Academy Library Director
My name is Matt Severson, and I’m the Director of the Academy’s Margaret Herrick Library. I have been an avid movie geek since I was a kid, staying up till 2 or 3 a.m. to catch a broadcast of an old Universal or Hammer horror film. As my awareness of film and its history grew as a teenager, I started to devour more films from every genre, every country, big-budgeted or small indie.
About six or seven years ago, I decided to make a change in my viewing habits. Why not take the hours that I was spending catching up on reality TV shows or whatever had my attention at the time and devote them to my film studies instead, in order to make a dent in the long list of Kurosawa and Renoir films that I hadn’t yet seen. And so I did—and every year, in addition to keeping up with current releases, I also carve out time for a list of filmmakers whose entire filmographies I’m trying to see (shorts and features): from Agnès Varda to Yasujirō Ozu to Spike Lee… Of course, during our current lockdown, I’ve been able to assign myself special projects, such as watching all five-and-a-half hours of Louis Feuillade’s Fantômas series (1913-14), or catching up on Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s TV mini-series Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day (1972-73), which is eight hours long. I’ve appreciated the ability to indulge in those more challenging “sits” during this unusual time.
I get so much out of this movie vocation. It challenges me intellectually, fills me up emotionally—and even spiritually. It assists me in my job. It guides me toward books and poems to read. I love this art form, in all its styles, eras, genres, and in the ways the art form keeps expanding, bringing forth new talent, new voices to share their visions with us. The more I see, the more I find there is to get excited about.
Below are some of the recent films I’ve watched. You can also follow me on Letterboxd, where I keep a running log of all the films I see every day. I hope you enjoy this and that it helps you uncover some cinematic gems.
I watched 17 films between July 20-29, 2020. These were my favorites.
The Snake Pit
In honor of Olivia de Havilland’s passing, I caught up with one of the legendary actress’s key works. The Snake Pit works as a melodrama, social issue film and precursor to the women-in-prison film (though here it’s a mental institution). De Havilland is riveting, and the film features an excellent supporting cast, including Celeste Holm, Beulah Bondi, Ruth Donnelly, and Betsy Blair.
Vendetta of a Samurai
A jidaigeki (Japanese period drama) written by Akira Kurosawa and starring his two greatest actors, Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura, the film was directed by a lesser Toho filmmaker, Kazuo Mori, but the performances are terrific, and the screenplay feels like a dry run for both Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) and John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). (Streaming on the Criterion Channel)
Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo
The 20th film in the Zatoichi series features Toshiro Mifune (who, somewhat confusingly, is playing a low-level “bodyguard” but not his celebrated character from Kurosawa’s similarly named 1961 film Yojimbo), who spars with Shintarô Katsu’s Zatoichi as they try to take down the mob’s grip on a small village. It’s not one of the series’ best installments, but I was grinning from beginning to end, as it’s just a pleasure to watch these two together on screen. Also of note: the supporting performance of Ayako Wakao (whom you may remember from films by Mizoguchi, Ozu, and Ichikawa), and cinematography by the great Kazuo Miyagawa. (Streaming on the Criterion Channel)
The delightfully weird, erotic, and experimental animated shorts of Suzan Pitt can be slightly off-putting at first. Her films are cerebral, surreal puzzles with an explicit focus on sex and motherhood—not to mention sex and its relationship to vegetables. Here it’s a cucumber. The cutout animation is beautiful and creepy. This is one of Pitt’s first shorts, prior to her breakthrough, Asparagus (1979). When you see the latter film (and you should), you might be reminded of David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977), which has similar preoccupations and obsessions. You might find it interesting that Pitt’s Asparagus was frequently played with Lynch’s film in midnight screenings during its early run in theaters. Also of note: Almost all of Pitt’s films were recently restored by the Academy Film Archive. (Streaming on the Criterion Channel)
Martin Scorsese’s deceptively “simple” documentary—an interview with his delightful mother and father, Catherine and Charles Scorsese, in their apartment on Elizabeth Street, where they discuss their lives growing up in New York City as Italian immigrants. It’s a wonderful film—the only one of this group that is a re-watch for me. Like other great films, it just gets better the more you watch it. Note to self: I need to try Catherine’s meatball sauce recipe that’s listed in the credits.
Down in the Delta
Poet and author Maya Angelou makes her film directing debut with this conventional but heartwarming family drama about Loretta, a young, drug-addled mother, played wonderfully by Alfre Woodard, who takes her two young children to rural Mississippi to live with her brother-in-law, Earl (Al Freeman Jr.), as a result of an ultimatum by her mother (Mary Alice), hoping that the trip will snap her daughter back into shape. The film has a strong cast, which also includes Loretta Devine, Esther Rolle (in her last screen performance), and Wesley Snipes. There’s nothing earth-shattering here—but the warmth of the uplifting story and its memorable characters will put a smile on your face. (Streaming on the Criterion Channel)
But I’m a Cheerleader
This rough-around-the-edges queer indie comedy from 1999 features bright, comic-saturated production design and a fairly amusing story of a young cheerleader named Megan (Natasha Lyonne), who gets sent to a conversion therapy rehab camp by her conservative Christian parents when they suspect her of being a lesbian. In spite of its often too-broad comedy that occasionally falls flat, there is a sincerity and sweetness to it as well. Lyonne is terrific, as is the film’s amazing supporting cast, which reads like a who’s who of independent cinema of the ’90s: Michelle Williams, Bud Cort, Mink Stole, RuPaul (out of drag), Cathy Moriarty, Eddie Cibrian, Melanie Lynskey, Julie Delpy, and Clea DuVall. (Streaming on the Criterion Channel)
Nostalgia for the Light
The great Chilean director Patricio Guzmán, most widely known for his epic, three-part The Battle of Chile (1975, 1976, 1979), made this extraordinary, poetic, and political documentary that focuses on two different searches being simultaneously conducted in the Chilean Atacama Desert: one, a search by the women of that area for the remains of their loved ones who were murdered in a concentration camp created by General Pinochet in the 1970s; and two, the astronomers who set up mega-telescopes in that desert, which is one of the highest and driest places on earth. It focuses far out, it focuses far down. It looks to the future as it looks to its past. It’s a sad, quiet, brilliant, moving film. A must-see. (Streaming on the Criterion Channel)
Yorgos Lanthimos—king of Greece’s ‘Weird Wave’—follows up his breakthrough film Dogtooth (2009) with a similarly opaque and disturbing tale of a group of people hired to impersonate the recently deceased in order to help their family members grieve. It’s not as successful as Dogtooth, or even the director’s subsequent English-language films, The Lobster (2015) or The Favourite (2018)—but, if you’re on the Lanthimos train (like I am), it’s well worth watching. (Streaming on the Criterion Channel)
Though First Cow had its debut at the 2019 Telluride Film Festival, it had a limited U.S. theatrical run in 2020—a week before the whole country shut down. I was so sad to miss this in the theater but am thrilled I can (and we can) finally see it streaming on iTunes via Apple TV. I’ve loved every film I’ve seen by Kelly Reichardt, though I daresay this is possibly her greatest work to date. The story, set in the Old West circa 1820, is about a skilled cook and a Chinese immigrant who become friends and try to make their way west together through the Oregon wilderness—and the brutal patriarchal society that is taking root and struggling for dominance over the land and its native people. (I’ll let you discover how the cow comes into play.) This is a “small” film. This is not a conventional Western, though there are poetic nods to Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) and Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995). It is a film that is deliberately paced and goes against the grain of the genre’s tropes but carves out something else unique and beautiful in the process. This is meticulous, soulful, exquisite, masterful filmmaking. The performances of John Magaro, Orion Lee, and Toby Jones are pitch-perfect. The cinematography by Christopher Blauvelt deserves special mention. This is the best 2020 release I’ve seen so far this year.
John Lewis: Good Trouble
A solidly made documentary about the great civil rights leader and congressmember, who represented Georgia’s 5th Congressional District for 34 years, and who passed away on July 17. As a film, it’s rather standard in form, but also unbelievably moving and uplifting— especially when viewed in the context of our current socio-political moment. Similar to another recent Netflix-distributed film, the intimate portrait of Michelle Obama, Becoming, this helps restore your faith that there are good, decent people in the world. It’s inspiring in the best way, with also a solemn recognition that all of us have a lot more work to do in order to make this world a better place for future generations.