All posts by Brady Larsen

Top 20 Films of 2017: #11- Dawson City: Frozen Time

Dawson City: Frozen Time is a documentary that packs in a lot of raw information, and I would say that conservatively 95% of that information is conveyed through informational title cards. It’s the kind of screen text that you see used at the beginning and end of historical films or used sparingly in your typical documentary. But in Bill Morrison’s hushed, poetic look at the history of a tiny Alaskan town established during the Yukon Gold Rush, informational title cards run throughout the entire two-hour duration. This technique is just one of many unusual facets in what is the most unique documentary fllm to come out in years. The first title card scarcely prepares us for the many directions this singular film will take, but it could well be the film’s mantra. It reads, “Film was born of an explosive.” What follows is a brief account of how the early, extremely combustible nitrate film was developed using gun cotton, the same ingredient used in warheads. Title cards tell us that the only element separating nitrate film from a weaponized explosive device was camphor. As a result, the early days of cinema were often marked by fiery disaster, as film prints could and often would burst into flames at a moment’s notice. One of the earliest film screenings burned down Paris’ Bazar de la Charite and claimed 126 lives. “Film was born of an explosive.” It’s an enigmatic way to open a film about a remote former gold mining town, but Film happens to be where this documentary’s journey begins and ends. Before Dawson City traverses dreamily through the closing decade of the 19th century and the first seven decades of the 1900s, it picks up in 1979. In the small Alaskan tourist town of Dawson, a local pastor and alderman was using a backhoe to assist in a construction project. He was clearing rubble from the site where the town’s athletics facility once stood in order to make way for a new recreation center. Among the debris, he found hundreds of canisters of old nitrate films that had been buried beneath a former swimming pool and hockey rink. These films had survived for decades underground, sealed in a layer of permafrost. Dedicated archivists and curators came to Dawson City and discovered a massive supply of 1900s film reels just sitting there in the cold dirt. They included many lost silent films, old newsreels, and even footage of the infamously thrown Black Sox World Series of 1919. What unfolds in Dawson City: Frozen Time is not only the history of a tiny town between 1893 and 1979, but also a hypnotic vision of American history and early cinematic history, interweaving with each other and almost entirely underscored by a visual collage of moving images from those 533 rescued nitrate films. For as many films as were rescued, however, the greater point is how many more thousands of nitrate films have been lost through the years; to decay, to water damage, and especially to fire, for fire is a relentless, recurring character in Dawson City. Film was born of an explosive. It’s a fact that paints Film itself as a kind of mischievous willing accomplice in its own destruction. From the very start, it was in the nature of Film to go up in flames. To put it another way, Film is an unstable element. Much as we human beings may try to make a record of the past, the materials we use to make that record, be they celluloid, paper, or canvas, are always falling apart. Or, in the case of early nitrate films, exploding into giant, raging infernos. At the heart of Bill Morrison’s passionate, wistful, operatically nostalgic documentary is an elegiac ode to the futility of trying to hold on to the past. It is about the Sisyphean struggle to corral and preserve the past, through Art and through our efforts to group a teeming multitude of divergent stories into some clean form that we can call History.

Dawson City: Frozen Time is the story of how a remote town in Alaska’s Yukon Territory came, though sheer happy accident, to house and shelter a vast, lost library of old films. As a town on the edge of the Alaskan and Canadian wildernesses, Dawson had the fortune or misfortune to be the very last stop on the line of movie distribution, back when studios would send film prints through the country one town at a time. Once those films reached Dawson City, the studios opted just to let them stay there in forgotten exile, unwilling to shoulder the cost of having them shipped back to Los Angeles. The old films began to fill up the basement of Dawson City’s library and the town’s civic leaders were at a loss for what to do with them. Some were floated down the Yukon river and dumped into the frigid waters. Others burned up in various fires that struck the town’s theatres. And a lucky 533 films were buried as landfill under the lot where the town’s amateur athletics building once stood. The unceremonious burial and eventual rescue of those nitrate films is the documentary’s basic genesis and catalyst, but the film soon bursts from that spark into a much more expansive and detailed story. It is frankly too detailed a story to fully tell in this review, but the essence of Dawson City is how Dawson was established when gold was discovered there in 1896, spent a few years as the epicenter of the Yukon Gold Rush, fizzled out a bit when its fortune-seeking population moved on to other claims, and eventually settled in as a small but profitable mining town and site of historical interest. During its boomtown heyday, Dawson City became a vibrant tributary for thousands of travelers, many of whom would go on to become notable successes in business and in the world of art and entertainment. Jack London would base his novels on the experience of traveling to Dawson. Years before becoming a titan of Hollywood, a young Sid Grauman (who would build the famous Grauman’s Chinese Theater) sold copies of Seattle newspapers in this frigid, isolated place. Charlie Chaplin was among the group of travelers to Dawson, and he would later base one of his most famous films, The Gold Rush, on his time in the Yukon. Years before they would find fame and riches, film directors, tycoons, and future cinema stars were all here, milling about together in the snowy wilds of Alaska. We even learn that Donald Trump’s family fortune got started when his grandfather set out for Dawson City and set up a successful brothel somewhere along the way. Dawson City: Frozen Time is the story of a tiny frontier town and its overlapping destiny with film history, entertainment history, and American history. Dawson City became known as much for its theatres, casinos, and dancehalls as its gold claims, as many made their fortunes simply by catering to the needs of the town’s prospectors. One man made thousands just by buying a single newspaper and charging crowds to hear news of the Spanish-American War. This makes Dawson City something of an early tidepool for America’s penchant for entertainment. As the dawn of Film arrives, Dawson City becomes a wider story of early 20th century American history. Dawson’s residents came to rely on the stream of movies and newsreels to connect them with a country that was rapidly changing, fighting labor disputes, building fantastic machines, going to war with Germany, and throwing baseball games. The films brought visions of science, exotic places, and explosions of technology to the frozen Yukon wilderness. One beautifully edited montage of rescued footage starts with a group of people racing, then introduces horses, and crescendos into an ecstatic torrent of automobiles, steamships, blimps, and aeroplanes. Dawson City is about History’s rushing rivers and smaller creeks intersecting and diverging. We see footage of large social movements and we follow the smaller events occurring in this little town. The infamous Wall Street bombing happens and Dawson City gets a new library. Bill Morrison’s wondrous, stirring film is about a tiny, snowy town that once saw a river of historical events and persons course through it, went back to being a humble little dot on the map, and eventually made history again for unwittingly preserving an important chunk of the past. The film is about the erratic river of History and the strange, fateful turns that it takes. It is also a film about Film; about how Film is at once a record of time, a product of its particular time, and is at the mercy of Time’s relentless forward motion. Dawson City: Frozen Time is such a unique documentary experience that words will almost certainly fail me. It is simply the most dreamlike time I had viewing a film all year. From the near total absence of human voices, to the alternatingly sweet and sadly plaintive tones of Alex Somers’ delicately powerful score, to the brilliant way Morrison uses archival photos and footage from the preserved films to act as a kind of silent visual narrator, Dawson City is the rare documentary that works on a hypnotic, almost subconscious level. It oscillates between feeling serene and quietly unsettling, and it becomes a strange, mesmerizing hymn to History and memory. It is a lovely lullaby to the past and also a soft dirge for what stays buried there. It looks through the tiny keyhole of a Yukon town and catches glimpses of things as enormous as the birth of modern America and the infancy of Cinema. It feels eternal, yet is chiefly about how very little lasts.

In trying to paint a portrait of modern American history through a dizzy swirl of facts and disparate cinematic snippets, Dawson City says something resonant about the complexity of trying to piece together a narrative. The story of who we are, as a country, as residents of a town, or just as people living in a particular time is a hazy mirage, and what the smoky reverie of a film like Dawson City implies is that no one person’s take on a story is definitive. One of my favorite sequences takes place at the opening of the film. Before we even see our first title card, we get an excerpt of Bill Morrison presenting the discovered footage on High Heat, a baseball-related television program hosted by popular sports broadcaster, Chris “Mad Dog” Russo. Russo, in his excitable, high-pitched New York accent, is gushing about the found footage of the 1917 through 1919 World Series games. And of course he would be, as that footage is a huge historical find for any sports history buff and Russo is the host of a show about baseball. But I think this scene is also an early clue to how we try to grapple with the steering wheel of narrative. Dawson City becomes a movie about the Yukon Gold Rush and Dawson and early 20th century American history and the birth of cinema. But before it becomes any of those things, it appears for a brief moment that this will be a film about the early days of baseball. And a film well could have been made just about the Black Sox footage. The point is that even the simplest of stories, such as the seemingly small tale of some film canisters found in an old Yukon town’s abandoned lot, can be chock full of new narrative directions. Every anecdote, no matter how straightforward, may point the way toward a hundred different anecdotes if we keep following the strand. Every story’s beginning is a river ready to break off into a dizzying number of tributaries. Dawson City toys with this idea again early on, when we learn of the Han-speaking people who used to live on the land and their leader, Chief Isaac. Chief Isaac is one of the first historical personages we meet and his introduction is a feint toward a direction that the film very consciously does not opt to take. Soon after, gold dust is found in Dawson and Chief Isaac and his people are forced off of their land. They are shuffled five miles downriver and fully out of the lens of what had been, for thousands of years leading up this point, their story. Our understanding of the past is thwarted by the erosion of knowledge on one side and by a paradoxical overabundance of knowledge on the other. History is constantly decaying and there is also simply too much to take in. There are so many voices that we absent-mindedly forget to record or callously choose to ignore. And to transition clumsily from marginalized perspectives back to the Great American Pastime, something of History’s erratic, fickle nature can be seen in a segment showing the three World Series. In 1917, a dominant and ascendant Chicago White Sox team won the World Series behind the talent of their beloved superstar “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. In 1917, the White Sox were a celebrated championship team and that was the story. The next year, the White Sox only made it to 6th place because Joe Jackson was serving at a shipyard in World War I. In 1918, the White Sox were a fallen giant, brought back to Earth by the capricious hand of War. The following year saw Joe Jackson return from service and the mighty 1917 White Sox roster was reunited. Baseball fans giddily prepared themselves for a heroic redemption arc. In October of that year, the White Sox would throw the World Series. In 1919, eight White Sox players, including Joe Jackson, would be found guilty of accepting bribes and would be permanently barred from ever playing the game again. From anointed heroes to World War I-era underdogs to reascendant icons to disgraces. History has a course all its own and we can little see where it will be even a year later. There is simply no telling when the river will veer from its present course and leave our tenuous understanding of where it was heading forever altered.

 

While there is a substantial amount of historical newsreel footage in Dawson City: Frozen Time, the most consistent visual accompaniment is its tapestry of scenes from early 1900s silent films. Working from the idea that factual narratives are not always as straightforwardly trustworthy as they appear, Morrison frees himself to find a great deal of truth in cinematic fiction. It would not be an exaggeration to say that his film relies as much on fictional images to tell the story as on real ones. When the film relates Dawson’s early days as a haven for gamblers, we see a staccato montage of roulette players, card cheats, and blackjack dealers, all pulled from the rescued silent movies. When the film comes to the point where the old films are buried in a landfill, quite possibly never to be seen again, we see old film shots of doleful, despondent, and concerned faces. I think what Dawson City is subtly saying is that our attempts to corral History will inevitably fall short, but we can actually find a lot of truth about ourselves in the fantasies we create. In some ways, our fictional art may hold just as much objective truth as our newsreels and photographs because people put so much of their inner selves into them. Even when we are looking at staged, melodramatic scenes that don’t directly match what is happening in the factual narrative, those images have an honest kind of subjectivity to them. Films reflect our feelings back at us. They spotlight our fundamental desires and zero in on our most visceral fears. Dawson City weaves the real history of this gold mining town together with moments from the films that played there to create a vibrant, kaleidoscopic version of reality. Silent stars throw doors open in rapid succession. Scenes of love ebb into scenes of jealousy and anger. At one point, when silent films first come to Dawson, a series of eager, fictitious audiences gaze back at the viewer. The human need to take things in, in the name of entertainment or in the name of trying to make sense of the world, is so universal that we even put audiences in our movies to watch us watch them. The juxtapositions in Dawson City: Frozen Time are striking, moving and feel all the more honest for their exuberant silent film theatricality. Facts are more fragmented and enigmatic than we like to admit and the grand fabrications of popular art have golden nuggets of pure truth hidden inside of them.

 

But, for all the ideas flowing through Dawson City, it is most intoxicating as a sonic and visual achievement. It is vibrantly intelligent and rich in ideas, but nothing compares to the powerful pull of its emotional current. It is rare to have a documentary that feels this lusciously, elementally sensory, and the overall sensation of seeing it is one that I cannot put into words. It’s the way Bill Morrison presents the facts, events, and personages of this sprawling story and lays them on top of a fascinating bed of film imagery, without any talking head explaining their significance or how they relate to one another. It’s the way the fictional and the factual work off of one another, sometimes in perfect harmony and sometimes in ambiguous tension. It’s the gentle, steady heartbeat of Alex Somers’ wondrously effective score. It’s the narrative motifs that emerge. Populations ebb and flow like the tides. Historical figures emerge, disappear, and then suddenly pop back up to make their mark on history. Some of the people we meet become icons and others are only vital within the smaller story of Dawson City. In a narrative where Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, and Jack London all make appearances, the most important player in this film is probably just a town bank manager, who thought to bury some old film canisters under an abandoned hockey rink and unwittingly ended up preserving a big piece of history. It’s the way all these stories swirl around each other like wisps of smoke. It’s the way the film binds itself to the elements. Images of people, both fictional and real, trekking through the high drifts of snow. It’s fire after fire, as we hear of the many warehouses full of films that have went up in flames over the years. We learn that Dawson itself burned down once a year for the first nine years of its existence. It’s the unflagging fire that has devoured so much fragile human history and, in the case of those 533 films, it’s the ice and earth that preserved a small piece of it. And what emerges from all this sound and imagery is an impressionistic painting of what History itself might look like. Smoldering and water-logged and crackly and slipping away into beautiful, melancholy, discordant entropy. Bill Morrison could have simply made a documentary about film preservation or the Yukon Gold Rush or America in the early 20th century or even baseball, but what he has made instead is a nonsummative masterwork of the non-fiction form. It is a documentary as much about sensing History as it is about learning it. In making a film about how History is too elusive to see with undiminished clarity and too massive to take in all at once, Morrison has also crafted the perfect frosted glass aesthetic for that thesis. What may have started out as a small story about unlikely film preservation in a tiny Yukon tourist town ends up becoming an ocean in a teacup. In peering through a small window in American history, Dawson City manages to become a movie about humanity’s entire vain, gorgeously doomed attempt to rage against the finiteness of things. It is a film about a specific pocket of time but the struggle at its heart is timeless.

 

That struggle is mainly the attempt to gain some clearer understanding about ourselves and the world we live in. That is something that we look to Art to help us do, whether it is a non-fiction book giving us greater clarity into a chapter of History or a great film helping us glimpse something fundamentally true in the human soul. And, to be clear, I do not believe Dawson City: Frozen Time is roundly dismissing the act of parsing our collective past or saying that it is entirely futile. Any film that renders History in such a thoughtful, visually rich way must have some deep affection for the value of learning about what came before us. But this documentary does remind us that every golden nugget of time is an elusive, multi-faceted thing. The idea is not that humanity can never have any understanding of where it has been or where it is going, but that we would do well to remember that knowledge is a dense, refracting crystal. The truth of things can shift tantalizingly based on what corner of it we hold up to the light. It is not that there is no Truth, but that the nature of Truth is so brilliantly confounding that the process of looking over it is essentially never finished. Film was literally born of an explosive, but Dawson City sees History, Memory, Literature, and Art as being similarly prone to turbulence. All of knowledge is an incendiary, unstable element. Meaning can shift dramatically based on how we look at things and also depending on who is doing the looking. If there is a lesson to be taken, I believe it is that we should welcome a multitude of perspectives and that we should never fool ourselves into thinking we are done learning. But beyond any lesson, I think Dawson City is just reminding us that this is the way things are. To be alive is to both know things and also have that knowledge continually challenged and disrupted. The best thing you can do is to find some beauty in being mystified. If you don’t find yourself frequently confused, bewildered and awestruck, you probably aren’t doing it right.

Top 20 Films of 2017: #12- The Big Sick

The Big Sick is not a Judd Apatow film in the strictest sense. The film’s director is Michael Showalter, a writer, director and performer who came up on the 90’s sketch show The State (MTV’s very funny answer to Kids In the Hall), helped form the well-regarded Stella comedy trio, and has now directed a few features, including the creatively premised but middling romantic comedy The Baxter and 2015’s mildly well-reviewed Sally Fields dramedy Hello My Name Is Doris. The film’s credited screenwriters are two married comedians, Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley) and Emily V. Gordon (a comedy writer and pop culture podcaster), and the story itself is an account of the early days of their relationship. The Big Sick is only an Apatow in the sense that Apatow acted as a mentor when Gordon and Nanjiani were fine-tuning the script and his production company, Apatow Productions, provided the financing. But, while Judd Apatow is probably not even the fourth person I would credit The Big Sick to, I am going to have to begin my review by talking about Judd Apatow. The reason for that is that The Big Sick fits so snugly into the wheelhouse of what the best Apatow films do well. At the risk of coming off like some kind of stunted, nerdy bro, The 40 Year-Old Virgin was a formative comedy experience for me. For context, I was 23 years old and there are few things more quintessentially Apatowian (Apatovian?) than having a formative experience at a stoner sexy comedy when you are old enough to have a spouse and a full-time job. But in all seriousness, the bracing mixture of human warmth and bawdy comedy moved me then and still does. When I was a teenager, the sex comedy was most visibly represented by the mean-spirited hijinks of the American Pie franchise and the copycats it inspired. These movies ostensibly had protagonists that we were mean to root for, but the aim always seemed more to see them go through a gauntlet of dumb humiliations. And I don’t want to be too harsh on dumb comedy here, because I can watch a good Farrelly Brothers (a good one, mind you) any day of the week. But I always felt that the American Pie’s of the world were just had petty, cheap, cruel little souls. For all that Jim was the hero of American Pie, I never felt like his own film liked him all that much. Even as an awkward, sexually inexperienced teenager myself, I could not imagine actually identifying with Jim or wanting the best for him. The film’s sneering sense of mockery seemed to discourage anything resembling empathy. Having grown up with those films in the mainstream, The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Superbad were like fresh oxygen to this sensitive, humanism-loving movie buff. And now that maybe a little bit of the bloom has fallen from the Apatow rose and we’ve weathered our first patch of Seth Rogen fatigue, I have to defend what films like The 40 Year-Old Virgin meant, and still mean, to me. The idea that uproarious, profane, sexually frank films can be sweet and driven by empathy is a notion worth holding on to. That you can even have a character experience a funny bit of humiliation and still laugh with them because the character is given dignity, intelligence, and an awareness of their own ridiculous situations. Whatever quarrels one might have with the Apatow comedies, I maintain that they are comedies that genuinely like humankind and that matters tremendously to me. It means a lot to me as someone who just likes to see kind, relatable human beings in films. It also means a lot to me as someone who values sex-positivity, because having bawdy sex comedies with generous spirits allows us to laugh about sex in a way that is honest and curious rather than just crass. Most of all, I am in love with any film that can be both uproariously funny about the foibles and misunderstandings of human coupling and still genuinely want the best for those people.

 

All of that is to say, while giving credit to Showalter and especially Gordon and Nanjiani, that The Big Sick is the best kind of Apatow film. It not only hits comedic highs that are worthy of comparison with the funniest moments of Knocked Up and Superbad, but also manages to hit dramatic depths that are deeper than any of its Apatow predecessors have reached. The Big Sick is the true story of the courtship of Emily Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani, who met in 2006 at a Chicago standup comedy club where Nanjiani was performing a five-minute set. Gordon (who was completing her Masters to become a therapist at the time) shouts a supportive “woohoo!”, which gives Nanjiani an excuse to approach her at the bar under the guise of correcting her. He explains that heckles are heckles, even when done with positive intent, and the two are soon engaged in deep conversation about their plans and aspirations. They eventually go back to Kumail’s place to have sex and ignore Night of the Living Dead and they end the night intending to not get too serious. However, after proposing not to see each other again too soon, the two quickly fall into a pattern of spending every waking moment together, and before long they are in love. Before long, however, their relationship has to withstand two potentially catastrophic obstacles. First, Najiani has serious trepidations about telling his strict Pakistani parents (played very well by Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff), who insist he marry within a Pakistani woman like his brother Naveed (Adeel Akhtar in a funny and subdued performance). His mother is particularly insistent, regularly inviting young Pakistani women to “drop by” during family meals so they can meet Kumail and give him their photographs. This leads to disaster when Emily discovers the photographs and consequently learns the even more hurtful fact that Kumail has been hiding their relationship from his parents. As a result, Kumail and Emily end up having a very turbulent breakup and Kumail is resigned to the fact that he will probably never see Emily again. The second obstacle comes shortly thereafter when Kumail receives a call from one of Emily’s grad school classmates alerting him that Emily has come down with what appears to be a very nasty case of influenza and has been placed in the emergency room. Kumail arrives to check on her, only expecting to stay until a friend or family member can take his place. As fate would have it, he ends up being the only person present when the doctors come to a sobering discovery. Emily’s flu has turned into something far more serious, a mysterious infection in her lungs, and she will have to be put into a medically induced coma until they can figure out her ailment. One of Emily’s physicians urges Kumail to say that he is her husband so that they can sign off on the procedure before it is too late. Kumail agrees to sign off, calls Emily’s parents, Terry and Beth, to tell them the news, and then stays until they arrive. When he awakes to find them standing by Emily’s bedside, it is immediately clear that they know this is the young man who broke their daughter’s heart. As Kumail introduces himself, Beth (Holly Hunter, in a performance that juggles fiery anguish, caustic wit, and maternal warmth) tells him tersely, “We know who you are, Kumail.”. Nonetheless, Kumail stays with the Gordons long enough to learn more about Emily’s prognosis, until the genially awkward Terry (a hilarious, utterly revelatory performance by Ray Romano) makes it clear that he can go. Kumail initially does leave, but comes back moved by the feelings he still has for Emily and gripped by a desire to atone for the hurt his dishonesty and cowardice caused. So, after starting as a lovely, sweet, and eventually heartbreaking story of romance found and lost, The Big Sick becomes a different kind of relationship story: the nuanced, overwhelmingly poignant story of a man almost losing his new love to death and going through a harrowing experience with her parents. As that is happening, Kumail is trying to find the strength to come clean with his stern, traditional family about his aspirations to pursue a career in comedy and the fact that he is in love with a white woman. I could say more about the plot, but The Big Sick really is about getting to know these characters (none of them less than very well-acted) and being overwhelmed by the depths of its deeply felt humor and humanity. As with all the great Apatow films, the secret sauce here is a kind of improvised, non-programmatic direction. Scenes don’t simply perform their function and end, but malinger a bit to let the moments and characters breathe. I have personally always liked this loose, shaggy quality , but I do not begrudge anyone who feels the Apatow films could benefit from a bit more economy. That said, if you found Knocked Up too meandering, you will at least be pleased to find that The Big Sick is almost certainly the most focused film to have the Apatow name attached to it, all thanks to its doozy of a central concept. Having an actual matter of life and death at the center of this kind of comedy has a galvanizing effect on the usual loose-limbed, gangly humor. The pathos makes the film feel urgent and immediate even in its most hilariously digressive moments, and the frequent laughs come like sweet, cool breezes of relief in the face of the anxiety and dread that the main characters are coping with. And because this is clearly a film more driven by its plot and its jokes than by anything you could call thematically heady (a Judd Apatow essay film is something we will all just have to keep waiting for), I must proclaim that The Big Sick really is just a terrific story. It has the kind of joyful, unfussy plot that has the good sense not to get in its own way.

Then again, I just wouldn’t be true to my nature if I didn’t point out a theme or two, and The Big Sick wouldn’t be such an unexpectedly moving addition to the romantic comedy genre if it didn’t have some real thoughts on its mind. One way that The Big Sick adds even more resonance to an already powerful plot is by seamlessly folding in one of the most moving, well-observed looks at the experience of being an immigrant in America. Kumail’s identity as the son of Pakistani parents has a tremendous impact on the plot of the film, while also being intrinsically valuable as a lovingly candid window into his culture. Apatow himself has said that he, Nanjiani, Gordon, and Showalter all felt a lot of good would come just from the simple act of placing a Pakistani immigrant family on screen and just letting them be funny and human. The Big Sick touches on what it means to be Middle Eastern in our current American climate, and if it is not a searing indictment of xenophobia, it achieves something powerful just by allowing Kumail Nanjiani (a terrifically funny and gently disarming comedic presence) to tell a story with great, fully developed Pakistani-American characters. It is quite positive enough just to give voice and a moving narrative to a culture we do not often see on screens. But as with everything else in The Big Sick, the moving and the funny are very much in sync. The most heartening fact to me is that we now have a splendid comedy where Pakistani culture plays a pivotal role. The benefit of making a blissfully funny comedy about an underseen culture is that great comedy has a unique capacity to knock down irrational phobias and ignorance. Nanjiani’s approach, both as a comedian and now a screenwriter, is to use his humbe, self-effacing, and gently mocking comedic voice to simultaneously zero in on the peculiarities of his cultural back ground and to brush away the mystery and misconceptions surrounding it. I am happy for any film that gives us a view into another culture’s customs and unique social mores, but I am especially glad that this year gave me the chance to learn about a marginalized culture through a comedy this consistently side-splitting and humane. Once you have laughed, not simply at but with characters from a different culture, it becomes all the more difficult to think of them in an otherized way. As with so many Apatowian comedies, I left The Big Sick having gotten to know a whole host of relatable, fallible, spontaneous, funny people, but this time four of those people were lovingly drawn, well-observed characters of Pakistani descent and I cannot overstate the value of that basic act of representation. When it was over, I felt I knew an entire family of idiosyncratic, prickly, unique individuals with distinct personalities and aspirations. And even if you happen to be one of those filmgoers who think that the Apatow comedies meander and spend too much time just hanging out, I hope you will forgive that indulgence in this one case. Holywood invites people like the Najianis to just hang out much too rarely.

 

The Big Sick is not only an observant look at a Pakistani family, but something of a sweet love letter to family in general. One of my favorite things about the narrative structure of this film is how it spends well over running time not on the dating between the two main characters, but on the interactions between Kumail and Emily’s parents. In a way, one could argue the main romance of the film really is the one that develops between Kumail and the new family he realizes, almost too late, that he wants to be a part of. The interplay between Nanjiani, Hunter, and Romano is a subtle master class of humor, tension, worried fatigue, and guarded hope, all butting up beautifully against one another. While Emily is conscious, Kumail is constantly balking at the prospect of meeting Emily’s parents, worried that he will then have to reveal her to his own family. And you can chalk this up to the fact that it really happened, but it adds a poignant dimension to the film that he ended up finally meeting them in this peculiar way, in these harrowing circumstances. So The Big Sick really is two romances: a sweet love story between a man and a woman and an entirely different kind of love story between that same man and his paramour’s family. It is about coming to love someone more through learning about the people who raised them. And while The Big Sick is too light on its feet to belabor or underline this point, the wide shadow of parents and family is a consistent emotional motif. The film becomes a beautiful meditation on the conflicting emotions that family brings out. The need to love our parents, repay their sacrifice, and also find a way to define ourselves outside of them. And what makes The Big Sick such a smartly plotted film is how the interactions with Emily’s parents, which Kumail conceals from his own family, give him insights in how to think about and interact with his own mother and father. It is through spending time with Beth and Terry that Kumail starts to see his parents with more dimension than he once did. During a night of bonding. as Kumail and Emily’s parents fight off their dread with bottles of wine, Beth explains to him how her North Carolina family hated her now-husband for many years. Kumail doesn’t tell Beth his fear that his own mother will disown him over loving Emily, but he asks her how she got over that familial obstacle. How did she make it work? “Lots of fucked up dinners,” she replies in that perfectly tart, winningly direct Holly Hunter way. This conversation plants the seed of Kumail’s growing courage to own up to his love for Emily. It stokes the grit to rebel against his parents. But the same conversation also makes him reflect on his love for them. As Beth talks about how she and Terry fell in love, Kumail realizes that he never found out what movie his mother and father saw on their first date. It was a question he had somehow never thought to ask them. Kumail starts out nervous and afraid of the Gordons; first fearful to meet them and then ashamed for hurting their daughter. But the lovely arc of the film is his decision to summon some trace amount of courage and stay with them through the ordeal; to own up to the hurt he caused Emily but to also assert himself. In finding the will to speak plainly to the Gordons and to also listen to them, he learns something valuable about parents. They are not crutches to depend on, nor tyrants to grovel before, nor ogres to be feared. Parents are just people and, even when they don’t see eye to eye with you, the right thing to do is to love them, listen to them, and also be yourself. To proceed stalwartly on your own journey, while also having empathy and curiosity for where their journeys have taken them.

And if there’s a third message to be gleaned in this delightfully funny film, I think it’s just about basic courage. And honesty. And standing up for one’s choices. If you group all those ideals together, I think what you end up with is that word so beloved by my late grandfather: gumption. It could scarcely be an Apatowian comedy, if a character didn’t have to stare down his growing pains and make the hard, fruitful decision to grow and change into their own version of an adult. And when I look at this wooly, lovable dramedy through the lens of gumption, it does start to attain its own shaggy kind of thematic coherence. Moving to a new country or a new city, committing to our first serious relationship and forming new bonds with our loved one’s loved ones, and redrawing old boundaries with the people who have known us all our lives. They all require self-determination, self-belief, and the summoning of our will power. They are what you need if you want to build a new life, and I really do think The Big Sick is about the first steps people take toward building a new life for themselves. To do so, we must make ourselves understand and believe that the pains of changing will be outweighed by the rewards to come. And if growth, change, maturity, and committing to a new course are all common tropes in the Apatow canon, I am not sure they have ever felt so thoughtfully reflected in every atom of the narrative as they have here. I must reiterate that The Big Sick is a consistently hilarious comedy before it is any kind of rigorous examination of stasis and transformation. But when I was done laughing until my sides hurt, what kept me warm for days afterwards was recalling how many kind-spirited, generous, and honest lessons this film offers about doing the right thing.

 

What I love most about The Big Sick probably just comes down to how lovely its tone is. Michael Showalter is not a director of any remarkable pyrotechnic skill. There is nothing remotely flashy in the film’s approach, and if I were judging on direction and editing alone, The Big Sick would not be anywhere near this high on my year-end list. But while it may lack anything formally impressive, The Big Sick is a film with a rather wonderful, understated sense of tone. It is the kind of tone that can have you feeling genuine pangs of sadness and concern for a character at the same time that you are audibly howling at the world’s best 9/11 joke. And for as much as I try to celebrate films that push the needle forward visually, sonically, and ideologically, there are also films that achieve their power through an invisible emotional undercurrent. When you get a film that can combine a wide gamut of emotions and make that blend feel seamless and intuitive, that is something special. To me, it is a skill every bit as worthy of praise as capturing a difficult shot or editing together a perfectly propulsive montage. I turned off The Big Sick with the deepest affection for all of its characters. I had experienced elation, dread, and sorrow. I had learned about a different culture and thought about the bonds of family. I had felt rich laughter rippling around uneasy knots in my stomach. And to me that is a magic trick all the more satisfying confounding for not being easy to visually identify. Like the very best films I saw this year, The Big Sick served me an impeccably mixed cocktail of humor, pathos, cultural insight, and conflict. It was a sweet beverage with subtle bitter notes and it sent me tripping back into the world with a damp, happy face. I stood in the warm, fading sunlight, buzzed, giddy, and ready to fall in love with humanity all over again.

Top 20 Films of 2017: #13- Mudbound

I will start by begging preemptive forgiveness for anything awkward, inelegant, or, God forbid, downright problematic that I might write in this review. As I have said before, in fractious times such as these, I pray for films that stare down injustice, thrust oppressed perspectives into the foreground, and force us to engage with how we can do better by our fellow human beings. And I pray for such films for the very same reason that I often tremble at reviewing them. What often makes films like those brilliant is their ability to shine a floodlight on the comfortable status quo, and the comfortable status quo is certainly what I am. If I am watching a film with righteous power and scathing social insights, there is a very good chance that my own failings are right there in the crosshairs, staring back at me like shifty rodents. My privileged background, my protected skin color, my roundly accepted sexual orientation, and my own complicit cowardice. And if a film like Mudbound were not already eloquent enough at exposing the daily benefits I enjoy, then writing a review of this honest, ravishingly poetic portrait of America’s racial divide will surely finish me off. Allow me to strike the first blow against myself by presenting an inherently problematic idea. Art can be a Trojan Horse for just, humane ideas. It was a thought I remember having when I watched Ryan Coogler’s Creed a few years back. The immensely talented young black filmmaker set out to make the latest entry in the Rocky franchise and, as far as I’m concerned, gave the series its clear best film. I sat and watched the film with an enthralled, mostly white crowd in Danville, California, close to where I grew up. And, to be fair, I had no idea what any of the audience’s thoughts on race were, or their views on any particular social movement, or whether they considered racism to be a pressing modern day crisis. But I thought of Roger Ebert’s theory on movies as empathy machines and I watched a crowd of happy, enthusiastic, damp Caucasian faces leave the theater thoroughly moved by the story of a young black man coming to grips with his familial history and finding a reason to be proud of himself. And, please pardon my cynicism, but I do not think that even a quarter of those people would have been there to meet Adonis Creed and have that positive movie experience if the film was not part of a famous, popular boxing franchise. The Trojan Horse of a rousing, well-reviewed sports movie had smuggled in a sweet, frank, observant black coming-of-age story and slipped it under the guard of people who have likely not shown up just to see a young African-American man learning discipline and self-love as he becomes an adult in a new city. And now I am literally blushing with embarrassment for what I have just suggested. Because I know in my soul that this Trojan Horse theory is (and there is no better word) a fucked-up notion. Black narratives deserve to be told, and not just the ones that are charming and life-affirming, and certainly not just the ones that are agreeably packaged. It goes without saying that we should not need to sneak ideas about the dignity and self-worth of African-Americans in to the mainstream under the disguise of film tropes that are more traditional, palatable, or generally popular. But, with all that said, the bones of old standbys and reliably well-liked genres are there for any filmmaker who wants to use them. To sneak insights and new perspectives past our privileged guards. To get around our blinders and reinvigorate our empathy. To fool us into engaging with our better angels, the same way you might fool an infant into eating its peas. And it’s all very unfortunate that such measures are necessary, but I am glad that such measures exist. I do think this ability to place critical ideas inside a popular form of storytelling is a large part of the genius of Dee Rees’ Mudbound. Rees is an African-American woman and one of a few directors in 2017 to make rigorous, beautiful, compelling films about the experience of being black in America. Rees’ film is very upfront in being about racial disparities, but it dresses itself in the disarming classical finery of the old-fashioned Hollywood epic film. Rees knows that Americans have always had a soft spot for the prestige and massive scope of a big, lush period piece, and she has created the very best big, lush period piece since at least 2016’s Sunset Song.

 

Based off of Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel of the same name, Mudbound is the story of two families of sharecroppers tending to the same muddy plot of land in rural 1940s Mississippi. One family is black, the other is white, and we get to know all of their members very well over the course of two hours and fifteen minutes. The black family is the Jacksons, lovingly overseen by its gruff, kind patriarch, Hap (played exquisitely by Rob Morgan). Hap is a man constantly protecting the flame of his dignity from the howling wind of Mississippi bigotry; a man wo has learned to weather the ever-present racism of this corner of the world but has never felt right or easy about the stooping it demands. His wife, Florence (Mary J. Blige, in a quietly lovely, sensitive, Oscar-nominated performance) feels as wounded as Hap does about the sacrifice and soul-sapping compromise of surviving this time and place, but she moves with this treacherous landscape with a kind of understated grace. Florence is a figure of both beautiful strength and sad resignation, focused on the safety and well-being of her family and acutely aware that shepherding them through this cruel country will require a daily denial of herself. The Jacksons have been diligently working their rented patch of land for decades, hoping to one day purchase it, when their white co-tenants, the McAllans, arrive. The head of the household is Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke, doing fine, solid work in what is probably the film’s most thankless role), a stubborn, taciturn company man who has uprooted his wife and infant daughter from their quiet, suburban lives to pursue a dream, or more truthfully a sudden whim, of becoming a farmer. His wife, Laura (a very strong performance that only looks effortless because it’s coming from Carey Mulligan), insists that she never knew anything of her husband’s agrarian aspirations. Their marriage seems to be one built more on material need and mutual companionship than on any real sense of love. It certainly does not seem to be built on communication. Laura is a woman of some sensitivity and culture, which leads her to have a much deeper bond with Henry’s charismatic, university-educated younger brother, Jamie (Garrett Hedlund, originally of Tron fame). Hedlund here sheds all of his handsome lunkhead persona to give one of this phenomenally acted film’s two best performances. The film’s most poignant and perfectly acted character is the Jackson family’s eldest son, Ronsell (Jason Mitchell, who has already been terrific as Eazy-E in Straight Outta Compton and seems to only be hitting his stride). Ronsell and Jamie spend at least half of the film separated from their respective families, as both volunteer to fight overseas in World War II, Jamie as a bomber pilot and Ronsell as a tank commander. Finally, there is Henry’s despicable, seething bigot of a father, Pappy (the great Jonathan Banks, of Breaking Bad fame), who Henry has invited to live with them, to the utter dismay and disgust of his wife. Pappy is an irredeemable, unrepentant open sewer of hate and hurt, unflagging in his contempt for any non-white person and incapable of the slightest show of warmth or mild fondness toward his long-suffering family. The main thrust of the film are the parallel, diverging, and dovetailing stories of this large ensemble. The story begins in earnest when Henry shows up at the doorway of a nice single-story house in town, telling the confused owner that he gave a man $200 for an oral agreement to purchase the property. As fate would have it, that man immediately sold the house to the man now standing in the doorway and hastily left town, leaving Henry with no deed, no house, and $200 less to his name. “You got swindled,” Pappy sneers at him. With scan options and very little money, Henry moves his family out to the Jacksons plot to sharecrop there. Henry McAllan makes his introduction by interrupting the Jackson family’s dinner and coercing Hap into helping him unpack in the middle of the night, while a not remotely grateful Pappy glares at him through suspecting eyes. And while there is a great deal of plot that unfolds in dense, rich detail, the film is really just the story of how all these people coexist and drift around each other’s orbit. Mudbound is chiefly the story of these two poor families with different skin colors, eking out a meager existence in the nation’s most racist state in the years during and immediately following the Second World War. Eventually, Jamie and Ronsell come home from battle and rejoin the main narrative, bringing with them an understanding that the fascist battlefields of 1940s Germany are more turbulent and in some ways more hospitable than the farmlands of the 1940s American South. And this very detailed synopsis, or more pointedly the fact that it does not even begin to sum up the film, should give you a sense of what a full-throated, staggeringly epic film Mudbound is. It may sound daunting, and I will concede that I finished both my viewings emotionally spent. But what I want to convey is just how soulful, heartfelt and alive Mudbound is; how filigreed it is with color, sound, dialogue, poetry, and richly observed characters.

 

I would like to revisit the notion of the artistic Trojan Horse and temper it a bit where Mudbound is concerned. Because it is not quite right to say that Dee Rees is using the historical epic to disguise her interest in racial strife. Anyone who reads that Mudbound involves a family of black sharecroppers in 1940s Mississippi and does not expect to encounter the issue of racism probably needs to refamiliarize themselves with American history, or Mississippi history at the very least. It’s not that the trappings of the big, beautiful historical epic really hides any of the issues that Rees is confronting. It is more accurate to say that the sensory pleasure of watching Mudbound and being transported to its time and place is so exquisitely mounted that it becomes something of a mandatory viewing experience for anyone who just enjoys a lavish, meticulously curated historical drama. Mudbound is not quite the longest film on my year-end list, but it is certainly the one that feels the most overwhelmingly detailed. Like last year’s Sunset Song, its epic Irish cousin, part of Mudbound’s accomplishment is in making the dust and grime of an arduous agrarian lifestyle look so ruggedly beautiful. Moreover, it is an honest kind of beauty. The images of flooded fields and green trees popping against the dark brown landscape and every possible shade of that titular mud are all gorgeous, but in a way that never lets you forget how taxing it must have been to hoe and till and hack at this stubborn land. And the wealth of detail only begins with Rachel Morrison’s (the first woman ever nominated for a Cinematography Oscar) lusciously stark lensing. Those stunning images take place in a vast, unfurling tapestry of a story, populated by no less than six major characters, each of whom stake their claim to being the film’s key protagonist. I am wary of overusing the word “novelistic”, but it is not simply an accurate descriptor for Mudbound; it is the essential adjective. Mudboundis a film to give words like “dense” and “overwhelming” a good name. It is a hearty cinematic meal, to be sure, but it does not feel bloated or stretched thing, the way so many of its historical epic brethren do. It proceeds patiently, but each scene, beat, and frame feels immediate. In rewatching Mudbound, I took so much time noting poetic turns of phrase that I would momentarily forget to not its lovely frames and saturated color palette. Then, when I stopped to feebly try to write something about the grit and grandeur of the images, I would struggle to capture the vividness of its lyrical, powerful screenplay. Very little time passes over Mudbound’s 135 minutes when it is not simultaneously one of the most splendidly composed and sumptuously written films of the year. At a certain point, I had to limit my note-taking and just trust my memory to do its humble best. To fully honor its shots, I would need a giant coffee table photography book. To fully capture its florid, soulful writing, I would essentially have to rewrite its script. The only true way to experience the splendor and immense emotional undertow of Mudbound is to take it in with your own eyes and ears.

 

All this lovely detail, both visual and verbal, enables me to sincerely applaud Mudbound as the vwery best kind of grand, sprawling, old-fashioned film. It’s the kind of epic they scarcely make anymore and that were rarely made with such vibrant detail when they did make them. But Mudbound is also a thematically rich work, which gives it a kind of cerebral heft that is even more rare in the prestigious historical dramas that are its contemporaries. The themes of Mudbound largely fall into a discourse between the nation that binds us together and the persistent racial prejudice that overpowers that sense of national unity. The idea of unity is represented through the notion of mud, dirt, and land, which are constant motifs throughout the film. Mudbound opens with a scene set late into its narrative, as Henry and Jamie plunging shovels into the thick Mississippi mud. Pappy has died and they are rushing to dig a grave for him before a heavy rainstorm floods the grave. As they dig deeper, Henry finds another body from many decades ago. There are manacles next to the skeleton and the skull has been pierced by a bullet hole. Henry and Jamie have found the old grave of a runaway slave. Henry insists that Pappy would recoil at being buried in the same resting place as a slave, but the old racist is dead and there is no time to start digging anew. So Pappy is laid to rest in the same place as a man who he would have called beneath him. The poignant, acerbic idea of this scene, and of Mudbound in general, is that all the struggle and injustice and bloodshed throughout the centuries, from the beginning of slavery to the present-day, is all tied to the soil of this one single place we call a country. It is an idea that sounds almost too simple, but Rees’ sense for tone and character, and the beautiful prose of her source material tease this idea out thoughtfully until it becomes a thing of elegiac resonance. Rees is not saying something so facile as that all the racial divisions between white and black Americans are smoothed out over the simple sharing of a piece of land, be it a grave or a country. But I believe she is positing that, no matter what happens, being countrymen fates us to share a story. Pappy’s story, in the end, is that for all his hate and his feelings of superiority over anyone who didn’t look like him, he was always fated to die and come to rest in the same mud as the people he despised and tormented. And the land will now keep his final chapter and hold it together with the final chapter of that murdered slave, and if anyone comes digging decades later, they will find that 19th century skeleton in his shackles right next to that spiteful cur who died in the 1940s and that will be fitting. Not because time makes things okay and not because in death they are not so different, but because those two people, and so many other slaves, masters, victims, and aggressors are part of the same blood-soaked book. And now the illusion of time, probably only some 80 years anyway, can be shattered and the constant Earth can hold Pappy and this slave right next to each other where they belong. It can keep the two side by side, one shot and unceremoniously dumped here like an animal and the other laid here in a cheap wood coffin, far better than he deserved but all the better to evidence a blunt truth of this American epic we are penning. That not every dead soul in this country got to be buried by its family, and not every man was afforded the right to die decently. Mudbound has plenty to say about the different path black Americans have had to walk, but it is also saying something poignant, disturbing, and scathing about how Americans of every race are bound together in the same violent, leather-bound tome; the same national narrative.

 

The other voice in Mudbound’s direct but nuanced conversation is the one that knows a sense of unity has always been something of an American myth. The folly of that myth is there in the repeated motif of the Jackson family’s interrupted dinners. The black family’s sanctuary of peace and loving kinship is repeatedly invaded by the loud knocking of the McAllan patriarch, insisting on some favor or bit of assistance from Hap or Florence. And the mixture of frustration and wounded pride we see wash over Hap’s face lays the truth bare, that even some 80 years after Abolition, Hap and his family are at this insignificant white man’s beck and call. And the possibility that Henry McAllan doesn’t quite register the coercive sway he holds over the Jacksons makes this imbalance all the more insidious, infuriating, and scary. It is present in the way Florence swallows her pride and accepts work caring for the McAllan children, optimistically telling herself the extra money will be good for her family. Still, she reminisces in voiceover about how her own mother spent her daylight hours tending to white babies while her young daughter mostly had to settle for seeing her in the dark. Mudbound is about the sad, aggravating truth of what it has meant, and still means, to be black in this country, and how easy it is for a group of people to brush that truth aside or ignore it when they do not have to live with it day after day. The McAllans and the Jacksons both live hard, dirty lives, but the problem is that this shared hardship makes it too easy for the McAllans to live in ignorance of how much more strenuous this grueling lifestyle is for a black family. Both households go to bed with grubby fingers and throbbing muscles, but the Jacksons also have to tend to a constant ache in their spirits. The McAllan’s myopia even extends to the most enlightened member of the family, Jamie. And it is here where I believe Dee Rees feel the most anguish about the sweet sincere hope for understanding and friendship across the racial divide and how it just cannot be that simple. Not in this country with this history and these sins buried in its soil. The friendship between Jamie McAllan and Ronsell Jackson is the emotional lynchpin of Mudbound, which is quite a feat considering that the two do not meet until 90 minutes into the film and everything that comes before that is beautiful and powerful and completely moving. But those scenes of the two returned soldiers, played with such exquisite empathy by Jason Mitchell and Garret Hedlund, allow Mudbound to be both a prayer for hope and brotherhood and an unflinching account of how hope can also be a scary thing. Ronsell and Jamie’s connection, their shared empathy over the horrors they have seen, and the sudden appreciation each one feels for having found a kindred spirit made me beam and wince all at once. Because even something as intuitive and natural as two good men becoming friends cannot entirely escape the corrosion of the toxic air around it. And the most damning, emotionally gutting thing about their arc together is how even a smart, compassionate man like Jamie cannot quite grasp Ronsell’s reality. He cannot quite see that, even as an educated, benign white man, he poses a danger to his dear black friend. Mudbound is about the experience of being black in American, but it is also a very effective critique of the full gamut of white ignorance: from Pappy’s bilious racism, through Henry’s apathy and Laura’s well-intentioned equivocating, to the naivete of someone like Jamie thinking they can glide over centuries of entrenched bigotry just by being one of the good ones. Through all of this, Mudbound holds on to traces of optimism. Though the story goes to some unspeakably tragic places, it has hope its heart. But if that hope is to mean anything, it must be clear-eyed, and that means recognizing that our problems have never been one and the same. This country’s best hopes won’t be realized until the last of us stops trying to pretending otherwise.

 

Mudbound plays beautifully as an amazingly well-acted, gorgeously detailed American epic with just a touch more arsenic in its veins. And maybe part of that is using the appealing form of a large ensemble epic to house subversive, trenchant ideas that are not always present in films of this kind. At the same time, I do not feel Rees is attempting a deception here. I think the moral is that, for the 200-plus year American saga, this idea of a land that unites with one hand and divides with the other, has always been in the very text of the story. If it has been more implicit and less pronounced in the past, then perhaps it is time we told the story of this country more candidly. Even Mudbound’s musical score feels like the vibrant, subversive hybrid of something both familiar and radical. The guitar strings and low tones evoke the muck and dusty, hot days of a Mississippi summer, but there are subtle tweaks that make the melodies sound discordant, almost decaying. It sounds like an acoustic blues band sinking slowly into a swamp. Mudbound is an old song sung not necessarily in a modern way, but with an awareness of the present day and how little has really changed in the decades between. Many of the same old stories are being told. But what is blessedly changing, however slowly, is the diverse range of people who are now able to tell those stories. In 2017, I watched an old-style, swelling Southern historical epic. It was not the first time I had seen that kind of movie, but this time a black woman was behind the camera. And that, as it turns out, makes a world of difference.

Top 20 Films of 2017: #14- Personal Shopper

I’m not what you would call a particularly morbid person. Singin’ In the Rain sits high atop my list of the best films ever made, I still become unabashedly jovial during the Christmas season, and I have an unquenchable thirst for the gangly, lyrical humanism of Richard Linklater films. Still, like most people, I have moments where I engage myself in a few too many sips of the world’s darkness. This is always predictably followed by anywhere between a day and a week where I dearly wish I hadn’t done that. I watch too much of the news or read about one tragedy too many, and my spirit essentially becomes inebriated from taking in too much sadness all at once. For lack of a more accurate word, I become haunted. I have come to accept these periodic bouts of melancholy as the natural side effect of staying engaged with and reasonably informed about the world I live in. Falling under sorrow’s hypnotic spell from time to time is just a part of being alive. Feeling unsettled is the inevitable hangover that comes from having too much to think. One of the main problems with that heavy feeling though is that it has a weird way of making the tedium of everyday life, which I might ordinarily breeze through with a chipper attitude and an obliging smile, feel aggravatingly arbitrary and unwelcome. Personal Shopper is the second, consecutive ghost story on my year-end list, and it’s one of the better evocations of what it’s like to feel sad, spooked out, and emotionally unnerved; to move through the tangible world while simultaneously occupying a disconnected realm of one’s own thoughts, terrors, and emotions. I have to believe we all feel a little spectral from time to time, even if we do not believe in ghosts. Personal Shopper is the kind of ghost story where being haunted is both a supernatural phenomenon and an all too human state of mind. And by way of giving you a nice, easy entry point into the year’s most daringly austere and potentially cryptic films, allow me to say that Personal Shopper should have some degree of relatability to anyone who has ever found themselves trudging through the long, uneasy doldrums of a grief-stricken, haunted, or just generally moody time in their life.

 

With that said, I would not want to misrepresent Personal Shopper as being particularly easy to digest. It would create some detrimental expectations for the viewer if I didn’t say upfront that it is one the year’s most mysterious, chilly and challengingly opaque works of cinema. Moreover, it would do a disservice to the film itself. Olivier Assayas’ (Summer Hours, The Clouds of Sils Maria) strange, preposterously masterful hybrid of spare character study, supernatural mood piece, and psychothriller is a quietly tense, defiantly unsettling film. The film itself is a bit like a stubborn, confrontational ghost. It is a riveting experience in its own strange, moody way but it is the furthest thing from being ingratiating. Personal Shopper is the story of Maureen, a young American woman living in Paris. She is outstandingly played by Kristen Stewart, the first American actor in history to win the Cesar award (France’s answer to the Oscar), and now in full stride as the rare movie star who knows how to anchor a subdued, cerebral art film. Maureen is the titular personal shopper and the film’s protagonist. Her work entails going to high-end fashion galleries and picking out clothes for a vain fashion icon. She has absolutely no enthusiasm for her laughably frivolous day job, but she has her own reason for keeping it. Maureen is a medium. Her twin brother, Lewis, who was also a medium, passed away from a heart attack nine months earlier. As a medium, Lewis was more fervently committed than his sister. He believed wholeheartedly in the existence of a spirit realm, while Maureen always remained skeptical. When Lewis was alive, he and Maureen promised each other that whoever outlived the other would stay around the city where they died long enough to see if the deceased’s spirit would make some kind of spiritual contact. Despite her doubts, Maureen tells her boss’ boyfriend that she owes her dear brother’s soul a chance to prove his own deeply held belief. She spends many nights staying in the empty, palatial house that Lewis once shared with his French girlfriend, wandering around its darkened rooms and hallways. She has recently sensed a spirit in the house, but she is fearful that this ghost might not be her brother. The cause of much of Maureen’s strife and tension is that, in choosing to leave her mind and heart open for her brother to communicate with her, she is giving all her mental energy over to death and the unknown. Personal Shopper is the story of an overwhelmed young woman trying to come to terms with the grief she feels for her lost twin, wrestle her fears that she might die from the same condition, and maintain some semblance of emotional stability, while spending almost every waking moment thinking about ghosts. And of course, those waking moments not taken up with trying to keep her ear cocked toward the netherworld are taken up by the surreal banality of buying boots, dresses and belts for a flighty, temperamental celebrity.

 

One of the key ideas in Personal Shopper is that feeling one has when they remembers that they are alone on a confusing, chaotic planet, orbiting a single star in a universe filled with countless other stars, unsure of where they fit into it all, and that they have to go get up and edit nondisclosure agreements. Or fix Honda Civics. Or buy overpriced leather pants for someone who models overpriced leather pants for a living. And that’s just the normal kind of workaday ennui we’re talking about. It becomes an entirely different matter when we factor in the juggernauts of grief, depression, and isolation. Olivier Assayas could have had Maureen work in any modern profession, but part of the reason that a personal shopper works so well for this story is that it is such an extraneous, unmistakably modern line of work. The tension Maureen feels is not just that she must spend her days being distracted from the cosmically, weight matters that call out to her, but that she is being called away from that by something so staggeringly unimportant. Paris is a tomb to Maureen. It is the place where she lost the person she clearly loved most in this world. The only reason she is hanging around this dismal town, by her own admission is that she wants to make contact. The wry commentary of the film seems to be that, if Maureen is trying to call out to the inscrutable, ageless heavens, what profession could be less timeless, less universal, and less consequential in the grand scheme than specializing in knowing what garments one famous mortal likes to wear? Maureen laments that tending to her rich boss’ errands is keeping her from matters of real importance and Kristen Stewart subtly conveys how much more aggravating a ridiculous job must seem when you are not only wracked with grief but have also literally glimpsed the spiritual fabric of existence.

 

The counterpoint to all this is that the obligatory, frivolous, and trite minutiae of life is also an undeniable component of existence. And more importantly, those silly things are part of what it means to be alive. While Maureen is certainly right to feel that designer harnesses and plunging, silver-sequined gowns look superficial next to the grand questions of what happens after we die, the ability to covet shiny baubles and think about fashion is something we only have while we are breathing. Because, in her heart of hearts, Maureen is not just put off by the superficial details of her dayjob. In her bereaved, haunted state, she is really having trouble relating to the living world in general. It is not just the glossy trappings of privileged society that disinterest her, but the entire humdrum experience of being alive. This is the lure of sadness and death-obsession. It makes it harder to willingly go back to living world with all its ridiculous extravagances and absurd rituals. But those silly cotton candy wisps of fashion and pop music and blind dates and dumb day jobs are what life is. Monotonous and superficial as they are, to be alive is to give ourselves over to those things and fool ourselves into thinking they mean much more than they do. Much as we can empathize with Maureen’s gripes about the emptiness of her daily grind, it is also very clear that her investigation into the mysteries of death has led her to cross over into that realm; to carry it in her very bones, even as she seems to occupy the living world. When Lewis’ girlfriend bashfully reveals that she has begun dating again, she explains to Maureen, “I think now I want life.” Personal Shopper is about a woman who cannot convince herself to really want life again. It presents the idea that there are pockets of death floating around within life, and that there is a difference between breathing and actually feeling alive. It is not to say that Maureen is suicidal, that she actually wants death. But in the wake of her twin’s untimely passing, she is perhaps more aware than ever that death is all around us. What makes Personal Shopper such a well-observed portrait of dejection is how it paints depression, loneliness, and bereavement as a kind of underwater limbo. The nagging duties and repetitive interactions of normal life become nuisances repeatedly trying to permeate grief’s bubble. Personal Shopper plays as both an actual ghost story and as a symbolic one, where the spectres of loss and melancholy become phantasms unto themselves. What lingers about the film is how much moody tone it wrings just from watching Maureen process her raw, unsettled mental state. Assayas, whose lovely Summer Hours made the fate of a country house in a mother’s will feel impossibly soulful, is a director with a style that is both artistically rigorous and quite unfussy. He does not need to show us too many shrieking phantoms or levitating objects to make Maureen’s world feel possessed by a spirit of foreboding. He conjures up a thundercloud of disquieting emotion without having to make very much of it visible, and the occasional direct encounters Maureen has with supernatural phenomena feel all the more startling for how sparingly they are shown. The true accomplishment is how spaces that might feel warm or innocuous in a different context feel frigid; the lush, lamplit streets of Paris or the bright-white, modernistic showrooms of haute couture shops. Assayas creates a masterclass in slow-burning tension without really ever relying on jump scares or frightful imagery. Instead, he achieves this beautifully unsettling sense of tone through a tight focus on Stewart’s observant, anxious performance and an elegant sense of composition that helps keep us trapped in the damp mausoleum of her tormented headspace.

 

And beyond just showing off that Assayas can conjure up a whole lot of mood with barely a flick of his wrist, I do find a greater thematic purpose in his relatively minimalist approach to creating an atmosphere of disquiet. Because Personal Shopper is about the kind of internal shiver that doesn’t just dissipate as soon as we turn all the lights on and fire up the space heater. It is, in many ways, the antithesis of your typical gothic horror film. Apart from the nights she spends in her late brother’s dark house, we spend most of our time watching Maureen in broad daylight, or at least in bright, populated spaces. She rides her scooter through crowded French streets and walks through bright, funky fashion lobbies and rides packed commuter trains. Maureen is frequently not by herself in the dark, but that fact brings no comfort. None of it makes the fearful pallor drop away from her face, and this is what makes Personal Shopper its own unique spin on the ghost story. We so often think of ghosts as something one hears out in the woods or in the creaking floorboards of an old, abandoned building, but Olivier Assayas’ aim is to tell a haunting story under the glaring, neon daylight of our bright, technologically-enhanced 21st century world. The film’s best and most nerve-wracking scene finds Maureen about to board a high-speed train to London with the latest smart phone in her hand. On her way to the train, she receives a sinister, mysterious text message from an unknown number. Whoever this is, they claim to know her and to be watching her at that moment. The phantom text messenger asks her prying questions, prods her about her deepest fears and desires, and angrily chastises her when she waits too long to respond. We see Maureen’s expression go ashen as something as seemingly banal as a text exchange rattles her sense of safety.  Maureen, deeply afraid but also perversely curious, gets pulled into an eerie, sinister dance with her own insecurities. This could be a ghost or maybe just a human being who got her number from someone she works with. Is it a malicious phantasm or just some immature prankster amusing himself at her expense? The truth of the scene is that it doesn’t necessarily matter who this particular messenger is. What does matter is the suggestion that a more fast-paced, glitzy and modern world cannot keep our phantoms at bay. If we can believe in something as fantastic as a spirit realm, it really isn’t such a stretch to believe that those spirits could also learn to use an iPhone. The suggestion is that the ghostly presences that have haunted human beings since time immemorial, be they real or psychological, are not going to stop just because our world has grown more technologically advanced. As far as we advance, we will never invent a gadget to stop the chill that runs down our back when we sense feel ill at ease. These haunted feelings, and the tantalizing, unanswerable questions that come with them, are timeless. The glow of our screens and neon billboards are as powerless to repel our dread as the candles and torches of centuries past.

 

At one point, Maureen takes a trip to the sun-bleached mountains of Morocco to visit her boyfriend. She can finally stand no more of the bone-chilling cold she feels in her soul, and she hopes all that brilliant, blinding sunlight will scatter away some of the deathly shadows hanging about her. It doesn’t work. But, as the film draws to a close, I believe we are finally seeing a version of Maureen that wants to let go of the spectres of grief and death. Like her brother’s girlfriend, I think Maureen is trying as hard as she can to want life again. Maybe the lesson here is that we don’t always have complete control when it comes to feeling blue and bewitched. Spirits, whether real or just in our heads, seem to have a mind of their own, and sometimes we have to wait for them to leave us in their own good time. I began this week and the early scribblings of this very review in a pretty powerful gloomy spell of my own, though I feel that shadow lifting as I write these last words. Part of what makes Personal Shopper such a beautiful, original piece of work is that I do not believe it is trying to be too didactic about sadness, despondency, grief, or any other ghostly emotion that overtakes us from time to time. It seems content to observe that life is full of light and shadow and sometimes the latter throws its weight around and holds sway over the former. Life is so often a tug-of-war between the warm glow of silly little pleasures and the anxiety of matters that are heavier and less benign. Laughter and sorrow. Top 40 radio and civil wars. First dates and unspeakable tragedies. Finding a new pair of shoes and losing loved ones. It is enough to say that life is mysterious and beautiful and otherworldly powerful in its contrasts. And that is true before one dips so much as a toe into matters of ghosts and spiritual netherworlds. Our emotions and our imaginations have a mystical, elemental power all their own. It is stunning to think how much joy, heartbreak, curiosity, and terror course through us. From time to time, everyone’s head can turn into a haunted house. And so I watch the lights of my own house flicker back on, as they always do. And the heater starts working again and I can breathe easy until the next time the wind starts blowing all the shutters open. What else can be said? I have no interest in putting a period or exclamation mark on this misty question mark of a film. This ethereal, moaning banshee of a movie is about the dark spaces within us that will always feel unsettled, uncivilized, and unresolved. I can stop reviewing the film, but grappling with the feelings it evokes will always be unfinished business.

Top 20 Films of 2017: #15- A Ghost Story

This is clearly a counter-intuitive way to start a review. It was the first idea to cross my mind when I finished my second viewing of the film four days ago, and I told myself right there and then that I could surely come up with a better point of entry for discussing this worthy film. More than that, I could certainly come up with an opening sentence less likely to achieve the exact opposite of its intended effect. Alas, after five days of thinking about it, I have thought of no other way to begin. So I will now open my review by firmly asserting that David Lowery’s A Ghost Story is not a pretentious film. However, I first watched the film with my fiancé, who insisted early and often over the lean 92-minute runtime, that it was in fact a very pretentious film. Now, I have no desire to turn this review into a referendum on my fiance’s excellent taste in cinema. Her reasons that A Ghost Story did not work for her are well-reasoned and valid. I am not here to call out anyone who liked, loved, hated, was confused by, or slept through this heady little piece of art cinema. But I am here to settle an old score with the word “pretentious”. I am tempted to say I loathe the word, but that is not entirely fair. I do not hate “pretentious” when the word applies, but I do hate it for how liberally it is misapplied. To me, pretentious films are films that purport to mean more than they actually do. A pretentious work is that old line about sound and fury signifying nothing; a great commotion of superficial flash or pedigree, disguising an empty, or at least relatively meager, core of meaning. Again, it is well and good to call something pretentious if that is what you actually mean. I will crow for the rest of my days that Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a pretentious film because what I mean to say is that it makes a great fuss without saying much of value. It would be wrong to use that word if all I really meant was that Birdman is a loud, grandiloquent film, or that it sermonizes too sanctimoniously, or that it has makes too many self-consciously idiosyncratic choices. To be fair, those are all quibbles I have with Birdman, but none of them are what makes it pretentious. Yet that seems to be what the word “pretentious” is metastasizing into: a dismissive term to call out a work of art for being too ambitious or arty. And I’m not calling out this misuse just to be a vocabulary fascist. I am not simply annoyed that a word is having its meaning distorted. Specifically, I find this zombie version of pretentiousness to be dangerous and oppressive to what art should be allowed to do. It is a valuable part of artistic discourse to critique a work of art when it takes a bold shot and misses its target. But the tendency I see nowadays is to use “pretentious” as a means of attacking bold shots in general, regardless of whether they actually hit their marks. And that, from where I stand, is death to Art. Art needs to be free to take risks and pursue ridiculous flights of fancy. It needs to be permitted the hubris to attempt new things and wrap its arms around difficult subjects and risk biting off more than it can chew. Artists should be encouraged to make breathtaking, idiosyncratic, indulgent, imaginative works because those strange, overreaching works of art can help us better understand, appreciate, or even change our own reality. And we jeopardize that when we rush to label any work that is surreal or highly stylized or maybe a bit self-regarding as pretentious. In the world of cinema, this word has become a way of superficially fast-tracking judgment of a film based on its aesthetic, when what we should be doing is discussing what the film is trying to do or say.

 

A Ghost Story is a weird, audacious film, but let me relieve some of the build-up by saying that it is also, at heart, a relatively simple story, at least where plot is concerned. David Lowery’s title prepares us for the fact that we will likely see a ghost, and indeed we do. What it does not prepare us for is the fact that the ghost in question is our main character, and will be the one consistent, visible presence throughout almost the entire film. And, most of all, it does not prepare us for the fact that this ghost will be played by Casey Affleck, completely covered in a plain white sheet with two oval-shaped eyeholes cut out of it. This ghost was once a man living in Dallas in a small, one-story house with his wife (Rooney Mara, in a performance no less terrific for being right in her moody, pensive wheelhouse). The couple is in the process of moving and an early conversation reveals that the man is reluctant to say goodbye to this place and the memories that reside within its walls. One night the couple is woken up by something striking the keys of their piano. They walk into the family room to investigate, but find nothing. Then they go back to bed a little shaken, and try to soothe each other back to sleep. In the next scene, possibly the very next morning, we see the man dead at the wheel of his car, the victim of a small but fatal collision. His wife goes to the morgue to identify him, places the sheet back over his body, and sadly leaves. Then a few beats pass and the man’s shrouded head rises from the table. He is now a ghost, though the exaggerated black eye holes mark him as being closer to what a small child would dress as for Halloween than some menacing horror movie spectre. In his unadorned way, he is quite simply the saddest, most despondent ghost I have ever seen in a film. Covered in his sheet, he trudges uncertainly through the hospital. He goes completely unnoticed. He walks on to the end of a hallway until a kind of glowing, cosmic doorway opens up on one of the walls. He stands in front of the portal, stares at it blankly, but refuses to go through it. Instead, he walks out of the hospital into the cool dawn air and begins walking toward something he knows. He moves silently through the muddy, green Texas fields and over the quiet two-lane highways and back into the small, one-story dwelling he once called home. And then he just stays there. His wife mourns and putters around in a daze and, in perhaps the film’s most instantly iconic scene, eats an entire condolence gift pie in a single, four minute long-take. And the ghost stands about and watches her grieve. Then life begins to pick up speed again. The wife starts to live again and leave the house. She goes back to work. She even starts to seek companionship. We watch her painstakingly move on from her tragedy, while also watching, somewhere in the background of every shot, the restless, pitiable apparition that refuses to move on. Eventually, the wife summons the courage to move out and leave this tomb of memories behind. But this drab, lost ghost refuses to go. Even as a new family moves in. Even as time races on and even as the very building he binds himself to falls into disrepair, this sad, stubborn being cannot seem to leave this place behind. A Ghost Story is, first and foremost, a reimagining of the haunted house film as a kind of bittersweet tone poem. It is a reclamation of the ghost story as something more sad than scary, and all the more haunting for trading jump scares for melancholy.

 

And if my aim is to convince you that there is nothing in the least pretentious about A Ghost Story, I guess the next sentence will make my case more difficult. You see, A Ghost Story is all about its own sense of mood. It’s a difficult thing to create a film where tone and ambience do the heavy lifting. The shallows of film history are littered with the wrecks of indulgent pictures that fatally prioritized crafting a heady, introspective reverie above all else. Many sensitive, poetic filmmakers have doomed themselves by following what we might call the siren song of Terrence Malick. But A Ghost Story happily avoids that sorry fate, partly because it does have a lot of other things going on aside from a dreamy tone: engaged performances, skillful camera work, cohesive snippets of narrative always running through the ghost’s mournful fugue state, and one of the year’s most devastatingly sublime scores. I also have to say that, when it comes to mood, the proof is in the pudding, and David Lowery really has whipped up a delicious pudding. Part of the thrill is how he takes something like the haunted house narrative and recontextualizes it as something wise, tender, and bruisingly sad. That tender, eerily heartbroken sense of mood that Lowery focuses on is there for a purpose. It forces us to see an old narrative with fresh eyes. When Affleck’s ghost starts whipping plates around the room to frighten a Mexican single mother and her two young children out of their new home, we are getting a new perspective on something we have seen in countless spooky films. But this time we know exactly what is going on and our reaction is not terror. We are sad because we feel the ghost’s anguish and pain and we are also frustrated by him. He is not some fearful, unknown phantasm with hidden motives. He is just a despondent spirit, petulantly taking his grief out on small children, and he should know better. A Ghost Story strikes a deft balance between sorrow, small glimmers of joy (as when we see Rooney Mara tearfully but triumphantly leave her old house behind), fear, fragility, and even the odd bit of levity. If you let A Ghost Story wash around you as a purely emotional experience, what you get is a pitch perfect symphony of mortality, the ache of loving and then having to let go, and the sting of remembering that we are all falling rapidly through time and out of the Earth’s memory.

 

And the fact that A Ghost Story can capture that sense of mortality and human frailty just through its tone and things unsaid turns out to be a huge achievement, because the finiteness of life and the pain of accepting our insignificance is also what the film is getting at on an intellectual level. David Lowery manages to craft a tone poem that coherently aligns its undulating, poetic emotions with its themes and ideas, which gives A Ghost Story a welcome sense of rigor. The difficulty of letting go is smartly set up from the beginning, as we meet a couple with very different feelings about leaving their old house behind. That conflict culminates in one of the year’s most phenomenally moving moments: the wife wistfully but resolutely driving away from the home and her dead past, with the ghost trapped in the frame of the house’s front window and swiftly receding in his wife’s rearview mirror. The film comes to a place somewhere between sympathetic understanding and matter of fact disagreement with Affleck’s ghost. Life is beautiful and sweet and having to finally leave it all behind for the unknown is a gutting thing. You really can’t blame anyone for finding it hard to say goodbye. But, on the other hand, even if you had the choice to never leave your life, would staying around indefinitely not also suck something vital out of you? Sooner or later, the places that were familiar to us and with us, be they our homes, our towns, or our planet, go on existing without us. One day, the Earth will become a high school that we graduated from five years ago. The last freshman student who knew us will have finally left. At that point, what value could there be to continually going back there; to staying there and walking the halls? In one scene of the film, the ghost watches the house’s newest tenants throw a party full of people in their thirties. A man, played by celebrated indie musician Will Oldham, gives a long, intoxicated rant on the folly and futility of creating things to preserve our legacies, be they songs, books, or children, when we know the Universe will one day implode and start all over again. It’s a polarizing scene that some critics have called didactic. Personally, when it came, I found some relief in hearing a human voice speak at length for the first time in many minutes. But it is true that the Oldham character is just saying what the film itself says with every fiber of its being. It makes the same point more succinctly just a moment later. This room full of humans is reveling and the party is in full swing, when the ghost suddenly causes the kitchen lights to flicker. Then we instantly cut to the house abandoned and neglected. In an instant, many years may have just passed by and all the human faces who were celebrating in that house just seconds ago have scattered to continue along their own separate paths.

 

The lesson, both upsetting and strangely life-affirming, is that life’s value does not come from a place. What gives life its character is the fleeting minutiae and the ephemeral joys. And above all, life is the people we meet and learn about and love, who are all just as frail and impermanent as we are. What the ghost learns eventually is that, without all those little passing details, time hurtles forward like a bullet train. The sad, strange, stirring truth is that everything that ever made us feel anything and everything we ever assigned meaning occupies a very small space and an equally miniscule pocket of time, and that all confirms the plain fact that our lives are tiny and fragile. Without all that lovely, evanescent bric-a-brac; without music, memories, parties, food, sex, and people, the buildings and towns and time periods we occupy are just empty spaces. The big expanses of space and time that surround our lives look a whole lot smaller without all those little, fleeting details inside of them. I have stood in enough apartments on moving day to feel that intimately. I have walked down enough old streets in neighborhoods where I used to live to grasp the bittersweet truth that life is about context, and most of that context comes from things that are not meant to last. A Ghost Story is about mustering the grace and the courage to leave things behind, be it a former hometown or a past life. Knowing you must say goodbye is the right attitude to have, not only because it is emotionally healthy, but also because, as Rooney Mara’s character says early in the film, there really isn’t any other choice.

 

A Ghost Story just says too much, often with no more than a canny piece of editing or a perfect bit of body language, to ever call it pretentious. It is too rare to find a film this hauntingly atmospheric that also speaks with such eloquence. It captures so much of the soulful throb of being alive and knowing that nothing lasts forever. And it accomplishes all of this with great beauty and empathy, and all in a tight hour and a half. Still, this is the very kind of film that needs to be defended from accusations of pretentiousness. It is, after all, a quiet, reflective, relentlessly moody Sundance film that spends most of its running time watching a man wordlessly wander a single location donning a bedsheet with cartoonish eyeholes cut into it. And it does not present any of that jokingly. It has the audacity to ask, softly but sincerely, for your serious, hushed attention. And I understand how saying, “This is Casey Affleck in a bedsheet. Please take this all very seriously.”, might produce some peals of laughter. And the thing is that is all totally fine. Because one can laugh at the dizzy extremes that serious, heartfelt Art sometimes goes to, and still learn something from it. Art can be absurd, ludicrous, overreaching, silly, and even self-serious, and be no less vital for all of that. It can often better push boundaries, present new ideas, and provoke beautiful thoughts because of its very willingness to look preposterous. In the end, a word like “absurd” leaves room to feel gobsmacked by the wild wooliness of a film and still leave ourselves open to its message. And in the end, it is okay to cry foul when a film undoes itself through its own idiosyncrasies. It is okay to criticize films that put so much effort into looking and sounding like grand, meaningful statements that they forget to actually be meaningful. But dismissing a film outright just for daring to be off-kilter or bombastic or self-serious? That is, in a word, pretentious.

Top Films of 2017: #16- The Post

The tiny cinema snob in my head is screaming his little lungs off at me, but I need to do something that might not be critically kosher. I need to make some apologies and accommodations for my #16 film of the year. Attorneys, such as myself, have something called a severability clause. It means that, when some isolated part of a contract is just plain unworkable, that doesn’t doom the entire contract. Instead, like Groucho and Chico Marx in A Night At the Opera (the finest depiction of contract interpreting in all of cinema) you just rip that disagreeable section right out and carry on with the remainder as good as new. It’s cutting the moldy piece off of the cheese; a process that, with due respect to Ms. Sheryl Crow, should not be attempted with bread. It’s also damn shoddy film criticism. But let’s get back to the cheese. You see, unlike that loaf of bread, where the visible spores are probably just the tip of the fungal iceberg, you can take the odd expired bit off of cheese without fear that the rot runs all the way to the core. I would say that the clumsy handling of racism and police brutality in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri falls into the category of bread mold because it has a way of contaminating even the film’s better parts. The Post, on the other hand, suffers from cheese mold. It’s a nice, block of fine, flavorful farmhouse cheddar with one corner starting to get pretty discolored and tough and another corner that is unmistakably starting to sprout fur the color of John Goodman’s character in Monsters, Inc. That first, less than appetizing corner is the film’s rote, uninspired opening. The Post is the story of the journalistic fight to print the Pentagon Papers, which exposed a years-long ploy by the highest levels of American government to misrepresent the odds of success in the Vietnam War and to foolishly continue along a sorrowful, bloody broken path even when Robert McNamara and other architects of the conflict knew victory was not possible. The Vietnam War is the context and the unseen backdrop of this story, which leads director Steven Spielberg to make an understandable but detrimental decision: to start his film with one of the most uninspired, apathetic depictions of the Vietnam War I have seen. The whole setpiece only lasts about two minutes. Spielberg handles it all as if two executive producers, worried that maybe some future viewer from some later generation won’t know what a Vietnam War was, are standing over his shoulder with a checklist of easy Vietnam War signifiers. And so Steven Spielberg, director of the greatest single battle sequence in modern cinematic history, tells us, with all the conviction of a child being forced to add a transition sentence to his term paper at 11:00 P.M., that the Vietnam War was, well, basically a war. It took place in a jungle and some men smeared black makeup under their eyes and everyone listened to Credence Clearwater Revival. He shows that fighting in the jungle was dark and muddy and there were explosions. The screen is dark and dim but not in a way that shows the murky, confusion of guerilla warfare. It just looks like slapdash cinematography. And then we’re off with Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsburg on a government jet back home, and Spielberg breathes an audible sigh of exasperation and relief. He is now free to tell the story he really wants to tell and the bracing sense of engagement that comes rushing into the film is palpable.

To be clear, I do not mean to trivialize what the Vietnam War means to this story or how much the loss of life in Vietnam present in the shocked betrayal and righteous urgency of the people fighting to ensure this story was printed. But, frankly, the nitty gritty details of what the Vietnam War looked like are tangential to this First Amendment struggle. One does not need to be reminded, by the 100th Vietnam War film in existence, that the War involved fighting in the dark and listening to 1960s rock music in order to know that a lot of young men died tragically over there and that a government hiding that it was all in vain is a pretty evil thing to do. The Post is really the story of how the Pentagon Papers were leaked, how the New York Times sought to print them and were quashed by the Nixon administration, and how the then-fledgling Washington Post, led by famed editor Ben Bradlee (a very big but rousingly fun Tom Hanks), picked up the loose ball and ran it the rest of the way to score a touchdown for press freedom. And it is about the twists and turns of that historic war of rhetoric and resolve and the groundbreaking Supreme Court case it led to. And it is about a whole lot of engaging characters, played with energy and moxie by talented character actors, bringing life to what it was like to stand in the merry maelstrom of a newsroom during that climactic showdown. Oh, and to stop burying the lede, it is about how much the fateful decision to thwart Richard Nixon and publish those vital, brutal facts came down to the Washington Post’s owner, Kay Graham (played with gorgeous intuition by Meryl Streep in my full-stop favorite Meryl Streep performance since 2002’s Adaptation). For, while The Post is a lovely, spirited film about the importance of journalism, it is quite a brilliant film about sexism, specifically in the 1960s, and in the present day by extension. In spite of being heir to the Washington Post, Kay’s late father left the paper to Kay’s late husband. Kay reluctantly stepped into the role of owner three years prior, when she lost her husband to suicide. Kay is a smart woman with a beaming sense of pride and affection for her news company, but she also carries a visible aura of self-doubt, which the strictly male business world she occupies is all too quick to reinforce. Even Kay’s closer allies, like her friend and business manager Fritz (the great Tracy Letts), seem to quietly believe that this kindly, insecure woman is here by accident and may not be well-suited to running a company. Adding to the sexist concerns over Kay’s competence is the fact that the Washington Post is about to go public, meaning any seismic activity, such as being sued by the President of the United States, could give the banks grounds to withdraw their investment. Journalist Daniel Ellsberg’s decision to disclose the Pentagon Papers to the Washington Post creates a perfect blizzard, both for the journalists trying to break the story an especially for Kay Graham, who is wrestling with doing the right thing for her paper, her readers, and herself, while also just trying to hear her own voice above the roar of even the most well-meaning male egos. It is a mixture of two narratives that matter a great deal to our current times: the freedom of the press and women’s rights.

 

With due respect to this watershed moment in First Amendment history, I am very pleased with how Steven Spielberg threads it with Kay’s story. Because, while the story of how the Washington Post defended the right to print is too vital to overstate, I would have hated for that urgent piece of history to become just another handsomely civic-minded issues film. And, for all that I love Tom Hanks growling and waxing about the holy mantle of newspersons, that is exactly what The Post could have been if it had only been an account of Journalism versus Nixon. If it achieved nothing else, having a great non-journalist character like Kay Graham there adds nuance to the usual notes of journalistic grit, simply by bringing in a different perspective. Her presence allows the film to breathe, if only by giving Hanks a complex foil;  a dedicated, sympathetic woman who gradually awakens to her own understanding of how important her company’s work is, even if she will never be the ink-spitting, idealistic, occasionally sermonistic avatar of journalistic derring-do that Ben Bradlee is. I will not pretend that The Post is not a high-minded prestige film in some regard, but its journalistic grandstanding is leavened by welcome notes of subtlety and rich color. Among other qualities, it has one of the finer depictions of the tension between the ego of a renegade artist and the quieter, more grounded intelligence of a producer. Leaving aside how essential Kay’s status as a 1960s woman is to her character arc, she also brings the perspective of the person trying to keep the business solvent, which allows The Post to implicitly touch on the issue of news as both a public service and an industry, without that ever being its primary thrust. I could watch a film just about the weekly breakfast meetings between Kay Graham and Ben Bradlee. One could create an intriguing and insightful character piece just out of observing their fond but prickly dynamic and seeing them quibble and commingle about their industry. None of this lovely detail changes the fact that The Post behaves like a very stately message picture; the kind to which I am normally a bit resistant. But it becomes something much better than its exterior trappings because there is a sense of a world beyond this one legal fight. It is buoyed along by a broadly scintillating style of writing. It is also helped by a strong sense of character. Kay Graham stands as one ofthe most interesting, poignant people to appear on screen all year.

 

If I call Meryl Streep the MVP of The Post, including Steven Spielberg, I do think that is partially by design. I think Steven Spielberg knows Kay Graham’s arc is the secret engine of the film, hiding there almost in plain sight, much like Kay herself. I think he sees the genuine power in watching Kay gradually, firmly make herself heard, until her journey becomes the emotional thrust behind everything. The decision to publish under threat of Government retaliation was monumental, but it achieves a truly overwhelming power because the key decision comes down to a capable, underestimated woman who never thought she would ever be in that position. Part of that is just the truth of the story; it really was Kay’s decision. But, in tending to the two narrative fires, the story of Bradlee and his team and the story of Kay and her business, Steven Spielberg shrewdly knows that it is all building toward Kay’s fateful choice to not just publish but to disregard the misogynistic male chorus that attempted to drown her out. It can similarly be no accident that this very talky, sometimes visually subdued film hits its cinematic highs whenever it just empathizes with Kay. Watching her walk into an important Board meeting, Spielberg smartly portrays the Board room as an uncomfortably crowded space; a minefield of power ties. Later, as Kay tries to brush off a misogynistic slight on her competence by thanking her insulter, we see her boxed into the frame by two suit-clad backs. These omnipresent male bodies are a physical impediment to be navigated. Consciously or unconsciously, they push her toward the background of her own scene. Streep really is giving her most beautifully realized, ungimmicky acting in over a decade. She is The Post’s shining star but there is also a sense of an engaged inspired Steven Spielberg whenever she is around. The feeling of commitment and purpose he shows during her scenes stands in stark contrast to that drab, pedestrian opening. He has nothing new to say about soldiers fighting on a foreign shore, but unspooling the thread of Kay’s slowly dawning self-confidence makes his eyes light up.

 

More than anything, what makes The Post the rare case of a social issue film with vitality is how canny it is about creating a hybrid tale of journalism and feminism. The two weave around each other in ways that feel organic and fresh. Maybe the idea is to say something not only about the value of printing stories but about recognizing stories; about how storytellers should think outside of their own narrow worldviews. Ben Bradlee is so fixated on his own hero’s journey and the blow his team is striking against state oppression that it scarcely occurs to him to see Kay’s story. Until his wife opens his eyes to Kay’s position, he appears myopic to the personal stake Kay has as the Post’s owner and to how her status as a woman in business subjects her to a daily volley of pandering misogyny. It does not occur to him to see the story that Spielberg now has the presence of mind to see; that Kay and countless women like her brave a culture that casually, pervasively disrespects their intelligence and their capabilities. He does not see how, in their first scene together, when he snaps that she should keep her finger out of his eye, he is lending his normally noble voice to the malignant chorus that rings in Kay’s ears. He is, for that moment, acting as the antagonist in someone else’s story, and a journalist should be aware of that. The Post deftly dodges the traps of a typical journalism film due to its awareness that there are other battles being fought outside of the one to publish the Pentagon Papers. It becomes an uncommon sort of salute to female solidarity, because Kay Graham is a most atypical flag-bearer. She never sets out to carry any standard or lead any great fight. She is not a crusader. She is a kind, mild-mannered person who cherishes her home life and her children and planning parties. And recognizing that the struggle for women’s rights includes soft-spoken traditionalists like Kay is another way in which this outwardly stately period piece becomes quietly bold. Steven Spielberg may have set out to make a film that was quick and timely. In the wake of the 2016 Presidential election, he felt a need to champion the press’ right to publish and the danger of allowing authority to curtail that right. He gave himself nine months, which is a very short time to secure a script, cast the roles, shoot the picture, and complete post-production. And all that, combined with how prestigious it all sounded on paper, led me to expect something more valuable than actually good. God bless all involved that, in spite of those constraints, everyone involved had the patience and rigor to craft something better than valuable or good. The Post is humane, alive, and fully awake.

 

Of course, we then reach that albatross of an ending. I do not know if the tight schedule is to blame or if this is another case of Steven Spielberg’s perennial struggle with sticking the landing. I know that I already feel comfortable saying that it may be his worst ending and that it is certainly the most laughable when compared with the high quality of the material that precedes it. It could be that same old issue rearing its head. Or perhaps Steven Spielberg simply got tripped up by his own sense or urgency. Perhaps, in viewing Nixon as the unspeakable, mostly unseen villain of his piece, and in remembering that he was trying to hurl a brick at the new heir to Nixonian thuggishness, Spielberg couldn’t stop himself from getting histrionic. What I mean Is sometimes, when we argue passionately against something that incenses us, we can lose some of our focus to all that emotion and righteous anger. Suffice it to say, I think Spielberg tries to twist the knife hard into Richard Nixon, and I believe he twists the knife so hard that it flies right out of his hand, where it embeds itself in his otherwise terrific film. Without saying much more, this last scene gives one the sense that the Washington Post is about to get a visit from an eye-patch clad Samuel L. Jackson, and that Richard Nixon is going to spend his waning years hording plutonium in his Sky Dungeon instead of golfing in sad exile. It is all so tonally out of step with everything else, including that lackluster beginning, that I really have no qualms about chopping it right off. The Post is a great, imperfect film to cap off an imperfect year, but I am very glad to have it. This funny-looking block of cheddar gave me nourishment when so much of the cultural cupboard was bare. And, even in times of abundance, good cheese should never be taken for granted.

Top 20 Films of 2017: #17- Raw

Just a few years ago, I sat down to watch Jennifer Kent’s masterful horror film, The Babadook, for the first time. The opening montage of scenes featured no jump scares; only the suffocating claustrophobia of being a single parent with a particularly clingy child. By the time the opening title appeared, the film had me rapt with attention. I sat enveloped in its spell, tense but also giddy at the reminder that a horror film could do this. I had been an enormous fan of genre masterworks like Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, and Alfred Hitchcocks Psycho, but they were all more than three decades in the past. For years, it had seemed like a horror film’s ceiling was the fun but mild subversiveness of a film like Scream or the generally well-made moodiness of a film like The Ring. Horror could be good, but its virtues had always been mostly at the surface level during my lifetime (The Shining was released the year before I was born). With The Babadook, I was once more watching a film with a gripping sense of tone and aesthetics, but also one with stimulating themes and sharp writing and pitch-perfect acting. And, best of all, they were all working in tandem to create something cohesive and thought-provoking. The Babadook ended up as my fourth favorite film of 2014, a terrifically strong year for cinema. Only five months later, I went with a group of friends to Oakland’s New Parkway Theater to catch It Follows, and that was the night I happily joined my voice to the chorus that had been building. A question had started to reverberate in film culture, steadily rising in volume: will there be a horror renaissance? I still hesitate to say we are, only for fear of jinxing it. I only know that I loved It Follows and wrote a glowing review of it for my 2015 year-end list and that I got to go see David Egger’s bone-chilling subtly feminist The Witch about four months later. The Witch ended up in my Top 10 for 2016. And then, just a few months after that, came the one that barnstormed popular culture. If the aforementioned films were lovely, smart, rapturously received works of art, they were still mostly modest in their impact on wider audiences. But Get Out announced that the surge of nuanced, thematically rich horror films would now be heard and felt by everyone. It broke the box office, hijacked the zeitgeist, and recently made Jordan Peele the first black screenwriter to win the Oscar. Renaissance or no, the cultural juggernaut of Get Out would be more than enough to keep the streak of excellent horror films over the past four years alive and well. So, in this relatively weak year for film, let me give thanks for another gift. What an a marvelous cinema Christmas it is when one not only receives a future horror classic like Get Out, but a nifty, sharp horror debut like Raw as well. As the last film I saw for 2017 list-making purposes, Julia Ducourneau’s perceptive, character-based horror film was the one remaining present underneath the Christmas tree. And if Get Out was the year’s big, shiny Nintendo Switch, I was just as thrilled in a more modest way to have that last gift be something small but special (a great LP or a lovingly curated Criterion Collection DVD perhaps). Really though, Raw was that gift that was all the more perfect because I never knew I wanted it.

 

To cut through the mystery, that unexpected gift happens to be a coming-of-age college character study involving a fair degree of body horror, animal viscera, and a healthy dose of human flesh consumption. Raw is a visceral, nasty little film in the watching and I also find it to be quite sweet and humane in its own unique, skin-crawling way. The film takes place in Belgium, at a small medical college. In a short, seemingly elliptical scene, we see a car driving down a two-lane road somewhere out in the country. A young woman jolts out in front of the car. The motorist swerves to avoid hitting her and instead smashes fatally into a tree. In a wide shot, we see the young woman nonchalantly pull herself from the asphalt and approach the driver side door. The nature of her intentions is part of the central mystery of Raw, but the film immediately cuts to its primary plot. That would be the tale of Justine, a shy, 18-year old girl beginning her first semester at veterinary school. She is a slight, bookish young lady with a face that conveys innocent vulnerability. Her birdlike timidity seems to be accentuated all the more by her anxiety about spending her first evening in a college dorm. The first and most important thing we learn about Justine is that she is a vegetarian. Her parents, also vegetarians, are dropping her off at the same veterinary college where they met and fell in love, and her sister Alex is supposed to meet her and show her around. Alex never shows up, but Justine finds her later that night when the entire freshmen dorm is rousted from its sleep by upper classmen in balaclavas, who force them to attend their first college party. She also meets her roommate, a young, athletic gay man named Adrian. Justine walks bewildered around that first party, until her very inebriated sister finds her and pulls her into a dark room filled with animals in formaldehyde. It seems creepy but Alex is actually just there to show Justine pictures of former classes undergoing their first rite of passage: having animal blood dumped on them and taking their class photo. As disorienting as it all is, Alex tells Justine to look at the photo from their parents’ year, and to see how even their staunchly vegetarian mother looks happy covered in all that blood. It is an early acknowledgment that freshman life will be challenging, particularly at this very ritual-happy college. Still, even the most disgusting parts of growing up carry a sense of adventure and discovery. Less than 24 hours later, Justine is soaked in blood, repulsed but with something resembling a smile on her face. Her least pleasant challenge, however, comes a few minutes later when upper classmen force each and every freshmen to eat a raw rabbit kidney. Justine balks and insists she is vegetarian, but her sister coerces her into completing the ritual. Justine has an allergic reaction to the raw meat and the side effect is a truly revolting body rash, which is the first hint that this will be a gorily unsettling film, if you discount the floating animal fetuses, blood-soaked photos, and people eating animal entrails. One other side effect is that Justine suddenly starts to crave meat. She begins by trying to smuggle a hamburger patty out of the cafeteria and before long she is crouching in front of her roommate’s mini-fridge eating raw chicken cutlets. However, matters really come to head one night when Alex and Justine are drinking and Alex convinces her sister to do a bikini wax. During the inebriated waxing session, Alex accidentally cuts off one of her fingers. Alex feints and Justine calls 9-11 for help. Then she hangs up and looks at the finger. She lets some of the blood drip into her hand. Then she tastes it and she is overcome with hunger. She eats the entire finger and finishes it just in time for her sister to wake up and catch her. We come to learn that the two vegetarian sisters both share the same dark secret: an uncontrollable hunger for human flesh. We come to learn that Alex is the young woman who jumps in front of motorists, purposely causing fatal car crashes so she can feast on the victims. Without going into the entire plot, Raw is a film about going to college, experiencing things we thought we would never try, and trying to alternately contain and satiate new adult hungers. It is also about immersing ourselves in the environment of this college, which is a rather oozy, bloody, visceral place without any of the body horror, just by virtue of being a veterinary school.

 

And the blurred line of where the horror ends and the stickiness of young adult life begins is one of the first things Raw does well and often. If Ducourneau’s film did absolutely nothing else of thematic interest, it would still deserve praise for being one of the most impressionistically sharp depictions of college ever made. It is a vision of college, or wherever we happen to be when we first begin to experience the wider world, as a fetid, smelly, pussy breeding ground from which we emerge as fully formed adults. Granted, a great majority of the people I know did not undergo mysterious, strict rituals or have to obey strange, hierarchies as college students. Even the people I know who joined fraternities and sororities did not end their first week coated in cow blood or have to consume the vital organs of bunnies. Raw is what you might call hyperreal. It uses the uncomfortable, unpredictable tone that comes with horror to create what I would call an impressionistic portrait of college. Still, as strange and off kilter as that portrait is, there is something about it that feels utterly accurate on an emotional level. It uses the same sense of unease to illustrate the anxieties of early college life as it does to show the bloody transformation that only Justine and her sister have to go through. What all those strange, gross rituals are really about is the class that came before foisting their own phobias and aversions on the incoming class. I do not remotely approve of hazing or bullying in real life, but these rituals, as disgusting as they are, are never presented in a malicious way. The upper classmen are clearly winking at their freshman charges that all this pus and circumstance is part of the unnerving fun and discomfort of maturing, especially in a profession that will probably involve opening up animals on a daily basis. They are Puckishly rattling the cages of their young charges, freaking the daylights out of them while also letting them know what a gas it all is. Again, I would never condone pressuring someone to eat raw entrails, or covering two people in body paint and forcing them to blend their colors together in a makeout closet. But Raw is the strange case of a well-acted indie character film that is operating at an operatic pitch. It is a kind of subdued fever dream, all about the sticky thrills and chills of going swimming for the first time in life’s pungent swamp. The film’s ambiguous emotional register is captured in that enigmatic look on Justine’s face as she stands in her blood-drenched class photo: repulsed, a bit rankled, but also amused beyond belief. Raw presents college and adolescence in general as a kind of steamy, sensual haunted house. It is not always pleasant in any conventional sense, but there is pleasure and even growth experience in being frightened. It is a place to dip that first toe into the world’s pool of vice and to discover that there is smaller pool of it within us.

 

Raw is a terrific character study about finding the gleeful sinner inside ourselves. I think all the movie’s provocative, grisly imagery can be taken as metaphor about self-exploration and having new experiences. That said, the best thing about great horror films, even the most cerebral among them, is that they work on our senses. It is vital that we can have a nice, vile time just soaking in the surface details. In explaining what makes Raw such a strange, sickeningly poignant film, I do not want to give short shrift to how much I enjoyed just being jarred and grossed out by it. As Freud may have said during his heady, flesh-eating school days, sometimes a bloody detached finger is just a bloody detached finger. On some level, what the fluids and flesh and meat represent are fluids, flesh, and meat. Going just a bit deeper, I think they represent that time in a person’s life when one suddenly realizes, in a fundamentally adult way, that fluids and flesh are everywhere. Raw is partly about wallowing in a dank, disorienting world of blood, alcohol, sweat, body paint, and moist skin. Not all of it is pretty to look at. I would go so far as to say that most of it is just about the furthest thing from photogenic and that is also Ducourneau’s entire aim. This is not a film about seeing human vice as aesthetically pleasing. It is about showing appetites and obsessions as the queasy things they are. It is that queasiness that makes desire all the more fascinating. If we knew better, we might look at that gristly, glistening slab of meat and feel strange about sticking it in our mouths. We might look at a sweaty, clammy, stinky human body with antiseptic eyes and see it as a bag of fluids and dying skin. Raw shoots meat, both human and animal, in the least pretty way imaginable. It is a film about insatiable appetite that is the very opposite of appetizing. And that, the film says, is what is so marvelous about desire. It is what is so intriguing and powerful about appetite and lust; that our sense of arousal overrides any queasiness. Raw presents fluids and flesh as something both visceral and also powerfully, wonderfully intoxicating. And, like that bucket of blood dribbling down Justine’s face, I believe Julia Ducourneau wants to nauseate us while also giving us a perversely pleasurable tingle of awareness. Maybe life is a little gross when you look at it analytically. But reveling in life’s fetidness also has an uncanny way of making us feel completely alive.

 

What I find fascinating is how Raw handles young adulthood, exploring one’s self, and sex so deftly even before it reveals the full scope of its horror conceit. Justine’s new taste for flesh builds upon the film’s depiction of college as a place to learn new things about what we enjoy, but it also marks a departure from the earlier scenes of group indulgence. The more general scenes of college life are about joining the herd, the big party, but Justine comes to find that her appetites make her very different from everyone else. Everyone gorges, but not everyone desires the same things. Raw takes Justine through her timidness into a place of conforming to the excess of college life, and then it sends her sailing way past that into a place where she feels just as isolated as she did when she was a studious, taciturn vegetarian. Her burgeoning hunger for human flesh and the discovery that she is one of only two people at the school who share that hunger give the film an interest queer subtext, which I find welcome for multiple reasons. First, because we need more films that take on coming-of-age from that perspective. Secondly, because it makes Raw a more fully realized examination of what it is like to discover adult pleasure for the first time. It reminds us that, while anyone’s sexual awakening is bound to be a strange mixture of anxiety and delight, it must be especially bewildering to go through that rite of passage and feel like the only person in your small community who desires and hungers in that same way. What makes Raw so empowering in its visceral, grisly way is in what an interesting, grasping, sympathetic character Justine is. This has a lot to do with the notes of trepidation and lustful curiosity that newcomer Garance Marillier brings to the role, and how the former gradually gives way to the latter. A scene where Marillier lip synchs along with a female rapper in the mirror, while gyrating and putting on lipstick, is one of my favorite pieces of physical, facial acting all year. It is the image of a young woman still tentatively finding herself, but the hesitancy seems to erode a little bit with every movement of her body. Her performance is one of the years’ underrated gems of acting, just as surely as Raw is the year’s great, underseen piece of horror cinema. The truth of Raw is, that beneath all the flaking rashes, oozing cuts, pig fetuses, dog cadavers, and dismembered fingers; beneath all that beastly appetite is really just a well-observed character study about both fearing and loving our most honest selves. What makes me smile fondly is that it is fundamentally a sweet film if you boil it down to its tiniest kernel. What makes me laugh with demented glee is how Ducourneau has caked that sweet little kernel of self-acceptance in as much nasty goo as she can get her hands on. Knowing one’s self is a messy process.

We meet Justine when she is a dry, spotless young thing and we end the semester with her as the empowered, slightly more experienced flesh-eater she is meant to me. Of course, this course in life will not always be easy for her, and the film acknowledges as much. We end with a sly, nasty little that this will be difficult, but it also doubles as an acknowledgment that human beings find a way to roll with the scars and lumps that life deals them. There is an understated note of triumph and pride to her journey that the macabre tone of Raw would never explicitly signal. It is there to be read all the same.  This is a film about the introverted bookworm in the woods learning the dark, scary, inconvenient, intriguing truth about herself, embracing that truth as fully as she can, and starting to boldly assert her new identity. The more I write about Raw, the more overwhelmingly positive I feel about it and about this rickety, uneven cinematic year in general. Any year with a horror film this trenchant, darkly witty, and compassionate towards outsiders is worth honoring. I always pray for as many unimpeachable masterpieces as possible in a given year, but I have to say that, year in and year out, the truth strength of the annual cinematic film crop is shared up by the films that don’t quite reach perfection; that strong supporting string of near-excellent films with their rough edges and oddly beautiful facets. I say “near-excellent” because to use the term “near-great” would imply that Raw is anything less than great, which would be an outright lie. She is a bold, idiosyncratic, hungry, artful beast. If Julia Ducourneau is the humble also-ran in this fine, historic fourth year of the 2010s Horror Renaissance, we underestimate her and her remarkable achievement at our own peril. If Raw is the film year’s quiet little sister, I would not dream of using it as a pejorative. Little sisters grow up to be bloody fierce women.

Carnivorous Couch Oscar Predictions!

Okay,  this won’t be pretty unless you mean pretty last minute, but I managed to crank out some Oscar predictions just before the big ceremony. Feel free to use these to make your own predictions, but I really don’t have a clue what will happen in a lot of these categories. These are educated guesses and most of last year’s educated guesses got utterly decimated.  With that said, here’s how I think it’ll go down.

 

Best Visual Effects:

Will Win: War For the Planet of the Apes

I unfortunately did not manage to see the third and final film in what may be the decade’s best trilogy. I do know, having watched Weta and Andy Serkis bring Cesar to life over the first two top-notch films, that this is probably the one to beat. It’s not just that all the newer Apes films have looked great, it’s how impressive it is to see this level of visual effects work go not just into an environment or a spaceship or a battle but into creating fully realized characters that you believe in. There’s plenty of stiff competition, but I think that the accomplishment of creating Cesar (in tandem with Serkis’ towering acting), combined with the admiration everyone feels for the effects company that brought Lord of the Rings to life, will be enough to give Apes the gold.

 

Should Win: Blade Runner 2049

There’s a very good chance that Apes deserves the win, but since I haven’t seen it, I’ll go with the best visual effects I saw this year. Blade Runner 2049 is an absolutely stunning visual feat, from the grand visions of a futuristic Los Angeles to the smaller character touches. It’s not every year that you get a film create a world out of visual effects that not only looks breathtaking but actually works as a visionary piece of filmmaking. This is arguably year’s best purely sensory accomplishment. I hope it wins and that its win helps encourage more films like it: movies that pair awe-inspiring effects with equally awe-inspiring ideas.

 

Should Have Been Nominated:

I’m certainly no expert on the field of visual effects as an actual art form. Like the casual museum-goer, I just know what I like. I know what I think looks good. I also know that I like when great visual effects do more than prop up the next giant blockbuster extravaganza. For that reason, I’ll crib from the AV Club’s page and say that the Academy should have found space to honor the visuals in Okja, Bong Joon Ho’s lovely, energetic, and tear-jerking tale of a young Korean girl’s quest to save her giant pet superpig from the slaughterhouse. The superpig Okja a handful of other superpigs we meet are really the only visual effect in this movie, but it’s key to the film’s emotional heft that we come to believe in these animals as sentient, emotionally sensitive being. For creating a lifeform out of lines of code and making her one of the year’s most memorable, lovable characters (human or animal), Okja certainly deserved a spot over at least one of the other films nominated here. I’m looking at you, Thanos.

 

Sound Mixing:

Will Win/Should Win:

Quick one sentence layman’s primer: sound mixing is the art of taking sounds that have already been created (a.k.a. sound editing) and deciding how they should be incorporated into the film. I’m probably crazy not to pick Dunkirk here, but I have a feeling that Baby Driver will win at least one of the three awards it’s up for. Baby Driver was a fantastic, fun lark, and it was also the kind of effervescent, carefree lark that was never guaranteed a spot at Oscar’s lofty table. The fact that it not only has three nominations, including the all-important Editing nomination, but also won the BAFTA two weeks ago means that this film is admired a lot. It even got a Producers Guild Award nomination back in January, which means it got real, real close to being a Best Picture nominee. I expect this to win somewhere and, to be honest, this may be where it most deserves to win. Baby Driver is all about playing with a toychest of sound and deciding how it should match the images. This merry-go-round of pop songs, engine vrooms, and gunfire is a great work of sound mixing. Here’s hoping it pulls off this little heist on Sunday.

Should Have Been Nominated:

I’m going to go with a film that I loved in many ways and also hated in a few. It famously got rid of what little score it had, just so it could wallow in the music of its own tortured soundscape. It’s the year’s most miserably grating, audaciously ambitious arthouse nightmare, mother! Leaving aside what about this epically angry, disorienting film works and what doesn’t on a purely thematic level, I can scarcely name a sonic experience that did a better job of getting under my skin. Sonically disquieting even in its less bombastic moments and a literal maelstrom of noise as it starts to descend into the Hell of its third act, Darren Aronofsky’s mother! Is, for better and worse, a testament to how much torture a filmmaker can inflict just through the sounds of a house.

 

Sound Editing:

Will Win/Should Win:

Sound editing is the process of creating the sound that goes into a film, which kind of makes it like the aural equivalent of Visual Effects. In all honesty, its been a pretty remarkable year for big, loud films. The new Star Wars and the new Blade Runner both exceeded expectations, there was a nice crop of really good superhero films, and the little V8 engine that could, Baby Driver. There’s also a very sound-driven film called Shape of Water that’s angling hard for every technical Oscar it can get its hands on en route to a Best Picture win. Tough race is what I’m saying. Still, it’s hard to see this going to anything but Dunkirk. Christopher Nolan created a terse nightmare of popping bullets, groaning ship hulls, rushing water, and sandy explosions. And above all there’s the near-demonic whine of those German aircraft, descending like banshees out of the sky. I love Dunkirk, but even those who don’t can’t deny that it is the year’s most supremely blistering sonic assault.

 

Should Have Been Nominated:

Oh, I don’t even know. We need to get out of these technical categories into areas where I can pretend that I have a clue what I’m talking about. I don’t really have much of an axe to grind with any of the nominees in this category. Even if I find The Shape of Water to beless than a perfect film, it’s hard to argue with its being included here. The feeling of that government lab and the subtle sound design for how the Creature communicates are part of what really works for that film. Baby Driver, Dunkirk, and Blade Runner 2049 are among the standout films of the year on a purely sensory level. And Star Wars is terrific. You leave Star Wars alone, Internet. I’ll just go with Wonder Woman. Watching a woman stand in the middle of No Man’s Land deflecting a whirlwind of bullet fire was one of the great theater experiences of the year, and it certainly could not have worked without good sound editing.

 

Best Production Design:

 

Will Win:

There’s a very good chance that Shape of Water is our Best Picture winner, and a big, lush film like this doesn’t get there without picking up some hardware along the way. And even if it would not be my choice, I’d be hard pressed to say that the production design isn’t the MVP of this film. It’s a world bathed in blues and greens and the aesthetic of the film frankly does a better job communicating the idea of deep emotions fighting to escape the rigid constraints of society than the script does. I think you can take this one to the bank and it won’t be entirely undeserved.

 

Should Win:

Still, the year’s most singular act of world-building is Blade Runner 2049. From the neon hellscape of Los Angeles to the rusty junkyards of San Diego to the orange, dusty ruins of Las Vegas, Blade Runner 2049 never coasts on a single look. Its production design is always working to find new ways to conjure societal rot and make it look hypnotically beautiful.

 

Should Have Been Nominated:

Again, not everything should be about massive scale, though of course Oscar has a very hard time seeing things that way. Production Design shouldn’t always be about the most design work or the most eye-catching scenery. Call Me By Your Name announces in its opening credits that it is going to do a marvelous job filling its spaces (a large home in northern Italy circa 1980, and the surrounding towns) with little details. Old essays, half-filled glasses of apricot juice, crumpled cigarette packs, beads hanging from the doorways of the local bars. This film has a tremendous wealth of perfect, small, lived-in production design and it deserved to be recognized.

 

 

Cinematography:

Will Win/Should Win:

Roger Deakins sits atop the list of glaring Oscar omissions, having been nominated 14 times and never won. He’s a frequent collaborator with the Coen Brothers, the man who brought rustic majesty to the Assassination of Jesse James, and he’s now conjured some of the year’s most breathtaking imagery with Blade Runner 2049. There’s a lot of showy work in Shape of Water and I could make an equally compelling argument for why it might win as part of a very large haul. Still, I think this is finally Roger’s year.

 

Should Have Been Nominated:

The Florida Project saw director Sean Baker step up to a larger canvas (his last film, Tangerine, was shot entirely on an iPhone) and paint a world that was equally beautiful and ugly. The gaudy images of strip malls set against the blue Florida skies or the hazy purples and oranges of twilight at the Magic Castle motel were key in creating an atmosphere perfectly perched between whimsy and sorrow. The camera work by Alexis Zabe helped to make The Florida Project an exquisitely balanced cocktail of gaudy, surreal, and vibrant.

 

Short Film (Animated)

Will Win:

So I didn’t manage to see Denzel Washington’s nominated turn in Roman J. Israel, Esq., but you know what I did manage to see? Every single short film in all three of the categories. It’s a first for me. Let’s start with the weakest category this year: animation. I’m going to take the advice of my friend, Madeleine Covey, who reminded me that most of the Oscar voters live in Los Angeles. For that reason, a lot of them will be fans of the Lakers and of Kobe Bryant, and they will be particularly susceptible to the charms of Dear Basketball, a retirement letter written and narrated by Bryant, animated by Disney legend Glen Keane, and scored by the great John Williams. It wouldn’t be my choice, but it’s a nice, easy heart-tugger that will be appealing to a very friendly jury.

 

Should Win:

Negative Space, the story of a man on the way to his father’s funeral who reminisces about how they used to bond over packing suitcases, is the most clever, the most genuinely moving, and is the only one that features stop-motion animation. It’s got the right balance of eccentricity, humor, and pathos and it’s the only one that I would really feel tremendously eager to revisit.

 

Should Have Been Nominated:

I have not yet reached the level in my film geekery where I can tell you about short films that weren’t nominated. One day though.

 

Short Film (Live Action)

Will Win:

Dekalb Elementary, the story of an elementary school administrator who stops a school shooting through empathy and good listening. It’s one of the better short films in any category and it’s anchored by a good performance from Deloris Crenshaw. Above all, in the wake of all the recent shootings, it’s a topical short film that reminds its audience of a horrific issue without actually being horrific. That means it will make voters think and won’t turn them off by challenging them too much.

 

Should Win:

It’s a toss-up between The 11 O’Clock, a very funny New Zealand about a psychiatrist and his patient who believes that he is actually the psychiatrist, and All of Us, a compassionate true story about a Kenyan bus attack where Muslim passengers disguised and protected Christian passengers. The 11 O’Clock is better written and more novel but I did really like All of Us. It’s the kind of inspirational story that often gets nominated in this category, but I found this one to be focused and engaging in its details, from the pacing to the quality of the performances. I would be happy with either of these films winning

 

 

Short Film (Documentary)

Will Win/Should Win:

This is the first time I’ve watched any of the documentary shorts and I’m quite glad I did. This was the strongest short film category. Even the weakest film, Knife Skills, about a fancy restaurant that trains and employs ex-convicts, was charming, thoughtful, and well made. The best one, however, is Heroin(e), a sobering but very humane look at the opioid crisis, centered in the overdose capital of America: Huntington, West Virginia. I loved this piece of work, which can be viewed on Netflix. It approaches a sad and sobering crisis, but focuses on the efforts of three smart, resilient women: a kind, patient EMT who tends to overdose victims, a lively judge who specializes in rehabilitating drug offenders, and a minister who spends her nights diligently delivering food to the city’s prostitutes. It’s a look at an important issue that feels very alive and I left feeling good. I also cast the roles of the three women in the fictional recreation of the film that exists only in my head because I’m a nerd. Jodie Foster, Meryl Streep, and Kathy Bates can expect a phone call from me in the near future.

 

Animation:

Will Win/Should Win:

I’ll confess that I have only seen two of the nominated films. My two year-old nephew’s favorite, The Boss Baby and Pixar’s lovely, charming Coco. In a pretty weak year for animated films, Coco was the one shining light. It’s the strongest Pixar film in 7 years for my money and it faces absolutely zero competition from any of the other nominated films.

 

Should Have Been Nominated:

I didn’t get to see much animation this year, and it was also a pretty thin year for that genre. I’ll just give a shout-out to a film that I hear great things about: In This Corner of the World. It’s the story of Hiroshima told in the months before the atomic bomb was dropped. I hear it’s lovely, mature, and appropriately sorrowful.

 

Documentary:

Will Win:

There’s a lot of talk about Oscar having a bias against Netflix, but I think there can be cases where being on Netflix helps a film. Icarus and Strong Island  are the two films on this list that is available on the streaming platform, and I think that means they will have been seen by the most people. Strong Island is a bracing look at racism and grief. Icarus is the story of the Russian Olympics doping scandal. With Russian corruption prominently in the news, I think Icarus will win due to its topicality.

 

Should Win:

In truth, I have only seen two of the nominated films, but I have a hard time imagining any film deserving the win more than Faces Places, the touching, effervescent love letter to working class people in France, directed by the ninety-four year-old cinema legend, Agnes Varda. The film sees Varda pair up with a young artist who puts up giant photographic murals on buildings and the two of them take a touching road trip through France to interview people and photograph them. It’s thoughtful and fun and sweet and it culminates with what may be my favorite ending in any film this year. I badly want this win to happen!

Should Have Been Nominated:

Dawson City: Frozen Time, the story of a tiny town that was part of the Yukon Gold Rush and the tins full of long-lost turn-of-the-century films that were excavated under an old building. This was one of the most singular watches I had in 2017, as the filmmakers use clips from these old, forgotten films to tell the story of both movie history and the history of this small town. The surprise is in finding out how many remarkable people actually passed through this little, desolate place. It has the serene feeling of a history book being told through a lullaby and it’s quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

 

Original Score:

Will Win:

Alexandre Desplat is a great composer and he does very strong work on Shape of Water, lending the film its balance between sweet romance and eerie science fiction. The film, as many have said, is Amelie mixed with Creature From the Black Lagoon, and Desplat’s score ably captures that interesting hybrid. This score is what a theremin would sound like if it learned to speak French.

 

Should Win:

Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, who created what may still be the best score of the century for There Will Be Blood, was finally recognized for one of his collaborations with Paul Thomas Anderson: Phantom Thread. It’s the best work in this category by a comfortable margin.

 

Should Have Been Nominated:

If they were more adventurous, they could have gone with Good Time, which draws great power from Oneohtrix Point Never’s schnazzy, pulse-pounding shot of techno adrenaline. If they wanted something more traditional but still great, they could have gone with Tamar-kali’s score for Mudbound, which sounds bluesy and beautifully somber and, like everything else in that film, seems positively caked in Mississippi mud.

 

Song:

Will Win:

A lot of people say that The Greatest Showman’s massive box office could give the win to “This Is Me”. Still, Coco was a tremendous box office success as well and “Remember Me” is a better song that plays a crucial role in the film’s plot. I predict that the husband and wife team of Robert and Kristin Lopez follow up their win for “Let It Go” with a second trophy.

 

Should Win:

Sufjan Steven’s lovely, romantically melancholy “Mystery of Love” from the impossibly lush and romantic Call Me By Your Name. He’s the greatest singer-songwriter of his generation and seeing him perform will be the reward, but I can’t imagine any other song deserving the win.

 

Should Have Been Nominated:

They should have either given Sufjan a second nomination for the beautiful, film-closing “Visions of Gideon” or given a nomination to my favorite song from Coco, “Un Poco Loco”.

 

Foreign Language Film:

Will Win/Should Win:

I’m cheating here. The only nominated film I’ve seen is the harrowing Russian film Loveless, about a miserable divorcing couple trying to find their missing son. It’s very good but I don’t see it winning. My sources tell me that the Chilean film A Fantastic Woman will take home a well-deserved Oscar for telling the empowering story of a transgendered woman grieving her dead lover and standing up to the society that represses her.

 

Should Have Been Nominated:

I still haven’t found a way to watch it, but the big snub in this category seems to be France’s BPM, which tells the story of gay rights activists in the 1980s through a terrific ensemble cast and a focus on character dynamics.

 

Adapted Screenplay:

Will Win/Should Win:

Legendary screenwriter James Ivory’s adapation for Call Me By Your Name helps create a beautiful world of words to stand inside the sumptuous visual world of the film. It’s a beautiful, psychologically rich look at being young, at discovering one’s sexuality, and of experiencing the wonderful, terrible ache of first love. Elio Perlman is one of the most singular, nuanced characters created in a film this year and Ivory deserves a lot of credit for helping to bring him to life.

 

Should Have Been Nominated:

It’s a bit of a thin category, so I’m not upset about anything missing. If I had my way, however, I might have given some love to Sophia Coppola’s well-observed, subtly feminist adaptation of The Beguiled, which took the sleazy, hothouse pulp of the original Clint Eastwood film and gave it interesting new shades.

 

Original Screenplay:

Will Win:

I’m predicting Jordan Peele for penning one of the year’s best horror films, comedies, and lacerating social critiques all in one. It would be a richly deserved win and I think it could very well happen after Peele won at the Writers Guild Awards. That said, Peele was not up against Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which has been utterly dominant this entire awards season. I’m going to predict Peele partly because I think it’s a real possibility and partly because it’s the outcome I would like to see. Adjust your own predictions accordingly.

 

Should Win:

My favorite screenplay is Greta Gerwig’s warm, prickly, and funny Lady Bird. It’s my favorite comedy of the year, it’s my favorite drama of the year, and it’s the year’s richest character study. If I had my way, Lady Bird would be taking Original Screenplay and a whole lot more.

 

Should Have Been Nominated:

You know, I have a reputation for being harsh on baity films, but I really only object to bad bait. So let me earn myself some brownie points here and say that I loved the rich layer of melty prestige that was Steven Spielberg’s The Post. It was a beautiful, writerly, and admirably restrained piece of work and I would have been quite happy with it getting nominated. It’s certainly a better screenplay than Shape of Water.

 

Supporting Actress:

 

Will Win:

Last year was a great night at the Oscars for Brady Larsen. Lonergan and Affleck and Mahershala all won well-deserved trophies and it all culminated with Moonlight completing the sweetest Best Picture upset of all time. And as I stood there, I thanked the Oscar gods and said that I would not get too upset about anything next year because that year had been so perfect. So this is me saying through clenched teeth that I am not the least bit upset that Allison Janney, an actress I adore in most of what she does, will be winning this award for her fun, one-note performance as the world’s most hellish mother in I, Tonya. Not upset. Who said anything about being upset? Certainly not me. It must be the wind.

 

Should Win:

Laurie Metcalf’s beautiful work as a flawed mother that you can actually relate to. (I understand that Lavona Harding is supposed to exactly as bad as Janney portrays her, but that still doesn’t make her interesting to watch). Metcalf’s work as the overbearing but essentially kind Marion MacPherson is a beautiful thing to watch, every bit the equal of the outstanding film around her. Wry, funny, infuriating, fallible and utterly human. It will break my heart not to see this performance win, but there it is.

 

Should Have Been Nominated:

Holly Hunter’s wonderful work as the tough, worried mother in The Big Sick or Jennifer Ehle’s lively, observant work as Emily Dickinson’s sister in the terrific biography, A Quiet Passion.

 

Supporting Actor:

 

Will Win:

Sam Rockwell, whose racist cop with a perhaps-overly-pat redemption arc is the most problematic element of Three Billboards Outside Ebbinng, Missour. Still, Sam Rockwell is one of our greatest character actors and I do think this is worthy of being called great work. I may have to take a hot shower after I call it great work, but it is great work nonetheless.

 

Should Win:

Still, no supporting performance was maybe as great or, frankly, as crucially supportive as Willem Dafoe’s career-best work as Bobby, the manager of the run-down Magic Castle motel in The Florida Project. Meeting this protective, gentle man and seeing Moonnee and Haley’s broken but hopeful world through his eyes was the most moving time I had with a character this year. I’m still frankly shocked that the combined factors of a perfect performance and the chance to honor Willem Dafoe won’t be enough for him to win.

 

Should Have Been Nominated:

Jason Mitchell came out of nowhere a few years ago and wowed me in Straight Outta Compton, but he takes things to another level as a black soldier returning to hostile, racist Mississippi and forming a tentative friendship with his white neighbor’s brother. Mitchell perfectly plays the notes of wounded pride, fear, and essential compassion of a good man trying to adjust to civilian life and form a new friendship in a very dangerous time and place for black Americans.

 

 

Actress:

 

Will Win:

Frances McDormand’s very strong turn as Mildred Hayes in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri will be the winner. Right or wrong, something about the film and Mildred in particular has struck a chord with people and tapped into the MeToo and Time’s Up movements. I’d feel better about that if I thought that Three Billboards had anything really substantive to say about those movements, but so be it. The fact is that this potently acted portrayal of an angry, aggrieved woman giving the world Hell has registered with a lot of people and it’s hard to be too upset at the idea of the great Frances McDormand having a second Oscar.

 

Should Win:

Saoirse Ronan’s portrayal of Christine ”Lady Bird” MacPherson may be the year’s most deft character work, presenting a teenager who is believable, funny, selfish, and completely alive. The job that Ronan and her director Greta Gerwig have done in balancing the comedy, drama, and all-around human messiness of this perfect coming-of-age film is the year’s best film miracle for me. People are saying that this work will assure Ronan a win in the near future, possibly for playing Mary Queen of Scots. Good for Ronan and I do badly want her to win one day, but I don’t need another Oscar for a historic royal. This is the type of performance I want to see honored. Funny, shrewd and vital to its very bones.

 

Should Have Been Nominated:

Brooklynn Prince’s unforgettable work as Moonee in The Florida Project makes me want to rant at every person who uses the word “child performance” as a pejorative. We can talk until we’re blue in the face about how much credit should go to the director of the film for coaxing the performance, but that’s what every director does. Child or adult, this is an utterly great performance, keenly attuned to the film’s lively sense of comedy and to the deep, cavernously dark places the film eventually has to go. I sobbed like an infant at Moonee’s final scene twice and I object to the idea that what she does there is not A-grade acting by a person of any age.

 

Actor:

Will Win:

Gary Oldman is great in Darkest Hour. I won’t even be one of those people who says it’s hammy. Well, actually, I will. It is hammy, but it’s hammy in the right way. Some films call for restraint and realism, but Darkest Hour is history as a great entertainment. I don’t think he’s subtle, but I think that’s because Oldman knows that this is not a subtle film. His approach is pitch-perfect and he’s a Hell of a lot of fun. So, there. I’ve made my peace…

 

Should Win:

… with the fact that Timothee Chalamet’s staggeringly nuanced work as Elio Perlman will not win. And we can again have the Saoirse Ronan conversation and say that this sets this 23-year old wunderkind to take home an Oscar one day. And all I can say is that I hope it happens and that he deserves it, but this work right here is undeniable. This is the year’s strongest acting performance, full-stop. Probably of the last few years. I know that this won’t happen and that he’s young and will have time, but it does bother me. Chalamet will be great again, I’m sure, but I don’t know when he will be this great again. I frankly don’t know when anyone will be.

 

Should Have Been Nominated:

Guess what, Twilight readers? 2017 was the year that I became a Robert Pattinson fan. Part of that was his terrific, quiet performance in James Gray’s The Lost City of Z, but the big one is the Safdie Brothers’ Good Time, in which Pattinson plays one of the greatest ne’er-do-wells I have ever seen. Pattinson’s Connie Nikas, a shifty, low-rent criminal trying to break his mentally handicapped brother out of prison after a botched bank robbery, is a jagged bundle of desperation, flop sweat, and bad decision-making. Watching his dark night of the soul was simultaneously one of the most entertaining and appalling film experiences I had all year And there are precious few films I can say that about.

 

Director:

Will Win:

Guillermo del Toro is a lovely human being. If anyone else were winning director for Shape of Water, I would be kind of appalled. But seeing that cuddly hobbit of a man with his little spectacles and his breathless enthusiasm for film up on stage will take at least some of the sting off of the win. And don’t get me wrong, Shape of Water is a pretty film with a meticulous aesthetic and one grade-A performance from Sally Hawkins. All of that is to del Toro’s credit, even if I don’t find Shape of Water to be a particularly directorial achievement.

 

Should Win:

Greta Gerwig directed my favorite film and deserves a lot more credit than she has gotten for the quiet, nuanced approach she takes. But if not her, I am flabbergasted that the kinetic energy, suffocating tension, and frenzied pacing of Dunkirk will not be enough to secure Christopher Nolan the win. In July, Nolan winning was the surest thing I could imagine and I’m pretty sure I quietly prayed for something unpredictable to happen. I should have been more careful what I wished for.

 

Should Have Been Nominated:

Sean Baker’s The Florida Project is the year’s greatest directorial achievement. It has everything. The greatest performance of master thespian Willem Dafoe’s career sharing the screen with great performances from non-professionals. A beautiful balancing of whimsy and heartbreak. A keen eye that sees economically depressed Kissimee, Florida as both a place dreams go to die and a place where dreams are born if you are young and innocent enough to see the beauty in everything. A profound sense of empathy for those trying to get by in this relentless world. And finally, after creating something between a Terrence Malick film and Bicycle Thieves, he pulls one last card out of his sleeve and drops the year’s most jaw-dropping ending. It’s wholly original and also feels like it’s just always existed, which means that Sean Baker created something perfect. I wish he were nominated, but I take solace in the simple fact that this beautiful film now exists.

 

Picture:

Will Win:

It’s a hard year for predicting Best Picture. The Shape of Water won the Producers and Directors Guild Awards and its big competitor, the SAG-winning Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has no Director nomination. Still, Three Billboards has otherwise been on fire, including winning the BAFTA. The other wrinkle is that the Oscars use a special ranked ballot that makes it harder to win if you’re a polarizing film. There are a handful of people thinking Get Out could pull it off because of how popular it is with voters of all stripes. I would like to see that, but I think that this is going to go to Shape of Water. Fish sex aside, this film does not seem to be nearly as divisive as it looks on paper. It turns out that a lot of people really like the weird science fiction, Cold War paranoia, outsider romance film and just about everyone loves the big, geeky ball of positivity who directed the thing. With a lot of wins already in its pocket and a Best Director win guaranteed, I think Shape of Water will take home the big prize.

 

Should Win:

I’m rooting for Get Out to pull this off because I think it’s in the realm of possibility and it’s one of the year’s true masterworks. That said, I want Lady Bird to win even though I know that won’t happen.

 

Should Have Been Nominated:

Well, obviously The Florida Project. But since I’ve talked at length about that, here’s a round of applause for two other great films that barely missed the nomination: The Big Sick and Mudbound,

Top Films of 2017: #19- Blade Runner 2049

The original 1982 film, Blade Runner, is one of the great cornerstones of science fiction cinema. Among its myriad virtues as a work of art, one that has been crucial in its growing reputation since the 1980s is how prescient it has been. Prescient both in establishing a lot of the aesthetic touchstones of the sci-fi genre and in its ideas about the evolving relationship between human beings and technology. From rapid developments in the “I” portion of AI to ongoing conversations about how filtering life through a digital lens either erodes or enhances human socialization, Blade Runner’s musings about the uneasy nexus between humanity and machinery seem to grow more topical by the day. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner debuted to relative shrugs a full thirteen years before the Internet would make its grand popular entrance in a flurry of AOL Free Trial CDs and by the time Facebook arrived in 2004 to declare that we would all henceforth live on the Internet, it had basically become something of a grizzled elder statesman. It makes all the sense in the world that our times should have their own Blade Runner film, but it was also a real risk to make one. It’s a dicey move to build upon any well-regarded film, much less a groundbreaking, ceaselessly influential genre classic. There were a lot of variables that could have gone awry. Young French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve is an immensely talented filmmaker, who proved only last year, with the beautiful and haunting Arrival, that he knows how to craft a science fiction world that has both epic scope and a rich sense of emotion and tone. Still, he is still early in his career and this is no less than one of the sacred texts of modern pop culture. That first film is mentioned in the same hushed tones as the first two brilliant Star Wars films and it brings with it the added challenge of being the thornier, colder, more idiosyncratic cousin to those films. The chance of some turbulence in revisiting this most moody and cerebral of sci-fi worlds was all but guaranteed, and I adjusted my expectations accordingly. It is quite a relief then to say that Blade Runner 2049 is not simply a case of failure averted. This is a major piece of work and the blessed case of a blockbuster with peerless art film credentials. It is beautiful and bracing and cool, and if I cannot yet commit to call it a full-stop brilliant film, then so be it. That does not tarnish its beauty. If anything, all it does is move it even closer into the company of its predecessor; a film to inspire appreciation and awe and just a little bit of puzzlement. Like Blade Runner, Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 cultivates an air of almost aloof headiness, but it wears it very well.

Blade Runner 2049 picks up 30 years after the events of the first film, in a Los Angeles that has only grown more shadowy and sinister in that time. Since then, society has continued to create robotic servants called replicants to attend to all manner of human needs. The opening title cards inform us that after the last generation of replicants started rebelling, the government initiated a “blackout” to erase their memories. A wealthy tycoon named Niander Wallace (played broadly but effectively enough by Jared Leto) has stepped in to reinvigorate the flailing robotic industry by creating a newer, more advanced form of replicant that does not have the same rebellious tendencies as previous generations. Despite this newer, more obedient class of replicants coming to the fore, there is still a need to retire the older class and this is where the titular blade runners come in. The job of a blade runner is to hunt rogue replicants and neutralize them, either by convincing them to turn themselves in or by forcefully terminating them. Our protagonist is a blade runner named K (Ryan Gosling, once again proving that he can make steely stoicism feel engaging). K has a knack for retiring replicants, which probably has a lot to do with the fact that he is one himself. In the film’s opening scene, K goes to the house Sapper Morton, (a fine single-scene performance by Dave “Drax the Destroyer” Bautista, in a film filled with fine single-scene performances), a replicant attempting to live the quiet life of a protein farmer. After neutralizing Sapper, K completes his due diligence of searching the premises and finds what look like human bones under an old tree. Forensics tests confirm that they belong to a female replicant and further inspection reveals that this replicant managed to do the impossible: give birth to a child. We come to learn that this replicant is Rachel, who Harrison Ford’s Deckard fell in love with and ran away with at the end of the first film. Blade Runner 2049 is dense with plot, but the main thrust is that K comes to believe that he may be the birth child of Deckard and Rachel. At the same time, his commanding officer (played with understated grace and gravitas by Robin Wright) has ordered him to find and neutralize the replicant offspring. While K is investigating with the aid of his personal AI and paramore, Joi (Ana de Armas, the warm, beating heart of this chilly film), another party is also trying to track down the offspring’s identity. This other party is Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), a female replicant so intelligent, physically lethal and ruthlessly efficient that Wallace uses her as both a key executive in his company and as a kind of all-purpose fixer. She is also the only one of Wallace’s replicants to earn a real name. The film is about K’s quest to track down Deckard and learn about his birth, while simultaneously seeming to comply with his mission as a police officer and staying a step ahead of Luv, who wants to find the offspring for Wallace so he can discover the secret to making his own replicants fertile. A great deal more happens involving a great many small, potent characters, but I think I should stop there. Suffice to say that Blade Runner 2049 is an epic in every sense of the word. The most convincing criticism I have heard is that Blade Runner 2049 has an overwhelming, glacial sensibility to it, and I would not entirely disagree with this. The film is 2 hours and 40 minutes long and it would not be wrong to say that you could make a version of Blade Runner 2049 that is shorter while still being cohesive. Still, a nice, trim version of Blade Runner 2049 would be antithetical to everything that the film is. This is the kind of film that invites you to get lost and absorbed in its world and that world is one of the most stunning, gorgeously conceived science fiction universes I have ever seen. From the hazy neons of futuristic Los Angeles to the vast fields of rusty scrap metal that fill what used to be San Diego to the giant, crumbling statues of women that peer vacantly over the dusty, fallen ruin of Las Vegas. This is an absolute marvel of production design for which no words will suffice and a film with this sense of world-building was never going to look anything less than staggering. To top it all off, the whole spectacle is lensed by the brilliant Roger Deakins, quite possibly the greatest living cinematographer. This is the man who captured the frigid, snowy wastes of Fargo and draped the American South of O Brother Where Art Thou? in emerald greens and honeyed golds. Spending time in this beautiful and ominous world, full of shadows, glowing lights, steam, and smog is key to what makes Blade Runner 2049 a great film and it is crucial that we take a nice, long soak in that milieu. The longer we spend there, the more we can succumb to the power and the mystery of the questions it is asking.

Like the first Blade Runner, the central question at the heart of Blade Runner 2049 is really that of what makes a person, or at least what makes a being sentient. And if that old heady standby is the kind of prompt that has been firing up stoned college dorm debates since at least as long as the first Blade Runner debuted, then Blade Runner 2049 is proof that big, starry-eyed discussions about consciousness  are still worth having when they are done right. In the case of this film, that means approaching the subject with a healthy dose of rigor to undercut any of the pretension we may be expecting. It also means viewing consciousness as more of an emotional quandary than an intellectual one. To put it another way, Blade Runner 2049 is refreshing because it does not come at the premise of intelligence and personhood with the aim of blowing minds. It knows it is not nearly the first movie to broach this topic. Instead, it succeeds by going for our hearts. The film does not need to definitively answer whether an AI can ever truly be sentient or where intelligence ends and the soul begins, because it is more concerned with the subjective experience of questioning one’s existence. It is curious about the strange, soulful ache that must come with any kind of consciousness and what that feels like. Both Blade Runner films are largely about how terrifying, sad, and bewildering it can be to just realize that one exists. Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 can be counted among the most jaw-dropping visual experiences ever put to cinema. They are blockbusters. But I think the fact that the Blade Runner series fits, however uneasily, into popcorn cinema can make people forget that these films are also melancholic tone poems. The first film practically ends with its antagonist resigned to death, delivering an elegiac, heart-rending soliloquy on the erosion of memory and the transience of all life. And this, I would say almost without hesitating, is the most iconic scene. The first Blade Runner contains action and romance and detective noir and it is beloved for all of those elements, but it solidifies its status as a science fiction masterpiece because a sad android sits broken in the rain and laments the fact that he has to die. These films deliver terrific spectacle, but the emotional through-line of this now-franchise is simply that consciousness is a complicated phenomenon; that it is a scary thing to know that one is awake and breathing, and an even scarier thing to know that one will one day cease to do those things. Blade Runner 2049 avoids the pitfalls of the freshman philosophy debate because it does not overstep its bounds by offering answers it lacks. It follows its predecessor’s lead by bathing itself in a reverie of awe-struck wistfulness. It has many questions but most of its answers are white noise. The only sure answer seems to be that we should be kind to anything that exists because existence is a strange and scary thing. To quote my favorite album, Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, how strange it is to be anything at all.

 

Blade Runner 2049 is not simply asking us tough questions that it cannot answer. I think these films are about how we, as human beings or replicants or whatever lifeform we happen to be, direct those questions out into the ether, to anyone and anything that may be listening. Like the first Blade Runner, Blade Runner 2049 is about the notion of God or gods or whatever we think created us. K is propelled forward by a sudden yearning to know why he exists. Just as many human beings look to various deities for some sign that they are loved by those that created them, both K and his kindred enemy Luv are moved by a need to have some sign that they are loved by their architects. For Luv, this means doing everything in her power to stay in Niander Wallace’s good graces. Beneath her veneer of steely professional competence is a naked hunger for her creator’s approval. For K, who spent much of his life in an orphanage with no hope of ever knowing what created him, the sudden sense that he might have a human father sends him on a mission to find his own creator. Whether we are seeking acceptance from a celestial parent or a biological one, Blade Runner 2049 posits that to be alive is to grasp toward some kind of validation from the powers above us. And as much as K’s quest is about discovering whether replicants can create life for themselves, it is just as much borne out of an unspoken need to find someone who wanted him to exist. This is not a novel philosophy. The idea of a higher power being akin to a parent is a fundamental part of many religions. But Blade Runner 2049 uses it as another emotional building block. It is another layer of fog that the film adds to the experience and another way of showing how thin the line is between humans and replicants. All sentient beings feel self-doubt. They appeal to something greater than themselves for a direction through the mist. It is human to look to our parents and hope that we have made them proud. In the film’s final battle, Luv tells K, “I’m the best one.” It is a moment of arrogance and it comes from the film’s villain, but the line carries an air of sad, almost childish insecurity. The unflagging hunger for her god’s love is what drives Luv to do monstrous things. She may be the most powerful replicant ever built, but she is just as prone to neediness and vulnerability as any other being on the planet. To be alive is to be frail and exposed with our loudest boasts thinly covering our weak points like scraps of tattered cloth.

 

What makes Blade Runner 2049 so much more than an acceptable sequel to Blade Runner is how it does more than ape its predecessor’s philosophical talking points. Like any good sequel, Blade Runner 2049 has an impeccable understanding of the questions that drove the first film and also has ideas about how to expand them. It manages to take Blade Runner’s ideas about the need for love and validation from God or a parent and apply them to the human ache to feel significant to the world around us. While K wants to meet Deckard so he can finally know his father, there is also a deeper longing to learn that he is important. The notion that he could be the figurehead of the greater struggle for replicant personhood shakes him out of his ennui and opens his eyes to a cause that he had formerly ignored. Learning of this destiny will mean he is valued, not only by his parents but by the world at large. Joi tells him that she has always known he is special. This need to be unique, to find that we are indispensable to the world, is what drives K to disregard his orders and rewrite the rules of his mission. It also makes him more similar to Luv than he might ever want to believe. Luv may be desperate to be seen as superior in the eyes of one powerful man, but K is just as desperate to receive a badge of honor from the Universe. Without giving too much away, Blade Runner 2049 throws a wrinkle into K’s vision of himself as a central player in the fate of the world. The film slyly plays into the narrative of the Chosen One, only to subtly invert it in the name of asking insightful questions about what it means to be important. The film sees some folly in the human need to find a hero’s narrative for ourselves, but it is not judgmental of it. As with all its other musings about what it means to be human, Blade Runner 2049 is curious and sympathetic about how people grasp ceaselessly toward some grand purpose. On the one hand, even a delusional belief in our own significance can sometimes embolden us to do things that are courageous and noble and quite beyond what we initially thought ourselves capable of. Still, the film sees folly in the idea of being chosen. Progress, revolution, and social change are complicated forces that require the actions of a great many individuals, and it is probably naïve to think that they could ever hinge on one pivotal figure. The idea that you are that one missing puzzle piece is wrongheaded, but what you are is a single, small thread in the complex, interweaving tapestry of human agency. Every sentient creature has been given the ability to make its own decision and an individual decision can be a thing tremendous power. No one is chosen, but you can choose yourself. You can opt in to what is right and opt out of what is wrong and that power can be a reminder that you are neither powerless nor alone.

 

For all the questions it raises about agency, consciousness, and personhood, Blade Runner 2049 excels best as a movie about the sensory experience of what it means to be alive. In that light, it is fitting to me that the film’s most poignant insights into what it means to exist involve small, tactile pleasures. To be alive is to be able to sense the world around you and come to appreciate it, not as a means to an end but for the strange, beautiful, singular experience it is. When a jaded K confronts Sapper Morton in the film’s opening, he finds the farmer has been doing more than growing tasteless protein for the world’s cities. He has been harvesting a small stash of garlic for himself. K smells it when he enters the house and Sapper asks if he would like to try some. K does not see the point. He declines Sapper’s offer and then dutifully kills him. K’s major arc is about finding out if he has an all-important destiny but I think it is also about him finding something deeper than duty. I do not know if K would accept a piece of garlic by the film’s end, but I do believe it finds him closer to understanding that life is about luxuriating in small pleasures. When he finally finds Deckard, Deckard utters a line from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. It is about wanting some cheese and Deckard speaks it as if it were the key line in some religious text. He says it as if it were the password to get into some speakeasy and he waits to see if it resonates with K in any way. Does cheese mean anything to you? Does a piece of pop music awaken anything in your soul? Can life be about more than fulfilling our programming or completing some world-altering mission we have created for ourselves? Do you see the joy in the ephemeral, inessential minutiae of life? What does the smell of garlic mean to you? You wouldn’t happen to have a piece of cheese, would  you, boy? This is the true essence of the film and it is why I do not need Blade Runner 2049 to be a concise, terse, declarative piece of work. It is about atmosphere and confusion and the senses. To be alive is to be pulled screaming into a waking dream full of color, sounds, smells and tastes. Life is a mystery, but not the kind that you need to solve.

Top 20 Films of 2017: #20- Kedi

2017 gave me many an opportunity to feel thankful. A new job in  the lovely, little city I call home. Countless moments in the company of friends and family. The opportunity to spend time with an amazing nephew just as he’s finding his inimitable two year-old swagger. I saw Chicago for the first time and I made the decision to ask my spouse to marry me. And with all of that said, let me not mince words: I could never bring myself to call 2017 a good year. The past 12 months have been frequently beset with gloom, from the mass shooting in Las Vegas to the deluge that swept through Houston. From the conflagrations that razed my home state of California to the profane Hydra of avarice, apathy and bigotry that besieged Washington D.C. And for all the many reasons I love Film, chief among them is its ability to raise its voice in times of conflict. At its best, Film speaks to us of our environment and calls out injustice. And 2017, more than any other year in recent memory, really was a time for Film to smear black makeup under its eyes and help lead the good fight. I am pleased to say there were a number of films that did just that. Some such films appear higher on my year-end list. Others (The Shape of Water, Wonder Woman, Coco) did not make my list, but nonetheless hold my undying admiration for the fine, noble, humane ideas they represent. But as much as this is a time for fortitude and human solidarity, I must confess that the first film on my list is not any great statement about the kind of year 2017 was. It has no real fire to breathe and is not even primarily concerned with humanity at all. What Kedi, one of the three best documentaries of 2017, does provide is a kind of salve for the burns and abrasions of a tough year. As I type this, even a word as modestly comforting as “salve” feels almost hyperbolic for a movie this disarmingly sweet, but it feels right. Precious few of this year’s films soothed and reassured me the way this one did. At the end of the day, maybe I just came to realize what the greater Internet has known for decades now: as a home remedy for anxiety and dread, there are few cures more effective than watching videos of cats.

 

I do have my tongue a little bit in cheek in calling Kedi a cat video, but it gives me joy to think of it that way. If watching moving images of felines in all their majesty, eccentricity and hilarious inscrutability has long been one of the most reliable sources of joy and relaxation for an entire planet of web surfers, then it only stands to reason that there should be a filet mignon of the genre. What I love about Kedi is that I can call it the high watermark of cat behavior films, mean it sincerely, and have that be the least of the various compliments it deserves. It is also an ingenious little hybrid of a nature documentary, in which the natural environment happens to be a city. Kedi is not merely a cat movie but a movie about feral cats specifically, and it is even more specifically about the teeming multitude of feral cats that make their home in the Turkish capital of Istanbul. It is a film about the many cats who call this ancient city home and it is about what these peculiar, enigmatic animals mean to that city. One of the most effective conceits of Kedi is how the filmmakers set out to know the cats better by knowing the city better, and vice versa. The documentarians follow the cats through this urban landscape and a good part of the wonder comes from how well they assume a cat’s perspective. It is one thing to distantly film lions across a wide open savannah and quite another to literally shadow the wild version of a house cat through the bustling streets and narrow alleyways of a dense cityscape. The filmmakers embrace the challenge, not only following their feline subjects into little shops and down side-streets, but using smaller cameras to go with them into the smaller nooks that naturally make up an undomesticated cat’s environment. The cameras follow the cats down into the small crevices beneath sidewalks to chase rats and up on to high ledges of old buildings. While I have thus far described Kedi as a sweet and modest film, I have to applaud it for being quite a dexterous, energetic piece of filmmaking. In its humble way, it is the kind of documentary I always want more of: curious, observant, and filled with just as much cinematic verve as it needs. The film also gains considerable charm from not simply being about cats in general, but by looking closely at specific cats. One Istanbul resident marvels that every cat has its own unique personality and Kedi latches onto that idea by giving each cat its own self-contained chapter. One is a mother embracing a newfound sense of courage and responsibility. One is a charismatic ne’er-do-well with a penchant for breaking and entering and getting into fights he is incapable of winning. Another is an enterprising hunter who offers his rodent-killing services to a nice restaurant in exchange for a daily supply of fine fish entrails. One cat is a troublemaker who throws his weight around the local marketplace, and the film salutes his rebellious moxie by giving him his own Turkish rock soundtrack. I do not think I am incorrect in calling Kedi a modest film, but there is also such an engaging sense of detail to these animals and their hometown. I could concede that it is a film with humble aspirations, but it is also too attentive, sincere, and genuinely engaged to ever be slight.

 

What makes Kedi so much more than the sum of its feline parts really comes down to a delicate balance of tone. When I first saw the film, I gushed that I had just seen a Linklater film about cats, which is basically the nicest thing that could come out of my mouth, if you know what a lyrical, animal-loving, sentimentalist I am. In the end, what I really mean is that Kedi is warm, gentle, subtly spiritual, and it left me feeling very good about being alive. What really put me in mind of Richard Linklater is probably how lovingly it honors a great city without that ever being its raison d’etre. And here is where Kedi adds another notch to its belt: it stands among the finest travelogues I have ever seen without explicitly setting out to be a travelogue. Much as Linklater’s divine Before Sunrise blissfully captured the heart of Vienna by just watching its romantic leads stroll through it, Kedi paints a vivid portrait of modern Istanbul just by following the cats through a beautiful, old city and staying keenly attuned to how they interact with it. The film’s first title card notes that Istanbul’s cats have been a part of its character and its very architecture for thousands of years, and one of Kedi’s chief arguments is how the lifeforms that occupy a space help to define its personality. Istanbul is not just a city full of cats, in the way that New York City is a city full of rats. Istanbul is a place that draws an ineffable essence from its most famous animal, and there is great beauty in how it continues to shelter and nurture them. And while I would defend Kedi to the end of my days if it were just the best “cat video” ever made, I can now say that it is much more than that. It is about the soul of Istanbul and how it has become inextricably linked with the spirit of the wild cats that have spent generations upon generations living and thriving there. In that way, it seems to posit that what makes a city beautiful transcends mere architecture. The beauty of a place must be understood through the lifeforms that call it home. The film’s first image is a panorama of the rooves of Istanbul. I came to appreciate how the film starts from this removed, aerial position and then zooms down into the tiny cracks that truly make up the city. In that way, Kedi says to me that, for as much as one can grasp the beauty of a city from a postcard or the view from an airplane, the true joy of any place exists at the ground level. In the end, Kedi’s twin successes as both a cat documentary and a travelogue of Istanbul do not exist in isolation. They support each other in the same way that the cats and the city have for so long. Following the cats allows us to see Istanbul intimately, and getting to know Istanbul in its finest details allows us to better understand the cats. Kedi is something I had never seen before: a heartfelt tour of a gorgeous city, conducted by that city’s power animal.

 

But what I love the most about Kedi, and what takes it beyond being one of the more novel, well-crafted nature documentaries ever made is how it follows Werner Herzog’s insight in Grizzly Man that films about wild nature are really films about human nature. In seeing these street cats as the key to unlocking Istanbul, the filmmakers also imply that these animals can help us understand the generous soul of the city’s people. The filmmakers have palpable love for the way Istanbul’s residents not only tolerate these street cats but treasure them. Kedi shows how a spirit of kindness and curiosity toward another lifeform is really a manifestation of self-curiosity and self-love. On some level, it is about the human tendency to project ourselves on to animals and how that can help put us in touch with our better angels. Animals can be a reflection of our best selves and our aspirations of who we wish we could be. One young woman looks at a cat she feels close to and admires her eloquence and proud femininity. She sees this animal and suddenly she wishes that more women in Turkish society felt as empowered to be defiant with their womanhood. A chef at a fancy delicatessen regards the cat who regularly patronizes his restaurant as an animal of both regal bearing and polite humility. He likes that this animal is determined to find a meal, yet never outwardly begs for his food. He refers to him as a cat with manners; an animal with the refined self-possession of an aristocrat and the moxie of a street kid. As I watched this proud man talk, I wondered how much his impression of this particular cat tapped into a sense of self. I could now imagine a man of meager beginnings who had molded himself into a person of sophistication and substance. And beyond mere projection, Kedi is also about that most precious quality in human beings: empathy. The ability to look at something that is not yourself and care for it. Kedi introduces us to two men who have experienced some hardship and found a renewed feeling of hope and compassion in these street cats. One suffered a financial setback when his boat sank and the other experienced a nervous breakdown. Both have found something restorative in helping the cats, checking in on them and bringing them food and medicine. They seem to have found solace and strength in the simple act of being good to another life in need. “They make you fall in love again”, one man muses contentedly.

 

Kedi is also about the value of basic gratitude for the world around us, be it a cat, a beautiful old city, or a fellow human being. That sense of humble joy really resonated for me on a second viewing. Kedi is filled with a sense of wonder and thankfulness for the simple joys of life and, without making any great fuss about it, I think the film is about how that sense of appreciation can be a bedrock for your soul in times when life feels harsh and austere. One man reflects that if you can find joy in looking at a cat, then the world will be yours. That is a feeling I have long held. That life’s greatest gift is just consciousness itself and our ability to sense and experience the tiniest pleasures of the world around us. And now I want to be very careful not to come off like some sedated self-help guru cliché; to not venture out of my depth and into a quagmire of cheap bromides and pat slogans. There are weighty matters in this wide world of ours, and a great many of them cannot be satisfied by gratitude and appreciative acceptance. I am fairly sure there are quite a lot of injustices that will only start to get better when humanity becomes less grateful and accepting. A sweet, humane film about cats will not fight off any of the threats that loom over our world, nor will it marshal any significant ideological sea change. There are real battles to be fought and serious discourses to be had and, as I said before, I look to Film to get its hands dirty in all of that. But battles do not just need weapons, armor, and ammunition. Wars also require poultices, bandages, and salves. Small trifles still have value in times of strife. We will still have need of gangly comedies, featherweight romances, and glitzy musical extravaganzas. And I am happy to say I am not so far gone that I do not feel a profound sense of adoration for this generous, lyrical cat video. Kedi is a small, good thing and the ability to appreciate small, good things is a way of checking our pulses to make sure we are still human. If Kedi is not a great mirror for our times, it is nevertheless some more humble form of mirror, capable of reflecting ideas that are warm-hearted, wholesome, and no less valuable for being small.

Top 20 Films of 2016: #11- Jackie

We hear the sound of Jackie before we ever see Jackie Kennedy. Before the famously forlorn First Lady’s face appears, the woozy opening notes of 2016’s best score envelop and disorient us. The buzzy, droning strings of Mica Levi’s menacingly pretty, beautifully tense composition sound out over a black screen before one sees a single frame of Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s visually distinct film. I think this is an important decision. Jackie’s music may be the best possible representative for what a paradoxically familiar and discombobulating piece of work it is. And “discombobulating” is about as fine a compliment as I can come up with for a film in a genre that, year to year, can be trusted to produce its fair share of lazy, formulaic films: the biopic. Jackie is a great biographical film for its keen insights into history, the way legacies are authored by the people who lived them, and what the lens of fame can do to something as universally human as death and loss. But, before it is about any of those things, Jackie is really about the subversion of the very idea of a traditional biopic and that first anxious exhalation of its score is basically the sounding shot to let us know this will be the case. The DNA of a stirring prestige biography is buried somewhere inside of Jackie, just as the sentimental strings and dignified horns of a standard stuffy biopic’s score are also there, struggling to make themselves heard over the more alien sounds. But the traditional polish of prestige has been scrubbed off, like some unvarnished piece of silver, to reveal all the rust and tiny cracks and strange protrusions that would have been tastefully sanded off of a standard biopic. Those first eerie notes announce a historical film that will be uncommonly honest as a picture of genuine human beings. However, Jackie also resists the idea that any biography can be entirely free of fiction. Mica Levi’s sinister strings and droning horns are partly symbolic of a biopic with more authentic warts, but they also call to mind a dense, confusing fog. They set the tone for a film that looks piercingly and unflinchingly at Jackie Kennedy and the days surrounding the Kennedy assassination but that also shrugs off the idea that its own idiosyncrasy makes it any less manufactured and fictitious than any other cinematic biography. Minutes after witnessing her husband’s death, Jackie Kennedy takes a hard look at her teary, blood-smeared face in an Air Force One mirror and then blurs her own image away with a swipe of her hand. And this is more or less how Pablo Larrain seems to see history in general; as something forever shifting in and out of focus.

 

Jackie is the story of Jackie Kennedy in the week or so following the Kennedy assassination, but that story is set adrift in a dreamy haze of memories. The FIrst Lady is played as a dynamic, oscillating whirlwind of anguished vulnerability and self-aware poise by Natalie Portman. Jackie Kennedy is the best work of Natalie Portman’s career, and, if Jackie didn’t already give me so much to talk about, I could easily make this review entirely about her performance. While Jackie Kennedy tells her story to a reporter from Life magazine (Billy Crudup), we go back in time to the immediate aftermath of the Kennedy assassination and sometimes back to the more distant past, to when the First Lady would put on grand concerts in the White House ballroom or to when she gave a televised tour of the Presidential home that she had taken great pains to decorate with important historical pieces. The film presents Jackie as someone who believed in the value of great legacies and beautiful cultural artifacts, even as her husband dismissed it as a waste of money. The story at the center of Jackie‘s foggy reverie is Jackie Kennedy’s desire to give her husband the best state funeral that money can buy, both as a sign of love for him and as a means of ensuring that he is remembered by his country. On the night of the assassination, as she and Bobby Kennedy are being driven away from the hospital where John has just passed away, Jackie asks the driver what he knows of past Presidents. She asks if he remembers anything of James Garfield, William McKinley, and Abraham Lincoln. Even though all three were assassinated, Lincoln is the only one whose legacy he can really recall. Jackie recalls that Lincoln was mourned with perhaps the most elaborate, ornate funeral in American political history and she sets about to seeing that her husband is memorialized with just as grand a gesture.  The true essence of watching Jackie is less about its basic plot than it is about bathing in its intoxicatingly sorrowful ambience and listening to its heady, rhetorical digressions. Cursing the fact that his brother got to do very little with his time as President outside of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Bobby Kennedy (played very well by Peter Sarsgaard) says that “history is harsh”, and this is something that Jackie, for all her love of history, also sees. Pablo Larrain’s film is about Jackie Kennedy having her own private war with the fickle beast that is History. It is her fight to ensure that her family’s legacy does not become lost to time and she shrewdly sees the funeral as a crucial battleground.

 

If Mica Levi’s undulating uneasy musical blend of reverent grandeur and dizzy discord is a good representative of the film as a whole, Jackie’s other technical elements also do an excellent job of tapping into the film’s themes of history as something too slippery to be entirely pinned down. Stephane Fontaine’s cinematography is beautiful and grand and showy and it has its share of shots that would not look out of place in the kind predictably lavish prestige picture that is Jackie’s disreputable kin. But somehow, once again, something elusive and unnerving is at play inside the familiar form. I am struggling to put into words why a white monument, bathed in fog, on top of a hill behind John F. Kennedy’s final resting place at Arlington feels different; not just haunting but almost haunted. In any ordinary film, the shot would still have a kind of gorgeous solemnity, which is also partly the point here, but there is also a kind of restless, bristling energy to the way Jackie uses a shot like this. As Jackie makes her firm, final determination of where her husband should be buried, there is an undercurrent of anxiety. My most current, and not at all certain, take is that we may be feeling Jackie Kennedy’s own mixture of dread and awe at the very idea of people having final resting places; the notion that living, breathing human beings stop living and breathing and then become finished stories, on gravestones and in memories. In ways I cannot entirely explain, Jackie is one of the only biopics I can name that feels a bit like a ghost story. The acting also bears out this tension between real people and what remains of human beings when nothing remains but their legacy. All the characters feel like flesh and blood, and yet there is also something mysterious and unknowable to them and this adds to Jackie’s ghostly tone. Lyndon B. Johnson is seen as a prideful, domineering figure, already too wrapped up in tending to his own public image as President to pay much mind to the devastated widow of his predecessor. In real life, Lyndon B. Johnson was a man who had at least some better angels, but the film does not let us past his imperious surface, and in any other movie, this would be a tremendous failing. As a matter of fact, this kind of presentation of Lyndon B. Johnson was a failing in Ava Duvernay’s otherwise very good Martin Luther King biopic, Selma. But Jackie is a strange and special beast and Pablo Larrain is a skilled enough auteur to use a kind of intentional opaqueness to the benefit of his film. This cryptic inscrutability feels of a piece in Jackie, where it might ordinarily feel like a piece was missing. This is not thin characterization but characterization that toys with our expectations and critiques the very idea that we can entirely know who Lyndon B. Johnson or Bobby Kennedy or Jackie Kennedy really were. Jackie is awash in a kind of fog that wafts around its subjects and keeps us squinting to see them just a little bit clearer. Pablo Larrain wants us to finally know, in his movie and in every biopic to come, that this kind of clear understanding is a vain effort.

 

Still, the last thing Jackie wants to do is discourage our curiosity about history. Larrain simply wants his audience to know that grasping history requires us to know that our vision can never be perfect. Making sense of the past means we must create a kind of helpful fiction. As Billy Crudup’s journalist (based off of Life writer Theodore H. White but given no official name in the film’s credits) is sitting down to conduct his interview, he tells Jackie Kennedy that he is striving to get to the truth but that he would settle for a story that sounds convincing. Jackie wants us to take this same approach in our efforts to make sense of recorded events. Jackie believes very much in the value of history but it would likely argue that the word “non-fiction” is effectively meaningless. The film is a fascinating, rigorous take on the idea of how human beings shape history after it happens, and what makes that stance all the more sharp and cohesive is how Larrain presents all this as a seamless extension of Jackie Kennedy’s own soul. For as much as Jackie is about looking at important people, including Jackie herself, through a sheet of frosted glass, one facet of the former First Lady is made very clear: Jackie Kennedy loved history. She cherished it and valued it and she thought very hard about how she and her husband would be remembered by coming generations. And so the film’s notion that sculpting a historical legacy is something of an act in creative writing is what truly illuminates Jackie Kennedy, even as that same approach is what makes her somewhat unknowable. It presents Jackie Kennedy as both the perfect subject and the ideal lecturer on the principle that history is a kind of ever-fluctuating mirage.

 

The question that I come back to the most with Jackie is what all this talk about mythmaking and historical license has to do with grief. Because, while the film philosophizes and muses over the nature of history, it also happens to be a superb portrait of bereavement. Jackie is one of the truest films in recent memory about what grieving feels like, and this is where it’s also important to remember what a narrowly focused period piece it is. Jackie is not the full story of the early 1960s or the Kennedys or even the three short years between the time of President Kennedy’s inauguration and assassination. It is really the historical account of Jackie Kennedy’s grief. Leaving aside the later Life magazine interview that is just there to act as a framing device, Jackie is focused on the short period of about a week in which Jackie had to deal with her husband’s death, move herself and her young children out of the White House, and tend to her husband’s funeral arrangements. It is really the story of how Jackie Kennedy went about throwing one of the most opulent and iconic state funerals in modern history and how she maneuvered around the many people who tried to silence her, from in-laws who wanted their slain brother buried on a private family plot to political handlers who didn’t want to run the risk of parading American leaders through the streets in the weeks after an assassination. It is the story of Jackie Kennedy’s long week of the soul. So I will pose the question that lingers with me every time I watch the film: what do grief and history have to do with each other? And I think the answer may be, “Not much. Usually.” That is to say, not much unless you are the widow of the most powerful, famous man in the world. And if you are, then, for one thing, your grief might belong to history whether you would wish it to or not. And what makes Jackie Kennedy the most electrifying, enigmatic character in Natalie Portman’s career is how it suggests the paradox of a woman trying to deal privately with her own sorrow while also realizing that grieving publicly may be the very best strategic card she has to play. In the throes of intense suffering, Jackie Kennedy came to understand that thrusting her grief even further into the national spotlight would do a world of good: for her husband’s legacy, for a shell-shocked American populace, and finally for herself. Pablo Larrain argues that a former First Lady who many saw as demure and airy showed a rather brilliant understanding of the optics of her own tragedy. A great many people wanted to close that ugly chapter before the ink was dry, thinking that it would be best for the nation to just move on. Instead, Jackie Kennedy wrested that chapter from the hands of powerful men, picked up a quill, and scrawled her name there in bold block letters. And in the end, it’s not just that our most iconic First Lady made a cagey move to cement her and her husband’s legacy. It’s that leaning into that grief rather than suppressing it turned out to be just what a frightened country needed to assuage its own anguish. And that, to the best of my understanding, is what grief and history have to do with each other.

 

I have sometimes heard Jackie described as a “cold” film and I can understand why in a way. It follows a traumatized widow in the aftermath of a terrible killing and watches her pain with an unsparing curiosity. It is also filled with soliloquies that would feel right at home in a collection of historical essays. It is a film with the academic rigor of a philosophy lecture and the deathly hush of a mausoleum, and I can absolutely accept that it is a cold film if you mean its mood makes you want to hug a loved one or at least put on a sweater. But I object to the idea that Jackie is, in any way, a detached or clinical film. Whatever one thinks of Pablo Larrain’s spectral, unorthodox period piece, I think they would be hard-pressed to deny that Jackie is a potent emotional experience. It is a film where history itself is less about a strict set of facts than the sheer feeling of a moment in history. What it felt like for America and what it must have felt like for Jackie Kennedy. If I asked someone what it was like to live through those weeks, I would expect that the overall mood of sadness and shock is what would stand out most in their memory. Grief and loss are like that, whether one is burying a parent or a President. As it’s happening, I imagine you do your best to fumble your way through the fog. Then, years later, when someone asks you what it was like, you sit down and do your best to write a story that feels true.

Top 20 Films of 2016: #12- 20th Century Women

When I review films, I often give my highest praise to the ones that leave me with a lot to unpack both on an ideological and a visual level. And that’s just because, as my favorite special child of all the art forms (please don’t tell Music), I have seen its incredible potential. Film has the power to convey just about any idea, concept, principle, theme and theory a human brain can conceive of, and lord know that Mike Mills’  effervescently literate coming-of-age dramedy 20th Century Women has plenty of heady ideas to share; its own ideas and the ideas of various feminist scholars, ex-Presidents and Henry Rollins-led hardcore bands. But all the same, 20th Century Women is as fine an opportunity as any to remind myself that a great film can be about more than just how stimulating its insights are. When I think about what Mike Mills (taking the lovely humanism of Beginners and losing most of what made that fine film at times pretentious) has accomplished here, it’s not just the breathlessly smart dialogue about feminism, punk music, and the end of the 1970s that lands it on my list. In fact far from “just” that quality, I might be so bold as to say it is not that at all that makes it a proud entry in my top twenty films. After I chew over the film’s terrific ideas, the aftertaste that really stays with me is a more simple, emotional sense. It is the feeling Roger Ebert spoke of when, having walked out of Almost Famous, he felt a desire to hug himself. After walking out of 20th Century Women, I had not only a desire to hug myself, but a wish to walk back in the theater, somehow find those characters still standing in there among the discarded popcorn boxes, and hug each and every one of them. True, 20th Century Women probably could have landed on my list just on the strength of its verbiage, but it is even more essential that those wonderful words come out of the minds and mouths of funny, lovably fallible, and impeccably acted characters. More than any other film outside of my top ten, 20th Century Women is probably the best representative of that often deceptively modest brand of film that I have always unabashedly loved: the character study. Because for as much as I love scripts full of eloquence and poetry and philosophy, there really is no substitute for the heady magic of having “met” characters you love for the first time and feeling a full heart at the thought of returning to them again. For example, I adore the serenely beautiful language of a film like Before Sunset, but the real reason I return to that enchanting world again and again and again is that Celine and Jesse live there. It is the same way with 20th Century Women. The warm, witty, and yearning dialogue certainly helps to make the world of the film as intoxicating as it is, but that place would feel empty without such likable, lively, and unmistakably human characters making their home inside of it.

 

The home in question can be found near the beaches of sunny Santa Barbara in the year 1979. Before we learn anything else, we learn that 20th Century Women is, in essence, a period piece. Better yet, it is that exquisitely subtle kind of period piece that makes you feel like you are in the time period without making a showy fuss about it. Its understated feel for a specific decade puts it in proud company with the graceful evocations of the 1960s and 1980s in films like Inside Llewyn Davis and We Are the Best!, and, like those two films, the music of its temporal setting plays a major role in setting the scene. Most of the film’s scenes take place in a two-story house where a free-spirited but pragmatic single mother named Dorothea (brilliantly played by Annette Bening) is attempting to raise her fifteen year-old son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann, in one of the most confidently relaxed newcomer performances I have seen in some time). The house is also home to two other tenants. One is an earthy, yoga-practicing handyman played by Billy Crudup. A gentle soul, he is the kind of person who is often full of shit, but always agreeably so. It comes as no surprise when we learn he likes to spend his free time sculpting his own clay bowls. The other tenant is Abbie, a woman in her late twenties who is recovering from cervical cancer and who finds solace in Talking Heads records and taking photographs for art installations. The unofficial third tenant is Julie, a moody, sardonic seventeen year-old, who frequently scales the scaffold up to Jamie’s bedroom, so the two can spend the night conversing and chastely cuddling. The film is very much about meeting and existing alongside these very three-dimensional people, but the film does have a central plot that gives it just enough momentum. One day Jamie, at the urging of his skater friends, performs a stunt that momentarily cuts off one’s breathing, and ends up in the hospital. Mortified at her son’s recklessness, Dorothea suddenly begins to worry that her guidance may alone may not be enough to usher Jamie into a reasonably well-adjusted adulthood. She decides to calls on Abbie and Julie to spend extra time with him and tells them to share with him all the wisdom their tender years have given them. And, while much happens from there, that is really the crux of what you need to know about the film as you sit down to view it. Once upon a time in the 1970s, in Santa Barbara, there was a house full of smart, fallible, good-natured people who cared about each other a lot, and who all did what they could to help the youngest of them come of age with as much grace and unconditional love as possible. Much interesting conflict spills forth from there, but that sense of decency and compassion is always the film’s true north, and it ensures that kindness and good humor infuse even the saddest of its passages.

 

20th Century Women is the kind of film that revels in the simple, heartfelt joy of creating a rich, nuanced community of people, which it observes with palpable affection and occasional bemused concern. Its approach is simple, but there is an ocean of depth to that simplicity. As soon as I watched Dorothea tell the other characters what she needed from them in that kitchen, a smile spread across my face. Something about that simple declaration of purpose, both for the characters and for the film, made me realize right then and there that I was in very good hands. I knew I would love the film because I knew that characters who already felt impossibly rich and true not even a quarter of the way into it were going to spend the next ninety minutes or so just speaking with one another and interacting and relating to each other and revealing new layers of themselves. The film had spent its opening introducing me to a small, perfectly realized community and it now declared in a soft, warm, and assured tone that it was going to spend the rest of that time deepening those relationships even further. And I knew that, by the end, I would feel like I was now a part of that tiny world. It is the quiet genius of Mills’ approach that, just as Dorothea wants Jamie to listen to the women around him, the film in turn wants us to stand with Jamie as surrogates and to listen to their stories. Because, let me be absolutely clear, 20th Century Women holds a bright, beautiful torch for the axiom that women are people and that society becomes healthier when it pays attention to them. Dorothea knows that it will do Jamie a world of good to listen to, and converse with, the women in his life, and Mills implies that it is good for the whole lot of us. 20th Century Women, on its face, is a story about how it takes a village to raise a child, but it gently subverts that trope by paying even more attention the village than to the child and by having three women (and the occasional encouragement of a hilariously tranquil Billy Crudup) assume the role of the village.

 

In fairness, Jamie is actually a wonderful, interesting character in his own right and the film is more interesting for not making him a total cipher, if only because it enriches the female characters to watch someone genuinely responding to them and processing the knowledge they have to give. Still, Mike Mills wisely makes sure that Jamie, his autobiographical avatar, is only the fourth most important character in the film. Because, if it isn’t clear from the title, Mike Mills’ autobiography is not really the story of Mills at all, but his attempt to give something back to the women who raised him. 20th Century Women is a film about women existing at a time of great change, for the country about to elect Ronald Reagan and for a society of women fighting to have their voices heard, respected, and valued. And here I have to give credit to Mike Mills for knowing what he needed to do to make this kind of film: let the women take center stage. A middle-aged white man making a film about how much he learned from the women in his life could have ended up feeling patronizing or at the very least piously self-congratulatory, but Mills does right by his female protagonists by making sure 20th Century Women is a story driven by the personalities and souls of its female characters. To go back to what I spoke of before, placing character development above ideas doesn’t just happen to work for the film. It turns out to be the exact right way to tell the story because the story’s entire purpose is to listen to women. And that simple act of just letting them be heard is more important than whatever they happen to be speaking of in any given scene, whether its feminist politics, sex, or the difference between Talking Heads and Black Flag. 20th Century Women is a vibrant, aching, and clever salute to some women in 1970s Santa Barbara, and it salutes the complexity and compassion of women around the world by extension. Mike Mills conjures up a beautiful symphony of female voices and he avoids reducing the struggle of being a woman to some simplistic moral. In a sly, observant take on Mills’ own role in this story, he has his younger self read a feminist text to his mother, explaining how society marginalizes older women. Dorothea thinks for a moment and then reminds him that no amount of essays will ever make him fully understand her. The lesson Jamie learns is that every woman has her own unique story and that the key to empathy lies in listening to each new woman you meet as if you have never heard it. Because, of course, you haven’t.

 

But, to reiterate, the genius of 20th Century Women is really just that it leads by example. Dorothea decides that the best medicine for making sure her son grows into a good person is to just be around her and Abbie and Julie and Mike Mills prescribes us the very same tonic. He sits us down to listen to these beautifully shaded characters and in so doing he entrusts the film to its real authors: three phenomenal actresses, each from a different generation and each giving what could be the best work of their respective careers. Elle Fanning is not yet nineteen years old as of this writing and the character of Julie finds her in control of a sharp sense of comic timing that goes hand in hand with her ability to convey dramatic pathos. 20th Century Women is the kind of film where you might find yourself smiling just for a second in the middle of a sad scene and Fanning has an uncanny knack for playing multiple emotions at once. Julie is, in many ways, the film’s toughest role because it requires Fanning to dance around the cliche of the troubled, rebellious, sexually liberated teenager while never tumbling headlong into it. Fanning’s face holds notes of apathy and desperation to somehow pierce beyond her own bored ennui. Her character belongs to a long line of promiscuous iconoclasts, but she also displays a bemused self-awareness. She realizes that she has become something of a dissatisfied youth stereotype, at least to an outsider’s eye, but she is young and her experiments with men and booze and pot are the best idea she has for how to process her pain and confusion. The daughter of a therapist, she has the tools to scrutinize her own decisions relentlessly, but they are still the decisions she most wants to make at this time in her life. Greta Gerwig is an utter revelation as Abbie, a twenty-something visual artist recovering trying to come to terms with her brush with disease and the fact that she may never be able to have children of her own. Gerwig is one of my absolute favorite of modern actresses, and she has been brilliant in film like Frances Ha and Mistress America. Still those films, both from director Noah Baumbach, played on Gerwig’s talent for taking oblivious immaturity to its most graceful and nuanced point. Abbie feels distinctly different from past Gerwig performances. She is complex but also more straightforward in some ways. Abbie is in an emotional freefall, but she is also someone with a better sense of who she is and what she wants. There is no veil of irony or archness to shield Abbie as she nakedly processes how cruelly life can disrupt our best laid plans. Gerwig gets to play the film’s most devastating scenes and its funniest scenes as well (as when she coaches an entire dinner table on how to say “menstruation” without flinching), and she approaches every scene in the film with a sense of unguarded sincerity. Finally, there is Annette Bening’s Dorothea, which I am increasingly coming to think is the best work of her long, wonderful career. Mike Mills may have made his film for all women but it holds a special place in its heart for mothers. If 20th Century Women is a film about the complexities of womankind, then Dorothea is clearly its proper protagonist. She compels Jamie to continually question the mores of the world he will soon join, but she also wrestles with her own biases and the fact that it just gets harder to keep an open mind about every little thing as we age. She insists on accompanying Abbie to a punk club to see the musicians her son idolizes but she turns in early, knowing she will never be able to relate to the angry, inarticulate noise on stage. She reminds Jamie to stay aware of how his identity as a man gives him preferential treatment in an unjust system, but she is also leery about the more radical feminist ideas in the books that Abbie gives Jamie to read. 20th Century Women is a film about the ways in which the experience of being a woman had evolved by 1979, and Bening’s thoughtful, warm, prickly, quick-witted, intermittently exasperated, and ever self-probing Dorothea is the character who is most aware of just how much had changed by that time. Dorothea is a woman who is proud of her years of experience but also knows better than anyone the value of not letting one’s assumptions go unchecked. Watching the dance between her keen intelligence and her lovely humility was one of the most genuinely funny and emotionally nourishing experiences I had all year.

 

20th Century Women is a great feminist film because I takes the lesson that women are people and then applies the show-not-tell principle. Women are people, and here are three fantastic women speaking witty, soulful dialogue, and portrayed by three of the best actresses from three different generations. Mike Mills thanks the women in his life for everything they did for him, but his final gift is to actually treat the film like a gift and not make it about himself. 20th Century Women is about this lovely, urbane group of women and how entertainingly enriching it is to spend two hours getting to know them. At the film’s end, Mike Mills admits that fully capturing the tangle of emotions, ideas and desires that made up his mother would be an impossible feat. Women are people and a person is too wild a thing to be summed up and neatly defined. It is no secret that Hollywood still needs to do a much better job of telling women’s stories and the reason for that is not simply that we would all be better for hearing them, though I do believe that we would be. We need more films about women because it’s just the right thing to do. It’s the right thing to do because film is an invaluable tool for helping us connect to humanity and women comprise more than half of what humanity literally means. I adored this film because I met a house full of great, great characters. They were smart, soul-searching, passionate and funny and, as with any great character study, I am excited to visit these people again in the years to come. They feel like real people to me now. And it means a lot that these real people are women.

Top 20 Films of 2016: #13- Kubo and the Two Strings

Kubo and the Two Strings is a children’s film that knows we never stop being children. This is especially true when we are at the feet of a great storyteller. It doesn’t matter how old you are. If you are there listening to the tale, you must turn off the chatter in your head in your soul, inch closer to the fire, and pay very close attention. In the first words of 2016’s best animated film, the young Kubo urgently instructs the viewer, “If you must blink, do it now.” For if we let our attention flag for even a second, the hero of this adventure “will surely perish.” Kubo says from the very beginning that the reader, the listener, the viewer are a part of the storytelling process, and the act of listening to the story and and learning from it is a central part of what narrative is all about. Kubo may be a modern animated film, but it shrewdly takes the form of a kind of ancient fable, as if its thrills, twists, and mythic battles had been the stuff of folklore for generations. It acts as if its wisdom had already been passed down through centuries of oral tradition, and in a sense that is true. It is true because, fundamentally, Kubo’s moral is that it is vital, and has always been vital, for human beings to tell each other stories. The art of storytelling has been one of the cornerstones of human development for thousands of years. Stories about how past generations hunted or farmed or built shelters helped us expand the reach of civilization. Familial histories gave children a sense of those who had come before them. And, as our minds expanded, we used stories to help theorize what might lay beyond our sight. Beyond the sky and beyond the barrier of death. Kubo and the Two Strings is the year’s most beautiful animated film and also one of the best about how human beings tell stories to make sense of an inscrutable world. It is the story of a nine-year old boy who tells stories for a living and how those stories help him cope with loss and mortality.

 

Kubo is another fine work from the very talented animators at Laika studios. Their films consistently show an affinity for children grappling with mortality, fear of the unknown, and the border between childhood and adulthood. We first meet Kubo as an infant in the film’s breathtaking opening. His mother is desperately trying to shepherd her son to safety across an angry sea in a small wooden boat. Hundred-foot waves threaten to dash their craft to pieces, but she is able to dispel them with notes from a magical stringed instrument. They make it to the shores, but not before the storm throws the boat onto the rocks and causes Kubo’s mother to suffer a debilitating head wound, which robs her of much of her memory. The two are running from Kubo’s aunts and his grandfather, the Moon King, who rules the Heavens. Kubo’s mother was once a deity, but gave up immortality for the love of Kubo’s father, a mortal samurai who was slain by the vindictive Moon King. Kubo never met his father. We also learn that the Moon King managed to steal one of Kubo’s eyes. He is now a nine-year old boy living  in a mountain cave above an ancient Japanese fishing village. Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson, who subtly plays him as an intelligent, observant boy, while still retaining the innocence and inexperience of youth) begins each morning by feeding his disabled mother, who can no longer take care of herself or speak during the day. He spends his days down in the marketplace telling stories to the villagers. As a result of being half-deity, Kubo can puppeteer elaborate origami figures by strumming his magical, titular, two-stringed instrument. He returns home every day before sundown to greet his mother, who regains some of her faculties at night. She still has difficulty, however, remembering all the details of her past and she can only give Kubo a vague impression of the father he never knew. The most important story she tells him is of his grandfather and wicked aunts, who are always hunting for them in the hopes of stealing Kubo’s other eye. She tells him that he must never stay out past sundown, when the moon will be in the sky. She also reminds him to keep two possessions with him at all times: a small wooden charm in the shape of a monkey and his father’s old robe, which has the shape of a beetle on the back.

 

One day, Kubo wakes up to find that the village is celebrating its annual festival to honor the dead. The villagers make lanterns that they believe allow them to talk to the souls of their departed loved ones. Kubo is so moved by a desire to speak to his father that he stays later than normal to make a lantern and ends up out past sundown. As a result, Kubo’s malevolent aunts find him and almost catch him. He is only able to escape through his mother’s intervention, but she ends up giving her life and soul to buy him time. She conjures a pair of wings on his back, which fly him to a faraway part of the country. Kubo wakes up in a snowy wasteland with a full-sized monkey looking over him. Monkey (voiced with a beautiful blend of toughness and sensitivity by Charlize Theron, who also voices Kubo’s mother) is Kubo’s wooden charm come to life, and she tells him that his mother poured the last of her magical life force into her so that she may protect him. Monkey informs Kubo that he must find three sacred objects that made up his father’s armor, in order to have a chance of defeating his grandfather and aunts. They are also joined by Kubo’s tiny origami samurai, who comes to life with compass-like powers, and later by a samurai who is half-man and half-beetle. The samurai, who simply goes by Beetle, can remember nothing, but feels sure that he was once a warrior loyal to Kubo’s father. Kubo has much in common with a great many stories of unlikely allies questing to find sacred relics, but it exudes a sweetness and a sad acceptance of death that very few such quest tales have. It is the story of how stories of our loved ones help us survive, make us who we are, and connect us to our past. In searching for these objects that belong to his father, Kubo also comes to learn about his family and finds that people leave traces of themselves in the narratives and possessions they leave behind.

 

One of the most refreshing and lovely qualities of Kubo and the Two Strings is that it speaks to children in a soft but firm tone about the idea of death and loss. Even if this were not one of the most gorgeously visualized animated films of recent years, it would still be fit to stand with films like Bambi, The Lion King, and Finding Nemo because of how directly it looks at the grief of not knowing if you will see a loved one again. Like those other great animated films, Kubo is soothing and sympathetic but also bruisingly honest. Kubo can take solace in the fact that his mother’s magic rests in Monkey and he can find a strong, compassionate male figure in Beetle, but the film also knows that having the essence of a lost parent is different from really having your mother and father in front of you. The stories of those we lose are a salve for our pain and they help us feel a spiritual bond to them, but stories do not erase the notion of loss and death. What they can do is write our love for one another in great, bold letters. This is why Kubo is willing to risk his own life to go to the festival in the first place. Even if it is only a ritual, that yearning, soul-filling act of telling a story to a departed loved one is powerful and worthwhile. For Kubo, telling a story to the father he lost is an act of love more powerful than death. This is one of Kubo’s most important overarching themes and its final thoughts on the matter of death and storytelling lead to one of the most ecstatically poignant, heartbreakingly true endings in any film this year. And it makes abundant sense that a film so sweetly honest about dying should have one of the year’s most powerful endings. Because Kubo and the Two Strings is a film all about the inevitability of endings. It is about the hurt of knowing we must all say goodbye and the solace we can find in telling someone’s story all over again once they are gone.

 

Kubo is simply one of the most emotionally healthy films about bereavement I have ever seen. And, even more than classics like Bambi, The Lion King, and Finding Nemo, the film is intently focused on the hardship and the unexpected beauty that comes from grieving for another person. Grieving were huge parts of those other films, but they are the focus of Kubo and I find it invaluable and refreshing to have a film that takes on that issue. For children and for everyone else too. It does not peddle in easy answers and it does not presume to know what lies beyond death. For all the film’s use of magic and all its mythical lore, the final question of what comes after our last breath remains hidden away. Kubo has no problem including a magical instrument that can puppeteer origami figures, a child who is half-god, a powerful lunar deity, a wooden charm come to life, a giant beetle with a samurai’s soul, and numerous fantastical monsters to battle. This is all in the game of storytelling. But Kubo and the Two Strings refuses to disrespect the children, of all ages, listening earnestly at its feet, by telling them it knows what happens when this life is over. What it will do is hug you tightly and tell you to find comfort in the memories of love once shared. Along with storytelling, memory is the tonic Kubo prescribes to help us process mortality and the unknown. The point of each magical object, be it a mother’s charm or a father’s robe, is not to suggest a world where magic can “cure” mortality, but one where treasured objects can offer a balm for our cuts. Inside Kubo’s scintillating modern technology is an old fable that tells us we can find comfort in any old relic; anything that stokes our memories of each other and of the love we shared. Monkey, herself an old memento, makes Kubo a bracelet out of his mother’s hair and tells him to keep it with him. It is a memory, she tells him, “and memories are powerful things.

 

What makes Kubo the most splendid animated offering of 2016 is not just its beautiful, hauntingly human story, but the fact that Laika Studios do what is perhaps their best work to date in order to bring it all to life. At the very least, Kubo and the Two Strings stands with the studio’s 2008 masterwork, Coraline, in the way it conceives a striking, surreal world of magic and places a smart, inquisitive child in the midst of it. And as with Coraline, this world is not just visually astounding but totally of a piece with the story the film is trying to tell. I regard Henry Selick as the master of stop motion and I have no interest in saying that Kubo “beats” the visuals of Selick beauties like Coraline and The Nightmare Before Christmas. However, I will say this: this is the most seamlessly beautiful stop motion I have ever seen. The film has a sumptuous array of textures from the delicately sharp creases of Kubo’s origami figures to the pale porcelain of the gaunt masks Kubo’s aunts wear to the glassy serenity of the lakes and rivers. Monkey’s fur is made entirely out of tiny strips of white paper that rustle in the wind. I understand that some of Kubo‘s visual splendor was achieved through robotics, 3D printing and a bit of CGI, but I frankly do not care. I have zero interest in being a purist about this. Kubo and the Two Strings is too ravishing and too luminous a work of stop motion animation to be dismissed. If a stop motion film can look like this, it shows that the medium is still growing and evolving, and that is everything a lover of this increasingly niche form of animation could want to hear. Kubo is meant to feel like a fable from ancient Japan and that requires a mixture of both realistic natural landscapes and the ghostly, glowing textures of skeleton monsters and moon gods. Like a bedtime story or one of Miyazaki’s films, Kubo needed to feel like it was set in a recognizable (albeit ancient) human world that also shared a permeable border with the realm of spirits and magic. It succeeds beyond its wildest imagination in nailing that subtle blend of tones. It conjures a world that is alternatingly shimmering and spooky.

 

Kubo and the Two Strings is finally a story about how stories make us human and it radiates a palpable love for humanity. After all, it is the tale of a goddess who abandoned heavenly perfection for the beautiful, aching mess of humanity. When the Moon King urges his grandson to finally join his celestial kingdom and leave the imperfect mortal realm behind, he tells him that he will be “beyond stories”. Whatever we think of the afterlife or God (or the gods), there is something bittersweet in the idea that we would ever lose the need for narrative. Kubo says there is something perfect and complete just in the brief, sometimes painful lives we share together here on Earth. Maybe death really will bring us to a place where we understand everything and where we no longer need to cobble together these fragile scraps of fiction and lore to make sense of it all. But for myself, and any person still living, that state of confusion is the very essence of what it is to be human. Film, art, music, and writing are all the result of our feeble attempts to explain something to one another or to ourselves, and I cannot imagine wanting to be beyond any of them. Human beings render such brilliant gold out of the flax of their fears and doubts that I have to think it would at least give the beauty of the hereafter a run for its money. Then again, we are bewildered mounds of flesh, so maybe the most beautiful of our literature is nothing more than a cardboard nursery book in Heaven’s waiting room. Still, from the time I’ve been here those stories have meant the world to me. Whatever grand cosmic plan waits for me when I die, I pray I never forget that my first redemption came from the words of fellow human beings, living and deceased. They were my friends. They were my teachers. They were Seuss and Alcott and Eliot. Kubrick and Spielberg and Linklater. They were my mother and my father. They saw I was afraid and could not sleep. And they told me a story.

Top 20 Films of 2016: #14- Lemonade

I often ask myself how possible it is to separate the personal from the political in art. When I was writing my Communications Studies thesis in college, we read about a theory known as “walking with the subject”. The idea was that, when interviewing people as part of a study, it was impossible for me as the writer to entirely get around the fact that I was there in the room. My very presence and the little quirks of my personality and the way I asked questions would necessarily influence how a subject responded to me. It would influence the kind of answers I got and my biases would eventually become a part of how I interpreted those answers. Walking with the subject meant that, when I wrote about my findings and my interviews, I would acknowledge my own presence and how it impacted the study. Since it was impossible to conduct a study without being personally present, the most objective thing to do was to just make the study an account of my interaction with the subject. Like Charlie Kaufman, the writer becomes a part of his own script. Lately, I have similar feelings about film criticism. I try to be as objective as I can about my thoughts on a film, but any judgment of a film is going to have a lot to do with who I am as a person. Films don’t exist in a vaccuum. Films communicate. They make judgments about ideas and concepts in the world. To like a film or dislike a film is to necessarily throw some of your own values into the stew, because how can you not? For example, I love The Godfather. I don’t just love it because it’s lushly filmed or has a great Nino Rota score. I love it because I think it says beautiful, complicated things about the nature of upward mobility in our country and because I agree with its viewpoint on them. It is impossible for me to properly review The Godfather without revealing that. By the same token, if you don’t agree with its complex ideas about financial success or find its parallels between organized crime and the larger American bootstrap mythos interesting, then it would make abundant sense for you not to like that film. We cannot remove ourselves from the films we love and choosing to love a film means making larger value judgments. And this is all a long way of saying that I think Beyonce Knowles’ Lemonade, the 65-minute film set to her album of the same name, is an absolutely brilliant work of art because I value its insights on racial inequality and because I believe that modern America still visits egregious injustices on people of color. Lemonade is a film that is both personal and political, as it expands from the smaller story of confronting an unfaithful husband to take on the larger spectre of American racism. And what one thinks of it will inevitably be a reflection of how they feel about the state of race relations in this country.

Now, to be clear, much of Lemonade’s plot is about very personal relationship struggles that resonate outside the realm of social issues. While discussions of racial inequity can be polarizing, depending on the person, I imagine there would be decidedly less controversy around the notion that infidelity can be hurtful. On its face, Lemonade is the story of grappling with, and eventually forgiving, an act of emotional betrayal. Lemonade is the story of R&B diva extraordinaire Beyonce Knowles finding out that she has been cheated on by her husband, Shawn Carter, better known as the great and influential rapper Jay-Z. As a disclaimer, I understand that there was never any confirmed account of Jay-Z cheating, and it’s obviously the Carter family’s prerogative to keep that information close to the chest if he did. Whatever happened between Beyonce and her husband, or whether anything happened at all, Beyonce has managed to create one of the rawest portraits of post-affair grief in either of the two artistic forms it occupies. Lemonade is about processing one’s turbulent emotions, and it cycles through an absolutely dizzying array of them. It is, by turns, raw, funny, blistering, devastated, catatonic, unhinged, uninhibited, and eventually generous. By the end, it becomes one of the most generous films of this or any year and it’s all backed by one of the year’s true landmark albums. The film is shot as a collection of individual music videos but knitted together with snippets of poetry (by the poet Warsan Shire, a Somali woman born in London). The film also dreamily cuts back and forth between scenes to come and scenes that have already taken place. As a lover of both hip-hop and the films of Terence Malick, I found Lemonade a joy to watch each of the three times I sat down with it. The film is broken into eleven chapters and one epilogue after the credits roll. The chapters have names with different emotional states, which recall the five stages of grief. With a diva as extravagant and ferociously flamboyant as Beyonce, it makes abundant sense that her grief cycle would go to eleven. The story is Beyonce’s cathartic journey from denial into anger, through apathy and emptiness, and eventually to a place where she can confront her unfaithful husband about his actions, forgive him, rebuild their relationship, and continue together into the future. The magic of this odyssey is in the extraordinary splendor of the film’s emotional palette. It’s not just how much feeling Lemonade has, but how intelligently Beyonce takes her normal persona of an unflappably confident and empowered woman and sends it into Hades and back out again. Lemonade has the effect of deepening Beyonce’s past work, of making us see her with new eyes. What once may have played simply, if entertainingly, as diva swagger now takes on a new meaning. That swagger is her shield as she traverses the battlefield. After years of cutting down weak foes, in the form of insensitive lotharios and jealous female competitors, Beyonce finally finds a worthy adversary. Not in an unfaithful Jay-Z, but in her own conflicted feelings of self-worth.

 

I have thus far described the skeleton of the plot, but the real beauty and thrill of Lemonade is in seeing these twelve unspeakably dynamic music videos. If it were nothing else, Lemonade would be twelve of the very best music videos ever made. Each one of them would more than merit a Kanye West interruption. In one of the first videos, for the song “Hold Up”, Beyonce boldly breaks free of her own denial, pushing open the great doors of a city hall and striding into the daylight with a torrent of water rushing around her feet. Clad in a bright yellow dress and carrying a baseball bat, she swings with uncontrollable glee at car windows, fire hydrants, closed circuit security cameras, and, in a great humorous touch, a piñata. Those images of Beyonce, resplendent in her mustard-colored gown, delightedly dispensing destruction and laying waste to all the bullshit behind her are iconic by now. But, in truth, almost every frame of Lemonade felt iconic the moment I laid eyes on it. This is true of the images, and is also true of its biting, brokenhearted wit. If there is any doubt about how influential Lemonade already is, I recently saw “Call Becky with the good hair” emblazoned across a Finding Dory t-shirt. The video for “Don’t Hurt Yourself” contains the famous album cover shot of Beyonce, head down and wrapped in a thick fur coat, leaning against her luxury car and just seconds away from completely giving herself over to rage. When she starts singing, her voice sounds like gravel and gasoline and she stalks the retreating camera like a vindictive hyena. If anything this year sounded more like great, pissed off rock and roll than “Don’t Hurt Yourself”, I will be kindly surprised. At the end of it, she flings her wedding ring at the camera and the film adds another iconic image to its growing list of them. The great shots within these sixty-five minutes are too numerous to fully recount, and they are all striking and symbolic and loaded with emotion. Beyonce burns a bedroom and the fire spreads to the whole house. She dances on the hood of a prison bus with an upraised middle finger. She dances around in the old tunnel of a ruined Louisiana fort while a silhouette resembling her estranged father plays steel guitar. Lemonade works because Beyonce Knowles is an artist who understands the sneaky poetry of the meme. Like Bob Dylan, she knows there are lot of good ways to hurt a mean lover, but most of the best ones tend to just be a short, tossed off sentence. “You try this shit again, you gon’ lose your wife,” she whoops with a deranged sense of liberation.

 

Lemonade breathes fire for about half of its running time, but it eventually finds a gentler spirit and emerges as one of the most poignant, overpowering films about forgiveness ever made. And, I would argue these later moments are so unbelievably moving precisely because we have been to the absolute depths of despair first. In the later scenes, Lemonade is still wise and frank about relationships and the havoc adultery can cause, but Beyonce has conquered the hurt and the film no longer howls as wildly. She wants her wayward man to think constructively about why he would betray the love of his life and his love for himself. In an angrier moment she yelps, “When you play me, you play yourself!” But now that the red smoke has cleared, the wisdom of that statement still stands. For all the startling, aggressive power of Lemonade’s early scenes, the second half is just as vivid for its vulnerable beauty. As Beyonce imagines forgiveness as a kind of baptism, she and a line of black women in white robes wade out into the middle of a large bayou with an enormous sky above them. Standing in the light of dusk, they face the horizon and raise their hands above their heads. The next video begins and, suddenly, Jay-Z is there in front of us. He doesn’t appear all at once, but gradually. As Beyonce sits in her home, playing her keyboard and plaintively singing about promises, we see a man’s wristwatch sitting on a table. Then we see a hand with a wedding ring upon it reaching across a pillow. Then the top of the man’s head appears. Finally, his entire upper body can be seen in silhouette. This segment is beautifully directed, and it gets forgiveness just right. After such a tremendous breaking of trust, forgiveness can only happen as a painstaking process. You can come to see the other person as who they were again, but surely it is not easy or swift. If you are lucky, they return to you in pieces and parts, until one day they stand whole before you. The slow emergence of the sinner into the story of the betrayed, or more specifically her decision to include him, makes Lemonade a tremendously rewarding story of choosing to forgive. “So we’re going to heal,” Beyonce says softly. She walks above the old ruins and tunnels that once surrounded and swallowed her, and the joyful, reggae-tinted strains of “All Night” play. This bouncy song is about looking forward to kissing and holding the person you love after learning to let them back in your heart. And here I will confess that I teared up. R&B history has no shortage of songs about wanting to kiss and hug and make love to someone. Some are good, some are bad, some are “Too Close”. But none have ever moved me the way this one did. The context of the hard road that had come before made it overwhelming. Beyonce was basking in the simple joy of recapturing a love that had been in jeopardy. She had turned a medium-paced funk jam about make-up sex into blissful, euphoric poetry, and I could not help but weep with joy about it.

 

And, when I put it all that way, Lemonade really is the kind of personal story that just about anyone can relate to. It is obviously particularly relatable to anyone who has been cheated on or cheated on someone, or to anyone who has been through the sometimes painful process of learning to grow or change with a romantic partner. And even if none of that applies to you, chances are still good that you have had a hard experience with forgiving another person. So, with all that being so, does one need to believe in the existence of racial injustice to be moved by Lemonade? No, I suppose not. Still, that perspective is crucial to understanding where Lemonade is really coming from and for feeling the full weight of its mighty catharsis. The struggles of being a black person, and a black woman in particular, is a vital part of the film’s iconography, from its decision to set itself entirely in New Orleans to the aforementioned line about Becky and her good hair, which references both the difficulty black people experience in finding barbers who can handle their hair consistency and the troubling idea of black men dating white women as a sign of upward mobility. How many people reading remember that O.J. Simpson left his black wife to marry Nicole Brown Simpson? Before laying into Jay-Z on “Don’t Hurt Yourself”, Beyonce pauses to insert a montage of black female faces, underscored by Malcolm X’s famous remark that the black woman is the most disrespected person in America. Many of the film’s scenes play out at an old plantation house with black women wearing Antebellum-era white dresses. And, as Beyonce starts to forgive Jay-Z, she starts looking at him in the context of his own black identity. A series of mothers hold up pictures of sons who were lost to police brutality, and an actress holds up a photo of a fallen slave because he is also a part of this pattern. Beyonce seems to say to her husband, “You have done wrong, but do we not both face bigger threats than one another?” To view Lemonade as simply a story of forgiving infidelity, without taking Beyonce and Jay-Z’s race into account, would be to pretend that race can ever not be a part of the context. And I will now officially cease mincing words and say that of course it is. It always is.

 

But, if there were any doubts that racial injustice and the experience of being black in America are pivotal parts of Lemonade’s message, the final music video, “Formation”, swoops in after the final credits and slaps them down to the cement. The major story of the film is complete, with Beyonce and Jay-Z reunited and happy. There is no more spousal infidelity to forgive, but here we are. We must be here to talk about someone else. “Formation” is a furious, percussive dance song with all the militaristic swagger its name promises. It is about Beyonce’s roots as a black woman with ties to Louisiana, the land where the levees broke. The song is a call to unify, organize, and form ranks. Its beat pulses and seethes and it is clear we are back in a place of anger. Despite the odd reference to rewarding a sexual partner with seafood dinners, “Formation” is about protest and defiance against any oppressive force. We have watched Beyonce forge a path to forgiveness with her husband. Now that she has the one act of reconciliation behind her, she’s here to start the process again with a different transgressor: society. Over the last hour, we have seen that forgiveness is possible. But,the last image we have is of Beyonce sinking into the Katrina floodwaters on the roof of a police car. The film cuts to black and our penance remains out of reach, somewhere below the flood. There can be no forgiveness until there is an apology.

Top 20 Films of 2017: #15- Tower


Keith Maitland’s extraordinary animated documentary, Tower, plunges us immediately into a scene of violent turmoil. We are listening to a real news broadcast from the summer of 1966 and the film uses animation to put us inside the broadcast booth. The “booth” in this case is a four-door station wagon emblazoned with the letters KTBC, the call sign of a local news station in Austin, Texas. The man driving and speaking into the microphone is Neal Spelce, the station director. He is circling the perimeter of the University of Texas, urgently instructing people to stay away from the area. There is a sniper firing indiscriminately from the top of the famous campus Tower. Spelce is using the power of journalism to keep people out of harm’s way, but this remarkable documentary has a different journalistic aim: to take us into the melee on campus and ever closer to the gunfire. Tower utilizes a combination of old television and radio broadcasts, interviews, archival footage, and, most of all, animation to stitch together a meticulous account of one of the most sobering and sadly prescient days in American history: the day of the nation’s first official mass shooting. The film’s decision to immerse the audience in this time period without any backstory or even much context is the filmmakers’ way of recreating some small fraction of the fear and shock people on the University of Texas campus must have felt at the time. Tower knows that its viewers are all too familiar with this specific kind of horror in the present day, but it wants us to experience the birth of the American mass shooting with fresh eyes.

 

On the first day of August in 1966, a twenty-five-year old former University of Texas student named Charles Whitman drove to the campus, just after killing his mother and wife. Carrying three handguns, three rifles, a shotgun, and a machete , Whitman forced his way onto the 27th floor of the University of Texas Tower, killing a receptionist and two tourists in the process. From there, he went out onto the outdoor observation deck and began to fire at will at any passerby he felt he could hit. Over the course of ninety-six blood-curdling minutes, Whitman managed to kill fourteen people and injure thirty-one more before he was finally taken down by officers of the Austin Police Department. We get snippets of context and backstory throughout the film, but we never hear about Whitman’s history as a failed Marine or what he did before driving to campus or how he managed to force his way past campus security. The film’s aim is pointedly not to understand how Charles Whitman did what he did or to even puzzle over why he chose to murder fourteen innocent people. Tower instead places us with the people on the ground, who scrambled to make some sense of a senseless tragedy and did what they could to help one another through it. The film collects the traumatic memories of that day and lays them out on the floor for us to see. It is a patchwork quilt of the way human beings responded to an unprecedented survival situation. Tower wants us to imagine what it was like to be the first witnesses to this kind of savagery, but it also wants us to bring our present knowledge to bear on what we see. It wants to rewind a cycle of violence that has carried on though Columbine and the University of Virginia and the Pulse nightclub and understand the roots of America’s struggle with mass shootings. Moreover, like this year’s Jackie, it wants the viewer to think critically about we piece together and process tragic stories, individually, journalistically, and as a nation.

 

The very idea of a mass shooting was almost impossible to fathom before August 1, 1966. Going back to the first mass shedding of blood in our domestic history allows Tower to take a close look at how both people and their journalistic institutions react when the unfathomable happens. We learn that two students walked unknowingly, even eagerly, into harm’s way because some hapless reporter informed them that the shots were coming from an airsoft gun. A University of Texas professor heard the shots and assumed they were firecrackers left over from the Fourth of July. Our human brains are wired to analyze information and fill in the gaps with whatever makes sense to them. They are bound by the conceivable. On that day, the term “mass shooting” was not part of our cultural lexicon. On that lazy, humid summer afternoon, the thought that someone would be firing arbitrarily at innocent passersby was simply not in the realm of the possible or even imaginable for most people. Tower is fascinated by how we process an event when there is no precedent for it. One officer sheepishly admits that he looked up at the one-thousand windows in the Tower and imagined an army of one-thousand Black Panthers. Some combination of the media and his own skewed understanding of the world allowed this man’s brain to visualize a full-scale African-American revolt, while the image of a single, sociopathic white man with no motive behind his actions never crossed his minded. That seed had to be planted in his imagination, in the imaginations of University of Texas students, and finally into the national consciousness. Even after the situation became clear, the Austin Police Department still sent in supplies of tear gas instead of shotguns. A news station ended up falsely reporting that a young paperboy had been killed. Blessedly he survived, but not before his poor parents spent three hours believing him dead. And Tower presents none of this to be judgmental. Tower shows all the chaos, misinterpretation, and sloppy responses in order to posit that responding to a disaster is a messy process. Sometimes we spend days, months, and years trying and failing to fully grasp an event like the Tower shooting.

 

What makes Tower both a rigorous film and a generous one is that it takes in all the error and the misunderstanding and views it all as a fundamental part of being human. It opts not to show Charles Whitman because it views the real story of the Tower shooting in the teeming tapestry of people who moved about the campus below him. Tower presents a rich cast of characters who each responded to the terror in his or her own different way. It sees both fear and bravery through clear, empathetic eyes. One woman recalls watching frozen at the window of the English Building as other students raced outside to bring a dying police officer a drink of water. She remembers being stunned to see that people could summon themselves to do that and just as stunned to learn that she was not one of them. With sad candor she says this was the moment she realized she was a coward. The movie does not add anything to this. The point is not to judge, but to see how a collective tragedy gave a young woman sobering insight into herself. The intent is not to weight the morality of any individual’s actions during the unthinkable strain of a survival situation, but to observe that people are diverse in the way they handle stress. Some run headlong into danger while others are bound to the spot by self-preservation. Tower is a film with a great curiosity for the many shades of humanity. Even the acts of heroism the film shows are presented in a complex way. When asked if he was going to accompany his fellow officers out on to the observation deck to disarm the gunman, young Officer McCoy responded, “Well, I guess I don’t have much choice, do I?” Of course, he did have a choice, just as those who stayed out of the line of fire had their own choices to make. Nevertheless, Officer McCoy, being whoever Officer McCoy was deep down inside, was inclined not to see choice in the matter. Or maybe he just told himself that for fear of what he might do if he did have a choice. Every decision is the result of the myriad, intricate psychological forces within each person and Tower honors those choices, be they brave or fearful. They are testaments to the colorful tangle of humanity and the film pays tribute to them as the vivid, complicated antithesis to all that senseless death.

 

I have perhaps not adequately conveyed just how moving Tower is. This is the end result of its compassionate interest in human beings, with all their capacity for selflessness and self-preservation. Tower is a film that refuses to ever show the man known as Charles Whitman. Instead, our fullest glimpse comes from Claire Wilson, the first person to be shot. Claire ended up surviving the attack, but she lost her fiancé, Tom, and the child that was growing inside of her. Now in her sixties, Claire looks at a magazine portrait of Charles Whitman as a young child. She has no harsh words for the man. She loves children and she is now gazing down at the little boy who became Charles Whitman. She reflects sadly about how a precious child can grow up to commit heinous acts and, without hesitation, she forgives the man who murdered her unborn child. Tower focuses on the humanity that whirled around Charles Whitman’s vortex of death and this allows the brave acts of that day to take on the full triumphant power they deserve. Inspirational can be a dirty word, but Tower comes to feel genuinely inspiring without having a hint of mawkishness. It is not interested in rah-rah acts of heroism, but it is in love with our potential to be kind and good to one another. Allen Crum, a middle-aged campus bookstore employee, unwittingly became a hero through sheer Forrest Gumpian circumstance. He ran out of his store to help a boy who had been shot on his bike, but then found himself unable to go back across the street without running the risk of being shot himself. The only thing he could think to do was keep running in the other direction, toward the Tower, hoping to eventually wind his way back around to the store. And, before he knew it, he had run all the way to the foot of the building. And then he figured he should just go up and see if anyone needed his help. And so he was deputized and ended up helping to disarm the shooter. Before entering, Crum flashed two middle fingers at Charles Whitman and seeing this act of living defiance in the face of death made me laugh more cathartically than just about anything I saw this year. But the most wonderfully humane act did not involve a gun or any kind of force. It was the simple, brave act of a student named Rita Star Pattern, who ran out to the wounded Claire and lay down next to her. She lay with Claire for an hour, on scalding concrete and in plain sight of Charles Whitman, and just talked. This decision kept Claire conscious and very likely saved her life, and it involved nothing more than one person reaching out to another. Tower takes us to the first mass shooting, but it is not about killing. It is about living through tragedy as a community. In the present day, Neal Spelce, who drove around campus bravely warning people of the danger, recalls the moment they released the list of victims on air. His old boss came rushing in and asked them to repeat the list. He had heard his grandson’s name. Telling the story in the present, Spelce starts tearing up. “I just broke up now,” he stammers. “I think it’s because I have grandchildren.” This moment perfectly captures Tower’s unabashed sense of empathy. The loss of human life depicted in Tower made me break up too. I think it’s because I am human.

 

Tower is about a catastrophe that had no precedent in our history and how human beings dealt with an event that was then painfully new and shocking. However, as much as the film is challenging us to put ourselves in a time before mass shootings became a regular occurrence, it also holds us accountable for whatever is happening in the present day. It charges us with a sacred responsibility to learn from the past and have a discourse about what to do in the future. Because we do not live in 1966. And the next mass shooting we have will not be the first. It will not be the hundredth. Tower’s quarrel is not with any specific policy proposal, as long as that policy is not inaction or silence. Tower holds particularly severe censure for those who are not willing to talk about this. Late in the film, Claire has a reunion with a man named Artly. Artly was also a student at the University of Texas in 1966 and he was the person who would eventually pull her to safety. Shockingly, we learn that Claire and Artly did not meet for the first time until a few years before this movie was made. Almost fifty years passed by before they had a conversation about the trauma they both suffered through. Similarly, Aleck Hernandez, the boy who was shot during his paper route says that the occasion of the film has reunited him with the cousin who was riding on his handlebars at the time. They are both joyful to see each other again after nearly fifty years of silence. The cousin remarks that it does him good to sit down and talk about the tragedy. We get the sense that the University of Texas wanted the whole incident to just go away. They cleaned up the blood and never put up so much as a plaque to honor the people, living and dead, who went through this ordeal. Tower is not only a film about how we experience, process, and remember tragedy. It is a call to arms to never bury tragedy. Tower argues that the most rigorous and the most humane thing to do in the face of great loss is to turn to a human being and talk through the pain. As the film closes, the animated ghost of Claire’s slain fiancé, Tom, walks the campus alongside present-day students. The film seems to say that these ghosts are not unpleasant things to be feared and hidden away. They have lessons still to teach us. They were human beings with lives and people who loved them and it is right and good to remember them. Their spirits are a part of our history. Let them stay.

Top 20 Films of 2016: #16- Hell or High Water

It feels appropriate to me that, of all the great scenes in David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water, the one probably most fated to become iconic involves a woman telling her customers that her restaurant only serves T-bone steaks and baked potatoes. Hell or High Water is the best example in recent memory of what one might call a steak-and-potatoes movie. There is a certain breed of film that has a kind of generally appealing and unfussy quality to it. It’s the kind of film that leads people of many different stripes to smile, reflect fondly and say, “Well that was just a very good movie.” Movies of this sort are not typically known for being conspicuously artistic nor for being the least bit cerebral. Like the T-bone steak in that West Texas saloon, the steak-and-potatoes movie is relatively unadorned, a movie to be appreciated largely for its surface pleasures. The simple steak-and-potatoes movie tends to be broadly accessible, energetically paced and frequently quotable. These are all qualities that Hell or High Water shares. The curious thing about my great affection for Hell or High Water is that I am not, by my nature, a steak-and-potatoes kind of viewer. I am particularly fond of challenging films, and I am just as happy sitting down to watch brutal Romanian abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days as I am watching Finding Nemo. With most steak-and-potatoes movies, I too often find something in their consensus-building palatability that robs them of vitality or personality. They can sometimes be lacking in idiosyncrasy. I have recently run into this issue with films like The Martian, The King’s Speech, and particularly Argo. These films wear their relative simplicity like a badge of honor, and that’s not necessarily wrong of them. Simplicity can be a virtue. The problem is, as much as I generally quite like two of those films (and technically like Argo), I found their simple populism to be what held them back from getting anywhere near greatness. Their lack of artistic flourish only seemed to throw light onto the deficiencies in their storytelling or character development or thematic depth (or all three in the case of Argo). To make a steak-and-potatoes film is to put the focus entirely on the meat of your story, and that Spartan approach really only pays off if you have very high quality meat. This is where those three films suffer and where Hell or High Water succeeds. Hell or High Water has the distinction of being a downright delicious slab of plain, old storytelling, and that is why it has the honor of being the one and only “simply great” film in my Top 20 this year.

 

To be fair, my own personal preferences for showier work almost got the better of me when I saw the film in the summer of 2016. I walked out of Hell or High Water having enjoyed the film deeply and recognizing a certain resonance in its depiction of post-recession America. I knew immediately, in my heart of hearts, that I had just seen a very, very fine film. But it was quite a simple film and this gave me pause. I started to have doubts that it would leave me with much to chew on. The story of the film is that of two Texan brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), who set out to rob the bank that is foreclosing on their family home. If they do not have a certain sum of money wired to Texas Midlands Bank by the end of the week, they will lose both the property and the right to collect the vast amounts of oil that have recently been discovered underneath it. Tanner is a recently paroled criminal with experience in robbing banks. He also did time early in his life when he shot their abusive father. It is Toby, however, a veteran with a clean record, who has masterminded the scheme and who has a plan for how they can get away with it. They will only hit the bank that has victimized them and they will only steal smaller sums from tellers’ drawers, which means all the money they receive will be untraceable. As the two hit more banks, they are followed by a retiring Texas Ranger named Marcus (played with keen, crotchety charm by Jeff Bridges) and his younger partner, a half-Mexican half-Native American man named Alberto (a great, dry Gil Birmingham). The film’s main story is about Toby and Tanner, as they rob, launder their money at a Native American casino, and make plans to put the property into a protected trust for Toby’s sons, but it is also the story of the relationship between the two rangers. Marcus toes the line between puckish and prejudiced as he continually cracks jokes about Alberto’s heritage. Alberto alternatingly puts up with him and tosses out his own barbs, mostly about the fact that Marcus is too old to still be out chasing the law enforcement high that he is so clearly afraid to give up. Hell or High Water is about both action and conversation; robberies and moments of stillness between both sets of men. And, without underlining the point too emphatically, it is also about the state of a country with deep class divisions and increasingly scant opportunities for the upward mobility so central to its origin story. At the end of the film, as Toby and Marcus meet on his front porch for a fateful conversation, Toby explains why someone like him might rob a bank. Being poor, he says is “like a disease, passed down from generation to generation. But not my boys, not anymore.” At the end of my first viewing, I joined the theater in applause. Once again, I knew right away that Hell or High Water was a terrific and topical film. And, as someone who sues on behalf of foreclosure victims for a living, I certainly empathized with and rooted for its fallible soulful protagonists. Still, name-checking a social problem and having a comprehensive, insightful discussion on that problem are two separate things, and I wondered if Hell or High Water was more than an exciting, engaging hyperlink to an important issue. Maybe it was more a heist film in the 2008 mortgage crisis’ clothing than a genuine, seething expose of our financial institutions. It took me multiple conversations with friends to realize what a deceptively great and nuanced piece of work Hell or High Water is.

 

The first sign of the film’s sneaky greatness was its quotability. This is never a guarantee of quality. I continue to be something of a holdout on Napoleon Dynamite and I would never in a million years deny that it is chock full of memorable lines. But the fact I could so easily quote Hell or High Water after watching it only one time made me start to look back at its script. Most steak-and-potatoes crowd-pleasers are not nearly this well-written. There I was on a Friday night, standing on my porch with a beer, and I started chuckling to myself about that scene with the waitress and the T-bone steaks. Then my friend laughed and said, “Only assholes drink Mr. Pibb.” And before I knew it, I was quipping back, “So drink up, asshole.” And this kept happening over the weeks. Any time talk turned to Hell or High Water, it would end in an exchange of sharp, funny quotes. I came to gradually see what a firecracker of a script this is, and not just for the one-liners and quips either. The writing is also often downright pretty in a way that both suits and subverts its tough, masculine tone. Toby’s recurring fascination with Comanches as the “lords of the Plains”. Alberto’s beautifully bitter soliloquy about how the banks’ avarice and blindness to human suffering are echoes of the same greed and cruelty visited upon his Native American ancestors. The way Marcus points to a bank teller and muses that he “looks like a man who could foreclose on a house”. Writer Taylor Sheridan keeps the action and the beats of the plot succinct and straightforward, but he also knows that simplicity is not the same thing as drabness. Simple lines can also be poetic. It is even the challenge that many great poets have set for themselves: to wring beauty and epiphany out of the least possible number of words. Look at Tanner’s solo robbery. It’s a short scene. Tanner just wants to the teller to display all the increments of cash in her drawer. But Sheridan injects even this brief bit of business with welcome color. “Fives. Tens. Twenties. Fan ‘em out like a deck of cards.” Money and cards, crime and gambling. All manifestations of the dream of some easy escape from poverty. All there in this five second snippet of a robbery. Fittingly, for a film soundtracked with country music and Nick Cave’s evocative Western score, the dialogue in Hell or High Water rings with the bruised, blunt beauty of a great country song.

 

As line after line came rushing back to my memory, scenes came back too. And as I began to recall those scenes, it dawned on me that Hell or High Water is one of those works of art with no filler. It is the kind of film that ends one great scene so it can move on to the next great scene. I cannot name a moment from it that I would call inessential. Each moment has a purpose and its placement in the narrative leads organically to another moment which also has a strong sense of purpose. The final product is a film that knows exactly what it means to do and does it. I do not normally require such efficiency from films I love. Some of my favorite films sprawl and malinger and I am content just to bask in them for as long as they want to have me. This approach would not have fit Hell or High Water. Its clean, propulsive momentum is the secret ingredient that turns it from a standard issue bank robbery tale into something terse, stirring, and almost elemental. Have you ever picked up a great album, perhaps by The Beatles or Marvin Gaye or The Rolling Stones, and realized that every last song on it is a timeless classic? Better yet, to choose an artist who almost nobody dislikes, think about Michael Jackson. Pick up “Thriller”, turn it over, and look at the tracklist. You realize you’re looking not only at a great album, but one that never once stops being great; not even for a moment to catch its breath. Hell or High Water feels a lot like that. If I ever read its DVD menu, I imagine it will feel like reading a no-filler tracklist. “Wow,” I’ll say, “that great casino scene leads right into that scene where Marcus and Alberto are watching that sleazy television preacher and theorizing about God in a seedy motel room. And that leads right into the scene where the new attorney they’ve hired as an executor knows they’re bank robbers and can barely contain his glee. And after that is the T-bone steak scene, which is just perfect.”

 

So you have subtly poetic writing, great scenes, and an almost total absence of any fatty downtime, which means that this story about desperate bank robbers in economically depressed Texas is strangely kind of a giddy joy to watch. It throws you in the back of a getaway car and speeds like a madman for 104 minutes that feel like less than an hour. And the thing that happened on my second viewing, when I knew how thoroughly I was about to enjoy myself, is that I gave myself over to it completely. And in that content, undistracted state, another layer of the film’s greatness started to come back to me. I remembered that I love these characters. Just as with the dialogue, Sheridan’s script creates characters that are extremely well-defined but too vivid and unique to ever become mere archetypes. Ben Foster takes the role of a shit-kicking jailbird and imbues him with a mischievous intelligence that transcends the bold lines of the standard ne’er-do-well. In the first robbery, Tanner snaps at a teller for calling him stupid. Tanner is reckless, impulsive, and prone to some very bad decisions, such as improvising a robbery alone while his brother is eating in a diner next door, but not stupid. Some of his decisions are terrible and ill-advised, but the character also has poetry in his outlaw country soul. Chris Pine does the best work of his career as Toby. He is the level-headed one with the clean criminal record, but he is neither a saint nor immune to poor choices and violent outbursts. When two young men in a lime-green muscle car try to start a fight with Tanner (who is utterly willing to goad them on) Toby shows up and slams one of their heads into a car door. The brothers have their individual, opposing personalities, but they each share shades of the other as well. Meanwhile, Jeff Bridges takes the part of the irreverent, culturally insensitive ranger and give him shades of neediness and fear of the uncertain future. He becomes a more impish but no less haunted version of Tommy Lee Jones’ sheriff in No Country For Old Men. And Gil Birmingham creates a nuanced portrait of a Hispanic and Native American lawman who has learned to navigate through an intolerant world. He is shrewd, determined, and resourceful. In a year full of great performances by non-white actors, any list without Gil Birmingham on it would be incomplete.

 

And all around the main four characters are memorable, beautifully specific entrances and exits by smaller characters. Tiny, detailed jewels of acting to complement the larger gems. Most are by actors I have never seen before. That sardonic waitress in the steakhouse. The Comanche man who confronts Tanner at the poker table. The eager citizen who drives Marcus to his final confrontation with Tanner. The kindly single mother who waits on Toby at the diner and who repays his generous tip with her own act of generosity. How can I say this without seeming to contradict everything I’ve said before? Hell or High Water really is a simple film, but for a film mostly just about two bank robbers and the lawmen pursuing them, it has a wonderfully rich sense of detail. And so much of that is a credit to those tiny characters who show up for a single scene and, one by one, help give a face to the broader financial struggle always in the background of the film. These are the human beings who have to live in this world besieged by robber barons and crooked lenders and they lend a larger sense of gravitas to Tanner and Toby’s private war with Texas Midlands Bank. The film also derives a wealth of detail from the locations it breathlessly races through. The film paints a world of oil fields and debt relief billboards. Tire stores and churches and casinos. And, of course, banks. Hell or High Water only tells a small segment of the story of the acquiring and the acquired in modern America, but the monuments to their existence are everywhere.

 

Hell or High Water is that rare example of a film that finds poetry and grace in its directness. It manages to be both humble and overflowing with flavor. It is a bit of a paradox, but this is the same film that can both stand with the year’s funniest comedies and have a scene that calls back to Captain Phillips in its realistic depiction of post-violence trauma. What at first seems slight eventually turns out to actually just be marvelously condensed; a vibrant world of compelling characters, relatable struggles, and playful language all tightly ground down into a delectable nugget of crime fiction. Seeing Hell or High Water reminds me that my real issue with most steak-and-potatoes films is that the meat of their stories is never high-grade enough to justify how little they do artistically. A top quality steak only needs a pinch of salt, but the meat of your average no-frills crowdpleaser is rarely anything like a top quality steak. At the risk of exhausting this food analogy, Hell or High Water can afford to be direct and thematically simple and still feel fulfilling because the meat of its story and its characters are delicious all by themselves. When the basics are in place the way they are here, you don’t need the A-1 sauce of extraneous directorial touches or overly self-consciously cerebral writing to make it work. I feel satisfied calling Hell or High Water one of the year’s twenty best films. It’s about time I had a simple film on my year-end list. As if making a funny, elegiac, humane, tersely poetic, quietly political, endlessly quotable bank robber flick was actually simple.

Top 20 Films of 2017: #17- The Red Turtle

I have had a long, torrid relationship with the notion of coherence, in film and other art forms as well. Coherence has always been important to me, but when I was twenty it was everything. As an early film-goer, ideological clarity was my mental gatekeeper, separating the great films from the nobly flawed, the pretty good, and the just plain awful. In those college days, I would walk out of a theater and call a film great if I could neatly explain the general thrust of the film’s message within the hour. If I could not do this, then obviously the film’s theme was confused or it just didn’t have one. I remember walking out of Triplets of Belleville in my third year and thinking that I had just seen something strikingly beautiful and funny and arrestingly strange, but I could not bring myself to give it a four-star grade. I was hungry for something clear, and this bizarre, bewitching, sardonic little imp of a film had left me feeling confused. Even at that time, I deeply enjoyed that confusion, but I couldn’t reconcile it with my feeling that a great film should have a certain rigorous coherence. A great film was to be judged on its ideas and I had no clear handle on what Triplets‘ ideas were. I could pick out a lot of the emotional core: loving one’s kin and sacrificing everything for family and feeling appreciation for our loved ones. But it all felt like less than a comprehensive thesis. This twenty-year-old was contemplative and sober-minded and deadly serious about movies and he wanted an overarching message that rose above the story and declared itself in large font. My rigid conception of coherence led me into trouble in those days. It was what allowed me to give overly high grades to the didactic diatribes of Crash, the blunt TED talk of Syriana, and the intermittently self-satisfied musings of Closer. I sound as harsh to myself now as I was to films like Triplets of Belleville back then. The truth is I still like all three of those films to varying degrees. Yes, I even still like parts of Crash. But my thirst for theme and message at that time in my life was also preventing me from giving proper credit to films that were more understated and enigmatic in their approach. To be clear, I still put a very high on premium on coherence and theme now, but I have made more room in my cineaste heart for ambiguity and that irreverent spirit that leads a filmmaker to deliberately confound the viewer; to challenge them by withholding easy explanation. I never saw a Paul Verhoeven film until I was a twenty-seven-year-old in law school and I am glad of that. That college kid, for all his rigor and for as much as he genuinely loved movies, would not have been ready. He would have myopically dismissed Starship Troopers as immature, when he was the one who still had growing up to do. I’m in a place now where I see that ideas can be teased out or hinted at rather than concisely explained. Films can be great for what they leave unsaid. A film can find brilliance in mystery and confusion. That sense of mystery is key to appreciating The Red Turtle, a delicate, emotionally rewarding animated film whose ideas about life, nature and death are as gently amorphous and as hard to pin down as wisps of smoke.

 

The Red Turtle is the first full-length feature by the Dutch animator, Michael Dudok de Wit. Dudok de Wit won the Oscar for Animated Short in 2000 for the elegantly simple, heartfelt Father and Daughter, about a little girl whose beloved parent leaves when she is a tender age, and who rides her bicycle to the same place throughout her life hoping to see him again. I have always thought highly of that beautiful short, but I held a very tiny axe to grind with it for beating out Don Hertzfeldt’s hilariously inventive and demented Rejected. Whatever small grudge I have held over a beautiful work of art beating out a brilliant work of art, I now lay it to rest.  The Red Turtle is proof that Dudok de Wit is a great animator and the kind of sentimentalist I can get behind: soulful and devastatingly delicate. The film opens with the sound of the ocean, heaving and hissing over a black background. When we open our eyes, we are surrounded up to our heads in ferocious waves and pelted by relentless rains. It is also the dead of night. Our unnamed protagonist soon pops his head above the surf. He is a dark-haired, Caucasian man in his thirties, and he is struggling to keep from drowning. Among the dark swells and white crests, he eventually finds an overturned rowboat, which we assume must be his. He clings feebly to it as the dark, angry sea throws him onto the shore of a remote island. In the daylight, we see the island is very small. It has a beach and a rocky outcrop and, further inland, a bamboo forest, some grassy fields, and a freshwater pond. Its non-human residents include a cluster of curious sand crabs, a flock of birds, and a cantankerous grey seal. The Red Turtle is a film with effectively zero dialogue. Its only human utterances are the man’s angry or frustrated screams which are never more verbal than the word “hey”. He runs around the island trying to collect his bearings and desperately searching for food. He eventually finds a tree that provides coconuts. After taking his fill of food and water, his next thought is of leaving this desolate place. He starts gathering bamboo logs and fashions a crude raft. Once he sets out to sea, however, some unseen creature batters the underside of his raft and reduces it to driftwood. He swims back to the beach, screams exasperatedly at the crabs who shadow him, and almost immediately sets to making a new raft. When he heads out to sea again, the second raft meets with the same fate as the first one. On the next attempt, the man finally sees the beast that keeps preventing his escape. It is a large, vibrantly red sea turtle. After showing itself, the turtle destroys the raft a third time and swims up onto the beach. In a fit of anger, the man flips the turtle on its back, stomps on its stomach, screams at it and leaves it to die of exposure.

 

As night falls, however, guilt overtakes him and he tries in vain to resuscitate his tormentor. He shakes the turtle and splashes it with sea water from a bamboo cup, but it is too late. The turtle is dead and the man falls to his knees in sorrow and shame. A fourth version of his raft sits half-finished on the edge of the frame. As he mourns the life he has taken, the underbelly of the turtle’s shell suddenly splits open. When the man looks at the cracked shell, the turtle is gone and a beautiful, red-headed woman now lies unconscious inside. The man rubs his eyes in disbelief and frantically runs for fresh water from the pond. When day breaks, he builds the woman a shelter of fronds and leaves to protect her from the glare of the sun. Eventually, the woman wakes up and wades out into the shallows. The man cautiously tries to coax her back onto land, as she repeatedly sinks and resurfaces in the low tide. When she pushes her old, discarded shell out to sea, he pushes the pieces of his raft out as a sign of trust. He no longer wishes to run away. The Red Turtle transitions from being a film about escaping a survival situation to a film about accepting one’s circumstances and finding a new life with another person. The woman comes to trust the man and treat him with kindness. She takes him out to a sand bar and shows him how to forage for mussels. The man is still wracked with guilt over his violence toward her, but she forgives and reassures him.  They quickly fall in love. The two will spend a full life together on this island. They give birth to a child, who will eventually grow to be a man with something of his mother’s turtle essence. One day he will swim away from the island with a group of turtles and start a life of his own somewhere else. The Red Turtle is a gentle, humane, and sweetly melancholic fable about the full gamut of human life, playing out in a seemingly hostile place.

 

The Red Turtle is something of a simple film and that begins with its animation style. The characters are rendered like drawings out of a children’s storybook. Their eyes are nothing more than charcoal-black ovals. Their bodies are basic, two-dimensional sketches, and so is the environment they inhabit. But for all that simplicity, I will echo what a great many other critics have said: this is an incredibly expressive and vibrant piece of animation. As he did with Father and Daughter, Dudok de Wit knows that a simple sketch can be even more suggestive than a detailed image. We can see well enough that these are human figures and whatever they lack in finer detail only allows our imaginations to get more involved in filling them in. The characters may look like simple drawings, but their body language is subtle and natural and it conveys a wealth of information and emotion. This proves vital for a film with no dialogue.  Likewise, the world of the island never feels flat for its simplicity. There is so much lush color and clean detail in that bamboo forest that it feels all-encompassing in spite of the fact it is a two-dimensional image. The same goes for the softly rustling meadows and the surf spraying off the rocks and the placid freshwater pond. The surface of the animation may be unadorned, but the whole landscape teems with tiny details. If Sunset Song captures the experience of reading a classic novel, The Red Turtle perfectly conveys what it is like to thumb through a lovely illustrated storybook.

 

The Red Turtle is a wordless, spiritually soothing experience, but it does have deeper themes, or at least thematic motifs that waft through the film like gentle island zephyrs. I would say the largest theme is the question of what makes a life; the idea that your life is whatever simple joys you find while alive and that existence can be beautiful and fulfilling even when your greater plans get swept out to sea. In this regard, The Red Turtle shares a thematic thread with this year’s Passengers, a film that it bests in every possible way. After spending the first half of the film shouting inarticulately at the heavens and frantically seeking escape, the man finally comes to see that he can be happy right where he is. Here, it is probably valuable to see the film as a fable or an allegory, as I obviously wouldn’t begrudge anyone trying to get back to civilization if they were marooned on an actual deserted island. But in the context of the film, the island is an opportunity for the man to see that life is all around him and that he can experience connection and growth even in this most seemingly inhospitable of places. He can even find family. The man and the turtle, who becomes the woman who becomes the love of his life, experience the joys and hardships and occasional disasters of a full human life, all in a tiny pocket of the world and all over the course of an 80-minute film. This idea is not hammered into anything resembling a thesis statement, but it is there to be taken in whatever way the viewer wishes. Saying that a film is just about life can often feel like a bit of a cop-out, but The Red Turtle bathes itself in the stuff of life and does so without grandstanding or resorting to sweeping statements. It is not the kind of film to make points, but its small, understated observations of life and nature hold a great deal of serene wisdom. And this understated approach is very well calibrated to Dudok de Wit’s unassuming, emotionally direct style of animation.

 

Dudok de Wit places his protagonist in the midst of nature, and he has the invaluable aid of animators from Studio Ghibli, home of anime laureates like Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, to help create wonderful images of nature. The Red Turtle has much in common with a Miyazaki film, in its peaceful tone and especially in its love for the beauty and magic of the natural world. In Miyazaki films, mankind has a fractured relationship with the land and sea but is also permanently and inextricably bound to it. The Red Turtle is very much about humanity’s relationship to nature and the virtues of tending to that bond. At the film’s halfway point, we see the man make his fateful decision. He stops turning his back on the turtle and atones for his violence against nature. It is in trying to save the turtle and asking penance for his cruelty that the man finds a kind of love that he never knew existed. This love takes the form of a woman who becomes his romantic partner, but that woman is also still the turtle deep down inside, and maybe all of this could just be a love within the man’s own soul. A love for one’s self. I think the film is saying that all these kinds of love are equally valuable and rewarding. In the end, this is a fable, so how real or illusory any part of the story is seems beyond the point. It is a piece of mythical fiction intended to make us think about our own relationships with other people, nature and ourselves. The Red Turtle seems to suggest that, just as life is where you find it, maybe love is to be treasured in whatever form it takes.

 

On second thought, I regret ever suggesting that The Red Turtle is less than coherent. More accurately, I would say it’s more than coherent, or perhaps above coherence. The film is cohesive but I think Dudok de Wit and his animators would find a term like “coherence” unbearably rigid and restrictive for what they have in mind. Part of that is because The Red Turtle is about life and life cannot be easily contained by academic words like “coherence”. Another reason is that the film’s refusal to spell out its ideas helps to create a sense of amorphous, undulating mystery that is key to its emotional effect. If I haven’t made it clear at this point, The Red Turtle is the kind of film that gently, but firmly seizes your heart. Helping with this coup is Laurent Perez del Mar’s yearning score, which evokes a maritime, magical realist Ennio Morricone. The film is very much what one might call a tone poem. Yes, there are ideas and themes, but they are not the purpose of the thing. They float by us and around us like bamboo logs in the aftermath of a tsunami. We grasp onto these fixed concepts to steady ourselves, but The Red Turtle implies that life is not about feeling steady or certain. Perhaps our natural state is just to feel confused and curious and overcome by emotion. While I tried to wrangle The Red Turtle into positions that would fit easily into a film review, I started to realize that its real goal wasn’t to expound on anything too specific. Instead, the film’s goal was to make me feel what it is to be alive, not with intellectual pontificating but by jamming the porcupine quill of sweet, fragile, impermanent life under my skin. The Red Turtle is about capturing the throbbing ache of being and knowing that nothing lasts. It made me feel that mixture of love and faint sadness I get whenever I yell at my sweet, misbehaving dog. I experience a burst of anger and that soon gives way to a dull sense of melancholy. Because, even though the unruly moppet deserved his scolding, I also love this dumb creature and don’t like to feel harshness in myself. And because he makes me feel happy most of the time and life is short – mine and especially his- and there’s just so much good about being alive that those bursts of ire feel like tiny tears in a blanket that there isn’t nearly enough of to begin with. Stupid dog, stupid life. I love you more than I can say and it breaks my heart to know that one day you’ll be gone.

 

Like life, The Red Turtle is a film to be experienced and felt. I still watch films to get them, to figure them out. I have never once done this in an outwardly greedy or acquisitive way. I do not go into any movie with the goal of avariciously ingesting its ideas and moving on. Nonetheless, there is a fidgety curiosity in me that makes me want to turn a film over and inspect it with a meticulous eye, and that can be a reductive way to see a beautiful piece of art. Films are not resources to be mined. The Red Turtle reminded me of how restless I can be, both as a watcher of films and as a human being. On my first and even second viewing, a part of me wanted to possess the film and understand it more fully. But the film just wanted me to reflect and feel and know that not everything can or should be crushed down into some concise kernel of knowledge. Even now, there is something about The Red Turtle that eludes my grasp, expanding outward the more I try to corral it, but I have come to love the film for that very quality. I am no longer pressed by the need to figure it out. To figure a thing out completely is to be done with it, and I am no more eager to be done with this entrancing little fable than I am to be done with life itself.

Top 20 Films of 2016: #18 – Sunset Song

One of the marks of a great film is being able to capture sensations that transcend words. While most of my favorite films rely on great scripts filled with beautiful, expressive language, the best films never rely solely on their writing. Because film is a visual medium, it has the potential to capture something that is not possible in purely written form. Film can help express emotions and sensations that transcend words. However, I ran into a challenging paradox in reviewing Terence Davies’ sumptuously literate Sunset Song, an adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic Scottish novel from 1932. I experienced an emotion that was beyond my ability to verbalize, but was also the kind of feeling I have only previously experienced when reading words on a page. Specifically, Sunset Song is the rare literary adaptation to take the feeling of being immersed in a classic novel and translate it into cinematic terms. I went looking through every possible dictionary, internet forum, and literary blog I could find, searching for a word to describe that phenomenon. I was confident that I would find something in short order. My reasoning was that, if the old axiom holds that writers love to write about writing, then there should be some word to capture the general feeling of experiencing something in the written form. After an hour, I had turned up nothing satisfactory, so I turned to friends for assistance. An old friend, Matthew Byrom, suggested words like “literary” and “bookish”. Those are very fine words, but I needed something that spoke more to the subjective experience of being an entranced reader. I needed a word that conveyed that hushed state that falls over a person when their mind merges with the world of a novel. After a few hours, I was about ready to give up and just admit that some feelings really don’t have words to capture them. It was at that time that my very learned friend, Anne Peattie, came to my rescue with a word from that most efficient of languages: German. The word was “Lesengefühl”, which is literally the words “read” and “feeling” sandwiched together. There is nothing fancy about it. I imagined some German scholar, feeling just as baffled as I was, straining to describe this dreamlike sensation, and eventually blurting out “read feeling” in exasperation. The term is both simple and enigmatic, which is appropriate because I presume no one person’s “read feeling” is exactly the same as another’s. The read feeling is both universally relatable and impossible to entirely define, and that makes it a fine way of describing a film that is very much about the gulf between words and the inexpressible.

 

The first image of Sunset Song is of golden wheat fields blowing gently in the breeze. As we float just above them, a young woman sits up from where she has been laying and pokes her head above the waving blades of grass. Her body becomes part of the landscape. This is our protagonist, Chris Guthrie (played with beautiful sensitivity by former model Agyness Deyn), a young woman on the border between adolescence and adulthood. Chris is the second oldest of four children living on a farm in early 20th century Scotland. The Guthries start the story in the town of Aberdeen, but are forced to move to a larger homestead after Chris’ brutish father, John, (the reliably brutish Peter Mullan) forces her mother, Jean, to become pregnant with two more children. The Guthrie clan piles into covered wagons and rides through the mud and freezing mist to the Blawearie farm in the fictional village of Kinraddie. Chris is a gentle, observant, and smart young woman with plans to become a teacher of language. She is an excellent scholar, fluent in Latin, French, and English. Much of Chris’ journey deals with a schism in her soul between the world of letters and higher education and the coarse, agrarian life that she feels makes her a Scot. Sunset Song is Chris’ story through and through, and the major dialectic battle is between the verbal and the ineffable, particularly as it pertains to the unspoken feeling of connection to one’s homeland. There is a part of Chris that desires to flee her homeland and a life that has its share of hardship. Chris’ life is a daily challenge filled with the arduous nature of farm work and the strain of living with a domineering, violent father. Much of this violence is inflicted on the eldest son, Will, who is in his twenties and looking for any opportunity to leave the old man far behind. Will despises this blunt, callous man, who recklessly forces their weary mother into having ever more children, and rarely ever has a tender word for any of his kin. Jean tells her daughter that the challenge of a woman in their day and age is to somehow survive the men around them. “You’ll have to face men for yourself when the time comes,” she tearfully cautions. The next morning, Jean poisons herself and her infant twins. With no mother in the house, the two youngest sons are sent to live with Chris’ aunt and uncle, leaving only Chris, Will, and their increasingly unhinged father to run the farm.

 

One day, Will finally has enough money saved to run away to a big city and later to Argentina with a new bride at his side. On the morning her brother makes his escape, Chris cries at the window and watches him sprint down the muddy path with every bit of speed in his body. Sunset Song is the story of how Chris comes to outlive a tyrannical father and persevere long enough to see her life become her own. In time, she will taking over the Blawearie farm and flourish as the head of her own household. Chris will also fall in love with a young farmhand named Ewan, get married, and have a child, and she will proudly be able to say it was all of her own choosing. We watch Chris become the agent of her own destiny, while also learning to weather the gales of conflict and change. Chris’ tale is empowering, as she confidently cuts her own path to happiness and independence, but that is not to say that her life suddenly becomes easy. The juggernaut of the first World War soon tramples through Scotland, and the village of Kinraddie, sending most of its men away to Belgium to fight in the trenches. Ewan enlists out of shame, and when he briefly comes back for a furlough, the psychological torments of battle have made him angry and vindictive. It is as if he has been possessed by the demonic ghost of the late father Chris so hoped to be done with. Sunset Song is about the things that stay the same, like the ancient, green fields of the Scottish farmland, and it is about the passing storms of that blow however briefly across that landscape. As her mother warned her, Chris will have to learn to face men and survive them, whether that be an abusive father, the general sexism of turn-of-the-century Scotland (which forbids her from living alone at the farm she now owns), or a terrible war. In the end, Chris comes not only to embrace the eternal earth of Scotland in all its beauty and hardship, but to see herself as its natural extension; as an avatar of peace and steadiness in the midst of human turmoil. Our current film landscape is flooded with origin stories, but Sunset Song is a very rare and welcome kind of origin story. It is not the origin of a superhero, but of a strong, self-reliant, and endlessly sympathetic young woman.

 

It is never my intention to force patterns on the films that make my list, but Sunset Song does have some interesting parallels with Things To Come, the film just behind it on my year-end list. In both cases, we come to meet and care for a strong, inquisitive female character, as she sets out to explore and understand the nature of how time changes people. However, while Things To Come is about wrestling with the fact that almost everything changes, Sunset Song is more interested in looking at what endures. Sunset Song is the story of those two poles in Chris’ spirit, the verbal and the ineffably terrestrial, and how she grapples with the choice of who she should become. For all her love of words, Chris comes to identify with the glens and ponds and meadows of Scotland because they hold fast. She sees strife and instability in the world around her, and she aspires to become a rock that can withstand it. Chris does what her mother cannot. She survives men, which is to say that she survives the perpetual chaos that men so often create. Happily, Sunset Song does not present a false dichotomy where men are utterly vile and amoral and women are virtuous damsels under constant threat from every man they meet. The film is a wonderfully lyrical character drama and its view of human folly and cruelty is honest, unflinching, but never unduly judgmental. Even a barbarous cur like Chris’ father gets the odd moment to be jovial, or thoughtful, or even encouraging of his daughter’s talents. Men are not devoid of goodness in their souls, but they are still a minefield that women must navigate. With all their capacity for kindness and love, men are nonetheless something that must be survived. If anything, the problem is that man, as a collective force, is never consistent. Chris’ father may have a moment of peace, but it will not prevent him from flying into a rage an hour later. One of the most unfailingly kind men in the film is an kindhearted older farmer named Chae Strachan, who dotes on Chris, treats her as an equal, and respects her as the driven, competent master of her own domain. But even he buckles when the trumpets of war sound for him. Even peaceable men leave their families to go participate in the whims of less peaceable men. Even Chris’ beloved Ewan goes off to fight and comes back as a creature of violence, fear, and shame, given to destructive impulses that he would have once stood against. And so, Chris learns she must plant her feet in the ancient dirt and become her own immovable object. Sunset Song claims eternal Scotland for its diligent, spirited, and long-suffering women. They persist, while the men take their leave for Argentina, Belgium, and the great beyond.

 

Sunset Song is a lengthy film with a sprawling plot and a Scottish village’s worth of characters. It is the kind of film that gets referred to as “epic” and it is filled with flowery writing, either narrated by Chris in voiceover or spoken in splendidly acted dialogue scenes. It has stirring themes about change, the notion of country, family, and the desire to control one’s own fate, which it refracts through the lens of being a woman in a patriarchal society. And, now that I have used a lot of my own words to describe how verbally rich Sunset Song is, I must tell you that I find its words to be of secondary concern. Sunset Song succeeds on many fronts, but it positively soars as a beautiful, painterly, and tactile work of visual and aural art. It is a film that inundates you on multiple sensory levels. It overflows with texture, color, and sound. I do not know if I have ever had a good reason to gush about mud (at least not since turning six), but let me make up for lost time right now. Sunset Song is the most lusciously muddy film I have perhaps ever seen. Terence Davies presents the dirt of Scotland in so many different shades and states of wetness that I do not honestly have the words to accurately recount them. And that is important for two reasons. First, because a film so concerned with the idea of how people connect to the land of their birth really should give us a strong sense of what that land looks like. Secondly, in a film that presents land as something beyond the powers of words to describe, Davies puts his mud where his mouth is and lets Scotland speak for itself. One has to look at Sunset Song to really feel its impact, and the mud and dirt are only one small part of the film’s visual palette. Beyond that, there are impossibly green hillsides that shine brightly in the daylight and then mellow into darker shades of jade at dusk. The film has an incredibly sharp sense of weather and the shifting seasons, which helps it translate all those words about time and change into visual poetry. There is every matter of dew, rain, and fog. We see lightning strike a fencepost during a summer storm, sending off a shower of sparks into the rainy night. Chris and Ewan have a beautiful wedding on New Year’s Eve in a barn full of pine wreaths that you can practically smell. When the wedding is over, they walk out into soft snow that falls against the midnight blue backdrop of the sky. There are more gradations of sunlight than I could hope to name. Midday sunlight blazing down onto the workers in the fields. The gentle light of a temperate day that reflects off a small pond. And the pale, airy shafts of morning light that trickle into the Blawearie kitchen. Sunset Song is the kind of film with too much detail to ever catch in a single viewing. It was difficult to look down at my yellow notepad and scribble notes during my second viewing. I was always in danger of missing some rapturous image while I was vainly struggling to put the last one into words.

 

On top of all the visual majesty, Sunset Song is also a superb feast of sounds. There is the soft squelch of human feet and wagon wheels in the mud, the hiss and roar of the drizzles and downpours, and the diverse chorus of Scottish burrs. I could honestly rewatch Sunset Song as a purely sensory experience, ignoring all its dialogue and plot developments, but I would still want the sound of those characters’ voices. And to give your ears even more to savor, Sunset Song fills itself with beautiful old Scottish traditionals, sung over the soundtrack and by characters within the film. In one of the few moments not set in Scotland, we journey to France and the frontlines of the war. We do not see any fighting, but instead scan aerially over an abandoned battlefield. The soundtrack swells with the strains of an old Scottish song, the same one that Chris softly sings at her wedding. The singer croons as we move over the wet, muddy land, all strewn with barbed wire and boots and wheels from old carts. An old Scottish voice sings a lullaby of home, though we are now looking at another country’s mud. I am not even certain now that I have a correct reading on what it all means, but I know that, like the rest of the film, it involves the mingling of land and rain and sunlight and music. And I know that I was utterly overpowered by its depth of feeling. When the film ended, the presence of the word “song” in the title suddenly made sense to me. There is something quite musical about its approach. I came to think of the dialogue as lyrics underscoring the music of its images and sounds.

 

Sunset Song is gorgeous to experience with your eyes and ears and I think that is what makes it such an arresting movie, but it also has a very special, transporting kind of bookish quality. Even though Sunset Song probably spends more of its time visualizing the splendor of Scotland than it does on dialogue, it feels quintessentially literary. But, as I said before, “literary” is the wrong word for what I felt. Calling a film “literary” often has a slightly pejorative connotation. Plays that get turned into movies are often called literary when they fail to offer much in the way of a visual signature. It feels wrong to apply it to a film with an entire Scottish art gallery’s worth of breathtaking imagery. Sunset Song manages the nimble feat of making words feel sensory, just like a book does. This is what sent me off in search of a phantom word for that feeling. A feeling that has bewitched me since I was eight years old, when I first picked up a copy of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. “Read feeling” is just about right. Sunset Song does an amazing job of capturing the experience of sitting there in a warm room, with a great piece of classic literature. It gives us lovely words but is also just as interested in engaging personally with our imaginations. I think it may be the fact that the film is so visual that allows it to feel more like reading. Books have space for us to take a breath and get wrapped up in picturing the way a room or barn or field looks and smells and feels to the touch. By making the film adaptation of Sunset Song so intoxicatingly sensory, Davies approximates the process of setting the book down for a moment to draw the scene in our heads. He captures the act of reading better than a more verbal approach would. Reading is so much about the act of bringing our selves and our senses into the process, where details in our heads become more vivid than they would be in real life. For example, as I write this, I am sitting one foot away from a space heater turned up to its highest setting. It’s very warm. But if I pulled out my copy of Little Women, I would soon be with the March sisters, reclining in front of their roaring hearth. And the warmth radiating from this appliance would feel clammy by comparison. After two hours in the thick mud and cool, damp air of Sunset Song, only an imaginary fire could warm my bones.

Top 20 Films of 2016: #19- La La Land

One of my favorite bands is the Talking Heads. There are a number of their songs that I might call their best on any given day, but I think the one that has always resonated with me most is “Life During Wartime”. It’s a bleak, deceptively energetic song about how living through war strips human beings down to a state of bare subsistence. At the height of wartime, human beings no longer think about things extraneous to their survival. To live through war is to lose the taste for nice things, such as notebooks, dancing, and music in general. Lead singer David Byrne repeatedly wails, “I ain’t got time for that now”. This song is a sad but clear-eyed observation of how times of great strife and conflict impact our relationship with the art we consume, and the sober conclusion seems to be that, after experiencing enough oppression, fear, and loss, one might stop seeking art altogether. I do not believe we are living through literal wartime right now, but I do believe that we are in the midst of the most fractious, dismal, and dangerous time I have been alive to see and I do not know when things will get better. I felt the heavy weight of that realization throughout the end of 2016, as friends and I observed the latest changing of the political guard and discussed what it would mean for women, for members of the LGBTQ community, and for people of color. And while we debated and the heavy clouds formed above, the Oscar nominations came out at their usual time and a tiny, gossamer skiff sailed into the brewing storm. That fragile vessel was La La Land, Damian Chazelle’s sweet, nostalgic, lovingly crafted modern showbiz musical. As it blithely paraded its old-fashioned charms through the annual awards season, its bright colors cut a strange figure against the ominous landscape. As it moved past films about racism, misogyny, homophobia, grief, economic strife, and corporate soul-sickness, it began to resemble an oblivious, bewildered aristocrat, emerging from the hermetic seal of the palace to find violence and chaos in the streets. I loved Damian Chazelle’s previous feature, Whiplash, and I think La La Land is a terrific, clever, moving piece of art, but even I have to ask: has the feverish conflict in our country reached the point where a bright, bedazzled bauble like this no longer means much? Do we no longer have time for something like La La Land?

 

To put it another way, is La La Land a film out of time? Despite the fact that it bills itself as a modern musical, it is really a movie that seems to want to exist outside of any particular era. We see modern cars and e-mail and a character even makes a reference to early 21st century television show, The OC. And yet, in the film’s Oscar-winning tune “City of Stars”, Emma Stone coos about meeting someone though the “smokescreen of the crowded restaurants”. Smoking in California restaurants has been forbidden since 1995, so it seems likely that La La Land means to keep one foot in the present while also existing in a kind of romantic dreamworld cobbled together from real and cinematic history. The film is meant to be a surreal reverie, reflecting the romantic ideal of movies, Los Angeles, and the many people who come to Hollywood to dream. La La Land begins with its most energetic number, “Another Day of Sun”, in which a congested freeway becomes the stage for an elaborate dance number performed by starry-eyed motorists with dreams of fame. The film will come to focus almost exclusively on its two leads, Sebastian (a charismatically grumpy Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone, playing a wide range of emotions and putting the adverb “charmingly” in front of each one). However, Mia and Sebastian are nowhere to be found in this first number. It is only when the singing stops and the motorists all hop back into their cars that we see both Mia and Sebastian are stuck in this same traffic. Mia is practicing a monologue in her car and not paying attention to the road. Sebastian pulls up beside her and honks in frustration and this becomes their first fateful meeting. Mia runs into Sebastian again later that night (it happens to be Christmas), right as Sebastian is being fired from his pianist job at a supper club. Sebastian, a stubborn, jazz-loving idealist, is being let go for playing free jazz instead of “Jingle Bells”. Coincidence keeps throwing the characters together until they eventually become a couple. Both are artists with dreams of success. For Sebastian, that means owning his own jazz club, where he can play the kind of traditional jazz that he feels is being left on the scrap heap. Eventually, he joins a jazz fusion combo with an old classmate (John Legend), but the band’s very modern musical identity is worlds apart from the kind of jazz Sebastian wants to play. Meanwhile, Mia is a struggling actress and aspiring playwright, repeatedly going through the indignity of terrible auditions, trying to put on a one-woman show, and wondering how much more stomach she has for the kind of rejection that Los Angeles regularly serves up. As they contend with failure and setbacks, they are also forced to juggle their newfound romance and the challenges of chasing their dreams. La La Land is a film about the joys and the costs of following your passion and it holds the idea of dreaming up to the light like the world’s most sacred object. For better or worse, the power of dreaming is the film’s central theme and the modesty of that sweet, admirable notion in troubled times like these seems to be the central point of controversy around it. That said, it is not La La Land’s only issue.

 

One of the major critiques directed at La La Land is that it only achieves modest success as a musical. I understand and even somewhat agree with this criticism. I will immediately concede that the dancing in La La Land is mostly lackadaisical. It tips its cap to the idea of dancing in a 1950s Hollywood musical without ever really coming close to the astounding feats of choreography found in those movies. The film claims to be inspired partly by Singin’ In the Rain, the second best film ever made by my estimation, and that comparison really does it no favors. There is not a single dance move in La La Land that can stand next to the blistering athleticism of Singin’ In the Rain. Donald O’Connor’s doctor famously ordered him to stay in bed for three days after he filmed the dancing for “Make ‘Em Laugh”, while the idea of Ryan Gosling so much as pulling a hamstring on “Waste of A Lovely Night” is laughable. La La Land hits the peak of its physical virtuosity in the first scene, before we ever see Mia and Sebastian. I will also admit that Gosling is a bit of a middling singer, though this shortcoming is mitigated by the fact that he has a dry, understated sense of timing, which complements the breezy, jazzy, effervescent tone of the songs. This is not a musical that really calls for vocal showboating. Emma Stone is a better singer than her co-star, but I admit that her voice can be a bit breathy and strained. That said, she also has a knack for conveying emotion through her singing and that becomes indispensable by the time the film reaches its final, and full-stop best, song: “Audition”. I genuinely like every one of La La Land’s songs, but most of them are humble melodies more suited to humming to one’s self on a warm summer evening than belting out in a karaoke lounge. These are fine little tunes with a firm grasp of melody and emotion, but I would agree that La La Land would fall utterly short as a musical if it did not have at least one song that brings the house down. It needs that one moment of unbridled catharsis. “Audition” finds Mia being put on the spot at the most important audition of her life. Rather than recite a prepared piece, the casting director wants her to simply tell a story. Hearing that the film takes place in Paris, Mia’s thoughts go to her late aunt who once lived there. This aunt first introduced Mia to the magic of movies and inspired her to write and perform. Mia haltingly begins to tell the story of when her aunt, acting on a whim, jumped into the Seine river. Her nervous, faltering speech suddenly transforms into a gentle melody and from there it builds into a full-throated ballad about following one’s muse right up to the boundary of madness. “Audition” is the moment that this laidback musical reaches a much-needed fever pitch. As Mia sings a toast to “the ones who dream”, she renews her own depleted spirits and the film throws its arms around the artists of the world. Whatever other reservations I have about La La Land, I unabashedly love “Audition”. I love it for the small details it gives us of this aunt we will never meet. How she took her shoes off before jumping into the Seine, the image of her sick in bed but determined to repeat this meaningful mistake. The sense of a fiery flawed woman who “lived in her liquor”. In a film that can occasionally feel suffocating for keeping its focus exclusively on Mia and Sebastian, these small glimpses of a beloved aunt help the film’s miniature Faberge world feel just a little bit bigger. And for all of Stone’s limitations as a singer, I adore her for the entirety of this song. Some of her breathiness is still there, but the context of the scene and the song turn that limit into a strength. Her weaknesses make the scene exciting and moving. Stone pushes the vessel of her voice as hard as she can over the choppy surf of the film’s one truly big song, and the fact that the vessel is frail and rickety only increases the tension and the overwhelming emotional release of her make-or-break moment.

 

I can very easily put myself in the shoes of a La La Land detractor. A musical made mostly of modest ditties that uses up all its noteworthy choreography in the first five minutes and gives its one and only vocal showstopper to a woman with a plaintive, trembling voice. That is all true, of course, but I think to flatly label that as a failing is to forget that there are many different kinds of musicals. Not every musical needs to be an explosive display of singing and dancing. For example La La Land’s most important musical influence is The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a 1960s French operetta starring the brilliant and captivating Catherine Deneuve. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is, for my money, the second best film musical ever made and it shares La La Land’s sense of understated, jazzy melancholy. The songs in Cherbourg are gorgeous, but its delicate emotional register does not conform to the glitzy, epically melodramatic scale of a Broadway show. The film is not an extravagant burlesque revue but a wistful French romantic drama where characters sing their lines. Cherbourg and La La Land are both soft, twinkling musicals about lovers whose ideals about romance are challenged by economic realities and by life’s winding course. They are mature films about compromise as a hard but necessary part of life. Both films have a musical style that is alternatingly breezy and melancholic and they present life as a symphony of sweet and sorrowful notes playing off of one another. Unexpected joys and missed connections. I do not think people are wrong for wanting more out of La La Land in terms of musical prowess, but I encourage people to watch The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a true masterpiece of the musical genre, and consider La La Land in that context. If La La Land feels more musically modest than some would like, that is at least partly by Damian Chazelle’s design. It is a delicate and fumbling musical because its ideas lend themselves to that kind of low-key approach. It is about struggling and failing and learning that even success carries its own bittersweet consequences. If one looks at the film this way, its earnest, shaky voices feel distinctly more at home. To put it in terms of a musical analogy, I have great respect for the massive voice of Whitney Houston, but my favorite artist is Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan made some of the best albums ever recorded, but his voice is not what you’d call technically impressive. It is an expressive but reedy instrument. Someone could approach me and ask, “Well, wouldn’t those great Dylan albums sound even better with a massive voice like Whitney Houston’s? Maybe Freddie Mercury?” Of course not. Throw Luciano Pavarotti in there while you’re at it and the answer is still no. And the reason is there is more to music, or any other kind of art, than sheer technique. Making great art is about nuance and shade and sometimes that means a shaky singer is a better fit for the music than someone with a five-octave range. It’s the reason the simple harmonies of a Ronettes song give me chills, while Santana will always bore me to tears. Not every painting calls for the same giant brush, not every song should end with an American Idol glory note, and not every musical has to feel like Phantom of the Opera.

 

Chazelle’s overtly stated desire to pay homage to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg helps to contextualize some of its musical modesty. However, it also casts light on what I think is La La Land’s bigger deficiency: its story and characters. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a masterful, heartbreaking story of romance thwarted by war and life’s cruel economic hurdles. It justifies its relative musical restraint by being one of the most powerful, rich, and emotionally overwhelming love stories ever told. By comparison, Mia and Sebastian’s romance feels very slight. Their romantic tribulations are the product of their own decisions about how to pursue their artistic ambitions and, while balancing a relationship and a career is a relatable struggle for many, their story is much less devastatingly impactful than The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. When you get down to it, La La Land is not just a modest musical, but also an exceedingly modest love story. If I can pinpoint the problem, it’s that Chazelle, cinematographer Linus Sandgren, editor Tom Cross, costume designer Mary Zophres, composer Justin Hurwitz, and the rest of the technical crew do such a fine job of making their Los Angeles dreamscape feel lush and intoxicating that it throws the relative banality of the romance into even greater relief. The story of Mia and Sebastian, two likeable artists who spend six months falling for each other and have to decide whether they can balance that love with their burgeoning careers, can feel a little blasé on repeat viewings. And, again, I would argue this is entirely by Damian Chazelle’s design. The film’s entire purpose is to take a very small story of dreaming, loving and compromising and give it the emotional tug of a Hollywood musical. The interplay of the sweetly modest and the emotionally ravishing is very much what La La Land has in mind. Nevertheless, this is how the film stumbles at the same time that it succeeds. And this brings me back to why La La Land looks like such a strange, bejeweled relic next to the year’s more substantively great films. Because once you’ve finished admiring its clever story beats and its beautiful colors and its bewitching music, what you are left with is two average Angelenos giving voice to the year’s most anachronistically inconsequential movie theme: the power of dreams. La La Land is about the value of dreaming and the compromises that come along with that. And, please don’t laugh, pursuing your dreams is a very good thing to do. And making human connections and finding love are a huge part of what it means to be human. And learning about compromise and how we have to let go of some dreams so other dreams can flourish is a big part of life. If these ideas are not matters of life and death, I still think they are sweet and thoughtful and worth holding onto.

 

Still, I can see why those concerns seem naïve and sheltered in the increasingly dark days of early 2017. The breathless sincerity with which the film watches two nice, young, photogenic white Californians follow their bliss feels undeniably quaint. La La Land is a good-natured, fizzy, wistful, technically assured, well-acted film about dreamers, and I wanted dearly to write about its many pleasures without taking the conflict and fear and uncertainty of the outside world into account. As a sterling piece of escapism, La La Land was always meant to be cordoned off from the outside world. But the film is over and now I’m sitting in my world, the real world, and trying to make sense of where La La Land fits into it. And if it doesn’t fit in anywhere, as a number of people seem to think, then that sends an important message about where we are as a society, whether the film had that message in mind or not. And, very clearly, La La Land had nothing of the sort in mind. This earnestly extravagant nostalgia trip had the misfortune of being born right as the world took a turn for the macabre and there is not a thing the film can do about it. It talks in urgent, hushed tones about the importance of dreaming, but its dreams are filled with celluloid and lipstick and it never has nightmares. I had a lovely time with La La Land, but I also understand that this film, which evokes a bygone era, may have been made for a more recently bygone era. If the film’s Technicolor fantasias are too slight, too sheltered, and too euphorically oblivious to resonate in a world this anxious and besieged then so be it. I’ll lock this little trinket away in a desk drawer and dream of a time when it is useful again.