This newsletter is designed to answer a handful of bothersome questions relating to your consumption of popular culture. To wit:
Why do movie critics cover movies as if it were still twenty years ago? Why don’t people write about movies the way we experience them now?
What happened to films about human beings? Does the stand-alone movie even exist anymore, or is it all sequels and reboots, and you should just shut up and watch “The Mandalorian”?
How do you keep track of what’s on all the streaming platforms – the ones you subscribe to, the ones you should subscribe to, the ones you don’t remember you subscribe to?
Most importantly: Who can tell you something good to watch on Friday night?
To answer the last first: Me. I can.
Who am I? For the first two decades of this century, I was a film critic and cultural columnist for the Boston Globe. In 2017, I was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism. Before the Globe, I reviewed movies and other pop culture for Entertainment Weekly for eleven years. Before that, I programmed movies on Cinemax and HBO for the better part of the 1980s, and so on back through a late Boomer’s lifelong intoxication with cinema. Short answer: I’ve seen a ridiculous number of movies. I’d like to introduce you to some of the better ones.
Ty Burr’s Watch List works like this: Three times a week, a film recommendation lands in your in-box, with some context, a little history, an anecdote or two, something to make you laugh or ponder. You’ll find plenty of new movies in the mix, especially on Fridays, but also curated choices from recent years and deep cuts from across the decades – the genuine oldies as well as the ones that jump-start your personal nostalgia for the 1970s, ‘80s, or ‘90s.
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On any given week, the movie recommendations might include recent comedies like “Shiva Baby” (above) or throwbacks like the 1999 Kirsten Dunst-Michelle Williams political farce “Dick.” I’ll write about dramas like “Minari” and “Maudie” and “Menashe.”
The List will include foreign greats like Ozu’s “Late Spring” (above) and home-made sleepers like “Starlet,” an early work by Sean Baker (“The Florida Project”). You’ll learn about little movies you probably haven’t heard of (“Supernova,” from 2020, starring Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth, below, as a couple in twilight) and bigger ones you may have missed (“20th Century Women,” from 2016, featuring another Annette Bening performance that should have won an Oscar and didn’t). You’ll be reminded of forgotten gems from both the glory days of the New Hollywood (“The Taking of Pelham One Two Three,” 1974) and from recent years (Ron Howard’s terrific 2013 race-car drama “Rush”), as well as new works like Bo Burnham’s “Inside” that push the boundaries of the form.
Some of these movies go down like a lemon pop on a summer day. Some test your beliefs, your expectations, your patience. That can be a good thing. There are occasional television series among the recommendations but mostly movies. I’ll talk about theatrical-only releases – understanding that the theatrical experience at its best is the preferred way to see a movie – but more often titles that are also or only available for streaming on one or more of the on-demand platforms. Because that is where we now live.
What you probably won’t find a lot of are franchise blockbusters and heavily digitized action-fantasy fare – the major studios’ current order of business. The better ones, maybe. (“Mad Max: Fury Road,” definitely.) In general, superheroes and souped-up mayhem bore me to tears, and I’m betting enough of you agree to make a go of this. Movies about people are still being made and distributed and, in fact, are more accessible than ever. Ty Burr’s Watch List shows you where they are and why they are.
I may write about music from time to time, drawing on an interest in pop history from the early 20th century up to about the time my first child was born in 1995, which is traditionally the moment a man or woman falls off the back of the pop-culture truck and watches it speed into the distance. And I will certainly have things to say about movie stars, pop stars, TV stars, et al., since I believe that public personas are the coin of our conversations more than ever and that who we choose to argue about says more about us than them. (And, yes, that’s a plug for my 2013 book “Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame.”)
I may write about birds every so often, too, because once you see a painted bunting, it’s hard to go back.
In an era of binge TV, though, allow me to defend the virtues of the one-off film experience. Every movie is a compact two-hour window onto a different reality, and you never know which reality might alter your own. Way back in 2005, I reviewed a lovely little documentary called “Mad Hot Ballroom,” about New York schoolkids learning old-style partner dancing. A number of years after the piece ran, a man came up to me after a talk I’d given and said he’d read that review, gone to see the movie, and been so taken with it that he’d opened up his own after-school ballroom-dancing program for disadvantaged students on Boston’s South Shore, which had turned out to be a big success. In other words, I had pointed to a window and he had turned that window into a door. Through that door had come dozens, maybe hundreds of boys and girls whose lives acquired rhythm, steps, a little grace.
For me, that story alone makes 40 years of writing about movies worth the effort. I can’t promise you that you’ll come out of Ty Burr’s Watch List knowing how to swing dance. But I can guarantee you’ll see some good movies on the way.
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