin (Ji-tae Yoo) who claims to have been his captor. Dae-su is given just five days to discover why he was locked up. If he succeeds, Woo-jin will kill himself; if he fails, he will kill Mi-do. Dae-su’s investigations lead him to dark secrets, shocking revelations, and violent retribution.

It’s hard to summarise the effect of Oldboy without just watching it. As its premise hopefully conveys, it’s not wholly set in a world you can believe as our own, but nor is it an outrageous fantasy — maybe someone somewhere does run a kind of boarding house for illegal imprisonment? Stranger things have happened. It’s a film predicated on mysteries, but one that doesn’t rely on remaining mysterious — there are answers for every question, you just have to follow the strange path it leads you on and wait for the answers. Try not to get spoilered. (That said, it does have a (deliberately) ambiguous final end, but at least by then it’s answered the questions it started out with.)

Oh Dae-su and Mi-doChoi is excellent in the lead role, deserving of all the praise he’s garnered. It’s a highly unusual role with a lot of different and sometimes conflicting facets, but he pulls it all off with aplomb. He maintains a sense of mystery and unknowableness throughout, whilst also being a plausible human being in an implausible situation. As his adversary, Yoo makes for an excellent villain: calm, businesslike, always with the upper hand. The final confrontation is a scene to be savoured, calling to mind everything from James Bond to David Fincher (for me, at least) in terms of the villain’s slick lair and the twisted events that unfold in it.

Director Chanwook Park has a sure handle on proceedings, guiding the viewer through a sometimes tricky narrative. There’s also a distinct visual flair, exhibited not least in the infamous corridor/hammer fight sequence. Shot in a single-take from a vantage point that emulates side-scrolling computer games, it’s justly famed. The film as a whole is frequently gorgeously shot by DP Jung Jung-hoon, though at times it’s hard to tell if the DVD encode was obscuring some visual majesty or if it was just the film’s unusual look. May be one to get on Blu-ray, then.

Having garned acclaim in the West, it was inevitable we’d see a Hollywood remake of Oldboy. Bizarrely, Steven Spielberg and Will Smith were attached for a while, but it ended up coming to fruition in 2013 under the guidance of Spike Lee and starring Josh Brolin. It seemed to pass by almost unnoticed. Without having seen it (yet), it’s a little difficult to understand how a remake might work. Some people would say that about all remakes, but personally I don’t think it’s an automatically worthless or artistically unjustified process to engage in. Woo-jinIn Oldboy’s case, however, so much of what makes it special, unique and exceptional lies in the direction. So do you copy that wholesale? If you do, what’s the point — just watch the original. But if you don’t, what’s the point — you’re losing a large chunk of what’s special. I guess this is why the US version didn’t go down so well — whichever path it took, it was on a hiding to nothing. I look forward to seeing it to judge for myself.

Oldboy — original flavour — is kinda crazy, kinda disturbed, but kinda brilliant for it. It’s exactly the sort of thing that would never, ever pass “what would make a good film?” focus grouping, for so many reasons, and yet the result is quite incredible.

5 out of 5

Oldboy placed 7th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014, which can be read in full here.

It was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2014 project, which you can read more about here.