Next Door to Prestige 4: Home Movies

So. Where were we?

In the Before Times, pre-COVID, pre-lockdown, one of my last trips to a movie theater was for a series of Frank Capra/John Ford double bills hosted by the American Cinematheque. Their weekend’s programming included two classics from the tail end of the Depression: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington on Friday, and John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath on Sunday.

There can be serendipity in moviegoing, particularly if it’s the kind where a crowd can turn a film from 80 years ago into a live event. And as fate would have it, the screening of Mr. Smith happened on the day that the Senate voted 51-49 to not hear witnesses in the (first) impeachment trial of Donald Trump. Those headlines were not lost on the theater’s MC, who took to the stage before the show to acknowledge the news and assure us that a little Capra would help. Far be it from me to deny that Mr. Smith is a cathartic experience for anyone who’s frustrated and righteous, which I guess is most of us nowadays. The irony is that, to the extent that Mr. Smith has a firm set of real-world politics at all, it’s a very conservative film: anti-New Deal, skeptical of city values and Big Government compromises, and convinced that only the wicked might disagree with its homilies. (The LA crowd did seem appreciative, but I imagine Trumpists would love the sequence of Jimmy Stewart furiously punching random people on the streets of DC after he gets slandered by the Fake News press).

This makes double-billing it with The Grapes of Wrath another kind of serendipity, because the dueling populism of the two films is like a tug-of-war between conjoined twins. Ford’s film supports the New Deal as much as Capra’s film is wary of it, and while it may not be the most outright socialist movie to ever take the Oscar stage, it’s definitely in the running.

I had seen both of these movies years ago, as a student. But that weekend, they no longer seemed so academic. The present-tense urgency of their making—the kind that powers and lacerates both films, threatening to tip their most subtle strengths into hysteria—had grown in resonance.

All of which is to say that how and if “the movies” address the outside world was forcing itself to the top of mind in the Trump era, even in a moment as comparatively innocent as February, 2020.

And then, of course, everything went to hell.

2020 may well go down as one of the most significant years in movie history, and for reasons that have nothing to do with the content of the films themselves. The upheaval of the pandemic effectively pushed film distribution ten years into the future, further from theaters and onto streaming services. But if—as was the case for much of the year—conversations about the return of theaters revolved around Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, and hopes for serious American cinema from a streaming service settled on David Fincher’s Mank, you can’t avoid that both directors delivered some of their weakest work.

I don’t wish to give too much credence to any hand-wringing about the insignificance of movies in times of crisis. In fact, during the pandemic, the protests, the lockdowns, and the election chaos, movies were a source of solace. And as for the longterm cultural cachet of a dying medium, I’d be a lot more concerned if movies hadn’t been “dying” for the entire time I’ve been alive.

But one running theme did emerge in new releases: the way that so many movies made with an eye on 2020 felt, well…not bad, necessarily. But wildly inadequate for what they were up against.

The Trial of the Chicago 7? I appreciate Aaron Sorkin imposing his own hyper-talky brand of order on the chaos of the 60s, doubling for the divided Left of today. But it’s far too clean, too stagy, and too cutesy for 1968. Or for the last election cycle.

Borat: Subsequent Moviefilm? It’s not just that Cohen’s jokes are lazier this time around, but that the landscape has soured them. There was a thrill in the Bush era in catching people say the quiet part out loud. Today, Cohen can go to a MAGA rally, and there’s nothing that anyone will say to him mid-prank that they wouldn’t happily tell CNN.

David Byrne’s American Utopia? I had fun—Byrne knows how to bring music to the stage, and Spike Lee knows how to bring the stage to the screen. But be careful giving it political import as an essential State of the Union instead of a pleasant get-out-the-vote oldies revue.

In that sense, the DOA Oscar campaign for Ron Howard’s Hillbilly Elegy may make it the most significantly insignificant movie of the year: the union of a conservative commentator and a “liberal Hollywood” crowdpleaser that averaged out to nothing.

So where does that leave Nomadland, the Oscar favorite and an eager contender for a definitive movie about America in the 2010s?

It looks likely to have a big night, so it’s worth a moment to acknowledge the dissent. It leans hard on photography over drama or inquiry. Its view of poverty can lapse into tourism. And you could argue that it fits the Academy’s ideal politics: a vital document of our time, done in a way that never really runs the risk of pissing anybody off. But in its best moments, the collation of American landscapes, themes, and narratives beautifully stirs the pot. And at the very least, the late arrival of Oscar frontrunner with enough acclaim to warrant backlash was one of the few aspects of 2020 moviegoing that felt like a return to normalcy.

Indeed, trying to place any movie near the cultural center of 2020—as opposed to TV binges, social media channels, late night pundits, etc.—feels a little futile, though that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. Best-of-2020 lists have tended to feel like odds and ends, and that includes the Academy’s itself, due to economics as much as taste. With a lot of big or big-ish studio films delayed, this is a rare Oscar year without a crowd-pleasing blockbuster or large-scale Hollywood spectacle. The Best Picture lineup has no Ford v. Ferrari or Dunkirk or 1917 or Bohemian Rhapsody to flaunt, and the live-action films in that category that went to streaming—Mulan, Wonder Woman 1984—didn’t build anything close to a critical mass of popular support.

Yet none of that quite explains my own personal hodgepodge, which runs out of Academy contenders by the halfway point and unintentionally gravitates towards a certain miniaturism. This could be chalked up to the structural shifts of 2020—a year without a popular sensation, with distribution upended and without the social component of moviegoing. (Absolutely none of the films listed below were watched with an audience).

But it could also be something else: that the only type of big statement worth trusting right now is the kind rooted in smallness. And that’s the closest I can come to unity in the top of the top of a bottomed-out year: the recurring image of a figure at a crossroads, looking in each direction.

My 10 favorites of 2020:

10. Kajillionaire (Miranda July, US)

Miranda July’s best movie is a bit like the performance at the center of it: pickled in affectations, but those affectations cover something resonant, even raw. So while a lot of its “quirky” Sundance-isms would have felt played out even ten years ago, this comedy has an eerie metaphor on its side: a social ecosystem (call it America?) in which payment is treated as a substitute for warmth. And what’s more, the film follows that idea to a place that’s both uplifting and uncompromised. It makes an emotional high amidst fluorescent retail signify as worldly wisdom. A payoff, in every sense of the word.

9. The Father (Florian Zeller, UK/France)

For the third wave of quarantine, a movie that can make a meal out of an apartment. This is Alzheimer’s as a puzzle film, with a touch of the recursion and geometry of Marienbad. So what sounds like an Oscar duty—one of Britain’s finest actors tearing into an incurable disease—turns out to be more cinematic than you might expect. Its biggest visual games are so clearly received that its subtler ones creep up on you. And by the end, it’s done a fine job of deepening from tap-dancing cleverness into tragic soul. Key line, saved for the finale: “We have to go while it’s sunny…It never lasts long.”

8. Soul (Pete Docter & Kemp Powers, US)

Pete Docter (Up, Inside Out) is the most interesting voice to come out of Pixar’s collective identity since Brad Bird, and for tantalizingly opposite reasons. Whereas Bird is interested in the exceptional “incredibles” among us, Docter has stayed steadfastly interested in what one character in Soul summarizes as “regular old living.” In short, his lesson for the tots is that a rich emotional rollercoaster awaits every human being simply by their virtue of being alive. It’s clearer than ever that he has his own formula to stick to, and that it has concessions: talking animal slapstick, somewhat belabored metaphors, and a few fantasyland rules that play fast and loose. But more than most “children’s films”, his are designed to be a wildly different experience when the young-uns revisit them fifteen years down the road. The insight that no, you probably won’t end up being what you want to be when you grow up, but yes, you can be happy anyway, is a heady message to drop on them. Lively animation helps.

7. Minari (Lee Isaac Chung, US)

After forking over $20 to A24 for an advanced virtual screening, I feared that the loveliness of Minari was by nature far too modest to withstand the two-ton slab of awards hype that was about to be dropped on it. But how should one hype such unassuming delicacy, particularly when so much of what makes it special is not its “big moments” (a literal barnburner, say) but the observations that fill in the cracks? Minari doesn’t reinvent the wheel of autobiographical childhood cinema, and it doesn’t need to. Its characters feel real and complete, and it neither lacks dramatic incidents nor unduly forces them. It recalls the narrative flow and it-takes-all-kinds spirit of Renoir in his River/Southerner mode. And god knows that’s welcome now more than ever.

6. Sound of Metal (Darius Marder, US)

The rare movie whose second half is more interesting and complex than its first, and fulfills its themes too. Reportedly, the director was influenced by the lost-in-America classics of the 1970s like Five Easy Pieces. It shows, and the jittery drive that Riz Ahmed conjures up feels instantly recognizable but beyond any stereotype that could pigeonhole his character. A film about being forced to find a new direction, made with the wisdom not to forsake your past or expect anyone to have easy answers for the second act. Especially not yourself.

5. Lovers Rock (Steve McQueen, UK)

As movies and TV get more difficult to tell apart, no piece of 2020 “content” was more valuable in that debate than Amazon’s/Steve McQueen’s Small Axe. The creator himself calls it a TV series, though its parts are discrete, and they diverge in cast, plot, runtime, aspect ratio, and setting (all in London in the same era, but jumping between years). But the idea of separate films viewed as one is essential; it’s necessary to Lovers Rock that it both feels like such a small snapshot and that it has the context of far more fraught scenarios. Because if, from Hunger to 12 Years a Slave, McQueen tends to succeed and provoke more as a director of experiences than plots, here his primary experiential mode isn’t suffering but a shot at jubilance. And he proves that, with the right lens, affirming life can be just as political as studying its struggle.

4. City Hall (Frederick Wiseman, US)

For a country that too often hates the idea of government, documentarian Frederick Wiseman heads back to Boston and delivers a gargantuan tribute to local civil service. It sounds like propaganda, and in a sense it is—or it would be, if it showed any interest at all in accommodating an audience. Instead, it observes its subjects on their most titanically quotidian terms, and its placid brand of Direct Cinema—which insists that we spot the significance of its filmed moments ourselves, or else shut them out entirely—matters as much as what’s on camera. Which, if you can handle the runtime and see the unity of its individual pieces, is about how, whether you value the Right’s ideas of tradition or the Left’s ideas of change, society is a complex work in progress. And not to be taken for granted.

3. The Woman Who Ran (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)

Possibly one of Hong Sang-soo’s best films, although in a body of work so hand-crafted and so prolific, such distinctions may be meaningless. Each film from South Korea’s beguiling puzzlemaster feels like a status update, or a different house on the same street. His style can be mysterious or elusive, teasing you with where he might be heading. But his sense of mathematical structure—of scenes that rhyme, of sudden camera movements that push the everyday into the uncanny—goes well with what is at heart a simple story. In fact, one of the most thoughtful stories about the life of a married woman to come along in some time. Other point of inspiration: showing just how basic the ingredients of a rich film are. There seems to be no reason that people anywhere and everywhere at any time couldn’t make it themselves.

2. Vitalina Varela (Pedro Costa, Portugal)

The cinema of Pedro Costa can be as frustrating as it is invigorating, and over the years, his most widely acclaimed films—docu-fictions about the slums of Lisbon—have left me feeling less enlightened about poverty, addiction, and diaspora than what a clever director can do with digital video. So I didn’t exactly run-don’t-walk to his latest when it dropped, but in the end I left feeling that its quiet arrival on streaming services (where I still hope that niche movies like this can find their audience) was one of the cinephile events of the year. Either his particular mastery is reaching new levels of emotional directness and narrative clarity, or I’m finally getting used to him. Either way, this is a prime example of movies as their own art form, as images whose astonishment can carry an emotional weight beyond just gobsmacking you. The dialogue roots you, but then use your eyes: a dirge through the darkness towards daylight.

1. The Assistant (Kitty Green, US)

Some may say that this is a movie where not much happens, especially compared to Never Rarely Sometimes Always (another extended ordeal for a heroine) or Promising Young Woman (a high-concept machine built to provide catharsis, generally at the expense of sensible storytelling or coherent messaging). The difference with the former is that The Assistant is not about the hardest day of one’s life, but a day like any other. And its difference with the latter is that providing catharsis is the last thing on the film’s mind. It’s the best movie yet about the MeToo era, a withering gaze at life as a film-worker, and a potent look at arriving in an environment where everyone chillingly refuses to name the obvious. I suspect future films will tackle the subject with a grander, more robust style—The Assistant‘s approach is as pared down as can be. But the film’s sheer lack of sensationalism qualifies as a real triumph. The sober, determined control proves you don’t need it.


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

Another Round (Thomas Vinterberg, Denmark)

David Byrne’s American Utopia (Spike Lee, US)

Dick Johnson is Dead (Kirsten Johnson, US)

I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Charlie Kaufman, US)

The King of Staten Island (Judd Apatow, US)

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (George C. Wolfe, US)

Malmkrog (Cristi Puiu, Romania)

The Nest (Sean Durkin, Canada/UK)

Never Rarely Sometimes Always (Eliza Hittman, US)

Nomadland (Chloe Zhao, US)

Notturno (Gianfranco Rosi, Italy/France)

Palm Springs (Max Barbakow, US)

Time (Garrett Bradley, US)

Undine (Christian Petzold, Germany)

The Wild Goose Lake (Diao Yinan, China)

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


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, kicked off by one of Hollywood’s finest living cineastes by accident, 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. 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” 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 a still-open 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 and vocal IMDb fan culture 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 the trenches of 1917, or the middle of a precisely orchestrated series of action setpieces? And if the film is 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.


10. Transit (Christian Petzold, Germany)

Transit is 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 strange tension, allowing old-fashioned narrative tropes, contemporary politics, incipient fascism, and pure incongruity to nag away at you. When two people walk through the background of a shot in sunny Marseille, you have to wonder: are they paid extras in a movie about the coming terror? Or just passing by?


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, and a return of sci-fi to true trippiness.


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.


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 ingredients. 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 director in Hollywood today with enough free-rein celebrity that an undisciplined string of ideas can be greeted as an event. 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, his latest opus has multitudes. It’s keenly attuned of what the movie business offers its fans, asks in return, 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 Fellini’s 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.



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-valid 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 never stops 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’re the double bill of the year.


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

Neon New York noir from the Safdie brothers—a thematic successor to The Maltese Falcon with the 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 and 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 archetype of a cocky sap who thinks he can beat the house.


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.


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 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.


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. 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.




Asako I & II (Ryūsuke Hamaguchi, Japan)

Sucker that I am for doppelgängers, and happy out of principle 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: it unfolds as 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.




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 Faces or 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. When the grunge trainwreck reaches a passage of quiet, the adjustment is so jarring it makes you dizzy. Then it lifts you up.




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. See it nonetheless.



(Not Necessarily) The Best of the Decade: The 20 Most Something Films of the 2010s

The end of an era is an occasion for lists, and should you ever sample this particular act of recreational canonicity, you might feel that list-making quickly becomes as exclusionary as it is celebratory. But perhaps because of this, the whole exercise put me in an unlikely state of cockeyed optimism. The 2010s were the first decade in which I followed movies in a professional capacity, not just out of personal interest, and I remember it as particularly wan time for cinema. Movies seemed further than ever from the center of the cultural conversation. The films that mattered to cinephiles were in an increasingly isolated bubble, and if there were hotspots of creativity to be found, odds are that they weren’t in America. The big blockbusters that could lay claim to being director-driven cinema—InceptionGravity?—generally turned into shallow exercises at the most basic scrutiny. And in the indie sphere, very few films from the new American generation (i.e., my own) were as rewarding as watching the previous generation of Sundance breakouts grow old. That, at least, was the dismay every time I tried to compare the last decade of movies to any that had come before it.

Yet the more I tried to expand my wrap-up to capture what I liked from the 2010s—a top 10? a top 20? did we hear 50?—the more it seemed to leave out. So in picking 20 movies to highlight, I ran my (long) shortlist of favorite films through a subconscious randomizer: which, instinctively, did I want to speak my piece about right now? Don’t think, just go.

So this is not a definitive list, either objectively or in my own mind, of the 20 best films of the 2010s. If pressed into playing favorites among favorites, some of them would indeed make it. Some of them wouldn’t. (The Irishman, which isn’t blurbed below, is a better film than The Wolf of Wall Street, which is, and more word on Parasite can wait until my roundup on 2019—the film isn’t going anywhere). But the grab-bag nature is a more fun mix, probably a more balanced taste profile, and definitely more fair to an art form that, over the long haul, should be treated like a buffet table. All of these 20 I hold dear, think you should see or revisit, and kept my spirit going in a decade that looks less and less wan the more I bounce through it. So let the bouncing begin.

The list is in chronological order. Whittling all this down was madness enough.

Mysteries of Lisbon

Mysteries of Lisbon (Raúl Ruiz, Portugal/France, 2010)

Raul Ruiz passed away in 2011 after directing over 100 films, but not before delivering what may well be the most inviting work of his enigma-filled career. Mysteries of Lisbon is a fluid epic, a merry-go-round of characters and vignettes that envelope you and lead you to someplace grand and unforgettable: the sense that life is long, complicated, messy, and beautiful, and you can spend all your time on this earth trying to understand it without coming close.


Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Edgar Wright, US/UK, 2010)

Surely Edgar Wright’s new cult classic has issues. It suffers from bloat. Its fight scenes start to get in the way. That extended vegan gag makes me cringe every time I introduce the film to someone. But I don’t care—the humor hooks me right from the opening scene, and the tenderness gets me in the last one. This is perhaps the first Hollywood movie to really be about the video game generation and not just targeted at them. And its sense of style (a kitchen sink mentality, yet precisely controlled) points the way to a formalist comedy we need to see more directors pick up and run with.


The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, US, 2011) & The Tree of Life: Extended Cut (2018)

If Tree of Life polarization is now ossified instead of fresh, it’s still around. Nothing was as easy as praising it, but I feel like I spent a better part of the 2010s telling once-bitten-twice-shy newcomers to at least go back and give Days of Heaven a try. Yes, it’s nearly impossible to take every aspect of Malick’s 2011 opus as seriously as it takes itself. But overreaching is its identity: Malick dropped an unashamedly grand allegory of Man, God, Nature, Death, and other Big Questions onto an irony-besotted culture, proving that he’s either incredibly brave or just doesn’t know any better. Either way, we’re lucky he did. Few movies have ever captured the hazy feeling of childhood memories with such clarity, nor made celluloid feel like one of the Elements. And when an alternate official cut arrived at the end of the decade, adding incidents and even altering the meaning, it suggested that “The Tree of Life” may go down as a constantly-shifting quest to encapsulate more than any movie ever could.


This is Not a Film (Jafar Panahi & Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, Iran, 2011)

The origin of this 75 minute mini-masterpiece is surely the stuff of legend. The Iranian director Jafar Panahi was arrested for making subversive films, sentenced to 6 years in prison, and banned from filmmaking. So while he was under house arrest awaiting appeal, he invited a friend over, and they shot a documentary in his living room and smuggled it out of the country on a pen drive hidden in a cake. Most surprising of all is that the final product is not angry, but quietly humane and even shockingly comical. And it’s capped by a mischievous observation for the 2010s: how can any regime hope to control information when anyone with a cellphone could be a filmmaker?


Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, US, 2012)

I’d been hoping circa 2012 that Wes Anderson would come up for air. Needless to say, he didn’t. But within his dollhouse world, he paired his first child heroes with one of his most emotionally grown-up arcs—all of the sudden, he seemed able to view that split from the other side, and he could out-maneuver, out-weird, and out-feel any deadpan imitator. Its ending still stands as one of the most exquisite of the decade: a graceful coda where youth-in-revolt gives way to the tranquility of old souls. It’s a place where Anderson’s career-long theme and modus operandi are so gently illustrated. You can’t go back. But you can create.


Tabu (Miguel Gomes, Portugal/Germany, 2012)

This favorite from Berlinale didn’t fully hit me until the second time I saw it, which is only fair, since it tells its story out of order. (The resonance of the beginning isn’t clear until the end. Such are Gomes’s games, and such is life). The first half is a dry, ruefully absurd comedy about the loneliness of old age, where days go by at a crawl. The second half (a distant flashback) is a neo-silent adventure full of exotic locales, lush romanticism, and grand passions, where months go by in a rush. And the relationship between these two parts adds up to a masterpiece about memory, both personal and cultural, full of wrinkles and ambiguities on each account. Final touch: never returning us to the present, lest it break the spell.


No (Pablo Larraín, Chile/Mexico, 2012)

Shot on wonderfully cruddy videotape, Pablo Larrain’s media satire is a mordantly ironic crowd-pleaser, and the fact that it can be both of those things at once says a lot about how film and television work. Its view of getting social change accomplished through vague promises of happiness makes it one of the most clever, provocative, and sadly relevant political comedies of its era. The archival footage it unearths, seamlessly blended into the fiction, is almost too hilariously strange to be believed. Of course the good guys will win. But the terms of their victory are a magnificent question mark.


Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski, US, 2013)

Yes, The Social Network‘s combo of style and subject matter is decade-defining by default. But I suspect its analysis of Mark Zuckerberg—a millennial Citizen Kane whose billions can never replace that girl he dated a few times sophomore year—is something the real Mark Zuckerberg found hilarious while he looked for new and innovative ways to monetize our personal data. So you can keep the end of The Social Network, with a lovesick mogul dolefully clicking refresh. Just let me keep Andrew Bujalski’s magnificent, lo-fi shaggy-dog comedy about the future Masters of the Universe trying to create artificial intelligence while the human kind isn’t working out. No other indie this decade so reassured me that the Sundance scene still makes room for movies that are bracingly weird.


At Berkeley (Frederick Wiseman, US, 2013)

Direct Cinema at its finest: no interviews, no voice-over, no music, no Errol Morris flourishes or Michael Moore stunts—just organized raw footage, creating a documentary portrait of higher education in flux. Never doubt that you’re under the control of a director, and a legendary one at that. But the goal of the film, much like the best college classes, is to invite reactions without prescribing any. And it’s so full of ironies, tragedies, wonders, and contradictions that it’s truly awe-inspiring. Many may chafe at the idea of a four hour doc with no central figure. But keep your eyes and ears open, and you’ll get what feels like years of experience and insights in less time than it takes to drive up from Hollywood on the PCH.


The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, US, 2013)

“Self-parody” is generally used as a perjorative, but there’s no better or more fruitful way to think of Scorsese’s Long Island la dolce vita than as a consciously parodic version of his own Goodfellas and Casino mode. Here’s a rogues gallery that would like to think they’re the tough guys in a Scorsese flick, but are actually just overvalued used car salesmen and amoral accounting schlubs. “I’m not stupid,” Jonah Hill insists at one point. “I make million dollar deals with important people.” And that’s the crux of the film. If you want to feel like you’re smart when you’re not, or like you’re important when you’re not, or like you’re a stud when you’re not, the surest way is to have money. Controversy was stirred, but by denying the easy out of morality, no film of the 2010s got so uncomfortably to America’s moral failing. I suspect this may end up looking like a precursor to Trumpism much the same way M looks like a precursor to WWII. It’s frighteningly easy to watch Hill’s character as he points at his own fat head and imagine him getting a cabinet position.


Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel & Ethan Coen, US, 2013)

In their fourth decade as feature filmmakers, the Coens are still evolving. With this and A Serious Man, they deviate into trickier structures and ambiguous endings, spinning modern folk stories and character studies that are more liable than ever to dart in another direction. In part because of the music, in part because of Oscar Isaac’s performance, and in part because the Coens themselves stretched into new emotional territory, the film does justice to the despondency that so often exists on the fringe of their work. After the career box office high of True Grit, it returned them back to the specialty corner, and not even the Academy really took them up on it. But when all is said and done, I suspect this will be considered one of their best.


Like Father, Like Son (Hirokazu Kore-Eda, Japan, 2013)

Kore-Eda’s comedy is Capraesque in its moral simplicity. But fuck it, we needed some Capra, just as Capra needed some revising. Five years into a deep economic slump, when you’d regularly see asshole pundits on TV railing against the poor, Kore-Eda’s film made the beautifully simple argument that everyone could be everyone else’s family. It gets by on the sort of sentimentality that would seem schmaltzy if it weren’t so delicate. But delicate it is.


The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki, Japan, 2013)

I must confess I’ve never been entirely sold on Miyazaki’s reputation, and my preferences seem to deny sense. I dig Totoro, balk at Spirited Away, greatly enjoy some of his early adventure films, and am greatly unmoved by his later, more famous ones. But this outlier needs more attention. It’s the sort of film Kurosawa used to make in between samurai movies: a humane portrait of society’s supporting players. The theme of trying to live one’s life outside of history is full of heartache and conflicted emotions. If anyone labels it a “kids movie”, it may be the most morally complicated one ever made.


It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, US, 2014)

One of the American indie triumphs of the decade is also one of the few recent horror movies to back up a high concept pitch with emotional weight. A remarkably cohesive synthesis of HalloweenRepulsion, and a bit of J-horror, it’s scary and loaded, sifting intelligently and empathetically through the emotional fallout that can happen when young people (as young people do) stumble into sex. The formal control is smart enough to recognize what made a previous generation of genre experts tick. And it earns bonus points for having teenage characters that, crucial to the heart of the film, actually look and seem like teenagers.


Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson, US, 2015)

It feels odd to hype this as something grand when nearly everything about it is miniature. But I can’t think of a better metaphor for loneliness than every person in the world sounding like Tom Noonan, nor a more persuasive case for what animation-for-grown-ups can do that live-action can’t. Weird, sad, paranoid, so perfect in its own small way that it makes you suspicious of anything more “important” than an artist exploring their own mind. Kaufman still idolizes ditsy women and has a fatalistic hang-up on life in general, but now he can admit it could just be him. These days, with puppets and Kickstarter, making a movie might be cheaper than therapy.


Get Out (Jordan Peele, US, 2017)

The great coup of the first half is turning the welcoming smiles of white liberals into something creepy, and I say that as one of them. The great coup of the second half is going completely bonkers while perfectly adding up. The result: devilishly unsettling fun as we segued from one foul era to an even fouler alternative. Peele’s original ending was bleak—some might say the cathartic finale we got instead is a commercial concession. Personally, I think it arrived at a time when being political and giving the crowd a catharsis were one and the same.


Twin Peaks: The Return (David Lynch, US, 2017)

When the Cahiers du Cinema placed this at #1 on their list of the decade, some cried foul, as if cinephiles were covering for their own deteriorating art form by taking the Golden Age of Television and calling it a movie. But that’s the dilemma: if a Showtime miniseries isn’t traditionally “cinema”, Twin Peaks: The Return isn’t really recognizable as “television” either. The closest comparison for its structure and effect isn’t Band of Brothers or a season of The Wire, but an arthouse experiment in extreme duration like Out 1. Whatever word you want to use, it’s one of the most mind-bending, frustrating, rewarding, and unshakeable screen events of the 2010s: an epic 4D vision of America rotting away, and a curtain call from an avant-gardist turned into an old-timer.


Burning (Lee Chang-dong, South Korea, 2018)

Parasite made a bigger splash with American audiences, but this Korean class-war thriller, while certainly more hushed, may be more incendiary below the surface. Starting from a baseline of suspicion and jealousy, what emerges is a portrait of a system that can swallow things up and leave hardly a trace. It’s not hard to decode the broad strokes of Burning. It’s there in the title: simply watch what gets burned and what doesn’t. But broad strokes don’t do justice to a “murder story” that so carefully plays with the very definition of the word. The film noir of the decade.


Roma (Alfonso Cuaron, Mexico, 2018)

Roma is a great film, but it’s not an unprecedented one. Ask a cinephile, and they’ll tell you all about Tarkovsky and Angelopoulos, just as they’ll probably insist that those directors offer a purer, more uncut variety of meditative filmmaking than Cuaron. But Roma would have been an unprecedented Best Picture winner at the Oscars, both as a “foreign film”, a Netflix film, and a piece of “slow cinema”, and it looked like it might actually pull it off because all the more traditional sources in 2018 failed to rally excitement. Rally they eventually did, not exactly to general satisfaction. But no matter. 2018 will go down as Roma‘s year anyway, a mature triumph for Cuaron and a key moment in the still-being-written history of streaming services as real contenders—swaggering into Hollywood with Silicon Valley money, and maybe throwing some of it at something made for big screens.


Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Celine Sciamma, France, 2019)

“Start by drawing my contours,” the heroine sharply instructs her students at the beginning, before directing a tough, self-possessed gaze straight into the camera, as if any drawing of her could ever pin her down. So right from the start, and well before it blooms into a love story, Portrait establishes itself as an incisive movie about women in art: how images so often fail at capturing them, or might possibly succeed, or always have a head start on the real thing. And for all the 18th century capital-R Romanticism (windswept cliffs, etc.) the film keeps its eye on how this is very much a modern problem. It’s both one of the headiest and most beautiful films of 2019, even if it won’t be properly released in America until February 2020. I caught a sold-out advance screening last night, so consider this less a definitive judgement on the past than an act of fresh hype for the future and a point about the dilemma of these lists. With only hours left in the decade, a worthy option has barely been given to audiences yet.

Take 20—another set that make the cut:

The Act of Killing (Joshua Oppenheimer & Christine Cynn, Denmark/Norway, 2012)

Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, US, 2013)

Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, US, 2017)

Certified Copy (Abbas Kiarostami, France/Iran, 2010)

Faces Places (Agnes Varda & JR, France, 2017)

The Florida Project (Sean Baker, US, 2017)

The Image Book (Jean-Luc Godard, France/Switzerland, 2018)

Inside Out (Pete Docter, US, 2015)

The Irishman (Martin Scorsese, US, 2019)

Li’l Quinquin (Bruno Dumont, France, 2014)

Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, US, 2012)

Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, US, 2016)

O.J.: Made in America (Ezra Edelman, US, 2016)

Parasite (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea, 2019)

Paterson (Jim Jarmusch, US, 2016)

Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson, US, 2017)

A Seperation (Asghar Farhadi, Iran, 2011)

Stranger By the Lake (Alain Guiraudie, France, 2013)

The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr & Ágnes Hranitzky, Hungary, 2011)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand, 2010)



For all the ways Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit looked immediately wrongheaded—exactly what some critics found kitschy and treacly about Life is Beautiful, multiplied by Wes Anderson—there was one moment in the ubiquitous internet ads that kind of tickled me. Rebel Wilson, as a Nazi schoolmarm, shouts “Kids, it’s time to burn some books!”, and a group of fresh-faced ten-year-old students jump up and cheer. Easy irreverence? Perhaps. But what underlies that laugh is a genuine observation: that the horrifying appeal of fascism is rooted in an urge that any red-blooded American boy might understand. And that needn’t be empty. It could be, you know…satire.

An “anti-hate satire” is how the promotions for Jojo Rabbit having been billing it—somewhat defensively, in fact, as if they’re afraid that a candy-colored comedy about a conflicted Nazi child and his imaginary-friend version of Hitler might otherwise scare families away. In truth, Jojo Rabbit isn’t really satire. Not many of its jokes are heady, dangerous, provocative, or incisive, or even try to be. It has very little to say about anti-Semitism (it’s bad) or World War II (it was rough), and honestly, the most startling thing about it is its political irrelevance. In a post-Charlottesville era, where a messy American brand of Naziism has felt emboldened to go public, poking fun at old school “Jews have horns” anti-Semitism and the military pomp of Hitler’s goons feels terrifyingly, cartoonishly obsolete. Waititi reportedly wrote the script in the early 2010s, and as Jojo Rabbit becomes an Oscar contender, I can’t tell if it’s to the film’s advantage or its detriment that the finished product came along now.

But it is very much worth noting what Jojo Rabbit does well, because its flaws gets to its virtues and vice-versa. Waititi has a valuable skill with kid’s-eye-view tenderness. He knows his way around the anxious, even morbid traditions of children’s literature, and the way children relate to parents, to each other, and to the idea of having to be a grown-up someday. When it operates in this vein, Jojo Rabbit so earnest, warm, and cuddlesome that cynicism would be unseemly. But whenever it asks its historical setting for something more grounded—that is, whenever its jokes or gut-punches require the stakes and complexities of WWII—it’s as much a dramatic mishmash and tonal mess as the cynics suspected. So in the end, all that its “just keep going” message really signifies is that history offers no trauma so traumatizing that you can’t eventually make a Jojo Rabbit about it: simplistic, goofy, whimsically aestheticized, a lot safer than it pretends to be, and unable or unwilling to touch past-tense history or present-tense politics. This is a movie that will process the Holocaust by throwing a David Bowie dance party, and if that sounds like toothless hipster myopia, you’re not far off.

But the result is not cynical itself; ironically, something like The Reader, which plays the material straight, feels much more calculated. Jojo Rabbit is more like a movie that a kid would dream up and then somehow get to make, and it may be that Waititi flourishes best in purely fantastical settings that adult scrutiny can’t touch. That impression is aided by the onscreen presence of the director himself, who plays the role of the buffoonish Hitler with total commitment, even when the wit and slapstick are spotty at best. You can call it a “saving grace” if you like. Either way, it’s the reason Jojo Rabbit deserves neither Oscars nor hate: for better or worse, Waititi does seem to be as innocent as his characters.



Jojo Rabbit is in theaters and up for Best Picture at the Golden Globes. For the Oscars, who knows what.



The Irishman has so many familiar Scorsese-isms—intoxicated tracking shots, doo-wop murder scenes, loose cannon friends who just can’t be saved—that it can best be defined by its absences. It’s not just that Scorsese’s latest has a more muted color palette, or that its music cues are subdued instead of frenzied, or that it has a star as accomplished as Anna Paquin say almost nothing, just serve as a persistent symbol of conscience. It’s something central: namely, what makes its main character tick? Why is this the life he chose? It’s a much easier question for Scorsese’s other career criminals. Ray Liotta in GoodFellas and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street got off on the privilege and material pleasures, neither of which seem to hold much interest for Robert De Niro’s Frank Sheeran. (He’s far and away the least hedonistic wiseguy Scorsese has ever built a movie around). The De Niro of Casino wanted to construct a stable business empire on top of the congenitally unstable world of the Las Vegas mob; the De Niro of The Irishman shows no such bigger dreams. Harvey Keitel in Mean Streets had the foolish hopes and limited perspective of a young man—a reason that, in The Irishman, wouldn’t cover much of its story, if any. So why fall in with the mob, and why keep going at it for a lifetime?

The closest direct answer we get is when Sheeran says that being part of the mob was just like when he was in the army in World War II: you got instructions, and you followed them. (All we see of his service is a quick flashback, where he quizzically but tellingly notes how POWs who were ordered to dig their own graves would actually do it). His mob is a system to adhere to, with structure, loyalty, comrades, and a sense of shared purpose. “Solidarity!”, as Al Pacino’s Jimmy Hoffa says, for a post-war moment in America where people valued the collective more. This motive can tickle your brain, because more than any of Scorsese’s gangster movies (but less elegantly than The Godfather: Part II), the film ties the backroom dealings of organized crime to more reputable institutions like government, the military, and labor. It can also make Frank Sheeran a somewhat frustrating protagonist. There are long stretches of the film where he simply does whatever a Scorsese antihero would do: move up the ladder, bump off the inconvenient, trade one wife for another, etc. He’s about as passive as can be for a character who spends a movie killing people, and his narration of his own life is vastly more expository than reflective. And this vague tinge of removal makes the film’s strived-for grandeur initially elusive—at least until the last act, when it all pays off.

The same can be said for one of the film’s most publicized elements: the digital de-aging effects, which smooth out the faces of De Niro, Pacino, and Joe Pesci in an effort to make them look younger. Scorsese has called the use of the tech “experimental”, and in experimental fashion, it’s partly successful, partly distracting, and with a lot of interesting side effects. It’s certainly not photorealism: in the early scenes, Sheeran seems less like a young De Niro and more like an old De Niro wearing a young De Niro mask. When he curb-stomps a grocer, you’re clearly watching an elderly man mimicking the physicality of a younger one. In the scene where they first meet, Pesci calls De Niro “kid”, and your guess is as good as mine on whether De Niro the “kid” is meant to look 25, 30, or 40. The result is not unlike highly stylized makeup, but the manipulation of the image itself adds a layer of unfamiliarity. But you adjust to it, and when De Niro’s movie-length flashback catches up to his age, it hits you not because he suddenly looks old, but because his oldness suddenly looks natural.

Admittedly, I spent most of the movie wondering if this was all working in practice as well as theory—that is, whether or not The Irishman simply reaches a cruising altitude of expertise and stays there, cycling through incidents in a way that’s not epic so much as long. There’s no shortage of engagement; with this cast and this crew, any given 20 minutes of The Irishman would place among the best moviemaking of 2019. (For all the attention given to Al Pacino’s first Scorsese role, special praise must go to Joe Pesci as a soulful, very un-Pesci-like mob boss). But the last half hour is among the most haunting and somber of Scorsese’s work. Scorsese is right to encourage viewers to stream his three-and-a-half-hour, intermission-free movie in one go, even if he’s spitting into the wind. By the end, the audience should feel the weight of time passed, and what all those absences start to mean when you have nothing left to do with your life but examine it—and not much time left to do so. It is a ghostly final act, explicitly tying together Scorsese’s spiritual concerns and gangster-romanticism like no film of his since Mean Streets. Where The Irishman will ultimately rank in his canon is an exhilaratingly open question. For now, I can safely say that it establishes the right to a legacy and a reputation of its own. Of all Scorsese’s gangsters-brought-low, this is the one whose ending moved me the most.



The Irishman is streaming on Netflix, is up for a bunch of Golden Globes, and will be an Oscar juggernaut. And for the love of god, yes, he’s made a lot more than just gangster movies.

Getting What We Deserve: Reacting to JOKER


It’s remarkable what a film can go through before the general public has even had a chance to buy a ticket. The trailer for Todd Phillip’s Joker was the best of the year. When it dropped, suddenly an eccentric side-project—a mid-budget standalone origin story, inspired by Scorsese flicks, starring Joaquin Phoenix and inexplicably separate from the rest of the DC franchise—became one of the most anticipated films of 2019. When it won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, the stakes were raised. Nobody could miss the new precedent: this was no longer just a comic book movie with a more “adult” approach (Logan, say), but a film that had been prestigiously anointed like no other of its kind. Nobody could miss the irony either. Venice has faced controversy lately over a lack of female representation, and any hope that jury president Lucrecia Martel might change that gave way to a reality where one of the 21st century’s most acclaimed female filmmakers gave a Golden Lion to the director of The Hangover, a frat-bro touchstone unable to imagine a woman who isn’t either a domestic shrew or a down-to-party stripper. Meanwhile, critics fretted about whether Joker‘s outside-the-box take on superhero IP portended freedom or an insidious dependency. Law enforcement went on call at certain screenings, in case the film’s perceived glorification of violent loners inspired a mass shooter to open fire (this is, apparently, the world we live in now). And just for good measure, Todd Phillips stirred the pot on Twitter when he said that PC culture was killing comedy.

You could be forgiven for exhaustion. By the time I waited out the frenzy and actually saw the movie, a different quote from Phillips’ press junket came to mind. As he told TheWrap, mid-controversy:

We didn’t make the movie to push buttons…I literally described it to Joaquin at one point in those three months as like, ‘Look at this as a way to sneak a real movie in the studio system under the guise of a comic book film.’ It wasn’t, ‘We want to glorify this behavior.’ It was literally like, ‘Let’s make a real movie with a real budget and we’ll call it fucking Joker’.

You can’t argue with success; Joker is now most the profitable comic book film ever made and the first R-rated movie to gross $1 billion. But I wondered, as the end credits rolled, if Joker would have been a better film if it had been made to push buttons—or rather, if it showed a better grasp of which buttons it most certainly pushes, and why.

It definitely makes a number of contrary decisions for a movie called fucking Joker. It’s a scaled-back character piece about madness, with barely two action sequences to rub together but lots of ugly imagery and a running commentary on Reagan-era indifference. It’s also, by my count, the first big-screen version of the character we’re never meant to find funny or charismatic at all. This Joker—Arthur Fleck, by name—is a pitiable and unsettling creation, as Gotham City’s criminal mastermind is boiled down to a picked-on, mentally ill struggling comic who develops a taste for killing and the sense of power that comes with it. He lives with his mother and is cut loose from both his job and the public health facilities he relies on for treatment. But when he uses force to make himself felt, he grows confident; as he puts it, “people are starting to notice.” Any review is duty-bound to note the debt Joker owes to Martin Scorsese’s portraits of sociopathic urban loners, Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. From The King of Comedy, it takes a heap of plot points, character notes, and unreliable narration. From Taxi Driver, it gets its vintage Big Apple grime, self-righteous vigilante, and most interesting idea: that a society might become so dire that it mistakes a head case for a folk hero.

So in a time when we can’t keep track of either reboots or horrifying headlines, Joker enjoys playing with fire. And no skeptic should deny it: there’s a lot of craft and intelligent filmmaking in the result. As a piece of tentpole revisionism, it’s well ahead of almost every other blockbuster this year in its plotting, character arcs, thematic detail, aesthetic distinction, and political topicality. But set it alongside where it sources much of the above, and you’ll see how clumsy Joker can be—how often it bluntly reduces its ideas, or montages its way through scenes it doesn’t know how to dramatize, or defines important characters with a single simplistic trait, or hops over a logical gap so it can go straight for the sucker punch. And if any movie, especially a “real” one, is to withstand scrutiny, all of that matters. The audience’s perception of Travis Bickle will shift several times over the course of Taxi Driver without ever losing unity. The King of Comedy has real pathos for the desperate or resigned characters on its ladder of success. Joker‘s hard-R world of alienation (nobody is civil, you get what you deserve, etc.) is not much less of a caricature in its persistent cruelty than the average Marvel movie is in its exuberance. And setting aside ambition, transgression, or craft, it’d be worthwhile to debate which is actually more honest.

There is, however, one way in which equating Joker and The King of Comedy is genuinely deserved, and that is this: both are living embodiments of their main character. The King of Comedy, like its anti-hero, is an aggressively off-putting misfit that spreads discomfort wherever it goes, but by the end, you’ve grown to actually understand and feel for it. Joker, like Arthur Fleck, takes violent actions that resonate politically—but like Arthur, does it ever truly care? At times, it even seems to acknowledge the adolescent limitations of its own worldview. But for every smart wrinkle of nuance, you get choices like the needle-drops for “Rock and Roll, Pt. 2” or “White Room”, which are so self-consciously “edgy” and tonally off from what surrounds them that they practically exist to say fuck you if you want to think too hard about all this, or if you think that provocation means more than nihilistic postures and technique.

The “real movie”/comic-book-film argument has been an incurable meme all season, ironically kicked off by Scorsese himself. Whether or however that divide exists, Joker has a peculiar relationship to it: everything that’s bracing or sensational about the film requires it to draw the line and exist on both sides at once. It’s nearly impossible to be apathetic about it, which is rare enough these days for comic book movies and “real movies” alike. If Joker demonstrates anything, it’s that audiences are eager for more from the former and deserve more from the latter. I suspect that if the film came to edify the multiplexes, it’s also here to troll them.



Joker is still in theaters and primed for the Oscar race. It played at the Bruin in Westwood Village for over a month. They eventually swapped it for Doctor Sleep, but when Doctor Sleep tanked, Joker was back the next Friday.

THE ROUND-UP: Spring and Summer (Part 2)

The Round-Up is a collection of capsule reviews for new releases that filled up my notebook but never got a full dive. This is where we came in.

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Sword of Trust (Lynn Shelton)

No underdog indie was more conceptually promising for 2019: a warm comedy about our age of alternative facts, juggling the insane delusions of American life and the likable citizens who believe them. Thus we get the story of a heartland pawnshop owner, his shiftless employee, and a lesbian couple who decide to make a quick harmless buck off conspiracy theorists who listen to YouTube charlatans. Lynn Shelton has skills no cinephile should take for granted, including a hilarious, empathetic ear for the ways that people will talk in circles to hide their flaws before succumbing helplessly to honesty. This is the kind of comedy without punchlines, or even setups—just delicious friction. But the shagginess comes at a cost: Sword of Trust goes poof at exactly the point when it should be the strongest. If its destination is the heart of American delusion, it never gets there. Instead, it arrives in the realm of traditional sitcoms, with a twist and a resolution that are both tidy and palliative. And neither “tidy” nor “palliative” are 2019.




The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (Terry Gilliam)

Terry Gilliam’s famously cursed film was a fantasy twenty years ago, a tragic and promising “what if?” from a great director who had yet to make anything unworthy of the name. After a two-decade string of false starts and rewrites, the real thing arrived at Cannes to an unimpressed response. Amazon Studios abandoned it under litigious circumstances, and its ultimate release barely registered as a blip in American theaters. So if the hype and counterhype have cancelled each other out, you’re in the best state to glean what you can (and should) from this long-suffering passion project—especially since the Quixote we have is informed by years of frustration with the film industry. In fact, the film is so self-reflexive that it’s tempting to see its flaws as baked into its identity: an act of tilting at windmills full of doubt and lacking sense, but unwilling to concede. In truth, its flaws are much more mundane. The buddy chemistry doesn’t gel, the taste for excess is underfunded, the humor is inconsistent at best, and even by Gilliam standards, it lacks the narrative shape needed to turn its ballooning symbolism into catharsis rather than exhaustion. But its insistence on bringing chivalry into the film industry is not without resonance. And its most enchanting moments, which treat the real and the imagined as a game of three card monte, back up its case that part of tilting at windmills is treasuring the triumphs you can.



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The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Joe Talbot)

The latest find from A24 is visually busy and narratively choppy enough to feel like a string of music videos, just truncated and spliced together. The hook is there, but directorial tics are clogging its heart and taking the place of complete dramatic immediacy, which obscures the valuable things it has to say: first about the legacies of black culture and art, then about the dilemma when money is the only claim to a home and you don’t have any. It hurts to be lukewarm on any movie whose climactic line is as graceful and pained as “you don’t get to hate it unless you love it.” So in the interest of optimism, I’ll note that the last time I was lukewarm on a debut film about black bohemia in San Francisco, the director’s second film was Moonlight.




Alita: Battle Angel (Robert Rodriguez)

In which Robert Rodriguez and James Cameron use dopey movie love to bridge the uncanny valley in a world where tech and organic matter have become intriguingly interchangeable. Does that conflation refer just to their world, or to ours? Take it as far as you like. The plot is a mess by the end, and sci-fi rules mean the same character can get not one, but two annoying death scenes. But the look and feel of this relatively humble tentpole are compelling. It recalls the days of Raimi’s Spiderman or Del Toro’s Hellboy, when blockbuster IP valued not just zazz but a visual personality.




Honeyland (Tamara Kotevska & Ljubomir Stefanov)

The narrative that emerges steadily from this documentary’s impressionist footage is solid: a mini-epic about different ideas of modernity, tension between neighbors, and a principled stance towards living off the land. But the film’s implied insistence on an invisible camera—that is, that there isn’t a crew right there deciding how to frame it all—gives this trip to the edge of western civilization a cause for ambivalence. Ironically, the narrative of Honeyland feels more distant and self-consciously constructed than it might if the presence of filmmakers were openly embraced. Set it next to, say, Paris is Burning (a classic LGBT documentary whose restoration was a rep-house highlight of the summer), and you’ll see how much more gregarious a doc can be when it feels like the audience isn’t just watching someone else’s world, but truly being invited into it.




Apollo 11 (Todd Douglas Miller)

The highest grossing documentary of 2019 is an interesting construction of a different sort. Right from the opening shots, it looks and moves so much like a contemporary doc that it’s startling to know that it’s all footage from 50 years ago; even the B-roll of crowds takes on a crisp, uncanny quality of time travel. By using only a resurfaced trove of old video and audio (with a little animation to connect the dots), this retelling of the moon landing limits or at least changes its approach. It doesn’t have much in the way of context, subtext, suspense, or psychology. What it has is awe: images that can’t possibly be real, but are. At its best, it renews wonder in an achievement that subsequent generations, mine included, might see in a history book without feeling the magnitude. So if the film doesn’t really humanize its subjects, apart from marveling at the calm in their radio chatter, it’s because it insists that this particular non-fiction deserves to be mythic—and that mythic undertakings are most useful when they belong to a collective.



Capsules: October 2019 (Halloween Edition)

Capsules is a monthly diary of older movies either seen for the first time or revisited after many years. This one goes out to new and old films watched for Halloween, including a movie night of Dawn of the Dead—maybe the most unaccountably hard-to-find film of its type and class.


Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Francis Ford Coppola, 1992)

Think of the baroque imagery of Apocalypse Now. The chiaroscuro lighting. The superimpositions. The plumes of smoke. Wouldn’t it be sumptuously perfect for silent-style gothic horror? It is, though neither the plot nor the passion is lucid, despite the voiceover’s best efforts. A British accent is beyond Keanu’s reach, Winona is strangely affectless for a character in thrall to lust, and at a certain point the plot gives up on sensible causality. But it’s ravishingly excessive: it dredges up all the subtext and overindulges in every old-school camera trick in the book. As a cinephile experience, the 130 minutes are like a giant bag of chocolates you eat all at once. Which, ill-advised or not, is certainly a Halloween tradition.




Cape Fear (J. Lee Thompson, 1962)

The 1991 Scorsese remake is more thrilling, more thematically complex, and somehow less enduring. One can’t deny the sordid power of telling this story in a setting that could still feign innocence, where a truly disturbing thriller can tap into bourgeois America’s worst fears of its own underclass, and where the dark triumph is making a censor-approved, law-abiding finale feel so very bloodthirsty. A final word, paraphrasing David Thomson: “Robert De Niro is a great actor, but Robert Mitchum is The Beast.”




The Others (Alejandro Amenábar, 2001)

The verities can still work in the right hands: a spooky house, spookier children, and an eerie control of lighting and sound design. The initial hook of The Others is that every character in its triangle is immediately creepy/insane/unreliable enough that this could all go in any number of directions. The one it picks drifts so much from logic that you become sure a twist is on its way. And though the twist is far from unique, it’s grounded nicely in a theme of spiritual uncertainty—another verity, and the one that powers all the rest. The Others came out during a zeitgeist of movies that aimed to blow your mind. I hope that in retrospect, we see how the best ones also aimed for the heart.




Dawn of the Dead (George Romero, 1978)

Not the most subtle classic—if you’re ever in doubt that the zombie apocalypse is a metaphor for consumerism, a character will look straight in the camera and tell you. But it’s still the definitive version for doing what so few genre films manage: thinking through its concept and fleshing it out as fully as possible. It’s also a case study in incongruous elements. There’s no logical reason that a cream-pie-to-the-face gag should exist in the same set-piece as intestinal gore, but this rebound is part of its midnight movie legend. Moving between slapstick and shock, the silly and the grim, the juvenile and the perceptive, it maintains quixotic faith that a horror film can have something to say. And that even if the apocalypse is here, there’s still something to hang on to.




Häxan (Benjamin Christensen, 1922)

How famous can a film get before it loses its status as esoterica? Wherever that line is, Häxan hasn’t crossed it yet: this doc about “witchcraft through the ages”, spanning medieval rituals to early 20th century psychiatry, is still singular. One doesn’t usually see fantasy/horror sequences worked into a documentary, just as one doesn’t expect a silent era period piece with such good production values to have such an irreverent streak. As a piece of horror cinema, it provides an early, direct, and cerebral link between cult appeal and literal sacrilege. As a work of analytic non-fiction, its shrewd understanding that any modern age will someday look insane keeps it evergreen.




Body Bags (John Carpenter & Tobe Hooper, 1993)

Somewhere between good and bad, trying and not trying, creativity and cliche lies Body Bags, in which two “masters of horror” water down their act for a defunct cable pilot salvaged as an anthology film. Hooper’s completists will be more satisfied than Carpenter’s—the final chapter by Hooper is the film’s tightest, densest, and most visually grabbing schlock. And if the whole experience isn’t really satisfying, except maybe by the standards of intentionally bad taste, how could the cult value not be fun? John Carpenter as a prop-comic crypt-keeper? Sam Raimi as a corpse? Debbie Harry as the oversexed nurse at a hair transplant clinic? Mark Hamill as a cornpone evangelical with a literal evil eye? Roger Corman as the only sane doctor? The flash of realization that it’s the guy from American Werewolf? Categorically better than Twilight Zone: The Movie.


THE ROUND-UP: Spring and Summer (Part 1)

The Round-Up is a collection of capsule reviews for new releases that filled up my notebook but never got a full dive. Noteworthy recaps of 2019 moviegoing begin now…


Us (Jordan Peele)

Us may indeed qualify as a sophomore slump, but it’s one from a smart filmmaker upping his craft. Viscerally freakier than Get Out but less fully-fleshed, this spooky allegory for materialism makes you accrue at least a little heart for both the consumers and their “evil” twins. It’s about class, certainly, and it’s shrewdly about race insofar as class makes race less of an issue. The problem is how it trips over its mythology. The demented details of Get Out all gloriously added up; here, you get a twist that oscillates between making kind-of sense and no sense at all the harder you think about it. Part of me wants to feel cheated at any sucker punch that raises more questions than it answers. Another part of me knows that any movie that can sustain this balance for two hours—humor and frights, unpretentious genre kicks and on-target satire—is a genuine tonic. Sobering sidenote: it’s currently the only film in the top 10 grossers of 2019 that isn’t a sequel, a comic book adaptation, or a Disney live-action remake.




Transit (Christian Petzold)

A risky, daft, and ultimately rewarding concept: the script for a World War II thriller transposed to our own not-too-distant present, allowing old-fashioned story tropes, 21st century politics, incipient fascism, and narrative incongruity to nag away at you. The plot—about escaping Europe as stormtroopers descend, needing letters of transit, and choosing between romantic love and greater principles—finds its most obvious parallel in Casablanca. But doing it as a period piece would have a sense of removal, no matter how urgent the subtext. In telling this type of story straight in what is emphatically not a period setting, nor a logical 2019, Petzold’s film reconstitutes a vein of cinematic myth into a modern faceless anxiety. (When two people walk through the background of one scene, you wonder if they’re extras in a movie about the coming Terror, or simply a couple that happened to be passing by during the shoot). As always, Petzold is a solid storyteller. His weakness, as in his last film Phoenix, is formal plainness. The dystopia-is-now spirit of Transit cries out for a more uncanny treatment. Godard visited Alphaville with less.




The Dead Don’t Die (Jim Jarmusch)

Presaged by a midnight movie trailer with the easiest jokes of Jim Jarmusch’s career, this all-star zombie parody shambled into the summer under the question of whether it would actually be as fun or as shallow as advertised. The answer, happily, is “sort of” to the former because “no” to the latter. Its po-mo goofs are indeed too easy, not to mention protracted, and like a good hipster it comes with a willfully half-assed posture to undercut how it has serious ideas on its mind. But the ideas are there, and even when it goes for laughs, its vision of apocalypse Americana isn’t so easily brushed off. In this context, the indulgences and indie comedy readymades—deadpan reactions, pop culture expertise, celebrity meta gags—register as paralysis in the face of rapid decay. “This isn’t going to end well” goes the movie’s dry refrain, as narrative threads keep getting killed off before they can go anywhere. Well before the end, it’s stopped feeling like a joke.




Toy Story 4 (Josh Cooley)

Toy Story 4 would have to do a lot to justify its existence after the perfect finality of Toy Story 3, and if it doesn’t, it’s at least a fun, lively, sufficiently thoughtful use of two hours. There’s something poetic as well as merchandisable in its view of mundane objects animated by emotional fetishism. And this time around, the franchise’s running metaphor of facing up to change feels aimed at adult issues more than children’s. But fatigue, dispersion, and dramatic wonkiness have set in when the new finality is both the series’ most drastic and its least convincing. Not that you can fully trust them to stick to finality, now or ever.




Greta (Neil Jordan)

Guilty pleasure? If your reason for doubling back and renting a movie is to see Isabelle Huppert as a psychotic manipulative bitch-queen, you have nothing to feel guilty about. What’s guilty is psychodrama with such laziness towards both psychology and drama: too bland to be camp, too silly to be anything else, and utterly reliant on hack thriller stings. Porting Madame Huppert’s appeal to the American multiplex is a nobly fiendish idea, but she seems shockingly adrift in a role tailor-made for her. But then, so does everyone else. And the line “I’m like chewing gum” is the definitely least spine-tingling stalker threat in many a moon.




Domino (Brian De Palma)

A test: how many virtues can a movie lack and still have auteurism draw you in? Domino is by no means a successful film. In fact, of the twenty-plus De Palma films I’ve seen, I’d venture this is his worst. The cast looks undirected. The leads need more charisma. The story has holes punched out. The geopolitical context feels tacky. And the staging can be awkward, sluggish, or downright careless, which is odd, because even when he’s not winning over critics with tastefulness or coherence, De Palma can usually be relied on for brilliantly orchestrated set-pieces. But if it doesn’t deserve blanket defense from the faithful, it doesn’t deserve knives out either—and certainly not any of the despondent cinephiles wishing for retirement. Instead, look at the De Palma staples and the way they’ve shifted in the 21st century: the technocratic voyeurism, the games with an audience’s sympathy, and the reawakened leftist concerns of an unreconstructed baby-boomer. After a troubled production, Domino essentially went straight to video, and I can’t imagine that the original cut, reportedly about an hour longer, would fix it. But I’ve returned to it in my mind a lot more than a great many more polished and sensible new releases. Which means I failed the test—or passed, as the case may be.




Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino)

A wealth of potential meaning(s) here, in spite of the shambling structure. It makes sense that Tarantino’s latest spawned a hot summer’s worth of hot takes, since it’s nothing if not two hours and forty minutes of thinkpiece material; you could say “problematic”, “tender”, “reactionary”, “indulgent”, “self-aware”, or “but then again…” depending on what you focus on and for how long. In addition to a western about westerns and a nostalgia piece about nostalgia, it’s an attempt to answer a question: how do you do a love letter to a town and an industry with so much to be cynical about? The film’s details are emotionally attuned to what Hollywood gives and takes from its inhabitants, what it offers its fans and requires them to believe. The mode may mutate. John Wayne will give way to Clint Eastwood. Movies like Valley of the Dolls will fall into style and then out of it. Innumerable bits of pop arcana will be forgotten by everyone except insiders and obsessives. But Hollywood will always be here, beautiful and ugly. Did Tarantino grow up? Never. But even people who don’t grow up can’t help but grow old.