Going to the movies with your girlfriend

“When I’m getting serious about a girl, I show her ‘Rio Bravo,’ and she better fucking like it.”

— Quentin Tarantino

It’s a truism that when you’re dating, or deep in a relationship, you want the one you adore to like what you like, be it a book, band, meal or merlot. That typically takes shared exposure, an excursion to a favorite restaurant, museum or bookshop. 

And, of course, to the movies. 

Romance in the flickering dark of a theater may be a dating cliché — shared popcorn, awkwardly slinking your arm around her shoulder — but it’s also a communal act of culture. It filters preferences and underscores taste. Will she like it? Did she like it? (She better fucking like it, as Tarantino says.)

I’ve taken risks on movie dates, bringing girlfriends to foreign arthouse films like “Fellini Satyricon,” Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai,” Tarkovsky’s “Mirror” and Satyajit Ray’s “Pather Panchali.” (I never willfully tortured them with a Bergman dirge.)

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These aren’t the easiest movies. They can be long, slow, thorny, with subtitles to boot. I don’t force it. If the film is proving a slog, I’m flexible. We walked out of “Satyricon” when I noticed the corpselike look on my girlfriend’s face (I’d seen the movie before, luckily).

New mainstream movies are fine, but, when possible, I lean to classics, rarities and art films. I got most of my cinema education at great revival houses in the serious movie towns of San Francisco, Austin and New York. Those funky theaters — the Castro, Alamo Drafthouse, Film Forum — are where I lapped up, wide-eyed, gritty film noirs, widescreen westerns, merry musicals and foreign essentials. It’s where I met Buster Keaton, Rita Hayworth, John Wayne and Anna Magnani and fell in love. 

Sharing this love is part of a good movie date, and I’ve had wonderful experiences with women at “Casablanca,” “Duck Soup,” “Annie Hall” and “All About Eve,” as well as brainy documentaries by Werner Herzog and playful French New Wavers like “Breathless.”

They’re movies I want to see and expose my lovers to. I become an enabler, a tutor perhaps, unspooling new cultural experiences. I am, for one, forever grateful to my brother for introducing me to the fun, frenetic bliss of Hong Kong action flicks, from Jackie Chan to John Woo and movies like “Peking Opera Blues” and “Hard-Boiled.” You never forget the impact of that, much like your first kiss. 

‘Hard-Boiled

Going to current movies is different. It means we’re taking a shared ride of discovery in the dark. A serious girlfriend and I watched “Dazed and Confused” and “Pulp Fiction” during their first runs (she loved them as much as I did, thank god). We got our classics fix watching “Sunset Boulevard” and Renoir’s “Grand Illusion” on video, rapturously. 

It doesn’t always work out so well. One date rejected the virile operatics of Michael Mann’s crime masterpiece “Heat” (fail!), while another huffed and ridiculed my choice of adjective when I called “Reservoir Dogs” “astonishing” as we left the theater. 

I know the feeling. I’ve been in the other seat, when I scorned a shared movie experience. My rants and tiny tantrums after sitting through the brain-dead “Titanic” and “Independence Day” come queasily to mind.

Then there’s the movie mistake, like when my brother took a girl to the emotionally devastating downer “Sophie’s Choice” on their first date. Nice libido killer, bro. She married him anyway.

Movie dates, then, are a fraught enterprise. What seems an innocent night out for easy entertainment can reveal telling value judgements about taste and temperament (she actually liked “The Notebook”?). They can even be deal breakers. (Again: she actually liked “The Notebook”?)

You take it personally. If I pick a movie I’ve seen before, I sit giddy and expectant, trying to gauge my date’s response, praying she likes it or at least endures it. As seriously as I am about film, however, I’ve never broken up with a girlfriend over a movie disagreement. That would be petty and asinine.

But I do keep score. 

The 5 most overrated movies of the year (so far)

Critics and crowds made big stinks over these movies this year. I didn’t.

1. “Roma” — Topping many “bests of” lists, Alfonso Cuarón’s meandering memory drama, based on his early-‘70s childhood in Mexico City, was the biggest disappointment of the year. Flaccid and unfocused, this pretty black and white picture is about Cuarón’s middle-class family just as their father leaves it. Fatally, the film’s nominal main character is the live-in housekeeper, who, perplexingly, is a narcotized, non-verbal cipher. Her reaction when she discovers she is pregnant rivals Buster Keaton’s stone face matched with Harpo Marx. Some critics have tried to pass off “Roma’s” absence of structure as a “meditation.” It is not. Rather it’s a story-free stream-of-consciousness that leaves little to grab onto and be affected by. Dog poop, believe it or not, plays one of the liveliest roles. For all of Cuarón’s lush, gliding camerawork, swooshing this way and that, capturing rambling life as it happens, the affair is implacably inert.  

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2.“Leave No Trace” — A film that leaves no trace, emotionally or otherwise, this achingly static homeless drama about a father (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter (Thomasin McKenzie — both shine) living off the grid in an Oregon forest suffocates on its own aridity. Scant happens when they’re hauled into social services, or when they attempt a run for the wild. For so much heart, little resonates.

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3. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” — In this six-chapter Western anthology, the Coen brothers hew tightly to time-honored oater conventions while spinning them on their dusty Stetsons for typical tonal whiplash. Zigging from bloody to farcical at the speed of a bullet, with a game all-star cast, it’s handsome, violent, intriguing, and tediously quirky. (Earmark the episode with Zoe Kazan. She’s fantastic, and she’ll shatter your heart.)

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4. “Shoplifters” — This sometimes playful Japanese social drama by the accomplished Hirokazu Kore-eda sporadically springs to life with small jolts that only make you hunger for more. The award-sprinkled film is about a family that relies on shoplifting to ease its poverty. Naturalistic and deeply humanistic, it suffers from a lack of movement, and the modest emotional punch comes too late. 

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5. “Private Life” — A hackneyed bourgeois dramedy about, sigh, a middle-aged couple that can’t have children in the traditional fashion, so try all manner of misadventure to conceive. The couple, played by Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn, great comic actors brought down by middling material, are New York writers (really?) surrounded by brainy friends (really?) who try and help. Marital friction erupts (really?) until a secret weapon appears. Hope abounds. This is slushy, sitcomy stuff that writer-director Tamara Jenkins (“The Savages”) is above.

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6 more: an honor-roll of the overpraised, in no order

“Isle of Dogs” — Wes Anderson, that leaping leprechaun of willed whimsy, presents a fun, funny premise about stray animated dogs sloughed off to a trash-heap island in Japan, until he, reliably, clutters things up with over-plotting and mirthless mayhem.

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“You Were Never Really Here” — I wish someone could’ve said that to me after watching this turgid hitman character study, starring a grody Joaquin Phoenix and directed by the grit-addicted Lynne Ramsay (“Ratcatcher,” “Morvern Callar”).  

“Hereditary” — Toni Collette’s lashing performance as a beleaguered mother can’t salvage this confused supernatural horror tale that careers from realistic, upsetting family drama to near-laughable nonsense replete with séances, demons and covens.

 “Mandy” — A full-on bonkers genre goulash of volcanic incoherence that, despite the presence of a teeth-gritting, eye-popping Nic Cage caked in baddies’ blood — just the way we like him — isn’t half as fun as it thinks it is.

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“Black Panther” — As I wrote in June, I found this mega-hit a “slick, savvy vehicle that gets predictably bogged down in mythical mumbo-jumbo, comic-book convolutions and contrivances that I haven’t the energy to follow or care about.”

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“Happy as Lazzaro” — Watching this coy Italian flirtation with magical-realism, I felt I was dying a slow, awkward death.

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The 10 best movies of the year, so far — Part II

In July I scared up a list of the 10 best movies of 2017 up to that point. (That list is here.) Since then, the Oscar-bait season has commenced and the year is almost a wrap. I’ve caught up with some of the movies I missed earlier and saw many of the new batch, though I have yet to see raved-about titles like “Call Me By Your Name,” “Lemon,” and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.”

For now, here’s the second installment of the best movies of the year, so far:

1. “Lady Bird” — By turns a sweeping and intimate coming-of-age dramedy of devastating charm, heart and honesty, Greta Gerwig’s feature debut stars a phenomenally nuanced, preternaturally poised Saoirse Ronan as a high school senior grappling with the usual: budding hormones, blossoming opinions, bristling anti-authoritarianism and a mother (the great Laurie Metcalf) with whom she’s at crippling odds. It’s familiar ground, but Gerwig and Ronan whip it into a consistently fascinating, funny and profoundly felt journey that’s not easily shaken. Indeed, it’s intoxicating.

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2. “The Florida Project” — Ugly yet beautiful, soaked in blazing Day-Glo Floridian hues and druggy homeless miseries, Sean Baker’s affecting follow-up to his 2015 stunner “Tangerine” celebrates the anarchy of childhood as told through the impish eyes of a little girl named Moonee (jaw-dropping newcomer Brooklynn Prince). She lives in a long-stay motel with her bedraggled (and be-drugged) mom (the superb Bria Vinaite, a kind of Courtney Love doppelgänger at her mascara-running worst), where she forms a pack of fellow summer-break youngsters who raise hell to the perpetual consternation of motel manager Willem DeFoe, who’s at his fuming best. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s illuminating and something of a tour de force, with a miraculous denouement that swells the heart with hope.

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3. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” — A teenage girl is raped and killed and months later the case is still not cracked. The girl’s fed-up mother (a ball-busting Frances McDormand, who will get an Oscar nod) rents three blood-red billboards that accuse the local police of ineptitude in handling the case. No one is happy about it, especially the police chief (the reliably riveting Woody Harrelson) and his loose-cannon underling (crackpot genius Sam Rockwell). As Tarantino once was, writer-director Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges”) is a master at balancing dark humor and bloody crime kicks, seamlessly blending violence and whorling emotional textures. The film is streaked with a Coen-esque unpredictability that’s whiplashing and totally winning.

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4. “Good Time” — With flickers of the young Pacino and De Niro, Robert Pattinson is revelatory as a scrappy, dirty, dangerous two-bit criminal, who’s on the lam after a comically/tragically botched bank robbery. The lo-fi film, by the gifted Safdie brothers (“Heaven Knows What”), pulls you on a thrilling run-for-your-life tumble through nocturnal Queens that’s at once loose-limbed and sweatily taut. A raw portrait of redemption and ruin, pocked with ground-level authenticity, it exhilarates as it harrows. Co-writer/co-director Benny Safdie’s performance as Pattinson’s mentally disabled brother will cleave your heart.

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5. “Jane” — There’s heartache, too, in this absorbing documentary about famed chimpanzee expert/primatologist Jane Goodall, which is composed of hitherto unseen film from her decades in the African jungle, as well as family home movies. Goodall comes off as a winsome Mother Teresa, trying to preserve her hairy pals and the planet to boot, and the footage often grazes the breathtaking (and heartbreaking). Caveat: Along with primates dying of terrible diseases, there’s a nauseating burst of internecine chimpicide on display. It’s brief, but brutal.

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6. “Wind River” — Taylor Sheridan, writer of the gritty near-masterpieces “Sicario” and  “Hell or High Water,” tackles another noirish crime drama for his fine directorial debut, which starts at a chug but gathers velocity for an uncommonly intelligent thriller about people and place. After a brutal rape and murder on a remote Native American reservation in snow-socked Wyoming, a green FBI agent (Elizabeth Olsen) is called in to take the case. She’s joined by a compassionate local wildlife officer (a soulful Jeremy Renner) and soon they are deeply, and dangerously, entangled in the crime’s harrowing complexities. Sheridan’s a superior writer — the dialogue is terse and crackly — and his instinct for mood is unerring. Somber, but bracing.

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7. “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond” — This bizarro documentary peek at the extreme idiosyncrasies of an overly committed artist — in this case the mercurial Jim Carrey — is as squirm-inducing as it is enthralling. In the 1999 Andy Kaufman biopic “Man on the Moon,” Carrey portrayed daredevil comedian/performance artist Kaufman, but he pulled a full Method stunt, refusing to step out of character after “Cut!” was yelled. Kaufman was the apotheosis of strange — inscrutable, volatile, scarily unpredictable — so Carrey’s on-set behavior as “Andy,” seen here in rare footage, rattled, roiled and enraged crew and co-stars. Director Chris Smith interviews Carrey today, and the actor explains his reckless impulses. Or at least he tries. (On Netflix)

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8. “Baby Driver” — As an expert getaway driver for a group of high-stakes bank robbers, Baby, as he’s called (a solemn but beat-happy Ansel Elgort), drives like a demon, churning smoke and pulling 50 mph pirouettes to the groovin’ pulse of tunes blasting in his ear buds. Director Edgar Wright has a clever concept — boy wonder drives the likes of Jon Hamm and Jamie Foxx to turned-to-11 classic rock, funk and soul — but it doesn’t quite take off for a full-bodied narrative. Still, the music’s a kick and you get the best car-chase porn this side of the “Fast and Furious” franchise.

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9. “Obit.” — “Obits have next to nothing to do with death, and in fact absolutely everything to do with the life,” says New York Times obituary writer Margalit Fox in Vanessa Gould’s tonic and info-rich documentary about the technical, curatorial and artistic aspects of writing compelling narratives about those who’ve passed. Zooming in on the august obit desk at the Times and its stable of crack stylists, the movie traces the creative evolution of the form — today obits can be “just as rollicking and swaggering as their subjects” — shows the persnickety process of winnowing worthy subjects from lesser ones and unveils the muses behind the writers’ elegant, punchy, even humorous essays. “Maybe it’s macabre, maybe it’s a little morbid,” one writer notes about his craft. This film shows that that is simply not the case.

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10. “Mudbound” — A sharp cast and lavish period detail invigorate this evocative and lushly filmed snapshot of a racially turbulent postwar Mississippi. Director/co-writer Dee Rees describes the relationship between a white family and a black family, which is uneasy at best, thanks to the harsh indignities of Jim Crow rule. Sometimes savage, sometimes soapy, the film aspires to an epic scope, but its made-for-TV feel, a conventional, predictable sheen, thwarts its loftier ambitions. (On Netflix)

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