Learning to love movies again

In 2021, I taught myself to sit down and watch films like I used to as a kid.

Not just easy films, or comfortingly familiar ones, either – films I’d never heard of; often old, sometimes slow, frequently strange.

Through work weariness and pandemic funk I’d drifted into some bad habits: evenings spent watching two or three episodes of some American police procedural or other that I didn’t even like or enjoy. Mentally chewing gum as I waited for bedtime.

Then I moved house and, for the first time in years, my collection of DVDs was where I could get to it. I found discs I’d forgotten I had and which I’d never got around to watching, or not seen in 20 years.

And, as it happened, the winter-spring lockdown was the perfect time to explore.

It wasn’t a resolution, as such. I’m not good with resolutions. But I did find myself thinking, come on, now, Ray – if you’ve got time to watch sodding Bones, which is terrible, you’ve got time to watch The Fifth Cord. How bad can it be? (It was great.)

I also got better at resisting the urge to dither: just pick a film; it doesn’t matter all that much.

Before long, watching films had become a new habit. Or, at least, a revived one, because I used to do this when I was a teenager, too.

Back then, I’d tape films from the TV with the VHS recorder I inherited from my grandmother when she upgraded. I had stacks of tapes, each with two or three films on, carefully labelled.

I’d stay up past midnight watching oddities on BBC2 or Channel 4, and spend Saturday and Sunday afternoons with canonical classics such as Casablanca or The Third Man.

At sixth-form college, I ran the film society, choosing films and writing programme notes for the other five or six attendees to snigger at. (I was a pretentious little berk.)

This year was about scrambling to catch up on a lost decade or two.

To some degree, I’ve trusted the curatorial instinct of labels such as Arrow Films, Indicator, Masters of Cinema and the Criterion Collection. If they’ve bothered to release a film on a pristine Blu-ray disc, you can be sure it will be worth a couple of hours of your time, in one way or another.

Podcasts like The Evolution of Horror, Second Features and Pure Cinema are a great help, too, suggesting films I’d never think of watching if it wasn’t for the enthusiasm of their hosts.

They also led me to books such as Danny Peary’s Guide For the Film Fanatic from 1986, which provided yet more items for my watchlist.

The watchlist isn’t just a scrap of paper, either: it’s on Letterboxd. Using that platform properly for the first time has really worked for me. Making myself log, rate and review each film I watch has kept me focused on my target of watching 150 films this year.

Not every film I’ve seen this year has been a joy – others may love Alice, Sweet Alice but I did not. But learning to sit through the duds, and think about them in context, is all part of the fun.

There’s a long list of films I’ve enjoyed and would recommend on Letterboxd but here’s my top five:

  1. Fallen Angel, dir. Otto Preminger, 1945
  2. Naked City, dir. Jules Dassin, 1948
  3. Deep End, dir. Jerzy Skolimowski, 1970
  4. Sunset Boulevard, dir. Billy Wilder, 1950
  5. I Start Counting, dir. David Greene, 1969

If you only get time to watch one, I’d say I Start Counting was the standout – an unsettling coming of age drama with a serial killer on the side, all set in a post-war English new town.

And if you’ve got recommendations for 2022, I’d be delighted to hear them.

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