Short Cuts: BOOKSMART

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Meet the Class of 2019: the same old inarticulate confusions, now mixed in with new technology, careerisms, ideals/pretensions of social consciousness, and shifting gender norms. They can be a bit monstrous, as everyone is at that age where you know less than you think but are well on track to inherit the earth anyway. But that monstrosity is a good starting point: in teen movie terms, the successfully ingratiating new comedy Booksmart adds up to something like the salvation of Tracy Flick. Here, the Overachiever from Hell is reborn as Molly (Beanie Feldstein), a pathologically dedicated student who, along with her best friend Amy (Kaitlyn Dever), decides it’s time for both of them to cut loose and squeeze as much fun as possible out of high school before graduation day. This is not the novelistic accumulation of detail of Lady Bird, or the “let’s get real about right now” cringes of Eighth Grade, but an altogether poppier and simpler tradition: the raucous up-all-night teen comedy. This is also to say that there is absolutely nothing conceptually novel about Booksmart—and that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. Here is a generation that may point out, with fair cause, that the timelessness of American Graffiti is lily-white, that Sixteen Candles is rapey, and that Superbad only gives its raunchy, empathetic close-up to the boys. So why can’t these kids go for an up-all-night comedy of their own?

The director is the actress Olivia Wilde, marking her first feature behind the camera, and the film’s likable, somewhat anonymous energy shows a periodic urge to play: a stop-motion interlude, say, whose weirdness is meant to justify itself, or a rather graceful long take when the emotions call for it, or an underwater sequence in a swimming pool that does more for teen freedom than any property damage. Some of it can feel oddly out of sync, with its plot mischief and its tenderness not quite occupying the same plane. It leans heavily on the heroines’ chemistry: the film takes their charm and runs with it, letting them riff and flow between story points that have varying degrees of imagination.

But the charm is undeniable, and anxious industry reports have sprouted to ask why, despite strong reviews, it didn’t take off at the box office. Pick your poison. Did it need bigger names? Better marketing? Is it simply not raucous or clever enough to break through? Are its teen movie tropes just too dated for our insane, politically charged 2019, no matter have many Gen-Z-isms you throw in? Is it more dire, that the market is drying up for Indiewood crowdpleasers? (J.J. Abrams thinks it might). Or is it something broader—that the very audience the film wants to be about doesn’t care that much about seeing themselves on the screen of a movie theater? Either way, Booksmart‘s problem, artistic and commercial, is falling short of a critical mass of urgency for adding another night to remember to the teen comedy pantheon, even if it shows the right underlying wisdom. Indeed, the film’s misadventures (which include arrests, drug trips, boat parties, and a last minute race to the podium) mostly fade away quickly, as if they were borrowed, used as directed, and now have to be returned. But its loveliest aspect, as well as its most urgent, is a quieter idea that it warmly illustrates well before the big obligatory speech makes it plain: that the people in high school who seem to be on the other side of some invisible barrier, seen or gossiped about more than engaged, are actually pretty nice if you take the chance to know them. I hope the Class of 2020 learns that before too long.

✬✬✬✩✩

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Booksmart is still in theaters. Three years in a row with a worthy, female-driven coming-of-age comedy. Don’t jinx it.

Capsules: June 2019

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Capsules is a monthly diary of older movies either seen for the first time or revisited after many years. This month, crime, crime, Pauline Kael retros, crime, and a museum.

Fargo (Joel & Ethan Coen, 1996)

Thing I wasn’t allowed to do in 1996: see Fargo in theaters. Caught on 35mm in Santa Monica, the Coen brothers’ crossover hit looks more than ever like one of the great American films: a version of the USA where comically exaggerated immorality and comically exaggerated folksiness play tug of war, with Frances McDormand an even brighter spot of virtue in her world than Philip Marlowe was in his. In some small way, she can sway this fucked up, dysfunctional place, not only through her actions but through her very presence. As many ironic laughs as the film has, watch her closely. See what this pair of cynics aren’t ironic about.

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*****

Amores Perros (Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, 2000)

I’ve never been a big admirer of Iñárritu’s pursuit of importance—his capital-T Truth feels too much like capital-M Movie, even if the end-of-youth, something-to-prove mode of his 2000 debut suits him. Oddly, by the mid-point of Amores Perros I thought of Douglas Sirk, and how a soap opera that smuggles in serious statements is more agreeable than a serious statement that pretends it’s not half soap opera. But you have to admire this: the man can sustain visual and narrative energy for two and a half hours straight.

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*****

Russian Ark (Aleksandr Sokurov, 2002)

The 90-minute long take rocked me to sleep in 2002, when this was one of the first “art films” I saw in a theater, so a revisit is in order. The flashy “one-take” movies that have come out since feel like a directorial high-wire act; here, the method is appealingly at one with the dreamlike subject. The technical achievement shows scrappy post-production seams, and I’m ambivalent about its alchemy of unapologetic high-brow aspirations and blunt metaphorical hand-holding. But when it hits a sweet spot of lucidity, abstraction, and Sternberg grandeur, it’s everything it wants to be: a trip through the culture and history of an isolated country, seen by a melancholy artist loyal to it in spite of its flaws—and well aware of how hard it’d be to change course, even if you knew the right direction.

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*****

Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967)

Message to young baby-boomers: break all the rules, look sexy doing it, piss off the establishment, and don’t think too hard about the consequences of your actions. The (ostensibly fun, mainly irritating) glamor-icon bandits begin to flesh out in the homestretch, and it’s the movie’s saving grace: they begin to think and feel their way through, and it’s almost as if these freewheeling/sociopathic upstarts would have become real people if they weren’t offed. Maybe the sensation showed how boomer rebellion would curdle into selfish politics. Or how the filmmakers liked Breathless but didn’t entirely understand it.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)

I always think I don’t really know The Godfather because I only remember the famous scenes. Then I look again—this time at a beautiful print at LACMA—and realize it’s all famous scenes. I doubt it averages 15 minutes without an iconic moment. But to know the film is also to see that it’s as much a piece of popular entertainment as any Hollywood movie. The nuances and intricacies are in the visual craft, the acting, and the number of plots it juggles, not necessarily the ideas. It leaves very little unsaid, and its morality play and social commentary are actually rather uncomplicated—put it alongside a contemporary like Barry Lyndon or Taxi Driver and you’ll see what thoughts can be stirred by allowing more ambiguity. So this godhead of American cinematic art might just be the sum of its parts. But damn, those parts are perfect.

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*****

Short Cuts: GLASS

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You can give M. Night Shyamalan this: when he has something to say, he wants to be damn sure you know it. With Glassthe conclusion of his comic book trilogy begun with Unbreakable and continued in Split, he joins Brad Bird as one of the few directors to earnestly look for metaphors for pop culture’s current superhero obsession. Like Bird, he’s drawn to the idea of individuals at odds with suppressive normalcy. Unlike Bird, he sees this in quasi-New-Age-spiritual rather than cranky-political terms. So where Bird’s two Incredibles films are a pungent, even dangerous balance of cynicism and idealism, Shyamalan does his best to stay starry-eyed.

The comparison, however, doesn’t do favors for Shyamalan. The first issue with Glass is one of showmanship: the film is riddled with jokes that don’t land, suspense teases that don’t hook, and horror stings that don’t horrify. But the very existence of Glass in 2019, while the Marvel Universe climaxes, is fascinating to consider, starting with the fact that anyone expecting a superhero action movie will have to wait. The bulk of the film is spent with Shyamalan’s heroes and villains (Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, James McAvoy) locked in a hospital and forced into therapy, where a psychologist played by Sarah Paulson—misguided? evil? play along—tries to convince them that they’re just ordinary men with delusions of grandeur. When the showdowns do come, they’re often filmed indirectly or restrained by close-ups. The film even teases a big Marvel-scale skyscraper brawl before letting it drop in favor of a tight grapple instead, as if Shyamalan has determined to keep any spectacle as earthy as possible. This may sound like some sort of genre subversion is being attempted, yet the opposite appears to be true. Glass, like no film since the partly lovely, partly insane, mostly awkward Lady in the Water, positions Shyamalan as the guardian of something sacred in these kinds of stories.

At one point in the film, Samuel L. Jackson says that children, unlike adults, have the ability to see the world the way it really is. That philosophy has never exactly been airtight, but it has made for some good films over the years; Spielberg, at his best, has elevated it to lyricism. But the second issue with Glass is that, where the best Spielberg films demonstrate, Glass can only exposit. Its central idea is that we might recognize comic book tropes as a possible truth if only we showed more humility towards the mysteries of the universe, and this is expounded upon until it becomes both academic and illogical. The film is better served by the moments when it does demonstrate—like having two super-villains, in the middle of their escape, subtly conspire to stage the mise-en-scene of a striking shot, purely because the world would be too mundane if they didn’t.

It’s easy to see why any director, particularly one with Shyamalan’s track record, would like the symbolism of where this is heading: heroes and anti-heroes busting out the doors of an institution to turn their aberrations into strengths for all the world to see. For the last 20 years, Shyamalan has operated principally in a blockbuster mode, and the context has made his flaws more apparent and his virtues more complicated to build a consensus around. He stumbles over pre-fab elements that this town is designed to spit out like clockwork. But his films, the good and the bad, feel like 21st century blockbusters beamed in from some alternate world where blockbuster priorities are different. When it works (Unbreakable), it’s exquisite. When it flops, it feels nakedly inept in the way only a sincere artist can be. With Glass, it’s simply ungainly and unsatisfying. But if audiences are indeed still willing to attend and debate this quest, I’d call that a good thing. (For whatever reason, my thoughts on Split are, to my surprise, this blog’s most trafficked post by a wide margin).

So it’s both strange and appropriate that his most anticipated film in years is his equivalent of a great many unsatisfying but more corporately-guarded threequels. Its flaws are not unlike the bloat of The Dark Knight Rises, or Spider-Man 3, or X-Men: The Last Stand: lopsided and misconstructed, at once too short and too long, muddling the tone, losing the earlier sense of discovery, and letting moments that should ring with finality instead land in a puff of exhausting anticlimax. Only for Shyamalan, the overextended maximalism doesn’t manifest in the form of action or plot threads or set-pieces. It manifests in the form of a statement—big, proud, and inarticulate.

✬✬✩✩✩

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Glass is available on home video. Fellow procrastinators, now’s your time to shine.

Them, Not the Film: Claire Denis and CHOCOLAT Introduce Each Other

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Giulia Boschi in Chocolat

Claire Denis deserves her own adjective. It seems like the least we could do, and on a purely self-interested level, it would be helpful to nail down a shorthand for the mixture of tones, perspectives, and slippery structures that define the French director’s work. Her consensus masterpiece, Beau Travail, takes an immersive, otherworldly emotional landscape and then ends on a note that’s completely jarring but somehow immediately perfect. Some might say her style is like Terrence Malick, if Malick were a little less interested in the sacred and a lot more interested in the profane. (Some might say that’d be an improvement). She can be an impressionist, yes, not just between shots and between scenes, but between films. Her work has been tender and it has been transgressive; dragging a friend sight-unseen is a risk if you don’t know your audience. She’s made movies that critical discourse can shoehorn into discussions of genre: thriller (Bastards), horror (Trouble Every Day), or even romantic comedy (last year’s Let the Sunshine In, which I groused about here until I landed in a kind of admiration). But they feel like countries on the same psychic continent.

Her latest release, High Life, is quite a pitch: a Claire Denis dark erotic sci-fi space odyssey starring Robert Pattinson—a mixture of elements to inspire the essential perversion of cinephile curiosity when everything else out there feels so goddamned expected. And it is happily the only excuse the American Cinematheque here in LA needed to mount a weekend retrospective of her work, with Denis in person for two of the screenings. Her appearance at Beau Travail was, alas, sold out before I got to it. But she was also on hand for the Aero’s opening night screening of her 1988 debut Chocolat, which put the then-42-year-old filmmaker on the map after a career as the assistant director for 80s arthouse zeitgeisters like Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch.

Chocolat focuses on a French family in colonial Africa after World War II. Denis had grown up there and then, but though there is a young girl in the family, the story does not belong to her any more than any event ever belongs to a witness. The child (a Denis surrogate?) is a conduit, a filter that presents an “exotic” world as the only one you’ve ever known and makes the stuff of melodrama feel like the stuff of memory. Her white mother (Giulia Boschi) navigates an unspoken attraction with their black manservant (Isaach de Bankolé). Meanwhile, the father is often absent, and after a plane has to make an emergency landing nearby, a group of Western outsiders wander into this strange social ecosystem and bring their own (mis)conceptions of Africa with them.

Like Malick’s debut, BadlandsChocolat is the work of a lyricist whose camera had yet to discover its full mobility. Of the films of hers I’ve seen, it’s among the most conventional. But each glowing composition moves to the next in a gorgeous haze. The narrative alternately offers and withholds, bookended by dreamy flashback transitions that give the story its impact without ever really giving it an ending. The young girl is literally named “France”, and that a film could tip its hand so allegorically and somehow still feel elusive testifies to how much of Denis’ method had already formed. It ends as a deeply complex film about personal and political history that, like her best work, and like life experience itself, presents a variety of contradictions while remaining totally cohesive yet inherently incomplete. “No future and no past” is its climactic line. And then the characters depart, but the camera lingers and finds new subjects. It is all anyone could hope for from a first film—more, even. It is a thing of earned, distinct, and quiet beauty.

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After they settled in on the stage in Santa Monica, the moderator said to Denis, “One of the things I find so remarkable about your movie, considering it’s your first film, is that it has such a wonderful sense of place. I’ve heard the actor Robert Pattinson say that a lot: that what he likes about your movies is that they create these little worlds. Do you feel that way? That even in your first film, what was drawing you to cinema was creating these little worlds?”

“I was not aware at all,” she replied. “It’s good not to be aware of such things. The film exists, but I don’t think it’s interesting to be aware of what it means. Maybe after time, something sort of…” She trailed off, and added, with thirty years of retrospect, “I don’t know if I really know Chocolat.”

Artists can often turn down the chance to analyze their art, and for the matter it’s often preferable, especially if the artist works by intuition. “Don’t be aware of what it means” could be the rallying cry of the instinctive; David Lynch, I’m sure, would co-sign. But Denis’ answer felt more honest than evasive. This was not the impishness of Lynch, or the cranky shield of someone like John Ford. In a strange way, the author’s stated uncertainty—in fact, her uncertainty about her uncertainty—left me feeling on some intuitive level that I knew the film more.

She was, in short, a disarmingly open presence. In her responses, there wasn’t a trace of showmanship, and I mean that as a compliment. That is, I didn’t sense that she was playing to a crowd (though she had one), going for laughs (though she got some), or in general basking in the print-the-legend atmosphere that such events can engender. She was there, simply, to be as candid as possible in a language that wasn’t quite her own. It also seemed that the busy publicity tour for High Life had taken a small toll. She arrived with a nasty cold—”I’m coughing and sneezing, I’m a terrible mess” was the first thing she said on stage—and proceeded to cough through her initial answers until someone in the audience got up and handed her a cough drop, which elicited a very gracious “merci beaucoup!”

The moderator presented her with the honor roll of directors she’d worked for before Chocolat, which included not only Jarmusch and Wenders, but Andrei Tarkovsky. He could have just as easily thrown in Dušan Makavejev, whose dangerous cult classic Sweet Movie was Denis’ first paid gig behind the camera when she was in her 20s. “Working with all those directors was my way of living,” she said. And for a split second, the slightly atilt wording left me wondering whether she meant a professional track or spiritual sustenance before deciding, well, why not both? “I was not sure I would be able to be a director,” she explained. “I wanted to take my time, because I’m slow, and also because I really enjoyed being an assistant director. Totally enjoyed to work for certain directors.”

She then added, quickly and without any audible self-consciousness, “Not with Andrei Tarkovsky…he was really horrible to work with.” (She had done casting on Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, and apparently he had “some cliche about French actresses” that didn’t sit well with her—no elaboration given or asked for).

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Isaach de Bankolé and Cécile Ducasse in Chocolat

But her recollections made taking one’s time as rewarding and inspiring a path to the directors chair as any hype about young hotshots or festival prodigies. Writing her own script had begun when she joined with Wenders and Jarmusch, but Chocolat itself was a long decision in the making:

I thought it was important to me to do my first film in Africa, to pay a tribute to the continent in which I grew up. And it was not easy at that time, at the beginning of the 80s, to finance a first movie, made by a woman, in Africa, because it needed, obviously, trust from the producer but also more money than if I had shot it in a small apartment. So it took me time to find the right person to produce the film.

The core of the film, Denis said, was the family’s servant, because such a figure would have an “oblique look” on French families: a close but repulsive class dynamic that involved access and intimacy, but not an invitation. Isaach de Bankolé had impressed Denis when she saw him on stage in Paris, and he would become a recurring collaborator of both hers and Jarmusch’s. (You can see him in Night on Earth and Ghost Dog—or, for that matter, everywhere from Casino Royale to Black Panther).

His character in Chocolat is largely stoic, and Denis’ insistence on Bankolé confused the producers. For them, “this guy, almost silent, was not the main part,” she said. “They did not understand why I wanted to bring this young man from Paris. They thought it would be so easy to find any guy in Cameroon, you know? And it was hard to explain, ‘no, this is the center of the film.'” It is a wonderful performance, of the sort that Denis’ film needs: communicating much with very little, and showing how any elusiveness on screen can have emotional clarity when tied to the right human presence.

“It was your first feature,” the moderator said. “It was accepted to premiere in the main competition at the Cannes Film Festival. How did that feel? What did that mean to you at that point in your career?”

“Honestly, I was terrified,” Denis replied. “The Cameroonese people who co-produced the film were very happy, so for that, I was happy. But I thought, ‘I’ve made a film, and maybe no more.’ So I was half dead. I fell asleep during the screening.” The audience laughed. “No, it’s true,” she insisted. “I was so afraid, I fell asleep.”

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Isabelle Huppert in White Material

It befit the evening that Denis’ answers occasionally played out as the sort where candor could so lovingly flip presumptions. Critics saw Chocolat as autobiographical—did she relate to it that way? No, she meant it for the Bankolé character and was inspired by a book by a Cameroonese writer. Her 2009 film White Material, which played as the second half of the double bill, was a return to Africa—were the two films connected? No again, at least not for her. The legendary Agnes Varda had recently passed away—had Varda been an influence on her work? “I think no,” but Denis was happy to praise Agnes as a model for how a woman director could enter the industry, maintain her independence, and never stop.

For all the artists and collaborators from her past that Denis was asked about in detail, there was one she brought up of her own accord: Jacques Rivette, a key filmmaker of the New Wave, whom Denis credited with giving her a decisive push forward. After Chocolat, she co-directed a documentary about Rivette, and in Santa Monica she sang his praise again:

He was trusting his instinct. He wanted everyone to work on the script with him. He was sharing a lot. And I never met anyone who was so much in cinema. It was his life, completely…As we were shooting, a million other films were important for him: a film he had seen, a film he was wishing to see—as if his own film were not the main thing. I was completely amazed.

Something of that democratic spirit found an echo in how Denis discussed her own work. It was not in the form of Rivette’s cinephilia; she was the first to admit that she did not arrive at filmmaking through the cinematheque the way that Rivette, the former critic, had. But the aspect of a director’s life that she returned to was that of the communal undertaking and the bonds that form therein.

When asked what she got out of working with Isabelle Huppert in White Material, Denis answered, in a word, “love.” “If I see some clip of White Material, I see the little Isabelle with a pink dress and I am almost in tears,” Denis said. “She was probably the only one apart from the Cameroonese crew who never complained…She was always happy to do everything.” Asked directly how she thought of Chocolat now, her response had nothing to do with the movie as it existed on screen, or with a moment in her career, or with industry war stories that are now old enough to laugh at. Instead, she immediately talked about Chocolat as one might share a photo album:

For me now, I know the little girl in the film. She is a mother, she has children, she’s a veterinarian. Isaach de Bankolé is still a great friend of mine. He is a very important person in my life. Giulia Boschi is no more an actress. She’s teaching Chinese in Italy. It’s because of those actors that the film touched me…When I think of the film, I think of them. Not of the film.

It is, I think, a lovely takeaway from a film, or from a lifetime of filmmaking, and it speaks to the human element that informs even her darkest films. As much as any movie and more than most, Denis’ explorations require fellow travelers: collaborators who will give something of themselves to the camera, something that the film needs, and something that, as Rivette would be the first to say, does not and cannot belong to the director alone. From where Denis was sitting, that aspect of the process may be what matters the most and lasts the longest.

“The relation with a film, it’s strange,” she said. “It’s full of regrets, full of memories…” She paused, either because she was searching for the right word or because here, at this moment, was something she’d prefer to keep to herself. Then, finally: “It’s done.” A way of living, certainly.

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High Life, Claire Denis’ English-language debut, came out in theaters in April and will hit the web in June. Chocolat is only on disc and currently not available on any major streaming platform. Too much gets left behind.

Next Door to Prestige 2: A Year in Search of a Center

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It was the stuff P.R. disasters are made of: a move that was intended to accommodate everybody and ended up pleasing no one. That about sums up the Academy’s decision, back in August, to announce a new “Best Popular Film” category. The internet became a hornet’s nest. If you were the sort of fan upset that Nolan’s Batman movies got shut out from top honors, creating a new category looked condescending. If you didn’t care for blockbusters, it looked like a vulgar concession. If you knew Oscar history, it looked absurdly unnecessary (JawsStar WarsE.T., and Avatar were all nominated). And if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t care about the Oscars at all until they start recognizing Claire Denis and Tsai Ming-Liang, the transparent, ratings-hungry desperation made your eyes roll even harder.

The decision was reversed following a public outcry, but more followed. Kevin Hart was set to host—withdrawn, due to ugly Tweets. The Academy said it would cut down on the broadcast of some of the awards to save time—withdrawn, due to backlash from the film community. (Though IndieWire has admirably compiled an oral history of how that decision wasn’t exactly what we all thought it was). The corker was that the new “Best Popular Film” category was yanked before they even announced what, exactly, a “popular film” is—never mind that the definition of “a popular film” (hell, of “a film” in general) is increasingly worth debating.

The Oscars are in no small part about symbolism, and I’ve gone back and forth about how much that symbolism should mean, especially since the Academy follows rather than leads. The 2015 #OscarsSoWhite controversy drew attention to the very real uphill battle of ethnic minorities and women filmmakers to get their due in Hollywood. If the numbers had gone a different way, and Ava DuVernay and her cast had gotten nominated for Selma—surely no less deserving than, say, The Imitation Game—it’s impossible to imagine the same firestorm. But would their nominations have actually fixed anything? Would it have just been optics? Or, for this annual pomp-and-circumstance of What Our Movies Mean, are optics enough?

It’s fair to say that anyone who thinks the Oscars matter, or wants them to, has an Oscars of their own. Should it be more populist? More cinephiliac? More youth-oriented? More inclusive? The Academy has one foot in advertising, one foot in inside baseball, and one foot in aesthetic judgment, which is already more feet than a person can handle. Early in 2018, when The Shape of Water was the frontrunner, Bill Maher’s panel on Real Time took a moment to tweak the Academy’s choices. “The movies are not what America is watching,” said Maher. Conservative pundit Erick Erickson nodded along, pointing to the snub for The Dark Knight and adding, “What Hollywood thinks are the greatest movies—they’re not what my family goes to see.” And the sense I get is that, rather than telling them to fuck off back to their respective media outlets, the Academy takes such criticism very seriously.

So given that the Oscars are symbolic, and that the nature of its symbolism is fleeting, hyperbolic, and overdetermined, I still can’t think of a more evocative symbol for Hollywood cinema in 2018 than the Academy’s string of controversies: the old-school tribute to What Our Movies Mean cycling awkwardly through ideas to try and keep people from going away. The Oscars are Hollywood P.R., that much has always been true—but it’s hard to do P.R. when it’s uncertain what you should be doing P.R. for.

This was a weak year for movies, people keep telling me. And you should take that with a grain of salt because a) anecdotal evidence means little, b) my sample size is small, and c) people in Hollywood tell me that almost every year. Is it true? I don’t think so, no—2018 was just a year when you had to keep your ear to the ground to find your cinema. It offered a wealth of worthy titles, especially for international films and documentaries, which are where some of the snubs sting the most. American movies were no slouch, but for what it’s worth, eight of my top ten of 2017 were English-language American productions or co-productions. For 2018, that number is four—one of which is the completion of a much older movie, and two of which were released by Netflix.

Indeed, 2018 should go down as the year when Netflix truly came of age as a studio, even if there’s still a major question mark over what it can be. There’s Roma, yes, but don’t miss that Cuaron’s sensation—getting flattened by hype, as all good Oscar contenders are—is just one of at least a half dozen worthy films that went straight from prestigious festivals to your TV. Many reliable prognosticators are predicting Roma for Best Picture, which would be historic on two major counts. It would be the first time a streaming service has won Best Picture, which is something I’d assumed would happen eventually. And it would be the first time that Best Picture has ever gone to a foreign language film, which is something I’d assumed would never happen at all. Even a Best Director win, which looks like more of a lock, would be unprecedented—but then, precedent isn’t exciting people in the LA bubble as much as it has before. So with no regrets about spending 2018 at the movies, and as someone who thinks the Oscars can/should matter (if not in the way they intend to), I look forward to tuning in Sunday night—intrigued by how we just might have year so messy that a safe bet can be placed on something that has never happened before.

My 10 favorite films of 2018:

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10. Happy as Lazzaro (Alice Rohrwacher, Italy)

During the opening of Alice Rohrwacher’s dreamy new film, you may find yourself wondering what year it is. Hang onto that thought. The fantasy that unfurls from there is like a tour through a half-century of Italian history—and Italian cinema—with the eternal Holy Fool at its center and both magic and realism impinging around the edges. Its ending is simultaneously too direct and too metaphorical to suit me, but that’s a small quibble in the face of a pilgrimage with such entrancing textures and compelling ideas. It won Best Screenplay at Cannes and was picked up by Netflix. Sadly, they never gave it much of an offline push. Happily, it’s available to watch right now.

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9. Zama (Lucrecia Martel, Argentina)

Like Herzog filtered through the eye of Jacques Tati, Martel delivers an absurdist historical portrait of “the new world”, full of tart, frustrated irony. Is it about colonization? An emasculated warrior? The lives of men and women? The values of an invented country? Yes, yes, yes, and yes—and its sense of politics and adventurism builds to a line that a freshly “conquered” continent deserves: “I do for you what no one did for me. I say no to your hopes.”

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8. The Other Side of the Wind (Orson Welles, US)

The unlikely repertory event of the year: the restoration of a notoriously unfinished film, released by a streaming service that isn’t exactly known for cinephilia, and arriving with the hype of a filmmaker who has a greater stature in death than anyone could possibly have among the living. There is a lot to unpack from this kamikaze film, and its accessibility to any cineaste with an internet connection can speed up years of debate on what is, at first glance, impenetrable editing chaos. It’s a work of acidic contempt for movies and the whole frenzy that surrounds them: the money, the fans, the myths, the endless doomed attempts to stay relevant. But “contemptuous” is not the same as “unfeeling”, and this mockumentary’s paranoid number of cameras snap plenty of pure, honest emotions—which is part of its warning. Its arrival is like the Hollywood ghosts of bygone eras rattling their chains at you.

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7. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Joel & Ethan Coen, US)

What starts out looking like one of the Coen brothers’ most pointless films turns out to be among their most purposeful: a Death-and-the-West compendium from pop culture junkies and natural born storytellers who shine to the mythic potential of the American heartland. Stick with it. It expands and enriches as it goes along, adding soul, casting doubt on fatalism, combining philosophy with cheek, and making clear at the end that, for the Coens, the thrill was always in the telling.

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6. BlacKkKlansman (Spike Lee, US)

Aside from a comedy, a thriller, and the best script Lee has had in years, this is something else: a movie about movies, from the open racism of Birth of a Nation to the Confederate nostalgia of Gone with the Wind to the rumblings of blaxploitation. If you take it as a straight comedy/thriller, it’s solid if imperfect. As a pastiche of politics, pop culture, and varying degrees of (un)reality, it achieves a lucid agitation about the pleasures that movies offer and the pitfalls in trusting them too much. Funny, frightening, and rousing, willing to bait controversy and deserve it. No American film of the year is as worth debating.

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5. Dead Souls (Wang Bing, China)

Of our major documentarians, Wang Bing is the most uninterested in hooking you with technique. No montages, no music, no reenactments, no stunts, no jazzy editing, just a dedication to testimony that’s as pure and potent as anything in cinema today. For a filmmaker so intent on bearing witness to political sins, Wang comes off not as a firebrand, but simply as a humanist, which is radical enough on its own. This one is heavy lifting: at eight hours, it was the longest film to ever play Cannes, and I spent much of it fearing that Wang was using an extreme duration for sheer volume rather than scope. But his method is to create form out of formlessness, and the interviews he saves for last make it hurt even more. It played at the Hammer Museum in LA for one illuminating, emotionally draining day, and will be more widely available soon (I hope) however eight-hour documentaries are.

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4. Shoplifters (Hirokazu Kore-Eda, Japan)

This comedy-drama about a family of petty criminals struck a chord in Japan (where it outgrossed Infinity War) and with the Cannes jury (who gave it the top prize) before landing in the States as a hot ticket at the arthouse. Kore-Eda wouldn’t make a film with just one idea, but the spirit of Shoplifters is closest to the jocular father figure, who seems aware of every human shame and hardship and is willing to forgive it all. It’s beautifully drawn, warm in its view of people but critical of their circumstance. It makes you wonder how long outlaw humanism can last without betraying itself. And it’s determined to find a way to forgive it anyway.

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3. The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos, UK/US)

Lanthimos hits Oscar gold by finding the juicy spot between familiar prestige and batshit insanity. But what’s most surprising about the film is that, beneath the viciousness and gleeful obscenity, lies a tenderly felt sympathy for the pains of female competition. Colman is the heart and soul of both a satire and a love story. No comedy or drama of 2018 has a sadder final act—you yearn for them to all be happy together.

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2. Burning (Lee Chang-Dong, South Korea)

In a way, it would be a shame to let any review of Burning say anything about the plot: better to let the viewer start the film, with the camera tailing the main character, and then follow along wherever it goes in terms of texture, theme, and even genre. Lee’s mournful, literally incendiary thriller about a lost generation is rich in unsettled mystery, but lucid and impassioned in its view of a system that can swallow people up and leave no trace.

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1. Roma (Alfonso Cuaron, Mexico)

Cuaron’s use of the long take continues to conjure a world spreading out in all directions, and it allows the simplest of plots—an unwanted pregnancy, an imploding marriage—to find a social and personal context with fragments of lives criss-crossing through the frame. The festival awards, the hype, the cinephiles lining up early outside the Nuart, the Oscar nods, the backlash, the backlash to the backlash—personally, I’ve been waiting for something like this for a decade. A streaming service has produced the year’s best film, and in doing so has proved how much we still need theaters.

Short Cuts: SHOPLIFTERS

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In the opening scene of Hirokazu Kore-Eda’s Shoplifters, a father and son commit the titular crime. They move quickly through a grocery market, mindful of lines of sight, slipping food quietly into a backpack and leaving without paying. In the next scene, the father stops to buy croquettes for himself and the boy—a spontaneous and lawful treat, spending what little money they have to celebrate nothing in particular. And there you have the duality that drives them: a mixture of generous spirit and disregard for social ethics. After all, the father might ask, how bad is a theft if its net impact is more good than harm? It’s thorny logic already, and it will become even thornier when, before long, they “shoplift” something altogether larger: a child.

She is a young girl, barely old enough to go to school, who has run away from an abusive home. They spot her huddling in the cold, and feeling that she’d be better off with them, they decide not to return her to her parents. What they can offer is a spot in a loving but particularly makeshift family. Crammed together in poverty, their exact genetic relations (or lack thereof) are teased out subtly, and any titles—father, son, sister, mother, grandmother—are unofficial enough to deserve asterisks.

But they get by, skimming extra money in ways that range from disreputable to illegal, all of which the film greets with a beautiful warmth, humor, and charity. The mother steals from her job at a laundry. The grandma grifts pension checks and lies to her wealthier relatives. The college-age sister performs at a peep show, where Kore-Eda is characteristically non-judgmental to both the women who work there and the men who pay them. And the son teaches his new “little sister” the art and science of petty larceny, even if he’s getting old enough to start to Figure Things Out for himself. This is a family’s worth of character arcs, but the film may be most closely defined by the endlessly cheerful father figure: a small, humble, even childish man who seems doggedly aware of every human weakness and shame and has determined to assuage them all. By the time they all have a lovely reverie on the beach, you might wonder how long such outlaw humanism can possibly last. How long before it contradicts or even betrays itself?

When they have to break a window to commit their next crime, even a single pane of shattered glass feels jarringly like a breach of their code. Twists, conflicts, and revelations tumble out from there, muddying the plot, which isn’t a good thing, but complicating the humanism, which is—especially since the film’s idealistic sympathy remains steadfast, even as its instability is exposed. Back home in Japan, the film has been a hit and a controversy. Over here, Kore-Eda’s patience alone would throw him into the arthouse corner, never mind the subtitles. But a lot of what he has to say (about the importance of family, the supremacy of love over blood ties, the lessons that children can teach adults) would be perfectly suited to anything made by Hollywood. What makes it delicate is the nature of his storytelling style, the way he doesn’t insist upon action so much as let the characters take root and then steadily grow into it. There are threads in Shoplifters that arise and resolve with the directness of a Dickensian melodrama, and others whose ideas float unanswered. The final shot returns to the girl, who by the end is in a more uncertain place than ever. It is a graceful coda. It resolves nothing at all. But its placement, and tentative calm, open the film to how much lies ahead.

✬✬✬✬✬

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Shoplifters won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and is up for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards this weekend. You can rent it now on iTunes.

Capsules: January 2019

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Capsules is a monthly diary of older movies either seen for the time or revisited after many years.

Husbands (John Cassavetes, 1970)

Husbands announces itself as “A Comedy About Life, Death and Freedom”, and “Comedy” may actually be the most ambitious word in there, as it’s a term that Cassavetes could only ever use loosely. This one’s more an absurdist drama, where the unruly excess of his characters—either the stuff of life or the stuff of acting workshops—is necessary for the moments where pure, crystalline, vulnerable emotional truth rises up out of it. A potent look at men who emasculate themselves just by clinging desperately to manliness. It sets out to feel like the days and nights you’re ashamed of. It succeeds.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

Boxcar Bertha (Martin Scorsese, 1972)

This Corman-produced hothouse gangster flick is considered Scorsese’s nadir, and rightly so. (According to history/lore, Cassavetes turned to Scorsese and politely told him he’d spent a year of his life making “a piece of shit”, prompting young Marty to regroup). The script is thin and porous, and there are only trace amounts of Scorsese’s flair with editing and camerawork—at least before the germ gets loose in the red-bloody-Catholic finale. Until then, it’s drifting actors, indifferent grindhouse luridness, wonky plotting, and home movie staging. But its mediocrity should be inspiring, both for directors and those who follow them. After all, the next stop was Mean Streets.

✬✬✩✩✩

*****

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Hayao Miyazaki, 1984)

Miyazaki’s manga-turned-movie is by any standard—in suspense, intrigue, world-building, visual design—a top-notch action sci-fi movie in a decade full of them. If you come at it from a reverse Totoro, you may miss the Wonderland/Narnia effect he can get by leaving one foot in reality. But the construction of Nausicaä makes a strong case for Miyazaki as one of better epic filmmakers of his era: lean, grand, purposeful, imaginative, with his eco-pacifist morality feeling somehow both idealistic and worldly.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

Made in U.S.A. (Jean-Luc Godard, 1966)

Godard’s kiss-off to making “fun” movies is, ironically, one of his most inviting, maybe because it goes full looney, or because it makes no less sense than a normal noir, or because Godard’s typically dense set of allusions is so very American. This is Godard trying to reconcile our country’s best absurdities (his favorite B-movies) with our worst, creating an immediate, accessible, and pleasurable pinpoint of the exact moment he fully swapped genre for radical politics. And Anna Karina, watching as tears go by, makes a wonderfully animated plucky detective.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

Contempt (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963)

Third time’s the charm, I guess. After being unmoved twice in film school—first finding it an impenetrable object, second a po-mo intellectual stunt—catching Contempt in a theater ten years later finally did it. How close can a cinephile get to their dream world without killing their muse? Suppose they took the muse for granted? Suppose the muse didn’t want to be a muse, but had her own desires in life? There are multitudes here, possibly the best film about selling out, drawn from big themes and little games so private that it helps to have basked in Godard (and his own cinephile heroes) to feel it. And “feel” is the operative word.

✬✬✬✬✬

*****

Baraka (Ron Fricke, 1992)

I’ve heard some viewers watch this ambitious, eye-popping documentary and feel at one with the universe. I can report no such awakening, except to emerge with renewed appreciation for grand cinematic undertakings and the power of the image. A lot of its cosmic metaphors are elementary, though that doesn’t make them untrue. My main hang-up is that I’m not sure how I feel about turning real individuals into symbolic props. But between the scale and the CinemaScope frame, this is its own kind of epic cinema, where the sets and synchronized crowds are provided by the world itself. For movie buffs, an astounding trip and a lucid tone poem—even for those who find that term uninviting.

✬✬✬✬✩

*****

Short Cuts: ROMA

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Alfonso Cuarón loves the long take, and it’s fair to say the long take loves him back. What excites in his use of tracking shots isn’t that he merely shows off—looking at you, Iñárritu—but that the motion and the action conjure up a larger world beyond the edges of the frame. The Mexico of Y Tu Mamá También and the future dystopia of Children of Men spread out in all directions—it’s all the camera can do to gulp in as much as possible, and for the script to try and keep up. Then, of course, there is Gravity, Cuarón’s trip to outer space, where “all directions” has an altogether more alarming meaning. It was also boxed in by his narrowest, stiffest sense of narrative and character. Whether you loved Gravity as a technical achievement or hated it as a collection of lousy monologs, you were right.

With Roma, he’s come back down to earth, dialing down the pyrotechnics but maintaining the expansiveness for his most ambitious and glorious film yet. There is story in Roma: a year in the life of Cleo, a Mexico City maid; the imploding marriage of her employer; an unwanted pregnancy where the father bolts. But there are hardly enough plot points to fill 135 minutes on their own, and a solid half hour goes by before anything like dramatic conflict. What we have instead are an accumulation of incidents and sensations that place its most basic of stories into a series of social, personal, political, and vaguely mystical contexts. Roma has set-pieces—a forest fire breaks out, dissidents riot in the street. Yet its eye is just as informed by the way that, say, the contents of a drawer or the leftover glasses on a table are worthy of a CinemaScope composition.

“It oozes with life!” the heroine of Y Tu Mamá También cried, providing her movie with its mission statement. Roma oozes with life too, only no longer from the point of view of wired juveniles but from a more somber place of memory. The frenetic tracking shot has been replaced with a slow pan; the camera absorbs the action while being seemingly indifferent to the speed of the people in front of it. Planes forever fly overhead, reminding you of an outside world that the heroine, whose economic status keeps her a supporting player in so much of her own life, may never get to explore. The film closes, perfectly, with Cleo’s best friend approaching her and excitedly saying “I have so much to tell you.” As the two disappear together, we don’t know what needed to be told, or why it was so urgent. But the world of the film continues, even as the film ends.

Here on prime display is the sort of storytelling that makes film distinct from other arts; adapting even Roma‘s most incidental moments to prose would require a hell of a writer. Inevitably, all this talk of style and drama-through-immersion arrives at one of the film’s main fascinations: namely, that it’s released by Netflix, despite being slow, reliant on atmosphere, and essentially not what online binge-views are made of. Just from the opening credits alone—a hushed, three-minute Tarkovsky ape to set the pace—I wondered how easy it would be for a curious audience to start fidgeting in a living room full of distractions. But the prestige has also given Netflix cause for their biggest theatrical push. Find it on the big screen, and the visuals and especially the sound design create a flow of hypnotic environments. The festival awards, the hype, the cinephiles lining up early outside the Nuart, the Oscar nods, the backlash, the backlash to the backlash, the (worthwhile) debate over bourgeois politics—personally, I’ve been waiting for something like this to happen for a decade. A streaming service has produced one of the buzziest cinematic events of the year. And in the process, they’ve proved how much we still need theaters.

✬✬✬✬✬

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Roma is now streaming on Netflix and playing in select cinemas.

Short Cuts: THE FAVOURITE

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Over Thanksgiving, The Favourite arrived in American theaters with the strongest box office premiere of any limited release of 2018, and it’s been off to the races to since then. It comes as no surprise that Yorgos Lanthimos’s new film hit the ground running for awards season; I hadn’t seen it yet, but had been at the theater when the trailer played for an Oscar-inclined audience, and you could feel the responsiveness every time. On the one hand, you had the sort of British period piece with familiar appeal but typically too safe to muster any urgency. On the other, you had the sense that a necessary germ of madness had been introduced, infecting the 18th century court with comic perversity and chilly danger—hence the delicious pitch of Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone as two cathartically devious aristocrats competing for the favo(u)r of Olivia Colman as a cathartically unhinged queen.

By the time its release expanded over Christmas, I got a text from my aunt asking me about the film, because she and her sisters had gone to see it and had found it “a bit odd.” This struck me as notable for two reasons: first, because calling a Lanthimos film “a bit odd” initially seemed like the polite understatement of the year; and second, because my extended family was texting me about the disturbing director of Dogtooth and The Killing of a Sacred Deer in the first place. But then, hasn’t Lanthimos been a clever courtier himself, leaping to greater opportunities, big stars, and the red meat of the English-language market? I know poor souls who even watched The Lobster with their parents, having no idea what they were getting into. So maybe “a bit odd” isn’t an understatement after all. We’re in surreal territory by any sensible standard, but by Lanthimos’s, this is among his tamest and most appealingly open films—a calculation that means something artistically as well as financially. If it’s struck gold, it did so by finding a juicy sweet spot between traditional prestige and total insanity, and then mining it exquisitely.

The film’s schema for weirdness isn’t terribly complicated: dialogue as cleverly refined as the next battle of wits, only punctuated with the word “cunt”, plus wide-angle lenses that make the 1700s pop with spastic alien energy. What elevates it is that, intertwined with all the comedic viciousness, lies an empathy for the world of female competition—and on that count, Weisz, Stone, and Colman deserve to be credited as coauthors. Colman especially: she is the heart and soul of both its satire and its longing, the seat of power and somehow the least glamorous role.

Men are there, of course: secondary comforts at best, total brutes at worst, and most often resources, obstacles, or mosquitos with erections. But the women carry their own public and private faces and their own means of moving up and down the hierarchy. Naturally, they have their own taboos to indulge as well—this is a homoerotic love story, and indeed it’s hard to imagine any other type of love being as pure within the world of the film. Even before it becomes explicit, Weisz’s domineering hold over Colman clearly has a tangle of affection mixed in. As for Stone, she’s the long-suffering interloper, experienced with the mercilessness of the bottom rung and more than ready to play her hand when forced. We don’t have to fight anymore, she says triumphantly to Weisz near the end, and it registers as a peculiarly honest, brazenly optimistic, and even vulnerable sentiment, particularly given what came before. Weisz, for reasons no one could blame, rejects it, setting the stage for perhaps the saddest final act of any drama in 2018.

The Favourite‘s most valuable perversity, then, is one of its most unexpected: its tenderness. The film’s schematic pleasures would be hollow without it, or else end up in the corner with films whose contrary nature and ruthless cleverness far exceed their substance. But tenderness exists in the film, and it is expressed, exploited, guarded, and ultimately snuffed in an unnerving finale that grinds up dynamics of the heart in the dynamics of power—which is what these sorts of stories generally aspire to in the first place. All this is based on real-life figures; I’m not sure how much of it comes from solid historiography, and more to the point, I’m not sure the filmmakers care. It could just as easily be set in a past dreamt up by Lubitsch or Sternberg (to pick two telling examples), and its humor, provocations, observations, betrayals, and pains would mean precisely the same. As the three leading ladies navigate Lanthimos’s own dreamt up past, rightly confident that a germ of madness can beat sanity at its own game, the most lasting impression is as classical as tragedy gets: you yearn, in vain, for some way they could have a happy ending.

✬✬✬✬✬

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The Favourite is in select theaters now. I will, emphatically, not be going around recommending Dogtooth at the next reunion.

Short Cuts: COLD WAR

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In 2015, back when he won the Best Foreign Film Oscar for Ida, Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski played chicken with the Academy orchestra. He was at the microphone for his acceptance speech for less than sixty seconds when they started to play him off—but, full of good spirit, he spoke over the music and kept on thanking. The orchestra music climbed higher and higher until it had nowhere else to go. With an audible sense of confusion, the musicians stopped playing completely. The audience laughed. The Academy’s bluff had been called. Pawlikowski finished his thank you’s, saving his family for last, and made a triumphant exit.

Having seen his new film, Cold War, that acceptance speech is still my favorite thing he’s done.

While Ida was (and is) celebrated, I remained a tepid non-fan. I chalked up its success with the Academy to it fitting the platonic ideal of what too many people think an “art film” is—a platonic ideal that’s 50 years old by now, and that Ida didn’t transcend. It had a stately topic and looked beautiful, but what it had to say felt undistinguished, and its choice to frame every lovely image off-center was more an affectation than a meaningful style.

Cold War, which won the Best Director prize at Cannes and opened in the US this month, continues with most of the same virtues and vices, even though it is the more interesting film. It tells a love story criss-crossing the Iron Curtain, as two Polish musicians (Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot) move back and forth between the East and the West during the Stalin era. In the Soviet bloc, they’re subject to censorship and violent bureaucratic insanity. Abroad, they are dislocated. He feels unsatisfied with his lower place on the cultural ladder. She chafes at being seen as exotic by condescending Westerners. And so they search for some place and some way to be happy together. The film drops in and out of their lives, jumping ahead years between scenes, with each point in space and time marked by a different style of musical performance.

It is a fine structural conceit, but the result is curiously arid. She is the woman of my life, the hero insists, though the film captures neither the expression of passion nor the pain of it being held in. The two lovers argue, split, and embrace in the streets, but they register less as desperately emotional beings and more like models in a high-end, glossy black-and-white magazine ad. (An ad for what? Maybe cologne, or perfume, or a fashion line—in high-end ads, they don’t even have to show the product). Part of this thinness may have to do with length. Cold War aims to span decades and phases of life in under 90 minutes. And while master impressionists can and have flipped through time with both historical acumen and emotional pain, Pawlikowski’s execution feels like holes of causality have been punched out. Just to be strict but fair, I set it alongside other Cannes-feted, critically-raved films that cover similar thematic ground, like The Double Life of Veronique and Nostalghia—and Cold War looks all the more cursory and prosaic by comparison.

This is not, however, to say that Cold War is entirely unrewarding for arthouse hangers-on, but rather that its rewards almost entirely skim the surface: a resonant historical setting, immediate melodrama, literal metaphors, and pictorial beauty. The main exception is Joanna Kulig’s wonderful performance itself. She dredges up what’s unspoken in her character, and only a fool could deny a moment as exquisite as Kulig’s lonely, jaded heroine whipping her hair to rockabilly to try and squeeze every bit of consolation out of freedom that she can. But now that Cold War is short-listed for another Best Foreign Film Oscar, I can’t help but wonder why such definitions of “cinematic art” can’t be richer or more daring. And why movies about the trauma of the past arrive here with hype that smells vaguely like nostalgia.

✬✬✬✩✩

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Cold War is open in select arthouses, with more to come. In case you’re curious about that Oscar speech, here it is.