Next Door to Prestige 3: Buy a Ticket, Take the Ride

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You can’t fault film history for lacking irony or showmanship. The year and the decade ended exactly as they should have: in an exasperating public debate about the definition of cinema, accidentally kicked off by one of Hollywood’s finest living cineastes, spinning in circles for months, and not ending because anyone was satisfied, only because they got tired. I don’t mean to be too flippant. After Martin Scorsese said Marvel movies were “theme parks” instead of cinema, the ensuing clickbait shitstorm did produce some very thoughtful pieces about the state of Hollywood product. But if you have a Twitter account (and I can’t say I recommend it), you could see the way this back-and-forth lacked even a shared frame of reference, even while the question was a valid one.

Ironically, any cinephile of the old school has ample reasons to be happy with the present. Indeed, you could argue that more of film history is more widely available, and in better quality, than at any other point in time. It just so happens to coincide with a moment when fewer people than ever seem to care.

But tonight is Oscar night, and “caring about movies” is the reason for the party, at least nominally. The idea that the movie business really matters, and that the statues just make it official, is a large part of the Academy’s goal, or its act, or its calculus. The day after the nominations were announced, Variety ran the headline “Oscars Nominate Films Audiences Have Actually Seen”—a somewhat sardonic reprieve from the recent concerns that Academy voters and “the public” (whoever they/we are) don’t understand each other anymore. I’m not sure that the Academy or the public did anything differently in 2019, but they did overlap on some of the liveliest parts of a lively year. Most of the Best Picture nominees were hits, and most of those hits deserve to be talked about. To the extent that everyone can ever agree on anything, I saw nothing more unanimous in the 2010s than praise for Parasite. (Its popularity has put me in heaven, but a hit-tip to the brave dissent, particularly this great piece on the MUBI Notebook that gets into the political weeds). Angst about Netflix seems to be a thing of the past, and while multiplexes can feel sclerotic—or like theme parks—the role of streaming services in film distribution is the place where an ongoing chapter of cinema history has some vitality to it.

But Oscar season increasingly inspires another tradition, one that’s an upscale spiritual kin to Scorsese’s comment: the debate of craft versus meaning. And on that count, 2019 was a doozy.

So for starters, a word about my Joker paradox: the film is on my list of honorable mentions even though I wrote 1,000 words of ambivalence about it. It’s a divisive film, and a rare division that puts Lucrecia Martel, the Cahiers du Cinema, and the most vocal IMDb fans in the same corner. Purely as a comic book origin story, it may well be the decade’s most engaging piece of tentpole revisionism. But if you want to see it as a film with something real to say about mental illness and inequality in America, or a film that elevates the material to the subversive sophistication of Taxi Driver—well, then there’s plenty to call bullshit on. So for all its antisocial gestures and anarchist overtones, the praise it deserves is this: good clean fun. But it’s divided me against myself. Disagreeing about Joker was more enjoyable, and probably more productive, than all the 2019 films I’ve forgotten.

1917, I’m less sure about. The Best Picture race was intriguingly open until Sam Mendes’s long-take extravaganza arrived, and it’s now a frontrunner over four or five far more interesting and substantive films. The timing helped. If 1917 had been released a few months earlier, the spell of its technical virtuosity may have worn off, revealing a rather ordinary and safe war movie underneath. The word “immersive” comes up a lot, but if the film does indeed “make you feel that you are there”, it’s worth asking where “there” is. Is it in the trenches, or a series of precisely orchestrated cinematic setpieces? And if it’s so relentlessly, insistently spectacular, does that help immerse you, or just make you aware of all the strings? Its one-take continuity has neither the in-the-shit verisimilitude of Saving Private Ryan‘s opening act nor the baroque allegorical tension of Apocalypse Now. Instead, Olympian technocracy takes precedence, without even enough self-reflection to recognize how that could be the theme of the era. At least half of it might as well be “World War I Mountain” at Universal Studios, and that’s the crowing irony of 2019: after all that public frenzy, the Academy might land on a movie that’s essentially a theme park ride. Sometimes, even prestige should be understood accordingly.

Without further ado, my top 10 of 2019.

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10. Transit (Christian Petzold, Germany)

Slipping quietly into arthouses last Spring was something conceptually risky, daft, and irresistible: the script for a World War II thriller inexplicably pasted on top of our own not-too-distant present. The result is a kind of eternal return, allowing old-fashioned narrative tropes, contemporary politics, incipient fascism, and pure incongruity to nag away at you. Few films captured the current anxiety with such scrappy ingredients. When two people walk through the background of the shot in sunny Marseille, you have to wonder: are they paid extras in a movie about the coming Terror? Or just passing by?

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9. High Life (Claire Denis, France/Germany)

Claire Denis’s psychodramatic space odyssey came out early as one of the most provocative movies of the year. Disturbing and emphatically not for everyone, its convergence of beauty and repulsion is some kind of dark ecstasy: a microcosm where every nasty side effect of sex rattles around before yielding the clarity and purity of a new life.

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8. Atlantics (Mati Diop, Senegal/France)

To Western eyes, the genre elements of Mati Diop’s beautiful Cannes hit seem to belong to the 19th century: forced marriages, a true love lost at sea, and ghosts that return for closure. Cinematically, the film belongs to the 21st, coming across like supernatural neorealism and claiming all these traditions in the name of something distinctly imaginative and politically savvy.

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7. Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodovar, Spain)

Pedro’s second old-soul movie in a row is a winding tale of art and life getting so tangled together that you can’t tell which is imitating which. You’ll be enchanted if you try. A film director, the real people who inspired him, the actors who reinterpret—these are familiar Almodovar ground. But time has been getting heavier in his films, and here it gives resonance to the realization that, for any artist who pulls from their life, the final creation still can’t belong to you alone. Which is why it’s Antonio’s movie as much as his.

Leonardo DiCaprio star in Columbia Pictures “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood"

6. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, US)

Tarantino has said that this is his Roma. He meant Cuaron, but he might as well have meant Fellini, because Tarantino is one of the few people in Hollywood today to get away with a celebrity filmmaker’s lack of narrative discipline. Tarantino is a born crowd-pleaser, but the question has come up before and likely will again: does he know when his crowd-pleasing instincts have unsettling undercurrents, or does he do it all in his sleep? Either way, the film is keenly attuned of what the movie business offers its fans, asks in returns, and requires to stay running. As much as this is about the End of an Era, it’s about something constant. So this sprawling, funny, wild cartoon fresco is like Rome in another way, too: it’s an Eternal City. The mode may mutate and fashions may change. But Hollywood will always be here, beautiful and ugly.

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5. Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Celine Sciamma, France) & 4. Little Women (Greta Gerwig, US)

Portrait begins with a fiercely self-possessed woman instructing students on how to draw her, and Little Women begins with a publisher insisting that any young heroine needs to be married or dead by the end of the story. In other words, we have two costume dramas that, while drawing what they like from older visual and narrative traditions, tackle a still-modern subtext: how do you do justice to women’s experiences in fiction, art, and by extension the movie business itself? Portrait is a heady film of tremendous painterly control, and a lesbian love story in which erotic contact arises from kinship and inquiry. In Little Women, Gerwig’s deceptively rigorous skill with anecdotal detail expands the loveliness of Lady Bird to a wider scope. It keeps flowing, and the decision to rope in the spirit of the author for a meta-bookend both fulfills and plays a merry goof on the formula. Individually, either film would be a treasure. Together, they might be the double bill of the year.

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3. Uncut Gems (Ben & Joshua Safdie, US)

Neon New York noir from the Safdie brothers, a thematic successor to The Maltese Falcon with the bitter aftertaste of something closer to the gutter, like Night and the City or Force of Evil. So there’s a rich, cynical history to compare it to, but the triumph is that it doesn’t exactly move like you’ve seen or heard it all before. The Safdies’ view of NYC as one giant multi-ethnic hustle has its own pungency, and they improve on Good Time by allowing comedy and feeling a chance to breathe. I don’t know if Adam Sandler was robbed, but if his job was to hide insecurity behind a smirk, hang on for dear life, and collapse under the weight of delusions, his particular star presence somehow perfectly fits the noir type of a cocky sap who thinks he can beat the house.

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2. The Irishman (Martin Scorsese, US)

Dig your own grave and lie in it, morally if not literally. You can call it now: Martin Scorsese has made at least one truly great film in every decade since the 1970s.

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1. Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea)

If Bong Joon-ho movies seem to exist between genres, it’s because he pairs the absurdity of comedy with action where laughter is an unlikely fit. Like the Coens, he tells stories that could go in any direction—and more importantly, creates worlds where those directions feel plausible. So the first time I saw Parasite, I felt the spasmodic sense of unpredictability; the second time, the clockmaker’s precision. He’s too much of a showman to look down on any genre he’s mixing in the lab, and if you’re new to his Korean films, you have MotherThe Host, and Memories of Murder awaiting you. As for Parasite, everything you’ve heard about not reading plot summaries is true. To end the year and the decade, its soulful mixture of empathy and dismay, of fiendishness and sorrow, is haunting.

*****

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

Ad Astra (James Gray, US)

American Factory (Steven Bognar & Julia Reichert, US)

Apollo 11 (Todd Douglas Miller, US)

Ash is Purest White (Jia Zhangke, China)

Bacurau (Kleber Mendonça Filho & Juliano Dornelles, Brazil)

Birds of Passage (Ciro Guerra & Cristina Gallego, Colombia)

High Flying Bird (Steven Soderbergh, US)

Honeyland (Tamara Kotevska & Ljubomir Stefanov, Macedonia)

Joker (Todd Philips, US)

The Kingmaker (Lauren Greenfield, US/Denmark)

Knives Out (Rian Johnson, US)

Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach, US)

The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg, UK)

Synonyms (Nadav Lapid, Israel/France)

Us (Jordan Peele, US)

 

 

THE ROUND-UP: Cut Gems

The Round-Up is a collection of capsule reviews for new releases that filled up my notebook but never got a full dive. This one goes out to the off-the-beaten path titles that I liked but that’ll miss my best-of-the-year list. No Oscar nominees allowed.

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Little Joe (Jessica Hausner, UK/Austria/Germany)

Jessica Hausner’s chilly, cheeky slice of futuristic paranoia won a top prize at Cannes before getting released into the day-and-date morass, and I hope it finds its audience where the Venn diagram of geekery and perversity overlaps. Sure, it could use a rewrite to beef up the plot and make the metaphor subtler. But it’s conceptually and aesthetically solid bizarro sci-fi, a spin on Invasion of the Body Snatchers that makes you wonder if getting body-snatched might actually be preferable. A friend of mine said it looked like “nature run amok.” It’s really “motherhood when your kid goes through puberty.” Same same.

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

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Asako I & II (Ryūsuke Hamaguchi, Japan)

Sucker that I am for doppelgängers, and always happy to see the fundamental dynamic of Vertigo get gender-flipped, I’d recommend this to anyone similarly inclined. As a mystery-laced melodrama, it resonates aesthetically and metaphorically: a play on youthful and mature ideas of love, and what happens when it comes time to cross that threshold. Dramatically, it goes out with a whimper, during which insane romantic obsession is really just ordinary confusion with an ordinary solution. But maybe, as they say, that’s life.

✬✬✬✩✩

*****

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Her Smell (Alex Ross Perry, US)

A movie about characters who have a front-row seat to a rock star’s self-destruction. But why would anyone want to be around for it? You could apply that question to the audience, not just the characters, and the answer is Elisabeth Moss. She’s frighteningly effective at seeming like a genuine waste case, not just an actress playing one. Alex Ross Perry doesn’t have Cassavettes’ skill at mining insight into people—his film never opens the context like A Women Under the Influence. But the formal arc is strong. For a director so in love with words, “talk” in Her Smell is just another part of the soundscape. And when the grunge trainwreck reaches a passage of quiet, the adjustment is so jarring it makes you dizzy. Then it lifts you up.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

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Dark Waters (Todd Haynes, US)

Dark Waters seemed instantly like a strange choice of material for Todd Haynes, which is to say, the material is normal. But this legal thriller feels immediately like his, and it benefits from a Haynesian gaze: a wary fascination with “normal” Americana, because it could so easily be hiding a perversion of nature or a suppression of the body. The corporate lawyers at their cocktail parties seem as plasticine as the dolls from Superstar and as absurd as Douglas Sirk’s suburbanites, with a similar sense of alienation and sneaky humor. This (undeniably Queer) perspective papers over the cracks of what could otherwise be a routine agitprop procedural. At least until the routine agitprop procedural wins out in the end.

✬✬✬✩✩

*****