Next Door to Prestige 6: Magic of the Movies Edition

Salient question: are we in hell?

I know that the general consensus is that yes, the world as a whole very much is. But if we narrow our perspective from “the world” to “the movies”—it is Oscar night, after all—what’s the prognosis?

That, at least, is what spurred a round of discourse in the Fall when Quentin Tarantino proposed that our current era is the worst in Hollywood history. It’s an exhaustion, or an anxiety, hardly exclusive to him: the sense that whatever confluence of inspiration and economics kept movies relevant for a century is now stuck in a creatively arid time-loop, with no end in sight. His assessment comes with a few asterisks. Alongside the present, his picks for Hollywood’s nadir were the 1950s and the 1980s, which understandably cocked a few eyebrows. Hollywood in the 50s, after all, had Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Howard Hawks, Fritz Lang, Vincente Minnelli, Douglas Sirk, Nicholas Ray, Sam Fuller, Billy Wilder, etc., on golden runs. And it was a decade when such adult-friendly films as The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Quiet Man, Some Came Running, and From Here to Eternity stood a chance of placing among the biggest box office hits of the year. As for the 1980s, yes, it was an era where relatively empty-headed and juvenile spectacles swallowed up the adventurism of the New Hollywood. But I imagine both audiences and critics would be thrilled to get a steady stream of proper 80s blockbusters today. In fact, you don’t need to imagine—you just need to look at the rapturous response to Top Gun: Maverick.

Top Gun: Maverick restores your faith in the magic of movies,” trumpeted the advertisements, as the summer’s biggest hit extended its run into the winter. Their marketing team was playing a bit fast and loose. The exact quote (from ScreenCrush’s Matt Singer) is that the film “restores a little of your faith in the magic of movies”, which manages expectations but looks worse in a YouTube ad. But I can’t quibble with a marketer’s liberties. In 2022, there wasn’t a greater unifier than Top Gun: Maverick across every conceivable metric in my social circle—gender, age, politics, etc. It’s not expected to pick up many Oscars tonight, so instead I’ll note a curious grand prize it already won: the AARP’s “Movies for Grown Ups” award. Which is notable first because, for children of the 90s, the headline “senior citizens praise Jerry Bruckheimer sequel as a breath of fresh air” sounds insane. And second, because in 2022, it makes perfect sense.

The new Top Gun was not the first post-pandemic movie to do pre-pandemic box office, nor is it remotely alone in revivals of 80s franchises. But rather than hip fan service, it felt like a lost era of classicism—not just in its structure and practical FX, but in its understanding of an audience’s relationship to spectacle, to movie stars, and to the promise of big screen experiences. And I’m optimistic enough to think that, after two years of topsy-turvy box office, there was enough of a vacuum that if Tom Cruise and company hadn’t come along, someone else would have. That vacuum helps explain why surprisingly large American audiences sought out unironic cinematic excess from two sources known for it: Baz Luhrmann (Elvis) and India (RRR). It explains the Academy’s disproportionate love for the German-language All Quiet on the Western Front, whose nine nominations only remind you that Hollywood used to make this sort of movie itself every Oscar season. And it explains why I spent a few weeks over the winter quietly rooting for Avatar: The Way of Water to hit its insanely risky $2 billion break-even point, as if the 13 years since the first Avatar have turned James Cameron into an underdog. (Yes, it’s a CGI blockbuster, but a CGI blockbuster willed into existence and very much informed by the idiosyncrasies of one man).

So it’s serendipitous that “the magic of the movies” was itself an explicit subject of several films throughout 2022. And what those films had to say was often far from simple pie-eyed nostalgia.

Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans is the most obvious example, both expectedly joyful and surprisingly uneasy about the effects movies have on their audiences and their creators. It’s too difficult to succinctly pitch The Fabelmans based on what’s exceptional about it—its motherlode (pun not intended) of complex meta statements—so the studio instead sold it as simple uplift and then watched it stiff at the box office. Far more successful was Jordan Peele’s sci-fi blockbuster Nope, which is, in a manner of speaking, all about a group of filmmakers trying to nail a single shot. And the dissatisfaction that some Peele fans initially felt with the ending—that it feels like an abdication or even a betrayal of the movie’s subversive attitude—might be chalked up to how filmmakers can be far more sympathetic in their struggle than in their success. Meanwhile, Ti West’s X and Pearl explored how the stuff of dirty movies overlaps with the stuff of life. And on the festival circuit, the year’s most euphoric take on moviemaking was also its smallest: Hong Sang-soo’s The Novelist’s Film. Barely released in the US yet, it traces a causal chain from sitting alone in a bookstore to having something of your own in a theater. And the source of its happiness is purely in the creative process itself: reception is irrelevant. Even Clerks III, which I expected to find depressing and largely did, has its best moments when Kevin Smith gives a curtain call to the local actors and personal buddies who shared in his DIY original.

“Good luck to you,” a cranky John Ford, played by a cranky David Lynch, advises at the end of The Fabelmans. “And get the fuck out of my office.” And surely the spirit of that valedictory is one reason The Fabelmans is so resonant to its admirers. It is, in the end, a passing-of-the-torch movie. And it comes at a time when I’m honestly not sure who in my generation is there to receive it. In 2022, who was even a contender?

Damien Chazelle? He made his own “magic of the movies” film last year. And although what Babylon has to say could conceivably place it among the year’s most relevant, its tonal mess also magnifies what’s dogged him ever since Whiplash: a gap between precocious aspirations of tough, worldly wisdom and making those tragic lessons actually feel earned.

Robert Eggers? You have to admire anyone who cashes in their chips on an ambitious undertaking like The Northman. But the ambition of his films is physical, not dramatic—it’s difficult to argue that there’s much he wants to say at all.

So what about Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert?

The Daniels (as they prefer to be known) are set to win big at the Oscars tonight for writing and directing Everything Everywhere All at Once. If they take home Best Director, as they’re widely expected to, it’ll be the first time in Academy history that that statue has gone to someone (just barely) younger than I am—and I must confess that there was no movie last year whose popularity made me feel older. True to its title, Everything Everywhere is a lot, so there’s a lot to like: a perfect cast it never underestimates, and an opening act that beautifully establishes a family unit under pressure. But its blockbuster maximalism exhausts me for the same reason it does in far less thoughtful films: this is not a movie that will ever quit a conceit while it’s ahead, or build up to one climax when it could pile on three or four in a row. Which could be over-interpreted as a sign that today’s liberatingly weird youth movies are beholden to an idiom I’d rather they weren’t. Or it could simply mean that the Daniels have the kind of creative union where they crack each other up so much that they’re more than happy to repeat any non sequitur gag far past the point of novelty.

Still, even saying so makes me feel like a grinch—or worse, Bosley Crowther—because the film’s giggly dedication to excess is part of what its fans love about it. And make no mistake, those fans are there. Even if A24 is merchandizing it within an inch of its life, Everything Everywhere qualifies as an authentic audience phenomenon to a degree that most Oscar campaigns can only pretend. And while it would be easy to succumb to cynicism and say that the Academy’s picks fell out of touch with the zeitgeist long ago, such intersections have happened more often, more recently, and with more justification than cynics tend to remember. To find a comparable example, you only need to go back three years: to Parasite, in 2019.

In other words, there are plenty of reasons on this Oscar night to believe we’re not in hell. And one of them is that, for the first time since the pandemic, compiling a list of favorites required some tough decisions and painful cuts. This was a packed year, and even 25 films don’t do justice to the unexpected trends and happy surprises it offered.

Are we in heaven, then? The same way that someone who looks back at the 50s and sees only the conservatism of kitschy Bible epics and family matinees might miss that they’re in a cinematic golden age? Not remotely, not even for a Pollyanna-ish exercise such as this. But if you hold purgatory upside down and shake it, some real gems might fall out.

My 10 favorites of 2022:

10. Pacifiction (Albert Serra, France/Spain)

In far-off Tahiti, a local politician—white suit, white teeth, white skin—moves back and forth between the French authorities and the native population, all while something ominous is brewing. He’s both a glad-hander and a quasi-sympathizer, and the film’s achievement is to give his journey an air of unreality while feeling discomfortingly close to the world of our own. To say that there wasn’t anything else quite like it last year isn’t simply meant as a rave, but a statement of fact; I’ve been wary of the total praise swirling around Albert Serra, but it’s undeniably impressive how much his tone, images, and structural choices defy cliche even while he gives you the hook and payoff of a classic paranoia thriller. The haunted final passage and climactic speech are something chilling.

9. Alcarràs (Carla Simon, Spain)

In a pitch meeting, Carla Simon’s Berlinale hit is nothing we don’t have plenty of already: socially conscious neorealism about ordinary people caught in an economic shift. But all the human behavior, large and small, is gloriously unaffected, and the drama is neither over- nor underwritten—rare virtues, even at the world’s most celebrated festivals. So it’s a beautiful film, not just about change, but about how even close families share space while living in different worlds. I wish we had more like it.

8. Top Gun: Maverick (Joseph Kosinski, US)

At a time when so many films feel small even in a theater, this feels big even on a TV. It just about turns movie star hubris into a real elegy. It has all the macho/jingo stuff to let guys pretend it’s not really for big softies. And it hits its nostalgia buttons more in the ways that matter than the ways that don’t. (You can take it as a sign of integrity that it never replays “Take My Breath Away”). The happiest the ghost of Howard Hawks has been in ages.

7. Aftersun (Charlotte Wells, UK/US)

A girl and her divorced dad at a vacation getaway. We see their bond, the worries weighing on him, and how she might notice them too whether she realizes it or not—only she’s also 11, and growing her own way. Aftersun captures this dynamic so beautifully that I spent most of the movie hoping that it wouldn’t feel the need for any more plot than that. It doesn’t. And if it does labor in search of an ending for a story that doesn’t really have or need one, it nonetheless announces Wells as a rising star. It’s the best “Sofia Coppola movie” since Sofia herself made The Virgin Suicides.

6. Happening (Audrey Diwan, France)

Did Texas play a part? At the 2021 Venice Film Festival, the jury unanimously awarded Happening the Golden Lion mere days after bombshell news about Texas’s abortion ban. And needless to say, by the time the film landed in America in 2022, things had only gotten worse. The concept—a young woman runs the gauntlet to terminate a pregnancy—is hardly new. But Diwan’s film expands on such previous renditions as Never Rarely Sometimes Always and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days with a wider context of sexual dynamics, personal relationships, and social stigma. And unlike those two films, it manages to convey urgency and intensity without hitting a sensationalist note.

5. Apollo 10½: A Space Age Childhood (Richard Linklater, US)

Linklater’s latest rotoscoped animation anchors a wild flight of fancy in an Amarcord-style memory film with even less plot than usual. Linklater isn’t interested in stories, or even episodes. He’s interested in turning artifacts and fragments into a compendium of boundless charm. In this context, the animation works not just visually but conceptually, to dissolve barriers between the endearingly mundane and the flagrantly impossible. Which a lovely last line about remembering magnificently brings home.

4. The Banshees of Inishiren (Martin McDonagh, Ireland/US)

After the tourist trap of In Bruges and the Anytown USA of Three Billboards, Martin McDonagh finds another reason to distrust the picturesque. For him, a village isn’t quaint or charming just because it’s small; after all, all you need for bad blood is two people. I understand the hesitations about McDonagh the Director, and I even share a few of them. But McDonagh the Writer is at a brilliant peak, and his cast rises to every challenge. An unpredictable, dark, and humane allegory about messy coexistence.

3. All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (Laura Poitras, US)

In Laura Poitras’s documentarty, two tracks run side by side. The first is an all-purpose biography of photographer Nan Goldin’s life and art, and the other a present-tense chronicle of her activism against the Sackler family of opioid barons. How do the two movies connect? One answer is simply that Poitras structures the material so well that it toggles back and forth without a hiccup. Another is that the film is about culture vs. counterculture: how society needs outcasts to keep itself honest. And yet another is that it’s all about art: those who create/live it, and the wealthy patrons who merely buy it. The fact that the world of art may be the only one Goldin and Poitras can change has a bittersweet aftertaste. All the more so because the film knows it.

2. Crimes of the Future (David Cronenberg, Canada/Greece)

Cronenberg is definitively not for everyone, but few directors have a body of work as uncompromised. Nearly every Cronenberg film has been, if not necessarily better or worse than the one before it, at least some kind of progression. His much-hyped return (his first feature in nearly a decade, and his first “body horror” movie since the 90s) is both something old and something new, and unique in the chemistry: it reclaims the genre trappings of his past without ditching the austerity he’s developed since. Indeed, Neon’s marketing campaign—a highly selective supercut of gross-outs and nightmare fuel—shortchanged how this compelling noir maze is less transgressive than soulful. It is a film about aging, even about love, and an anxious but fully-fleshed theorem of things to come. And that ending? Probably the year’s best, and certainly the one we deserve. Equal parts warning and ecstatic release.

1. The Fabelmans (Steven Spielberg, US)

If anyone in Hollywood has a right to self-mythologize, Spielberg does, but The Fabelmans is much more. Charges of excess sentimentality have dogged him forever, but if innocence (or naivety) is a narrow approach to art, Spielberg also proven that the desire for innocence/naivety can be a complex subject. And in that regard, The Fabelmans is not just slick, not just entertaining, but fascinating. This is about movie geeks and showmen and how those urges mediate experience: what gets played up, what gets left out, what slips in unconsciously, and what function the final product serves. So while he hasn’t (couldn’t?) make a film that’s raw, even the glossy tidiness of The Fabelmans registers as both face-value and commentary. Film theorists will be more moved than sentimentalists. But don’t doubt that there’s overlap. Especially now.


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

Armageddon Time (James Gray, US)

Close (Lukas Dhont, Belgium)

Decision to Leave (Park Chan-wook, South Korea)

Elvis (Baz Luhrmann, US)

EO (Jerzy Skolimowski, Poland)

The Girl and the Spider (Ramon & Silvan Zürcher, Switzerland)

Nope (Jordan Peele, US)

The Novelist’s Film (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)

Pearl (Ti West, US)

Saint Omer (Alice Diop, France)

Stars at Noon (Claire Denis, France)

Tar (Todd Field, US)

Triangle of Sadness (Ruben Östlund, Sweden/UK)

Turning Red (Domee Shi, US)

X (Ti West, US)

THE ROUND-UP: 14 for ’22

The Round-Up is a collection of capsule reviews for new releases that filled up my notebook but never got a full dive. As awards season comes to a close, here’s a speed run of some highlights from the last year that’ll miss my year in review.

Triangle of Sadness (Ruben Östlund)

If laughter, not just vomit, lives in the gut, Östlund knows how to draw it out, and when his jokes are about male insecurity or the failure of well-intentioned people to connect, they’re meaningful too. As a commentator or provocateur, he can’t hold a candle to Wertmuller, let alone Bunuel. As a miniaturist gone maximal, he’s thin, and when he addresses politics by name, you doubt the class clown even cares. But he has a humanistic affection for bumblers who’d be natural bedfellows if not for sociopolitical barriers—a cockeyed character warmth that wouldn’t be on Wertmuller’s or Bunuel’s agenda. So If you see anyone praise this as a brilliantly satirical “takedown of the rich”, don’t believe them. Its value lies in its sense of thwarted romance.



RRR (S.S. Rajamouli)

Tops most of Hollywood’s latest in pacing, twists, and flair, and it never exhausts itself—even at three hours, you never feel like you’ve seen it all. But as someone who considers irony a virus on contemporary movie viewership, I’m as leery as I am optimistic about its American film buff crossover appeal. Is it a sign of cine-hipsters accepting each unironic affect of a fundamentally unironic movie? Or more proof that it’s easier to pitch a film on its bonkers midnight movie/cult appeal than as something meant for serious reflection? Because if you reflect on RRR, you could get hurt. You’ll chiefly see a “foreign film” with as much fascistic numbness towards violence as anything we make in the West.



Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio (Guillermo Del Toro & Mark Gustafson)

Kids today have it easy: too many Minions, not enough troubling, potentially traumatizing children’s films. In that department, artistic principles explain why Del Toro’s retelling feels closer to the Disney original than Disney’s own remake did. It is a tad overstuffed, and the none-too-memorable songs get in the way. But when Del Toro assumes the role of an eternally young lapsed-Catholic pedagogue, he evokes just the right amount of skepticism towards authority. Kids have already started to figure out that some questions only have troubling answers. So I’m glad they have this to chew over.



Nope (Jordan Peele)

Peele runs the risk of being praised too much too soon, especially since his payoffs have been shakier since Get Out. But vision is vision and layers are layers, and he’s one of our few current hitmakers who’d design a movie good both for writing a thinkpiece about media exploitation and for grabbing friends/popcorn and anticipating the Big Reveal. The most glory Fry’s Electronics has gotten in years. Chris Kattan too.



Bodies Bodies Bodies (Halina Reijn)

I suspect this would make a good double bill with Scream: slasher films whose frights/laughs are rooted in the respective social maladies of Gen-X and Gen-Z. The latter’s scare me more. But although this clever exercise ultimately feels too ungrounded to fulfill its promise as a statement about intimacy and alienation, I’m tempted to round it up to 4 stars because it clocks in at ninety unwasted minutes and makes me glad I’m middle-aged. The whole cast is excellent.



The Northman (Robert Eggers)

As someone eager for more American directors born after 1980 who might someday qualify for Valhalla, it hurts not to be all-in on Eggers. This one has more to say than The Lighthouse, and as he pursues ever greater size and scale, some sequences astound. But his obsessive detail toggles between real vision and humorless camp, and what it boils down to isn’t much deeper or more distinct than any number of revenge flicks. Including ones proud to be cheap.



All Quiet on the Western Front (Edward Berger)

I dragged my feet until the Academy forced my hand because I doubted it’d be anything I hadn’t seen in a war movie before. It’s not; its main distinction is how it modulates the tone and intensity of earlier films to greet an audience of 2022. The battle scenes are very well-directed and incredibly frightening, and its perspective on saber-rattling summons an anxiety that belongs to our time as much as 1918. But when a scene isn’t battle or politics—when it’s “merely” human interest—it lapses into blander, generic repetitions whose level of insight into the arbitrary/absurd nature of war can’t sustain how long it’s drawn out. I do wonder if the Academy is jealous. 30 years ago, this is the sort of movie Hollywood would make itself.



Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (Ryan Coogler)

Look at how the opening scene handles the death of Chadwick Boseman in one handheld long take, or how Coogler’s endings show at least a passing interest in the link between a comic book universe and the outside world, and you can’t argue there’s no filmmaking imagination in these movies. But you can argue that said imagination is tethered to a project that’s 75% pre-fab and has built-in disposability. The Black Panther movies, like Captain America, are better in this regard than the average Marvel property. But there’s not the urgency here to power 160 minutes. Even if fifteen of that is credits.



EO (Jerzy Skolimowski)

It’s a bold director who invites comparisons to Au Hasard Balthazar, and Skolimowski certainly uses close-ups of his “star” in sentimental ways that were beneath Robert Bresson. But he adds absurdist humor and stridently replaces Bresson’s austerity with a flood of sensations. EO maintains, convincingly, that a rush of color and motion is what you’re gifted/saddled with the moment you’re kicked out into the world. Some passages are rapturous, others terrifying, and as it picks up the quality of a sustained 80-minute sequence, a case could be made for it as 2022’s best action film. Still, given its sparse, fatalistic narrative sensibility, it feels narrow. If you’re wondering how a movie about an ordinary donkey could possibly feel otherwise, that’s what Balthazar is for.



Corsage (Marie Kreutzer)

Beautification as bondage—the corset is a perfect metaphor. Maybe too perfect, since Corsage‘s arc (the weight of performative womanhood, and being discarded once you turn 40) feels so predetermined that the film’s repetitions equal or even outnumber its surprises. It accumulates interesting details, like early cinema and quack psychology, while its intentional anachronisms are more a distraction than a bold pastiche. But Krieps is indeed as exceptional as ever.



Decision to Leave (Park Chan-wook)

Park’s latest surfs a wave of frenzy—hardly 10 seconds go by without an abrupt transition or a restless, vertiginous camera movement. But it never loses control, so its dramatic and tonal idiosyncrasies render old tropes thrillingly unpredictable: the relationship between a sap and a femme fatale is rarely this emotionally complex. Still, unlike Bong Joon-ho, I can’t trust Park for soul or commentary, more for style and twists. How many you can stand in a row is up to you.



Saint Omer (Alice Diop)

Roaring out of Venice comes a downbeat courtroom drama full of beguiling choices, including rendering the verdict irrelevant. A mother is on trial for infanticide, and claims that she was under the influence of sorcery. Is she crazy? Is it all a calculation, leveraging her “exotic” background for an insanity plea? Or is sorcery—or something like it—at work? There are certainly hints that reality might not be so tidy, and could even be a relative term. So the film’s achievement is to juggle rational discourse on race, gender, and class with some inevitable law of metaphysics acting upon the spectator. Its plea for humanization is simple. Its sense of an unseen world is not.



Holy Spider (Ali Abbasi)

There’s a kind of Cannes selection that gets branded in the US as an “art film” when its weapons of choice are the same as Hollywood’s: sensationalism; simplicity; bluntness; procedural economy; and a hero defined largely/solely by their skill, pluck, and perseverance. So it’s not bad. It’s dramatically engaging, moves fast, and has a comparatively interesting last act. But it plays almost every element with such a lack of subtlety that, no matter how much is based in fact, or how much the handheld camera signifies “realism!”, it all feels as transparently orchestrated as any piece of fiction.



Three Thousand Years of Longing (George Miller)

“What if I make no wish at all?” With that line, George Miller gets his hands on what has the potential to be the melancholy metaphor of the year. After all, is never pursuing your heart’s desire really better than briefly touching it before it all goes awry? But despite the dazzlement Miller brings to bear, I’m not sure it ever goes from an idea for a movie to a movie proper, chiefly because Tilda Swinton’s own arc feels so sidelined and thinly sketched. Still, it’s an all-too-rare exhibit of how our new CGI era can be used lyrically. If you can get someone to pay for it.



Next Door to Prestige 5: Merry Maladies

Time is hard to gauge. But somewhere between delta and omicron, my parents called to discuss plans for maybe reviving the holidays, and they took the opportunity to ask what they should look out for during Oscar season. I started rattling off titles before arriving at how Steven Spielberg’s long-delayed remake of West Side Story was coming out soon and looked pretty good.

“They remade West Side Story?” my dad said. “That’s good. We need something happy.”

“‘Happy’?” my mom objected. “West Side Story isn’t happy.”

And no, strictly speaking, it’s not. It’s Romeo and Juliet with songs. But it’s also something that few films of 2020 were. It is robust, and in a particularly Hollywood way. 2020’s Best Picture nominees were almost exclusively downbeat, quiet, grave, or penitent. West Side Story is color, music, and spectacle. It is love at first sight, comic relief, big displays of emotion, and the marriage of old-fashioned hokum to the latest in technical craft. Pauline Kael, currently resting in as much peace as she lived, praised Spielberg in the 1970s by saying, “this is something only movies can do: dazzle you by sheer scale.” For most of 2020, dazzling you with scale simply wasn’t a tenable business model. In 2021, that aspiration was back with a vengeance—albeit with a bumpy box office success rate whose casualties included Spielberg himself.

So in this disorienting year, where we weren’t collectively sure if we still had an active pandemic, a functioning democracy, or a shared definition of “normal” to go back to, something robust was in demand. Anecdotally, the two movies that got the most people I know to make their first trip back to the theater since COVID were No Time to Die and Dune. Neither one is a “happy” film either, I suppose—No Time to Die is even the rare 007 tear-jerker. But if you were to place an order for several metric tons of “movie”, I imagine that those two films might be the result. Meanwhile, on the repertory circuit, stir-crazy but freshly-vaxed older audiences made a surprise hit out of The Swimming Pool, a 1969 French erotic thriller starring Alain Delon and Romy Schneider. It was held over at Film Forum for months last summer, earning a lengthy riposte from Richard Brody, who begged vicarious thrill-seekers to remember that the film had been forgotten for a reason. I liked it well enough, and its sleeper appeal isn’t hard to divine: its logline is impossibly attractive movie stars nipping at each other and committing murder on a decadent riviera holiday. In short, it showed that arthouse audiences—the ones who show up early to Film Forum to get a good seat—are moviegoers like any other. They crave stimuli.

In that spirit, here is a brief, off-the-cuff, and by no means all-inclusive catalog of stimuli offered by the movies of 2021. Be they good, bad, small, or odd.

  • For starters, the Cannes Film Festival returned in full force. For all the ways that Cannes can be, should be, and has been taken to task by cinephiles, the difference in having it back as a launchpad for discourse, debate, hype, and backlash was palpable. 
  • …and for those following the festival as a thread of film history, don’t miss that Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or win for Titane is not only the second for a female director, but the first for any filmmaker born after 1980. (Which raises a sensitive question: when will a millennial canon form, and who’s a plausible contender for it?)
  • The disreputable subgenre of “nunsploitation” got a moment in the sun. Paul Verhoeven’s Benedetta was worthy of all the debates, and Ken Russell’s long-unavailable shocker The Devils briefly glimpsed the mainstream spotlight.* (*As an easter egg in Space Jam 2).
  • Clint Eastwood proved how little he could do and still have a worthwhile Clint Eastwood movie.
  • Edgar Wright delivered a double bill showing the dangers of excessive fandom—a point that Last Night in Soho makes on purpose and The Sparks Brothers makes by accident.
  • The Mitchells vs the Machines became the first family film to feature a cartoon of Hal Ashby.
  • David Cronenberg released a 60-second NFT of himself hugging his own corpse, and I’m not being glib when I say I got more out of it than I did from some of the Oscar contenders.
  • Lana Wachowski flushed a cherry bomb into the plumbing of the reboot machine, and the mess that resulted—The Matrix Resurrections—was genuinely fascinating.
  • For most of the year, the highest grossing film in the world was a propaganda epic commissioned by the Chinese government, until Disney/Sony took over the top spot by conscripting every living Spider-Man. (I await the geopolitical thinkpiece).
  • And Don’t Look Up got people to care. Not about climate change—I can’t imagine it moved the needle there—but about an Oscar contender. As of this writing, it has more user ratings on both IMDb and Letterboxd than The Power of the Dog, Belfast, King Richard, and Nightmare Alley combined. So whatever your take is (and mine is that it has the right targets, but is barely sufferable), it demonstrates the combination of subject matter, presentation, and release strategy that can get tentpole levels of attention for a director’s undisciplined passion project. For better or worse.

Which brings us to the Oscars themselves. I can’t think of another year with such a dour lack of enthusiasm within the L.A. bubble for the nominees, as if a ceremony built for self-congratulation were set to backfire and reveal an industry with little to congratulate itself about. I’ve given up prognosticating the Oscars with any degree of confidence. And if I knew what was good for me, I’d give up drawing any symbolic conclusions from them either. The Oscars are too swayed by hyper-specific electoral dynamics. And too likely to change in the next cycle.

But the word is that Apple TV’s CODA has gone from a long shot to the principle frontrunner, largely thanks to two factors. First, by the time final voting began, a narrative had set in that the previous frontrunner, Jane Campion’s Netflix film The Power of the Dog, was too slow, too odd, and too alienating—for all its prestige, did it actually have many ardent fans? And second, this vacuum of consensus allowed Apple to position an Oscar win for CODA as a feel-good Cinderella story not unlike the film itself.

Either would be the first Best Picture win for a streaming service, so there’s a high chance that tonight will make history in a way that doesn’t really satisfy anyone. (A lot to expect of history right now, I know). If the Academy does go with CODA, a fatally flavorless film, my guess is that it’ll be remembered with the ignominy previously reserved for Crash. But on a symbolic level, it does have a certain kind of logic. The Oscars are the Academy not just recommending a film, but the idea of a film—a notion of what (the Academy imagines) people go to the movies for. And of the ten Best Picture nominees, the one distinction that CODA deserves is that it’s the happiest. The most uncomplicated.

I don’t begrudge the Academy, or anyone, for gravitating towards that superlative.

But I wouldn’t want anyone to look back on our movies and think for one minute we lived through flavorless times.

My 10 favorites of 2021:

10. All Hands on Deck (Guillaume Brac, France)

Let the record show up front that the List Industrial Complex can be good for something: Guillaume Brac’s lovely comedy would likely have passed me by had it not popped up on a few. It’s one of 2021’s breeziest films, though when it comes to the vicissitudes of youth, life in a rapidly pluralizing society, and understanding why people do what they do, it actually has a keener eye than most self-serious takes on those subjects. The place: a summer vacation spot where different barriers might dissolve. The hope: that it lasts as long as it can.

9. Titane (Julia Ducournau, France/Belgium)

A Palme d’Or win invites a degree of backlash. So as this body-horror spectacular made the rounds and the word “transgressive” kept popping up, some skeptical critics asked just how transgressive Titane really is in the scheme of things. To which I would agree: not very. But suppose Titane came not for transgression, but for sentiment? Suppose it comes from a social mindset where a degree of fucked-up-ness is taken as a given—perfectly respectable for films festivals, certainly—except that no amount of cheerfully disintegrating taboos can make the emotions of sex or solitude any simpler? Granted, “supposing” is a lot of what you have to do; part of the nature of Titane is that what it “means to say” is coy, mucky, and up for debate. But you’ll be repaid for wading in. Its combo of souped-up passion and deep ambivalence, not to mention sensory craft, is a striking vision from a director who shows every sign of having more to come.

8. Annette (Leos Carax, France/US)

Annette dropped on Amazon Prime as the most divisive movie in a lull that needed one. I’ve seen the film twice since then, dipped into excerpts, and literally, in a sense, walked past it. (The opening shot, which turns a random block of Santa Monica Blvd. into a musical, was filmed not far from where I live, on a stretch of road I traveled regularly during the pandemic). And each time, it looks less and less like a gimmick and more like something whose arch humor, po-mo games, and isn’t-it-unironic? tragedy could only come from veterans of their craft. Confound certain categories it may, including which nation it belongs to. But whether it’s wringing its affect from extravagant set-pieces or a close-up of two hands, it belongs to a musical tradition as old as The Red Shoes: those cautionary tales about the limelight, where any warning is belied by the ecstasy.

7. Licorice Pizza (Paul Thomas Anderson, US)

Aimless? Capricious? Shambolic? Insanely messy? I’m not sure there’s a criticism you can throw at P.T. Anderson’s storytelling that doesn’t also perfectly describe the phase in life he’s trying to evoke, which is what can make Licorice Pizza so frustrating—at least until it’s satisfying. Not for nothing does the final shot return, for the umpteenth time, to its hero and heroine running—not ever arriving anywhere, but now happier than ever to be in transit. Rumors that this comedy is a “more accessible” Anderson film may be greatly exaggerated; I’d have wagered it contains as many alienating decisions as anything he’s done. But the full potency and complexity of their dynamic—two awkward, dueling imitations of adulthood in a California where no actual adult is doing wonders for the term—can quietly sneak up on you.

6. Introduction (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)

With the exception of Steven Soderbergh, no one shows the potential of light, mobile digital filmmaking like Hong Sang-soo. And if, like Soderbergh, he doesn’t set his eye on capital-M Masterpieces, it may be because his “masterpiece” is one long filmmaking project—in his case, to show how rich and heady you can get with only a few actors and a tripod. And so he arrived at 2021’s (virtual) Berlin Film Festival with a 65-minute meal: a game of connect-the-dots that ponders where to draw the line between life and art. It’s terrific. And by the time it opened in American theaters, he’d already made two more.

5. Memoria (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Colombia/Thailand)

Tilda Swinton wanders a foreign land, having conversations with people who may or not be real, seeing details that may or may not be connected, and getting afflicted by loud sounds from some phantom source. It’s hard to believe this haunted allegory was shot before the pandemic; I can’t imagine a film more abstractly in tune with the anxiety that a whole world might fall ill. So Memoria is a difficult film, first for all of Apichatpong’s usual reasons—slowness, ellipticism, diffusion—and second, because you can’t miss the despair. Which sounds austere or joyless, but isn’t. His imagination is too lush for that, and he remains one of the few filmmakers who can invoke cosmic ideas without coming across as a charlatan. Running theme: the world’s mysteries are sacred, so attend to them with humility. And open ears.

4. The French Dispatch (Wes Anderson, US)

In which Wes Anderson piles on miniaturism until it becomes maximalist. The French Dispatch is a short story collection where each “short story” is really a condensed epic, stuffed with tangents, character histories, and flashbacks within flashbacks, until it’s all too much. But like (almost) all of Anderson’s comedies, the density rewards revisitation, offering an endless inventory of wistful/comic detail that says little about the real France but a lot about a fantasist growing older. So as the stories and their framing devices fall into dialogue, the whole air hanging over its maximalism seems to ask: how much longer do we get to do this?—and that question arrives at an unexpectedly, even exquisitely moving final resting place.

3. Drive My Car + Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Japan)

Drive My Car is long for the same reason Kenneth Lonergan’s films are: because the characters’ crises take time to process, and their detours are necessary for doing so. It keeps on growing, but I’m not sure the instant-masterpiece reputation that’s preceded it since Cannes necessarily does it any favors. People expect masterpieces to knock them off their feet, and Hamaguchi prefers a quieter key. So instead, I’ll note his other film of the year: Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, a trio of short stories that’s smaller than Drive My Car in every way and has earned only a fraction of the attention—and yet 2021 wouldn’t quite be his year without it. What Drive My Car does as a life-sized epic, Wheel does as an omnibus, spinning encounters in which no person is a main character and no plotline is central. So if this has indeed been “his year”—and in terms of festival hype, critical acclaim, and unexpected crossover appeal, I don’t see any way to argue the point—there’s a good reason for it. After a year of social distancing, he delivered two delicate, perceptive features about how badly people need each other.

2. The Worst Person in the World (Joachim Trier, Norway)

Turning thirty, with a considerable margin of error, becomes the modest saga it deserves in the hands of Joachim Trier. What starts as a wonderful comedy of millennial flightiness ends as an appealingly open take on how where a person ends up is a mixture of choice and chance. Which is hardly a new observation—more like something each generation figures out for themselves. But the specifics of this rendition rise high. And Renate Reinsve deserves every acting award thrown at her because she hardly seems to be acting at all.

1. Red Rocket (Sean Baker, US)

Sean Baker’s latest film is a wildly funny, daringly alive, and deeply alarming new comedy. Its very premise—a washed-up porn star tries to convince a teenage girl to be his ticket back into the industry—may go some ways in explaining why, when awards season arrived, A24 didn’t seem to know what to do with it. But buckle up. Baker (Tangerine, The Florida Project) remains one of the most vital voices in current American cinema—a seasoned pro at mixing comedy with shocks, the offhand with the composed. And the success of his tightrope walk suggests that having the good taste to navigate bad taste may be the only honest way to make a movie about America right now, especially if you find a perspective that’s moral but not moralizing, critical but not condescending, and as much in love with this country’s energy as it is mortified by it. You can take this metaphor as far as you want; Red Rocket plays out against the backdrop of the 2016 election, a context that Baker is ambitious enough to include but shrewd enough not to belabor. Simon Rex is terrifyingly, hilariously plausible as a corrupter who’s also a naif—the classic image of a bullshit artist who believes his own lies. And Suzanna Son supplies such nuance and vibrancy that Rex’s blindness to her real potential becomes a grim, mordant joke. I don’t suppose the US will ever run out of hucksters or meat for its meat-grinder. But try this on for a scene of the year: a teenager plays a piano cover of NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye”, transforming a pop sugar high into something impossibly soulful, while across the room, a blank man-child watches and sees only a resource to exploit.


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

About Endlessness (Roy Andersson, Sweden)

Azor (Andreas Fontana, Switzerland/France)

Benedetta (Paul Verhoeven, France/Netherlands)

Bergman Island (Mia Hansen-Løve, France/Belgium)

Days (Tsai Ming-Liang, Taiwan)

The Green Knight (David Lowery, US)

The Hand of God (Paolo Sorrentino, Italy)

The Mitchells vs. the Machines (Mike Rianda & Jeff Rowe, US)

Parallel Mothers (Pedro Almodóvar, Spain)

The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion, Australia/New Zealand)

The Souvenir: Part II (Joanna Hogg, UK)

Summer of Soul (Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, US)

Unclenching the Fists (Kira Kovalenko, Russia)

The Velvet Underground (Todd Haynes, US)

West Side Story (Steven Spielberg, US)

THE ROUND-UP: For Your Consideration

The Round-Up is a collection of capsule reviews for new releases that filled up my notebook but never got a full dive. For awards season, some heavy contenders and noteworthy films that’ll miss my year in review.

Belfast (Kenneth Branagh)

The city block of Branagh’s Belfast is not unlike Spike Lee’s Brooklyn: a theatrical stage that political violence might crash. But as a film, it’s also cutesy and irksomely mannered, as if it doesn’t trust any moment to land without an on-the-nose stylistic flourish. Branagh is comfortable working with stock figures and devices, and he demonstrates a certain faith that they have power for a reason. With familiarity, tidiness, and reassurance as his method of tribute, there’s little to distinguish this particular set of cherubic children, wise grandparents, schoolyard crushes, and nostalgic trips to the movies from any others you’ve seen, which is the film’s chief flaw but also part of its point. So it doesn’t capture memories in amber (a la Terence Davies) or politics merging with life’s theater (a la Lee). But you’d have to be more cynical than I not to be moved by any of it.



Dune (Denis Villeneuve)

Visually astonishing, though I’d hasten to add that the hot-mess Lynch version had a hypnosis of its own, and a more vivid sense of character to boot. With an approach that’s half psychedelic, half YA Hunger Games, the new Dune is an improvement on the old by virtue of pure narrative coherence. But it only adds to the sense that Herbert’s mythos might still be too unwieldy for film adaptation. Villeneuve’s taste for atmospherics over dramatics makes the arc both glacial and capricious, a relentlessly slo-mo catalog of incidents whose structure—alternating rushed exposition with long sequences that get lost marveling at production design—is ironically the same trap Lynch fell into. But it deserves credit for uncommon ambition. And the unreconstructed geek in me (the one who spent middle school plowing through sci-fi paperbacks) wouldn’t dream of passing up a sequel.



CODA (Sian Heder)

A victory for representation is offset by how everything else, from its bland populism to a comically flamboyant choir teacher, is contrived, formulaic, sanitized, banal—hell, there’s no way to even describe CODA‘s flaws without using the language of cliche. It feels like neither the real world (not always a problem for a film) nor an imaginative vision of it (most certainly a problem). It’s more like anodyne proficiency. The kind you can half-pay attention to without missing anything.



Tick, Tick… Boom! (Lin-Manuel Miranda)

A musical for theater kids instead of cinephiles, and I’m fine with that. In fact, in a speed-run of 2021 Oscar contenders, Tick, Tick…Boom! is refreshing. It’s not as if it’s any less “cheesy”/”schmaltzy”/etc. than King Richard or Belfast. In fact, it may be more. But the musical idiom, and a palpable love of it, provide an energetic earnestness in which “you’ll laugh, you’ll cry” constructions signify more often than not as genuine expression. And Andrew Garfield is terrific.



West Side Story (Steven Spielberg)

The Spielberg remake has obstacles to overcome: the shadow of the original, the question of urgency or necessity, and Ansel Elgort’s general air of obnoxious entitlement. But there are too many great shots and great cuts to list, and all of them (or most, anyway) serve a narrative function. The staging is clearly the work of a Hollywood master, with an emphasis on “Hollywood” and all its spectacle, colors, unironic emotions, and star-is-born narratives. The most satisfying needle it threads is being inherently nostalgic (even adding in the theme of a vanishing world) while being made from techniques that would be unimaginable thirty years ago, let alone sixty. It runs out of fuel short of greatness; that question of urgency/necessity continues to nag, as do a few decisions in the adaptation. But anyone with a starry-eyed view of why people go to “the movies” has the right to be concerned that it got its lunch eaten at the box office by the CGI ghost of Harold Ramis.



The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion)

A bit Rebecca, a lot Liberty Valance. As someone favorably disposed towards interrogations of nostalgia for “real men”, I like the ingredients. But narrative pieces seem to be missing, and its sense of the West is inconsistent; the whole thing is shot with the verisimilitude of a prestige period piece, but every time Benedict Cumberbatch says the name “Bronco Henry”, it sounds affected. “A story of the deepest human needs” is how it’s pitched by the For Your Consideration promo that keeps popping up in my news feed. And one of the worst things about being in LA during awards season is how it invites backlash that a film doesn’t deserve. So when it comes to “the deepest human needs”, or dissecting the masculine dynamics of westerns, I’m not sure The Power of the Dog‘s details or commentary can withstand a great film’s worth of scrutiny. But where it triumphs is as a slowed-down, artied-up potboiler—the kind where nasty psychodramatic tensions are going to surface in lurid ways and lead to a dead body. So maybe a better comparison is Duel in the Sun, another psychodrama on the range. And how Campion’s good taste compares to David O. Selznick’s bad taste is a debate I’d love to see in earnest and in full.



Don’t Look Up (Adam McKay)

A real test of any policy that it’s better for Hollywood directors to have too much ambition than too little. It lands a few salient points and laughs, and at the very least, we should all be happy in the year 2021 for any “studio movie” that a) feels like it was passionately willed into being, and b) became a cultural conversation piece. Its reception drew a line between those who found it a cathartic affirmation and those who found it insufferably smug, even if they aligned with it politically. Count me in the latter camp: this is a poor satire whose hyperactive surface barely disguises a lazy way of commenting on the world. And the careening editing rhythms that felt liberated in The Big Short are now formula, as rotely executed as shot-reverse-shot.



THE ROUND-UP: All Sorts of Horrors

The Round-Up is a collection of capsule reviews for new releases that filled up my notebook but never got a full dive. For Halloween quartet of horror…

Halloween Kills (David Gordon Green)

No doubt matters of self-seriousness explain why this one got bad reviews while the last one was praised. For much of its runtime, Halloween Kills actually does a solid job expanding the thematic and dramatic scope of its back-to-basics predecessor while sticking by the primal and primativistic idea of “the Shape”. Yet it’s a harsher, far more uninviting vision, right down to the amped-up gore: if you’re ever afraid to see what happens next, it won’t be because David Gordon Green shares John Carpenter’s skill for a playfully choreographed scare, but because he’ll pile on the grisliness. And by the end credits, that initially promising, ultimately dour gambit steers into limbo. The most valuable symbolism of the 1978 original was simple: an avatar of childhood fear chasing you to the cusp of adulthood. The 2018 reboot was about trauma, though it didn’t go much deeper into that idea than one might at a pitch meeting. But Halloween Kills is something else. It ups the political ante by taking contemporary public hysteria as its subject, nodding to both Romero (the real monster is us) and a bit of Lynch (Evil haunts small-town America) before its pessimism hits the same wall as innumerable Halloween sequels before it: there’s only so much weight or length a campfire story can sustain without numbing you or turning silly. But I’ll say this: given what they’ve set up, I’m curious how they’re going to make a movie called Halloween Ends. We’ll find out next year.



Titane (Julia Ducournau)

Cronenberg comparisons were already old by the time the first Palme d’Or-winning horror film hit theaters, but they remain necessary. Ducournau doesn’t (yet) have Cronenberg’s dexterity with psychologically complete characters or fully developed themes. A lot of Titane‘s transgressions, particularly early on, come off as over-eagerly existing for their own sake. But the film does take Cronenberg’s enduring subject—the link between having a body and having a psyche—and rewire it into a notably youthful study of a woman mortified by both. The young anti-heroine has a body, yes, which she uses for dancing, killing, and fetish-fucking. She has little use for parents, romantic attachments, or other people in general. And while we’re not meant to be on board with all her antisocial reflexes (that sweet girlfriend of hers didn’t have it coming), we can’t begrudge her the rest (that leering man definitely did). Thus what emerges is about sex, love, motherhood, and a hard-as-steel woman (a transgressor herself) softening, becoming vulnerable and exposed. And the way this softening is shown as both semi-involuntary and frequently horrific—not to mention caked in gender fluidity and emotional deception—gives it a compelling and passionate ambivalence that stays in your mind even after your stomach has settled. So the best comparison may not be the cutting analytical eye of Cronenberg; if you expect that, you’ll be disappointed. But the brash joys of queerness, Queerness, and throwing every ingredient into the pot? Not far from early Almodóvar.



Old (M. Night Shyamalan)

Shyamalan’s handling of actors and dialogue is as willfully awkward as ever, and he doesn’t pull off the balance the material demands. Old requires pivoting between goofiness and horror, pathos and thrills, psychological realism and nightmare logic, purely abstract emotional allegory and tidy sci-fi explanations. It’s protracted, and neither that wise nor that funny in the places it thinks it is. But it further shows that designations of “good” or “bad” (with most of the public predisposed to leap towards the latter) are inadequate in discussing what Shyamalan movies have to offer. Indeed, the places where this old-school trip to the Twilight Zone falls short only highlight that there’s not much else at the multiplex attempting anything like it. Old has more invention and purpose in its concept, style, and themes than most new releases. And several moments where the three converge exactly as they should.



Lamb (Valdimar Jóhannsson)

Plenty possible though it is to make a movie where “nothing is happening” but a lot is going on, Lamb is the sort of contemporary arthouse fare that uses minimalism as a crutch, with long, quiet, ostensibly atmospheric but ultimately formless passages of dead air taking the place of fleshing out the characters, building the emotional core, or doing much with the camera. The result is a fruitful metaphor (parenthood as a gift from nature—but on nature’s conditions) where every potential note of pain, hope, horror, and humor feels like it’s been shot with novocaine. When the trailer for Lamb preemptively pitches it as a “cult horror” movie, it’s a marketing ploy by definition, and not necessarily a deceitful one. But I’m not convinced that the dynamic at work is the elevation of the genre to more artful, sophisticated places. On the contrary, it’s more the opposite: tastemakers borrowing some of horror’s tawdry hook to get butts in the seats.



THE ROUND-UP: Late Summer, Early Autumn

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 2021 moviegoing begin now…

A Quiet Place Part II (John Krasinski)

Part I was an intriguing high concept with a wispy but likable execution, uninterested in psychology or metaphor. Part II aims for what Part II’s are supposed to do: not just lengthen but expand. Its opening setpiece is the kind of imitation Spielberg a blockbuster-deprived nation needed and deserved, and like Part I its biggest coup of showmanship is getting out before it overstays its welcome. But plot points can be picked over like batting practice, and aside from having the kids save the adults this time, it still doesn’t have much on its mind. Which, if it wants to expand more seriously than ever, is a problem.



The Mitchells vs. the Machines (Mike Rianda & Jeff Rowe)

Honestly, Pixar may be falling behind Sony: just as Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse one-upped Incredibles 2 (Pixar’s own self-reflexive take on its superhero IP), The Mitchells vs. The Machines offers the most sustained delight of any mainstream family film so far this year. A lot of the jokes, most of the adventure, and all of the morals are the sort of thing that writes itself—the young heroine is on her way to film school, and I suspect her screenwriting professor would be happy with how reliably this hits its beats. (No matter when it has to stretch quite a bit to do so). But it’s also so fleshed out by clever touches and so enlivened by hybrid 2D-3D animation—a lot of which is worth pausing your Netflix for—that I can absolutely buy the fun on its intended terms: as the expression of ex-film students who either knew or were the main character at that age. And who, in their less stressed-out moments, are still tickled that they get to do this for a living.



About Endlessness (Roy Andersson)

Roy Andersson’s static frames give me more how-did-they-do-that? awe than most big-budget FX extravaganzas. His latest, which could just as easily be outtakes from his earlier films (like 2000’s Songs From the Second Floor or 2007’s You, the Living) inspires two thoughts. First, that like any artist who sticks to such a distinct, idiosyncratic method—Ozu or Malick, say—each film can look like mere repetition if you don’t pay heed to the little differences. And second, for a vision so all-encompassing, his insights into cosmic and historical themes can really be rather basic. That is, his vignettes of comic angst are best when they avoid declaring too much too directly. Which is why the apparent pointlessness of his structural decisions here—more shambolic than ever, more offhand, more abrupt, somehow even more funereal—registers by the end as a point in and of itself. He earns the line “Everything is fantastic.” And at 78 minutes, like life it’s over before you know it.



Days (Tsai Ming-Liang)

Spare, even for Tsai Ming-Liang. In fact, the autumnal mood and dearth of dramatic incidents can remind you that, even though Taiwan’s master of being alone together was always a kind of minimalist, there was a robust and youthful energy in his 1990s and 2000s work. This is really more a coda than a film, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone not already in his corner. For Tsai the Romantic, see What Time Is It There? or Vive L’Amour. For Tsai the Transgressor, see The Wayward Cloud or The River. (Both modes are represented here). But if the face of his muse/leading man Lee Kang-sheng will always signify for you, you may be moved at how the familiar themes become a passing of the torch.



Cry Macho (Clint Eastwood)

Theoretically, there’s a point at which Clint Eastwood will be too old to make movies about how old he is, and while we’re palpably closer than ever, we’re not there yet. Here, he ambles through a mediocre script with a poorly written, poorly acted protege. Indeed, Eastwood’s recent cinema is so intent at getting inside the mind and heart of a Movie Hero that virtually no one else around them behaves like a plausible human being. But no one drawn to Late Clint is interested plausibility, or in thrills. They want a tranquil contemplation of what “heroic masculinity” really entails. And if they surrender to everything tin-eared about this laidback mood piece, they’ll get it. Modestly, disarmingly, and with a few wrinkles that can niggle your brain.



Cruella (Craig Gillespie)

Gillespie’s I, Tonya had a skillful music video pizzazz but was hypocritical mush when it came to any meaningful analysis of what might be called “real people.” So perhaps his calling is revisionist blockbusters: novel high-concept pitches for a sociological age where the same demographic likes both Disney lore and punk/New Wave needle drops. But 130 minutes gives you plenty of time to get tired of its bag of tricks—and to see just how much is clumsy, shallow, nonsensical, or brazenly mercenary by the end.




“The past effects what happens in the future,” the hero of The Card Counter says, explaining the mathematical and philosophical precepts of a card game. He adds, “Bet little when you don’t have the advantage, bet more when you do.” And with that, and several times over, you can tell that Paul Schrader has found another lonesome figure, like taxi drivers or pickpockets, whose lifestyle can serve as an existential metaphor in the noir and arthouse traditions. Played by a heavy-eyed Oscar Isaac, the card counter’s wisdom is to not believe in a big score. He knows there’s no total victory that can set you up for good. But if you play smart, you can always get by. He has a certain penchant for austerity—he likes to wrap all the furniture in his hotel room in white sheets—and the same could be said for Schrader. The world of the film is established in drawn-out shots, slow camera movements, and a color scheme whose dynamic range tilts toward the ashen end of the spectrum. (Isaac plays blackjack and Texas Hold ‘Em in the least saturated movie casinos I can think of). And this ascetic tone has its purposes. All the better for when hallucinatory elements break through.

This is all very much in the vein of First Reformed, Schrader’s 2018 comeback. And I’m guessing that the somewhat overblown popularity of that film explains why, when the Metrograph hosted an online preview of The Card Counter the night before its theatrical release, the amount of traffic temporarily crashed their website. (No harm—they got it back up and running in short order). Indeed, this wonky but compelling film is largely a retooling of First Reformed, centered on patriotism instead of faith but arriving through the same basic means at the same basic question: what have “we” done—whether “we” is meant to be Christians or Americans—and how can a disillusioned outsider respond to it? If you know First Reformed, simply swap church with country; swap climate change with war crimes; and swap an evangelical charlatan with an obnoxious douchebag in red, white, and blue who keeps chanting “USA!” Most of all, swap Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light, which provided most of the plot framework for First Reformed, with the Paul Newman pool hall classic The Hustler, which informs the central metaphor and much of the atmosphere for The Card Counter. (Lest you feel too clever for spotting the similarity yourself, a character will reference it directly, along with Steve McQueen in The Cincinnati Kid). Schrader, with his background as a critic and theorist, seems comfortable with one foot in the medium of other people’s films—in openly using them as a foundation or a departure point for his own visual and thematic expressions. His last two movies are as much the work of a pastiche artist as anything by Tarantino. But where Tarantino generally embodies the hipness of a disaffected age, Schrader aims for its opposite: a philosophical earnestness that’s a welcome anachronism in American movies today.

Still, The Card Counter‘s mixture of cinephile objects, existential tropes, and “contemporary” politics is an uneasy synthesis on the screen. And I put “contemporary” in quotes because the film’s political centerpiece—the abuses at Abu Ghraib—arrives at least ten years behind the conversation in our unsettled parade of national shames. Isaac’s card counter had been posted there during the Iraq War, and after the scandal broke, he was sent to prison as a scapegoat for the ranking officer. The plot kicks into gear when he meets a young man (Tye Sheridan) with whom he has a shared connection to the past. After Sheridan proposes that the two of them get revenge, Isaac sets out guide him to a more enduring kind of peace.

If you’re looking for cohesion, you won’t find it on the dramaturgical level. The Tye Sheridan thread is so much less convincing than the Hustler redux that it keeps playing like a detour even though it’s technically the main dish. The dynamics of its revenge plot simply don’t feel natural. Nor does Tiffany Hadish’s against-type performance as a potential love interest. Nor does the logic that ushers in a bloody climax. Nor, in fact, do most of the references to our political present. Topical issues alluded to in the film—not just torture, but the opioid epidemic and the student debt crisis—are so thinly drawn that they don’t evoke a lived experience so much as the dismayed reading of headlines from afar. But while it may be hell on some scenes, I’m not convinced that a degree of removal is necessarily wrong for the film’s identity. Wherever else it places in the cinematic year of 2021, The Card Counter could make a vital element in the study of how unreconstructed New Hollywood provocation has become as much of an old-soul movie as anything Ford or Hawks were making in their autumn years.

So if you take a chance on The Card Counter—and I’d recommend doing so—note what signifies as something more than a screenwriter’s fancy or a film buff’s homage. The quasi-religious desire to give up on anger. The sacred-profane connection between spiritual desolation and carnal release. The reminder that gambling is the eternal metaphor for American life. The decline-of-cinema urge to revisit old classics but add your own twist. And last but certainly not least, the search for emotional notes where austerity might lead into overwhelming color. From its subtler strengths to its thumping symbolism—including a final shot ripped from either Bresson’s Pickpocket or the Sistine Chapel (possibly both)—that commitment is never betrayed, even when it makes you shake your head. Pastiche or not, it doesn’t feel overly familiar or safely hidden behind its influences. On the contrary, when its craft and passion align, it’s almost uncomfortably private.



The Card Counter is in theaters and now available to rent on iTunes. Cheers to the Metrograph for their sneak preview—something is so befitting of the film to feel like you’ve attended an event without even leaving your apartment.


As someone whose day job involves sorting out movie metadata, I consider taking a movie called Suicide Squad and making a direct sequel called The Suicide Squad to be something of a personal broadside. But then, I’m not sure that the use of a definite article in a blockbuster title has ever been so loaded. 2016’s Suicide Squad was panned by critics, widely mocked on the internet, disowned by its director, and made a boatload of cash. Clearly, a bankable idea was in need of a reset. So the “the” can be read as a tweak on canonicity: it’s a way of saying forget that one, here’s this one. It’s also a chance for DC to poach a director who was (temporarily) fired by Marvel over a Twitter PR scandal and give him the freedom of an R-rating. “From the horribly beautiful mind of James Gunn” trumpeted the red-band trailer, promising yucks, bad taste, weirdness, blood—and authorship, at a time when the existence of authorship in these franchises is worth debating.

If much of what’s added by “the horribly beautiful mind of James Gunn” is irreverent banter and gore, I could honestly take or leave both. Gunn’s all-in commitment to banter is a stumbling block as often as a lubricant, and I’ve long since lost enough innocence for incongruent splatter in a family-friendly genre to feel subversive. Besides, the basic schema—wisecracking chaotic-neutral misfits save the day, but don’t sound or act like “serious” heroes—is no longer a rebuke to formula, if it ever was, but a formula of its own. (Gunn has his own hits to pillage from, and he will). So if The Suicide Squad stands out as one of the most satisfying blockbusters to come along this year—and it does—where it deserves praise is not subversion but the fundamentals. This is a tight, cohesive story that grabs the eye, moves fast, builds stakes, has engaging human presences, makes its share of distinct aesthetic choices, and does indeed feel like it’s got an individual consciousness swaying it. More than most Marvel movies, in fact, including Gunn’s. And it may be that his real contribution at the tentpole level is showing that if those fundamentals are in place, the actual specifics have an elastic leeway to be just about anything. Like “The Polka Dot Man”, a DC character Gunn seems drawn to purely because it sounds like such an uncool idea. Or a climactic monster whose visual conceptualization owes less to the state-of-the-art King Kong reboots than an old kaiju matinee quickie.

As it passes through theaters and HBO Max, the film has occasioned two sidenotes. First, that it’s been considered something of a financial disappointment, which is of interest principally because definitions of success are fluid when a $185 million movie can go right to an SVOD service while theaters face a public health crisis.

And second, ink has been spilled over whether the film is a critique of American imperialism, arriving coincidentally just in time for the emotional reckoning of our withdrawal from Afghanistan. That reading is plenty apparent on the surface: an elite military squad is sent by the government to aid in a regime change, only they learn the extent of US wrongdoing, and it all reaches a climactic battle between one soldier who feels betrayed by his country and one who stands by it, right or wrong. But you don’t have to look hard to see paradoxes. You could start with the fact that the film plays a lot of local deaths for laughs. Or that it transparently pulls its punches by having the US intelligence apparatus save the day. Or that in general, “our” interests are central while “theirs” are background. So any political critique it offers is likely to only hold up for a younger audience to whom a challenge of triumphalist narratives is new. Which, if that was the goal, is not to knock the film (at least not too much). Teens all start somewhere. But I’m not sure, in 2021, how many young triumphalists are left.



The Suicide Squad recently finished its run on HBO Max and is still in theaters. Jared Leto died on the way back to his home planet.

Short Cuts: PIG

In 2021, Nicolas Cage is more meme than movie star, and more of either than the serious actor he’s long since proven himself capable of being. So it makes sense that when word of Pig first reached me (via an office chatroom), it was as a kind of bonkers genre film: a thriller with a premise so left-field you had to see it to just understand why it was made. It’s Taken, but with a truffle pig instead of a kidnapped daughter? And a mountain-man Nicolas Cage tracing a path of vengeance? How could you look at the trailer, which climaxes on Cage asking “who has my pig?” with grim determination, and not sense/fear that some virus of internet-savvy irony is being catered to?

Happy news, then, that Pig is a deeply unironic film. Absurd, yes, but unironic—and a welcome reminder of how the two can be combined. Cage’s status as a camp figure in the age of GIFs can be chalked up, by my count, to at least four factors. First, a certain interplay of star power and chameleonism; no matter what wig, beard, or accent he’s under, he signifies primarily as Nicolas Cage. Second, that he projects a kind of natural softness that can be at odds with whatever action hero or hardened badass he’s asked to play. Third, that he’s unafraid of an emotive, even over-the-top commitment to outlandish material. And fourth, that the outlandish material he’s been in for the last two decades (action, horror, thriller, etc.) has tended to not be very serious—and has dovetailed with suitably outlandish tabloid stories (something about IRS problems and a private island?).

Pig, whether by intent or happenstance, either addresses, inverts, or willfully dodges all of the above. Cage plays a reclusive Oregon truffle hunter who, after his beloved pet pig is stolen, must descend into Portland’s restaurant underworld (complete with a fight club) and reckon with his past—a past that turns out to be less the stuff of thrillers than what we might call “the human condition.” It calls on Cage to be understated, and he delivers: even in scenes where every other emotion or situation feels simulated, his commitment to stoic pain is the film’s grounding force. There are even times, amidst all this talk of having once been somebody, of wanting to stay true to your craft, and of coping with an industry that’s changed beyond recognition, where you sense that the filmmakers are thinking of something closer to home than kidnapped pigs.

The result, directed by Michael Sarnoski (in his feature film debut) and co-produced by Cage himself, is a slack but endearing indie. Padded in a few too many contemporary minimalist mannerisms, it’s not much more than a curio of 2021, and I doubt it will still be here in 2022. But its pondering of obsolescence in a cutthroat business finds passages that are both soulful and playful, and it refuses to become a bonkers genre film at precisely the moment when that direction would be most natural. And so it is an oddball exercise in what remains of the star system. It needs an action star so it can avoid being an action movie. It needs a camp figure in order to have gravitas. It needs a known quantity so it can feel random. And most of all, it needs a terrific actor whose brand has strayed from terrific acting. In which case, dropping a stone-faced trailer that’s both perfectly honest and sounds like a put-on is wholly appropriate. It’s practically a movie to let a meme become a man.



Pig is now available to rent on iTunes and Amazon. It’s released by Neon, which is A24 for insomniacs.


In the opening of Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn—a new Romanian comedy every bit as brash, unwieldy, and defiantly outre as its title—a boyfriend filming a sex tape looks down at himself and exclaims, “look how hard I am just from turning the camera on!” It’s certainly a way to throw down the gauntlet; this is a film that earns an NC-17 rating within the first 5 seconds (assuming they even bother to ask the MPAA at all) and then keeps you perpetually on your toes. Subtlety is not on its agenda, but self-reflexivity is. So as the film unfolds, you should note how that off-screen voice’s giddy, mookish, immature joy at getting to whip out a camera and film a taboo is not remotely limited to matters of sex.

The director, Radu Jude, has been busy on the festival circuit, regularly offering sardonic critiques of his native land. (Sample title: I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians). I must confess I have not kept up, but I was a great admirer of his 2015 film Aferim!, for the way it combined the medieval atmosphere of Andrei Rublev with a fantastic eye for absurdist comedy. With Bad Luck Banging, he sets that eye on 2020—warts, coronavirus, and all. The film’s story, to the extent that it has one, is about a teacher (Katia Pascariu) whose life is upended after a sex tape of her gets leaked online. But this cringe comedy’s true object of embarrassment is a society at large, and at its best, Jude captures the heightened temperature of our COVID era like no film so far. The first act can feel up to the minute: people out and about in masks, tensely snapping at one another. It may be the first piece of COVID-era cinema to be worthy of attention, uncomfortable but cathartic even if you’re understandably burnt out by the real thing. From there, the film breaks down into an ersatz Godard video essay that riffs on history, sex, economics, and culture, before arriving at a distended, day-glo kangaroo court that takes a social media trial and manifests it in the flesh.

In short, it doesn’t skimp on ideas. And the best is the metaphor it keeps circling back to: that of a sex tape itself. For if we define “sex tape” as “amateur video of an expression of the id usually kept as a quiet, open secret”, haven’t the last 18 months been offering a kind of collective sex tape on a regular basis? A kind based not in attraction but in loathing? Every iPhone video of a clash at a protest, or a fight on an airplane, or an outburst of racial animus or fascist sympathy is grainy proof, ready to be consumed with morbid fascination, that yes, this is us, we do indeed do this.

It’s a fertile parallel, which makes it disappointing that the film is such an emotionally hollow experience by the end—less a serious inquiry than an underachieving teenage prank. The film won the top prize at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, where every member of the jury was the director of a previous Golden Bear winner themselves. This is not the norm for festival juries, but it does offer an interesting case of filmmakers getting to choose someone to join them in their particular pantheon. And it’s definitely worth considering how they chose a work that, by its own self-description in the opening credits, is less a film than an assemblage of ideas for a film, as if our dismal state of affairs has necessitated a return to Year Zero. Still, I’m not convinced that this particular act of confrontational sarcasm is the way to meet the moment. Bad Luck Banging may indeed point to something essential. It flaunts an exhilarating sense of cinematic freedom, and it tackles topics that deserve the attention of a (metaphorically) horny cameraman. But perhaps because its attitude towards people is so uncharitable, or because it saves its draggiest, least effective setpiece for the end, Jude’s tour-de-force of cynicism breaks its own spell. The longer it goes on, the narrower its perspective seems to be.



Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn opens in America this November. God knows what the state of the world will be by then. But between the Golden Bear for this and the Palme d’Or for Titane, Venice has the chance to make 2021 the most perverse triple crown in festival history.