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Recs from the Vault: The best new films I saw in theaters
Emma Stone in Damien Chazelle's "La La Land." (Courtesy of Lionsgate)

Recs from the Vault: The best new films I saw in theaters

In this week’s Recs from the Vault, I look back at the best films I saw in theaters during my four years at Stanford. Whether new films or old ones, these were the movie experiences that impacted me the most. In all of these cases, I wrote extensive reviews. What I present here are mini reviews, with parts from those long-form pieces. As usual, all of these films are available to watch at the Media and Microtext Center in Green Library.

“Joy” (2015)

David O. Russell (“Silver Linings Playbook,” “American Hustle”) directed this weird and wonderful biopic about Miracle Mop inventor and entrepreneur Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence in her best role so far). As a biographical film, it’s leagues above the routine drivel we usually get (“The Theory of Everything,” “The Imitation Game”); it’s a post-Howard Hawks paean to matriarchy, shrewd wiles and incessant drive, filtered through Russell’s screwball comedy sensibility. Russell hasn’t quite been recognized as the major American auteur he is, partly because critics confusingly label his films as “messy,” “over-the-top” and “shrill.” In fact, the Russell ensemble is tightly controlled, emitting sparks on the level of Robert Altman’s or Preston Sturges’s players. “Joy” is the work of an artist at the height of his powers: relaxed, confident, slightly kooky. 124 minutes. With Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, Diane Ladd, Edgar Ramirez and Isabella Rossellini. The balletic cinematography is by Linus Sandgren. ZDVD 38415, ZDVD 38450 BLU-RAY.

“Only Yesterday” (1991)

My favorite anime from the world-renowned Studio Ghibli, and one of the greatest films about the quiet pains we endure as we grow up. The late Isao Takahata, who also did the emotionally devastating “Grave of the Fireflies” and “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya,” made this in 1991, and it was that year’s highest-grossing film in Japan. But it was not released in North American theaters until 2016; at the Aquarius Theatre, it ran for a full month. I went to watch it three times. It was my most treasured theatrical experience that year. Each time I see it now, I burrow deeper and deeper into Takahata’s plush blanket of memories and melancholia.

It’s 1982. Taeko is 27, unmarried, and living a monotonous city life in Tokyo. She decides to take a holiday and spend her summer farming with distant relatives in the Japanese countryside. On the train ride there, she reminisces about her fifth-grade self in 1966, her “awakening” year. It was the year the Beatles came to Japan. Miniskirts and electric-guitar-boy-bands were all the rage. And it was the year Taeko first learned about boys, periods, pineapples and patriarchy. Now, age 27 and worried she’ll be forever alone, she starts romancing a young organic farmer in the country. But the unmoored Taeko wonders whether she’ll be able to overcome her fears of her past and build a confident future self.

“Only Yesterday” is remarkable for its vivid rendering of its hero’s girlhood. From sibling squalors to grade-school crushes (here this week, gone the next), “Only Yesterday” is sculpted from the moments of our lives that are raw, naked, honest and quietly forgotten. The movie comes to a sublime stop in order to observe a Japanese family learning how to cut a Hawaiian pineapple. Takahata’s masterpiece is unsentimental, sparse and unsparing. 119 minutes. Based on the 1982 manga “Omoide Poro Poro.” The unforgettable score is by Katz Hoshi. ZDVD 39808, ZDVD 39807 BLU-RAY.

“Broken Lullaby” (1932)

One of the most astonishing discoveries I made at the Stanford Theatre. This profound melodrama was directed by Ernst Lubitsch, the great German-American director who is more known for his bubbly comedies and musicals. No one comes to its defense today, which boggles the mind.

Its plot is gripping and horrifying: A French soldier kills a German in hand-to-hand combat in a World War I trench. He finds a letter on the German’s body addressed to the German’s fiancée. Wracked with guilt, the Frenchman decides to meet the German’s family to absolve his sins.

“Broken Lullaby” is an absolutely essential watch, both as a humanist-political statement and as an unusual summation of Lubitsch’s philosophy. The gravity of “Broken Lullaby” compliments the serious levity of his “Trouble in Paradise” and “The Shop Around the Counter” (his more celebrated masterworks). In “Broken Lullaby,” music is equated to love, which Lubitsch suggests is the only salve to the tragedies and miseries of life. There’s not a shot wasted, as is typical of Lubitsch and his famed “Touch.” 76 minutes. With Phillips Holmes as the Frenchman, Lionel Barrymore as the German father, Nancy Carroll as the fiancée, and ZaSu Pitts as the maid. Cinematography by Victor Milner. The first of nine legendary collaborations between Lubitsch and the playwright Samson Raphaelson. ZDVD 41096.

“Certain Women” (2016)

The best new film I saw in 2016. Kelly Reichardt adapted a series of short stories by Maile Meloy to craft this river-like miracle of Acting and Setting. Reichardt’s adaptation weaves together the stories of four women in Montana: a disrespected lawyer (Laura Dern) must defuse a hostage situation; a new homeowner (Michelle Williams) tries to convince a senile old man (Rene Auberjonois) to sell her his pile of rare native sandstone; and a lonely rancher (Lily Gladstone) falls in love with a young lawyer (Kristen Stewart).

This brown-heavy tale of woe and despair in a Montana town is radical for several reasons. Besides drawing our attention to the small details of daily monotony — Dern’s untucked shirt, the ginger and exact way Kristen Stewart slices her burger with a dull diner knife — Reichardt digs deep beneath life’s surface to uncover the disharmony of the world, an unsettling American loneliness. The film’s tough and total dramatization of drab folk in a drab world moved me to tears. 107 minutes. ZDVD 41483, ZDVD 41484 BLU-RAY.

“La La Land” (2016)

My original 2016 review of “La La Land” was the most read piece I wrote for the Daily. I still love “La La Land” to pieces — and I’m fully aware of its “flaws;” I’ve heard most of its critiques. At its base, it is a romantically cynical work about narcissism and self-absorption, and how this is the key to success. It is more honest than most works in revealing that basic human drive for selfishness, every person for themselves, success at the cost of a dynamic ensemble à la “Joy” or “Certain Women.” It’s reflected in the empty frames (they drain of people as the film focuses on Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone), the narcissistic “Vertigo” greens and purples dominating the color spectrum, the blurring camera motions which finally focus in on our two heavies, the sheer lack of faith they have in the ensemble. Emma Stone’s one woman show. Gosling’s need to save jazz by himself.

Stone and Gosling’s sin is the sin of self-enclosure, of being so wrapped up in their own fantasy worlds that they forget the weird Los Angeles reality around them. When they nod to each other at the end, it is not an acknowledgment that they got everything they wanted, that they are “successful” emotionally or spiritually; rather, it is a manic-depressive, defeated gesture that acknowledges how much they now realize the limits of idealism, the limits of fantasy, their shared passion in the world lost to time, but the gnawing justification that “perhaps, it was worth it.” Won many Oscars, including Best Actress for Stone and Director for Damien Chapelle. Score by Justin Hurwitz. 130 minutes. ZDVD 40877, ZDVD 40878 BLU-RAY.

“Lady Bird” (2017)

A low-key masterpiece by Greta Gerwig in her solo directorial debut. It stars Saoirse Ronan as the titular Catholic high-schooler from Sacramento; in the course of only 90 minutes, she has to deal with boys, the college application process, lower-middle blues and her mother (Laurie Metcalf).

Gerwig’s was the most relatable American film of the 2017-18 season because her vision was based in daring interiority. Her love of people is apparent in the unstudied, naturalistic performances she culls from her actors. Each “Lady Bird” hero (two priests, Laurie Metcalf as Lady Bird’s vicious yet sympathetic mother, Timothée Chalamet as the pretentious hipster who you used to want to be or date) has a moment to rise up then recede out of the shimmering, washed-out background of Gerwig and co.’s collective memory.

Like Isao Takahata’s “Only Yesterday,” “Lady Bird” is a deftly conjured-up recollection of what it is to be young and aimless. It is non-judgmental in a completely clear-eyed way. And it has internalized emotion so well that we feel as mixed up as Lady Bird. We don’t know whether to cringe, chuckle or cry during a scene, so Gerwig suggests we do all three. 90 minutes. ZDVD 42462, ZDVD 42448 BLU-RAY.

Contact Carlos Valladares at cvall96 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Carlos Valladares

Carlos Valladares' 18 is double-majoring in Film and American Studies. He loves the Beatles and jazz, dogs and dance. Were he stranded on a desert island, he'd be sure to take some food—and also, copies of "A Hard Day's Night," "The Young Girls of Rochefort," "Nashville," "Killer of Sheep," and anything by Studio Ghibli. You can follow his film writings at http://letterboxd.com/cvall96/. He was born and raised in South Central Los Angeles.