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Top 20 Films of 2019: #11- Marriage Story

Before it descends into the bitter, absurdist maelstrom of a marriage’s dissolution, Marriage Story begins with a husband and wife each telling the audience (over two beautifully edited montages of their lives together) what they truly love about their soon-to-be-ex-spouse. In that spirit, I’d like to do the same for this film’s wry, occasionally caustic director, Noah Baumbach, at least as I’ve known him until somewhat recently. What I love about the old Noah Baumbach. Noah sees human failings and selfishness with diamond clarity. He grew up around intellectuals and knows he is one of them, but he also knows better than anybody how full of hot air artistes and deep thinkers can be. Being with Noah cinematically, is like being invited to a fancy, snobby soiree by the one person who doesn’t seem intimidated by all the lofty conversation being puffed into the air. You get to make the intellectual scene, but you also get some distance from all the egos. Noah shows you where the best hors d’ouevres are, makes sure you get a decent cocktail, and retires to a corner with you to gleefully make fun of all the fragile strivers trying to impress one another. In a world where unvarnished truth is rare, you never have to worry about that with Noah. He goes after human pettiness with nails sharpened. Maybe you could say he gets dragged into the pettiness himself by engaging with it so much; maybe he gets a little blood on his sleeves. But you also hardly ever meet people so willing to speak their minds frankly, particularly about the kinds of people who can turn thoughtful expression into a cagey, guarded chess match. Noah is also wickedly funny in the old Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker sense of the word. Old Baumbach movies can feel mean, but deliciously so. Who, outside of In the Loop’s Armando Iannucci, has such a barbed, savage sense of comedic timing? And he’s not just a puckish prankster looking to score easy points off of assholes. He uses his wit to engage with some painful subject matter. In 2005’s The Squid and the Whale, he channeled memories of his writer parents’ separation into a divorce dramedy so lacerating it could cleave the well-meaning Kramer vs. Kramer in half. As the most hopeful kind of humanist when it comes to art, I had to wrestle with the his acid-black cynicism (his 2007 Squid follow-up, Margot At the Wedding, felt particularly unforgiving). Still, there was never any denying that Noah Baumbach is a uniquely gifted sniper of pretension and relational dysfunction, and I’ll always be grateful to have found his work.

Marriage Story is Noah Baumbach coming full circle back to Squid to acerbically catalogue the process of divorce, and the story is once again an autobiographical one. Where Squid drew from his own experience as a child of divorce (and had more of an adolescent’s perspective on the matter), Marriage Story draws a lot of inspiration from Baumbach’s divorce from his wife of five years, critically respected actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. The Leigh stand-in here is Nicole (Scarlett Johannson, channeling her mega-watt charisma into a role that calls for both subtlety and histrionics), a once-rising Hollywood star, who moved to New York many years ago to become part of the avant garde theater scene. Baumbach’s surrogate is Charlie (Adam Driver, in a funny and truthful performance that cements him as the potential best actor of his generation), a theater director with a meteorically ascending reputation. They live in a beautiful Brooklyn apartment with their 9-year old son, Henry, and their careers both appear to be in good places. His plays are the talk of the underground and she regularly stars in them. They lovingly introduce us to one another in the film’s stellar opening monologues, and then we learn those introductions are all part of a writing exercise suggested by their separation counselor. Nicole and Charlie are two very successful, sympathetic, loving, and intelligent people who care about each other an awful lot, and they can no longer share a life as a married couple. Nicole, who has labored for many years in the shadow of her genius husband, has been offered a starring role in a TV pilot that is shooting in Los Angeles, the city she comes from and one her husband openly belittles. Nicole flies to the West Coast with her son to stay with her mother and sister. While filming there, a producer convinces her to forego the initial plan to move forward without lawyers and seek the services of a high-powered family attorney (a very strong Laura Dern, in the role that recently won her an overdue Oscar). Much to Charlie’s exasperation, Nicole’s decision means that there will now likely be a trial, in California, far from their New York home, and Charlie will now have to traverse the hazy sprawl of Los Angeles in seach of his own attorney. Marriage Story is Noah Baumbach diving into the maddening particulars and absurdities of divorce with even more sardonic focus than he did in Squid and the Whale. It’s a look at two flawed but fundamentally decent human beings, caught up in a system that does strange and stressful things to fundamentally decent human beings.

Marriage Story is about what happens when you look at a relationship through the distorted lens of a prolonged divorce. Even though Nicole and Charlie are understandably a little awkward and short with each other early in the film, there is still an understanding and an empathy between them. It’s still there even after things get litigious. In the middle of a contentions meeting with the lawyers, (Charlie’s first lawyer, played by a lovely Alan Alda, is a sleepy sad sack who knows the absurdity of his station all too well) the parties break to order lunch, and we can feel years of devotion and familiarity in the way Nicole chooses Charlie’s order for him. But the longer Charlie and Nicole spend around attorneys and hearings and negotiation conferences, the more mutated and unforgiving their perceptions of one another become. The film’s opening, where the two tell us everything they love about each other, isn’t just a calm before the storm. It also vitally allows us to see how the endaring qualities and quirks of a loving marriage can take on new meanings and skewed dimensions in the context of a drawn out dissolution. Nicole’s way of planning treasure hunts for their son suddenly takes on the appearance of passive-aggressive subterfuge in Charlie’s eyes when she plans one right when Charlie is trying to pick Noah up for his day. Charlie’s steady assertiveness, which Nicole first says kept their family in order, retroactively seems toxic and insidious when Nicole realizes that she rarely got to make any decisions in their marriage. And the one trait common to to the both of them, their competitiveness, slowly baits them into a legal process that, as Nora tells Nicole, rewards bad behavior. Where The Squid and the Whale was a personal memoir of living through divorce, Marriage Story is a riotously savage takedown of the whole farcical industry that we innocuously call “family law”.

It’s also a pitch-perfect portrait of another industry; the world of entertainment. Marriage Story is a terrifically sharp skewering of two distinct artistic worlds: theater and Hollywood. Not just a skewering, but also a loving illustration of everything Baumbach finds wonderful, interesting, rich and funny about working with actors, directors, writers, and craftspeople. There is a great fondness in showing the rehearsals and after-show bar hangouts of Charlie’s theater company. And there’s a welcome observational drollness to scenes of Nicole on the studio lot, undergoing green screen tests and talking to consultants who can help you make your far-fetched sci-fi script, of all things, more environmentally realistic. “Why is there always a flirty grip?,” one producer asks on set. I don’t know, but I know that the creative process scenes Noah Baumbach documents feel  specific and rich with ruefully funny detail. The Noah Baumbach we have today still has killer aim with a barb, but his sense of humor has also taken on a lovely warmth, the cynicism increasingly leavened with human insight and even a little silliness. Marriage Story is a splendid entertainment satire, which helps the whole enterprise from becoming a claustrophobic tale of a marriage falling apart. It’s also a great portrait of two very different cities, with two entirely separate creative spirits. Some thirty years ago, Woody Allen made the immortal Annie Hall, which takes a little detour from New York to Los Angeles late in the film, and gives the city of stars one of its most memorably biting roasts. Now Noah Baumbach, an heir apparent to Allen’s anxious, urbane strain of humanism, has given Los Angeles his own rendering. One that calls out the sprawl and the glossy materialism, but also allows it to shine as a sunny haven for dreamers and exuberant spirits (he allows us to see it as a place of sweet liberation for Nicole, just as surely as it is an endless, unnavigable concrete maze for Charlie). In some ways living and interacting with creative types could be exhausting, but Baumbach also allows his film to overflow with their infectious energy; to imagine parties and social gatherings populated by people who know how to put on a show. More than ever, Noah Baumbach seems grateful to have made his career in an environment where, whatever your peers personal failings are, they’ll always know how to keep you inspired and engaged.

The sparkling, hyper-literate humor of the whole thing is what really took me by surprise. Now maybe it shouldn’t have. Baumbach has always been hyper-literate. He has always made use of humor in his films, and his last six years in particular have felt more effervescent and sprightly, even when they dealt with some heavy subject matter. Maybe it was hos the title, Marriage Story, evokes Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage, which set an expectation for something as gray and dirgeful as the great Swedish master’s most famous works. Maybe it’s just the subject of divorce and how bruising he made it feel with Squid and the Whale. To be clear, Marriage Story is a  bruising film. But it is also consistently a very funny piece of work, kept aloft by two gifted thinking man’s movie stars, giving the arguable best performances of their careers. The acridness of early Baumbach is still there, but it’s all surrounded by vital, sprightly humor. If you’re worried about having a miserable time in Marriage Story, worried about getting some misanthropic take on Kramer vs Kramer, please don’t be. Marriage Story has downright zingers in it. Jokes about lawyers and movies and Hollywood and a whole host of relatably amusing human behavior and recognizable human types. With due respect to his vicious early years, this is my favorite kind of Noah Baumbach film. He still knows how to write characters who can, and do, knock the wind out of each other, but they don’t feel the need to do it as often. He still often shows us the gulf between erudition and emotional intelligence, but his characters strive to be mindful of people outside of themselves (something your Bernards and your Margots never did). And that’s all crucial to Marriage Story not losing you in a fog of nastiness. Divorce is hard enough, and it does inevitably bring the meanness out of our two main characters. But, for that reason, it’s all the more important that we can laugh with them and see their better angels trying to make some sense out of an inherently senseless legal process.

On the subject of Noah Baumbach’s romantic and creative partner of nine years, acclaimed actress and director Greta Gerwig, I am hesitant to give in to the easy narrative of love softening the prickly misanthrope. Of the good, empathetic woman helping the edgy cynic find his kinder voice. For one, it feels regressive, and it also gives too little credit to Baumbach for his own evolution as an artist. I have to believe that decades of work in the industry, fruitful partnerships with the likes of Wes Anderson and Ben Stiller, and the intense life experience of ending a marriage all share some part in that development. Still, from the moment his partnership with the endlessly humane Gerwig begins in 2011 (just a year after she wowed critics in Baumbach’s Greenberg, where the two met) and culminating in two consecutive critical hits starring and co-written by Gerwig (his 2013 masterpiece Frances Ha and 2015’s splendid Mistress America) there’s been a beautiful, pulsating vivacity to his work. Here’s what I love about, what I’ll call for lack of a better word, post-Gerwig Noah Baumbach. The claws remain as sharp as ever when it comes to human pretensions, but he’s not out to eviscerate human beings the way he once was. Maybe just muss up their hair and rumple their shirt collars. He sees the carnival of human error more graciously, with rich, endearing fuck-ups like Frances Ha and Mistress America‘s Brooke replacing sharply written, insufferable rotters like Squid‘s Bernard and the titular Margot (who goes to a wedding). In 1979’s Manhattan, Baumbach’s forbear Woody Allen wrote that you have to have a little faith in people, and post-Gerwig Noah Baumbach has found his faith. His characters can still behave selfishly, arrogantly, recklessly. He does not excuse them from their transgressions nor shelter them from consequences, but you can feel a love for them. He is quicker to laugh with them, meet them halfway even at their worst. He has always been funny, but the humor now carries more empathy and levity. My second tour of divorce with Noah Baumbach was still a painfully truthful experience, but it was also sweet and generous and rather luminous. I expected to cringe, and instead came away thoroughly disarmed and moved. I sensed the god of this cinematic world had moved past his Old Testament days and that he cared deeply for his creations. For all the strife the characters endured, I knew they would come through it with their humanity intact. They were now in firmer, gentler hands.

Top 20 Films of 2019: #18- Varda By Agnes

Maybe it’s that the future is becoming an increasingly inscrutable and disquieting thing, or maybe it’s that we look to the past for guidance and clues in challenging times, but, whatever the reason, 2019 had a whole lot of looking back. From personal memoirs like Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir to Quentin Tarantino’s deliciously elegiac 1960s time machine to the masterfully potent nostalgia of Apollo 11. Even some of the films that didn’t entirely work for me were sifting through the past (JoJo Rabbit and 1917 revisiting our World Wars; Joker recreating the Scorsesean grime of 1970s New York City). Above all, 2019 was a year when many of our finest directors made reflected back on their lives and careers and tried to make sense of their artistic legacies, whether directly (Pedro Almodovar’s practically autobiographical Pain and Glory) or more obliquely (Martin Scorsese reconsidering the value of the mob film with The Irishman). The most deceptively modest auteur retrospective was Varda by Agnes, which consists of two filmed seminars by the legendary, visionary, and impossibly winning Belgian-born French filmmaker (and Queen of the French New Wave), Agnes Varda. In the 21st century, Varda largely retired from her storied career of fiction filmmaking to make a handful of rapturously received documentaries. The most recent up until now was her lovely, spirited masterpiece, Faces Places, about her collaboration and friendship with a gifted young photographer with a talent for creating high-concept, building-sized portraits of working class people. As most cinephiles likely know, the 90-year old fairy godmother of cinema passed away in March of 2019, less than two months after Varda by Agnes premiered at the Berlin Film Festival. If the films released this year by Scorsese, Tarantino, and Almodovar feel like farewell letters (films that will be viewed as their swan songs decades from now, even if those directors go on to make more work), Varda’s film is more literally a goodbye; a fond reflection on what film has meant to Agnes (and what Agnes has meant to film) by a woman whose late age and cancer diagnosis must have made her aware that she only had a pittance of time left to collect her last impressions and leave us with the final pearls of some seven decades behind the camera. If anyone deserved a grandiloquent, momentous send-off it would be Agnes Varda, but she has always been a filmmaker who adores the thrill of making great art simply and with zero self-importance. A sweet, modest goodbye suits Agnes Varda, but what suits her even more is a goodbye that draws great humor, heart, and surprising emotion from its own modesty.

At first glance, Varda By Agnes resembles nothing so much as a Kennedy Center honor or some artist salute on PBS, with Agnes demurely escorting us through her own work. The film is comprised of two lectures that Varda gave in an opera house to groups of film students. Varda sits on stage, the model of sweetly impish humility that she always was, and talks to her audience about her films over the decades. Varda began as a photographer before helping to found the beyond-influential French New Wave movement (alongside filmic titans like Jean Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, Alain Resnais and Varda’s late husband, Jacques Demy) in the 1950s. Her work included shorts and feature length films, fictional works and documentaries, photography exhibits and high-concept art installations. The only thing more diverse than the variety of projects Varda took on was the variety of her (mostly) human subjects. She documented the Black Panthers and the hippie movement in the 1960s; made realist dramas about French fisherman and giddily experimental documentaries about farmers and factory workers. In later life, she even made a video-enhanced shrine to someone’s dearly departed pet cat. She has made lively examinations about a woman’s right to choose, feminism, and the Chicano muralist culture of East Los Angeles, all of which she presents clips from and gushes about over the course of the film’s nearly two hours. It’s a film stuffed to the gills with film history, cultural anecdotes, and Varda’s gleefully erudite enthusiasm. I could have listened to her for another two hours without thinking about it, and of course the bittersweet truth of Varda By Agnes is that this is the last bottle of perfect cinematic wine this disarming legend will ever produce. But, as the film constantly reminds us, Agnes Varda left behind an almost impossibly vast effervescent treasure trove of work to rummage through. Varda By Agnes is a breathless sprint through Varda’s own personal museum; a lovable and loving look back at the life and art of a filmmaker who followed her tireless, vivid muse from her early 20s right until cancer finally stopped her at 90. It did finally stop her, but nothing, be it illness or age, ever slowed her down. Meeting Agnes Varda makes you want to live life with unflagging zest. She makes you want to go create something the instant you turn off your screen.

If there’s a way to explain the essence of this petite woman, with dark red hair that became silvery white at the top in her later years, it’s through an indefatigable love for making things. Oh, how Agnes Varda loved her job! No matter what small form it took or what places it took her. No matter how seemingly trivial or mundane the topic. Agnes Varda made plenty of films but part of what made her an irreplaceable part of the film landscape is her approachable glee for the hard, dirty work of just plain making something. She tells her audience that one of her favorite aspects of directing is the challenge of the creative process; how to make something in spite of , or maybe as a result of, the limitations and obstacles placed in front of you. Agnes Varda can talk about filming on a shoestring budget and somehow completely joyful about not having enough money. She lived for the puzzle of hands-on cinema. She luxuriated in the gauntlet of rejections and setbacks; of making it work or figuring out something that would work. As inspiring as Varda’s genius should be to a new generation of filmmakers and film-watchers, the even more inspiring  takeaway from her legacy should be her joyous resolve to make art by any means at her disposal. And of course this attitude was necessarily tied to her position as a woman trying to create art in a business that, even today, is gallingly male-dominated. Agnes Varda took immense pride in her work and had very exacting standards for herself and her performers (on the set of Vagabond, her tremendous character study of a homeless woman, she had Sandrine Bonnaire practice setting up tents over and over to nail the physical realism of a person living on the road), but she also knew the limits and drawbacks of perfectionism. As a female auteur, she must have also seen fussy idealism as a luxury. At the end of the day, whether the film came out rigorously composed or beautifully improvised, Varda made sure her bold social ideas and her inimitably humane voice got heard.

To Varda, an arbitrary sense of perfection meant less than have the art be radiantly, messily human. Her art was a place where genius and endearing, vibrant humility could meet. She directed some strikingly realistic films, but she also loved to play with bright colors and music. After meeting a distant cousin on a houseboat in Sausalito for the first time, she was so touched that she instead on making a short documentary about their introduction. In that short, she shot their first warm handshake through a series of hearts cut out of red, yellow and blue cellophane. Perhaps that sounds like a cheap arts-and-craft project, but the effect is luminous and free-wheeling and unpretentious. It’s a sincere, silly and heartfelt way to sum up the simple joy of letting a new and special person into your life. Agnes Varda’s films poured in bold primary colors straight from her pure, transparent heart. She has the boldness to be utterly humble in the way she made art and in how she saw the art of others. In the film’s opening, as she sits onstage in her monogrammed folding chair, ready to begin her beautifully digressive final film, she looks up at the opera houses’ ornately domed ceiling in admiration and awe. Unlike the prickly pretense of her fellow French New Wave pioneer and friend, Jean Luc Godard, Agnes Varda never had any real ego about her art. She was humbled and excited and completely gratified to call herself an artist and to create alongside others. Her ruminations on Vagabond are partly an opportunity for her to give hearty thanks to a performer that she was hard on at the time. Another film is introduced so that Varda can bring her cinematographer up onstage to share her own thoughts. And before she can begin the final film of her career (and her fourth brilliant documentary of this century), she just has to give a sincere and humble compliment to whatever architect designed this beautiful ceiling however long ago. If Varda By Agnes is your first time meeting Agnes Varda (And my God, it should not be your last), this opening beat is charming and perfectly revealing introduction to her character. She was a director who sought to create beauty, but also found it wherever she went.

The film is also a reminder that there was maybe no filmmaker more generous than Agnes Varda. What comes through about Varda’s films, as prolific and as wildly hard and as wildly eclectic as they are as a body of work, is that Agnes Varda found beauty in people. Early in the film, she tells us that the real reason she makes films is to share them with others. The reward for her was not making her vast intellect known to the world or achieving canonization among the pantheon of legendary filmmakers (though she surely achieved both), but to share and collaborate with other human beings. As I noted in my review of Faces, Places, what made Agnes Varda a practically peerless documentarian was her ability to coax her subjects into giving something of themselves, to truly reveal their souls. The people Agnes Varda interviewed, directed and worked with always gave of themselves because Agnes was an open book and because she a pure love and fascination for humanity beamed out of her at all times. It was a vivacious, animating force that coursed like electricity through her films and that invigorated anyone fortunate enough to play some role helping to make them possible. “Nothing is trite,” Varda tells her audience, “if you film it with love and empathy.” Varda was proof that a warm and loving gaze could transform a film from its humblest ingredients into something transcendent, gloriously playful and understatedly wise. For her final Vardian miracle, she has turned that wonderful perspective on a film basic film retrospective TED Talk and, like some enchanted spell, turned this filmed lecture into a magical ode, not to herself, but to the universal joys of creating things, with and for others.

If you want to find a moment in the film that really is Varda By Agnes in miniature it’s probably that cat tomb film. In crafting a video intended to mark the sad passing of a loved one and to act as a remembrance to them, Varda neither cheapens death nor gives into its somberness. Her cat grave installation begins with a stop motion sequence of starfish, one by one, lining around the departed animal’s grave. Then, rings of seashells appear on top of the unassuming mound of earth, and then blooms of fuchsia flowers start materializing in lush bursts (all set to music by legendary minimalist composer Steve Reich). Finally, the camera pulls up from the tiny tomb like a heaven-bound spirit and ascends high into the sky, until we can see that we are on an island in the middle of a peaceful, azure sea. This simple stop motion short, dedicated to a departed cat, ends with a spectacular helicopter shot. This is Agnes Varda, working DIY magic with beach combings, then punctuating it all with something grand and exultant, and making it all feel of a piece. There was no such thing as a small subject and no wrong way to make your film if you put your whole heart into it. Whatever the method, whatever the tools you had at hand, she reminded us that clear-eyed, generous intent will see you through. Hers was a spirit you could feel bobbing playfully and curiously through every frame. And now we have another small, marvelous bauble with a transcendental soulfulness radiating at its center. Close to the end of this film, Varda underlines what an unassuming goodbye this is by referring to it as a “chat”, and indeed it is. Varda was the kind of artist who could engage you in a slight chat and somehow show you the beating heart of the world. Varda By Agnes is a droll conversation that looks upon the enormity of life and death, and renders them both simply and grandly. It’s a sweet and small-scale film by an artist who rarely needed more than a whisper to reach God’s ears.