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—or, to be more precise, it is robust 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.

✬✬✩✩✩

*****

Short Cuts: THE CARD COUNTER

“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.

Short Cuts: THE SUICIDE SQUAD

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, 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 blockbuster 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 reboot 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, there’s been ink spilled over whether the film is a critique of American imperialism—a critique which, by circumstance, arrived just before the US’s messy withdrawal from Afghanistan and the 20-year emotional reckoning that it entailed. That reading is plenty apparent on the surface: an elite military squad is sent by the government to aid in a coup, 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.

Short Cuts: BAD LUCK BANGING OR LOONY PORN

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.

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. My weekend’s programming were two classics from the tail end of the Depression: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington on Friday, with a return trip on Sunday for Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath.

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

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You can’t fault film history for lacking irony or showmanship. The year and the decade ended exactly as they should have: in an exasperating public debate about the definition of cinema, 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.

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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?

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

Claire Denis’s psychodramatic space odyssey came out early as one of the most provocative movies of the year. Disturbing and emphatically not for everyone, its convergence of beauty and repulsion is some kind of dark ecstasy, and a return of sci-fi to true trippiness.

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8. Atlantics (Mati Diop, Senegal/France)

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

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7. Pain and Glory (Pedro Almodovar, Spain)

Pedro’s second old-soul movie in a row is a winding tale of art and life getting so tangled together that you can’t tell which is imitating which. You’ll be enchanted if you try. A film director, the real people who inspired him, the actors who reinterpret—these are familiar Almodovar 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.

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

Portrait begins with a fiercely self-possessed woman instructing students on how to draw her, and Little Women begins with a publisher insisting that any young heroine needs to be married or dead by the end of the story. In other words, we have two costume dramas that, while drawing what they like from older visual and narrative traditions, tackle a still-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.

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

Neon New York noir from the Safdie brothers—a thematic successor to The Maltese Falcon with the 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.

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2. The Irishman (Martin Scorsese, US)

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

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

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

*****

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

Ad Astra (James Gray, US)

American Factory (Steven Bognar & Julia Reichert, US)

Apollo 11 (Todd Douglas Miller, US)

Ash is Purest White (Jia Zhangke, China)

Bacurau (Kleber Mendonça Filho & Juliano Dornelles, Brazil)

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

High Flying Bird (Steven Soderbergh, US)

Honeyland (Tamara Kotevska & Ljubomir Stefanov, Macedonia)

Joker (Todd Philips, US)

The Kingmaker (Lauren Greenfield, US/Denmark)

Knives Out (Rian Johnson, US)

Marriage Story (Noah Baumbach, US)

The Souvenir (Joanna Hogg, UK)

Synonyms (Nadav Lapid, Israel/France)

Us (Jordan Peele, US)