Ninotchka (1939)

Directed by Ernst Lubitsch
Written by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder and Walter Reisch based on a story by Melchior Lengyel.
(number 264)

So often with these titles I’m not sure if I’m in for a dreary historical drama, a war film full of atrocities or a light hearted romantic comedy. It’s always a pleasure when it turns out to be the last. Ninotchka is a strange, pre world war 2 set movie where a serious Russian woman finds herself entangled with a passionate and emotional French man. It’s very sweet actually and I’m sure this is one of the roles which made Greta Garbo such a huge star. That iciness, the soft purr of her voice.

She’s an amazing character, analysing and shutting things down. Totally nihilistic, especially when speaking of the Polish Lancer she dispatched on the battlefield. She’s brilliant, worth watching the movie just for her.

Leon: Ninotchka, tell me, you’re so expert on things, can it be that I’m falling in love with you?
Ninotchka: Why must you bring in wrong values? Love is a romantic designation for a most ordinary biological or, shall we say, chemical process. A lot of nonsense is talked and written about it.
Leon: Oh, I see. What do you use instead?
Ninotchka: I acknowledge the existence of a natural impulse – common to all.
Leon: What can I possibly do to encourage such an impulse in you?
Ninotchka: You don’t have to do a thing. Chemically, we’re already quite sympathetic.

The movie is partially about Ninotchka being seduced by the luxuries that Leon represents, and partially about her getting to know herself as a woman with emotions and desires. There’s a standard progression from the buttoned down, fully covered outfits she starts with into the shoulder revealing diaphanous gown and jewels. The ugly duckling makeover, but it’s not actually the point of the film. The divide comes from Ninotchka’s need to serve her country, and how it contrasts with her own personal wants.

It’s absolutely heartbreaking when she recieves a letter from Leon in Moscow, and the entire thing has been censored.

Does it make me love the people? Absolutely, I love all the comrades Ninotchka is sent to bring home, I love her, I love her Russian roommates and of course Leon as well. It’s a charmer of a film, sweet and fun and romantic. It also makes me want to visit Paris some.

Bechdel test: Yes, she has a few conversations with the Grand Duchess Swana about how Ninotchka should leave Paris and various jealousies. Then a long extended scene back in Moscow with her roommate Anna about her fancy French underwear and the stir it caused among the local women and what was Paris like? and the fashion? and actually can Anna have the silky negligee because she’s about to be married? It’s a lovely scene actually.

Best line:

Ninotchka: Must you flirt?
Leon: Well, I don’t have to, but I find it natural.
Ninotchka: Suppress it.

State of Mind: Highly recommend this film, it’s a sweet, charming romance. It’s another in the list of ‘romantic comedies are acceptable if they’re old enough’ archives, but hey. It was an enjoyable, fun watch and I’m likely to watch it again at some stage. Plus, now I understand the appeal of Garbo.

Watched movie count


Darling (1965)

Directed by John Schlesinger
Written by Frederic Raphael
(number 260)

I had no idea what this was going in. In actuality it’s a movie about a woman, a model, who’s absolutely determined to get ahead in her career. She does this in a string of love affairs, being rather ruthless about cheating on her partners, moving around and up and ignoring her own feelings.

Diana: Oh it should be so easy to happy, shouldn’t it? It should be the easiest thing in the world. I wonder why it isn’t?

It’s an amazing time capsule of the sixties. In black and white but utterly sparking with kitten heels, go go dresses, fashionable suits and beehives. Julie Christie is charming as Diana, bored to death of things staying the same for more than five minutes, beautiful and with that gorgeous low voice.

Homosexuals exist in this movie! They’re creepy ! But they’re there! Well. The creepy ones are in Paris. There’s a very nice gay photographer in Italy who’s actually a decent person so that’s good. Apparently no homosexuals in London though.

And the french have whacky parties where everyone strips and puts on other people’s clothing and then they all are horrid to each other. Oh those swinging sixties. I have no context for if this is realistic for the society at the time.

Does it make me love the people? This is a tough one, really. I mean I’m definitely on Diana’s side, but she’s also a bit of a jerk. Like, it’s hard to really worry about her or hope that she finds happiness. I really don’t like Robert, which is I think, a lot of the point of him. He’s an asshat, but his actions do make sense after what she’s done to him. But I don’t like him. The other men (maybe aside from Miles) are barely present much of the time – which I’m sure is an intention of the script.

Bechdel test: Yes, a couple of times. Although mostly what we see is Diane talking to men, there are a couple of scenes. When she’s in the baby shop with her friend and she speaks to other named women at a dinner party.
Best line:

Diane: Do you have parents? I can’t imagine you with parents.
Miles: I do, two of them.
D: Imagine if.. it took three
M: it took three?
D: sexes. To make a child.

State of Mind: I did get bored part way through. I feel like there’s an edited version one could make, cutting out 30 or 45 mins and it’d be tight and entertaining. As it is I like as a time capsule, and it’s so refreshing to have a movie off this list which is entirely about a woman and her story. I’m not sure about if I’d watch it again, the ending is not exactly a happy one and it’s a little too long, but overall an interesting film.

Watched movie count

Avatar (2009)

Directed and written by James Cameron
(number 145)

I remember when I first saw this movie… there was so much hype around it, so much talk. I managed to avoid spoilers, went to see it at the Reading Courtenay Central 3D cinema and I was blown away by how beautiful it was and how well the 3D is used. I remember being quite disconcerted coming out of it that I could walk on the ground and it didn’t light up in beautiful colours. I also remember a few of the people I saw it with were complaining about headaches and eyestrain. It was a divisive movie, mostly I think of it as Fern Gully in space. The Pocahontas parallels are very clear as well, with the ‘native girl’ showing the ‘white saviour’ what nature is about and how it’s all interconnected, etc.

Unsure why this is so high up on the list… I mean, it is beautiful and groundbreaking in terms of visuals, effects and integration of 3D but there is so much missing in the film. Like… heart. It’s pretending to have heart, but I don’t feel it when I watch it. I see the beauty no problem at all.

One thing that really stood out as something that bugged me on this watch through was that the Na’vi are a patriarchal society. There’s really no supportable reason to have them organised that way. The feminine Na’vi are clearly as strong and vicious as the masculine ones, so you can’t argue like with humans that the men are the better hunters therefore the protectors. (Which isn’t even a particularly true or good reason but still.)

They don’t have a reason to be patriarchal, except for lazy writing so that we as viewers can go ‘oh they’re just like primitive us’ and feel sympathy. Show me a truly alien society, like the ones which morph from mammal-ish to trees in Speaker of the Dead*, or just… have a society where gender isn’t an issue at all, or where there is no gender to the aliens or… just freaking anything aside from another patriarchal society where the man gets to choose the woman once he’s proved himself worthy. (Vomit)

In fact with the importance of the Gaia substitute/ World tree /Earth mother goddess you’d think it’d make logical sense for it to be a matriarchal society.

I find the first half of the movie fine, a bit stupid but watchable, interesting enough. The world building makes engaging watching and getting to know the characters. Once the movie becomes one big war of guns vs alien creatures I find it harder to pay attention or to care particularly. I’m well aware of how little patience I have for action sequences now, and it makes me leery of a lot of the movies still to go on the list…

I’m also getting pretty weary of man- centric movies, where all the characters who matter are men – where the story is about his experiences with the world and women are an afterthought. I think it’s a real flaw with this top 500 list actually, that it’s so heavily weighted towards men’s stories – it’s a predictable flaw, given the magazine I got the list from and let’s face it, movie making in general.

Does it make me love the people? Eh. I guess yeah, I care about the scientists – Grace and Norm, and Trudy’s cool even though I’m generally pretty afraid of Michelle Rodriguez. Sam Worthington does a pretty okay job as Jake, he’s likeable enough… but I get so bugged by the ‘white saviour’ storyline, it’s so been done before and is no longer interesting to me.

Bechdel test: We have Ney’tiri, Grace and the excellent Trudy but they only talk to Jake or to other men, never to each other.

Best line:

Neytiri: Don’t thank. You don’t thank for this! This is sad. Very sad only.
Jake Sully: Okay, okay. I’m sorry. Whatever I did, I’m sorry.
Neytiri: All this is your fault. They did not need to die.
Jake Sully: My fault? They attacked me! How am I the bad guy?
Neytiri: Your fault! Your fault.
Jake Sully: Easy. Easy…
Neytiri: You are like a baby. Making noise, don’t know what to do.

State of Mind: Thank goodness that’s over.

Watched movie count

*Excellent book by Orson Scott Card, sequel to Ender’s Game

Toy Story (1995)

Toy Story
Directed by John Lasseter
Written by John Lasseter, Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton, Joe Ranft, Joss Whedon, Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow (phew)
(number 105)

– this review has sat in drafts since 2014 –

What the Hell, Joss Whedon? Who knew?

Toy Story was the first all CGI feature film, and the first film to be made by an at the time unheard of studio called Pixar. It’s easy to see why this film has a spot on the list with being those two firsts.

I remember going to see this movie in 1995 when it first came out, at the Hoyts on Manners Mall. It was a big enough event for me and my friends that we also went to KFC for lunch and I got a special edition Toy Story bucket souvenir thing. I remember us all being totally blown away by this movie. In a lot of ways the 90s were a sort of rennaissance for animated films, we had Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Lion King and this.

The story is an excellent buddy film and features awesome voice acting from Tom Hanks and Tim Allen in the two lead roles. Their sincerity sells the characters, it’d be a hard film to buy into. The story is similar to that of the Velveteen Rabbit which made me feel horribly guilty for not treating my toys with an equal amount of love and attention. This movie made it a bit worse I think, since it shows the toys feeling sad if they’re being neglected and Woody is so jealous of Buzz.. The guilt. The supreme guilt.

The animation of the human people is a bit on the ropey side, but the animation of the toys and the landscapes has held up well. I watched this on Blu ray on the new big HD tv that Wayne moved in with and it looked shiny and really good. I haven’t watched any of the Toy Story movies since the third one came out and broke my heart, and y’know, that’s coming on this list… all three of them are on the 500 list, although 3 is in top 100 so I won’t publish the review of that one for a while.

The movie also reminds me of The Brave Little Toaster, which has a similar amount of toy/object guilt and there’s also the whole creepy mutant toys Sid makes which are like the bizarre electrical goods in Brave Little Toaster. There’s a matching level of menace… I don’t know if you’ve ever seen The Brave Little Toaster but it’s fantastically traumatic and good.

Does it make me love the people? Oh yeah. This movie is full of characters with real emotions like jealousy and compassion. It’s hard not to be able to relate to Woody’s fear of losing someone he loves so much, and the fear of the change to his lifestyle. And then there’s Buzz, so sure that he knows exactly who he is but then finding out that what Woody has been saying is true and he’s not what he thought he was.

Buzz’s self esteem dive is pretty relatable too.

The existence of Sid’s experimental toys are a bit of a moral lesson as well. Woody is terrified of them, calling them cannibals, but they are ultimately friendly to them. They demonstrate how you shouldn’t judge people by how they look or their circumstances – which is a great non-xenophobic/non-racist/non-ablieist message depending on how you read them. But this is also problematic because none of them talk at all. They interact with Woody and Buzz but only with noises and gestures, they are entirely without a voice. I guess the rest of the message past ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ is deemed to be irrelevant? I don’t know.

Bechdel test: No, there are female characters: Hannah, Bo Peep, ‘Mom’ and Sid’s mom but none of them are in the same scenes as each other.

Best line:

Buzz: You are a sad strange little man.


Woody: There’s a snake in my boot!

and this…

State of Mind: I find it kind of sad making/hard to believe that all the other toys were so convinced Woody was evil. I mean, they did see him push Buzz out the window but the idea that your old friends could just turn on you like that is a bit chilling. On the other hand it’s a really lovely story and a good entertaining movie. Plus happy feels right at the end.

Watched movie count

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

To Kill a Mockingbird
Directed by Robert Mulligan
Written by Horton Foote based on the book by Harper Lee
(number 188)

content warning: the dog dies

This is one of those classics which has been weighing on me. I should have seen it before. I should have read the book. I have the book, on my shelf, unread and waiting. Well, I had a sick day and I didn’t want to watch something with subtitles so this was the pick. It’s just lovely. The whole movie has a gentle tone to it, a general niceness. I guess you get that with movies centred around kids.

I hate that the message of this film is still relevant :/ why can’t we leave racism in the past? I hate it. I hate how the news keeps having the names of people of colour gunned down in America. Maybe this movie should be compulsory viewing every week for every white American.

My favourite scene was Scout, Jem and Dil inadvertently breaking up the lynch mob. It’s such a perfect moment to show just how much the kids don’t understand about what’s going on. The tension is real when you see the men walk up on the courthouse, it’s been building. And you worry for Atticus because he’s in their way, but then the kids appear and it’s lovely? Like the best possible outcome of a lynch mob scene?

Overall it’s a great slice of life, a portrait of a small town, a coming of age/family story, a compelling court case and a feel good movie. It covers a lot, and it’s not short, but it never feels slow. The actors are all superb and the script is great.

I put a content warning up there for a dog dying but I have to point out that it’s like… very well handled, it makes sense for the plot and it’s not at all played for pain. It helps that much of the nasty stuff other than that happens off screen. Deaths and such, even the bit where Jem and Scout are jumped is somewhat obscured so you’re not too sure what’s going on.

Does it make me love the people? Yes, one hundred percent. Atticus Finch is a wonderful, kind and just lawyer who does his job conscientiously and with compassion. His pain when things go badly is real, it’s beautifully acted and your heart hurts for him watching it. Scout and Jem are great characters, and you can’t help but love them too. Then Boo, I had this part of the story spoiled for me (I think by reading Beautiful Creatures?) but still, it’s a wonderful character and sub plot.

Bechdel test: Yes Scout talks to Calpurnia about what she should be wearing and about the mad dog, also about Scouts manners at lunch with Walter but that’s partially about Walter.

Best line:

Atticus: If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.

State of Mind: Loved it to bits. Will definitely watch again and bumping the book to the top of my to read pile. Will watch again, recommend to everyone, just generally really happy that I watched this one.

Watched movie count

The Black Cat (1934)

The Black Cat
Directed by Edgar G. Ulmer
Written by Peter Ruric “suggest by” a story by Edgar Allen Poe
(number 266)

Content warning: animal killed off screen

So this film is basically what Manos the Hands of Fate wanted to be. It’s the same kind of ‘you’re stranded in the wilderness and you have to take shelter in this weird ass house’ storyline. And the people who live in the house just happen to be involved in some dark doings.

You know you’re in for fun when both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi are in it.

This movie is exactly what you’re expecting it to be. It actually gave me really big flashbacks to when the Incredibly Strange Film Festival used to be a thing at the Paramount Theatre in Wellington. This is just the kind of weird old movie they’d have dug out and screened.

I remember going to see an old Vincent Price horror there one year (which felt very similar), I must’ve been a student or just out of university. It was House on Haunted Hill and it was a bit more on the batty side than Black Cat was. But I loved the feeling of going to the theatre and seeing some of my similarly geeky friends, or seeing people way cooler than me, or just seeing a whole lot of people in for some schlocky good times. The screenings were often big on audience participation with people throwing out one liners or cheering and booing. It was a big thrill if you made a joke and other people laughed at it, although not all the one liners were particularly witty.

I suspect this film would be more enjoyable with some friends and some drinks, as it is it’s a pretty stock standard horror with a satan worshipping cult and a narrow escape for our lead couple. There’s some grisly bits, some gore but nothing compared to a horror movie made today.

Does it make me love the people? Sure, although they’re all so two dimensional. Joan and Peter are our heroes and we’re rooting for them. Gotta love Bela Lugosi as well.

Bechdel test: There’s Joan and Karen and although a few of the unnamed women in white kidnap Joan, we never see them talk to each other.

Best line:

Peter: this is a very tricky house, you know. The kind of place where I’d like to have company.

Joan: what happened last night? Did I do anything silly?
Peter: Silly? how could you do anything that wasn’t entirely lovely?

State of Mind: I mean, this was fine. It didn’t blow my mind, but I might be tempted to grab a couple of friends and some drinks and watch it again for the laughs. Probably I’d choose House on Haunted Hill instead just because it had a higher rate of WTF-ery going on.

Watched movie count

Groundhog Day (1993)

Groundhog Day
Directed by Harold Ramis
Written by Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin based on a story by Danny Rubin
(number 267)

I’m sure I must have, at some point seem a bunch of this movie. Like, it used to be on TV a lot in the nineties. I’m sure I’ve seen the start of it anyway. But I’ve never sat down and watched the whole thing. I seen a whole lot of media that riffs off this though. The most notable being the Mystery Spot episode of Supernatural.

Phil is your typical eighties yuppie, wanting everything to be about him, wanting to be noticed, and bored with the cutesy human interest story. Honestly? He’s not that bad. Sure he’s a little impatient with people but on the scale of garbage people he’s not particularly evil. I think if this got made again it’d probably have him being quite a lot grosser or unforgivable. But as it is, I guess it’s meant to be pretty gentle all round.

It’s pretty fun to watch him learn things about the town and the people in it. The way he tries out a few things: drinking, seducing women, dressing up in cowboy outfits, dying, etc.

He has enough days repeated that he learns how to play the piano really well. That’s kind of a horror movie thing right? He must’ve had thousands of that same day. According to this website he was stuck there for over eight years doing the same day over again, but it was initially meant to be ten thousand years which is pretty intense. A bit too many days, a bit much on the horror side.

Does it make me love the people? Sure. Rita is a sweetheart and Phil learns to do good deeds and get out of his trap. I dunno if there’s enough screentime for any of the others to really get to know them. In terms of loving the human condition it does make you think about what you would do if you were stuck in that situation. Learning a musical instrument does seem like an excellent use of time. I reckon I’d read lots and lots of books as well. I could get through this whole 500 list in one day!

Bechdel test: No, Andie Macdowell’s Rita and in fact, all the other women, only talk to Phil.

Best line:
Phil: Do you ever have déjà vu, Mrs. Lancaster?
Mrs. Lancaster: I don’t think so, but I could check with the kitchen.

State of Mind: totally fine, enjoyable Romantic Comedy with a bit of a sci fi twist. Pretty fun! I may even watch it again on a sick day or something. Watching this movie did give me a whole lot of nostalgia for the various comedies I watched on network TV with my family in the nineties. Things like Joe Vs the Volcano and Ghostbusters and Four Weddings, which all have this same kind of cynical veneer over a very sweet and gentle heart.

Watched movie count