Capsules: June 2019


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.



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.



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.



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.



Short Cuts: GLASS


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.



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

Capsules: May 2019


Capsules is a monthly diary of older movies either seen for the first time or revisited after many years. This month, avant-garde and difficult films laced with some sweetener.

Wavelength (Michael Snow, 1967)

In the yes-but-is-it-art? game that accompanies avant-garde experiments, the metric of gut reactions from fresh meat is still paramount. I was instantly hooked: a compression/elongation of time with just enough faint traces of narrative material to extrapolate. Is it a story of urban alienation? A more inward psychodrama, in which female space is invaded by a man? Either way, as it transitions from Strawberry Fields to a migraine drone to a photographic escape, it makes you want to guess.



1941 (Steven Spielberg, 1979)

Spielberg’s notorious and underrated misfire can’t even get many laughs from John Belushi, but somewhere between the unmistakeable Spielberg craft and the Animal House idiom lies a mesmerizing idea: the way the inherently juvenile nature of the film’s approach—historical turning point as Mad Magazine tableau—falls into meaningful harmony with a view of America as a land of rowdy, horny, childish, movie-crazed, trigger-happy yokels and toy soldiers. Sarcasm? More like patriotism. “Why we fight” indeed.



The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke, 2001)

Sure, it’s a study of a bourgeoisie that’ll talk Schubert but watch porn, but I usually prefer this sort of Freudian potboiler when it’s pretending to be trash instead of the good taste version of bad taste. That said, the biggest twist is how it reveals its kinks with a tenderness and even a chance for hope. Both of which are dashed, leaving the disturbed confusion of love/sex/intimacy gone wrong when it reels from theory to practice. Isabelle Huppert is enormously moving.



Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008)

As self-reflexive visual metaphors go, a shot of perfectly geometric protest art made from smeared shit sums up Hunger nicely. Steve McQueen’s (12 Years a Slave) acclaimed debut is perhaps the most nauseating film I’ve ever seen, and what he chooses to show and not show speaks to both his vision and limitations as a cinematic thinker. But the film’s jagged structural approach—picking up and dropping characters, switching from wordlessness to eloquence and back—is genuinely provocative. It suggests that a cinema of pain might escape, or at least contextualize, its own myopia.



Les Mistons (Francois Truffaut, 1957)

Reasons to watch this early short? Truffaut completism. Bernadette Lafont on a bicycle. The director dreaming of Renoir and Tati but already developing his own visual energy. Because it’s 18 minutes long and streaming on the Criterion Channel. Because you just watched Steve McQueen’s Hunger and need something to wash it away. Because you were that age once, and this will convince you that you learned more than you did.



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


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 her 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 probably 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 mysterious 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.

Embed from Getty Images

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. 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 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).


Isaach de Bankolé and Cécile Ducasse in Chocolat

But her recollections made taking one’s time as rewarding a path to the directors chair as any hype about young hotshots or festival prodigies. She had begun writing her own script 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.”


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 strictly 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 a turning point in her career, or with the movie as it existed on screen, 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.



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.

Capsules: April 2019 (Nine Palmes Edition)

Screen Shot 2019-03-06 at 12.25.24 AM

Capsules is a monthly diary of older movies either seen for the first time or revisited after many years. This month, in honor of forthcoming Cannes Film Festival hype, goes to nine winners of the top prize.

The Wages of Fear (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953)

Does Clouzot’s international hit of misanthropy and nitroglycerin hold up? It takes far too long and that ending is fatalism at its most unnecessary, but his toxic sense of character still stings. “Pure suspense” nothing—this is a bitter, carefully textured fuck-you to the world of 1953. Its setting isn’t South America so much as a post-WWII purgatory, as different languages and accents mingle in a corporate-controlled desert where everyone wants to escape. Key exchange: “What’s beyond it?” “Nothing.”



Friendly Persuasion (William Wyler, 1956)

A slice of pacifism during the Cold War blacklist, and interesting only in how it slips that into America’s rosy self-image. It’s also mostly boring, and at first I worried that’s because peace itself is boring before I realized that Wyler and company just do shockingly little with the film’s ideas and characters for a two-plus hour film. Comedy was never Wyler’s strong suit, nor Cooper’s. But moments of fraught emotion and rolling charm lie within.



The Knack …and How to Get It (Richard Lester, 1965)

Whether you find Richard Lester’s Swinging London sex comedy deceptively smart or utterly reprehensible will come down to how you interpret its last twenty minutes. To that end, I’d note that a heretofore timid and sheltered heroine asserts control over her own body; that the hero doesn’t get “the knack” for casual hook-ups, but a proper girlfriend instead; that the film’s actual playboy is discarded into the corner with the reactionaries; and that the most erotic contact the hero and heroine make on screen is a final, tender kiss on the cheek as they hold hands. The mania is fine, sure. But I remember the afterglow.



If…. (Lindsay Anderson, 1968)

One year after the spirit of ’68 shut down the festival, Lindsay Anderson showed up with a film that both embodied and examined it. There’s Malcolm McDowell, yes—this is the film that unleashed him into a world of stifling hierarchies and traditions, thus making his screen persona feel like an inevitability. But don’t shortchange the nuances, the hurt, and the tenderness around the entire ensemble. That Anderson sees their violence as somehow both understandable and chillingly psychotic is one reason this “of its time” movie transcends the sixties. That their sense of anarchy methodically infects the storytelling itself is another.



All That Jazz (Bob Fosse, 1979)

Bob Fosse remakes 8 1/2, reclaiming rich-and-famous visually grandiose celebrity navel-gazing in the name of America, where it belongs. The film’s triumph, aside from the style of every shot, is how it can portray show business as so rough and unsentimental yet so seductive at the same time. It’s always a bad sign when the songs in a musical get in the way, but Jessica Lange can be my angel of death.



The Ballad of Narayama (Shohei Imamura, 1983)

The promise of spirituality to transcend the violence and the filth. This was also a great subject of Kenji Mizoguchi’s classics in the 1950s, but Imamura approaches it from a much more godless angle. This is a stunning vision of the world, spasming with brutality and animal urges, certainly dark but ultimately not cheap or hopeless. The combination of beauty and ugliness in the final half hour is masterful—and indeed, transcendent.



Wild at Heart (David Lynch, 1990)

At its core, Wild at Heart smashes different kinds of pop culture iconography together to tell the story of what happens to euphoric puppy love when it runs into the sour, fucked up adult world. On that level, it’s some kind of brilliant. But it’s also Lynch’s most tasteless film, practically offensive or at least tone deaf in what it tries to play or shrug off as camp. Hip newcomers to Lynch can enjoy the source of Nicolas Cage memes—but one thing hip newcomers should learn about Lynch is just how little of his film’s shameless hokum is ironic.



Blue is the Warmest Color (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2013)

Three hours offers a lot of time to succeed or fail, so it’s fair enough that this cause celebre (still attended?) does a bit of both. It has two great leads and moments of mesmerizing beauty. But the second half can’t make its cliches come alive, and while controversies should usually be ignored, it’s impossible to look at the sex scenes and shake the idea that this is a vision of lesbianism made by a straight man to be palatable for straight audiences.



Dheepan (Jacques Audiard, 2015)

I still remember the mixture of confusion and annoyance from critics when Dheepan won a surprise Palme d’Or from the Coen brothers’ jury. And while it’s a functional film, it’s most certainly an ordinary one. Jacques Audiard knows how to point the camera, but Dheepan shows how easy it is for a director (or a festival—any festival) to give in to the most irksome trend of what passes for serious social realism these days: movies that scream “I’m the stuff of life!” but feel like the stuff of fiction.



Capsules: March 2019


Capsules is a monthly diary of older movies either seen for the first time or revisited after many years. This month: Hitchcock, Truffaut, and Visconti at the Aero, Tsai Ming-Liang at home.

The 39 Steps (Alfred Hitchcok, 1935)

Nothing if not a string of wild, glorious implausibilities. But find it in a theater, and any logic-obsessed spoilsport will get drowned out by laughter and gasps. If you want to understand the trick, it’s there in the framing device: we open on an audience handing in their tickets for a show, and close on a line of chorus girls photobombing the secret everyone’s been after. A tribute to escapism in jittery times, as smart and pure as anything in cinema.



Marnie (Alfred Hitchcock, 1964)

Hitchcock’s divisive “sex mystery”. The final psychoanalysis has aged so much that it can be easy to shortchange the thoughtful touches along the way, and if the classical Hollywood style looked old even in the 1960s, it also shows us what we lost. But seeing his most argued-about movie for the first time in its natural habitat (dark room, big screen, full audience), I emerged more conflicted than ever. Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery are mishandled; they’re fine as figurines, but spotty as complex humans, and the sticking point remains that the film sees a need to “cure” her but not him. Still, watching it with a crowd, which laughed at the initial Hitchcock banter and then got stifled after that scene, makes the divisive nature clear. It aims to be a crowdpleaser and an open sewer of its creator’s sexual impulses at the same time.



Mississippi Mermaid (Francois Truffaut, 1969)

When I was 19, I found Truffaut’s own “sex mystery” boring and silly whenever it strayed from its thriller hook. Now, having caught a 35mm print, I think it’s among Truffaut’s richest romances. Is it just a matter of refining taste, of 10-plus years in the dark with Truffaut’s influences? Or does something happen between 19 and 31 to make its arc of intimacy—dangerous, sexy, funny, sad, reflective, sincere, complex—resonate enough to overwhelm any concerns about plot?



Sandra (Luchino Visconti, 1965)

Where is that piano music coming from? Is it just the soundtrack? Is it in its heroine’s head? Or is it coming through the wall, somewhere inside the most secret-filled mansion this side of a horror film? Here, Visconti’s taste for drawing-room melodrama finds one of its most loaded contexts and darkly mesmerizing styles: a family scandal played off Europe’s own sordid history, with old piety and new money built on top of it, and America floating at the edge.



Goodbye, Dragon Inn (Tsai Ming-Liang, 2003)

If you’re satisfied by Tsai’s melancholic arthouse reverie—and you should be—it means that nothing gets cinephiles off quite like movies about how cinema is dying. At an undetermined time of night, in a theater showing a martial arts classic to an audience that’s mysteriously vanishing, the desires of different characters criss-cross. A handicapped ticket-taker tends the eternal flame, a young gay man cruises for sex, the projectionist goes missing, and the aging stars watch themselves. Key line: “This theater is haunted.” What good one isn’t?



Capsules: February 2019


Capsules is a monthly diary of older movies either seen for the first time or revisited after many years. This month: Taiwanese action, later films of old arthouse staples, and goodbye to a Monkee.

Dragon Inn (King Hu, 1967)

An ideal intro to vintage wuxia, from before the age of wires and computer enhancements, when trick editing and choreography could provide all the kinetic energy a sword fight would need. There are a string of minor story hiccups, but in the face of such tautness, such instantly epic widescreen imagery, I couldn’t care less. A grand adventure that, placed alongside its descendants, feels plucky, not bombastic.



Intervista (Federico Fellini, 1987)

Allow that Fellini is solipsistic enough to conceptualize, write, and direct an interview with himself, and there is generosity to be found here. At times, this nesting doll of films-within-films is a victory lap in a half-empty stadium. At its best, it’s a love letter to immersion in cinema so deep that an old filmmaker can lose track of which parts of life he lived, which he saw, and which he made up. Meandering, certainly. But all of this is not baroquely staged but deftly conjured out of thin air—a magic act that was always essential to his appeal, and whose lower budget suits him better than being on top of the world.



The Man Who Loved Women (Francois Truffaut, 1977)

In which Truffaut’s are-women-magic? act reaches peak naval-gaze. Part wish-fulfillment and part self-effacement, this string of romantic and sexual mishaps plays surprising, awkward, even downright mortified games with itself and its subject. The needle it has to thread is showing at least half as much interest in understanding the women as understanding the man. To its credit, it tries—far short of greatness in the attempt, but maybe that’s because “funny” and “interesting” are the best we men can do.



Autumn Sonata (Ingmar Bergman, 1978)

Autumn Sonata is sometimes pitched, in a somewhat gimmicky way, as the collaboration between Bergmans Ingmar and Ingrid, and it helps to have an artist on the level of Bergman (both of them) for a film about the regrets of perfecting your art versus nurturing your life. I do think, however, that a tendency to fall back on monologs over dramatic action holds Ingmar back—it makes emotions feel both overly controlled and arbitrary, as if the character has disappeared and been replaced by a brilliant actor. More intriguing are the slippery cinematic devices, where an unhappy childhood can be instantly evoked in a single frame.



Head (Bob Rafelson, 1968)

Cult value galore! The Monkees frantically searching for reality but never finding it. Jack Nicholson outlining the movie on LSD. The rubble of a fourth wall. Its bad-trip logic can be tiresome, but enough moments work, be they funny, provocative, or totally nightmarish, to register and demand notice. I’m not sure I want to join the cult, but a girl in middle school told me this was her all-time favorite movie, and I definitely should’ve asked her out when I had the chance.

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


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 quickly became a hornet’s nest. If you were the sort of fan upset that Nolan’s Batman movies got left out, 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 were 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 wasn’t about to change your mind.

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:


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.


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.”

The Other Side of the Wind pp

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.


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, made by pop culture junkies and natural born storytellers who shine to the mythic potential of the American frontier. 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

THE ROUND-UP 2018: Virtual Fantasies

As I prepare to call it a day on 2018, the Round-Up is a collection of capsule reviews for films that filled up my notebook but never got a full dive on this blog. I present highlights here—let the lightning round begin.


Ready Player One (Steven Spielberg)

No futuristic dystopia that includes the phrase “corn syrup drought” is blind to its own irony. And somewhere between Spielberg’s characteristically wonder-tinged regard for a brave new world and such cheeky hints of parody, this movie-within-a-video-game-within-a-movie ends up as the most preposterously goofy film of 2018—but one carrying a lot more than goofy films normally do. Its tribute to the “the fans” is to make them the heroic center of all the blockbuster tropes they’ve flocked to, which is both more and less than they (we?) deserve. But video games, even more than blockbusters, face an uphill battle in being seen as personal. So cheers to the heart that Ready Player One looks for and finds in the machine. You have unlocked Mark Rylance.




Sorry to Bother You (Boots Riley)

A sign of the times when surrealism has to try this hard to be freaky; even freakiness demands finesse, and Sorry to Bother You shows self-conscious strain from wanting to be the weirdest damn thing of the year. But I’m prepared to take it as a distinctly regional kind of surrealism: this is an authentic expression of the Bay Area, where freedom is both a gift and a curse, and where conflicting utopian belief systems—counterculture radicalism that’ll never go away, plus the charlatan uber-capitalism of Silicon Valley—have to jostle for space. Whatever its flaws, the plot makes the rambling of a strange man outside a BART station signify with righteous paranoia. These days, it should.




Incredibles 2 (Brad Bird)

If Incredibles 2 is no Incredibles 1, it’s for basic reasons of dramaturgy: a plot that isn’t as suspenseful, jokes that aren’t as funny, and the juggling of two storylines with vastly different levels of urgency. But Brad Bird’s 60s retro-futurism is still immediately distinct, and he gets away with more heady provocation than anyone at Pixar. His sequel mulls over the meaning of superhero-mania in pop culture, not without a certain tinge of critical self-loathing. That it does so while still animating the best superhero action sequences of the year is just one reason that Bird is an all-American crank I’m happy to call our own.




Crazy Rich Asians (John M. Chu)

As hearteningly progressive as wealth porn can get, and about 60% as funny. It makes the explicit, convincing argument that the East is already the new center of glamor and class-conscious fairy tales. And it makes the implicit, more intriguing argument that if you let ethnic outsiders fill every role in a Hollywood film, a gallery of stock rom-com characters—the wacky best friend, the party bro, the gay quipster, the snooty mean girl—constitutes a spectrum of humanity. Fie on it stuffy cinephiles may, but be fair and throw out half the screwball comedies of 1930s Hollywood.




Isle of Dogs (Wes Anderson)

If you’re wondering what a “political Wes Anderson film” would look like, it’s something like this: a genocidal war against dogs by people who prefer cats. And oddly, it kind of works, skating on charm and adventure, being somehow epic and miniaturist at the same time, and coming close to real-world commentary by demanding that when adults have clearly fucked up, it’s time to hand off the world to the young. To the extent that it all resonates, I don’t credit any newfound engagement with the outside world—Anderson’s recent discovery of historical pain is too glib in comparison to the masters he references. It’s more that in the awful year of 2018, even his toyland isn’t safe.




Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (Morgan Neville)

Morgan Neville has made documentaries about pop stars, Gore Vidal, and Orson Welles, and here he makes the case that a Presbyterian in a sweater-vest was just as iconoclastic, rabble-rousing, and status-quo-shaking as any of them. Morgan Neville’s stamp is expanding upon media nostalgia; his style a simple immediacy that touches on more than it explores. That is, the drawback of a film like this is that it shuffles through angles so quickly that you leave certain that the fuller, more interesting story is still out there. But it collates, sometimes beautifully, adult feeling to a world of children’s television too easily regarded as disposable.



Bohemian Rhapsody Rami Malek (Freddie Mercury)

Bohemian Rhapsody (Bryan Singer & Dexter Fletcher)

Artlessly scripted, never more so than when it tries to be artful, and apparently determined to make its non-musical scenes as generic as possible. It’s for the fans, sure, mainly by trying to improve upon concert footage by juicing it with Hollywood production values. If such an endeavor requires meeting kitsch with kitsch, rock on, but it should be emphasized that Queen’s kitsch appeal was never so bland: this is rock stardom Disneyfied. I didn’t know it was even possible to Disney-fy a scene where one man winks at another at a truck stop, which might be a sign of progress—socially if not artistically—until an evil, charisma-free gay svengali seduces Our Hero into PG-13 hedonism meant to shock your great-aunt without driving her out of the theater. Its handling of the AIDS era is a retrograde framework reaching for modern cred, and the film blunders into that minefield simply by wanting to be (what’s that phrase?) lightly likable. So if it’s tame hagiography of something everyone already likes, what’s the harm? Then again, if it’s tame hagiography of something everyone already likes, what’s the point?





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.



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.