Quick Take: The 39 Steps (1935), or Before Hitchcock Was Hitchcock

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Like most movie-lovers, I’m most familiar with Alfred Hitchcock’s later work. I’ve seen his early movies Rebecca and Sabotage, but the movies I think of when I think of Hitch are The BirdsPsychoNorth by Northwest, and, my personal favorite of his, Rear Window. But those movies were a full thirty years into the legendary director’s career. The 39 Steps was Hitchcock’s first big hit and was the beginning of a run of rare form. There’s a reason Hitch is one of the few directors from early Hollywood that even the movie-illiterate have at least heard of, and The 39 Steps is the genesis.

Moody and atmospheric, the movie’s story, following a London man (Robert Donat) who gets caught up with an agent trying to foil plot to steal valuable British military intelligence, is the classic Hitchcock fable of an ordinary man facing extraordinary circumstances. It’s also got Hitchcock’s typical deadpan humor. The combination makes for a stylish, classic spy movie that ranks up there near, yes, Rear Window.

Quick Take: Chi-Raq Is a Mess of Good Intentions

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It’s not hard to see what Spike Lee is going for with Chi-Raq. He’s an outspoken dude, and he gave plenty of interviews about his desire for peace in the  black communities of Chicago on the movie’s press tour. Clearly the man has good intentions for this movie. But the result is tonally imbalanced and sort of insulting. On paper, a satirical musical performed all in rhyme about gun violence and gang life from the great Spike Lee sounds like a risk for movie newbies Amazon, but one well worth taking. Lee’s movies thrive on risk, on a hip-hop sense of thrill. But onscreen, while there are flashes of great filmmaking (especially in scenes that cede the floor to powerful performances from Teyonah Parris and Angela Bassett), most of it feels unfinished and haphazard. Maybe this is what happens when somebody who so clearly and vividly represents Brooklyn tries to capture the essence of a different city without the blessing of that city’s community.

Quicker take: If you want the best experience watching Chi-Raq, watch Do the Right Thing instead.

Quick Take: Sidewalk Stories (1989)

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If you have something against black-and-white or silent movies, then no amount of effusive praise from me will convince you to see Sidewalk Stories. But you’d be missing out on a magical experience. With the sensibility of the Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp character and the modern wit of The Artist (twenty years prior, I might add), Sidewalk Stories tells the story of a homeless man (Charles Lane, also the film’s director) who finds himself in possession of a child after he witnesses the stabbing of her father. Like City Lights before it, Sidewalk Stories finds the right tone to present a realistic experience of life on the streets while still making you laugh in every scene. The significant difference in this film is that nearly every major player is black, telling the kind of story that the movies of the silent era never deigned worthy.

Quicker take: It’s a 1989 movie, but it’ll still be one of the best silent movies you’ll ever see.

Quick Take: Winter on Fire (2015)

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For all of the awful things that have happened in the United States over the past ten years, from the burst of the housing bubble to the events that have necessitated Black Lives Matter, it’s still impossible to imagine our government responding to citizens’ assembly the way the Ukrainian government did in 2013 and 2014. What began as a peaceful gathering of concerned students ballooned into a citywide revolution after the president’s peacekeeping forces turned live ammunition on citizens. The movie would be remarkable regardless of its ending, since director Evgeny Afineevsky has compiled startling footage recorded in the midst of the action as it’s happening, which makes Winter on Fire reminiscent of 2013’s The Square about Egypt’s part in the Arab Spring. You watch people die in that one too.

Quicker take: Sobering Exhibit A in the evidence that rioters don’t always start the riot.

Quick Take: Norte, the End of History (2014)

Norte, the End of History: a mere four hours long.

If you’re the kind of person who likes novels that are over 600 pages long, then a movie over 4 hours long should be a piece of cake. Imagine a 4-hour movie based on a 600-page book! How can you resist? The book is Crime and Punishment, and the movie is Norte, the End of History, which adapts the basic structure of Dostoyevsky’s plot and transposes it into the modern Philippines. Director Lav Diaz is like the Filipino Scorsese or the Coen brothers- somehow making artful movies into popular ones.  He’s made a 9-hour movie before, and the movie he made after Norte (which has yet to be released in the states) is 5 hours. It’s his thing, and he’s sticking to it. But Norte is so starkly violent, so committed to its themes of class privilege, the consequences of sin, and the failings of the Filipino infrastructure, that 4 hours ends up seeming like not enough rather than too much.

Quicker take: If you can watch a 4-hour sporting event, sitting down for one of last year’s richest stories should be easy.

Quick Take: Citizenfour (2014)

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There are two responses to Citizenfour that I can foresee, depending on what you thought before you saw it. (Well, three. Indifference is a perfectly valid response, I guess.) If you go into Citizenfour with an extreme opinion either way about Edward Snowden, you’ll either leave convinced you were right to begin with, or your perspective will have shifted to the middle, because regardless which way you lean politically, Citizenfour paints a picture of Snowden that is decidedly anti-extremist. And if you go into Citizenfour without an opinion or just with little to no knowledge about Snowden, you’ll leave the movie convinced that the world you live in is entirely different from what you thought before, so convincing is the documentary’s atmosphere of modern paranoia. Regardless, this is one of the most important movies of the decade. As Drake/Future would say, what a time to be alive.

Quicker take: Reaction options to Citizenfour: I still love Snowden / I still hate Snowden / WHY IS MY PHONE MAKING THAT CLICKING SOUND

Quick Take: Boogie Nights (1997)

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So this is a movie about the porn industry in the 1970s and ’80s, and I fully expected it to be an orgy of orgies, with nudity left and right, and that I’d have to turn it off after about five minutes. And while it is a debauched movie, purposefully, there’s a surprising lack of explicit scenes here. No, Paul Thomas Anderson eschews the expected adolescent male gaze and instead focuses in on the humanity, highlighting his characters’ hopes and dreams and the myriad ways in which they’re both achieved and undermined. Mark Wahlberg gives the best performance of his life as Dirk Diggler, whose rise to and fall from stardom make up the skeleton of the movie, and who embodies the archetype of the ingenue done in by hubris. Really, the fact that I can use words like “ingenue” and “hubris” in a blurb about a movie about pornography is a dead giveaway that Boogie Nights is far more than it may at first seem.

Quicker take: I never thought I’d ever say that one of the most delightful, insightful movies I’ve ever seen was a movie about porn, but here we are.