I think my fellow students understand the free time crunch that comes around May, regardless of whether you’re in high school or you’re a grad student like me. The mad dash to turning in those final papers takes away from time perhaps better spent in the cinema or in front of the TV, or at least restricts us to watching and re-watching films relevant to our academic work. At least, that’s what happened to me this May: two of this month’s top 5 watches come straight from the reading list for my master’s thesis and two more were watched as background for a seminar paper on one of last month’s top 5 picks, The Graduate.
Regardless of why we come to our new watches, it’s always fascinating to track the patterns in our movie selections. I inadvertently continued my exploration of 1960s cinema with both a French New Wave hit and an immediate precursor to New Hollywood, while the more recent films on my list plumb the back catalog of directors still working today. I’m expecting June to yield even more queer gems as I wrap up work on my master’s degree, plus hopefully some wonderfully weird summer horror. Let me know what you think I should watch on Twitter and track my new watches on Letterboxd.
Director: Gregg Araki
Where I Found It: Blu-Ray
My recommendation of this film comes with the strongest of content warnings for likely the most in-depth depictions of child sexual abuse ever committed to film. Although Araki and the production team went to great lengths to protect the child actors from the graphic nature of the script, we are given no such protection from the stomach-churning, emotionally ravaging story and images. It’s a horrible thing to watch but it’s also deeply moving, and I can’t help but have a cold appreciation for the production talent necessary to make this film both artistically compelling and socially relevant.
Mysterious Skin is about two boys, expertly portrayed as teenagers by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbet, who take different approaches to reconciling the abuse they experience as children. The film moves between multiple timelines, capturing both the initial moment of abuse and the emotionally wrenching aftermath. There is no Lolita-esque identification with the abuser, but this film is singularly uncompromising in its stark and brutal vision. I can’t say that this film is a “favorite” per se, but I cannot deny that its filming of abuse and trauma is one of the most deeply moving experiences of watching a film I’ve ever had.
The Wedding Banquet
Director: Ang Lee
Where I Found It: Blu-Ray
Both sharply funny and remarkably insightful, Ang Lee’s incisive comedy of manners should have established him as a titan in queer cinema over a decade before the release of his far more famous Brokeback Mountain. I can only attribute this film’s exclusion from the popular queer film canon to the unwillingness of American audiences to watch subtitled films, although a substantial portion of this film’s dialogue is indeed in English. Despite occasionally indulging in comedic tropes from the 90s, The Wedding Banquet‘s willingness to tell a uniquely non-American queer story – and with a happy ending, no less – gestures towards sexual politics well ahead of its time.
The film opens with Wai-Tung (Winston Chao) and Simon (Mitchell Lichtenstein) as a thoroughly modern gay couple happily living in New York City. Seeking to ease the pressure to marry coming from his parents in Taiwan (Gua Ah-leh & Sihung Lung), Wai-Tung agrees to a sham marriage with a Chinese friend, Wei-Wei (May Chin) who needs a green card to remain in the U.S. The plan grows more complicated when Wai-Tung’s parents come to America to visit the newlyweds and insist on throwing a traditional Taiwanese wedding banquet. Although Wai-Tung and Simon’s efforts to conceal their relationship are predictably comic, the film invests real emotional weight in excavating the effects of heteronormativity and ends with its characters in an unconventional but content arrangement with both queerness and the realities of family.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
Director: Ang Lee
Where I Found It: Netflix
Despite being a twenty-first century release, Ang Lee’s warrior-epic tonally and structurally resembles the sprawling majesty of an old Hollywood classic. One of the few genuine wuxia martial-arts films to gain attention in the United States, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon packs a formidable emotional punch despite its aesthetic formalism. Marvel Studios could take a few notes from Lee’s film on how to expertly weave truly heartfelt storylines through captivating action set pieces, and the period grandeur of 18th century China outshines the cheap imitations that this film inspired.
Multiple storylines progress simultaneously throughout the film, but the central narrative stems from the relationship between Wudang swordsman Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-fat) and Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh at her very best). She Lien is far from a damsel in distress; she’s arguably the main character of the film, particularly in her complicated friendship/rivalry with young upstart Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi). All three of these characters are given fleshed out backstories and invigorating narrative arcs throughout the film, easily surpassing even contemporary expectations for female roles in action films. Visually striking and narratively engrossing, the film’s ten Academy Award nods set the record for nominations of a non-English film that has only been met, but not exceeded, by Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma.
Jules and Jim
Director: François Truffaut
Where I Found It: Kanopy
Released just three years after his career-defining The 400 Blows, Truffaut’s sexy dramedy represented an overseas shot at the Motion Picture Production Code that restrained frank depictions of sexuality. In addition to inspiring New Hollywood films such as Bonnie and Clyde that dispensed with the Code, Jules and Jim signaled a new approach to adult sexuality emblematic of the French New Wave and showcased the substantial filmmaking talents of one of the Wave’s greatest directors.
The film’s central love triangle is between the titular characters, played by Oskar Werner and Henri Serre, and the effervescent Catherine, portrayed by New Wave ingenue Jeanne Moreau. The trio exchange platonic, romantic and sexual affections throughout the film, their constantly shifting allegiances generating the entirety of the film’s narrative tension. While such romantic drama isn’t unusual to the twenty-first century spectator, the film’s twists and turns map the invigorating changes coming to cinema throughout the 1960s, from the fun and flirty opening scenes to the still-challenging ending.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Director: Mike Nichols
Where I Found It: Netflix
One of just two films to ever be nominated for every Academy Award for which it was eligible, the cinematic debut of legendary director Mike Nichols remains one of the finest displays of acting talent in cinematic history. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor lead a quartet rounded out by George Segal and Sandy Dennis; except for a couple throwaway roles in a scene added from the original Broadway play, only these four performers appear on the screen, usually contained to a single room. Despite these constraints – or perhaps because of them – every scene of this film crackles with anger and excitement, fear and humor, all bound together in a tightly wound package that still shocks even today.
Burton and Taylor star as George, a history professor struggling to advance in his department, and Martha, his wife and the daughter of the college’s president. Segal and Dennis play a young couple invited to the former pair’s house after a faculty party, and the film takes course over just a single night as the younger two’s secrets and insecurities are weaponized by the older couple, who are far more experienced in the art of marital sparring. The film is patient in deconstructing its characters, their steady consumption of neat liquor accompanying their increasingly fragile grasp of social niceties and willingness to disparage their spouses. The film ends with all four characters thoroughly dislodged from their superficial ideas of each other and utterly horrified by what was found instead.
20th Century Women (Mike Mills, 2016), Laurence Anyways (Xavier Dolan, 2012), Young Soul Rebels (Isaac Julian, 1991), Poison (Todd Haynes, 1991)