Great Reviews Of Movies I Have Never Seen: A Reading List

In a movie theater, rows of red velvet chairs sitting empty in front of a blank screen.
Image by hashi photo via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)

Sara Benincasa is a quadruple threat: she writes, she acts, she’s funny, and she has truly exceptional hair. She also reads, a lot, and joins us to share some of her favorite stories (and some of her friends’ favorites, too). 

I will admit upfront that I haven’t seen as many films as I feel I should. I’ve written one, an adaptation of my third book, DC Trip. It was scary to contemplate: I thought, “I haven’t seen enough films to write a film.” And then someone pointed out that the average male aspiring screenwriter would never let that stop him, and I figured this was correct.

I realized — and this is applicable for any job, really — I shouldn’t negotiate from a place of “I’m so lucky anyone would consider me for such a gig.” I should negotiate from a place of “Hell yeah, I can knock this out of the park and I deserve this gig! I will learn what I need to learn, ask questions, do the work, and figure it out as I go along. And I will do a very good job.” And I started watching more films, because while you learn a lot by doing, you also learn a lot by watching. Plus, if you want to do something for a living, it’s only respectful to your art form of choice to, you know, actually study it.

Conveniently enough, I also recently got sober, which means I’ve got more time on my hands now that I don’t spend one to two days a week functioning at the intellectual level of a toaster oven. Did you know that if you replace alcohol with water, you’ll sleep better at night and have a superior command of syntax in the morning? True facts, my friends. You’ll also have to deal with a bunch of stuff you were ignoring, like credit card debt and emotional scars, but you can escape that temporarily at your local movieplex!

When you are a shy person, an anxious person, a newly sober person, or all of these things, leaving the house can feel like a bizarre new experience. I’m sort of like Encino Man, except less hairy and honestly, I dig Encino but only schlep there for its Benihana franchise. The cinema provides a pretty agreeable situation for someone like me. I can be among other folks but be mostly quiet. I can zone out or tune in without anyone noticing. I can have popcorn. And a movie gives two or more people an automatic subject of discussion when they’re hanging out after.

This weekend I experienced a Film First™: I went to see the same movie twice in one day. That film was Sorry To Bother You, a wonderful movie written and directed by musician/activist/Oakland enthusiast Boots Riley. I will tell you what I told Twitter: the film is “inventive, brilliant, funny, sad, real” and probably what would happen “if Gabriel García Márquez had a baby with Ray Bradbury and mushrooms and Willy Wonka. But then the baby got adopted and raised by someone writing a love letter to Oakland in blood and rust.” Definitely go see it as soon as you possible can. And while I work on my movie-watching, movie-reviewing, and movie-writing skills, read on for some well-written reviews of films I’ve never seen.

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1. “The Village,” (Roger Ebert, RogerEbert.com, 2004. Suggested by Patrick Walsh.)

There are so many wonderfully acidic sentences in this bewildered, deeply irritated review. One of my favorites: “The village idiot (Adrien Brody), gambols about, and gamboling is not a word that I use lightly.”

Another delightful passage: “Solemn violin dirges permeate the sound track. It is autumn, overcast and chilly. Girls find a red flower and bury it. Everyone speaks in the passive voice. The vitality has been drained from the characters; these are the Stepford Pilgrims.” Jesus, I miss Roger Ebert nearly as much as I miss Molly Ivins. Thank God he’s got a wonderful archive online, thanks in no small part to his marvelous wife, Chazz.

2. “The Good Eye: Killer Outfits – Anna’s Blue Dress,” (Amy Gentry, Austin Chronicle, 2014. Suggested by Jessica Hopper.)

Here’s where we begin: “Last year the New Yorker’s book critic James Wood asked, in all seriousness, whether a great novelist could or should have a family. All of Wood’s examples were male.”

Well, well, well. What’s this we have here? FEMINISM? My goodness. I started this review and rubbed my palms together with anticipation. (Not really. I drank water spiked with apple cider vinegar. Same diff!)

This is the finest review I have ever read of a film that features a woman who fucks her baby that is also kind of an octopus and isn’t actually a baby at all even though it came out of her person. I’m guessing it’s entirely consensual! The film is Possession and the woman is Anna, played by Isabelle Adjani.

Gentry’s analysis of Anna’s blue garb put me in mind of Hannah Gadsby’s discussion of blue in her Netflix special “Nanette.” This is probably because both women are brilliant writers and also because everything lately puts me in mind of Hannah Gadsby and “Nanette.” Oh, and also the color blue, plus anger. That too.

3. “In ‘Fences,’ Viola Davis Out-Denzels The Denzelist Denzel that Ever Denzel’d,” (Dustin Rowles, Pajiba, 2016. Suggested by Nell Minow.)

I would actually very much like to see Fences. I mean, I’m going to see The Equalizer 2 first, because The Equalizer was and shall forever be my jam. So much depends upon a Denzel in a third act climactic battle scene, shooting nails at criminals, destroying everything inside an abandoned Lowes in the Valley (I am 90% sure that’s where they shot it, for real. Possibly in Encino!)

Love this moment from Rowles: “Daniel Day Lewis has to spend months getting into the right mindset before he can play Lincoln or Gerry Conlon or Daniel Plainview. You know how long Denzel needs to get into a role? Shut the fuck up, that’s how long. Denzel wakes up every morning ready.” Verily, ‘tis accurate.

And then we get to his praise for Viola Davis: “Viola Davis is a goddamn beast in Fences, and to call it an acting clinic would do a disservice to both Davis and to clinics.” Marvelous.

4.  “A Prayer Beneath The Tree Of Life,” (Robert Ebert, RogerEbert.com, 2011. Suggested by Franklin Leonard.)

There was no way this list was going to happen without at least two Ebert reviews. Franklin Leonard, He Who Maketh The Blacklist Happen, was quick to suggest this one when I put out the call on Twitter. And I’m so grateful he did.

Many films diminish us. They cheapen us, masturbate our senses, hammer us with shabby thrills, diminish the value of life. Some few films evoke the wonderment of life’s experience, and those I consider a form of prayer. Not prayer “to” anyone or anything, but prayer “about” everyone and everything. I believe prayer that makes requests is pointless. What will be, will be. But I value the kind of prayer when you stand at the edge of the sea, or beneath a tree, or smell a flower, or love someone, or do a good thing. Those prayers validate existence and snatch it away from meaningless routine.

Sometimes a review is a meditation. This is surely that.

5. “Finding Meaning In The Book Of Henry, The Best Worst Movie Of The Year,” (Dave Holmes, Esquire, 2017. Suggested by Niccole Thurman.)

“I just saw The Book of Henry, and I feel like I’ve been mugged by a Decemberists song.” God, I love Dave Holmes. He is my buddy and I did not know he had written this review. I feel mildly upset that he didn’t lead with this information the first time we hung out.

One more line: “And then she decides: Yes. Yes, I am going to fulfill the wishes of my dead genius child who was also my stockbroker, and I am going to murder my neighbor.”

I am a fan of Naomi Watts. I do not think I would be a fan of this motion picture. I will never see this motion picture. I am delighted I got to read this review.

6. “How two small documentaries stormed the US box office this summer,” (Amy Nicholson, The Guardian, June 2018)

TV writer and film critic Marc Bernardin told me that when he was hiring writers, Wesley Morris and Amy Nicholson were always the ones who got away. This isn’t Nicholson’s most beloved or famous review, but it’s one I enjoyed very much. Here’s Nicholson on Ruth Bader Ginsburg: “Meanwhile, the left has glitter-gunned her into a kitsch icon. Etsy offers nearly a thousand Ginsburg totems for sale including a Ginsburg prayer candle, a dissent collar baby bib and a coffee mug with a sketch of Ginsburg flipping the bird.” Glitter-gunned. Yes. Thank you.

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The most recent entry in my Era Of Actually Watching Movies: Eighth Grade, directed by Bo Burnham and starring Elsie K. Fisher. Naturally, I flipped out and wrote more insane things about it on Twitter, and not just because the afterparty had a freaking donut fried chicken sandwich truck. It’s a beautiful film whether or not you get fried poultry nestled between donuts afterwards: Burnham is a beautifully sensitive filmmaker and Fisher owns the film. We are most assuredly  meant to inhabit her character’s POV, and when an older boy aggressively attempts to intrude on her world, the premiere audience grew as tense as if it were happening to our own kid or to us — which, in a sense, it was. I never thought I’d be moved by the way a director used an iPhone to illuminate an awkward kid’s acne, but goddamn.

At the screening, Burnham expertly navigated the strange job of moderating one’s own Q&A. He spoke about taking care to ensure that the aforementioned aggressive character was not a stereotypical lacrosse bro in a backwards cap, because that’s the easy choice and sometimes it’s the quieter, seemingly sweet guys who violate boundaries and do terrible damage. It was a thoughtful and welcome analysis that is obvious to anyone who has experienced harassment or assault but rarely receives such a nuanced portrayal onscreen.

Then before releasing us to a middle-school dance party (which I will remind you had FRIED CHICKEN DONUT SANDWICHES) he explained that Fisher shot the film the week after graduating from the eighth grade. When she started high school, she didn’t get into the school play. He then told the audience that the teacher who turned her down was “a fucking piece of shit,” and the crowd roared.

Have fun at the motion picture show this summer, everybody. It’s air-conditioned and you deserve popcorn and a walk in someone else’s shoes. Go freak out, fall in love, or both.

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Sara Benincasa is a stand-up comedian, actress, college speaker on mental health awareness, and the author of Real Artists Have Day JobsDC TripGreat, and Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom. She also wrote a very silly joke book called Tim Kaine Is Your Nice Dad. Recent roles include “Corporate” on Comedy Central, “Bill Nye Saves The World” on Netflix, “The Jim Gaffigan Show” on TVLand and critically-acclaimed short film “The Focus Group”, which she also wrote.

Editor: Michelle Weber