Short Cuts: ANNIHILATION

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“It’s a bit like The Thing,” a coworker said to me, pitching Alex Garland’s Annihilation, and if you knew him you’d know there’s no greater compliment. It’s a fine comparison, for all the gooey abominations you’ll witness. It’s also a lot like Stalker and Solaris, a little like Ridley Scott’s Alien, and something like what Scott’s Alien prequels wanted to be. A pinch of 2001 is, naturally, a given. It is, in short, solid mystery box sci-fi, where humans saddled with humanity venture into a strange place and face up to the unknown. Here, that place is called “the Shimmer”, which doesn’t quite have the same ring as “the Zone”, but is likewise a mysterious spot on Earth where the rules of time and space—and in this case, genetics—have begun to bend in alarming ways. Almost no one who has gone in has come out, and the area is spreading. So a team of scientists (all women, with Natalie Portman as the haunted locus) head for the center of it, to determine its nature, intent, and weaknesses.

Of course, as with any mystery box, there comes a time to put up or shut up, and on that count, Annihilation actually does pretty well, albeit more for themes than plot. It ends up, intriguingly, as a kind of horror movie where the monster is “life” itself: teeming, cyclical, constantly evolving, and forever outside full scientific understanding. The film turns floral imagery and rainbow lens flares into something genuinely unnerving. It carries itself with a palpable distrust of natural law, and it connects to Garland’s 2015 hit Ex Machina in wondering whether something else might do a better job at being human than us. And like Ex Machina, the worst I can say is that it’s a bag of ideas which hint at more than they articulate, and that beneath its smooth craft and chilly atmosphere, it is more devoutly versed in sci-fi conventions than able to transcend them. It lacks the emotional richness of Solaris, the philosophical and political resonance of Stalker, and the radical aesthetic shock of Alien. But while those comparisons may sound like a put-down, it’s also a compliment to Garland for being one of the precious few directors in Hollywood today to get away with staging science fiction in such an ambitious vein. The film is itself a genetic hybrid: a Tarkovskian contemplation where occasionally something with nasty teeth pops up for target practice—and it wouldn’t do to say that the film’s identity needs one more than the other. That the studio balked at it—in most of the world, the film went straight to Netflix—is an ill omen if there ever was one. If Garland has a true science fiction masterpiece in him, he’s still working up to it. For now, what a joy it is to find yourself in the middle of a forbidden zone and not be entirely sure where it’s going. And then to have the ending linger.

✬✬✬✬✩

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Annihilation is available wherever you get your TVOD movie fix. Nothing like a close encounter to help you sort out your life.

Short Cuts: BLACK PANTHER

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I know I’m late to the party. The keg is empty, most of the guests have left, and there’s nothing on the dance floor except for confetti. But—since I spent its reign at the box office catching up on Oscar movies instead—I wanted to throw my praise to Black Panther as a roundabout way of addressing the career, now three films old, of director Ryan Coogler. Because as much as we might romanticize or expound upon some ideal notion of an “independent filmmaker”, working on a small scale outside Hollywood’s system and unbound by its idioms and convention, Coogler strikes me as one of those talents who has come into his own by making movies inside the belly of the beast.

Coogler picked up the top prize at Sundance with his first feature, Fruitvale Station. Shot for less than $1,000,000 and midwifed in part by Forest Whitaker’s production company and the San Francisco Film Society, it was about the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, a black East Bay native who was shot and killed, prone and unarmed, in Oakland by the BART Police in 2009. The story of Oscar Grant is an all-American travesty, one that we’ve seen play out countless times in the decade since. With a subject like that and an actor as good as Michael B. Jordan, it’s impossible not to have an effect. But as it made the festival rounds, Fruitvale Station also struck me as thin. It offered little insight into how such travesties occur and the system that sustains them, even in a place as ostensibly progressive as the Bay Area. The film did nothing more or less than present us with a sympathetic human being and watch them get killed—which is certainly not untruthful, but barely scratches the surface of what 90 minutes can do. And as for the filmmaking itself, it leaned hard on the kind social realist shorthands that make me wish for a good documentary instead of an above average docudrama.

Then Coogler entered the world of Hollywood franchises with a surprise: Creed, a seventh Rocky movie that none of us realized we wanted, with Jordan back (and brilliant), Sly Stallone tasting Oscar hype, a standout boxing match shot all in one take, and the shrewd showmanship of holding back on playing “Gonna Fly Now” until just the right moment. It was a fine night at the movies, full of vitality, far better than anyone expected from a series that had already “ended” more than once. It was also, uncoincidentally, the sort of material where a little movie-world stylization and melodrama are exactly what’s called for. It pegged Coogler, in an appealing way, as a filmmaker whose natural inclination wasn’t to shake movie cliches but find ways to flavor them.

All of which brings us to Marvel’s Coogler’s Black Panther, in which issues of on-screen and off-screen blackness are put in the service of a mega-budget tentpole with superheroics, gadgetry, banter, and a synergistic tease for the next movie. “Wakanda forever!” cried the internet, in praise of the mythical, technologically miraculous African nation ruled by T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), aka the Black Panther, who faces threats from without and within. The film is, by any standard of blockbuster storytelling, near the top of the Marvel corpus. The plot zips along with intrigue, the cast has chemistry, and Coogler shows off his taste for tracking-shot action scenes. It is the sort of movie that invites you to intellectualize it to a certain point and no further, and the way the adventure leans proudly into an Afrocentric focus is fruitful. It presents black identity as a multitude. It handles colonialism, diaspora, mass incarceration, and militancy vs. reconciliation in ways that are not necessarily deep so much as meant to offer a cinematic feeling of release. And in the process, it has Marvel’s first interesting villain (Jordan again), and thus a rare showdown where something more resonant is at stake than merely “saving the world.”

As Black Panther sits pretty among Hollywood’s biggest box office hits, a cynic might argue that surely it owes a large part of its success, the title and a few Public Enemy posters notwithstanding, to being non-militant. That is, it sets itself up to be joyously pro-black without having to risk the controversy of being (or seeming) anti-anybody. The riposte is that it is political precisely to the degree that it’s packaged for mass consumption. We’ve certainly had black action heroes and superheroes before. (Remember Blade II? It was fun). But I can’t think of another American movie to be made or succeed on this scale while showing such little interest in tempering or balancing a community of black heroes with white teammates, partners, or sidekicks. If nothing else, it puts the lie to the idea that a cast of almost entirely non-white protagonists is inherently a niche movie. (The “almost” belongs to Martin Freeman, as an agog CIA agent who gets pulled in later in the game to be the token chip-in).

For the finale, Coogler returns the film to his native Oakland. A Wakandan airship descends and is met with dropped jaws, as a group of black schoolchildren stop, stare, and come to meet the visitors. It’s the type of scene that’s been happening in superhero movies as long as I can remember—the brief on-screen encounter of the comic book idol and the type of child reader that’s most likely to take their stories seriously. Only here, the child is a minority, and the epic hero he is gazing up at looks like him. It is an intimate coda for such a large spectacle to end on, self-reflexive in its understanding of how, within the film’s genre elements, there’s a desire to stake a claim. If Black Panther is by no means a radical movie, it doesn’t feel insincere either. The closing shots register as uncommonly personal for a series that has been so often marked by uniformity.

Clout in hand, Coogler’s next project is reportedly a film about a testing scandal in Atlanta public schools, written by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I’ll be attending with interest to see how he returns to what might be called “ordinary lives”—it may very well be that Coogler’s strength and usefulness is more as a cinematic crowd-pleaser or myth-maker. The most genuinely stringent political movies deny the kind of unambiguous release that Coogler has proved so adept at delivering. But he has craft and dramatic instincts. He isn’t the first director to come out of Sundance and alternate between the world of movies and the world of our own—and, by all indications, he realizes how the two are more linked than they let on.

✬✬✬✬✩

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Black Panther is now on home video. The virtues are plentiful, but it’s still hard to get used to Martin Freeman with an American accent.

Next Door to Prestige: My Top Films of 2017

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Catharsis. That’s what this year needed—some goddamned catharsis. At a time when any news junkie might reasonably wonder if the decline of western civilization will—to use an inelegant phrase—shit or get off the pot, the reaction of pop culture (and the reaction to the reaction) was a document of its own. Which is to say, in our time, what do we need from media, and how do we get it? In the world of TV, whose merge with cinema is ongoing, it’s difficult to imagine The Handmaid’s Tale causing just as much of a sensation in a warmer political climate. Likewise, it’s difficult to imagine Wonder Woman as a big cultural moment were it not for a justified, long-building critical mass of desire to see better representation both on screen and behind the camera. And then, of course, there is the fact that Hollywood—our representation machine—is in the midst of the #MeToo movement, which is by no means about or limited to the movie business, but which has seen decades of the industry’s most grotesque skeletons come tumbling out of the closet. Something, as they say, has got to give.

Much can be made of the Oscars as an insular popularity contest, a closed election where a community gives prizes to itself. But the public-facing aspect of the Oscars fascinates me as well. It strikes me that the Academy is always hyper-aware that they are not just voting on what they liked most, but that they are effectively recommending movies (or an idea of what movies should be) on a massive scale. The Oscars are a brand, and as movies contend for them, narratives are built accordingly—even if, as is so often the case, saddling a film with a grandiose narrative does the film a disservice. So I must confess that a large part of my curiosity about the Oscars tonight is not just which movie will win, but how a celebration of the movie industry will unfold when no one could possibly ignore all the elephants in the room.

A note on which movie might win. Even as they upped the number of Best Picture nominees to nine or ten, the Oscars generally come down to only two—maybe three, in a competitive year. In this case, it’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri versus The Shape of Water. On the face of it, it’s hard to imagine a film more thematically suited to 2017 than Three Billboards, in which a tough-as-nails woman becomes an avenging angel in a plot that involves sexual assault, racism, and police misconduct, and then ends under a question mark of how anger and trauma should be processed. And yet for so many people I’ve talked to, Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards didn’t register with them as cathartic, but as politically despicable, both in the perceived pleasure it takes in violence and in how it turns a racist cop into a redeemable hero. I saw no endorsement of racism or bigotry in the film, but I had problems with it: I found it to be a cartoonishly inauthentic version of the America’s sins, a film whose tonal mishmash and glibness towards pain undercuts how, in the second half and in particular the ending, it actually has something to say. And I have to wonder how much that issue with the film and the more politically charged objections spring from the same artistic source.

As for Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water, its own politics can be summed up nicely in an early scene where Richard Jenkins sees a civil rights protest on TV and changes the channel to a musical. That is, The Shape of Water will address political injustice and then magically replace it with something beautiful—which is, in a way, its own kind of catharsis. Del Toro has said that he can only approach history through the lens of fables or parables, but in own films, the fable draws power from the historical context and not the other way around. And, of those two films, I’d easily prefer Del Toro’s, on the basis of both the craft and the purity of its conviction.

“Prefer” may be the operative word, because while there were no shortage of movies worth two hours this year, it wasn’t so easy to feel unequivocally enthusiastic about one, as if fatigue replaced that eternal cinephile desire—a film that makes you jump towards hyperbole—as the order of the day. For a while, I thought this was a year without a masterpiece, before a few that at least come close slipped in at the last moment. Fatigue, in all things, should be shaken off; catch up on what you missed, because this was, like any year, a fine year for cinema. It was a year for feeling old—the goodbye to Harry Dean Stanton, Agnes Varda becoming at Oscar nominee at 89, David Lynch returning to Twin Peaks, Coco tackling death and old age with enough optimism to make up for Disney killing Bambi’s mom, and the fact that even the year’s best superhero movie, Logan, is about getting old. It was a year for the evacuation of Dunkirk (three times over), for resolved gazes towards the future, and for a trio of heroines who want to poison the man in their life with mushrooms. And it was a year where some of my favorite films—ones that grappled with Big Topics—ended on happier notes than their material would lead you to expect. For the sake of surprise, I won’t say which. The catharsis you’ll have to find on your own.

Without further ado, my top 10 favorite films of 2017. As always, blog rules apply: anything I got to see at a festival or that had its US theatrical premiere during the calendar year is eligible.

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10. Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig, US)

A ceaselessly witty delight, Greta Gerwig’s solo directing debut is head and shoulders above most teen comedies purely by having a feeling of remembrance: it flips through each rite of passage with the chipper speed of an adult who can look back fondly, even on conflict and humiliation. Saoirse Ronan as the spunky, mouthy heroine that Juno couldn’t be in her most ostentatious dreams, and the film lingers as a bittersweet farewell to the idea of a hometown: to hers, to mine, possibly to yours, and resonant for anyone who gets out only to realize that it will always be with you. For better or worse.

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9. Graduation (Cristian Mungiu, Romania)

A slow-burn mystery couches an implosive portrait of institutional decay. That description sounds incendiary, and director Mungiu (who won the Palme d’Or for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) certainly doesn’t hide his feelings about the state of Romania. But his film is also one of deep empathy for those living in a world where personal and political corruption feels like the only answer. No wasted scenes—just a potent hope that the problems of the last generation can be sorted by the next. Winner of Best Director at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, it slipped quietly into a few theaters last April (one was fortunately down the street from me) and is now hiding on Netflix for those who’ll seek it out. Do.

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8. Faces Places (Agnes Varda & JR, France)

Thank god we still have Agnes Varda, because few people set such an inspiring example of how to keep on living and never losing the desire to explore. This documentary on a decidedly whimsical art project, without ever shedding its modest, casual appeal, manages to be movingly about so many things at once: how the world looks if you’re young or old, the relationship between the past and the present, shifting culture in the digital age, the importance and impermanence of what you create, and how anyone or anything can be turned into a work of art. Sometimes funny, sometimes touching, always generous, it is a small gem that casts a large brightness.

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7. Twin Peaks: The Return (David Lynch, US)

For much of its 18 hour runtime, David Lynch’s Showtime miniseries revival certainly didn’t feel like one of my favorites of the year. It forever and frustratingly balances between explanation and inscrutability, a string of unresolved threads that occasionally threaten to make perfect sense before diving down another rabbit hole. But for those who took the trip, few works of cinema—yes, cinema—were as fun to explore and debate this year. I’ve seen several theories about our new Twin Peaks, many compelling and none able to account for everything. But while it may be difficult to say precisely what on earth happened, it’s easy to say what Twin Peaks is about: an old-timer’s epic four-dimensional vision of a fraught America at a crisis point, with doubt about whether heroes like Special Agent Dale Cooper even exist.

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6. Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, US)

Rich in its atmosphere, intrigue, and mood, the new Blade Runner is a hard sci-fi triumph, the best any big-budget tentpole has done this decade in taking a nine-figure budget and a dusted-off 80s franchise and truly doing something with it—even if it paid dearly at the box office. But its central metaphor is, fittingly, a seed of human emotion dropped into a mechanized system, and box office death or not, it earns the right to use it, if only as fantastic show business.

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5. The Lost City of Z (James Gray, US)

Many American movies these days are long, and many aspire to the idea of being “epic”, which they sometimes treat as the same thing. But director James Gray is one of the few voices dedicated to sincere cinematic grandeur, and The Lost City of Z, the story of a lifelong quest for a place that may not even exist, is one of the few American films in recent years to so perceptively examine the passing of time. If it got largely overlooked—a fate that tends to befall Gray’s films—it’s because it seems to exist outside its own moment. But moments pass, and The Lost City of Z will still be there, its details rewarding attention, with a final shot that will stay with you.

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4. Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan, US/UK)

Christopher Nolan’s first triumph after a decade of hyped messes either foregoes most of his weaknesses or turns them into strengths. You can’t trip over exposition if plot is hardly necessary. You can’t trip over characterizations if all your characters need to be are men who face death and fear it. You can’t drown in an editing stew if an editing stew is what the fog of war actually calls for. What that leaves you with is experiential cinema: a distilled version of Nolan’s superbly controlled physical craft, an evocative sea of actors’ faces, a gauntlet of perseverance through some very unheroic emotions, and an ending that’s the closest Nolan has come yet to making his balancing act of tones, ideas, and contradictions signify into something grand.

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3. Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson, US)

If you were to ask me what I thought of Phantom Thread halfway through, I’d have declined to answer. If you asked me after it was over, I’d have praised it. If you asked me three days later, I’d have told you I was in love. P.T. Anderson’s forays into films built from texture and flow reach a peak in this glorious, surprisingly devious psychodrama. As the romance between a pathologically fussy, dominating artist and the never-to-be-dominated woman who might know how to break him, it is—perversely—the only love story this year worth a damn. Part Freudian, part Hawksian, it reveals what it’s about only gradually, while the luxuriant surface and score by Jonny Greenwood carry you away.

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2. Get Out (Jordan Peele, US)

The emergence of Get Out as a major Oscar contender thrilled me for a simple reason: it is the kind of “youth movie” that the Academy has generally been so steadfast about ignoring. Genre films released during the February doldrums aren’t usually treated as the stuff Oscar dreams are made of—but then this scrappy, funny, smart, shrewd, magnificently subversive B-movie caught on. It is a take on race in America for a generation that wants to move the public conversation beyond the normal cinematic cliches, so bless it when something so odd—and so much fun—gets bestowed with prestige.

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1. The Florida Project (Sean Baker, US)

“I can always tell when adults are about to cry,” the young heroine says. The tragedy of The Florida Project strikes a raw nerve, all the more so because it mashes up tones and ideas in counterintuitive ways that the more Oscar-feted films did not. Director Sean Baker and his cast perfectly nail the balance between comic energy and tragic grime. The narrative has the feel of impressionistic moments that came together in the editing room, but its little vignettes never lose sight of a constant forward motion. It dives into progressively tragic territory without getting mired in facile shock exploitation. This is a film about freedom, both its giddy thrills and its long drop to the bottom—and one of 2017’s true triumphs of on-the-fly filmmaking.

*****

The Honor Roll: 15 more films that made movie-going worthwhile this year…

After the Storm (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan)

The Big Sick (Michael Showalter, US)

Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino, Italy/France/US)

Coco (Lee Unkrich & Adrian Molina, US)

The Death of Louis XIV (Albert Serra, France/Spain)

Ex Libris: The New York Public Library (Frederick Wiseman, US)

Good Time (Joshua & Ben Safdie, US)

Logan (James Mangold, US)

Lucky (John Carroll Lynch, US)

On the Beach At Night Alone (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)

The Other Side of Hope (Aki Kaurismäki, Finland)

A Quiet Passion (Terence Davies, UK)

The Shape of Water (Guillermo Del Toro, US)

The Square (Ruben Östlund, Sweden)

Wind River (Taylor Sheridan, US)

Short Cuts: THE FLORIDA PROJECT

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As a general rule, children can’t act—and that’s to the great advantage of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, because I’d be surprised if even a quarter of what its young heroes do on screen was heavily scripted or controlled. They are loose and unbound. Living in a low-rent hotel outside Orlando, their characters hock loogies, hustle for ice cream, go exploring, and act loud in the way children do when they’re sugar-high for attention (from the adults? from each other? from the camera?). Like The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), say, the authenticity of their performances lies in the sense of reaction. And the unforgettable potency of the film—its mixture of energy and sadness—comes from the fact that we understand what their characters do not: that they are in dire straits, living at the bottom rungs of the American ladder with scant opportunities and parent figures who are at best impoverished and at worst criminally irresponsible. But playtime goes on, for as long as it can.

Sean Baker was last seen with 2015’s Tangerine, a screwball dramedy about transgender Los Angeles sex workers that he famously shot on an iPhone. It was one of the indie-world darlings of its year, and it attempted quite a high-wire act: that is, if you’re trying to film a screwball setpiece where one of the characters is a bruised, drug-addicted prostitute, don’t be surprised if laughter gets squashed in your throat—and I have to say, I admired the chutzpah of the attempt more than I felt edified by the results. But with The Florida Project, Baker nails the tone between comedy and grime that was so shaky in Tangerine. The balance is superb. The already-stylized colors of Florida, and the way Baker and company frame them, allow the film to feel grounded without settling for the uninspired visual shorthands that make so much social realism blur into indistinction. The narrative has the feel of impressionistic moments that came together in the editing room, but its little details and vignettes never lose sight of a constant forward motion. It dives into progressively tragic territory without getting mired in facile shock exploitation. The only time, I think, it overplays its hand is with the ending, which makes the symbolic irony of story—that all this doomed innocence is happening just outside of Disney World—too jarringly telegraphed. But the film primes you for that final moment so well that it bothers me less and less. This is one of the best movies about post-Great Recession American life, a film that, with a dextrous emotional palette, both captures and embodies the freedom of living over a bottomless pit. And Willem Dafoe, as the manager of cheap hotel near a tourist trap, may be the most admirably heroic character in a year that included the entire goddamned Justice League.

Short Cuts: DARKEST HOUR

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The Academy Awards have a way of bringing them out: largely ordinary films that could only have been made by experts at their craft. A lot of what can be said for Darkest Hour, Joe Wright’s Best Picture nominee about Winston Churchill, could be said about any number of Oscar-bait films, including several by Wright, and including The King’s Speech (2010), with which it shares a historical moment and a major character. The virtues of Wright and his team can’t be discounted. The cinematography and editing have a forceful precision, the acting is top-notch, and the story is swift and economical—again, we are in the hands of professionals. What blunts its effectiveness is a lack of distinction, or rather the question of what lasting value its effectiveness actually holds. It is, crisp imagery and all, a rather expected Great Man docudrama, the sort of basic retrospective where a hero achieves greatness by insisting on doing X when everyone around him says the only possibility is Y. It confirms mainly that a) Academy Voters of a Certain Age remain helpless to resist Brits in period costume, and b) the Best Actor race tends to demand not just the emotional immersion of good acting, but a degree of fussy transformation. Gary Oldman, nailing the accent and mannerisms under several layers of fake flab, is considered more or less a lock to win the Oscar for his Churchill. When he does, I can’t complain. But I’d take his subtler, implosive, enigmatic performance in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011) nine times out of ten.

So what’s most interesting about Darkest Hour is less the film itself, which is undeniably engaging for what it is, but rather the circumstances that surround it. So, without further ado, and given that it is the most conventionally Oscar-y of this year’s Oscar films, here are a few loose notes on awards season 2018 inspired by Darkest Hour

First, there is the manner in which I was able to see it. It was available, legally and from the comfort of my own apartment, for VOD streaming only six weeks after its wide theatrical release date. That’s one of the narrower windows I’ve seen for such a high-profile A-list production, and it’s Exhibit M that, in an era where big box office and Oscar bets have been drifting out of sync, the calculus of how a distributor can take advantage of awards hype is changing.

Second, there is the serendipity that Darkest Hour is sharing the Best Picture slate with Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, which is about the same event, ends on the same speech, and does so in such a vastly different way that the Academy couldn’t have created a more instructive double bill if it tried. And Nolan’s decision to have a collective main character—that is, no particular main character at all—stands as a much more interesting way to take on history than viewing it through the lens of a Great Man.

Third, as long as we’re talking about Best Picture nominees, Darkest Hour can rub shoulders with Steven Spielberg’s The Post. As a general principle, a new Spielberg film means far more to me than a new film by Wright. The Post, which I reviewed at length here, is not one of Spielberg’s best. It has some utterly mind-boggling things wrong with it, but its rough edges and topical bluntness certainly feel like they come from some personal desire. So as a thought experiment, I set the two movies side by side and found that I preferred the immaculate polish of Wright’s film to the wonky sincerity of Spielberg’s. Auteurist principles have their uses, but they can also make for unsatisfying nights at the movies.

And finally, there is the pull-quote I see on the poster every time I walk down Santa Monica Blvd. “Darkest Hour is the movie we need right now,” raves the Washington Post, for showing us the kind of steadfast leadership in such short supply. I can’t say the film didn’t goose me to inspiration, yet there is something vaguely ominous these days about spending two hours rooting for a world leader to go to war. Churchill/Oldman’s hero’s quest is to fend off pressure for appeasement and commit to all-out combat where it’s either us or them. Only the most contrarian history buff could blame him; his opponent was literally Hitler. But the film’s characterization of Churchill—an unconventional leader, eccentric in his personal habits, bellicose by nature, not exactly polite, regarded with distrust by the political establishment, connecting directly with the hoi polloi, and promising to be a tough man for a tough time—sounds a lot like the reason so many Americans voted for Donald Trump, even if they got a tacky gold-plated imitation instead. I doubt the filmmakers or the Washington Post had that idea on their mind when thinking of the leader we need; the opposite is far more likely. But that, essentially, is the only aspect of Darkest Hour that feels raw, like it wouldn’t have been exactly the same at an Oscar season ten or twenty years ago. Like Dunkirk, or The Post for that matter, the movie ends with the real battle only just on the horizon. I can only hope its idea of importance is the stuff of stodgy period pieces.

✬✬✬✩✩

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Darkest Hour is available on Amazon, iTunes, and at a theater near you. Whatever floats your boat.

Shorts Cuts: THE DEATH OF LOUIS XIV

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Nowadays, Jean-Pierre Leaud is as much a symbol as an actor, and with good reason. Starring in The 400 Blows (1959) when he was 14, he broke out at the same moment the French New Wave did and then proceeded to come of age on camera at a time when the idea of cinema got tied to such restless, experimental, political upheaval. The honor roll includes Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin Feminin (1966), Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 (1971), and Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore (1973), to pick the first three films to pop into my head—excluding, for the sake of fairness, the half dozen or so he made with Truffaut. In my own millennial lifetime, he’s been cast in ways that are both savvy and fetishistic: as a former New Wave director wondering what it was all for in Irma Vep (1996), and as himself in fond cameos in Tsai Ming-Liang’s What Time is It There? (2001) and Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers (2003).

So it’s a credit to how much Leaud disappears into Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV, in which he plays a noble aged monarch sliding towards oblivion, that the film is more than a cineaste’s allegory for bygone movie history. Certainly, that reading is available, and plenty satisfying if you want it. But Serra’s film has its eye on something grander, drawn paradoxically on a small scale. The plot is little more than the title: it is a two-hour string of scenes at an 18th century deathbed, the camera generally restricted to a few interiors. Its only intrigue is the way sycophants and medical quacks huddle in the corners, second-guessing themselves on how to treat the king or wondering how to get him to sign off on a matter of state, even as the king himself reverts to the mind of a child.

It is, I imagine, not what most people would call “a good movie” on the technicality that it’s not what most people would call “a movie” at all. But it’s catnip for anyone who needs to be reminded that that restless filmmaking spirit never really went away. It is defiantly slow and hushed, the sort of film that insists on being taken on its terms and no one else’s. But as its details accumulate, it reaches a cinematic sweet spot where a film can tackle such heady subjects—the absurdity of history, the inevitability of death, and the way human civilization, each phase of which looks surreal in retrospect, is helpless in the face of it—without anyone ever giving a speech to that effect or reducing its ideas to mere words. (In aiming to make a period-piece era feel not relatable but insane, it finds a candlelit brethren in Barry Lyndon (1975), which many Kubrick fans are bored by for reasons I can’t fully understand, and which is an action movie by comparison).

Ultimately, the experience of The Death of Louis XIV is modestly anticlimactic for a film of such willful ambition, which is a polite way of saying that I suspect Serra’s best work is either still to come or carries inherent limitations. But with Leaud providing the raw pain, confusion, and wistfulness of old age, and Serra providing a perspective that can swing from empathy to satire to the grisly and the grotesque, it is a gem: a slice of provocative melancholia willing to set (and break) its own rules.

✬✬✬✬✩

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The Death of Louis XIV played Cannes in 2016 and was released into a precious handful of theaters by the good people at Cinema Guild in 2017. It is now hiding, available for rental, on iTunes.

Short Cuts: PHANTOM THREAD

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Paul Thomas Anderson may be the most Freudian director working today. His films are dotted with children paying for the sins of their parents; seekers who are both eager for and ashamed of sex; and men who want badly to be cradled and get laid, though not necessarily in that order, because they can’t decide on the order themselves. What other director could, with Punch-Drunk Love (2002), surface how a lot of 90s Adam Sandler comedies could be half-psychodrama if they really applied themselves? So with Phantom Thread, a strange but eternal kind of love story, Anderson is quite at home setting his latest film circa 1950, a golden age for psychodramas, where his lovers can take a stroll along a windswept cliffside that wouldn’t be out of place in Rebecca (1940) or Suspicion (1941). They are played by Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps as a kind of Svengali and ingenue, each half-enigma or half-phantom in what makes them tick. Carnality is never visible in the film, as it wouldn’t be in any film made there and then. Yet it is unmistakably a tale of battle and conquest, asking us to wonder who is conquering whom, and to what end.

It is Anderson’s return to this time period after 2012’s The Master, a relentlessly psychoanalytic film that, perhaps because of its huge hype, started Anderson’s journey to becoming more of an acquired taste than he already was. (I remember how perplexed people were that it had all the ingredients of an American epic like There Will Be Blood (2007), but turned out to be largely about a spasmodic Joaquin Phoenix grappling with his erection.) But Phantom Thread is also Anderson’s return to someplace else: the main spotlight of Oscar season, with nods for Best Picture and Best Director for the first time since There Will Be Blood. Part of this may be that Anderson has scaled back on the more off-putting scatological aspects of The Master and Inherent Vice (2014); emotional intimacy is a more respectable subject than melancholic horniness, if not necessarily a more profound one. But there is another, more basic reason: it’s his best film since There Will Be Blood as well, his most focused, cohesive, and emotionally resonant, even as it continues his exploration of making films borne on texture and flow. The plot is just a framework; the real narrative is made of liquid.

So, about that framework. The story concerns the relationship between a famous British fashion designer named Reynolds Woodcock—I never said Anderson abandoned scatology completely—and a young waitress named Alma whom he takes on as his latest live-in companion. Reynolds is an intensely fussy man, pathologically insistent on control down to the smallest detail in both his work and his life. His only true confidante is his rigid sister (Lesley Manville). He has preoccupations surrounding his late mother, and he takes on romantic partners only to discard them once they’re worn down. He is an emotional tyrant, one senses, more by reflex than intent. And the film that surrounds him is about trying to bring someone into your life without exposing anything of yourself or giving up an inch of your own comfort or routine, which is a recipe for misery if there ever was one. With Alma, he may have met his match—but then, so much about her can seem slippery, too.

The arc of the film has more to do with character, theme, and metaphor than anything as immediate as plot, which means that much of Phantom Thread must be enjoyed the way Reynolds himself might enjoy it: by marveling at its fastidious beauty. As with The Master, Anderson and his composer Jonny Greenwood excel at creating a version of the past that somehow feels both immaculately familiar and utterly alien in its tone, which fits a movie that has the detail to be set either in a specific time and place or entirely in its characters’ minds. The camerawork is gorgeous, while Greenwood’s score makes the film feel like a series of visual musical compositions rather than dramatic scenes. But the compositions start to change. The stateliness breaks down into a sneaky sense of humor, and Alma, initially a cipher, grabs co-authorship. She is, as played marvelously by Krieps, the first real stab at a heroine in Anderson’s films in 15 years, and his work is all the better for it.

I’d never spoil the climax, except to say that what Alma and Reynolds have in store for one another—and what each gets out of their arrangement—gels by the end like a twist on a Hawksian screwball comedy. And as the “phantom” aspects take physical shape on screen, I was convinced that what I had seen just might be the most perversely romantic film of the year. Anderson, who started his career as a precocious wunderkind and is now approaching fifty, renders emotion in a way that has a worldly lucidity and works like a dream. The film washes over you, and if you are a certain kind of cinephile, it leaves behind the magnificent stamp of cinematic traditions being explored as a fresh and personal quest of discovery. The rave I’m giving it may not be the one I would have given halfway through the movie, or even as I exited the theater genuinely punch-drunk from Anderson’s conclusion. But I’ve lived with Phantom Thread for about a week now, and it only grows. I may be in love myself.

✬✬✬✬✬

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Phantom Thread is playing in theaters around the country and is up for a half dozen Academy Awards. I haven’t mentioned whether or not Daniel Day-Lewis is good in it, because I don’t need to.

Short Cuts: GOOD TIME

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In the end credits of the Josh and Benny Safdie’s Good Time, the first name to appear under the special thanks is Martin Scorsese. I don’t know what went on behind the camera, but they’d owe him that much for Mean Streets (1973) alone; like a classic Scorsese crime picture, Good Time is about reckless hoodlums who are almost smart enough to realize how dumb they are. Robert Pattinson stars as Connie, a New York City kid who ropes his mentally handicapped brother Nick (Benny Safdie, stepping in front of the camera) into helping him commit a bank robbery. When it goes south, Nick is caught and thrown in prison, and Connie spends a long night bouncing through the outer boroughs in a series of increasingly desperate, ill-advised plans to score some cash to get him out, with dawn and inevitability on the way.

It is a film with style to spare, full of rave colors, sharp editing, and a few stunningly controlled helicopter shots. And fittingly, the key question hovering over the film is the same that has hounded Scorsese, and that’s whether or not there’s more to the film than just an invigorating shot of pure cinema in the arm. There is: to its credit as a film, Good Time is not a good time, but a bad trip laced with social criticism and MDMA. It is an overload, a discomforting vision of America’s strivers, fuck-ups, and have-nots, precise and convincing in its earthy detail of mid-to-lower-rung city life. (Essays can be and have been written on which characters the Safdies make white or black, as class throws the two into the same boat but race keeps them judged by different standards.) As an actor, Pattinson has been looking for arthouse cred for a while now—just like fellow Twilight star Kristen Stewart—by working with directors like David Cronenberg, Werner Herzog, and James Gray. And it’s to his credit that by the end, what starts looking like a “a bunch of authentic New Yorkers plus an English matinee idol” ends with him having disappeared into the role. Besides, you’d need the looks of a matinee idol to get away with half of the scams he attempts.

The harsh, jagged nature of the film has its limits, particularly for a film whose biggest flaw is how it keeps you at arm’s length while yanking the chain. (That is, if a film isn’t at least half-interested in tenderness, you can easily spend two hours watching anti-heroes ruin their lives without growing to know or care for them.) But the finale, in which the two words of the title are spoken, suggests an ambivalent moral that the only responsible path forward in life is not fast or exciting but drab and dutiful and banal. A Scorsesian theme if there ever was one, and enough to say that the Safdies’ neon odyssey, already showered with cinephile acclaim, could be the breakthrough of an outstanding body of work. Scorsese himself has signed on as an executive producer of their next film. Fingers crossed.

✬✬✬✬✩

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Good Time was a darling at the Cannes Film Festival last May and is now available for download. Keep it legal, please.

Short Cuts: THE SQUARE

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There are many delicious ironies inside and encircling The Square, the cringingly funny new comedy by Swedish director Ruben Östlund, not least of which is that it won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Cannes is a place both magical and somewhat insane, a hotspot of global prestige where for two weeks each May, aspirations of important, global cinematic art mingle with crass elitism, conspicuous consumption, and institutional absurdity. So where better to celebrate the story of Christian (Claes Bang), the anti-hero of The Square? Christian is the curator of a museum of contemporary art in Stockholm; the number one obstacle is money, he explains early on. Hiply dressed and doing his best to dodge his own faults, he juggles his day-to-day job, his nights at parties, his young daughters from a previous marriage, a reporter he slept with (Elisabeth Moss), an encounter with a pickpocket, and the problems with the museum’s new installation called “The Square”: a physical space where all people are equal and must be humane to each other—a concept that proves difficult to concretely explain, and even more difficult to market.

Östlund had a breakout of sorts with 2014’s Force Majeure, and The Square continues that film’s way of breaking people down, particularly men, into creatures with absurd atavistic instincts barely covered by even more absurd public facades. The Square is nothing if not a string of not-at-all-subtle comic setpieces to that effect, including a violent performance piece during a black-tie dinner party (Buñuel would be proud) and a Q&A with a conceptual artist (Dominic West) who keeps being interrupted by a man with Tourette’s syndrome. As for artistic concepts, the one at the center of The Square is delightfully droll: the idea that serious introspection and universal empathy—which, in a perfect world, we would all practice anyway—can be turned into the kind of artistic event that only the rarefied would even attend, let alone be effected by. Art-world pretension is a fish in a barrel if there ever was one, and to the film’s credit, Östlund has his sights on something larger: class-conflict, poverty, and the idea of a utopian society that has evaded even a place as progressive as Sweden. Christian is callow, irresponsible, and self-centered, but the film works because Bang is affable enough to keep the movie from condescending. Christian is both a cad and an innocent; his mistakes are mistakes that anyone in his position might make, and his humbling is not one we’re meant to take snide pleasure in. (“You must think very highly of yourself”, Moss says to him at one point, to which his response is an instinctive, strikingly sincere “I don’t”).

This is an idea whose weight the film doesn’t do full justice to: that utopian artistic humanism and absurdist cringe-comedy should be forever bound together, because we are, on the whole, a very absurd species. The Square‘s level of insight into said absurdity, either for the art world specifically or humanity in general, is thin for a movie that stretches for two and a half hours. Like Force Majeure, it ends on a weaker note than it begins, as if Östlund the dramatist is better at spotting our foibles than coming up with emotional, weighty, meaningful conclusions for them. But as a humorist, he’s a shrewd adult who hasn’t lost touch with his inner child, and that inner child is a very naughty prankster. As the various ideas of this deadpan comedy diffuse, the most lasting ones are that low-brow entertainment can do more than art, that truly effective art has to be dangerous, and that—in a world of pretensions and poses, of problems that have no perfect solution, of political arguments where it’s impossible to please everyone—the most honest form of human expression is an awkward breakdown. I’ll take it.

✬✬✬✬✩

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The Square was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globes. It’ll be available on iTunes by the end of the month, if you want to wince in the privacy of your own home.