The final recommendations of 2018 are two of the best films of all time.
Did you miss me? Pageview analysis says you probably did not. But Binge Blog is back anyway, because there’s so much good stuff to watch, and someone has to write about it. This will be the last Binge Blog of 2018 though, so we’re going out with a bang, showcasing two of my favorite films ever. Like, EVER, ever.
First, we have some housekeeping. BB pick “Nailed It!” (Netflix) recently released some holiday-themed episodes, and they are an absolute delight, with guests judges including comedians Justin Willman, Kate Berlant and complete episode-stealer Jason Mantzoukas. Nicole Byer has settled in as host and the whole show is firing on all cylinders, both in terms of ideas (there’s a New Year’s Eve cake that judge Jacques Torres says is difficult even for him) and contestants (one episode brings back fan favorite contestants to give them another shot at winning).
Second, I wanted to bring attention to a social media site/app for movie lovers called Letterboxd. It has been around for a few years, but I joined recently, and I cannot believe I did not join sooner. It allows users to do a number of things, namely record, rate and review each movie you see, and the date you see it, for personal use. But you can see others’ reviews, too, so if a friend in a different state sees a movie that isn’t in your area yet, you can see their thoughts on it. There’s no character limit for reviews, so you can be as detailed as you want — or just rate it zero through five stars and skip the actual review. You can also follow actual movie critics as well as filmmakers themselves. Sean Baker, director of “The Florida Project” and “Tangerine,” is a great follow.
That’s not all Letterboxd does. It provides movie news, topical listicles (they have a 25 Christmas movies list up right now, as determined by its users’ highest-rated films), and unique interviews, like asking Natalie Portman, star of music drama “Vox Lux,” what she thought of the year’s other big music drama, “A Star is Born.”
So, that’s what you get with the free version, which is a ton. There is also a paid (“Pro”) version, which gets you the ability to search every streaming database for where a movie is available and gets rid of ads, among other things. It’s $20 for a whole year, and I think it is worth it, not just for the features but to support the service and make sure it survives into the future.
It’s basically a perfect app and I’m glad it exists. My username is rykohn22 in case anyone signs up and wants to follow me.
OK, now let’s get to the rec—
Uh, actually, I’m going to talk about one more service first. I know this intro is long, but it’ll be worth it. This is another thing I recently discovered and cannot believe isn’t more well-known.
It’s called Kanopy, and it’s a streaming service. The catch is, it’s free, as long as you have an active library card. That’s it! And their selection of films is wonderful. It leans more arthouse than mainstream (you won’t find any “Avengers” films here), but there’s something for everyone to enjoy. A24 even gave the service the right to stream every movie in its catalog. That means “Moonlight.” That means “Lady Bird.” That means the aforementioned “The Florida Project.” That means “Get Out.” That means “The Lobster.” That means “Room.” That means “Ex Machina.”
I could keep going, but you get it.
It also has a great kids section, with properties like “Arthur,” “Curious George” and “Babar,” and a great classics section, including “L’Avventura,” “His Girl Friday” and “The 400 Blows.”
And again, it is FREE with a library card. There’s no reason not to jump on this and up your film game a bit.
OK, now it is really time to get to the recommendations.
"La Vita è Bella" ("Life is Beautiful") (1998)
Amazon Prime Video, rated PG-13, 116 minutes
This one’s for the younger crowd, because I hope everyone 13 and up in 1998 saw this movie.
You did see it, right?
Simply put, “La Vita è Bella,” the Best Picture nominee and Best Foreign Language Film winner at the 1998 Oscars, is one of the most beautiful accomplishments in cinema history. Taking place in World War II-era Italy, it follows Guido Orefice (Roberto Benigni, who also wrote and directed the film), a Jewish librarian who is taken by German soldiers and sent to a concentration camp with his young son, Giosue (Giorgio Cantarini), on Giosue’s birthday. Guido’s wife, Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), is also captured, but sent to a women’s camp next to Guido’s.
While in the camp, Guido tries to shield Giosue from the horrors around him by making the experience into a “game,” something that Guido tells Giosue is part of his birthday party. Everyone at the camp is playing, Guido tells him. Completing tasks, like remaining silent when guards are near, gets you a point, and the first person to get 1,000 points wins. While this is going on, Guido is also trying to reconnect with Dora through any means necessary, to make sure she is OK.
And that’s it. It’s a tale of survival, a tale of the terrible things Jewish people went through, and a tale of hope. It is a film that probably should have been a complete disaster, but is instead a masterpiece. Guido’s selling of the game to his son, convincing him that yes, they are here to have a good time, is incredibly heartwarming and funny. The direction and performance of Italian comedian Roberto Benigni is so out-there but so perfect. There’s a reason he won Best Actor at the Oscars for his performance: He’s silly and heartbreaking all at once.
It never treats the Holocaust itself as a joke (quite the opposite). Instead, it supports the idea of making the best of a bad situation, no matter how dire it is, or how bad you just want to give up. It supports family. It supports love. It supports going through life with a smile.
Is it always a fun watch? No. But it will have your crying tears of laughter and sadness in equal measure, and it is a seminal film, one that you need to see if you consider yourself a fan of the medium.
Make sure you watch the Italian version with English subtitles, as opposed to the English dubbed version, because you will lose all of Benigni’s charm if you do. This is also a good rule of thumb in general: Watch subtitled, not dubbed. It robs the actors of their hard work and mostly proves that you don’t like to read, which is lame. Don’t be lame.
“Casino Royale” (2006)
Rated PG-13, 185 minutes
OK so, I need to make clear at the jump that this is the Daniel Craig, modern version of the James Bond story “Casino Royale,” and not the David Niven 1967 version. The two films have basically nothing in common except character names and, very broadly, using card games as a plot point.
This is important, because the 1967 film’s villain is, I shit you not, Bond’s nephew Jimmy Bond, a.k.a. “Dr. Noah,” who is 4-foot-6 and trying to kill all men over that height by seducing them with beautiful assassins (he also wants to “make all women beautiful,” whatever that means) so he can be the tallest man in the world and get all the girls himself. And at the end of the film, everyone dies, but James Bond and the good guys go to Heaven, while Jimmy Bond descends into Hell.
This is all 100% real, somehow, I promise. You can look it up. What a world.
Anyway, the 2006 film isn’t like that at all. It’s one of my favorite films of all time, and the best spy movie ever made. Craig’s first turn as Bond follows the agent as he first becomes an MI6 agent and gets his license to kill. (Quite literally: the film opens with Bond’s first two kills.)
His first big task: Take down terrorist financier Le Chiffre (the perfectly cast Mads Mikkelsen), who attempts to first blow up an airliner, then hold a rigged poker tournament, to improve his finances. This all makes sense in context, but explaining further would require spoilers. To beat Le Chiffre at his own game, Bond teams with British Treasury agent Vesper Lynd (Binge Blog favorite Eva Green) to figure out the weak spot in Le Chiffre’s plan.
“Casino Royale” has great action sequences, one that takes place on cranes in particular, but the movie elevates from “good” to “wow” because of Lynd. Unlike other “Bond girls,” she’s not there to just look good and maybe kill a few baddies. She’s as complex a character as the series has put to film, brilliant but uncomfortable with the violence necessary to complete the job. Her relationship with Bond feels real. You believe this is the first person with whom Bond has fallen in love. Green plays the character with maximum charm and matches Craig’s wit note for note.
Mikkelsen also makes Le Chiffre an optimal villain. It is not often audiences actually fear Bond might not succeed, or worse, might not survive, but both are felt here. (Also: Damn, his eye effect is cool.)
Of course, the main question surrounding “Casino Royale” at the time of release was how “blonde Bond” Craig would fare. Turns out, he’s probably one of the 2-3 best ever, giving the character a harder edge while maintaining the suaveness that has pervaded the series since inception. He’s not a machine, he’s a human, with real feelings about his job and the people around him. He also utters, in my opinion, the single funniest line in franchise history, and it occurs while he’s being tortured, no less.
I could go on and on about the film’s inventiveness, its gorgeous title sequence and its great bit players (Jeffrey Wright, Judi Dench and Giancarlo Giannini are all in this), but at this point, you just need to see it, spy movie fan or not.
But one last note, on that topic: You might have noticed I didn’t put a streaming service under the “Casino Royale” header. That is on purpose. “Casino Royale” used to be on Netflix, but it was recently pulled. Now it is not streaming anywhere. I wanted to include it here anyway, because — well, because I felt like it, but also because it is important to remember the consequences of leaving your ability to watch certain films up to streaming services.
Streaming services are wonderful tools of discovery and convenience. I would not be able to write this column without them. But the uprising of Netflix, Hulu and Amazon also means those companies get to dictate what we watch and when we watch it. It restricts your freedom as a film-watcher to solely rely on those services.
Buying the movies you love, whether digitally or on a physical DVD, preserves your ability to watch those movies whenever you want, forever. It also supports filmmakers and allows them to make the movies they want to make, the ones that you enjoy the most. This is especially important with independent filmmakers. Support the art that means a lot to you.
So yes, to watch “Casino Royale” right now, you will have to buy it (or rent it, I guess). You can also wait for it to be back on streaming. It will be, sooner or later. But I think it’s worth the money to see one of the sharpest scripts of the last 20 years performed by a stellar cast giving its all, revitalizing a once-left-for-dead franchise.
*Gets off soapbox*
With that, Binge Blog’s 2018 has come to a close. I wish you all a great holiday season. May you watch many great films and drink many wintery martinis.
Shaken, not stirred, of course.