I once had a girlfriend who thought it was a big waste of time and gas for me and my paisan Sam to drive around Philly eating tomato pies on our way to used record stores where we would waste even more time by buying, selling and trading movies and music. We were only 55 years old at the time. And a vegan Carlino or Corropolese pie has never been a waste of time. But my girlfriend pointed out that everything could be bought online, that things were so advanced that I could watch Lawrence of Arabia on my phone and that there was no need to waste resources by living.
Now I make my home in the capital of time-wasting — Los Angeles. Here, another female friend, Denise the Piece, who plies her trade near the corner of Pico and Robertson, can’t understand why I won’t get Netflix for 10 bucks a month and, instead, pay $12 a pop to go to the real movies. I like the real movies. A mutual female friend of ours also concurs about Netflix, saying if I had Netflix and wasn’t wasting so much time in LA traffic I could have more time for other things like exercising and going to the gym. That I could look more like my vegan hero Frank Medrano, instead of my cats, Sabrina and Squirt.
As you can see, there is a theme here: one of the great drawbacks of women is their practicality, their crazed immersion in the “real world.”
So if I had more free time I could go to the gym and get in shape… for what? The only thing left, that any of us need to be in training for, is overthrowing capitalism. Does LA Fitness have classes in putting down counter-revolutionary terror? No, inside or outside the gym, we’re on treadmills to nowhere. What are people in gyms doing? They’ll tell you that they’re trying to stay healthy and extend their lives so they can see their children and grandchildren grow up. Really? You want to see your children have lousier lives than you do, to never own a house or have a pension or savings, loaded down with college debt and humiliating jobs in the gig economy, perhaps driven to join the war machine and end up as an amputee or dying alone in the sands of Southwest Asia, or to have the only guarantee of a roof over their heads and three meals a day be a prison sentence, all the while understanding that every bit of this is your fault for not overthrowing capitalism? You want to live long enough to see all of this? Are you a sadist?
But back to the movies…How does Netflix and chill compare to seeing Mansfield 66/67 at the old-style ornate Laemmle Ahrya Fine Arts? (pictured below)
How does Netflix compare to the 35th anniversary screening of My Favorite Year at the Laemmle Royal with director Richard Benjamin (pictured) and stars Lainie Kazan and Joseph Bologna on hand to answer questions and reminisce about Peter O’Toole and the making of the movie?
Some people will say that you can’t compare movies to each other or that it’s hard to choose favorites. I say it’s no different than choosing your favorite roller coaster: if these two movies/coasters were side by and and you could only see/ride only one of them, which would you choose — that’s your favorite, that’s the one you think is better.
So here is the first annual Tomato Pie Awards, my top ten movies of the year. They weren’t all actually released in 2017 — I just happened to get around to seeing them in 2017. The directors of the top 5 films should contact Carlino’s for their vegan tomato pies and the directors of films 6-10 should contact Corropolese for theirs.
10) Okja — I was critical of Okja’s nonsensical ending, tokenism and cartoonish characters, but after seeing tedious hype (Moonlight), miscast maladies (Denzel Washington in Roman Israel), boring abominations (Blade Runner 2049), interminable white noise machines (Ex Libris) and the visually stunning but plot bereft (Loving Vincent), I decided that the hyper, good-hearted mishmash of Okja (the “super pig”) wasn’t so bad after all. Director Bong Joon-ho’s slam-bang style and memorable images blew away nearly all of the 60 movies I saw after Okja. Highlights: Okja accidentally destroying expensive shops in an underground shopping mall, Okja in the slaughterhouse killbox and, most moving of all, Okja silently escaping through the stockyards at night while masses of other proletarian pigs are banging the fences to resist the Satanic injustice that meat eaters inflict on them.
9) The Breadwinner — A beautiful animated tale set in 2001 Afghanistan as the Afghan people are about to go from the frying pan of the Taliban into the fire of American bombing. In the middle of the repression and chaos, a young girl cuts her hair and poses as a boy so she can go out and work to support her male-less family, happily experiencing some liberation as a by-product. Suspenseful, beautiful, exciting… and then — halfway through — the boldness, colors and enchantment go parabolic as a mesmerizing quest tale-within-a-tale begins and the film reveals its core message: telling stories is a kind of medicine, as necessary for survival as food and water.
8) I Am Not Your Negro — Director Raoul Peck’s masterful resurrection of an unfinished James Baldwin manuscript telling the history of racism in America through his friendships with Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers. Through speeches, writings and TV appearances, the always-on-point prophet and poet is just the man to explicate the psychology of the oppressor, the racism of Hollywood and Madison Avenue and how MLK and Malcolm X’s positions grew closer over the years, plus inside stories of Lorraine Hansberry and others. 1960s civil rights protests blend seamlessly into Black Lives Matter. Basically, if the un-woke are only willing to put in 90 minutes to understand 500 years of racism in America, this is the gold standard gift to give them. Memorable lines: “My countrymen were my enemy… This country does not know what to do with its black population… The west has no moral authority… The world is not white. White is a metaphor for power… You don’t need numbers. You need passion.”
7) Kedi — This is the city: Istanbul, Turkey. There are hundreds of thousands of cat stories in this city. And this is the story of seven of them. Kedi is a cat’s eye view of architecturally dazzling Istanbul where for hundreds of years free-roaming cats have shared their lives with humans. The year’s most perfect score by Kira Fontana accompanies soul-stirring commentary from people of all walks of life about what the cats mean to them. In Errol Morris’s 1978 Gates of Heaven pet owners spoke eloquently of their deceased pets — in Kedi’s Istanbul, we walk through the gates and find them alive. It’s all about the healing power of animals, baby. One day you’ll get it that animals are the Gods, not us — and as soon as we start serving them (no pun intended), our own lives will get remarkably better and satisfying.
6) California Typewriter — This was the most perfect movie I saw in 2017, the movie that got the most out of its subject, that told everything you wanted to know and then upped the ante by revealing many things that you had never thought about. From my 9/29/2017 CounterPunch review: “Warm, completely engrossing documentary about the history of the typewriter, some of its very famous fans (Tom Hanks has 250 typewriters) and a little mom and pop typewriter repair business in Berkeley whose owner frequents flea markets to get good deals for restoration and resale — accompanied by an artist acquaintance seeking typewriters to tear apart for sculptures… a perfect meditation on art, creativity, friendship, collectors, collectibles and the struggle to keep great things in a world which has no use for them.”
5) The Florida Project — This Little Rascals-like update for oligarchic 2017 America was the cherry on top of a great year in film for child heroes (Okja, The Breadwinner, Wonderstruck.) The Florida Project was the best critique of American economic decline, a little slice of life in the shit-wave tsunami of the bountiful free market which, strangely, has no jobs, housing, healthcare, livable wages, clean water and air or decent infrastructure. The American project is every bit as dilapidated as the motel managed by Willem Dafoe, a place where adults ground down by capitalism make bad choices and take their children to hell with them while others (Dafoe) throw finite lifelines, trying not to go under themselves. Sometimes, all the children have is each other.
With its undercurrent of real, potential or imagined menaces, whether gator-infested canals or Disneyland-infested pedophiles, The Florida Project boasts the best, truest and saddest ending of any film I saw this year. For millions of Americans, there are no answers. There is only fantasy and it’s learned at an early age.
I loved the fact that the trailer for The Florida Project gave the impression that Dafoe’s character might “save” the mother and daughter characters of Halley and Moonee, giving no clue to the devastating calamitous ending. As Halley is taken to jail, Moonee breaks free from Child Protective Services workers and escapes to her horrified little friend Jancey. As Moonee’s 6-year-old life is ripped apart and she cries in terror, Jancey doesn’t know how to comfort her so she grabs Moonee’s hand and they run and run and run, ending up hiding in Disney’s Magic Kingdom. Let the good times roll, America.
4) Whose Streets? — This documentary about the 2014 Ferguson, Missouri rebellion, filmed by the resisters themselves, was the most important movie of the year.
So many great moments: Cops boiling over with arrogance and hatred, screaming at people to “Go home!” when they’re standing in their own yards. Unarmed protesters forcing militarized robo-cops to retreat down the street. On the other side of the world, the masters of resilience and resistance — the Palestinians — tweet advice on how to deal with tear gas, hammering home the unity of the struggle against capitalism and its pointy Zionized, “other-ized” white supremacist spear. Then there’s the attempted taming of the rebellion by moving it to the “talking” stage inside an auditorium where establishment black sellouts try to silence the genuine resisters who immediately boo and call bullshit. The film shows mostly young blacks with no material advantages becoming fast-ass learners of strategy, tactics and resistance a la the Paris Communards. And the absolute most key line for the entire working class, said in passing by a young rebel: “We lost all our fear.”
The one thing the film left out was that some of the rebels actually shot back with rifles in the night at the cops and they were never caught. And within a day or two, the state turned down the heat by taking the National Guard off the streets. This was a victory — pay attention to it. At the moment, for all its armed might, the state apparently doesn’t want to replay the 1967 Detroit rebellion. Leftists need to stop saying mindless shit like “violence doesn’t work.” Violence has been part of every successful revolution.
3) The Farthest — Wow, a happy film. The scientists and engineers who worked on the Voyager 1 and 2 space probes become poets as they talk about their work and the cosmos. A delicious stew of uplifting interviews, sounds from outer space, visuals of icy geysers, blasting volcanoes, raging dust storms and the “Golden Records,” the Earth’s greatest hits of photos, languages and music for any aliens who would care to look and listen. The Voyagers, launched in 1977, are now in interstellar space and still sending back info though their cameras stopped working years ago — and all based on the computing power of a present-day hearing aid. A rare look at something good the government achieved, The Farthest shows that rivers of intelligence, goodwill and creativity are always awaiting release from the goddam dam of capitalism.
2) In Search of Fellini — Portrait of an unconventional, some might say dysfunctional, small and loving family as it’s breaking apart. Maria Bello plays a mother recently informed of a fast-growing cancer who now must push her sheltered 20-year-old daughter Lucy (Ksenia Solo) out into the world. Unaware of her mother’s condition, Lucy decides la dolce vita is best experienced by hitting la strada to Italy to meet Federico Fellini, thereby creating a lifetime of amarcords. The tension between her mother’s illness on the homefront and Lucy’s enchanted, romantic and sometimes hair-raising escapades, in an Italy both intimate and spectacular, grabs the heart and doesn’t let go. A movie that loves movies, ISOF casts a warm magical spell with myriad allusions to the films of Fellini.
1) The Shape of Water — Like The Breadwinner and In Search of Fellini, I wanted this tour de force from director Guillermo del Toro to go on and on. This interspecies love affair between a mute cleaning woman and a human-like amphibious creature, captured by the US military in the Amazon River, is an extended meditation on the “other.” As bonuses, the working class “help” prevails over the military industrial complex, workers of goodwill unite no matter what “their” governments are like and vivisectors are portrayed as the torturing villains that they are.
All of the above is packed, wrapped up and delivered with action, humor, chases, violence, ugly demonstrations of bigotry against various “others,” an impeccable score by Alexandre Desplat, an underwater interspecies pas de deux and a black and white fantasy musical segment for good measure, as if the entire film isn’t one fantastical creation. You’ll be crying in spots, not because of sadness, but because of sheer beauty as del Toro does visually what Van Morrison does aurally, expressing the longing for unity, home or God, whatever you believe them to mean. A masterwork and the fastest two hours you ever sat through.
Honorable Mentions: Wonderstruck, my eleventh favorite movie, skillfully cut back and forth between two stories set 50 years apart about children trying to find where they belong — and taking plenty of risks to get there. The ultimate movie hasn’t been made about Cuba but Jon Alpert’s Cuba and the Cameraman documentary is a welcome part of the picture. Shot over 5 decades of travel to Cuba, Alpert was able to interview Fidel Castro several times and followed a family of farmers who worked the land right into their 80s. I thought Jack Lowden did a great job as the suicidal and painfully shy Morrissey before he was Morrissey in the England is Mine biopic. The film ends with Johnny Marr standing at Morrissey’s front door, answering our question: How Soon is Now?
Somebody who wasn’t a “charming man” was JD Salinger but even the Rebel in the Rye biopic had redeeming value, as hearing this paragraph was always going to be worth the price of the ticket:
“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around — nobody big, I mean — except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”
Today, more than ever, the working class needs to be guardians and heroes, catchers in the rye and all, and stop the planet from going over the cliff. Do your part to unfuck the world. Go vegan and overthrow capitalism. Time’s a wastin’.
All photos by Randy Shields.