Screen size doesn’t matter

A look at the year in film—and film-like TV—so far

<i>Better Call Saul</i>

Better Call Saul

At the movies, the doldrums and hype of summer blockbuster season are upon us, but no great bother—and not just because we’ve all got much bigger things to worry about. However you feel about gaudy kidstuff and other behemoths, there are plenty of interesting and rewarding alternatives available to moviegoers who want them.

In that spirit, let’s take a retrospective midterm look at the first half of the movie-going year. And a big part of that, for me, also has to do with the shifting and expanding landscape of what “the movies” are and how we see them.

A particularly piquant instance of these shifts and their rewards can be found in the AMC series Better Call Saul. It’s tabbed as a prequel to Breaking Bad, which is true enough, but what’s particularly inspired is that it takes two of the latter series’ most remarkable secondary characters and gives them central roles in convoluted, picaresque dramas of their own.

The scrappy lawyer (an increasingly brilliant Bob Odenkirk) and the freelance tough guy (Jonathan Banks) were the secret heroes of Breaking Bad, and all the more so once that initially brilliant series began to run its main story premises into the ground. Better Call Saul thrives on the tragicomic intrigue of those two characters, as well as on a continuation of the earlier series’ big screen-style approach to landscape and setting.

As a small-screen narrative filmed like a big-screen feature (smartly written, wisely performed, as well), Better Call Saul stands out both as television and as cinema, and effectively erases the line between the two. In that light, it seems increasingly evident that in our present-day media culture, top-flight cable-TV series like Mad Men, Justified and Deadwood deserve to be included in any discussion of the current century’s great movie masterpieces.

Meanwhile, in the first months of 2017, I find myself having more good movie stuff available than I have time to watch, but still feeling very impressed with a great deal of the many things I have been able to watch. I’ll even go so far as to say that I could get a worthy Top 10 list for the entire year just out of what has come to Chico theaters in the first half of 2017, and yet another out of feature films encountered exclusively on DVD.

For the record, and in the interests of making suggestions for summertime catch-up viewing, those lists would include the following films (some of which are earlier releases that didn’t make it to Chico until this year):

Top 10 (plus one) in theaters: A Quiet Passion, Graduation, Frantz, Kedi, Salesman, Toni Erdmann, I Am Not Your Negro, Certain Women, Manchester by the Sea, Paterson, Elle.

Top 10 (plus one) on video: Alexandra (Russia), The Tribe (Ukraine), No Home Movie (France), Eisenstein in Guanajuato, Amour Fou (Austria), Horse Money (Portugal), Taxi (Iran), Valley of Love (France/U.S.), Transes (Morocco, 1981 film remastered), The Past (Iran/France), 99 Homes.