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Top 20 Films of 2021: #6- The Beatles: Get Back

Peter Jackson’s three-part, fly on the wall documentary project The Beatles: Get Back (released as a miniseries on Disney+) is a great many things over its more than eight hours. But what it is maybe first and foremost is a loving reclamation project. Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s 1970 documentary Let It Be was released to mostly mixed reviews and dismissed as a disjointed muddle brought only occasionally to life by the presence of the band’s music. Its perceived aimlessness (even at a brief 88 minutes) with rehearsal scenes intermittently punctuated with arguments, might have just been confusing and unfulfilling except for one major offscreen development. The Beatles had broken up barely a month before Let It Be‘s release date. And so, understandably, a disjointed hash of a film was seen contextually as the last dismal bit of found footage from the scene of a devastating falling out. A gloomy, incomplete recording of a bruising cultural loss. A scrambled black box that had happened to capture the death of the entire 1960s. Gimme Shelter‘s less coherent, generally mediocre cousin. The complex, 22-day album recording process (during which they wrote most of the songs for their closing masterpieces, Abbey Road and Let It Be) had been condensed into a woefully truncated hour-and-twenty, and I think a lot of people filled all that empty space with their own grim speculation. Chief among them is the old chestnut that John Lennon’s soon-to-be wife Yoko Ono’s presence in the recording studio was a major catalyst in The Beatles disbanding. If nothing else, Hogg’s Let It Be documentary helped turn Ono’s name into a shorthand for meddlesome significant others that muck up a band’s creative process. Never mind the fact that Paul’s own girlfriend was also often present or the fact that Ono is mostly seen quietly watching and drinking tea. Hogg’s film notably omitted the few days when George Harrison prematurely quit the band for reasons having seemingly nothing to do with anybody’s girlfriend and much more to do with feeling creatively neglected by the Lennon-McCartney songwriting juggernaut. Whatever Hogg’s good intentions, 1970’s Let It Be feels a bit like tabloid journalism and it fed shallow, reductive takes about the band’s last days and who was to blame. Peter Jackson’s miraculous and generous document (made from Hogg’s wealth of footage and stunningly restored by Jackson and his team) takes what was a superficial blurb and opens it up into a nuanced, winningly digressive essay. In place of an autopsy of The Beatles, he finds a vibrant, poignant and bittersweet tale of beautiful art and painful personal change. The Beatles: Get Back is a corrective tonic to a saga that was once tinted by acrimony. You will finish the film mystified as to how anyone spent all these years laying the blame on sweet, humble Yoko Ono. As if life and art and interpersonal relationships are ever so simple. You will finish the film with a lot of newfound clarity and empathy for everyone involved in that final month that would be the world’s greatest band’s last hurrah.

After a breathless and moving (and musical, of course) montage of the life of The Beatles, from the first time John and Paul, the film drops us in the late Sixties. The film documents a span of twenty-two days in January of 1969. Shortly before this moment, the band had performed live together for what was the first time in two years. Realizing how much they had missed it, As the film begins, The Beatles have booked a space at England’s Twickenham film studios (where drummer Ringo Starr would soon film a comedy with chameleonic character actor Peter Sellers) and set about to write new music. Their challenge is to not only come up with a whopping fourteen new songs for a new album, but to record them all as part of a live TV special. A band that has seen its individual members scatter off in pursuit of personal passion projects has given itself seventeen days to create, memorize and play a full album’s worth of new material without the use of any studio tricks. It is not spoiling too much to say that complications ensue, that the visual nature of the special is argued over (Michael Lindsay-Hogg has his heart dead set on the band performing at an outdoor amphitheater on the North African coast), deadlines are pushed back. Having reviewed all of Hogg’s footage, Peter Jackson felt moved to tell a fuller story about these three weeks. He wanted to make this epic to show that there was so much more here than just discord, than the seeds of the band’s breakup. But that said, a tone of dysfunction does rear its head intermittently. The passing of the band’s mentor and manager Brian Epstein less than two years prior hangs heavy over the group and Paul McCartney feels a sudden need to impose some now-absent sense of structure and discipline onto the band. He speaks gently and patiently to his friends, but whiff of paternalism is unavoidable. George Harrison, who has always felt like a third fiddle (the producers always pushed Lennon and McCartney as the key songwriters) feels more dismissed than every by this version of Paul. And many of George’s ideas, which feature a more dense, jazzily ornate sense of musicianship, are dismissed because Paul favors simplicity and tonal clarity. John Lennon seems a million miles away for the first handful of days, probably wishing to spend more time with his spouse or on his Vietnam activism. And Ringo patiently watches and tries to lend an ear to whoever needs it. Because they all need to hear each other and hearing each other, like music itself, takes practice. The Beatles: Get Back starts with a band struggling to find itself again, takes us through three weeks that produced some of the most famous and brilliant songs ever written, and culminates with the famous, much-parodied final concert on the rooftop of London’s Apple Studios. In between is humor, heartache, and pure magic. I have great admiration for the arc of Peter Jackson’s career (The Lovely Bones and The Hobbit trilogy sadly excepted), from gleefully tacky goremeister to Oscar-winning traverser of Middle Earth. He only recently moved into documentary, vividly colorizing the British World War I experience for 2018’s very strong They Shall Not Grow Old. It feels strange to call The Beatles: Get Back his best film, not only because of how tremendous the first two Lord of the Rings films are but also because the documentary genre still feels so uncharacteristic of him. That Peter Jackson is still only two films old after all. And yet, the glorious, detailed and humane sweep of this 8-hour opus (not to mention the outstanding feat of restoration and editing it represents) is enough for me to at least float the idea. I’ll save the actual debate for another day and just say that, in no uncertain terms, The Beatles: Get Back is exceptional and transcendent. And that, after more than a decade in the wilderness post-Rings, Jackson has not only returned to us but grown in a way I never expected of him. Call him Peter the White now.

The Beatles: Get Back sets out to dispel easy, pat theories on what broke The Beatles up. It is a notion the band would have surely approved of. The four lads repeatedly skewer tabloid rumors of their demise, full of fisticuffs and divorces, by reading them out loud and mocking them. At one point, the band has a rock-and-roll freakout session, jamming thunderously while Paul reads a particularly glib gossip article over his bandmates’ din. At the same time, the question of where they finally lost the desire to play together is a compelling one. Some old theories are debunked. While John and Yoko had been spending a lot of time together, Paul very sympathetically defuses that as being a major issue. “Let the young lovers stay together,” he says. The much larger issue that appears (and again, was given much less focus in 1970’s messy post-mortem) is the alienation of George Harrison and his songwriting talent. Jackson lets us come to our own conclusions but he gives us a rich array of perspectives and details. He lets the discussions play out in full. Yes, Paul and George were disagreeing more about the sonic direction of The Beatles, but these same sessions also forged two albums that many place in their top five (this critic considers Abbey Road to be their best and maybe the best album of all time). The film lets us see how four talents this powerful and restlessly were evolving in new and different directions. And nobody was wrong here. While I happen to favor Paul’s clean, emotionally direct popcraft to Harrison’s more Clapton-esque, ornately filigreed style (and it’s not as if I don’t love Harrison masterworks like “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” and “Something”), that opinion only goes so far as what I like from The Beatles. I also happen to think that George Harrison made a compelling argument for his oft-disregarded ideas by turning around and making the best solo record any of them ever made, the towering triple-disc masterpiece, All Things Must Pass. The beauty of The Beatles: Get Back is in how understanding and non-judgmental it is, so that it really just becomes a lovely and mature meditation on how bands (and friendships) change and grow. And sometimes grow apart. It manages to become overwhelmingly life-affirming and joyful without minimizing how painful change can be. And while we know watching this footage that The Beatles are barely a year away from hanging it all up, Get Back isn’t actually about watching a growing rift. It’s actually about watching four friends heal and play together again. It sadly happens that this will be the last time. But Jackson blesses us with a chance to see them come together and to witness the astonishingly beautiful results.

After all the rumors and arguments and creative differences have faded away, what remains is the band’s ingenious, whimsically soulful music. To call The Beatles the greatest band in history has always felt too dismissive of the sheer wealth and diversity of music out there (both the Chuck Berry rock pioneers who inspired them and the multitude of musical geniuses who sprung from their influence). And yet, the mantle feels fitting when you watch them work up close. More than anything, Get Back is maybe the most astoundingly detailed document of collaboration and the creative process that I have ever seen. I would have to go back to 2007’s musical masterpiece Once to find an ode to both the doldrums and the ecstasies of music-making that operates on this level. Peter Jackson’s gorgeously intimate window into the making of two timeless albums is great not just because the music is great but because it is so perfectly keyed in to the connection that develops between long-time artistic collaborators. At one point Paul gushes about getting the new songs honed enough that they become second nature. He says he’s excited about moving on to what he calls “the riff stage”, and when he says those words, John’s face lights up and they both share a knowing giggle. The film has a way of bringing you in to the codes and shorthand and inside jokes of the band. We get to see the shared language they have developed . It is rich and compelling to watch them navigate an arduous process charged with the joys and stresses of more than a decade working together. In the first of its three parts (arguably my favorite segment, though each one is perfect and revealing in very specific ways), Get Back has the patience to begin with the band mired in claustrophobia and writer’s block. Watching the opening minutes, one can see where Hogg’s more negative document may have come from. Needing still a dozen songs, Paul sits down and starts to improvise, finger pick, jam. As if to wave away the mental haze hanging over them in a flurry of strums. And then, all of a sudden, like a lighthouse’s beam breaking through a fog, the strains of “Get Back” emerge. And the fact I love this band obviously helps elevate that moment, but I think something in that scene transcends The Beatles themselves. The simple act of starting from a desperate, despondent place and then seeing a brilliant, now-famous song suddenly materialize out of the ether is so impossibly exciting. And, after the gloomy dysfunction of those opening minutes, it is also tremendously moving. It’s not as if I didn’t expect to hear Beatles songs in a Beatles documentary. But Peter Jackson builds up the fatigue, miscommunication and general stakes so well that hearing something finally come together feels like a triumphant act of willpower. You sense the daunting achievement that is the writing of one, just one, perfect song. And then more start to arrive. “Dig A Pony”. “Two of Us”. “Carry That Weight”. Oh yeah, “Let It Be”. If 2021 held more transcendent scenes than Paul unveiling “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window” to a visibly, almost begrudgingly impressed John Lennon (it is the moment Lennon’s apathetic malaise truly dissipates, I think the moment we get him back), they are few and far between.

What is also moving is just that Jackson has removed and corrected any lingering traces of bitterness from the story of this band. I think of Celine’s words to Jesse in Before Sunset when they finally reunite after nine years apart. “Now that we’ve met again, we can change our memory,” she says. “It no longer has that sad ending of us never seeing each other again.” Jackson’s miracle is to change our memories. The Beatles disbanding didn’t mean they never spoke again, but the impending breakup came with such a seismic tone of era-ending finality that it has always cast a shadow over their last burst of creative output. With The Beatles: Get Back, Jackson sheds warm sunlight on this complicated but beautifully productive final chapter. The creation of Let It Be and Abbey Road wasn’t the only beautiful thing to come out of all this. The footage itself and what it says about this band and friendship and music in general is an absolute good. Peter Jackson’s momentous, painstaking accomplishment is really a humble act of asking all music lovers to revisit and reevaluate. It is the same thing any good critic asks of a reader. Whatever you believe about a story, remember to always reconsider. The Beatles: Get Back is like the band’s wonderful self-titled album (famously known as The White Album). It is a sprawling, digressive anthology that bursts with moments of humor, pathos, whimsy and love. And so, these last two albums were not the products of mere strife and dysfunction, but of something more richly optimistic. Yes, the band would shortly break up and they would sadly never fulfill Paul’s wishful prophecy of playing together as old men. But here, lovingly touched up and joyfully observed, is a beautiful, hopeful work of art about the making of two beautiful, hopeful works of art. It’s another good something to come out of that time and an exuberant recontextualization of music history. For a band that gave the world so many good and tender things, Get Back feels like a final give given back to the band and to anyone who ever loved them.

And one last word on the subject of recontextualization. In the same way Yoko Ono has been unfairly yoked to The Beatles’ break up for decades, Ringo Starr has always gotten a bit of a raw deal too, just in terms of his critical appraisal. Lennon and McCartney wrote the bulk of rock and roll’s richest songwriting catalogue. George Harrison wrote phenomenal songs like “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun”, and was a slept-on genius who should have been allowed to contribute more. And Ringo Starr banged away on the drums. He had a big nose and big sad Eeyore eyes and he played hangdog comic relief (marvelously well) in the film A Hard Day’s Night. And he wrote “Octopus’s Garden”, the perennially mocked middle child of Abbey Road. In other words, Ringo Starr has spent a lot of time as a punchline. A fond, gentle punchline maybe, but suffice to say he has long commanded the least esteem of the group; the consensus least-fab of the Fab Four. The Beatles: Get Back beautifully dispels the notion that Ringo Starr was in any way superfluous to the success of the monumentally talented group he was in. In the opening montage, Jackson reminds us that the band was thrilled to have Ringo Starr come aboard. They brought Ringo in upon their triumphant return from Hamburg to their home of Liverpool. They brought him in because he was the most beloved, celebrated drummer in the whole city. But beyond his skillful playing, the picture of Ringo that emerges from Get Back is of the most humble, sweet, well-humored, attentive and selfless musical collaborator one could ever hope to work with. It’s there in the way George Harrison chipperly exclaims “Hey Ringo” when he arrives early to find the dear man already in the studio. It’s Paul’s girlfriend, Linda Eastman saying she feels completely relaxed around Ringo Starr. It’s the fact that literally everyone is relaxed around Ringo (even the famously difficult Peter Sellers, for God’s sake) and the implication that his calming presence may have kept the band from splitting apart at the seams during that last month. His sweet demeanor and gift for really listening to people was probably crucial in creating the harmony needed for the lads to make those last two masterworks. In its kind, non-judgmental approach, Jackson’s film reels most possessed by the spirit of Ringo Starr. And that’s not just a nice revelation for the film to make. It’s also crucial to its exploration of the musical process as something not so linear, not so simple to get right. Get Back is a film about music, but also about all the vital intangibles that go into making great music. The cups of tea and cigarettes and the day Linda’s 7-year old daughter comes in and gives everyone’s spirits a boost. And there, seated behind the hit-hats and snares, is the greatest intangible of them all. “The Greatest Intangible of Them All” sounds like a joke he could have made at his own expense in Hard Day’s Night, but it’s absolutely true. The most important intangible in this whole documentary is the man who exudes empathy and positive vibes from his every pore. The one who can always give you some peace of mind when it’s in short supply. And when he’s done quietly grounding the egos and brightening the mood and blowing away the anxieties like puffs of smoke, he still knows how to play a mean kit. Liverpool’s favorite son. Whenever he gets to Heaven, there’ll be an octopus’s garden waiting for him.

Top 20 Films of 2021: #7- The Power of the Dog

I promise to form a few thoughts of my own in this, my review of Jane Campion’s Best Director-winning The Power of the Dog. But has anyone tapped more succinctly and perfectly into the nature of this transfixing slowburn masterpiece than dear old Martin Scorsese? At the New York Film Critics Circle awards dinner, the invaluable, film-loving genius started his adoring speech with two questions. “What is strength and who is the strongest?” It’s an area Scorsese knows something about. The director of Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and Goodfellas has spent a career digging into toxic masculinity, examining men whose tendencies toward violence, abuse and self-serving greed mark them not as the strong alpha males they want to be, but as feeble, stunted and soul-sick. It is not only a perfect starting place for The Power of the Dog, but for Campion’s own rich and enigmatic filmography. Campion details the female journey through worlds overseen and dominated by conceited, insecure and possessive men. Holly Hunter’s Ada in The Piano is a mute woman sold into an arranged marriage with Sam Neill’s controlling land-owner. She seems to be literally without voice or power and then her petty husband asserts control over her further by refusing to keep her beloved musical instrument (her one real mode of expression) in his house. In Bright Star, Abby Cornish’s Fanny is repeatedly disrespected as a tiresome nuisance by her paramour’s jealous friend. Great New Zealand author Janet Frame loses eight years in the patriarchal maze of the asylums in An Angel At My Table. Campion’s women are among the most complex, human characters put to screen and they are invariably the strongest people in their own stories, despite having to jockey with men who try to break them in like wild colts. Campion’s wild and passionate women are not demure, but they also do not win their freedom and respect by conforming to the aggressive male traits they rebel against. I would call their perseverance feminine, though perhaps Campion would resist gendering it at all. Campion women retain the ineffable, mysterious essence of who they are. But one thing is true of strength in her films. It is a thing kept inside and it is not easily defined or pigeon-holed.

 

The first of our four main characters we hear from is the teenaged Peter, though only briefly and offscreen. The soft-spoken, effeminate boy is the youngest and seemingly frailest of the bunch. Nonetheless, his words, softly spoken in voiceover over a black background, are chosen to start the film. He speaks of his recently widowed mother and a need to keep her safe. “For what kind of man would I be,” he asks, “if I did not help my mother?” The year is 1925, the setting is Montana (played by the rugged hills of Campion’s native New Zealand), and two ranch-owning brothers are about to go on their last cattle drive together. It is also the 25th anniversary of their start in the cattle ranching business. One brother, Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch, giving his first full-stop brilliant performance), sees this as a poignant and momentous occasion, the end of a very special partnership. He keeps looking to his brother, George, to validate that sentiment, though his manner of getting attention (mostly by barking and calling him Fatso) is clearly backfiring. George Burbank (a lovely Jesse Plemmons, the very picture of subdued decency) is a brick wall, though we pick up that he may be looking forward to working less closely with his irately domineering brother. He certainly does not seem to attach any strong emotions to this last ride down the trail. George’s taciturn manner only seems to fuel Phil’s never-ending cycle of putdowns and childish neediness. The end of their road (them and a gaggle of younger cowboys) is the small town of Herndon, where the dirt-caked men will enjoy a celebratory fried chicken dinner, drunkenly dance and carouse (though Phil never seems to gravitate to any of the saloon’s willing women), and have a good sleep in a real 1920s hotel bed. The owner of the hotel is Rose (Kirsten Dunst, heartbreakingly vulnerable), a recent widow – a “suicide widow” as Phil cruelly puts it – who runs it with her unguardedly feminine 18-year old son Peter (a spellbindingly complex turn from Aussie up-and-comer Kodi Smit-McPhee). We first see Peter alone in his room making elaborate flower arrangements out of magazine paper to stand in for the ones that are hard to come by in this arid cowtown. He places a few on his father’s grave and uses the rest to decorate the restaurant’s dining tables. When Peter comes to wait on Phil’s table, Phil mocks his lisp and uses one of his artificial blooms to light a cigarette. He very transparently does this at the exact moment Peter is watching. Phil’s act of cruelty comes back to haunt him when George goes back into the kitchen to pay the bill and finds Rose weeping. No stranger to Phil’s bullying himself, George feels a duty to comfort Rose. He even comes back some days later to help her serve food. In a matter of weeks, the two will be married (Plemmons and Dunst are husband and wife in real life), much to Phil’s angry, misogynistic disapproval, and Rose will live under Phil and George’s roof. With George getting out of the cattle business and into bigger things, and Peter off at his first year of medical school for a full third of the picture, Rose now has to spend her every waking moment alone with a mean-spirited bully who terrorizes her with alternating waves of vindictive mockery and frigid disregard. When Peter finally comes to spend his summer break at the Burbank ranch, he finds his already meek mother a pale shell of herself and deep into drinking herself to death. The Power of the Dog is a mystery thriller about what will happen to Peter, Phil and Rose (straight, heterosexual George will be just fine), as this toxic dynamic comes to a head. It is also interested in what motivates Phil Burbank’s unrelenting animosity.

The great power in a film like this is in its ability to patiently tease out the important details of its plot and its characters. It builds suspensefully and methodically, doling out information at the time we need it. But if one thing feels apparent from the start, it’s that something in the feminine, seemingly open book of Peter stirs up something combustible in Phil. His jockish ridicule is not a million miles removed from the way certain straight men have bullied gay men throughout history and that gives Phil all the plausible deniability he needs. He has an excuse to fixate on a guileless, barely of age twink he has only just met for the better part of an evening until it drives poor Rose to tears within minutes (a first impression of Phil that time will prove correct). It’s the 1920s and all Phil has to say is that he was teaching a naive homosexual what the tough old world will do to him if he continues to reveal himself so unashamedly to strangers. And yet, there is just something too obsessive and eager in Phil’s attentions toward Peter. As openly antagonistic as they are, they also have an unmistakable tone of wounded neediness. Campion has crafted a film in dialogue with Ang Lee’s queer landmark Brokeback Mountain in how it presents Western tropes as being loaded with domination and hypermasculinity, while also seeing something tender and anguished beneath all the machismo. The film is based on the 1967 novel by queer author Thomas Savage, who took inspiration from his own experience coming of age on his stepfather’s cattle ranch after his own mother was widowed. It would be easy to say that Peter is fully Savage’s surrogate and yet Savage would not fully open up about his sexuality (he had a 50-year marriage to a woman, a fellow writer) for several decades. Peter, by contrast, seems like he’s never hidden that part of himself for a  minute of his life. Without saying too much, there is more to the queerness of the story than just Peter. This would not be the phenomenal mystery box of sexuality and identity that it is if the only non-straight character were the one completely honest and upfront about it. The beauty of the film is how it locates its queer themes in a landscape and a lifestyle that seems anathema to queer identity. The cowhands laugh at Peter and make their horses rear up to scare him when he first arrives. And yet these same alpha men are themselves very uninhibited. They are unashamed to splash about naked in the rivers and sunbathe together. Campion is not entirely denying Phil’s tirade about the danger of being openly gay at this time. But on the other hand, she delights in showing how much appeal cowboy culture’s rule-free, unshackled, theatrically rough vibe might hold for a man who pines for the company of other men.

Campion is fascinated by human contradictions and by the veil between authenticity and performance. In one one scene from her masterpiece The Piano, a group of Maori tribesmen storm the stage at a local play because they think the silhouette of a villain threatening some women is an actual killer on the loose. There are no stage actors in The Power of the Dog, but Campion reveals layer by layer how much of Phil’s homophobic, ornery, grimy (his refusal to bathe for a dinner with the Governor of Montana feels like the petulant tantrum of a four-year old) persona is all an elaborate act of dress-up. The tenuous border between truth and playacting is still present in Campion’s vision of the West, just as it was in the misty wilds of  New Zealand. Phil isolates from the high-minded, elbow-rubbing sort of company his brother wants to cultivate, but we come to see these socialites are much more his natural fellows than the free-roaming hayseeds who work for him. In stark contrast to Phil’s plain-spoken blue collar character, the Governor remembers Phil as a one-time Ivy League student who majored in dead languages. Somewhere beneath the stinky, muddy costume Phil dons each day are the remains of a hyperliterate intellectual. And we can see from the first moment we meet him that Phil is wealthy. He and his brother live in a mansion with servants and cowhands. Getting up on a horse and tanning leather and castrating bulls isn’t even something he needs to do. The politician regards Phil’s crass affectations as an unwashed cattle rustler with unconvinced bemusement. “So he swears at the cattle in Greek or Latin?,” the perceptive Governor wryly asks George. But I don’t think Campion or Savage mean to entirely demean Phil for his histrionic, tough guy posturing. We all have the right to create an image for ourselves that fits who we are better than the one we are born with. And Phil has clearly found no joy in the life of a rich landowner and cattle magnate, though he clearly is one. Maybe it’s just that the more Phil talks tough, the less convincing he really seems. Apart from poor, fragile Rose, nobody really ever seems rattled or afraid of his grandstanding meanness. Annoyed or weary of it, perhaps. We can sense that the first time we see George tune his brother out on their last ride. George is wise enough to pull away from Phil,  so secretly relieved to finally break their bond that he literally weeps for joy when he and Rose are finally married. The problem is that, with the entrance of Rose, Phil finally finds someone he can truly hurt, even destroy. And that development means that Phil does become more than just a paper tiger, more than just a sad, volatile, mean-spirited little man. For as much as we come to feel for Phil Burbank and the real life he believes he can never have, he is also a mad dog in this story. The blustery masquerade he has been performing suddenly becomes as real as he always wanted it to be. Phil gets the chance to do more than just fashion himself as a swaggering brute. He becomes an actual monster. And that brings consequences that the one-time Latin scholar fails to recognize.

None of Phil’s vileness detracts from the scale of his tragedy. It magnifies it. Many of the most heartbreaking characters throughout history are monsters. One of the motifs in The Power of the Dog is the pairing of characters. For it is a story, as George tearfully puts it to Rose, about how nice it is to not be alone. When the film begins, Phil is already losing George (his bullying likely drove him away ages ago). Then George finds a wife and becomes part of a truly healthy pair. Rose and Peter are another pair. They have each other’s backs with a tender, fierce resolve that Phil is blind to. He is too spiteful of all things soft to recognize the strength of these bonds. Or maybe he self-destructively spits in the face of all that due to the loss of the person who meant the most to him. An older mentor named Bronco Henry once taught Phil everything he knows about ranch life and even saved his life in a blizzard. He helped the brothers start their business. When George balks at toasting to Bronco Henry at that farewell fried chicken dinner, Phil shows that maybe he does understand the value of kinship, of letting someone in. “People helped you, Fatso,” he snarls, the empathetic wisdom of his words curdled, as always, with abrasive cruelty. Bronco Henry died many years ago, leaving only the saddle that Phil tenderly keeps and maintains in the barn. Phil is alone and initially seems determined to stay that way for the rest of his miserable days. Until one day, when Peter is spending his last weeks at the ranch before returning to university, some patch of ice thaws. Phil unexpectedly apologizes to Peter about starting off badly with him. He talks of them one day becoming good friends. He takes Peter under his wing and teaches him to ride and pours his energies into braiding a rope for him to take back to school with him. Those scenes have a tone that is both poignant and also tremendously unnerving. Not because we do not buy Phil’s newfound affection for Peter, not because Phil’s sudden compassion is necessarily counterfeit. But because, in desperately grasping for a bond with Peter, Phil is weaning him away from the desperate, deteriorating Rose. And because Peter now has to reconcile two poles: a fond friendship with a man more like himself than he first thought and the monstrous animosity that same man shows toward his mother. Phil seems to believe he has found something deeper than friendship with Peter. Possibly love and at least the chance to share more deeply of himself than he has in decades. Peter sees that he may not be able to have both Phil’s companionship and his beloved mother. Someone will have to lose. And nobody wants to be alone, but maybe enough trauma and misfortune and bad decisions casts that die for us. Maybe those who commit to a path of being unknowable and abusing others don’t get the luxury of connecting with the very humanity they have shunned. Even if that one little connection may be their only hope of redemption and self-preservation.

 

And while Campion is a master at ruminating on these heady, soulful matters of longing, masculinity, femininity, and soul-sickness, The Power of the Dog is too taut to be categorized entirely as a tone poem. I suppose it resists that easy categorization in a very Campion way. The Neat trick is realizing what a tightly wound watch it is. It is the kind of film that, on first viewing, feels more languid and meditative than it is. On a rewatch, I saw fateful decisions, dialogue and character reveals happening for the entire runtime; pulling together slowly but surely like the knots in Phil’s braided rope. Of all the mood pieces to accuse of being sedate, I am surprised that this one has attracted such a vocal band of detractors. For me, The Power of the Dog splits the difference between a tone poem and something akin to a great episode of The Twilight Zone. Not that there are any sci-fi elements, but that there is a twisty, punchy, satisfying little morality play nestled at the heart of it. It’s one of the only films I can think of whose sense of storytelling can be described as both lush and sinewy, dreamy and muscular. And being able to really see the shape of it makes revisiting it even richer than discovering it for the first time. It grows in pathos when we have learned all the choices its characters will make. And what seemed like small details take on the weight of tragedy. Phil and Peter’s first meeting and the power dynamic between them. The way Phil clumsily caresses the inside of a paper flower he will later destroy. A rabbit Peter captures and hot it reveals a new, surprising side of his nature. How the mostly sweet George obliviously alienates Rose in favor of his work, creates a rupture in the film’s pairing motif, and pushes the plot fatefully forward. An anthrax outbreak at the ranch. The cowhides Phil refuses to sell just so he can burn them. Phil’s need to burn through everything and everyone. His need to appear tough in his work, even if it’s all just for pointless show. Even if it’s liable to get him hurt. A rope and how very much it can symbolize. Ties of love and friendship. But also bondage, domination and power. What is power and who wields it? What does real power look like? Is it the horse whinnying and bucking or the rabbit hiding and planning its next move for survival? What is strength and who is the strongest? Campion’s way is not to offer up any readymade answer but to open our minds to the idea that strength is a nebulous thing. A fluid and situational thing. A shapeshifter whose true nature is fleetingly glimpsed and only with the right kind of eyes.

Top 20 Films of 2021: #8- Bo Burnham: Inside

 

For longer than I can remember a certain breed of comedian (we’ll just call them Gervaises) has loudly and performatively insisted that comedy is dying on the vine. “Comedy is over” has been the doomsday refrain of a whole host of thin-skinned and overwhelmingly male (give or take a Whitney Cummings) standup comics, beside themselves that audiences are no longer letting homophobia, transphobia and bigotry slide just because the person saying it is at a comedy club. It’s a hysterical bad faith response easily debunked by simply watching or listening to any of the numerous hilarious and empathetic comedic geniuses working today, from Patton Oswalt to Jenny Slate to Nathan Fielder. Proof that comedy is far from over exists right here in the fact that, for the first time in my years writing reviews, a comedy special has ranked as one of my ten best films of the year. Innovative, comedian-turned-exciting-new-director Bo Burnham’s (now two for two after 2018’s humane and deliciously awkward adolescent dramedy Eighth Grade) creatively restless and anxiously topical “special” is a visionary meditation on where this poor world stands, sent out from the lockdown prison  of one 30-year old man’s cramped apartment. In one of Bo Burnham: Inside‘s first songs (oh yes, this is a musical comedy, a term that is ill-equipped to contain the sheer scope of what Burnham is up to), our quarantined funnyman host also asks the question: Is comedy over? He blessedly means it in a very different way than your typical disgruntled male rights activist. What Burnham is bemoaning is no the comic’s sacred right to offend without critique. He is asking the larger question posed by Andrei Tarkovsky’s bleak but life-affirming masterpiece Andrei Rublev. In times of extreme sorrow and strife, does art have any real power? Are literature and music and now comedy nice things that wither in the face of real disaster? As we look out our windows at the rise in ocean levels and in worldwide authoritarianism, is a comedian’s punchline or silly ditty really worth all that much? In that song, simply titled “Comedy”, Burnham asks, “Should I be joking at a time like this?”, as a canned studio audience laugh track plays behind him. He just as quickly puts his own selfish solipsism in the crosshairs by recommitting to “healing the world with comedy”. Like the rest of Inside, the song is musing on the limited power of art while also skewering the vain folly of thinking that our good intentions and kind sentiments can fix what is broken. “If you wake up in a house that’s filled with smoke, “Burnham softly croons over an 80’s synth tone, “Don’t panic. Call me and I’ll tell you a joke.”

Limits are not just Burnham’s key themes (COVID’s limited spatial freedom, limited emotional energy, and a world whose days feel increasingly limited). Limits also provide the film with the great production challenge that makes the whole thing go, as Burnham tries to make use of a single room, a Casio keyboard, some rudimentary lightshow equipment, some microphones, and a camera to create a work of art that feels expansive and boundary-pushing for all its claustrophobia. It is the very fact that he is working with a sparse set of tools and no visible collaborators that makes his haunting, manic depressive message in a bottle feel so perversely fun and spontaneous. Inside is a relentlessly melancholy film and arguably the most downbeat piece of work to ever earn the classification of comedy special. But it is also very, very funny. Burnham knows what he is doing and the goal is to leave us in a heady, contemplative  and disoriented headspace. Yet he also finds room for a gleefully silly song about FaceTiming with your folks, a Sesame Street parody with dystopian undertones, and a riotously scathing pump-up tribute song for Jeffrey Bezos, sung with barely contained rage. It may be too soon to identify a signature style that ties Inside together with Eighth Grade and Burnham’s past stage-based standup specials. But what stands out early in his directorial career is an unpretentious appetite for experimentation and an appreciation for cringe humor done in the right way. He has always had a Weird Al playfulness about him. His first instinct is to keep things light, goofy, and anarchic toward pop culture trends. What makes Inside so captivating and alive is Burnham’s willingness to let that more winking sensibility merge and mutate with a newfound sense of real darkness; the dread he has come to feel in these increasingly troubled few years. In taking a year-plus to document the effects of quarantining on his mental well-being, he makes the important choice to lean into that dread. To not worry if his anxiety and depression will overwhelm the comedy in what is nominally billed as a comedy special. He trusts that even all-consuming panic and mental disintegration can be funny, and he is absolutely right. He fully gives himself over to the demented experiment and ends up duetting with his own demons like a mad drunkard in some ramshackle piano bar.

If art does sometimes feel powerless to offset a mounting ledger of catastrophes, it is still one of the only positive byproducts of tragedy. The hope of anyone living through those much-feared interesting times is that the trauma and adversity will at least provide the inspiration for a handful of brilliant songs or films. The sweet pixie dust foxtrots from artists like Benny Goodman, which enchanted and soothed a generation grappling with devastating poverty and staring down the Nazis. The brilliant noir films cooked up in a climate of post-World War II paranoia. Th ecstatically beautiful, angry, and playful rock and roll that exploded form the powder keg of the 1960s. In that spirit, Bo Burnham has presented us with the first masterpiece to come directly from the monumental tragedy of COVID-19. Inside is not simply an examination of the mental toll of having to isolate to keep each other safe, though it speaks to that quite eloquently. It is also an audacious and formally brilliant visual essay of the COVID lockdown experience. The struggle to find something new to do after months and months in a single space. The oscillating between morose despair and bursts of manic, pent-up energy. The way so many stayed glued to the insanity and the reports of death because it at least provided some kind of emotional rush when everything else felt mired in the doldrums. Burnham uses tricks of light, projections on his walls, and a full-body shaggy camouflage suit to conjure up his own subjective experience of lockdown. Beyond the songs and their messages, Inside‘s stylistic creativity tells a story all by itself. The story of a person trying every last idea he can think of to occupy himself and distract his brain from the stark reality that he is stuck in a room watching the outside world get worse. In the end, as the physical world full of disease, mass shootings and mental illness gets more dangerous to exist in, we find ourselves sheltering indoors more and more. An as our real homes inevitably come to feel more claustrophobic and oppressively familiar, we all get funneled toward a world that shapeshifts and tantalizes us with the possibility of transcending our cramped physical reality. A world that makes us a Faustian offer of never-ending stimulation and pacification. The prophecy uttered by The Social Network‘s Sean Parker has come true. We are all living on the Internet.

Inside is a film rich with ideas about the ominous, disquieting, and fascinatingly absurd trappings of life in the current age of the Internet. The late capitalist Internet. The Trump Internet. The Internet with the power to launch righteous progressive movements and just as quickly funnel them via algorithm into echo chambers that dull their rhetorical power. As Burnham remarks in the devastating and intimate Father John Misty sendup, “That Funny Feeling, “In honor of the revolution, it’s half off at the Gap.” He laments a culture where corporations can leverage the name-checking of just causes into a rote dollar value. “Who are you, Bagel Bites?,” Burnham asks with tongue barely kept in cheek. Bo Burnham has long made a living off of pitch-perfect spoofs of post-2010 musical styles and social media trends. But Inside marks an evolution. Any sense of glibness for the thing being parodied has given way to something more grounded and less politically ambivalent. They say a great parody artist should have some love for whatever they are parodying and Inside finds Burnham clinging to some vestige of that love. A song like his Grammy-winning banger “All Eyes on Me” is just too heartfelt and genuinely cathartic not to have been made with real affection for the woozy, cerebral R&B that artists like Beyonce, Blood Orange, Frank Ocean, and James Blake made over the last decade. He loves the form and the sound of this music. And he has always used modern styles to his own Puckish ends; to playfully and knowingly rib at club culture and modern materialism. But the Bo Burnham of Inside has lost any trace of smirking archness. He’ll still give you a sparkly slow jam about the difficulty of deciphering emojis in “Sexting” or skewer social media tropes in “White Woman’s Instagram”. But he is unafraid to explore the serious harm of a digital culture that encourages constant saturation and precious little time for processing and unpacking. A platform that, as he sings on the towering standout centerpiece “Welcome To the Internet”, tempts us with “a little bit of everything all of the time.” Wearing demonic round shades, Burnham looks like the unsavory beatnik second coming of the apolitical master of ceremonies in Cabaret. Social media as the impartial, chaotically fun drug dealer to us all. Whether helping a disgruntled loner build a bomb or helping you learn which Power Ranger best represents you, the Internet takes all comers and refuses no requests.

Among his laundry list of anxieties, ranging from the global apocalypse down to lifelong panic attacks and agoraphobia, one major anxiety seems to be how our digital solipsism, that insatiable thirst for likes and followers, is cutting us off at the knees in terms of being able to do effectuate meaningful progress. Hobbling our power to do anything about the threats to freedom and continued terrestrial existence. Comedy obviously isn’t going to save the world, but what is going to save us if we are all lost in an opioid haze of narcissism and needy vanity? We have great public stages where we can shout many noble and eloquent words at each other, but Burnham mourns how the power of those words is becoming diluted. Inside‘s visual style is brilliant because it makes us feel more and more like prisoners of a demented, echoing funhouse. The features of the small space are regularly obscured and distorted by disco lights and lasers and skewed camera angles. Burnham projects clouds and sky onto the walls as a reminder of what we’re missing or maybe in a feeble attempt to make this space feel like the new outside. In the middle of a YouTube video advising people not to commit suicide, he smash-cuts to the now-filmed anti-suicide PSA playing across the screen of his own chest. He stares vacantly at the back of the room, uninterested in his own pious voice. The deeper I progressed into the vortex of Inside, the more I started to realize that this isn’t just an impressionistic, gonzo snapshot of COVID quarantining. It’s reckoning with a death of the soul and mind that may have begun a decade ago or more. He seems haunted by a need to figure out when everything went wrong. “You say the world is ending, honey, it already did,” Burnham’s auto-tuned voice croons. Does Burnham mean the start of the pandemic and its cataclysmic death count or does he mean the world ended at some earlier time that we somehow didn’t register? Inside was filmed in response to lockdown but its mournful subject is a kind of lockdown of the human spirit that predates March 2020. The maddening thesis of this hilariously devastating musical is that a cavalcade of pre-pandemic ills (gun violence, the eroding of empathy and community, Trumpism, the Internet-ification of our every word, thought, and social activity) conspired to trap us inside in a way that may be irrevocable. Locked inside of ourselves and our neuroses. Shuttered away in rooms within rooms within rooms within rooms.

Inside is a comedy special on  Netflix. It’s occasionally haha-funny, but more often than not it’s hugging-your-knees-and-nervously-chuckling-to-yourself-in-a-corner-funny. To be fair, still funny. That still leaves it as one of 2021’s comedic treasures. Even if, as Burnham himself theorizes, “comedic” seems like a feeble word to encompass what it is going for. And if the price of good, rich  laughter is hyperventilating a bit and questioning the very fabric of modern reality, I’m ready to call that sanity well spent. I’ve paid more of my mental stability for far lesser works of art. I paid theatre prices to see Tom Hooper’s Cats, for Macavity’s sake! And, with the right tour guide, a nice voyage into madness can be a vital and liberating experience. From the time I was old enough to drive myself to a movie theatre, I’ve been an ardent fan of animator Don Hertzfeldt, ever since I saw his Oscar-nominated short film Rejected at Berkeley’s sadly defunct Shattuck Cinemas. The singularly macabre auteur makes films that puncture social niceties, grapple with ennui and mental illness and dance along the nexus between what is real and imagined. Hertzfeldt has the sheer talent to make a schizophrenic man dreaming of an anthropomorphized talking fish feel both upsetting and uncomfortably uproarious. More than anything, Bo Burnham: Inside feels like the first time a live-action director has taken up Hertzfeldt’s mantle as a chronicler of terrifying, claustrophobic modern absurdity. The first film to bring that unsteady, humanely maniacal sensibility out of Hertzfeldt’s Shanty Toon Town and into the three-dimensional world. Like Don, Bo chuckles into the abyss. And when the abyss chuckles back, the sound is unmistakably that of canned laughter.

Top 20 Films of 2021: #9- The Green Knight

The Green Knight Movie Poster — Wild Tales Illustration

It seems a little funny that the 2022 Academy Awards went in so rapturously for King Richard, a modern sports film with a title that makes it sound like it could be about a medieval sovereign, yet turned a blind eye to the numerous stories of Old World regal gallantry that 2021 had to offer. It was something of a small boom year for stories from the pre-Middle Ages, between Joel Coen’s stunning and singular expressionist take on Macbeth to Ridley Scott’s trenchant and triumphant late career peak, The Last Duel. Scott’s film felt bracingly modern, while Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth felt brackishly ancient, like a primeval curse dredged out of the depths of a steaming swamp. David Lowery’s The Green Knight, 2021’s high watermark for cinema that could have been adapted from an illuminated manuscript, falls into that ancient, yellowed Macbeth camp. Its greatest aesthetic virtues (it is the kaleidoscopic counterpoint to Tragedy of Macbeth‘s chilly blacks and whites) make us feel a million miles removed from the present day and maybe from any day that ever existed. We feel the chill of the truly strange and inscrutably archaic, the sense that ghosts and lost spirits are lurking not far from us. As with Macbeth, a high and reaspy voice ushers us into the story. It speaks softly at first of King Arthur and we gaze upon a floating crown descending onto the head of some shadowy robed figure in a dimly lit throne room. Then it intones, “But this is not that King,” and the anonymous monarch bursts into a roaring crackle of flames. The voice rises to a Gollum-like bellow as it promises a rousing tale. There is a kind of dissonance at work. The words themselves are not sinister; the speaker is simply promising a rousing story to come. But her voice is beyond disquieting. DIrector David Lowery wants us to feel off balance and just the right amount of menaced. Adventures and wonders lie ahead, but he is also letting us know that his The Green Knight will be tinted with an air of the ominous and unknowable. If we are expecting a swashbuckler, he is preparing us for something with a lot more dread, mystery and danger than we are used to from the average knight’s tale. It’s not uncharacteristic of this relatively young auteur. The man who made A Ghost Story can’t resist imbuing his latest and best film with a touch of the spectral.

While past Lowery films like A Ghost Story and the elegiac Robert Redford bank robber tone poem The Old Man and the Gun had some bravura setpieces to recommend them, their aesthetic was also decidedly lo-fi at the same time. To use a music metaphor, The Green Knight is Lowery’s chance to leave the bedroom studio and make what feels like a glam record by comparison. From its atmospheric, dizzyingly edited Christmas Day opening to its giddy, head-dropper of an ending, The Green Knight is Lowery’s first complete showstopper. It’s a gorgeously tactile, bewitching, and frequently disquieting bit of old legend come to life. In telling the tale of Gawain (not yet Sir Gawain of Arthurian fame when we meet him) and the Green Knight, it feels like Lowery himself is entering the royal banquet hall of King Arthur and answering the ruler’s call for an outrageous and stupefying story of bravery and peril; of men not only leaving home but leaving the comfort zone of a physical realm they thought they knew. The Green Knight‘s story begins on a Christmas morning when heedless, cocksure Gawain (a striking and terrifically dialed-in Dev Patel) leaves his mother and lover to go dine in the castle of his uncle, King Arthur. The kindly, aging King graciously offers Gawain an empty chair next to him and his Queen. Then the good King rises from his seat and asks for one among his dear guests to bewitch him with a great story of derring-do. Before any man can step up to answer the call, however, the titular Green Knight himself (or itself) strides into the hall to kick David Lowery’s movie into action. He is plainly something other than a mere man. He has a face like a tree trunk and a beard of mossy green bark. With each step he emits low creaks like a swaying ship’s mast. This unsettling being removes a large axe from its sheath and proposes a yuletide game to all present. He will offer any man the chance to strike him in whatever place he chooses and as hard as he likes. In turn, that man must journey far away to the Green Chapel exactly one year from this day, seek out the Knight and let him return that same blow. Ambitious, invincible Gawain steps up and borrows a sword. The King emphatically reminds Gawain that this is only meant to be a game. Gawain barely registers his wise uncle’s warning. He surges angrily forward as if into battle and cleaves off his arboreal challenger’s head. But the Green Knight does not die. He merely picks up his own detached head, mounts his steed and rides from the castle leaving two chilling words ringing in the impetuous youth’s ears: one year. What follows is Gawain’s quest to seek out his destiny and to reckon with the reality of his own likely beheading.

What Lowery, adapting a classic, albeit lesser-known, piece of Arthurian legend, is doing is to challenge Gawain in much the same way as the Green Knight does in that early showdown. The idea is to test the hotheaded, action-oriented notion of what an adventure story must be. Gawain fails to recognize the Knight’s challenge as friendly gamesmanship and his empty, short-sighted braggadocio sets him on an entirely different kind of hero’s journey. One that he may very well never return from. Lowery’s tale is full of gob-smacking wonder, ingenious effects and eye-popping cinematography, but it is unlike a great many tales of brave knights.  For all his posturing, Gawain is not a knight and he rarely, if ever, acts bravely. Lowery has no intention of making Gawain look like a swashbuckling badass because he is nothing of the sort. If Gawain is to maybe one day become the figure of Arthurian legend that he is meant to be, he must slay the dragon of his own blustery youth first. From encounters with bandits to doing a favor for a martyred girl’s ghost, the chapters of Gawain’s story consistently undercut and deflate him. If nothing else, The Green Knight is a great tale of what it means to be young, dumb and full of one’s self. By contrast, Sean Harris keenly and movingly plays the great King Arthur, that most celebrated of legendary kings, not as a chest-thumping showboat but as a man whose encroaching years have blessed him with kindness and soft-spoken humility. It is for the young to see heroism as a thing of braying outward confidence. But what Gawain’s regal uncle values most is his nephew’s integrity; that he learns from his macho mistake and somehow finds the good fortune to return to him alive. He knows that if Gawain can somehow survive the cost of his own juvenile egotism, he might get far enough away from these youthful delusions of invincibility and one day become a person worthy of a real hero’s tale. But he must account for his actions alone. He must be willing to die if he’s to have any chance of becoming a great man; the great man he foolishly thought he could become with one rash swing of a borrowed sword.

What makes The Green Knight radical and refreshing isn’t just how vibrantly it distills the pure psychedelic essence of Arthurian lore. It’s in how Lowery investigates and tweaks the notion of what a hero’s tale can (and maybe more often should) be. The most uninvolving hero’s journeys concern protagonists who are already set in stone; perfect and competent with no need of improvement or growth. The folly of too many such stories is conceiving of the journey as a mere traversal across terrestrial distance when it is much more important to map the aspiring hero’s journey across the landscape of their heart and conscience. We should track them as they trek across the undiscovered lands of their own integrity and will. It is the a thread common to heroic narratives as varied as Die Hard’s John McClane in Nakatomi Tower and Frodo Baggins on the road to Mordor that a hero should undergo a trek across their inner selves to mirror and refract their physical journey. Gawain’s mission is fascinating not only because it is rich in incident and otherworldly sights, but because of how much it challenges his emotional maturity at every step. Which is to say what little emotional maturity he has has at this early and impulsive stage of his life. And the real test is not surviving the volley of bandits, ghosts and giants he encounters, but the impossible passive gauntlet that waits in the Green Chapel. All the strange new dangers rattle him far less than the certain test at the end of the road. In Lowery’s tale, all the unknown in the world is a cakewalk when compared to the thing Gawain knows he must do. For all its rousing setpieces, the journey of The Green Knight and Gawain steadily wends away from macho antics and feats of physical prowess. Temper and rash action have caused all of Gawain’s woes and now the real test of manhood is whether he has the integrity to honorably, humbly submit to his challenger and give up what he owes. Some thrilling spectacle occurs along the way, but the real voyage of the film is Gawain’s quest to find true valor and honor. An honor that is meek and humble and entirely in opposition to ostentatious, stereotypically manly chest-thumping.

The Green Knight is a story of human frailty and pride. Gawain starts the film arrogant and blind. He is a callow Prince Hal laboring under the delusion that he is already Henry V. He has done precious little in his life but drink and fuck at the time that he steps up to what he mistakes as a basic feat of masculine might. David Lowery’s target is the kind of ego and insecure bluster that masquerades as strength. To quote the animated series Steven Universe (another great hero story that is more interested in its hero’s inner journey toward emotional maturity than in the battles he fights), Gawain must learn to be strong in the real way. And the very real possibility that he may not live to apply the genuine strength he acquires just makes his challenge all the more poignant. While they may not appear to have a lot of superficial similarities (apart from the fact that both contain a ghost), what connects The Green Knight to Lowery’s masterful A Ghost Story are characters stubbornly clinging to old notions of reality and the need for them to complete painful metamorphoses, even if it radically alters or ends life (or death) as they know it. What fate awaits Gawain past his daunting challenge remains unclear to us and to him right up to the film’s final frame. But that is very much the idea. The true valor he has been unwittingly marching toward is the courage to move toward what he does not know; to accept what lies beyond the veil between a world he vainly thought he and whatever comes next. The fact that the next chapter for Gawain could be either adulthood of his bloody demise just means that true maturity entails coming to terms with our own endings. Whether it is the end of youth, of ego, or of our very lives is irrelevant. Whatever it is that lies at the conclusion of our journeys, we must reckon with it if we are to ever see ourselves as people worth looking up to. And after all the bravado and action, it is the quiet acceptance of things we can neither control nor change that truly tests our mettle.

The Green Knight is also a Christmas movie (that is, one set during the yuletide season) that actually feels possessed by a kind of Christmas spirit. Like A Christmas Carol, it is a bracing, wintry parable about a human being who must learn a lesson and change for the better. There is some mystery as to whether it is too late for him, but there is a hope that it might not be. The tale is filled with an atmosphere of December. A brisk chill in the air, the smell of food wafting through hallways and alleys, and an ineffable feeling of mystery and magic hanging over everything. And kicking it all off is a group of merry revelers huddled together, drinks in hand, ready to be transported by a story. But instead of these knights hearing an old tale of courage and peril, it is we the audience that are brought in through the screen and given the chance to see an old legend play out in a new and exciting way. A chance to delight in things ethereal and supernatural, ephemeral and inexplicable. An occasion for wide-eyed wonder. But also, like any good Christmas tale, it is an occasion for inward reflection and the fortifying of conscience; to find ourselves in the story. In presenting the tale of a thoughtless mistake, it is implicitly also a story of wanting to do better even if we do not yet understand how. It is a reminder of the goodness and the weakness inside of us and the hope of a fresh chance to commit to the path that is virtuous and true and more often than not arduous. The Green Knight sparks the imagination and warms the belly like a pewter mug full of mulled wine. It is a film I look forward to adding to my own list of Christmas cinema classics. A beautiful and sparkling bauble and a bewitching morality play. A festive thing of beauty to be unpacked and treasured at the end of each too short year.

Top 20 Films of 2021: #10- Red Rocket

In 2017, Sean Baker made The Florida Project, my favorite film of that year. It would have been my favorite film of a great many years that it might have come out. In it, he directed genius screen actor Willem Dafoe to the best work of his career, gave us one of the best child performances of all time from Brooklynn Prince, and also got stellar work out of a young woman most famous for being an Instagram influencer. And, following up on the talent he showed with his iPhone-shot 2015 gem Tangerine, he created a luscious hardscrabble world populated with non-professional actors and got them all to give lovely, lived-in performances too. So when I saw that Baker’s next film, Red Rocket, would star former MTV VJ-turned-Scary-Movie-franchise player as a shifty porn star, I chuckled and shrugged my shoulders. Nothing about that premise sounded like the stuff masterpieces are made of and I have never once been impressed by Simon Rex. Nonetheless, I smiled to myself and said, “I guess I’ll be raving about Oscar-worthy Simon Rex a year from now.” It has now been more than a year since I made that half-joking prediction, and I am here to say that it has absolutely come true. Simon Baker has directed a retired C-list actor whose most recent brush with fame was as a comedy rapper named Dirt Nasty to what is arguably the best male performance of 2021. Because fucking of course he has. Because, just as a small part of myself made that prediction in jest, a much larger part of myself knows better than to bet against Sean Baker. But the wondrous thing about a Baker film is the potential it makes you see in everyone he works with too, whether it’s Willem Dafoe or someone with no acting on their resume. And here let me stop making this all about Sean Baker, because I am fully done disrespecting Simon Rex in this review or anywhere else in life. Baker may make miracles possible, but the work Simon Rex has pulled off here is a mighty dramatic and comedic accomplishment that should utterly recontextualize how people see him. It was unsurprisingly too much to hope for that the year’s best leading male performance sneak into an Actor lineup that had room for Javier Bardem in Being the Ricardos. But I can only hope that this does mean the start of new things for Simon Rex. If nothing else, watching him go for broke (even broker than the character he plays) in Baker’s gonzo neorealist satire of hustlers and hucksterism should show all of Hollywood that he has a potential that very few of us had been able to see.

And, for anyone venturing out into Baker’s small but luminously empathetic filmography for the first time, showing new sides and facets of disrespected and marginalized people is exactly what the inventive auteur is all about. Framed in a certain way, Baker’s story is another tale of an impoverished underdog trying to grind out some modicum of success and happiness for himself. Out of work adult film actor Mikey Sabre rolls broken, bruised and destitute into his tiny Texas hometown, the latest sad sack to be sent packing by the city of Los Angeles. Like former Baker protagonists (Tangerine‘s Sin-Dee, The Florida Project‘s Halley), Mikey is no stranger to bad decisions, but those other protagonists were also very easy to root for in all their hardscrabble tenacity. It’s less clear from almost the first minutes if MIkey will be deserving of that same empathy, a fact you might glean when his ex-wife greets her prodigal spouse with curse words and demands to remove himself from her property. To be clear, Mikey Sabre is a real piece of work. He is irresponsible, narcissistic, impulsive, and self-justifying. He might have “The check’s in the mail” tattooed on him somewhere. After worming his way back into the house of his ex-wife and mother-in-law with promises to help them with rent, he very quickly starts insinuating himself into the lives of former friends and colleagues. Whatever humility and pity we might have ascribed to him when he entered the picture broke and beat up quickly evaporate when we realize that Mikey will simply never stop trying to work the angles. No sooner has he seemed to get back in the good graces of his former spouse and established himself with a profitable drug-dealing gig, his eyes start drifting to bigger opportunities. When he meets a winsome and Lolita-esque cashier named Strawberry at a local donut shop, his eyes fill with cartoon dollar signs and the goal of a peaceful, harmonious homecoming ceases to be enough to satisfy him. His restless Mountain Dew imagination sets his sights on making Strawberry into the next adult film star, setting himself up as her manager, and rolling back into Los Angeles to lay waste to his naysayers. That is what he wants, but it is almost folly to ask what MIkey Sabre wants because Mikey Sabre is really just want personified. His wild-eyed, gonzo narcissism makes him the kind of person for whom the goalposts of success are forever being moved relative to how well he’s doing. And it is possible and not the least bit wrong to go through the entire film without finding him genuinely likable. But, for my part, I defy anyone to not find MIkey Sabre fascinating, compelling, and sometimes even improbably endearing.
After the luminous pathos of The Florida ProjectRed Rocket is something of a return to the raucous and manic comedic sensibilities of Tangerine and my worry coming in would be that Baker’s faultless empathy would somehow finally fail him; that this decidedly white trash character would finally land him on the wrong side of condescension and mean-spiritedness. I don’t know why I ever had that worry. Sean Baker still fuses fully tactile working class (and unemployed) settings with a sense of ragged vivacity that can run the gamut from screwball to Felliniesque (he sure does love to capture interesting faces and body types). His worlds are populated with persons too unique and specific to fit into your average social drama. And he seems incapable of belittling or talking down to a single inhabitant of these tiny, hard-scrabble universes. It’s no small feat here because he introduces a protagonist in Mikey Sabre who is not afraid to show condescension himself. For all I’ve spoke of Simon Rex’s marvelous creation as an endearing underdog, there is also a fair bit of ugliness in the way he looks down at the small potatoes stomping grounds that birthed him; the place where he suddenly finds himself an economic prisoner. Even as Mikey slides back into the rhythms of downtrodden Texas life, he makes no secret of his feelings that he was made for much grander things. And yet, in spite of Mikey’s braying, sometimes downright mean bravado, Sean Baker loves him too up to a point. When Mikey shows some unexpected early flashes of grit and and work ethic, I think Baker is proud to see him not fall into some easy deadbeat archetype. There is more to Mikey than meets the eye, just as surely as there is less to Mikey than Mikey himself would have you believe. I think Baker is happy to once again give us a character who confounds our expectations for him and is not simply a victim of impoverishment. But it is also clear enough that Mikey is not the mpathetic lover of humanity that Sean Baker is, which makes him altogether different from even a frustrating Baker character like Florida Project‘s struggling single mother Halley. Mikey is undeniably toxic. He is a vampire in every emotional and metaphorical sense of the word. The journey of Red Rocket is how he improves his prospects and what schemes he hatches, but it is readily apparent that Mike Sabre’s relationship to other human beings will always be parasitic to some major extent. And his sympathetically vulnerable veneer quickly crumbles when he sees he can do better than simply move back in with his middle-aged wife. As soon as he meets the not-yet-18 Strawberry, his eyes are filled with dollar signs and money shots, and Baker makes no comment as to which desire of Mikey’s we should regard as more perverse. Red Rocket sees Sean Baker applying his sense of lush humanity to his least sympathetic character and the challenge he and Simon Rex set for themselves produces a work of art every bit as singular and intoxicating (albeit in a 4 Loko kind of way) as Baker’s last two, more outwardly empathetic films. I imagine Red ROcket‘s Mikey Sabre may shake off some viewers like a vulgar bucking bronco and I don’t think Baker judges anyone for despising Mikey at some point on this journey. But he he is also with MIkey, selfishness be damned, for the full two hours. And not as some sort of edgelord exercise in seeing how long we can put up with an unforgivable piece of shit. Baker sticks in Mikey’s corner because there are traits and ideas in Mikey worth the exploring. And because looking deeply into the souls of difficult, aggravating human beings is what Sean Baker was put on this Earth to do.
I think part of what allows Baker to thread the needle of both Mikey’s unsavory narcissistic avarice and his almost endearing smarm is that the vibrant auteur is unafraid to shift in a multitude of comedic registers. Sean Baker deploys offbeat humor in tremendously effective ways. If you remember those parts of The Florida Project that didn’t have you crying buckets full of tears, you might recall that it was also frequently hilarious. Baker has a sharp knack for when to make us laugh, whether it’s to help a sad insight go down a little easier or, in the case of Red Rocket, to help us spend time with a monstrously egomaniacal charlatan without wanting to climb out out our seats and our skins. And, with his unlikely high wattage leading man charging forward in a hail of sparks, Baker turns Mikey Sabre into a fascinatingly low-rent version of the kind of con man that American audiences have often taken a shine to. America is quick to forgive flim flam, usually because flim flam can be so much fun. Mikey lacks the easy charms of Paul Newman and Robert Redford in The Sting or even the more shambling underdog charisma of Christian Bale in American Hustle.
If the suavest con men act like magicians whose hands you never see move, we see every frantic gesture Mikey Sabre makes to advance his various seedy agendas. We see his ploys coming seemingly before he does. For as shifty as he certainly is, his cards are also kind of on the table if only because they keep falling out of his sleeves. If many a great huckster never lets you see them sweat, sweat is really the main and only export Mikey Sabre has to offer. He is a poorer, sadder, meaner con man for poorer, sadder meaner times and there is much more venomous critique in his story than in breezy concoctions like The Sting and the Oceans films. And yet, as pathetic as Mikey is, Baker and Simon Rex just make him an awful lot of fun to watch. What he finally has in common with cinema’s other great, and infinitely more talented con men is that he cannot help but put on a show. Less a suave light show of a man than an erratic bottle rocket that will inevitably set some poor sucker’s lawn on fire (if not multiple suckers), he nonetheless makes for fiendishly captivating viewing. And without wanting to reduce Baker’s lively American satire to pat lessons, one takeaway from Mikey may be that our country has become too undiscerning about the kinds of flim flam men we let bewilder us. Once the hangover of Mikey Sabre wears off, the moral may be that America deserves to go back to a better class of ripoff artist.
Still, Baker does not judge his characters for sometimes letting a two-bit hustler like Mikey walk over them. He understands too well how so many people like them are looking for something nice to hold onto and believe in even if that something rolls into town with nothing but bruises, a ribbed tank top and a suitcase full of red flags. Even in this decidedly acidic skewering of the American Dream (or its porn-based equivalent), Baker finds beauty in blight and commercial sprawl and industrial drabness. He finds something bold and stirring in what people do to give themselves a little bit of hope each day, whether it’s a trip down to the megamall or an afternoon watching court TV shows. He finds love and humor in the people who inhabit these spaces and he loves to pick out splashes of luminous color, wherever he can find it. He loves gaudy hues, but he sees nothing tacky in them. They are, if anything, a shout of defiance in the face of real soul-killing ugliness. It’s this approach that made The Florida Project‘s fleabag motel into its own violet-hued Magic Kingdom, and it makes Red Rocket‘s tale of small town claustrophobia and stalled dreams feel strangely transcendent. It is a film grounded in the real and with an eye toward escape. You can feel how the yellow glow of a donut shop and its frosted wares might feel like a rare and welcome sprinkle of joy ane release for someone like Mikey’s unemployed wife or the numerous refinery workers who start their mornings there. As the stars in Mikey’s eyes become ever larger with the wild prospect that Strawberry will help him make his Hollywood (read: San Fernando Valley) comeback, Baker adds more bright hues via a visit to an amusement park and the loud Madonna Inn pink paint job of Strawberry’s house. Pink. “It’s supposed to make you happy or something,” Strawberry wryly muses. I believe Baker is giving us the first overt thesis statement of his filmography, a purpose behind all the delicate pastels and thrift store Technicolor that make his films so deliciously saturated. Though I don’t think that the nature of all that bright color is as obvious as instant happiness. I don’t think Baker’s sunny color schemes are a clean antidote to the hard living inside his worlds. I don’t think Strawberry or any of the other denizens of this Texas bardo believe that either. At the same time, I also don’t think the lovely hues are meant to be dismissed as superficial or cynical in some Tim Burton kind of way, as if they were only masking hopelessness under a thin sheen. Like art, like any pleasing thing, I think the color in Baker’s universes does what it can for his characters. I think they all take the little snippets of beauty and fun in their sometimes dispiriting lives for every bit of solace it is worth. Which is to say, both a great deal and not nearly enough. The color is supposed to make you happy, which  means you try to seek happiness in whatever patch of cracked pavement it lives in. And that attitude towards life is all the more important when so much around you is gloomy and broken down.
And when you allow hard-hit characters like these to have a little hope and humor and defiance, to laugh and fight on through their troubles, you stave off rote miserablism. You can sidestep the kind of voyeuristic piteousness and punishing bleakness that is the natural hazard of the neorealist genre. It does not mean that sorrow is not sometimes a part of Sean Baker’s films, because they can absolutely knock the wind out of you when they have a mind to. But it feels humane to be with the characters, by their sides instead of watching them with concern from a clinical distance. What allows Red Rocket to work is that the people, mostly women, that Mikey Sabre tries to manipulate or placate or exploit are largely on to him. Sean Baker has created some wild and puzzling characters in his young career, but he really doesn’t do rubes. The women Mikey tries to steer toward his seedy ends do allow him to sakte by with a great deal of sexism and chicanery, but Baker’s characters are always real people with complex inner lives. It is Mikey’s failing not to recognize that. To only hear his own conceited, cocksure, motor-mouthed voice as it drowns out everything else. To pay mind to nobody but himself, narrating his great story in a never-ending stream. To never once consider that he might not be the smartest man in the room or in this small town or in the state of Texas. So the women let this delusional charlatan boast and carry on. Maybe it’s because they are good-hearted enough that they are trying to figure out, just as we are, if Mikey is deserving of love or sympathy or an honest break. Beyond better angels, maybe they also have their own uses for Mikey. Strawberry flabbergasts him when she reveals (in a brilliantly staged scene at the top of a rollercoaster) that she knows all about the porn star past that he was so craftily concealing. The cagey daughter and second-in-command to the matronly pot dealer who begrudgingly employs Mikey sees right through his cheesy patter and Eddie Haskell bullshit from the moment they meet. She lets him make money for her family, but she is also sizing this Svengali up, deciding when it will be time to cut him off at the knees. And MIkey may worm his way back into Lexi’s bed, but he gives her too little credit too. Mikey’s parallels with Donald Trump eventually mean that Baker is willing to give him a little nuance but is unwilling to let him off the hook or let his callous narcissism go unexamined. Yes, Red Rocket tells uswe Americans can be too quick to let a certain kind of self-serving parasite use and demean us. But the cinema of Sean Baker is always full of empathy and love and faith in the essential goodness of people, even if those people can sometimes make disastrously bad decisions. The residents of Sean Baker’s films are strong and fiercely intelligent and determined to survive. The effervescently generous director reminds us that the megalomania of greedy and ethicless men must surely fall in time to the patience, solidarity, and resilience of smart, resourceful women.

Top 20 Films of 2021: #11- The Lost Daughter

Over the past decade or so, and for the COVID years especially, I’ve noticed a lot of friends expressing a desire for characters of the sweet and sympathetic sort. Many of them have experienced enough anxiety of late that it’s become difficult to willingly reach out to works of art that deal in strife, misanthropy and bad decisions. As an avid consumer of the humanist works of Richard Linklater, Mike Mills, and Greta Gerwig, it’s a sentiment I fully understand. I’ve taken deep, soul-healing solace from drinking from the fountains of kindness offered by shows like Ted Lasso and Steven Universe, and films like A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood and Paddington 2. But like some cinema nutritionist, I feel it is my duty to urge all of you to continue to seek out film experiences, and specifically characters, who are abrasive and unsympathetic. I feel it is deeply healthy to include some unlikeable people and upsetting experiences as part of your cultural diet. Think of it as cinematic roughage, if you will. If art offers us the chance to gaze into a kind of mirror that reflects parts of ourselves while also allowing us to see facets and flaws we would want to avoid, then there’s a huge value in having that mirror be as expansive as possible. It should show us not just our best or most aspirational selves but the darker places human beings can go too. We should not only look into the mirror to see how we should be, but to remind ourselves of the more uncomfortable truths of what we can become at our most selfish, proud, or irrational. There’s also the fact, evidenced by shows like Succession and films like the Safdie Brothers’ Good Time and Uncut Gems, that watching deeply toxic people fuck up and squirm can be a lot of smart fun in the right hands. In those aforementioned art works, watching seedy, short-sighted and greedy fools stumble about can feel like riding a rollercoaster, a vicarious scream through some of the most thrillingly bad decision-making imaginable. But what of those of us who want to get the complex joys of watching not entirely sympathetic characters at a less hectic, punishing pace? What about those of us who just want to spend a relaxing time floating along in the Lazy (or Greedy, or Selfish) River? In 2021, celebrated actress and sterling debut director Maggie Gyllenhall had you covered on that front. Her phenomenal freshmen outing, The Lost Daughter, offered up all the giddy, perverse delights of watching prickly characters flail about, but at a more hypnotic, soulful pace. Gyllenhall’s adaptation of the novel by felt like reading a great book in all the right ways; cinematic but carried along by a sophisticated current of dialogue. Her perceptive, often sorrowful look at a woman who puts herself first and foremost has all the spicy fun of wrestling with an unlikeable (or at the very least frustrating) character, just with its own distinctively literary flavor. To fellow fans of wholesome cinema who want to branch out into something just a bit more acidic, The Lost Daughter is like a bracing shot of very strong limoncello. It should make your lips pucker and make the blood rush to your head, but without leaving you hungover and useless the next day.

 

What makes The Lost Daughter such a tingly, unnerving experience is its willingness to look candidly at a character archetype that has too often been rendered in black and white. The role of the mother is one that bears a tremendous burden in our society. Our culture has longed preferred its screen and page mothers to be shiny and lacking in warts. Angelic, loving, self-sacrificing, and defined by their unflagging desire to nurture their children and husbands. When mothers don’t meet these needs, they have tended to fall onto the other end of the dichotomy: wicked stepmothers, deadbeat parents, and shrill stage moms. The Lost Daughter is about neither of those two opposing character types. It is about a woman somewhere in between. Certainly not a good mother but maybe not an abysmal one either. We meet Leda (a dependably spectacular Olivia Colman in what could be her best screen performance), a 48-year professor and celebrated academic, arriving on a remote Greek island. She is ready to begin a blessedly solitary vacation there but that humble goal is continually frustrated by the existence of other human beings.. What we pick up almost instantly is that Leda is not one to small talk with strangers. She is politely terse with Lyle (a welcome and very strong Ed Harris), the groundskeeper tasked with taking care of the islands’ apartments, in spite of his best efforts to break through her superficial veneer. She seems slightly put off whenever the handsome Irish cabana boy walks up to her beachside chaise lounge to ask if she needs anything. And she is completely beside herself (in a flummoxed, quietly seething British way) when an entire large family of boorish Italian tourists crash the very beach resort she has chosen as an ideal hideaway from the world. Leda is the type of person whose eyes are forever looking for the quickest way to exit a conversation; the type of person who is maybe only entirely themselves when they are alone. The Lost Daughter is already a fascinating, nuanced portrait of a misanthropic introvert trying to adapt to a peaceful holiday gone awry before we learn about Leda’s past relationship with her ex-husband and children. Through flashbacks to Leda in her late twenties (played excellently by meteorically ascending star Jessie Buckley), when she was married with two young daughters, we get the story of how Leda tried and, in some respects, failed to make it as a mother. That’s not to say Leda completely abandoned her children. In the present, we see her occasionally talk amicably to her two daughters, now in their twenties, on the phone and there seems to be a nice enough conversational relationship between them. But we witness a chapter in Leda’s life in which a maternal role that she not so quietly resented came into conflict for a chance to become a luminary in her field (translating classic poetry into Italian) and she did not make the classic, selflessly maternal choice. It is a choice that clearly gave her the life she wanted and she did get to reconnect with her children eventually, but Colman brilliantly reveals how those past choices weigh on her. The weight almost becomes too much to bear when that brash, raucous group of Italians (the perfect family-oriented foil to Leda’s cool independence) stampedes into town with kids in tow. Leda ends up mixed up in some tricky business with a young mother (Dakota Johnson, as good as she’s ever been) and her daughter, a stolen baby doll, and an overbearing sister who seems keen on knowing why Leda hasn’t brought her own children on vacation. What Gyllenhall has made is a disorienting but soulful meditation on the heavy yoke of motherhood, the familial expectations women shoulder, and the bittersweet choices people must make in determining what personal success means to us. It’s a sorrowful but also liberated torch duet between one woman’s present and past. In a society that expects its mothers to give up everything for the greater good of their children and men, it’s mainly about a woman blessed and cursed with the inability to not look after herself. It’s imbued with a strong feminist spirit, but it also frequently leaves all of Leda’s prickly narcissism to flap naked in the breeze. Whether strong-willed or submissive, self-promoting or subservient to the will of others, everybody has to live in the shadow of their past.

What impresses me most about Maggie Gyllenhall’s graceful sense of psychological depth here is that she could have easily made a whopper of a film just based on the theme of the colossal burdens placed upon mothers and the simplified notions of how mothers are supposed to feel for their children. In that one respect alone, The Lost Daughter is one of the most boldly honest and compassionately unflattering films about the maternal instinct ever made. Like Jennifer Kent’s 2014 horror masterpiece The Babadook, it dares to speak candidly about adjusting our expectations for what it means to be a mother. Both films anchor themselves to impeccable tour-de-force lead performance and trust their great actresses to render beautiful, unsettling, even alarming portraits of people for whom mothering does not come easily or naturally. “You’ll see,” Leda tells the pregnant Callie, who has just finished gushing about the child she will soon have. “Children can be a crushing responsibility.” In the present day, we watch Leda watch the Dakota Johnson character’s daughter invade her mother’s space, drench her while she is sleeping, yank her about, place fingers in her mouth. And we see that ,whatever part of Leda loves her daughters, she loves her personal freedom and agency just as much. In flashbacks to her past with her own 7-year old and 9-year old daughters, we see how Leda would have reacted to such invasions very differently. To many, a steady, kind-hearted mother knows that children will be children. Maybe Leda sees this young mother’s every moment of peace being disrupted and wonders why she too couldn’t just bear it silently and patiently; why she couldn’t give her own children’s obnoxious invasiveness a pass. Most people probably would give very young children such a pass, but we learn that the younger Leda was not such a paragon. When the younger Leda’s child defaces a doll that had belonged to her as a girl, she finds she does not have the ability to tamp down her honesty and righteous anger. “This is my doll. You can’t treat her like shit,” she bluntly asserts into her daughter’s face. And, whether some part of Leda regrets that brusqueness or not, the fact is that Leda could not control it if she wanted to. Gyllenhall fearlessly delves into what a frightening and enlivening thing that must be to realize. From careers to friendships to parenting, we center so much of our lives around certain obligations that we have been told simply cannot be broken. But what happens when those mores lose their power. What happens if even that supposedly ironclad sense of obligation of a parent to their child suddenly begins to groan and fray? On some level, I think Gyllenhall is arguing that it is untenable for any parent to think that they can suddenly shut away fallible and human parts of themselves just because of the great responsibility of childbirth. What Leda learns is that a certain portion of her own vibrant (and, yes, also selfish) humanity cannot be tamped down. The Lost Daughter does not ask that you agree with Leda’s distant and sometimes unloving parenting decisions, or even that you necessarily think of her as an entirely wholesome person. Gyllenhall just wants you to realize that mothers like this exist and that most mothers deserve to be seen in richer hues than the tranquil madonnas and shrill abusers that so much of literature allows them to be. For creating a portrait of complex motherhood this simultaneously unapologetic and empathetic, Gyllenhall deserves consideration as one of the most sensitive and exciting new directors of recent years. This goes beyond simply recognizing how this source novel has important things to say about how society views female parenting. What she displays here is an exquisite talent for understanding her source material and figuring out how to tease out its themes in ways both literate and cinematic. And, again, directing at least two of the year’s very best performances is no small accomplishment either.
I find myself in the position once more to explain why a film that is not remotely meant to be a comedy is rather shrewdly funny to me. That seems to be happening more and more often, but I guess you take comedy wherever you find it in this world. This film has so much on its plate with being a small-scale tragedy and a powerful feminist critique that it surprised me how quietly tickled I was by much of it. Perhaps, as an introverted person myself, there is just something amusing and relatable in how Leda’s face winces at the sight of that gaudy, foul-mouthed Italian throng moving like noisy Mediterranean squall right for her little patch of sand. You don’t have to be quite so misanthropic as Leda herself to feel the familiar aggravation of wanting to be alone and finding that solitude interrupted. And once you know who Leda is, it’s hard to imagine the gods cooking up a more perfect little torment for her than this braying, oiled up gaggle of lowbrow tourists. Hell, as Jean Paul Sartre mused, is other people. And Gyllenhall’s The Lost Daughter smartly adds, “Just don’t forget, you’re one of them.”  Much of the film’s richness comes from how the crass Caruso clan tries to unsubtly tries to break up Leda’s loneliness and how Leda rebuffs them.  Most of them, particularly the pregnant Calista (Succession‘s Dogmara Dominczyk, a brilliant barrel of gunpowder primed to go off at any second) pick up on exactly the kind of unpleasant loner Leda is when she refuses on general principle to switch lounge chairs with them so that their enormous family can all be together. Their testy first meeting and the occasional friendly exchanges (Leda reaches a brief peak of social acceptance with the Carusos when she helps find a missing child) add up to one tense week. Neither side will leave this film looking sympathetic. On the one hand, Leda bluntly refuses to be the least bit of accomodating with them in her flagrantly asocial way. On the other hand, this is her spot and her vacation and one of the buffoonish Caruso youths calls her the C-word. And as we will come to know very well, Leda places a different, lesser priority on family than most people, especially the vulgar Olive Garden commercial that has just pulled up next to her. For as much as these two diametric opposites, proudly alone Leda and the Italian chorus of Carusos, try to play nice with each other, there is a sense that they all know exactly who the other is from that first scene. I think they grasp right away that they don’t and won’t much care for each other. To refer to one of The Lost Daughter‘s central visual motifs, this heightened character study is a bit like unpeeling an orange on a human scale. It may start with a polite veneer of civility, but it becomes a story of human beings very unbrasively revealing themselves to each other and to us. I wouldn’t say many of the film’s characters are models of civil behavior, but I do think Maggie Gyllenhall is revealing something perversely empowering in Leda’s total lack of tact and inhibition. Long ago, Leda learned the hard lesson that not even her adorable children and doting husband could keep her from putting herself first. The lusciously sharp characterization that Olivia Colman presents us with is of a person who has long stopped being afraid of their own meanness and self-interest. In that wonderful Olivia Colman way, she is able to put a chipper “oh well, here I go again” spin on introversion and misanthropy. This is what the rollercoaster of unlikable characterization can be at its best. It can be a revealing look into a cracked mirror where we imagine what life might be if we acted less decently, if only to help us cling to our goodness and empathy all the more firmly. This is, once again, not a story of humanity at its best. But it is a rather thrilling call of the inner wild; a meditation on everything great and terrible we might become if we gave in fully to our egomania and selfishness. Some films make you want to be a better person. This asks you to consider for a couple of hours what it would be like to be a worse one.
I do think The Lost Daughter would be absolutely worthy of being counted among 2021’s most sharp, empathetic and tonally powerful films if it were just an essay on the crushing expectations placed on mothers and the brazen bravery of one prickly woman’s candid admission that she is just not a natural fit for the role. That, among all the things she could be great at, motherhood just does not rank anywhere for her. That idea by itself is fascinating and important in forging a conversation about parenting. But what makes The Lost Daughter truly brilliant is how that mothering narrative tucks coherently into the story of Leda trying to enjoy a holiday without a groundskeeper, cabana boy or entitled Jersey Shore cast member killing her vibe. The holiday is not just a framing device for us to look back into Leda’s past. It allows the film to turn into something more full and human and disquieting. In both its present and its past, The Lost Daughter is about how every individual chooses for themselves how much they want to participate in the social contract. We all choose how selfish we want to be, maybe have to be, while still being able to look at our own reflections each day. The is about realizing that only you can decide how much of an island you want to become, but it also reminds us that no person is as much of an island as they may think they are. For all Leda’s defiant individuality, the events of her vacation and the reminiscing they inspire do shake her up. Her desire to maintain her boundaries and find inner peace will have to be postponed until the next getaway. Whether it’s one’s own children, family ties or a friendship, every relationship asks us for a conscious choice on how much to put into it. And every ounce of ourselves we pour in is a little less we have to apportion elsewhere. How do you divvy that time and energy up and how much of yourself to do you save for, well, yourself? It’s an uncomfortable question, one that almost feels selfish just to write out. But narcissistic, unlikable Leda has give me a reason to pose it to you and to myself. As someone who tries to support loved ones and meet obligations and spend time enriching people outside of myself, there is still a greedy little goblin within me who looks at all that time and energy expended and whispers the question Bilbo asked of Sauron’s ring. “Why shouldn’t I have it?” The Lost Daughter gives you an answer for why it might be best that you don’t live a life centered around yourself, which is that you might become like Leda. And that’s also the film’s answer for why you maybe also should. We feel a rush watching the younger Leda bust through the walls of domesticity and fulfill her wildest dreams, professionally and sexually. Despite her mental anguish over the course of this week, I don’t think Gyllenhall is ever saying that Leda wishes she had chosen another path. She just realizes or remembers the obvious, which is that every decision has an emotional weight that gets added to our future lives. Even a beneficial decision is a thing we have to live with and none of us can simply pretend that our actions don’t affect others. Placing all our efforts into self-care and self-fulfillment carries consequences too. In the end, we all make our choices and pay the bill when it arrives.
I found it enriched The Lost Daughter‘s understated, dark humor to imagine it turning into an entirely different kind of movie experience. I thought about the kind of generous, quirky vacation rebirth film it could have been with just a few tweaks. With the same basic bone structure, you can picture the redemptive story of a frigid, driven career woman with a hermit’s chip on her shoulder. Her hardened heart just waiting to be inevitably softened and seduced by the enchantment and friendliness of this dreamy Greek island. The Best Exotic Absentee Mother Hotel.  Leda’s at-first intimidating, icy veneer would melt away in the balmy Mediterranean climes and the overbearing tourists and endearingly nosy hotel staff would win her over bit by charming bit. The Carusos, heavily implied to be unsavory and possibly violent Mafiosi in the film, could easily be declawed for a gentler story of kooky opposites bringing out the best in each other. They could keep their mob ties but in a more goofy, non-threatening way. The pasta jokes and hilarious Italian swear words would become part of the great, rib-tickling tidal wave that eventually sweeps Leda away from her isolationism. The Carusos would help Leda become a more social person and Leda would pretend to be annoyed with them but she would also secretly appreciate them for reminding her of the joys of connecting with the world around her. And at the end of a sun-dappled, crowd-pleasingly idiosyncratic, unexpectedly life-affirming week, she would bid the obnoxious but well-meaning Italian clan goodbye with an affectionate eyeroll. And that final phone call with her adult daughters would overflow with teary pathos and a newfound appreciation for family. But that’s not how this story goes. The call is nice but politely strained. Leda does love her daughters but they will never be the thing that moves or excites her. She has learned to be there for them in her way, but the faint remnant of a wound will always be there on that relationship. Leda has to live with that and she is able to live with that. Because this is not the story of a difficult woman learning a life lesson about opening her heart or being more conscientious of others. She’s not going to change. She’s simply going to go on feeling the same pang of melancholy. The one she’s probably carried with her ever since she made that fateful sharp turn toward self-fulfillment. That soft, manageable sadness that can’t quite be called regret because she wouldn’t do anything differently. There is no coming to Jesus. There is no shrew to tame. This is just who she is and who she always will be. In the immortal wisdom of The Big Lebowski, she’s not wrong. She’s just an asshole.

Top 20 Films of 2021: #12- Bad Luck Banging

Romania, we should hang out more often! I mean that personally, as in I should let more of the darkly puckish Eastern European nation’s beautifully bleak and defiantly subversive cinema into my life. And I mean that societally, as in all of the world’s nations, and maybe Americans in particular, would do well to learn from Romania’s struggles for civil rights over the past century and more. To dive deeply into its fight against oppression ranging from press censorship to anti-intellectualism to a woman’s right to freedom over he own body (unforgettably examined in 2007’s masterfully unnerving black market abortion drama 4 Months 3 Weeks 2 Days). And I don’t just mean that in the dry academic sense of comparing our own recent authoritarian woes with the unthinkable ones they have endured. I mean we owe it to ourselves to draw something emotionally and spiritually from Romania’s experiences. There is something raucously inspiring about the art they make in response to hypocrisy and oppression. There is nothing treacly or even all that optimistic about it, except that it reveals the heart of a population determined to survive. Films like Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, and Radu Jude’s timely cherry bomb Bad Luck Banging, or Loony Porn aren’t really in the business of looking for silver linings to governmental apathy and national trauma, but they do carry a proud sense of resilience to them. Their power comes from their willingness to pay unvarnished witness to corruption and cruelty and their unwillingness to try to make the best of it. These are things that have happened and, in many cases, are still happening and the only best that can be made of it is to simply tell the truth about it. In a society that has, at various times, tried to silence the artist, imprison its thinkers, and bend reason and science to the whims of the powerful, the Romanians have made cinema that moans as ominously as a death metal song but also holds up a punk rocker’s middle finger to decades and decades of state repression, indifference to poverty, and deeply ingrained misogyny. And I’m not saying that Romania’s history is literally a one-to-one with America (the particularly vicious Ceausescu regime that lasted from 1965 to 1989 started nominally as a socialist state before quickly turning craven, greedy, and despotic) or that our own law enforcement problems are at the same degree as those of the Ceausescu Securitate disappearing and brutalizing dissenters. I’m just saying, when a country has lived through wave after wave of authoritarianism and managed to distill that horrific experience into volumes of aspirationally rebellious, vivaciously angry art, we should consider knocking at their bedroom door (don’t let the Black Flag stickers and the blood red “Go Away” stickers scare you away) and picking their brains. For anyone dealing with their own petty, bullshit demagogues, Romania is plainly a nation worth listening to. They know a thing or two sticking it to cheap, mean-spirited tyrants and they happen to do it in a way that is acidically funny and cool as Hell!

While Rade Jude’s subversive, righteously pissed off Bad Luck Banging, or Loony Porn has a nominal plot, its energies are so restless and digressive that said plot feel more like a single narrative strand in an anthology stretching back centuries. The invasions of privacy that our protagonist Emi (Katia Pascariu, blessed with a face that does not suffer fools) endures are just one more aggravating entry in a thick leather-bound tome titled “How To Stifle Your Citizens”. The central premise is that Emi, a middle-school teacher in Bucharest, makes a sex tape at home with her husband that, due to various human errors at the laptop repair shop, ends up being uploaded to the Internet. And, while it only ends up on  an adults-only site, that does not matter to the parents of her class after two children find the video and decide to watch it on school grounds. Now Emi will have to sit through an excruciating hearing with her superior and the parents of her class in order to defend her own right to a private life and, more pressingly, her right to keep her job. We do not see business of that hearing (a high-energy symphony of morons that manages to feel both like Bunuel and a town hall meeting in South Park) until the last thrid of the 106-minute film. The first third is just a day in the life of Emi, as she runs errands around a congested and drably commercial Bucharest. The middle portion is a Godard-like series of short vignettes (sometimes just consisting of a single, static image) packaged as a a kind of Romanian cultural dictionary. Framed as a series of definitions for basic words like “Christmas”, “children”, and “bookshelf”, each one is a critical, often sorrowful window into Romania’s tortured history. It ruminates on the nation’s abuses toward its citizens, the regressive ways women have been treated, its small but damning relationship to the Holocaust, the value of art and history, and Romania’s place in the larger context of a globalized consumer society. This second chapter, which made me think of both the Post Secret postcard project and Van Halen’s “Right Now” music video, may be the most polarizing segment. I have seen the odd critique refer to it as indulgent or like something from a student thesis. Personally, I loved it for how it opens Emi’s smaller satire of bureaucracy and privacy invasions into a much bigger conversation about authoritarianism, capitalism, sexism, xenophobia, propaganda, and systemic abuse. It opens up the present Romanian moment (and global moment) and allows the patterns of centuries past to flood in until they are one and the same. Bad Luck Banging is not the kind of story to settle down and focus. It is a delightful and horrifying anti-establishment pinata, already leaking Tootsie Rolls before the first stick hits it. It is less straight narrative than an unruly underground punk zine. And it is thrillingly alive for how much timely critique it fits into its reasonably modest runtime. It’s an avante garde scream in the face of decrepitude, incompetence, bureaucratic perversion and toxic bullshit. And it’s the kind of art this weary world could all do with a whole lot more of.
Bad Luck Banging is not just a reminder of the need for bold, abrasive works of art but a sharp attack on the kind of complacent society that tosses the artist and the individual’s voice aside or, maybe worse, drowns them out. After its dryly funny sex tape epilogue (routinely interrupted by questions from forgetful mother-in-laws and rowdy children), the film gets down to its conceptually daring first chapter, which conists of nothing but our put-upon heroine, Emi, running errands around the supermarkets, intersections, apartment blocks, cafes, pharmacies and mini-malls of Bucharest. We catch snippets of dialogue in this first of three parts, enough to understand how the sex tape has been discovered and how that error has jeapordized Emi’s teaching position at a middle school. Mostly, however, the camera seems deeply disinterested in Emi or any other Romanian citizen. It never waits with human subjects for any longer than it takes to catch the gist of what they are saying. Sometimes that’s no more than a sentence or two. What the camera does seem curious about is the signage, bric-a-brac and detritus of Romania’s consumer society. Bad Luck Banging‘s first chapter is brazenly ugly. It lingers on billboards and strip mall marquees and garish pink displays for Paw Patrol toys. The camera lets Emi wander off behind buses and into crowds like she is its neglected child. The lens will let her walk right out of the frame so it can linger over a decaying collage of bumper stickers on some sidewalk utility box. I was puzzled and put off the first time I watched Emi in a wide shot with all dialogue lost under the din of car horns. And then it happened again and again and my eyes lit up as I became aware of Bad Luck Banging‘s brazen, bitter attitude. I suddenly recognized how standoffish and outputting it was being and I beamed. It felt angrier than anything I’d seen in a long, long time. It’s a film that is always up to something and it strikes a razor balance between dour realism and pissed off snark. It’s about living in a society where you constantly feel like you are lost in the supermarket. It’s a dark note passed on to any nation or  people that feels like their society pays them no regard whatsoever. To anyone who ever believed their government would starve them or work the life out of them before it allowed business to slow down one iota. And it’s about a society too driven by its bottom line to have any space for culture and art. Here there are only crany parents unloading children into the nearest multiplex. To put an exclamation point on its thesis, a group of young adults at a food court discuss how the Japanese students forced into kamikaze missions were the ones pursuing degrees in the arts and humanities. The future scientists and businessmen were spared. That’s what happens when a nation only values what is economically beneficial. It’s a biting observation later undercut when we see the local cinema is shuttered. No one in this bustling Romanian commercial center will even be getting this film’s message. Nobody here will even be able to see Bad Luck Banging. In the words of the Talking Heads, we ain’t got time for that now.
Like certain other nations we could name, Bad Luck Banging is taking deadly aim at a Romania that has often economically trampled its people, while also taking an oppressive interest in their morality and personal lives when it suited the interests of those in power. It has been particularly brutal to its women, from the horrifically restrictive laws against abortion during the Ceausescu regime (an effort to bolster Romania’s economy by increasing the fertility rate) to the prevalence of shockingly repugnant attitutdes regarding justifiable rape (a substantial percentage believe it to be just when a woman so much as agrees to come to a man’s house) to the double standards about sex that Emi encounters at her school hearing. The cruel paradox is that Emi can disappear into the consumerist horde for a moment but she is also always being watched. Her country does not care for her but it watches her and all its female subjects with the hawklike focus of an abusive husband. Bad Luck Banging is about the hypocrisy of a nation that really doesn’t care about its women one bit but is also psychotically interested in what they are doing with their own bodies. It’s about living with a government that tells you to get lost but also not to leave town. It might need you for something when it’s good and ready. And it at least wants to make sure you don’t expose its children (who it has no qualms about showing nationalistic propaganda and state violence) anything that might scar them. Heaven forbid that! Xenophobia and war songs are okay. Blow jobs are absolutely out of the question, lest their innocent souls become perverted by such a concept. And of course, the real perversion is always power and its whims. It so often seems to be the most loudly moralistic of a society that want to discuss so-called deviant behavior. At the hearing, a self-righteous mother insists they all watch the controversial sex tape again jsut to make sure veryone knows exactly what they are there to discuss. The men all agree instantly and move closer to the computer screen, the better to educate themselves on this pressing matter of morality.
What the three disparate segments of Bad Luck Banging (neorealist capitalism travelogue, avant garde essay film and frantic courtroom satire) have in common is the wearing down of human beings to the nub by the things society has chosen to value above them: the economy, conservative propriety, homogeneity, war, patriarchy. Bad Luck Banging is a film so filled with ideas that it’s easier to define it in terms of negative space. By what tiny amount of space for individuality and freedom remain once you account for all the impersonal forces and pedagogical buillshit whirling around it. That tiny sliver of room that hasn’t been boxed out and suppressed is the space left for human beings. It feels no larger than a utility closet and it is the cramped space from which Puiu’s indignant masterwork caterwauls and shrieks. And all Bad Luck Banging‘s puckish technique and rebellious spirit is a way of gathering the courage to confront everything this society does to control people and make them feel spiritually small. It is made with the hope that enough of that courage might start a blaze; might help people to oppose their myriad abusers. One of the dictionary pieces in the second section references the legend of Medusa and how Jason used his mother’s shield as a mirror to look upon the gorgon’s terrible visage without being turned to stone. Cinema, this film explains, is that same reflective shield, enabling us to look upon the injustices and horrors of the world without becoming petrified by them. This observation is the film’s mission statement and a handy summation of what makes great satire like this so important. Bad Luck Banging sees a whole lot of societal evil, from the soul-sucking banality of commercial sprawl to misogyny and xenophobic violence, but it left me feeling elated. It has a rich sense of gallows humor and it laughs from the belly like a fearless Viking berserker. It is the laugh of a warrior ready to lay waste to every bigot, sexist, and coward in its vicinity. And it hopes that laughter is contagious.
We had the usual host of superheroes in 2021, many of whom were very familiar and a few who were not. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the surprise, but Bad Luck Banging does end by blowing a deliciously cross little kiss to superhero cinema. It makes sense that they would do this, partly because the film is such a counter-cultural snarl against all things monocultural. If Paw Patrol and crowded AMC megaplexes are going to get flak, leaving Marvel and its ilk out of the blast radius would just feel like a missed opportunity. This is the type of film that knows it could never get invited to the big movie malls, but why not play a little dress up just for the Hell of it?

Crashing parties is fun! It also makes sense because I think Bad Luck Banging is quite a heroic work in its own right. The hero we need more than the hero we deserve and all that. While most of our superheroes these days fight under the banner of an ethically dubious (at best) mega-corporation, Bad Luck Banging is the kind of film actually fighting for rights in need of defending. The right to bodily autonomy and pleasure and privacy. The right to a space that exists for people and not just for people’s money. The right to scream in the face of sanitization and so-called good taste. May the homophobes, despots, sexists, heartless capitalists, and religious hypocrites quake at the approach of Captain Romania! She is fierce, foul and fun. Her shiny shield repels bullshit. Tell these curs that Romania’s own homemade Lasso of Truth will be wrapped around them shortly. We shall be free. And glorious, goofy smut will rain from the skies!

Top 20 Films of 2021: #13- Memoria

My favorite poet is Edward Arlington Robinson. Most of his works, such as “Eros Turranos” and the very famous, Paul Simon-inspiring “Richard Corey” seem to take place in turn-of-the-century (19th that is) smalltown New England, but he has a great one that takes place in actual England. In this poem, “Ben Jonson Entertains A Man From Stratford”, Robinson imagines the titular 16th century playwright and Shakespeare contemporary meeting one of Shakespeare’s hometown friends in a pub and regaling him with musings about the Bard. One line I’ve always loved is when Jonson speaks of Shakespeare’s testy literary relationship with time and its mysterious, nebulous, inexorable passing. He refers to it as “his monster Time” It’s an observation that has always resonated with me. I also have a kind of rambunctious frenemy relationship with the copet. The very idea of Time feels both fascinating and disquieting, inspiring and harrowing. Time is a thing to be wrestled with and reckoned with and many of my favorite artists have been those who have their own Time monsters to spar with. Linklater stretching time out in Boyhood and the Before trilogy while also weighing the idea that everything might be just one simultaneous instant. Brilliant documentaries like Manakamana and Time (go figure) grappling with how Time moves and is experienced. Tarantino chopping up the temporal order of events in Pulp Fiction for maximum emotional and thematic oomph. Some artists regard it with awe and mystery and some just send Marty McFly whizzing back to the 1950s, turn time into a child’s playtoy and leave the metaphysical debates for the philosophers to figure out. After all, nobody ever said you had to take Time seriously. Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul (he prefers the name Joe) is one of those deeply philosophical types, a man who beholds the mysteries of Time with a respectful humbled hush. His films, like his great Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives often exist in a magical realist realm where all things, from ghosts to royal animal spirits to a man who dies every time he goes sleep, feel possible. The nature of existence suddenly unfurls to reveal a world unbeholden to the restraints of our rational senses. His explorations of Time take place in the present moment, from which we observe Time passing, but also hum with the energy of all the Time that passed through this space before we ever got here. In Memoria, we briefly hear a university professor talk about how wood absorbs everything that touches it, and Weerasethakul seems to be positing that maybe all present existence retains the energy of the histories that came before. His latest opus is another bewitching, at times deliberately inexplicable tone poem of history, life, death, sleep and magic.’

Weerasethakul’s films take place somewhere between the real world, the land of myth, and our dreams all at once. Their sense of reality is as nebulous as a fog bank and he encourages the viewer to loosen their thinking accordingly. In Memoria, he has found the ideal museum guide to take us through his latest placidly heady maze, that magnificent, statuesque extraterrestrial known to most by her Earth name, Tilda Swinton. Swinton plays Jessica, a Scottish woman living in the Colombian capital of Bogota where she is a flower vendor. We meet her on the morning she is visiting her sister, who has been sick in the hospital. On that morning, Jessica begins to sporadically hear a strange cacophonous sound. Her description of the noise is of very large concrete balls being dropped down a metallic well surrounded by sea water. She seems to be the only person able to hear it. Her sister’s anthropologist husband (Zama‘s Daniel Gimenez Cacho) puts her in touch with Hernan, a young music student who helps her to recreate, or at least approximate, the sound through recording technology. They begin a friendship until one day he disappears and nobody in his university music program seems aware he ever existed. Jessica eventually takes a trip into the rural mountains to look at an archeological site uncovered during a tunnel construction project and ends up meeting a villager also named Hernan, only some decades older. He could very well be the same Hernan, or some version of him. How much sense you can make of a revelation like this (and Weerasethakul never says you need to make sense of it all) feels like the key to how you experience his films. Have you ever had a dream where a character suddenly changed into someone else, but you also understood automatically that they still were that same person? I think it’s kind of like that, though I would never presume that my take is right with this man’s filmography. If you thought I was guiding you knowledgably through Memoria, I am delighted to inform you that we are actually both hopelessly and irretrievably lost. The new Hernan has an enigmatic relationship to Time and death and he has a memory that holds not only his thoughts but the collective experiences and traumas of everyone who ever lived in his village. He is also that same man who temporarily dies any time he takes a nap. All of this ties somehow to Jessica’s mystery noise, Colombia’s history, Jessica’s status as a white foreigner learning about an ancient non-white land, and just maybe the totality of what it means to live and die as a human being. It has the briefest of plots or the fullest of plots depending on how you look at it. It is very quietly, very unhurriedly about a great many things. Like Jessica’s own journey, the experience of watching Memoria is filled with both serenity and discombobulation of a gentle kind. We spend long minutes on static shots that linger on hospital wings, Bogotan cafe courtyards and Colombian river towns. And then, every now and again, that percussive sound jars us out of our trance again.

Memoria is a film about being unsettled and in that respect it’s the best such film I can name since Olivier Assayas’ Personal Shopper. What scant conventional narrative there is pales in comparison to the visual and sonic world that Weerasethakul conjures around us. It is a film deeply in tune with sonic texture. The bustle of pedestrian traffic or the low din of a restaurant crowd or the trickle of a Colombian mountain creek may seem banal, but Weerasethakul lets us spend enough time with them that they become entrancing. The film has explicit ideas and themes, but its focus is really about the enormity and bewilderment of existing in this big, mysterious world of ours. The way we do the best we can to process it with the starter pack of senses we are born with and how outmatched those faculties are in the face of everything. I think the times when our senses can barely make sense of things is where the magic lives for Weerasethakul. He means to very gently and lovingly short-circuit our brains. There’s a lovely and unnerving scene early on that focuses on nothing more than a parking lot full of cars at dawn. Then one of their alarms goes off and then other cars join in until they are all crowing their different sirens together. Then, one by one, they stop. Until there is finally silence again. No living thing is there in that parking lot and we do not hear anything before they go off, but something must have caused this chain reaction. Is it Jessica’s phantom noise that we can no longer hear when we aren’t sharing her point of view? Or is it some other force vibrating on some undetectable level? Our senses can’t process it in any direct way, yet the chorus of alarms testifies that something must be there, just beneath the feeble radars of our perceptions. And if our five main senses can be given the slip in this way, are things like reason and understanding not similarly susceptible? A Weerasethakul film aims to shake up our rigid notions of certainty about this world that holds us. He wants us to make room in our rational, scientific brains for the eerie, unexplainable and confounding. And while the result is meant to be disorienting and haunting, I think there is also a touch of something wonderful and sweet in the way he disorients us. His films feel as if they are possessed by friendly ghosts.
Memoria is fascinated by the nexus between the corporeal world and dreaming and it fittingly resembles nothing so much as the act of trying to describe a dream upon waking. There is that wonderful, patient scene where Jessica goes to the sound recording booth and she and Hernan try, step by step, to pinpoint the sound she keeps hearing. It’s a mesmerizing dance between our fantasies and all the tools of science, as Jessica and Hernan take the stuff of feverish imagination and run it through the sorting machine of logic and technology. The beautifully futile attempt to give language to the ineffable majesty of existing. In a Weerasethakul film, unlike most actual dreams, there isn’t really a moment where the strange power of the dreaming dissipates or loses its grip to the real and the rational. If anything, the film has us wake from what felt like real life into a dream. Dreams are real here. Memoria starts with what could be just a hallucination, watches Jessica hold it up to the light of day, and then slowly metamorphosizes into a rumination on how much wonder and bizarre phenomena are right there in front of us. It is a blurring of the lines between life and death, sleeping and waking, until they are one and the same. While waiting in a hospital hallway, a scientist opens up a doorway in front of Jessica. She informs her it is essentially a morgue, a place where bones and remains are being kept and puzzled over. A space for death. “Want to come have a look,” she asks with cheery politeness. Jessica does want to have a look and follows her in. And Joe Weerasethakul is similarly beckoning us in and inviting us to meditate, without any sense of fear or negativity, on life’s natural endpoint. Or maybe endpoints, for some. When the older Hernan awakes from his very long death siesta and looks up at Jessica, she inquires very matter-of-factly what temporarily dying is like. “Not bad,” he casually replies. “I just stopped.” Again, as much as Memoria is the story of Jessica being unsettled by a sensation she cannot explain, its attitude toward the unknown is one of peaceful curiosity and even hushed excitement. What a wonder to be in this beautiful place and to still have so very much to know about it. With as much death as I have felt surrounded by in the last few years, watching Weerasethakul muse on it with such wisdom, calm and childlike wonder felt like a thing I needed. It made for one of 2021’s most soothing cinematic odysseys.
Memoria is a notable example of a film that teaches you to watch it (and using that buzzy film phrase allows me to mark another square on my Cinema Bingo card). You might find parallels to it in the hushed meditations on nature in Terrence Malick’s films of in the long static shots of Malaysian filmmaker Tsai Ming Liang. But Joe Weerasethakul has long developed a rhythm all his own. As he does in that car alarm scene, his hypnotic patient takes suggest a world just under the surface of what we can see and feel. We all (sigh, most of us) believe in things like microscopic bacteria, sound waves that only certain creatures can pick up on, and even a part of our own brains that is virtually inaccessible to our conscious minds most of the time. Weeraethakul’s films whisper tome that if I can believe in those wondrous, hidden phenomena, who knows what else could be happening just beyond the fumbling grasp of my human senses. His films are an invitation to be quite and still but also alert, anticipating what might happen next. It feels like stretching a muscle one rarely uses, and it feels downright subversive in a cultural landscape with no shortage of frenetic entertainments. There is, to use an old cliche, nothing quite like it. If you have the urge to expand your definition of what an adventure film can be, Memoria is a transcendental trek into the wildernesses of Time, life, death, and the human self. And of course, if you ever feel confused or dumbfounded by what this unique cinematic object is up to, you can just look into the paradoxically open and inscrutable face of the incomparable Tilda Swinton. Behold the mixture of awe and disorientation that dances across her eyes. Her expression will tell you that you are entirely right in being puzzled and lost here in Weerasethakul’s haunting Colombian trance state. It will also tell you that it can be bracing fun to not always know where you are going.
Memoria has a lot to say about letting fo and allowing one’s self to be taken on a journey into someone else’s world. It is partly, I think, about the value of opening up to others’ stories. Weerasethakul has certainly done that by crossing the Pacific Ocean to Colombia and making his first film outside of the Asian continent. Tilda Swinton has left the Scottish Quarter of the Milky Way and acted in a film where at least half of the dialogue is in Spanish. And Swinton’s character within the film undertakes a trip outside of her own comfort zone through Bogota, out into the Colombian mountains and beyond in order to catch some part of a story that is much larger than her and older than her and also crucially not really about her. It’s a beautiful and necessary thing to let yourself be touched by stories that are not really about you. It’s as good for warding off narcissism and myopia as oranges are for scurvy. I cannot overstate how vital and soul-expanding it is to fill your life with stories that are not your own. Memoria also quietly and implicitly critiques the way white people, well meaning or not, can plunder non-white experiences for their own benefit in an exploitive way. Jessica’s sister speaks of a tribe her anthropology crew is researching that does not wish to open themselves up, mentally and culturally, for the world to probe. We are blessed to have the chance to take in a multitude of stories and perspectives, but we are also not entitled to every last one of them. Some of the world’s mysteries should be allowed to stay mysteries. It is just one more way that Joe Weerasethakul is teaching his audience to be still, curious, and respectfully receptive to the overlapping buzz of narratives all around us. That is the nature of cinema’s empathy-invoking power. You walk into a dark space and an artist introduces you to some people you’ve never met. Some are real and some are fictions conjured by actors. Either way, you sit quietly and you learn about them, while maybe learning a bit more about yourself too. Sometimes the intent of the story is to inform you and educate you. To shed light on some important subject or to illuminate an idea, so you can walk into the theater lobby with a firmer grasp on existence. Films to bolster our understanding and give us newfound clarity. I appreciate films like that. Still I’m very thankful they are not all like that.

Top 20 Films of 2021: #14- C’mon C’mon

I’ll stand on my soapbox for a minute and say that, as an uncle many times over, I feel that uncles still feel underrepresented in cinema.  It feels particularly tough to find good films about uncles. My people cry out for more stories. I say this as someone who never cared for John Hughes’ comedy Uncle Buck growing up and who had the pleasure of agreeing with his childhood self wholeheartedly after a recent rewatch. And, as I’m one of those snobs who can’t stand Napoleon Dynamite, I have little use for that desperate goofus Uncle Rico as well. I’m very much behind Mary Poppins‘ Uncle Albert and his laughing-on-the-ceiling shenanigans, but that’s a bit role and it’s unclear whose uncle he’s even supposed to be. It’s possible he might just have been bestowed with an honorary Uncle title, which obviously doesn’t really count. We have some very compelling uncles in The Lion King‘s Uncle Scar and Hamlet‘s Uncle Claudius (Scar’s non-lion equivalent), but those are some real unsavory uncles. Certainly not the kind of uncles anyone lucky enough to assume the title of uncle should aspire to become. The same goes for Harry Potter’s miserable Uncle Dursley. And of course, no matter how often he is reincarnated and reimagined, things don’t go ever all that well for Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben. That poor man has died a lot. So where does that leave you ifyou’re looking for an uncle in a major role, who isn’t palpably evil, whose film doesn’t suck, and who isn’t frequently dying on a sidewalk in the name of increased pathos? I feel like I’m currently looking at Uncle Fester (who, to be clear, is not dead even if he would love it if you thought of him that way) standing in a room all by himself. And we love Fester, but that is just not a satisfactory state of avuncular affairs for more than a century of cinema. That’s why Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon hit me on such a personal level and filled me with teary joy for all the uncles out there like me. We’ve waited for this, gentlemen! Behold, a great film that not only has a really good, fully realized uncle as a leading character, but is also very much about the joys of having a nephew or niece. An arty, sweet little dedication to the bond between children and their parents’ brothers. It may seem a small thing for a film to be about, but there’s not such thing as a small thing when a filmmaker approaches it with this much clear-eyed thoughtfulness.

Also, being the latest film from the literate, referential and effervescently digressive Mike Mills (who last directed Annette Bening to her career zenith in his masterpiece 20th Century Women), C’mon C’mon is about a whole lot more than just nephews and uncles. Like its lead uncle Johnny (a spectacularly moving and impressively human-scaled Joaquin Phoenix), a radio journalist and interviewer, Mike Mills has a way of letting things unfold naturally, of letting the subject reveal itself. He has long been animated by a curiosity about human beings of all ages and how they grow and change. And he is gifted at allowing incredible actors to capture people at new crossroads in their lives. He has an eye for where pain, poignance, and rich humor overlap. C’mon C’mon begins with the first of many telephone conversation between Johnny and his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffman, in one of the year’s best supporting performances). The two grew up close, but have hardly spoken to each other over the past year due to a couple of draining, highly charged famiy ordeals. Their mother died recently of dementia and there was heated disagreement over how to handle her passing. This also unearthed years of resentment over their starkly different relationships with her. There was also a great deal of discord over how Viv should handle her relationship with her husband Paul, a man possibly suffering from bipolar disorder. Paul has recently separated from Viv and relocated to Oakland away from his wife and their 9-year old son Jessie (Woody Norman, in a performance as full of humor, sadness, and exquisite grace notes as any I’ve seen in some time). Paul is having trouble adjusting to a new life in a new city and Viv feels a moral duty to go help him get settled and find treatment. This gives Johnny the perfect opportunity to reconnect with his beloved sister and nephew by offering to look after him while his mother is away. It may have only been a year since they last saw each other but, as Viv reminds Johnny, a year is a mighty long time for someone who has yet to live their first decade. Johnny lets Jessie borrow his tape recorder and microphone to capture sounds and conversations as they walk around Jessie’s Los Angeles home. Eventually, Johnny convinces Viv to let him bring Jessie to New York City and later New Orleans as part of his work.  It is clear from the start that Johnny and Jessie have a very strong emotional bond. It is also clear that their easy chemistry cannot entirely smooth over the fact that much does not feel right in Jessie’s life. He is anxious about his father’s departure and the reasons for it, and there is also general hyperactive ennui that comes with being nine years old. Mike Mills’ film is full of harmony and just as often punctuated with misunderstandings. It lives in the space between loving connection and missed communications, as Mills patiently and tenderly watches two good, wounded souls talk and get to understand each other. I don’t want to undersell the small traumas that all these characters are enduring and trying to make sense of, but the magic of C’mon C’mon lies in how it never feels burned out or defeated. It is a story that believes in love and healing, even if does not pretend that they are always easy to come by. The trials of these characters, from tending to an aging parent to divorce to watching a loved one admit they need psychological help, are all recognizable and relatable to a vast number of people. Mills does not minimize them but there is something soothing in how matter-of-factly he confronts them. He has made a tremendous film about acceptance and change and the power of talking it out with people who care about you. His characters’ struggles color them but they do not consume them. Big, life-altering ordeals share time with quiet moments of playful banter. Just like his interviewer protagonist, what Mike Mills wants to do most is just to listen and find some kind of peace in the free-wheeling rhythms of the dialogue.
Listening with a sense of humor and curiosity is key to Mike Mills’ approach with C’mon C’mon because that is such a vital part of communicating with children. More than just uncles and nephews, it is a film about the importance of speaking with and listening to the very young. If there is one superlative C’mon C’mon earns, it is that it may be the most astute film I’ve ever seen when it comes to presenting a truly honest view on pre-adolescent kids. It does not try to turn children into tiny, impossibly precocious adults and it does not make the other mistake of underestimating their awareness. It grasps the paradox of childhood, when one suddenly wakes up with a whole host of new ideas but still doesn’t quite have the discipline to organize all of them. As Viv puts it to her brother, his nephew is “a whole little person”, a phrase which crystallizes the full complexity of children and carries an implicit critique for how superficially and glibly the adult world often perceives them. Sadly, some of those very adults go on to make movies for and about children. C’mon C’mon isn’t just one of the least pandering glimpses into a 9-year old’s mind ever (it is the best such film since Spike Jonze’s underrated Where the Wild Things Are). It is a shot across the bow to anyone who would render child characters in a way that is cheap or lazy. It makes not pandering to children its mission statement and it features an adult character who understands and respects how important every interaction with this particular child is. Early on, when Jessie asks Johnny a serious question about why he has not married, Johnny fires out some quick, sassy, fun uncle response, but finds himself regretting it later. “I turned it into a dumb joke,” he confesses to his tape recorder. “Why did I do that?” Mike Mills understands that we should not assume we have children so easily pegged. One of the film’s most lovely and often funny decisions is just to let Jessie be genuinely weird sometimes. Because, in all honest, I’ve met precious few whole little persons who aren’t genuinely weird, in the best and most human of ways. Viv tells Johnny the night before she leaves Jessie in his care that her son will frequently play a game he made up called The Orphan. He will pretend to be a child who has escaped from an orphanage and shown up on her doorstep asking to spend the night in her house. And (here’s the gloriously macabre kicker), he offers to take the place of her dead children. Johnny greets this revealing look into this nephew’s psyche with a perfectly deadpan, “That’s fucked up.” And Mills’ perspective seems to be that, yes, it is a little fucked up and also the kind of strange little thing that happens with kids all around the world. As with so much of the character details in this film, he shrugs his shoulders with a smile and makes note of it. The joy of C’mon C’mon is that it is unafraid to be a little fucked up, and that is what makes it entirely wondrous. The beauty of Mike Mills’ look at Jessie (and children as a whole) is that he allows him to be both a disarmingly articulate little future adult and a specifically bizarre little boy, and it immediately makes this character (one of 2021’s absolute best characters) a real, breathing human being and not some cute abstraction. Mills’ film goes so much deeper than the realm of adult-kid bonding you see in a film like Kramer vs. Kramer. What we have here is a true two-hander between an adult and a child that could not feel more honest and alive. C’mon C’mon‘s dazzling magic trick is the subtle unfolding of Jessie’s foibles and nuances, so that, in no time at all, you know that Viv is right about him, This is a whole person. A fully dimensional, flawed, funny, free-thinking person.
C’mon C’mon is also quietly political in how it critiques an adult world that often reduces kids to abstractions, causes, victims, or problems to be solved. The  framing device of the film’s many poignant child interviews (all of them featuring real children discussing their hopes and fears for the future) allows the film to reinforce its thesis that children are real, autonomous beings. That we should question them more and talk at them less. The film is also political in its honest insights on the burdens and patriarchal hurdles that surround motherhood. While those child interviews are giving us conversation after conversation from the perspective of youth, Johnny is also having regular phone conversations with his sister on how to be a better communicator with his nephew. He is listening, as all men should, to a mother’s wisdom no how to not only raise and instruct a child but to nurture and one. And he is allowing Viv to tell her own story to someone who will listen; someone other than her sweet-natured but often manic child. Without underlining the point too boldly, Mills is positing that our would would be vastly improved by emotional attentiveness, by having conversations with women and children where we act more as student than as teacher, and by an understanding of where we can make life less difficult for the women tasked with raising the next wave of small adults. We owe it to them and to ourselves to lean in closely and bear witness to anyone who is helping to make the world’s little persons whole. Mike Mills follows Johnny empathetic curiosity with some of his own by occasionally coloring his film with excerpts from female scholars. C’mon C’mon is a story about throwing out rigid and very masculinized notions of strength and control when it comes to how we speak to children. Part of Jessie’s journey is that he must learn that his mother is a full person deserving of love and respect, and that his father’s psychological difficulties do not make him weak or unloving. The film is a gorgeous, lyrical reverie (and a luminous travelogue of Detroit, Los Angeles, New York City and New Orleans) about the power of conversation to compassionately counter ignorance and misinformation. It is one of 2021’s most emotionally intelligent films, and it is almost certainly the year’s most beautiful essay on the value of teaching emotional intelligence.
So much of the joy and warm humor of C’mon C’mon come from the rambunctiously sweet rhythms of his stellar screenplay, as a man with no children of his own does a kind of merry play battle with the sharp wits of this marvelously dimensional child. The sweetness of Johnny’s journey comes from watching him figure it out one interaction at a time. It is a film about the challenge of meeting children on their level, but it beams with the knowledge that we all get better at it with practice. Most of the time, Johnny’s talks with Jessie go pretty well. And then, sometimes, he oversteps his bounds or raises his voice too much, and then he has to fall back and rethink his approach. He has to be human enough to continually question what he thought he knew. Even a career spent interviewing children cannot prepare him for every scenarios and I think coming to understand that is the crux of his arc. What he gradually sees is that communicating with a child, and really with any human being, should be an act of enthusiastic inquisitiveness. We may enter a conversation with certain set ideas, but great conversations take place when we let ourselves become spontaneous, curious, and reactive to the moment. One could have imagined C’mon C’mon as a kind of uncle out of water tale; a story about an uncle who learns he’s utterly out of his depth when it comes to looking after a child and maybe eventually learns a lesson or two. It’s blessedly a looser and more complex tale than that. Johnny learns that, yes, he does have a lot more to learn about how to engage with young people. But he also finds himself enjoying the process immensely and he finds that his instincts as a journalist and an open-minded student of life give him some natural advantages. Maybe most importantly, he finds himself genuinely enlivened, tickled and edified by the chaotic adventure of trying to understand the budding someday adult in front of him. Mike Mills has made a wise and witty love letter to the blessing of having children in your life, but it is also a more general ode to the joys of starting up a dialogue with another human being.
For all its intellectual rigors and progressive ideas, I love C’mon C’mon because it is an unpretentious feast for the heart and soul. There is plenty interesting to unpack in its deep conversations but, as with the works of Richard Linklater or Eric Rohmer, it is really just about the joy of having the conversation. One does not need to be a scholar of any sort to tap into the joy of Johnny and Jessie sparring and joking and connecting with each other. In its heart of hearts, C’mon C’mon is a lush and lovely poem about how nice it is to get to know someone, child or otherwise. The juice that makes the story go is one common to a great man of the best narratives. Two characters begin a story not knowing one another that well, or maybe just knowing each other on a surface level. And then they spend the next hour-plus breaking through first impressions and awkwardness; jettisoning all the tics, postures, and bullshit that separate them from each other. It’s an extremely basic sort of character journey that I will never ever grow tired of. When it’s done right (as in films like The Station AgentAlice In the CitiesLost In Translation and Andrew Haigh’s 2011 Weekend to name just a handful), I remember that it is the cinematic meal I want most often. It is the filet mignon of humanistic cinema, the purest essence of character-based storytelling. And all Mike Mills needs to get it right is one scintillating, patient, funny, tear-jerking jewel of a screenplay and a few absolutely faultless performances.  After all the beautiful and wonderful advances in storytelling and cinema, there’s still a simple fundamental core to why we treasure narrative. Sit us down by the glow, tell us a tale. Tell us about some people. They may not be people we know at first. But by the end, we’re sure to see some of ourselves in them.

Top 20 Films of 2021: #15- West Side Story

I adore Stephen Sondheim and revere him, as one should do with genre-busting, influential creative geniuses. I know his contributions to musical theater and movie musicals over some five decades are immeasurable and that he is probably the overwhelming consensus choice for greatest musical lyricist and composer of the 20th century. One cannot discuss Steven Spielberg’s 2021 remake of West Side Story without talking first and foremost about the man integral to building the beautifully sturdy original structure; without looking at Sondheim’s lusly witty book of lyrics, surely among the most staggeringly assured debut works for an artist in any medium. If this is your first time learning that little factoid, take a moment to let it linger. One of the most enduring and brilliant songbooks in history was merely the opening salvo to the man’s long career. And that long career brings us to the problem that I am still utterly unqualified to give you any kind of satisfactory primer on the genius of Stephen Sondheim, short of remarking that his genius is evident in virtually every work of his I’ve seen (a number that is still far too low). It’s a genius evident in the sumptuous and sardonic melancholy of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and in the thinking person’s fairtyale puncturing of Into the Woods. Even select pieces I’ve heard divorced from the larger works, such as certain numbers from Company and Merrily We Roll Along, have struck me and have been the centerpieces for great scenes in brilliant films like Ladybird and Marriage Story. The godfather of musical theater passed away just this year and a host of moving essays have been written about the man, all worth reading and all suffused with a lot more lovely context than this relative Sondheim neophyte can provide. The best this review can muster is to send in one uninformed clown to urge you to visit, or revisit, his deep and prolific work. I know that is what I will be doing in the near future. The wild thing about West Side Story isn’t just that it’s Stephen Sondheim’s debut, but that it’s actually him operating at only half of his powers, which is to say only as a lyricist. Sondheim would quickly join Cole Porter and Irving Berlin in the rarefied air of musical theater artists who wrote both their own music and lyrics. For his maiden voyage to the Great White Way, however, Sondheim would write to music by the legendary Leonard Bernstein (soon to be played by Bradley Cooper). Those lyrics are still confoundingly great and are, to my mind, the biggest reason why a fairly faithful remake of Robert Wise’s 1961 masterpiece can still feel revelatory and necessary. From the sardonic teen rebel snark of “Officer Kruepke” to the delicately devastating poignance of “Somewhere” to the still-timely critique of “America”, Sondheim’s words are a thing of piercingly astute Technicolor rapture. Capable of leaping effortlessly from humor to yearning to sorrow (this is the Romeo and Juliet musical after all), Sondheim’s first little masterpiece springs and swoons with a verbal dexterity to match the gymnastic finesse of its dancers. Before Steven Spielberg adds his own vibrant visual brushstrokes to the canvas, it only takes a few lines from “When You’re A Jet” to set aside any misgivings about redundancy. This is Stephen Sondheim’s “West Side Story”, one of the most incandescently alive songbooks there is. There is certainly a place for it, for multiple imaginings of it. And it’s going to be great!

The new film begins, like the 1961 version does, in 1950s New York City, with two street gangs, alike in immaturity. But perhaps not completely alike, for one gang, The Jets, seems to exist solely for the purpose of making life miserable for all the non-white gangs in the city. In particular, they live to terrorize and vandalize the neighborhoods of the local Puerto Rican immigrant community. They’re a band of uneducated, nationalistic, young Bill the Butchers still clinging fast to the xenophobia of yesteryear and (as Tony Kushner’s nimbly updated screenplay is not shy to remind us) of our present American moment. The local Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks, exists to oppose the Jets and to protect their neighbors, though it seems that neither gang really has anything to offer its melting pot city but more and more cyclical (albeit balletic and meticulously choreographed) violence. The police officers, who tellingly harass the white gang with noticeably more almost-affectionate frustration than they do with the Puerto Ricans, shake their heads at the futility and the sad class blindness of the two sides’ squabbling. All the territory they are brawling and bleeding over will soon be dismantled to make room for Lincoln Center and for luxury condominiums that not a single character in this narrative will ever be allowed to set foot inside. That feeling of senseless brutality doesn’t seem entirely lost on the fatalistic leaders of the gangs, Bernardo (a very strong David Alvarez) and Riff (a best in show revelation named Mike Faist), but neither are about to stop the show or cede any ground to the other. On the contrary, Riff wants to escalate the tensions even further with a once-and-for-all fight to determine control of the territories. He’s planning to have this final brawl in the next 24 hours and he is counting on his ace in the hole and best friend, Tony (Ansel Elgort, handsome) to be the deciding factor in this climactic duel. Tony was the Jets’ most feared fighter some years back before he was sent to prison for nearly beating the member of another gang to death. He is now working and rooming in the general store of a local Puerto Rican widow (the wonderful Rita Moreno, who won a Supporting Actress Oscar for playing Anita in the Best Picture-winning 1961 version) and making a concerted effort to turn away from criminality. Riff insists on Tony accompanying the Jets to that night’s youth dance, where members of both Jets and Sharks will be present. Tony ends up going with the caveat that he won’t be doing anything to jeopardize his parole, but ends up finding a different form of trouble when he and Bernardo’s sister, Maria (Rachel Zegler, tremendous dramatically and vocally) meet behind the gymnasium bleachers and fall instantly in love. The next 24 hours are a fraught and luscious whirlwind of romance, beauty and bloodshed as only Shakespeare’s most emo-infused play (give or take a Hamlet) can offer. Anyone who’s seen Romeo and Juliet or the first West Side Story knows where this goes, but it’s really all about how kinetically, kaleidoscopically and heart-tuggingly it goes there. And after a production period as long as COVID itself and filled with enough hype to fill a skyscraper, it is somewhat unreal what a miraculous success Spielberg’s remake is. As a pure parade of colored lights, beautiful faces, and wooning sounds, there is really nothing from 2021 to equal it.
It’s always a good sign when you can split opinion up every which way about whose contribution is most crucial to the greatness of a film, and I could happily spend the length of two reviews throwing bouquets at every person involved in this opulent production. To start, you would not be wrong to focus your highest praises on Spielberg’s frequent collaborator, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. The man who made Schindler’s List‘s ghettos look almost indecently striking, who filled the Congressional hallways of Lincoln with shafts of holy historical light, and gave Saving Private Ryan its transcendentally hellish Omaha Beach charge. Set loose in a metropolitan dreamscape vision of the 1950s, Kaminski produces an ecstatic barrage of vivid color and gravity-defying motion so transporting that the word I most want to use to describe it is just musical. In some effable way, it just looks like melody, like the passionate strains of a song. His compositions glow and sizzle and radiate like the movements in a bombastic, gospel-tinged symphony. To use the words of an old turn-of-the-century ditty, Kaminski casts a light fantastic on the sidewalks of New York, and in just about every alleyway, apartment and warehouse too. There is a shot of Tony simply standing in a puddle, surrounded by the reflected glow of street lamps, which looks like something Van Gogh might have imagined or wished he’d lived to see. And, just as important as his painterly eye, is the fact that Kaminski is a giddy, athletic collaborator with Justin Peck’s blistering choreography (and vice versa, as the two worked in tandem along with Spielberg to conceptualize each thrilling setpiece). When you see Bernardo and his girlfriend Anita (a magnesium-hot bolt of starpower named Ariana de Bose) twirling and gyrating with scores of other dancers through the daytime streets of Harlem, you can feel Kaminski and Peck both jockeying jovially with each other to see who can captivate you more. What comes closer to touching the face of God: the carousel twirl of Anita’s bright yellow dress until it rises to reveal the blood red slip underneath, or the way Kaminski stages it against a sea of similarly color-coded men and women so it feels like we are watching a flowerbed get its wish to turn human for a few minutes? One other reason you need not fear this West Side Story feeling old hat is that Kaminski and a team of aesthetic wizards in various crafty disciplines ensure that the film would be a perfect sensory experience even if it had no story at all.
And then, there’s also just that magical way Steven Spielberg has with casting. I imagine it might be one of the tertiary things most people credit the storied director with. After his technical wizardry, his blockbuster showman instincts, and maybe even after all those wonderful John Williams scores his films have given us. But, almost from the beginning, Spielberg has had a keen knack not just for working with great actors but for finding them too. His Empire of the Sun (a supremely underrated Spielberg masterpiece in this critic’s opinion) not only spotlighted a very young Christian Bale but allowed him to start his career with a performance that still stands among his best work. The whiz kid (now entering into his sixth decade behind the camera) knows when to cast megastars as his leads (Tom Hanks, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Cruise) and when to give big roles to terrific character actors like Laura Dern, Mark Rylance, and Ralph Fiennes. And if you are thinking that some those “character actors” are stars too, consider the role Spielberg’s films have played in deservedly elevating their statures in the public consciousness. For purposes of this review, Spielberg has a particularly acute eye for casting new or relatively untested talent. In Saving Private Ryan, he paired the then-biggest Oscar magnet in the world, Tom Hanks, with a group of young men who were all practically unheard of at the time. They were Adam Goldberg, Jeremy Davies, Vin Diesel, Barry Pepper, and Giovanni Ribisi. Every single one of them has gone on to have some measure of success, critically or financially or both. It would surprise me to no end if West Side Story‘s electric young cast did not repeat or even surpass that feat. After seeing Ariana de Bose sizzle or Rachel Zegler gently tuck your heart in her pocket or David Alvarez hold the screen with his commanding gaze, I could not wait to see what all of them did next. It would be lunacy if we did not get to watch them again and watch them a lot. And most of all, I just don’t think it’s possible to watch Mike Faist turn the reasonably good role of Riff into the year’s most unexpectedly transfixing screen performance and not feel in your bones that Spielberg has just introduced us to a generational talent. The undercurrent of pathos and knowingly doomed stubbornness he brings to the Jets’ leader steals the story away with every appearance. Moreover, it makes you believe the idea of Tony’s eventually fatal loyalty to the gang in a way that Ansel Elgort is just not capable of doing. Faist pitches the idea, just for a scattered handful of moments, that West Side Story should actually be the tale of a charismatically ignorant, racist, self-defeating shitkicker with a Newsies accent and John Mulaney’s bone structure. But are we all so sure that it shouldn’t be? Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story are both about photogenic, young bodies clashing up against each other and throwing their lives away for no good reason, except for two of them who at least end up throwing their lives away for some kind of reason. The senseless tragedy of it all becames bearable and even guttingly irresistible only by making horny, stupid, impetuous youth feel as hypnotically, alluringly alive as possible. It only works with actors that can dazzle both your mind and your eyes. To have found a cast this up to the hot-stepping, lens-popping task is the kind of thing few outside of Spielberg could pull off. And full credit to all these superb actors of course. But let’s also raise a toast to the wily old bastard who, all these years later, still knows how to put together a team!
Spielberg has obviously had a number of partnerships I would love to see the next chapter of, from the poignant gravitas and effortless charm he’s gotten three times out of Tom Hanks (we do not acknowledge The Terminal‘s existence) to a wealth of collaborations with masters of their craft like John Williams and Janusz Kaminski. But, when we look to Spielberg’s work in the 21st century, it’s hard to find a partner more harmoniously beneficial to the veteran director’s process than celebrated Angels In America playwright-turned-dynamo-screenwriter, Tony Kushner. The man has written screenplays for only four completed films to date, but every one of them has been a Best Picture nominee. It’s a Stephen Sondheim-like run of immediate early success and the streak seems unlikely to change with his work on Spielberg’s coming of age autobiography The Fablemans later this year. The genius scribe, a subtle dramaturge who punctuates patient scenes (Lincoln, about trying to secure enough votes to pass the Emancipation Proclamation, is literally nothing but patient scenes) with bursts of flowery poetry, has performed a minor miracle with West Side Story. He has taken a property seven decades old based on a play centuries older, and he has cut right to its modern heart. He has supplemented Ernest Lehman’s 1961 screenplay with small grace notes that bring West Side Story into modern age. The age of immigrants fighting for their place in the American narrative. And the age of infantile, emasculated white men who view diversity as an existential threat while pig-headedly failing to see the true adversary of greed and capitalistic indifference right in front of their noses. Kushner’s words allow us to feel some pity for these foolish young men marginalized by their nation’s rampant classism, while never cleansing them of the sin of their hateful racism. He allows the Jets to be captivating and human and even funny but, as Doc (the Rita Moreno character’s late white husband) said in the 1961 film, all the Jets are really doing, with their sburron pride and mistrust of anyone who doesn’t look like them, is making the world lousy. There is so much that could better, but prejudice continually rears its head and reduces everything to ashes. Riff bemoans the rubble of his life and the dust covering everything, but he and his men are too slow to see how much of that is of their own making.
At the heart of West Side Story lies the idea that these characters, so many of them sympathetic fools, could be doing more joyful things with their time. Dancing and singing and falling in love. Before the brawl, one young Jet proposes they just go smoke weed at the zoo instead and he’s absolutely right! How much less devastating a film this would be if most of these characters chose any other path than the violent one that they opt for. The one that pulls everyone, hateful or not, into its merciless eddy. Of course, the young stoner’s wisdom is ignored and the plot proceeds along its tragic course; the course that Tony and Maria briefly thought they might break away from. It’s the reason that, of all Sondheim’s glorious words, the ones that still prick the most may be the simplest. “There’s a place for us.” The dream of making things just a little bit better, and how hard one must fight to find a little bit of good somewhere in the world’s angry free-for-all. It’s the sadly timely wisdom that Kushner sees in this story. There are so many ways that America has decided to give into the inertia of selfishness and exclusivity rather than enjoying what we have and letting others feel some of that joy as well. Somewhere along the way we’ve decided that people will need to suffer and die instead, and for no other reason than that it is the status quo. The tragedy of Shakespeare’s play, Ernest Lehman’s screenplay, and now Kushner’s beautifully perceptive adaptation is that habit and a lack of empathy doom us. Our leads find something nice among the carnage and rubble of their lives and those who care about them all have their chances to learn by their example; to brush away the fog of long-festering grievances and help their families, their friends, and themselves. And then everyone is just a little too dumb, stuck, hurt, trampled upon and mixed up to break free. And that’s the old story. The tidal forces of toxic history and rotten tradition are currents too powerful for these aimless kids to overcome. Kushner, Spielberg, Shakespeare, Sondheim, and the rest of us can only watch and know that this will all be writ again. The lights come up. And we go hence to have more talk of these sad things.

Top 20 Films of 2021: #16- Spencer

I try my best to be a purist when it comes to reviewing films and when it comes to choosing the worthy group to make my annual top twenty list. By that I mean, I tend to avoid choosing a film just to be novel or omitting a film just because it’s already been listed by a plethora of other critics. My list is meant to commemorate (for my own forgetful future self as much as anyone) what most impacted me that year and I like it to stand as a reliable barometer of that first and foremost. To be frank, I don’t go out of my way looking for controversy in my choices. I often find myself in line with much of the critical consensus and I’m perfectly okay being in that line as long as it reflects my honest impressions about the film year. That said, left field picks and passion picks do end up on my lists semi-occasionally and I won’t deny that I feel a little swell of pride when they do. It’s nice to stand up for films that deserve more love. Critic or not, having personal choices you can fight for is one of the great joys of being a movie lover. In the case of Pablo Larrain’s Princess Diana film Spencer, I may need to walk the word “personal pick” back a bit, for it’s not as if I’m by myself in adoring it. There is a nice, reasonably sized group of us up here on this weird little Kubrickian hilltop. Spencer was by and large a well-reviewed film, even taking home the lion’s share of Best Actress critics prizes for Kristen Stewart. But, despite some good ink, Spencer has still felt like the most unfairly picked on great movie of 2021. General audiences seemed to absolutely loathe it (the same ones that presumably cheered on a dysfunctional carbon copy biopic like Bohemian Rhapsody to earth-shattering box office) and, even among the critical community, it felt just a wee bit polarizing. I am incensed on Spencer‘s behalf that it is not unanimously beloved, but this does give me the thrilling opportunity to defend its honor; to leap onto my white steed and mount a spirited defense on behalf of Pablo Larrain’s inventive, cerebral, and emotional fable (as an opening title informs us) about the late Princess of Wales’ uncomfortable tour of duty as an in-law of England’s Royal Family. It’s a joy to be able to champion its many virtues because a second viewing of Spencer only made it more clear what a special, singular and even playful ode it is to Diana Spencer and what her trials as both a Royal and as arguable the world’s most public figure have to say about modern celebrity worship and how a media-infused society treats the women it purports to idolize.

Being a Pablo Larrain film, Spencer is a vivid rumination on the full gamut of what it means to be a politician, celebrity, or often both. It is what it means to be someone with a place reserved in our history books. The one thing the film is not, to the dismay of many a viewer, is a straightforward, completely factual biopic. While it takes inspiration from a specific Christmas holiday Diana and her sons (William and Harry, who you may have also heard of) spent with the Royal Family, the word “fable” clues us in from the start that Larrain has something more surreal in store. It is what I would call an impressionistic rendering of its subject. Cinematographer Claire Mahon shoots Sandringham House and the surrounding verdant countryside like it’s all trapped inside a haunted Faberge egg. And the sense of regal pomp and circumstance inside these airy spaces add a sense of something eerie and spectral to this winter palace. We start the film with not a soul in sight. Then a cavalcade of armored trucks roll past a dead pheasant on a lonely private road. Nameless soldiers exit the lorries and march into the palatial estate with wooden crates that look like they might contain rifles. But, instead of containing weaponry, we see that they are filled with meats, produce and cheeses for the three days of terribly tasteful Christmas festivities. Then a large company of chefs march in to the darkened kitchens, entering the palace as the soldiers retreat from it. And only after all that ceremony do we finally glimpse our titular princess, driving in her convertible and seen from behind. Her festive plaid sweater feels like the first genuinely warm splash of color after those bracingly chilly opening moments. She has gotten herself lost, almost certainly on purpose, on the way to her antiseptically majestic lodgings. The first time we see the face of Diana Spencer (a spellbinding Kristen Stewart, using all her talents as both an A-list and an endlessly undersung character actor) is in a rural roadside cafe asking directions from a gaggle of working class folk who are all stunned speechless to see her. Once all the royals have arrived at the palatial grounds, we learn why Diana was keen to take her time getting there. She is scrutinized for having the gall to be the subject of tabloid fixation. A taciturn lurker of an ex-soldier (Timothy Spall, terrific as a man so quiet and intensely off-putting that he almost comes off as comical) has been retained by the Queen to both keep an eye on Diana and watch out for anyone who might want to spy on her. A centuries-old tradition calls for guests to weigh themselves on arrival and departure, nominally in the name of fun. And, while she knows her distant husband Prince Charles is having an affair (he presents her with the same pearl necklace he gave to his mistress and Diana is expected to wear them to the Christmas Eve supper), all the gossip about attention-seeking behavior and impropriety swirls about her. Even sequestered away with the people who despise her for attracting flash bulbs, she is still the one who is gawked at. The atmosphere is claustrophobic and disorienting, though her beloved sons are there to lighten the mood and provide her with listening ears and real love. But, sadly for Diana, most of the ears at Sandringham are the ones she feels leaning in to catch the next unorthodox thing she says. And, if it were all not enough to make Christmas tense, she starts imagining that the ghost of Anne Boleyn (another disrespected and martyred British royal) is walking the grounds and speaking to her.

Now, while the average viewer just eager to watch a little bit of down–the-middle lifestyle porn was probably already feeling uncomfortable with the constrictive, frigid Kubrickian atmosphere of Spencer, I have to believe the moment Larrain turned it into an actual ghost story is the moment that basic audience mentally (and in some cases physically) hurried for the exits. In losing a certain kind of general audience, Spencer freed itself up (just as Princess Diana eventually broke free from stifling royal customs) to be a much more rewarding film. For my part, I love how Pablo Larrain makes history feel a little haunted. Films like Spencer and his superb Jackie burrow deep into the recesses of their heroines’ psyches and delve into the subjective experience of being a public figure. And, far from being some arbitrary flourish, what the Anne Boleyn ghost connection drives home is that, for a certain kind of famous woman, being placed in a high position can actually be a terrifying and powerless thing. Even the Queen herself breaks her stony composure for a few almost gentle moments to remind Diana that they all exist as fodder for the public’s consumption. each of them typecast into whatever civic image can best serve the people’s expectations of them. “The only picture that really matters is the one of you they put on the ten-pound note,” Her Royal Majesty confides to her estranged, press-hounded daughter-in-law. “When they take that one you understand that all you are, my dear, is currency.” Poor, doomed women like Anne Boleyn were used and abused by their powerful husbands, disposed of and mistreated, and then fed the popular imagination for centuries afterwards. But what of their inner lives, and what of the stories they would have wanted told? Diana spent her adult years trapped in royal finery and boxed in by photographers, but the one happy thing we know of her story is that, before her death, she was able to free herself from her handlers. Before her road ended in that Paris tunnel, she was able to experience real love and a life of her choosing for a short while. And so, criticizing Spencer for not being a standard issue prestige film about the finer points of life as a Royal feels cruelly ironic to me. The film seems to argue that Diana Spencer fought to leave that lonely place. She took great, courageous pains to thwart convention and escape that repressive and sterile way of life, and in doing so she authored her own story as something more than just popular currency. She earned the right to have her story be more than just some coffee table book of behind-the-scenes palace intrigue. However one may feel about Spencer‘s wildest liberties and flights of fancy, from ghost Queens to pearl-eating to Polanski-evoking fever dream outbursts, this subjective, impressionistic take sure feels more like the story Diana deserves.

 

This also is a major reason that Kristen Stewart is such a perfect choice for the role, before we even touch the perfect blend of enigmatic exteriority and outspoken grace she brings to the banquet table. Stewart comes to this role with a metatextual understanding about what it means to be an object for the popular culture; a precious stone to be handled, praised, ogled, valued and devalued. She has all those years of being under her own kind of microscope, from child star to rising indie actor to disrespected Twilight ingenue to vilified other woman to brilliant character actor finally penning her own cinematic legacy. Stewart became the first American to win the Cesar (France’s answer to the Oscar) some years back for her revelatory work in Olivier Assayas’ The Clouds of Sils Maria. The big American awards body shunned her from even getting a nomination, as they did for her similarly great Assayas follow-up Personal Shopper. American audiences have placed Kristen Stewart on some of the highest pedestals and just as often pelted her with rotten fruit while she was up there. She surely knows something of not just the trappings of fame, but the powerlessness and disrespect that can come with it. She secured her first-ever Academy Awards nomination not two months ago for Spencer, and it certainly seemed like she had to fight tooth and nail to even have the Oscars notice that. None of Spencer‘s other great performers (Timothy Spall, Sally Hawkins’ lovely work as her dresser and childhood friend), its splendid crafts (Claire Mahon’s icy kaleidoscope camerawork; Jonny Greenwood’s majestically ghostly score; Jacqueline Durran’s elegantly arresting costumes), or Pablo Larrain’s beautifully controlled direction were considered worthy. Stewart is perfect for the part because Spencer is a film all about what it feels like to be somehow both idolized and demeaned at the same time. To have the eyes of the masses utterly consume you for pleasure and then insult you afterwards. And she brings to the role both psychological realism and a haute couture model’s sense of the persona Diana projected. She has a dancer’s knack for rendering grand, glossy emotions in subtle, physical ways. I think of how difficult it must have been to completely let us into the headspace of this person while also nailing all the iconic exterior pop of the most photographed individual in the world. It demanded an actor with a character actor’s emotional complexity and an Angelina Jolie-level sense of how to captivate the camera one still image at a time. Off the top of my head, I can name maybe three current actors capable of doing both those jobs at the very highest levels. They are Marion Cotillard, Charlize Theron, and the great Kristen Stewart.

 

Like those performers, Spencer‘s perfection lies in being beautiful and iconic and also upsetting the expectations that come with wearing that heavy icon’s crown. It’s a pet theme for Pablo Larrain too, investigating the double-edged word of image and of historical scrutiny; how the broader society looks at its idols and how those idols respond to the knowledge that society is trying to make sense of them and define them. Jackie argues that Jacqueline Kennedy very shrewdly used the public fascination with her and with the assassination of her husband and spun it to the nation’s advantage by giving them a moving moment of historical pageantry. Spencer‘s Diana is different. She does not want to dance with history, but to dance with herself. She knows she will forever be under the microscope of the popular eye, but she refuses to accept it quietly, much to the ongoing consternation and embarrassment of her controlling, stiff upper lip in-laws. She is thwarted at every turn by the ever-seeing gaze of her new family and the Paparazzi (the former stitch up Diana’s bedroom curtains for fear of the latter) and she is corralled in by the nagging feeling that anything she says or does will be framed as either an acquiescence to the Royals’ arbitrary customs or as further proof that she really is an attention-seeking exhibitionist. And what Diana wanted, the film poses, was to feel something like freedom. I’m not trying to argue that one cannot take Spencer to task for being indulgent, wildly fictionalized, and sometimes even campy (to its great benefit in my opinion). But all of that is what makes Spencer feel like such a liberating, melancholically heartfelt dedication to Diana and to her her legacy as a person who chafed at the societal corsets that tried to hem her in. Larrain’s “fable of a true tragedy” is an ode to Diana as the wild English colt that no paddock could contain. There’s a montage of wordless moments in the last third of Spencer that consist of Diana dancing. Posing. Prancing, Pirouetting and twirling through finely furnished sitting rooms and marbled halls. Puckishly swatting at lacey curtains and merrily thumbing her nose at stately decorum. It is the most indulgent and purely interpretive scene in the film and it is also quite easily one of my favorite cinematic moments of 2021. In all its bratty, fed- up glory, it is the perfect affront to the Royal Family and mainstream audiences alike. Don’t let the ornate vases and velvet cushions fool you. Spencer is a silly, raucous punk song ringing through the prim halls of power and rattling all the tea trays. And it’s okay if it is not entirely to your personal taste. With all due respect, sir or madam, this one is not, strictly speaking, for you. It’s for Diana.

 

Of course, who really knows what the Princess of Wales would have made of Pablo Larrain’s beautiful, befuddling paradox of a film? I think he’d be the first to admit that it’s not so much an attempt to photorealistically render Diana Spencer. Photographs and tell-all exposes were probably the things she was most sick of, outside of her coldly philandering husband. If anything, the film is a rebuke to the idea that anyone could knows Diana better than Diana herself. For all the voyeurism she endured, her thoughts were her own, and yet history still needs to have its say on the matter. It always does. And so, in addition to being a raucous salute to Diana’s flight from rigid customs and a loveless family situation, Pablo Larrain is also using Spencer to punk history itself. He is critiquing the idea that we can cleanly tell anyone’s story no matter how much time they might spend in the public eye. In a late scene, Diana muses on how many British rulers are memorialized with a single word (William the Conqueror and such) to try to succinctly convey a sense of them. All of a person’s traits and faults and contradictions and personality boiled down into one last pudding for the easy consumption of future generations. The past melted down into one currency. And, as silly as condensing a living human being into a single adjective obviously is, I’ll play along for a moment. If Diana is to be commemorated with a word, what is it? Based on Larrain’s fault, I propose Diana the Defiant. Diana who would not be hemmed in by a pearl necklace or by a miserable marriage. Diana who, when the time came for them to compose her portrait, would not sit still. In her honor, Pablo Larrain has created one characteristically uninhibited work of art to hang in History’s stuffy sitting room. A spirited feminist whoop, from its ghostly freakouts to its flippantly discordant pop song ending. In a hall of solemn biopic busts, it’s a treat to have one with color in its cheeks and a self-winking sneer in its lip.

Top 20 Films of 2021: #17- The Tragedy of Macbeth

Everyone take a bite of your nearest mutton leg (or vegetarian alternative), hoist a pewter mug full of mead, and roar out a mighty toast to the Year of Our Lord 2021, one of the greatest on record for Medieval Cinema! I’ve never been automatically in the tankard for tales of ye olden days, heavy with sword fights and knights and kings. If I’m being honest with myself, most of the Robin Hoods not featuring photogenic foxes or Mel Brooks songs have been non-starters for me and, like many, I had consumed my fill of Game of Thrones years before it ended. But when a good Middle Ages-adjacent tale works it works, and 2021 gave us a few special films to stir up the raucous warrior blood in the Medieval film genre. Ridley Scott gave us a wickedly modern skewering of fragile masculinity in The Last Duel and David Lowery may have made the best Arthurian movie of all time with The Green Knight. And, surprising nobody who has seen the delicious texture and tone he has brought to period pieces like True GritInside Llewyn Davis, Barton FinkO Brother Where Art Thou, The Man Who Wasn’t There, and Miller’s Crossing, Joel Coen gave us another grippingly nuanced and inventive look into bygone times with The Tragedy of Macbeth. He has given us a reading of Shakespeare’s violently engaging masterwork that howls and moans with all the maniacally ominous glee of a crackling ghost story. A bloody and foreboding yarn so cynical and bleak that you almost feel elated by its sinister, primeval majesty. Both The Green Knight and Coen’s Macbeth aim to make us feel unsettled from the first seconds and in similar ways; a raspy feminine voice croaks archaic poetry at us from offscreen in a way that both repels us and invites us to lean forward to enjoy the old school pleasure of a dark, dangerous story. Both got right under my skin and made me light up like a little kid huddling by a campfire. Apparently Old World sagas recounted with heaping helpings of uncanny dread is a pleasure center I had forgotten I had, and one I hope to have engaged more in the near future. As I have noted before, 2021 gave a renewed good name to the period piece by taking journeys into history that were both aesthetically engaging and also worked with feverish imagination to connect those stories, costumed in period garb, to the present day. And very few films did a better job tying a centuries-old tale to the here and now than Joe Coen’s masterful voyage into Shakespearean calamity.

 

With some minor abridgements, The Tragedy of Macbeth is largely the same deliciously fatalistic “Scottish play” many of us probably first came across in high school. MacBeth (a terrific Denzel Washington, as weary and as ill-tempered as an old grizzly bear) is a great warrior and loyal subject of King Duncan. At the story’s beginning, he is fighting off the last of his leader’s enemies in a great war. For his valor, he is to be named the Thane (a land-holding nobleman) of Cawdor. On his way to receive his promotion, however, he and his war buddy Banquo come across three old “weird sisters (Coen’s rendition proposes the could also just be 3 parts of one troubled old woman’s Gollum-like personality). The witchy trio present Macbeth with the first of several prophecies: he shall hereafter become King of Scotland. This oracle gets into Macbeth’s head so thoroughly that the wine of his new title later that evening (King Duncan proclaims that his son Malcolm will be Scotland’s next ruler) turns to vinegar in his mouth. Instead of serving as the nice gold watch for decades of loyal service to the Crown, Macbeth now regards it as a crushing rejection.. Macbeth treks home to Castle Dunsinane and Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand, having a lot of fun with her characteristically brusque take on the role) with blood-thirsty and bitter thoughts already stewing in his mind. King Duncan will soon be visiting them in their castle and their disappointment and desperation plants a vicious seed in their minds: kill King Duncan and claim the throne for themselves. And once that treacherous deed is done, the remaining bulk of the story is all the stuff of legendary falling action. Blood stains that won’t wash out. Frame jobs and feuding. A cauldron bubbling with more noxious prophecy to poison our protagonists last vestiges of reason. A forest marching to in unison against a fortress. It’s a bitter and senseless tale that, unlike Macbeth’s late assessment of his own sorry plight, signifies quite a lot. Few stories written have such a distressingly resigned stance on man’s cannibalistic urges toward his own species and the ways that power leads human beings to drunkenly lurch in the direction of their own undoing. Macbeth was not the first bloody game of thrones written, but it has a claim to being among the finest to ever muse on man’s cruel efforts to climb to the top of the heap, even when that heap turns out to be a pile of corpses.

 

The film is shot in black and white but, Bruno Delbonnel’s gob-smackingly godly, German Expressionism-evoking cinematography makes it all looks like pure gold. To watch The Tragedy of Macbeth is to see Joel Coen plugging his own distinct sensibilities and thematic obsessions into this classic story. I found myself delighted and only a little bit surprised to discover that the Coen touch is an absolutely perfect fit for Shakespeare’s cynical saga of power. In the Coen Brothers’ first film and masterpiece, Blood Simple, one character warns another that it is no simple thing to kill a person. He is speaking in that instance of making sure the job is done, lest your poor victim survive to turn the crosshairs back onto you. But the thorniness of causing another’s death only begins there. A Host of stories from Macbeth to Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart to myriad other Coen films remind and caution us (we vicarious armchair murderers) that sometimes, even when the job is done, it’s not really done. Our trail of guilt and incrimination does not go cold just because the body does. What is Lady Macbeth’s eternal “out, damned spot!” soliloquy if not the most famous example of a character learning too late the pesky complications of taking a human life. For most, the cost of killing is so psychically consuming that self-justification becomes a Sisyphean task; one that takes up the rest of our pitiful hours.. Lady Macbeth is understandably remembered as a coldly calculating schemer, but Coen’s direction and Frances McDormand able performance help us to remember the even more tragic shred of a person she becomes in the wake of her vile act. She has thrown herself, a frail and shivering child, into a violent brawl with her own hulking conscience and it only takes a matter of hours for the beast to leave her broken and lifeless inside the fortified walls of her own castle. And, while his wife is rapidly losing a duel with her own sense of self, King Macbeth is locked in an outward battle to protect himself from the immediate consequences of murder. What that means is he must commit even more murder, in a futile race to justify himself and insulate himself from the bloody evidence pointing toward his cursed house. By the time the Weird Sisters reenter the scene to fill his head with more suffocating swamp gas, it is already far too late for his attempt at self-cleasning to succeed. The seeds of his vice are already blowing out across the fields of Scotland. Even the bloody trees know what he’s done. And they’re coming to see him about it.

The hardest thing about a good Macbeth to my mind is that both Macbeths are, on their face, despicable. The first time I witnessed Shakespeare’s Scottish play read out loud by my Junior year Honors English class, I felt something was missing. No offense to us. I remember enjoying the morbid spectacle of it all, the twisty and sinister journey of mayhem and bloodshed. But it was also a nasty piece of work and it felt pretty easy to keep a distance from the sorrow of the play because the Macbeths were such plainly greedy, unredeemable sociopaths. One can picture a particularly basic 1500s attendee of the Globe Theater walking out and saying, “Gee, I thought the writing was good but Macbeth is such an unlikable person. Why should I care what happens to him?” Well, Joel Coen is an awe-inspiring wizard at getting us to care about some of the most distasteful, unpleasant characters in all of fiction. Fargo‘s Jerry Lundegaard is an absolute monster by the end, but it feels cruel to call him unlikable per se. He is broken, sad, impotent, and dumb. But our hearts also ache for him. What makes a plan-gone-wrong story so compelling in Joel Coen’s hands is how he manages to bring us into the stunted hearts and minds of some very amoral and short-sighted people; at regarding them with a critically honest kind of compassion. On that note, I will never have much patience for the school of thought that the Coens cruelly torture their characters. On the contrary, I think they torture them with the utmost empathy and insight. We are always given the chance to relate to these people up to a point. I will here echo the critics applauding Coen’s shrewd decision to make the Macbeths an older childless couple. We would never condone what the Macbeths do. Macbeth murders a dear, old friend for the sake of a title. But we are meant to feel their sense of panic and to see their jagged little wheels spinning. We see they, like a Jerry Lundegaard or a Llewyn Davis are nearing the back half of their lives with little to show for it. Like Llewyn Davis’s box of unsold records that he must now carry with him, whatever grand dreams the Macbeths have harbored for the future have turned to burdens over the dissatisfied years. I may not know much about what an aging Scottish general feels when he is passed over for the promotion that was supposed to give his life meaning, but I can see Macabeth’s face fall when Duncan passes the monarchy instead to his son. And I can see the pain in Lady Macbeths drawn face; maybe even the painful memory of a failed attempt at bearing children. And these people are monsters, make no mistake about it. But a Coen monster is a very human monster. To put a finer point on it, it often seems to be an overabundance of the human that brings the monster out in them. And in letting the Macbeths’ low-rent disappointment sink in before the dagger plungers into Duncan’s chest, Coen ears the right to truly call his Macbeth a tragedy.

Of course, some time between the murder of King Duncan’s bodyguards and the moment one of Macbeth’s own soldiers is throwing a rival’s child from the second story of a burning house, we stop feeling pity for the Macbeths. Dismay and revulsion take over, for King Macbeth is a revolting human being. By the time he reaches the end of his bloody, savage road and the oak leaves of Birnham Wood are blowing through Dunsinane’s cavernous halls, he has gone from a pathetic, manipulated monster to a vain and entitled one. Emboldened in the belief that he cannot be taken down, he has galloped well past the likes of a haphazard bringer of death and sadness like Jerry Lundegaard and is now discussing murder tactics with the likes of an Anton Chirgurh. And when I made note of that gruesome metamorphosis on my first viewing, that was the moment I concluded that Joel Coen had made another work of genius. (Just as an aside, if The Tragedy of Macbeth is to be labeled a minor Coen film, then the time is past due to find newer and more descriptive ways of discussing those films that happen to only rank in the back half of a near-perfect ouevre.) Coen had picked up a centuries-old play and seen two separate Coen archetypes in one man: the sad sack schemer down on his luck and the hellbent avatar of carnage. Jerry and Anton, there in the heart of one classic villain. He had found in Shakespeare’s blood-soaked saga a very Coenesque story of how men are emasculated by a desire for money and respect, how they cry out to be heard and recognized as serious men, how they overestimate their faculties and conspire to rise above their stations, and how all that impotent upward striving can so often turn us into bad men. Into doomed, damned and dead men.

And being damned and forsaken by God (or the howling void that marks the absence of God, whatever the case may be) might just be the most Coenesque element that Shakespeare’s play has to offer. I thought back on the Coens’ A Serious Man protagonist and Gob stand-in, Larry Gopnik, trying mightily and sincerely to find God’s presence out in the world, fearing that there may not be a Creator to witness his ordeals or hear his pleas, and eventually learning there could be worse things out there than an indifferent and godless Universe. By the time poor, put-upon Larry is staring down a cancer diagnosis and his only son is staring up into the funnel of a tornado, Coen has posed the hypothesis that we should maybe treat the search for God with the same guarded caution as the search for extraterrestrial life. That is to say, if we assume a higher power exists, can humans actually assume that said power cares about human life or even feels positively predisposed to humankind? Must God necessarily be like the cute, grey, almond eyed aliens of Close Encounters of the Third Kind or could he not just as easily be like the xenomorphs of Aliens? In Macbeth, the would-be King starts the play thinking he’s found a miracle; that the spiritual world has pierced the veil between Heaven and Earth to bestow a glorious, regal destiny upon him. He believes he is hearing a voice, though Shakespeare, ever ambiguous and open to interpretation, never settles whether that voice comes from God, a senile or malevolent old woman, the Devil, or the demons in Macbeth’s fragile head. The only thing of certainty is what happens to the Macbeths, whether you believe the cosmos leads them astray or, like so many greedy and frail dream-chasers before them, they just doom themselves. In a Joel Coen drama, the quest for gold and power tends to end poorly no matter what logic is guiding or justifying the quest. And both Divine Arithmetic and human calculation have an uncanny way of adding up to similarly dismaying sums.

Top 20 Films of 2021: #18- A Hero

The ascendance of Persian writer-director Asghar Farhadi over the last ten years, from hot upstart to reliable Oscar contender (he has two gold men for Foreign Language Film already) has been so steady that it almost feels like we cinephiles may already take him for granted. By the time he was accepting his second Academy Award for The Salesman in 2016, you could detect a whiff of the inevitable and the unhip to it; the sense that the Oscars were now just fully in the tank for Farhadi. As if he were Ron Howard, as opposed to one of cinema’s most exciting and consistently thoughtful chroniclers of human nature. We have the luxury of living in a world where an Asghar Farhadi film is a presumable Oscar heatseeker and, predictability aside, we’re all much the better for it. And, if there is a reason why a director with the prickly, nuanced humanism of a Persian Kenneth Lonergan has been so readily embraced even by the rarely prickly Oscars, it’s that there is something kind of undeniable about his films. You can feel it when you watch one. There is just something intuitively powerful and right about how candidly and potently he captures living, breathing human beings. Anecdotally, I remember speaking to a handful of friends in 2011, not long after A Separation had come out, and being quietly floored to find that they had sought out the film. None of them were what I’d call ravenous arthouse fans and I was rather surprised that an intricately plotted, densely verbal Iranian divorce drama had found its way to them. Not only had they seen it, they were ecstatic and effusive about it. And when I went to rewatch it, it made sense why they would be. Yes, the film was difficult in its subject matter and the simmering intensity of the characters’ plights, but the stuff of classic, old-school drama was right there on the screen. When you watch an Asghar Farhadi film unfold (and few directors working today are better at painstakingly unfolding a story), you get that know-it-when-you-see-it tingle. They required a modicum of patience, but they reward that patience with stories of human miscommunication and striving and faltering and trying to do better that just connect. They tap into something universal and relatable. I think what is spell-binding is how Asghar Farhadi can take stories happening in the very specific cultural and political environment of modern Iran, posit very pointed insights about Persian society, and also transcend that cultural setting to find themes that are powerful and timeless.

Before A Hero‘s poignant and eloquent themes have been unpacked, however, Asghar Farhadi is already doing what he may do better than anyone working: building himself a beautiful plot. The triumph of the film is in how it weaves together an intricate pattern of human actions and consequences that organically feed off one another in ways that feel honest and believable. This plot concerns Rahim (phenomenally played by Amir Jadidi), a recently divorced single father in the city of Shiraz. Rahim has just been released from debtor’s prison for a weekend furlough. While out, he has grand plans to make good with the man who had him jailed, a creditor who he owes 75,000 rial. His idea is to sell some gold coins that his girlfriend discovered at a bus stop to pay off all of his debt. However, a calculation issue at the local pawn shop leads Rahim to realize that he will not be able to pay his bitter debtholder back entirely. Instead, he decides to take the road of piety and leaves the coins with the police in hopes that they can be returned to the person who misplaced them. Instead of leaving his cell phone as a contact number, he leaves the number of his prison. As a result, when the coins are recovered (by a grateful woman who had hoped to use them to gain some financial independence from her domineering husband), news of Rahim’s good deed ends up reaching the prison. The warden and staff are all quite inspired by Rahim’s virtuous act, particularly because Rahim could have used the coins to help repay part of his debt. The prison, which has its own public relations reasons for wanting to publicize Rahim’s kindness, calls a news affiliate to report on the story and Rahim suddenly finds himself out of jail and embraced as a national celebrity. A charity is collecting to help pay the rest of his debt, a cushy government job offer is in the works, his concerned sister and brother-in-law have regained respect for him, and he seems to be in the good graces of just about every man, woman and child in Iran. One notable exception is Bahram (an excellent Mohsen Tanabandeh), the man he owes the money to and also brother to Rahim’s ex-wife. This stern man is openly suspicious that Rahim is not acting openly. It’s partly the byproduct of their soured business relationship (the opportunity went under, though Rahim insists he was not at fault) and Bahram’s feelings of vicarious resentment on behalf of his sister. But we sense that, his temper and bias against Rahim aside, Bahram is not entirely wrong in his skepticism. Farhadi films are patient and unfailingly observant; they do not tune any information out, regardless of which character is presenting  it. A formulaically plotted version of this story might posit Bahram as nothing more than an antagonistic obstacle to Rahim’s freedom, but A Hero chafes against the unfairness of that notion.  After all, Bahram may look like the ill-tempered creditor, but wasn’t he originally just a generous man who took on debt to help his former brother-in-law and then suffered for it when everything fell apart? Farhadi films remind us that the dramatic notion of a single protagonist is something of a deception because everyone is the protagonist of their own story. If you’ve seen one of Farhadi’s marvelous films, you know that any clear-cut idea of heroes and villains has no place in them. Any bold lines between characters we are meant to sympathize with and ones we are meant to resent are bound to get blurred in short order.

 

And, while Farhadi is gradually allowing flecks of mud to spatter onto Rahim’s saintly Samaritan story, he is also adding nuanced plot complications. While Rahim has most of the money he needs to settle his debt, he will still need the job the charity is setting him up with to make the last of the payments. But when the hiring manager asks to cross-check Rahim’s story with the woman he allegedly returned the gold to, the narrative starts to fray. Because Rahim wasn’t the one to meet the woman (his sister met her along with Rahim’s developmentally disabled son), and the woman left no telephone number, which of course could look suspicious. Maybe she did that for her own secrecy (we know that she feared her husband finding out about the coins) or maybe Rahim put together an act of kindness to repair his own sullied reputation. And now maybe Rahim’s decision to have the woman call the prison looks a little more like a calculated act of grandstanding for his own gain. And while this detailed array of moving parts is coming together, at first to our protagonist’s benefit and then just as quickly against him, Farhadi’s characters are making mistakes. As people do. Mistrusting each other and accusing each other and getting in their own way. The wonder of an elaborate Farhadi plot is that there is never a feeling of contrivance. It’s all the seemingly natural result of fallible human behavior; sometimes well-intentioned, sometimes borne of petty emotions, but always recognizably human. It is a talent I stand utterly in awe of. The ability to turn the wheel of plot effortlessly so that one decision seamlessly brings us to the next, and yet to be in control of that seemingly invisible process. To make it seem like your film is off-roading away from any kind of pre-scripted path and then to arrive somewhere so powerful and revealing that you can’t help wondering if the writer really did end up right where they intended to go after all.

It’s not just A Hero‘s eventual resolution, both sweetly tender and heartbreakingly tough, that resonates. As the sleek engine of its script design purrs along through each bracing twist and turn, Farhadi finds windows into humanity and psychology and morality the whole way. Among other things, A Hero is one of the greatest films I’ve seen about overnight celebrity and the social media age. Think of how leadenly and obviously a great many films have tried to shoehorn Facebook and Twitter into their plots over the years (look at Don’t Look Up‘s inscrutable, cursed boomer mishmash of Internet montages for the latest example) and then marvel not only at how organically the phenomena of tweets and viral videos shape A Hero‘s plot, but also how much of the viral age is at the core of what Farhadi’s film is grasping toward. Namely, Farhadi wants to examine the way we rush to adjust our perceptions of a person’s character in response to a constant, often contradictory torrent of information. Even the film’s simple title, A Hero, feels like a sardonic smirk at the fallacy of trying to categorize things too neatly. It’s a dunk on the fallacy that complex human beings can be cleanly grouped under simple archetypes. As uncharitable as he seems, Bahran is right about one thing: Rahim’s overnight development into a national good guy inevitably paints Bahran as the miserly asshole. And neither label comes close to telling the real story of who they are. The film sees in social media not just new ways of processing facts and stories but the prevalence of some ancient human habits, like vanity and the need to sculpt a public-facing image for ourselves. To design a version of ourselves that others can accept and that we can life with. Rahim, the prison, and even the charity are all forced to grapple with the omnipresence of social media and all of their decisions and conundrums are the product of living in an age where our decisions reverberate far beyond their immediate effects. Every self-benefiting choice that a character wants to present as completely noble has its layers of self-interest stripped bare and revealed. And even those choices that may have been done without selfish reasoning have their purity called into question. It is the inherent result of living in a world so public that scrutiny is widespread and so interconnected that our actions cannot help but collide and commingle with the actions of others. And the collision of human behavior may be the most Farhadian theme there is.

That sense of the epic tangle of humanity is what allows Asghar Farhadi to sculpt this explicitly 21st century parable into something that could also feel at home in the plays of Chekov or on some ancient Greek stage. There is a curious scene in the opening minutes of A Hero, just after Rahim has been temporarily released. He goes to visit his brother-in-law at work to propose the idea of paying off his debt. His brother-in-law happens to do archaeological preservation at an ancient tomb, the massive and awe-inspiring Naqsh-e Rostam. His current place of work happens to be some hundred feet above the ground and Rahim must makes his way up a wooden scaffold erected against the wall of this lofty historical wonder. This ancient site doesn’t affect the rest of the film in any way. Rahim’s brother-in-law could just as easily have worked in an office park or a laboratory or a school. But Asghar Farhadi chooses to set this scene here, to include this ancient glimpse of a civilization long past. This has the effect of making us think of all the people who were here before. People who occupied this same city, same ground and same space for centuries and centuries before the characters of A Hero were even born. And it made me reflect on how some of those ancient humans might well have had stories fundamentally similar to Rahim’s. People in jail. Someone who can’t catch up with her debts. A man trying to patch together his broken reputation. A Samaritan. A saint. A con man. Walking the streets of Shiraz separate from each other or all inside the heart of a single citizen. That briefly glimpsed, seemingly extraneous tomb may be Asghar Farhadi calling his shot. He’s telling us that he is striving to make something that is timeless, its deep themes so rooted in the human condition as to be transplantable to any age in human history. Maybe I’m being hyperbolic by saying you could reimagine a Farhadi drama at any point in human history, the same way people do with Shakespearean plays. But also, maybe the comparison is not an undeserving one. Both can be simultaneously true. Asghar Farhadi would certainly approve of that notion.

After all its moral complexities have been meditated on and chewed over, what lies at the heart of A Hero is a story about the difficulty of trying to do the right thing. One of the oldest metaphors for a life lived virtuously is the straight and narrow path, but Farhadi’s films critique that image. In Farhadi’s rich, multi-faceted moral universes, the right thing seems much less straightforward.  In A Hero‘s first act, Rahim thinks he has found an easy way to free himself from jail; a way to start a new life with his loving girlfriend and to reunited with his son. What his ordeal teaches him, in ways both harsh and true, is that the truly virtuous path takes a lot of discipline and self-sacrifice. It will likely mean that Rahim cannot have the freedom he thought he was so close to gaining just yet. To many eyes, the ending of A Hero might feel merciless, but I also found a small sliver of hope to it. Rahim does end the film in a better place, even if it is not as ideal a position as the one he thought he could maneuver his way into. But he does have people who love him and he finds a new sense of ownership over his own past mistakes and the ways that he can do better in the future. And there is a kind of freedom in that realization that we can only hope will sustain him until he finds the more overt, physical freedom that he wants. The pathway to redemption he thought he had found may have been a mirage. But that does not mean that the real pathway to a better life does not exist.

Top 20 Films of 2021: #19- Passing

It’s almost hard to believe that we’re still just a humble seven years into the ascendance of Tessa Thompson. I remember going out on a date with my now-wife in 2014. The screening was at Oakland’s New Parkway Theater, and the film was director Justin Simien’s incisively funny debut satire Dear White People. I thought it was very good and my wife just about loved it. The Sundance splash was maybe too shaggy and small-scale to make a dent with many awards bodies, outside of some scattered and deserving Breakthrough and First Feature wins. But, even knowing that it would not come near Oscar, we felt buzzy about it walking out onto the street. What lingered with me was the sheer promise I had seen on screen that night. Justin Simien’s potential as a writer and director, for one. But even more instantly, lightning-in-a-bottle undeniable was the performance by Tessa Thompson. Beyond the dynamite performance, I felt like I had just come face to face with a real presence; a charismatic force. Thompson had been around for five years prior, unbeknownst to me, appearing in some well-regarded indie films and a Tyler Perry movie. But Dear White People was the moment her star arrived fully formed, and the seven-and-change years since then have been all about Tessa Thompson repeating her name ever louder for those in the back. Her impressive body of work already includes a role in acclaimed MLK drama Selma, HBO’s Westworld, and Alex Garland’s excellent science fiction horror tone poem Annihilation. She is subtle and spirited in all of those. Her early splashes with auteurs like Ava DuVernay and Ryan Coogler earned her a high placement within the Marvel Cinematic Universe (as Valkyrie), now a calling card for a great many respected screen actors. Above all that are three soulful, electrifyingly intelligent pieces of Oscar-caliber acting (never mind that the Academy tripped over its pigeon-toed clown feet to not honor any of them), the crown jewels in her tiara. The first two were tremendous supporting turns in Coogler’s Creed and in Boots Riley’s hilariously incendiary capitalism takedown Sorry To Bother You. Thompson is a great supporting player, but her magnificently complex lead work this year in Rebecca Hall’s debut film Passing should be a reminder that she is absolutely made to carry films, and great ones at that. The more succinct way to put it is that Tessa Thompson is a damned star. It takes a special kind of talent to give a performance this full of quiet grace notes while also giving it the potent, Hollywood-ready charge of a true A-lister to be.

But Passing is not all about Tessa Thompson. Let’s salute another of its brilliant female talents for a minute. Among its numerous qualities, 2021 will be remembered for some special debuts by actors turned directors. Joss Whedon’s career is effectively dead now, but one of his talented regular actors, Fran Kranz, stepped behind the camera to direct some terrific performances in the slightly heavy-handed Mass. And two extremely talented female actors, Maggie Gyllenhall and Rebecca Hall, surpassed all expectations with The Lost Daughter and Passing, respectively. Passing, based on Nella Larsen’s novel of the same name is the story of Irene Redfield, a comfortably affluent black woman living in New York City in the 1920s. On a sweltering day in the city, Irene walks into a fancy tearoom to escape the heat. The relatively light-skinned Irene hides most of her head beneath a lacey white hat. We can sense that she is moving furtively, discreetly through these spaces full of wealthy whites, not with any kind of shame but with full consciousness of the early 20th America she occupies. She does not draw attention to herself. Suddenly, she is not the only person of color sharing this tearoom. Another pale-skinned black woman, this one with blonde hair, is looking at her from the next table. She asks if they know each other. When Irene stammers and balks at the question, the woman laughs heartily and says, “Of course I know you, Reeny.” She reveals that she is Clare Gardner, a friend from childhood. They begin to catch up about life;  about their marriages. Irene is married to a black doctor in Harlem (very well-played by Moonlight‘s Andre Holland) and Clare is married to a white Chicago banker (Alexander Skarsgard, oily and ever so slightly menacing in just his handful of moments onscreen). Then Irene asks a very pointed question: “Does he know?” Clare shakes her head almost apologetically. Her life of relative privilege and happiness has meant hiding her existence as a black woman from her openly racist husband and passing as white. This makes Irene visibly uncomfortable, but she endures a much ruder shock when Clare’s husband walks into the room. He reveals that his pet name for Clare is Nig. Then he informs Irene, who he does not recognize as black, that Clare shares his uninformed hatred for black people. Irene returns shaken to her comfortable Harlem life, raising children and coordinating glitzy galas and charity events for the New York City Negro League. She tries to ignore the impassioned apology letters that arrive from Clare over the following weeks (though she snaps to Clare’s defense when her husband refers to Clare as crazy). But one day, Clare shows up in the flesh in Irene’s doorway. Little by little, they become part of each other’s lives again, though the uncomfortable nature of how Clare is living her life never really goes away for Irene. Irene is proudly and openly black and yet she has her own  ways of hiding her blackness or at least limiting it to certain forums. She is hesitant to discuss the more openly disgusting realities of American racism in front of her children, which rankles her husband. Passing is a gorgeous character study of two black women with very different approaches to moving through the insidious spaces of 1920s America, and how they both embrace one another and come into conflict. And it is a glimpse of an often idealized time in the nation’s history, seen through a lens of blackness that is all too rarely applied to it in popular American fiction.

One of the most refreshing qualities Passing has is that, in marrying pristine period trappings with a rich and nuanced story, it gives me the very happy opportunity to really wrap my arms around a period piece. It’s a chance that doesn’t come around as often as I’d like. Sometimes I’ll hear the more basic, prestige bait-taking movie-goer in my head (he had his heyday in the early 2000s and boy did he ever go in for Finding Neverland) accuse me of hateful bias toward all things period-based. Of looking at any lushly recreated period drama that comes along and dismissing it out of hand on the basis of historical handsomeness alone. Films like Inside Llewyn Davis, Terrence Davies’ Sunset SongThe Favourite, and If Beale Street Could Talk (among many others) give me the chance to set the record straight on my alleged period piece aversion. They give me proof that I am not automatically bound to be unmoved by historical recreations; to treat every period piece with the same indifference I feel for middlebrow prestige entries like The King’s Speech and The ReaderPassing was one of the year’s most bracing reminders that being transported to another time and place can be a transcendent experience if the director has a reason to take us there beyond temporal tourism. While Passing‘s subject matter is sober to its core, Rebecca Hall finds a jolt of energy in delving into this 1920s New York setting. This was the time and the place of the great Harlem Renaissance, a black artistic and cultural movement of more than a decade, which gave birth to brilliant works of literature (from such legends as Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston), intellectual dialogues that would shape the coming Civil Rights Movement, and revolutions in music that still reverberate in just about every modern genre you can name. Rebecca Hall is a fine enough director to be able to distill something of the Harlem Renaissance’s passion, creative buzz, and intelligence into the filmmaking. Some of that comes through her crisp and thoughtful black-and-white cinematography (which puts that of a certain period Oscar contender to shame). Some of it comes through the strains of the great Devonte Hynes’ (known in modern musical circles as the R&B visionary, Blood Orange) wistfully breezy score. And a great deal of it comes from how she confidently fills these meticulously curated spaces with Nella Larsen’s sharp, poignant dialogue. The care put into the period detail shines because urgent, impassioned life is radiating through those spaces. The period aesthetic is important to the story, but never more important than the story itself.

The story itself is an unfortunately timely rumination on American attitudes toward race and success. It speaks to us from the 1920s about themes of racism and classism that are probably as old as American itself. It is of course a stinging indictment of our nation’s inherent racism, probably first and foremost, though a phrase like “first and foremost” feels cut and dried for a film as jazzily alive as Passing. Its greatness lies in how animated it is by literate discourse and sublime characterization. It is a considerably more conflicted story than what I was expecting. In a way that was not clear to me when I first read its raves out of Sundance, Passing takes what seems like a straight-forwardly bad decision (Clare’s choice to pass herself off as white) and complicates it. It is not that the film lets Clare off the hook for her decision per se. Nor would it be entirely accurate to say that no judgment is passed on Clare, for Irene is very openly judgmental and critical of her friend’s actions from the film’s earliest minutes. I guess it just has the kind of empathetic patience to only judge up to a point. And it never vilifies Clare, even as she increasingly becomes a source of frustration and mental turmoil for Irene. It is a credit to Nella Larsen’s lovely and subtly ornate dialogue (Clare sometimes has the saucy and playful pithiness of some classic Southern Belle character). And it is thanks, in no small part, to Ruth Negga giving what may be the performance of the year. It is not just that she imbues the character with a dynamic mixture of affection, brazenness, uncertainty, coquettish sass, intelligence, melancholy, and a host of other emotional nuances. It is also the paradoxical way she plays Clare as both an open book and as a secret that can never be fully uncovered. In the end, I think that is how Passing can take an action that understandably makes the bile rise in Irene’s throat, never entirely forgive its problematic nature, and yet allow Clare to remain understandable and heartbreakingly sympathetic. She is allowed to retain an air of mystery and we come to know and love her enough to feel that she should not be punished for what she is doing. That whatever Clare Gardner is going through, and has gone through up to this point, has given her enough pain and fear to deal with as to render easy proclamations of wrongness a little useless. For pity’s sake, with all that Clare manages to keep hidden about herself, there is never any question that she is torn up by what she must do to survive.

It’s also clear that no person would ever do what Clare is doing unless they absolutely felt they had to. It should be obvious before one even starts Passing that the antagonist of the film is not Clare Gardner, but her entire unthinkable set of circumstances. It becomes clear in the moments where Clare can let her disguise slip that she wishes she had Reeny’s confidence to be openly black. That she wishes her life’s path had been something closer to that of her friend and she could live fully as herself. When Clare first invites Reeny up to her hotel suite, she orders drinks from room service and you can hear some of the affected genteelness of her put-on white voice drop away bit by bit. She becomes louder, more playfully assertive, until the white mask seems to disappear completely for a moment. It is a moment of liberation and also of quiet sadness for Clare. But we felt a similar kind of sadness for Reeny too, during those opening moments of the film when she was floating quietly through predominantly white New York City with not another black face in sight, her head buried in that white hat like a deepsea diver’s helmet. What stands out in Passing is how lonely it is for both these women to live in this chapter of American history, and what a blessed relief it is for them to find each other in that vast white ocean. It is why, even though Reeny’s anger at Clare feels justified, you still want them to rekindle their friendship and hold onto each other. Passing is suffused with a feeling of frail human connection that does not erase the critical questions of whitewashing at its heart. What it does is free those questions from icy abstraction. the film’s images of black women navigating a hostile world recall the bruised humanity of Todd Hayne’s lesbian period masterpiece Carol. The society these women occupy is one where they must, on some level, exist undercover. Part of what complicates Reeny’s reckoning with her friend’s decision to pass is that she has also engaged in a form of passing. She has also had to find ways to mollify the racism and white prejudice around her. By aspiring to a more moneyed lifestyle. By courting white luminaries to her cause. And by shying away from frank discussions of racial barbarism, even in her own home. Passing is about the very different sorts of compromise two marginalized women choose to make in order to feel some version of whole.

Passing is finally a gorgeous film but a tough-minded one, in a way that respects the fine line between heartbreak and cruelty. I do not believe it ever tips crassly into the latter. Rebecca Hall’s stunning debut film loves its characters and wants the world for them. But it also knows that America has never been a place were things tend to work out ideally for people like Reeny and Clare. Just like a number of great American novels, it is a story about where people come from and about upward striving. It is about those small, mean things that try to fix some of us in place. It is about a country that has never stopped being stratified in almost every way that a country can think to slice itself up and cut itself off. By race, by class, by gender, and by sexual orientation. And it is a film about running from our pasts and ourselves. It is a beautiful story about trying to break free of trauma and toxicity to find one another. And it is sadly also about how those toxic things reform and reassert themselves to split us apart once more. It is a film with much of the sweet, soothing character of Americana but none of the facile, surface gloss that word connotes. It is honest to its core. It lives in the space between mournful and hopeful, between tenaciously vibrant and ominous. It lives in the 1920s and in a perpetual present that has yet to relinquish its tidal hold on us. It lives in the ceaseless past. It lives in the United States.

Top 20 Films of 2021: #20- The Rescue

Some time after November 2020 and after the uneasy haze of paranoia and exhausted hope that was December, someone with a Twitter handle felt confident enough to say a few optimistic, forward-looking words. What they said was that, whatever the Biden Administration had in store over the next few years, they were tentatively eager to return to some semblance of competence. That matters would once more be conducted, however soullessly, greedily or bureaucratically, by people who believed in a rule of law and a certain time-tested way of doing things. It might end up being as enjoyable and inspiring as a visit to the DMV, but there was an immediate feeling of relief in even returning to that grinding, hidebound state of affairs. DMV’s may be soul-crushingly clinical, unsympathetic and slow, but they are at least rarely chaotic. One year and change later, there are arguments to be made about how functional and competent the new regime has been and also how much blame is to be apportioned between the slow bureaucrats and the remaining agents of craven chaos that still gleefully tie the bureaucracy’s shoelaces together. But I bring this all up because there is something resonant in the desire to be surrounded by people who are at least trying to get a job done. Who want to be functional at their roles, even if that function can seem limited and indifferent to the bigger picture. It struck me while watching The Rescue, 2021’s best documentary, what a comfort there is to be had in watching smart, capable people come together to do something helpful for the greater good. Chalk it up to four years of obstructionism and sabotage by our own leadership, but I felt a serenity in The Rescue, at the same time that my heart was palpitating with it. The year’s most claustrophobically tense cinematic offering took on the peaceful vibes of a YouTube ASMR video at certain points. What times we live in when a white knuckle disaster film can take on the warm glow of comfort food!

 

As they demonstrated with their Academy Award-winning masterpiece Free Solo, directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin have a knack for balancing unbearable tension and laidback empathy. Free Solo had me grinning and gripping my seat rest in roughly equal measure. The Rescue achieves a similar feat and throws in a heaping handful of tearful catharsis too. It’s a promising development in their relatively young careers (the husband and wife team had made one previous climbing documentary together, 2011’s Meru, before really breaking out with Free Solo a few years ago), showing a hunger not just for documenting great feats of adventuring but for infusing those tales of derring-do with humanity and swelling emotion. Many of you probably still recall the global news event that sets The Rescue into motion. In 2018, twelve adolescent boys from a Thai soccer team, as well as their assistant coach, went spelunking into one of the many gorgeously labyrinthine caves that snake under the limestone Doi Nang Non Mountains of Northern Thailand. The plan was simply to explore and throw a birthday picnic for one of the players while they were down there. However, a sudden outbreak of heavy rainfall flooded the caves and left the team trapped some two-and-a-half miles inside the snaking system of tunnels. A myriad of concerned citizens of the world, from the Thai Navy to a mass of international volunteers to religious leaders, all flocked to the caves to lend their efforts, but the barrage of rain from the beginning monsoon season and the beyond-challenging conditions inside the cave (One subject says just swimming beyond the entrance felt like navigating whitewater) meant that the prospects for the boys’ survival were grim. As fortune had it, one local was an older British man with a peculiar hobby: cave diving. His niche interest had put him in contact with Rick Stanton and John Volanthen, two of the biggest fish in this exceedingly small and dangerous pond. The story of how two British men ended up unofficially spearheading a miraculous rescue effort in the Thai Highlands and the cavalcade of obstacles they faced is a thing I dare not ruin with over-explanation. Suffice to say that The Rescue can stand alongside Apollo 13 in the annals of great and rousingly meticulous problem-solver cinema. Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s tremendously detailed true yarn has so many thrilling and fascinating twists, it makes a rescue film like The Martian seem sedate by comparison. I had truly forgotten the simple, weepy joys of watching intelligent people out-maneuver certain doom and, for reasons as topical as COVID and as universal as the joy of seeing human tenacity in action, it felt positively rejuvenating to watch it happen.

 

Of course, the “watch it happen” of it all is itself a minor miracle of filmmaking. For, as you may well have put together by now, Vasarhelyi and Chin did not just happen to be in northern Thailand when this thrilling saga went down. Nor would they have been inside the caves filming the rescue if they had been. The challenge of being in these caves at the time was so perilous that only a small handful of experts in an extremely niche subculture could even think to attempt it, and even they knew they were taking their lives into their hands. What we have then is a work of non-fiction built substantially out of dramatization, in order to recreate the astounding experience of bodies moving through those narrow spaces and brackish, unforgiving waters. If Free Solo felt at times cinematically modest outside of its thrilling El Capitan climax, The Rescue announces that Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin can move a few mountains of their own when they need to. It is incredible to see the scope of what they’ve recreated here, but even more jaw-dropping is that I rarely snapped out of my reverie (or back from the edge of my seat) long enough to even register that what I was seeing was being dramatized at all. That is partly an accomplishment of bravura technical filmmaking, but it is even more a credit to the fact that The Rescue’s spectacle and scope are secondary tools on its utility belt. Because what really makes this film soar is the richness of its Swiss timepiece plot and the empathetic way it gives its subjects character beats within that plot. The way it creates a delicious party mix of narrative surprise, humor, and human reflection is a reminder that, while Vasarhelyi and Chin may seem to be operating within their own niche area of thrill-seeking outdoorsmanship, it is folly to pigeon-hole them; to see the National Geographic production title at the beginning of the film and think we already have them pegged. Their work feels too emotionally transcendent to be filed under either sports or nature. They have my blessing to never make a single film without a harness or crampon, so long as they are all rendered with this much heart and vibrant empathy.

 

That ineffably soulful and positive seam that runs through The Rescue and Free Solo is important in the same way feeling the safety mechanism snug against your chest at the start of a rollercoaster ride is important. When you find yourself about to zoom away on a journey with this much breath-catching storytelling velocity and with stakes this high, it’s important to feel a little security. To know that you are in safe, responsible hands. Because our adventurous directing duo have clearly absorbed enough of the world’s thrills themselves (Jimmy Chin’s feats include scaling Mount Everest) to know how to transmit that adrenalized feeling to their audience. In the back of our minds, we know that The Rescue will end happily, just as surely as we know that Free Solo is not the sad tale of Alex Honnold falling to his death from El Capitan, but Vasarhelyi and Chin tighten a screw with such diabolical glee that it is easy to forget about happy outcomes for a couple unbearably fraught hours. They are deft at keeping us locked in the moment and they build this story with the patience of Lego enthusiasts. As hesitant as I am to spoil a single beat of this plot, perhaps we can open just one Christmas present early, in the name of showing just what a fantastically constructed adrenaline machine The Rescue is. The first time our two hellbent hobbyists enter the cave (I could write an entire essay on how Vasarhelyi and Chin stand in awe of death-courting obsessive while never entirely letting their psyches off the hook), they find people there in one of the first chambers. These are not the trapped boys, but four grown men; utility workers who were unable to escape when the flooding began. The men are thankfully alive, but the British divers have to extract them by carrying them underwater to the safety of the entrance. It’s a relatively short distance away, but the process is nearly disastrous. The men thrash against their saviors and reflexively bang their heads against the cave ceiling in a claustrophobic panic. One diver describes the process as akin to an underwater wrestling match. A detail like this adds so much to an already gripping and full-to-bursting story. For one thing, it adds a marvelously scary dash of color to a narrative that was never not tense to begin with. Beyond that, it organically complicates the already sticky matter of the rescue, for the divers now realize that any kind of simple extraction effort is doomed to fail. What barely worked with a few grown men for a few minutes can hardly be expected to work with a dozen scared boys over the course of some four hours. And then, beyond mere story mechanics, the anecdote with the utility workers invites our imaginations to recoil at the agonizing detail of it all. The distance, the darkness, the terrible animalistic fear that anyone would feel in that situation. Which is why only this small group of awkward Britons with strange, specifically wired brains can even conceive of going on this excruciating odyssey. Which then makes it feel all the more fiendishly inconceivable that Vasrhelyi and Chin are sending us with our squishy, non-thrill-seeker brains down there with them. Before we can arrive back in the sweet safety of The Rescue’s joyfully tearjerking finale, we must first endure one heart attack of a dark story ride. The only way back to Gepetto’s Workshop is through the belly of the whale.

But what a delight it is to arrive at the other end of it, born anew and baptized in some combination of cold sweat and salty tears. It’s a lovely feeling to have experienced all the slow-building tension and terror and to feel the release and to laugh at the harrowing ordeal we have allowed ourselves to experience vicariously. The Rescue takes a near disaster and makes it so entertaining that it almost feels indecent. But once you’ve see it, one cannot imagine trading it for something more staid, studied, and conventionally inspirational. And I would not trade Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin as filmmakers for anyone less given to heightened sensations. In a world full of talking head documentaries (and The Rescue has its own fair share of talking heads), I don’t know that I will ever begrudge a documentarian for seeking something more ecstatic than just bare facts. As I begin to salute the great artists of 2021, I am so pleased to count two journalists who can tell a story in strokes of passion, spectacle and emotion. As I noted with 2020’s masterful documentary, Honeyland, you know you have a brilliant documentary on your hands when you can picture it being every bit as rich and interesting if the story were pure fiction. Every documentary filmmaker has an obligation to present the facts honestly, but the truth need not be an obstacle to dynamic storytelling. The great ones take the facts and paint with them.

To put it another way, any story probably has more possible details and nuances – more truth inside of it -than a single film can encompass. The art of telling a great non-fiction story lies in carefully curating the facts and deciding which ones to give emphasis. The Rescue even acknowledges that, outside of its central story of these UK divers, there were many thousands of people who were no less vital to the survival of those boys. Before the divers could even begin their rescue, armies of volunteers had to methodically take strips of tarp and plug up cracks in the hillside to keep more water from falling into the caves. A mass of people came together to literally seal a mountain and it is but a single detail in The Rescue’ s intricate plot. Think what a story that would make! Then a wise religious elder came when all hope seemed lost and he led everyone in days of prayer to calm the monsoons and, would you believe it, it worked! What a gorgeous look at the age-old dialect between faith, reason, spiritualism, and science that would make! The Rescue honors a multitude of selfless human beings even as it sticks primarily to the action-packed business of an adventurous few. It recalls a film like Clint Eastwood’s underrated Sully in how it finds heroism not only in the death-defying but in simple acts of discipline and professionalism. Beyond mere competence, the film seems possessed of a more noble spirit. Call it generosity. Call it community. Call it anything but indifference. The film sees more love, compassion and ingenuity in this tale than it can possibly unpack in two hours. It leaves those other wonderful wrinkles for the next storyteller to more fully unfold. Just add water.

Top 20 Films of 2019: #8- The Farewell

I’m leery about using a term like “Asian cinema”, as if the film movements of countries as distinct as China, Japan, and the recently Best Picture-winning South Korea were all part of the same cultural mass; as if they weren’t as unique to one another as they are to the cinema of any European country. Still, because awards bodies still have a lot of work to do in recognizing the contributions of Asian actors and creators (I will never forgive the Academy for snubbing Steven Yeun’s titanic work in Burning) and because I want to encourage anyone reading to look beyond the Western world for great art, I’ll fudge it and say that Asian cinema has had a great decade and an absolutely scorching last few years. South Korea has given us the best film of the year two years in a row. Japan recently gave us Shoplifters, a towering masterpiece about economic stratification to stand alongside the one that just won Best Picture You could fill multiple acting categories entirely with performances from the last two years of Asian cinema. This is the second year in a row where three Asian filmmakers have gone deep into my personal top ten. Bong Joon Ho just spent the past decade making vital, delirious gems culminating in history’s first foreign language Best Picture winner for Parasite. Last year saw a young woman from Singapore and a Chinese-American skater kid from America’s decaying Rust Belt make two of the decade’s finest documentaries. And here in America, two of our most promising directing talents are a  pair of observant, endlessly empathetic Chinese-American women. One is Chloe Zhao, whose masterpiece The Rider soulfully cracked our 2018 top ten list, and who will soon make her Marvel debut directing the likes of Angelina Jolie and Kumail Nanjiani. The other is Lulu Wang, a New Yorker who has turned her own experience with a terminally ill loved one (the tale was originally featured as an episode of the superb, long-running human interest broadcast, This American Life) into one of 2019’s wisest, funniest, and most gently sublime pieces of art. In a year that gave us no shortage of richly emotional work, few films held me in rapt, misty-eyed awe like The Farewell.

Our true story begins with an old Chinese woman in the northeastern city of Changchun, seated in a doctor’s waiting room. She has just gone in to have x-rays taken and her sister is in another room receiving some very sad news from the physician. The woman, whose family calls her Nai Nai (a splendidly lovable and heart-rending Zhao Shuzhen) has Stage 4 lung cancer and only a handful of months to live. The sister walks out with a placid smile and tells her sibling everything is fine. She has a clean bill of health and the spots on her x-rays turned out to be nothing but “benign shadows”. While Nai Nai waits, she makes one of her regular calls to her 20-something granddaughter, Billi (rapper turned actor Awkwafina, graduating from her scintillating comedic work in 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians into a full-stop great dramatic player), an aspiring artist who immigrated to New York with her parents decades ago. A couple days after speaking to Nai Nai, Billi learns the hard truth from her parents. The conceit of The Farewell is that everyone in Nai Nai’s family knows she is dying save for Nai Nai herself. Billi’s parents (wonderfully played by Diana Lin and Tzi Ma) break the news to her. Everyone will be traveling to China under the false pretense of Billi’s younger cousin’s wedding, where they will have the chance to pay their last goodbyes to Nai Nai without Nai Nai herself knowing that’s what they are doing. The one person not meant to be there is Billi herself, for fear that her fraught emotions and her closeness with her grandmother will give the whole ruse away. Billi shows up anyway, unannounced, and the whole film becomes an emotionally charged reunion, not only with the ailing woman, but with a whole clan of siblings and cousins who had gone off on their own separate journeys years ago. Everyone is solidly committed to this well-intentioned lie except for Billi, essentially the most Westernized member of her clan, who has conflicted feelings about the ethics of hiding her own grandmother’s imminent mortality from her. What forms is a complex human eddy of people processing their preemptive grief and finding the courage they need to pull off this grand deception. In its strange and modest way, The Farewell becomes the most intimate, cathartic version of Ocean’s 11 you could ever imagine.

The Farewell is one of the most touching and insightful immigration narratives I have ever had the pleasure of viewing. It’s a tale of our globalized world, with characters reckoning with the value of home versus the opportunity that comes from leaving our birthplaces behind. It’s a sweet little paradox of a film, where the big communal lie at the center draws everyone back to their place of origin and forces them to confront deeper truths about what was lost and gained when they made their individual decisions to either stay in China or venture out to see what the rest of the sprawling world had to offer. In one of the film’s most visually arresting sequences (The Farewell is the kind of film you think of as predominantly writerly until you go back and count its cavalcade of lovely, inventive shots), the larger family discusses the opportunities and bitter trade-offs of sending your children abroad or encouraging them to revere their homeland. As they sit around a restaurant table and debate, a cornucopia of different foods cycles along the very bottom of the frame on a large, mechanized lazy susan. The Farewell doesn’t pick sides, but observes, with sweetness and clarity, the nature of life in our big interconnected world and what that does to our collective sense of place, family and identity. As much as Nai Nai’s fate is the emotional engine of the film, what devastates Billi in a more unexpected way is being back in her birthplace all these decades later, sifting through old memories of neighborhoods long bull-dozed, and realizing how much she has missed all these people, her people. At the risk of dating this review, realizing the value of our relationships is, in this time of self-quarantine, extremely relatable.

The Farewell is one of the most soulful and endearingly character-centric films to weigh in on the age-old dialectic between Eastern collectivism and Western individualism; the rights of the one and the larger obligations we owe to the social groups we belong to: a family, a country, a world. To quote the decade’s most transcendent sitcom, The Good Place, who are we and what do we owe each other? To Billi’s more Westernized eyes, what Nai Nai is owed is honesty and the chance to not only face her own death with clear eyes, but to say her goodbyes to people. She is owed a degree of respect for her personal autonomy, her right to handle her morality on her own terms. In a gorgeous scene, set in a darkened bar room bathed in the orange glow of neon streetlights (again, what a lovely and thoughtfully framed film!), Billi’s uncle posits the matter differently. The imminence of one’s own death is a terrible burden and, rather than forcing Nai Nai to endure that fearful prospect that she can do nothing to change, they can take up that load for her. “It’s our duty to carry this emotional burden for her”, he insists. What plays out is not some abstract examination of the individual’s rights versus our responsibilities to those around us, but a blissfully cathartic outpouring of human connection carried along by what might be 2019’s deepest bench of terrific actors. The fact that you’ve likely never heard of any of them outside of maybe Awkwafina (I certainly had not) is just one more reminder how much unrecognized artistic talent Asian cinema has had all this time, just waiting to be discovered by the larger world. When you get to The Farewell’s perfect and sly hero shot late in the film, you may feel like crying or cheering for this whole magnificent ensemble. For a group of people you’d never even known about just seventy minutes prior.

I could write until I’m blue in the wrist about mise-en-scene and editing and cinematography and the ocean of ideas that this blessed art form has still barely scratched the surface of. But I really love that, beyond all its rigor and insight, The Farewell is firmly a film for your heart, your soul, your funny bone and your tear ducts. It’s ideas about people as lone units and as parts of larger collectives are all undergirded by a profound love for human beings. Nai Nai and Billi are two of the most endearing, nuanced characters of recent years, and the caliber off screen acting that brings them to life is of the most rarified kind (surprise, surprise, both were ignored by the Academy). Beyond those two, the characterization of Billi’s parents, played with such pathos and rich humor, helps to form a vivid tapestry of what it means to be Chinese and to also search for an identity beyond China. Add an unfailingly dimensional cast of aunts and cousins, and you get a film that invests in effortless, empathetic humanism on the widest scale. I must once again stand up for the quietly breathtaking imagery of The Farewell, It’s easy to let its warmth, wit, and perfect acting distract you from how much thought has gone into its compositions. But, oh my, what sublime acting this film has! Lulu Wang works absolute marvels with her sharp, luminous and utterly dialed-in cast. When Billi’s uncle breaks down giving a toast to his unwitting mother, the camera pulls back to make him a tiny griefstricken figure alone on the stage, and it’s brought me to sniffly tears every single time. It’s hard to put it all into words without giving away the delicious human spontaneity of it all, but I’ll just say that you owe yourself the gift of The Farewell‘s generous, messy humanity. Billi realizes how much she’s missed all of her people and Lulu Wang goes full tilt to show shy it was so hard for her to leave all of this behind all those years ago.

And to bring it back to this belated celebration of brilliant Asian filmmakers (one that the mainstream is having full decades too late), what better way to tap into a heart-filling sprawl of Asian characters than with a magnificent ensemble. I love The Farewell because the depth of the ensemble really becomes a distillation of the film’s major themes. There’s the resolution to your collectivism versus individualism dialectic right there! Every one of these perfect characters (no less than ten of them just in the immediate family) is trying, with varying levels of difficulty, to commit to this problematicallly noble team effort. The tension of the film is about if they’ll be able to pull of this scheme together, and what the nuance of the cast shows us is that being part of a collective is not such a homogenous thing. As they each resolve to be part of this group scheme, so much lovely specificity comes shining through in each one of them. I think the ideas is that there are shades of grey in cultures we think of as strictly one way: individualist or collectivist, Eastern or Western. We see this idea rendered visually in one of my favorite scenes in the film, involving a visit to Billi’s grandfather’s graves. As Nai Nai delivers a prayer to her late husband’s headstone, she stops after each sentence to bow, and the other nine family members bow along with her. But each of them are just a little out of rhythm with each other, so it looks like some erratic wave of heads bowing out of and into the frame. It’s a funny and rather lovely sequence, tying into The Farewell‘s view of people banding together while also being fundamentally, fallibly themselves. Each one of us is our own fumbling person, but it’s nice to know that, if only in our shared fallibility, none of us are alone.

Top 20 Films of 2019: #9- The Souvenir

A full decade ago, I went excitedly to the theater to watch one of 2009’s Best Picture nominees, Lone Scherfig’s An Education. It was really a major cinematic event for me in a lot of ways. It was my first major encounter with international treasure Carey Mulligan, a terrific Alfred Molina performance, and a poignant script about being just old enough to choose your first fundamentally misguided romantic partner. It’s a very strong film, but I also left wishing it could have gotten over the hump into being a genuinely great one. Something in its composition felt a little workmanlike to me, in a way that undercut the emotional punch of the thing. I don’t say that to slight Scherfig’s fine character study, but to say that 2019 finally gave me the virtuosic, formally rigorous take on the material I wanted in the form of Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir. Here is another lyrical, aching British coming of age story (brilliantly played by an actress having what I can only hope is her big coming out), featuring an endearing and complex young woman coupling with a seriously troubled older boyfriend, falling in love against all better wisdom, and receiving a painful and invaluable introduction to adulthood in the process. As with An Education, we get to meet a brilliant emerging talent (Honor Byrne Swinton, acting a subtle symphony alongside her legendary mother, Tilda) and we get a fantastic portrait of an insidious but magnetic boyfriend. Both films are about young women having a first glimpse of real romance and eventually getting put through an emotional wringer. We simultaneously cringe for them and root for them. The Souvenir is an absolute feast of great acting and subtle characterization, which trades out An Education‘s cagey womanizer for a less immediately odious and more ingratiatingly unhealthy breed of toxic beau. It’s a story where we want only the best for our main character, and one where we soon realize she must weather a tremendous amount of pain to become the woman she was meant to be.

Like many a great coming of age story, The Souvenir‘s tale of becoming who you’re meant to be involves making mistakes and learning about the things that really aren’t us. The poorly tailored outfits we wear when we’re figuring out who we are. In the case of the film’s protagonist, Julie, a 25-year old film student in 1980s London, that means rummaging through outdated ideas about what kind of artist she should be and chucking some of them in the dustbin. Though Julie comes from the highly privileged Knightsbridge neighborhood, she wants to make her first film a story of poverty set in the economically depressed shipyard city of Sunderland. It’s a notion she can never quite explain, though her clearest motivation seems to be a need to escape the shadow of her own moneyed upbringing and find stories about the greater outside world. At the same time that she is studying film at a nearby academy, Julie strikes up a deep friendship with a slightly older man named Anthony (Tom Burke, astounding as a character we come to care about and loathe in equal measure), a State Department operative who sometimes boards in one of the rooms Julie rents out. Their coy friendship blossoms shyly and sweetly into a romance and the two are soon living together happily and meeting one another’s parents on the weekends. Nothing seems untoward until one night, while dining with another couple Anthony knows, someone lets slip that Tom is a habitual heroin user. Julie realizes that her first true love is an addict, and suddenly all the times Anthony asked to borrow money from her takes on new meaning The two characters share a very strong connection and kinship, but Julie begins to see more and more of the pathetic, self-justifying monster Anthony is when the addiction is beckoning to him or when when he is in its full debased thrall. The Souvenir is a moving and devastating remembrance of a doomed first love; a look back at an experience director Joanna Hogg had when she was just starting out as a filmmaker. It is also a story of how life informs art and how art helps us to process life, even if it is many years down the line.

The Souvenir is the story of a gifted young woman with a desire to say something truthful about the world around her. The problem is that she doesn’t really know the world around her in any way that goes beyond the academic. She has barely seen a thing outside of the nicer parts of London. Her decision to make her first feature film the story of an impoverished boy from the working class streets of Sunderland (in every way the inverse of what Julie is) represents and admirable if waylaid hunger to force a worldly education upon herself. Unfortunately, it also means she has not clue what her film should really be about other than its own foreignness to her. It also falls squarely in that very British social realist tradition made famous by homegrown directors like Ken Loach, Karel Resiz, and Tony Richardson, which makes it feel less like an artistic choice born of personal conviction and more of a nod to the tried and true. Anthony tells her she seems to be operating off of some stuffy notion of what a respectable British director should be like. The paradox of The Souvenir is that Julie lacks experience and then, in a monkey’s paw kind of way, she receives experience. At last, something enlightening and horribly formative happens to her. To call the absolutely excruciating ordeal Julie endures with Anthony’s addiction a life experience feels about as British in its understatement as calling that same soul-altering ordeal a souvenir. But as devastating as Julie’s (or Joanna Hogg’s) first romance was, it served a purpose in her artistic development, and that is something. It gave her something real to say about love and trust and the power of human attachments to both cripple and sustain us. And the end result is a film that repeatedly caught my breath with its tenderness and painful candor. Here is maybe the finest of 2019’s directorial autobiographies, a film that draws a tidal power from the fact that this is something its maker really lived through. It is a subtle little testament to the value of lived experience. It tears open an old wound to provide its own balm. And it posits art as a frosted glass through which the artist can gaze directly upon searing traumas.

It is also one of the most shattering looks at addiction and romantic dependency I have seen. The depiction of Julie’s dawning realization of who her beloved is has a painstaking quality to it. Before anyone tips her off that Anthony uses heroin, Julie gets a tiny clue on the first night they make love:  a small sore on his arm, almost certainly from a needle. He also asks to borrow 200 pounds early into their relationship. Neither of these instances seem to trigger any alarm bells for Julie. The mystery of Julie in the early days of her first real romantic infatuation is that we don’t know how much she really knows; how much of her decisions come from naivete and how much is self-delusion in order to protect what feels like the most vital and important force in her life. When Anthony fakes a robbery to pawn her possessions for drug money, the delicate veil of pretense finally falls from her eyes. But she does not leave him. Anthony lies to her about the extent of his drug uses, he falsely pledges to go clean, and Julie tells her own likes to herself to protect what they have together. Because, as bad as things, get, I don’t think we can wave away their love away as just a bad decision born of youthful inexperience. In that way, I find The Souvenir to be different from An Education, where I never really thought Peter Sarsgaard’s slick, exploitative boyfriend was trully in love with the beautiful young woman he was stringing along. What makes The Souvenir so gutting is that learning the truth about Anthony does not give Julie the power to leave him. Things don’t simply end because, while Anthony may be a pathetic liar, that does not mean that their bond is untrue. In this version of the story, the problematic lover is not out to get his kicks and then flee when he gets bored. Anthony is madly devoted to Julie and wants very much to stay with her. And, for as much as her heart gets dragged across the pavement by his reckless, horridly pitiable behavior, Julie also cannot bear to be apart from Anthony. The Souvenir is a rivetingly sad account of an unhealthy love because it reminds us that ill-advised love can often be just as powerful and intoxicating and hard to deny as its healthier counterpart.

 

So, with that unsolvable human equation laid out before us, where are these two lost, fragile souls to go? What is The Souvenir building toward, as it pushes forward through its gauntlet of helpless ache? I have not desire to spoil if it can be avoided, so I will just say that it goes down one of the various paths such a story can go. The ending took the wind out of me, and hurt all the more for how unsurprised I was by it. It is not an easy or happy conclusion that The Souvenir reaches when it arrives, puffy-eyed and sleep-deprived, at the end of its 90-some minutes. What i sense the film contemplating, without having the will to voice it out loud, is that this is also perhaps not the worst conclusion one could conceive of. The Souvenir feels told in hazy snippets of reverie, the good and very bad moments of a formative young romance coming back to a mature woman as she whispers a prayer back to her scared younger self. What The Souvenir really captures is the bracing of anguish of being caught up in something too strong for us to get away from. A situation that we cannot end, and must therefore see through to its natural conclusion. Julie cannot simply walk away from this, nor can her steadiness and empathy make this nice and functional. It’s the kind of film where your heart dearly wishes this couple could either fix the problem or end the whole affair, and the dawning dread lies in the fact that neither of those options are on the table. The only thing left to do then is to hope that Julie can manage not to take all this mortifying grief and stress to heart, but that is not an option either. She suffers terribly with the burden of Anthony. She loses sleep, stays up wondering where he is some nights, shows up for classes looking half-dead, and takes on some portion of impotent guilt for every fresh trauma he visits upon her. “The only way out of it is through it” is a perennial bit of inspiration wisdom for people in the midst of some struggle, but The Souvenir finds the dark underside of that saying. The thought that there is a way out of a problem is of diminished comfort, when the journey is this sorrowful and scarring. The only solution for Julie, the only eventual peace of mind lies at the end of a sizable and ill-kept patch of pockmarked road, and she feels every nasty bump in it.

And for all the luminous composure in Honor Swinton Byrne’s stellar performance, we can see that Julie is still a child to the world. We never forget she’s a mere babe because we get multiple scenes where Julie visits her doting parents, which includes her soft-spoken, quietly watchful mother. She barely raises her voice, she observes more than she speaks, and a single wince from her does more to convey the concern and sorrow we feel for Julie than any bit of flowery dialogue could. A good part of what the character of Julie’s mother is so effective is that Tilda Swinton is, by now, an almighty deity of screen acting; an actress whose last even uninteresting performance I cannot presently name. I give full credit to Swinton’s meekly shattering performance. That said, what a brilliant piece of casting to have an actress of that power and precision watch her own daughter suffer some of the most blindingly painful hardship imaginable. What The Souvenir gets that is so crucial to its success isn’t just the maternal mortification of this ordeal, but the powerless of this woman to change this bitter course of events for her precious child. You can see she would throw herself head first in the way of it, if she felt it would do any good. But we’ve been over that. There is precious little to be done and grown children must be allowed to make their own decisions. Julie must see this through to the end. But the Swinton character does what she can, which is to be there for a daughter caught momentarily in terrifying freefall. It is one of the most understatedly beautiful parent-child relationships to appear on screen, powered by the brilliance of two great actors and the real love that exists between them offscreen. Julie’s mother is there to meet Anthony in the giddy early days of their courtship, and she is there for the end. Like any loving parent, she beams for her child during the best days, and she is still there with her when the worst finally comes.

Top 20 Films of 2019: #10- Pain and Glory

I keep coming back to 2019 as the year of the director’s diary. I’m beginning to feel like a human echo, but, in a year with this many confessionals and personal ruminations and memoirs, it frankly bears repeating. While a number of auteurs mediated on what makes them tick, maybe no one examined themselves as directly as the iconic queer Pope of Spanish Cinema, Pedro Almodovar. Almodovar was arguably the most important artistic and cultural figure to emerge from Spain’s La Movida (Spanish for “the Movement”), the tidal wave of bold expression, feminism, open sexuality, and boisterous hedonism that broke loose after the death of Francisco Franco and his decades-long fascist regime in 1975. To see a typical Almodovar film (though there is hardly anything typical about them) is to take in an intoxicating blend of subtle camp, juicy melodrama, and multi-hued humanity. They are born of a love for ripe telenovelas and for social justice. Like Tarantino, Almodovar was forged in movie theaters (according to his Pain and Glory surrogate, his childhood screenings were shown outside on building walls and smelled of pee, jasmine and summer breezes), where a young, impoverished and closeted seminary student could take in the subtle subversion of Luis Bunuel and maybe dream of a time when subversive filmmakers no longer had to cagily sneak their social statements past dead-eyed censors and their despotic overlords. The sum of Almodovar’s influences (his sexuality, his upbringing as a Catholic, the enthusiastic veneration he has for women and motherly figures in particular) can all be detected across his films, like notes of fruit in a bottle of Rioja, with certain of them more pronounced from work to work. I don’t know that there’s really a wrong place to start with the compassionate,frisky, vivaciously sensitive open book that is Pedro Almodovar, but the autobiographical Pain and Glory is absolutely marvelous primer on the man’s journey through the decades, while marinating in that mixture of flamboyance and self-doubt that makes him a truly special fixture in Cinema’s Hall of Legends.

Pain and Glory covers much of the span of Pedro Almodovar’s life, thought it is largely focused on a recent time during which the now elder director was weathering a slew of relational, medical, and existential maladies. They included the death of his beloved mother, a sudden heroin addiction brought about by years of chronic pain, chronic pain, a possible tumor in his throat, and a long spell of director’s block owing to the aforementioned misfortunes. Like Almodovar’s own rendition of Fellini’s 8 1/2, this is the story of an artist in crisis, presently unable to do what he was born to do, and trying to reason (and in this case opiate) his way back to creative normalcy. Pain and Glory is what we call a memory play, gathering anecdotes and impressions from different times in the protagonist’s life and assembling them into a kind of dreamy quilt of reminiscence. Our Almodovar surrogate is named Salvador Mallo (brilliantly played by Almodovar’s old muse, Antonio Banderas), a celebrated Spanish director who has not produced a new work in some years. In flashback, we meet young Salvador, a poor child from a rural family, whose father moves them into the only place they can afford: an underground cave. A beautiful, white-walled cave, with multiple rooms, a view of the azure sky and filled with piercing Spanish sunlight, but a cave nonetheless. To help his mother (very well-played by Penelope Cruz, another longtime Almodovar muse) make ends meet, he gives reading and writing lessons to a handsome, iliiterate young housepainter. That man will eventually give Salvador his first inklinks of attraction to his own sex. In the present, the chronically depleted Salvador learns that one of his earliest films from the 1980s has been elevated to classic status, and that a film society wants him to host an after-screening Q & A with Alberto Crespo, the lead actor he fell out with many years ago, due to a creative disagreement over this very same film. An unexpected and at first uneasy reconciliation between the director and his former muse (in real life, the actor is believed to have been Antonio Banderas himself, lending a wonderful bit of metatext to Banderas’ portrayal of Almodovar) brings new opportunities and complications. Alberto ends up introducing Salvador to heroin as a way to manage his pain, which also makes it impossible for Salvador to muster up the energy to work again. At the same time, Alberto finds an unpublished short story on Salvador’s desktop and requests the rights to turn it into a one-man show, as a kind of olive branch between them. This very personal short story going public gives us a glimpse into Salvador’s 1980s heyday (the same decade when Almodovar inspired the gay community and marched his country defiantly and flamboyantly away from the repression of its past three decades). It also brings the gift of a painful ghost whom Salvador has not seen in decades.

Pain and Glory is a lovely film that begins with a director closed in on himself, fearful he will never create again, and unable to make peace with the tormented past. Then, he has lunch with an old actress friend and she brings up the subject of his film retrospective and the old friend and creative partner Salvador thought he could never see again. But he has nothing else going at the time and the proposed symposium must feature both of them, and so he feels his hand is forced. He musts reopen an old, scorched history and broker some kind of truce with the man. And, from that decision to apologize and forgive old debts, Pain and Glory unspools into a lavish, cascading melody of regret, remembrance and human connections. What’s perhaps most crucial isn’t just that Salvador needs to reconnect with Alberto. It’s that he realizes he was at least partly to blame. Their fight had been over the quality of Alberto’s performance, which Salvador had long felt went against the nature of the character he conceived on the page. Now Salvador realizes he was wrong about how he saw his own art. Pain and Glory is a wise and generous film about realizing the folly of our stubbornness. Of shaking our head in embarrassed wonder at how cocksure and unbelievably certain the previous versions of ourselves appear to our present selves. It’s the beauty of allowing the real man Almodovar fell out with to play him and share in the Almodovar’s confession of fallibility. And the same mixture of wounded pride and humility plays out in the scenes with Salvador’s mother (who loved him fiercely and tenderly, even while her devout Christianity made it impossible to be open with her about who he was), and the former lover who sees the production of Salvador’s story and instantly knows it is about their time together. The fond, warm, and tearful scene where they reunite and reminisce over tequila is so poignant and gracious, I would gladly watch an entire Before Sunset-style film just about their one evening together. In Almodovar’s generous, understanding hands, forgiveness just feels so overwhelming and vital and well-humored. Now more than maybe ever, his honest, unabashedly melodramatic voice feels so very much like the elixir we all could do with more of.

When it’s not conjuring a small tropical storm of bittersweat tears to run down your face (and when it is, as often as not), Pain and Glory luxuriates in a rich, understated kind of humor. It’s not explicitly out to draw chuckles, but its love and intuitive grasp of its characters is so astoundingly full, you quickly feel you know and love these people. And when you know and love a character, then you understand what drives them and frustrates them. And that’s when a kind of empathetic, knowing laughter comes easily, the same way it would with a friend whose motives and foibles you understand almost innately. One way the film accomplishes that is by being a thoroughly relatable portrait of writer’s block, or any kind of doldrums. As of this time, late April of 2019, I’m sure a lot of people can empathize (and hopefully laugh a bit) with the idea of being mopey, bored, and stuck in one place. Antonio Banderas is playing a rundown and jaded version of Pedro Almodovar, which means he is playing a rundown and jaded version of one of the least historically jaded artists I can name. If Pedro Almodovar has blue moods, I have to think they aren’t technically blue; maybe more like a slightly desaturated rainbow. He can be quite serious, maybe even glum or dark in a splashy way, but his moroseness still crackles with an unquenchable impishness that even a full-blown health crisis (I mean the one in the film) can’t tamp down entirely. Such is the delicious vivacity, heart and wit of Pedro Almodovar that even an autobiography of his chronic illness and malaise somehow tickles you. With an artist like this, there’s just no taking the spark out of them. And, my God, the way Anotnio Banderas uses his simmering charisma to suggest the irrepressible Almodovar flame fighting to blow the lid off of his pain and grief is one of 2019’s true delights. An undervalued indie actor who became a smoldering matinee idol in the States reunites and makes peace with the man who discovered him all those decades ago, plays that same man in a film about their complicated artistic dynamic, and earns his first Oscar nomination for the best damned performance of his career and possibly the whole year. Two kindred homegrown Spanish talents shake off the dust and show they can still breathe passionate, contagiously joyful fire. How can it not make one smile?

From kitschy soap-evoking early work like What Have I Done To Deserve This? to the horny Hitchcockery of Law of Desire to turn of the century masterworks like Talk To Her and All About My Mother, there’s always a jolt of sweet, human, and invariably horny electricity with Pedro Almodovar. This is the man who spent his formative years under one of the worst fascist regimes in history, and then lived to tell about it and triumphantly urinate all over it in big block letters. No wonder even Pedro Almodovar delving into insecurity and personal pain still vibrates with so much color, humor and eroticism. Once you’ve escaped a system that demanded you straitjacket your very identity, why would you ever stop running, dancing, fucking? I’ll reiterate. In times that are drawing us ever closer back toward fascism, how many voices you can name are more vitally necessary than the likes of big-hearted, Technicolor, unapologetically queer Pedro Almodovar? His approach is anti-fascism by example. It is anti-misogynist and anti-homophobic in the same way. Exist freely and wear your empathy on colorful, puffy sleeves. Present a motley gallery of diverse characters. Housewives, prostitutes, soap opera stars, and priests. Women (if anyone can name a more vocal and eloquent ally for transgender personhood, in all of moviedom, I’d be surprised), men and the very young. In Almodovar’s youth, a genius like Luis Bunuel had to sneak around and smuggle his messages in forms that soulless Francoists would be too dirt stupid to detect. That was what made him genius. Almodovar was gifted to come into his voice at the exact time the barbed wire fell; when the rigid, cruel shites went away. So why not explore and emote and march and indulge? The fascist lifeguards were gone and he could sprint around the pool to his heart’s content. If we’re to have to deal with this pathetic and vile sort of person again, I’m glad we have Pedro to give us a blueprint for telling the repressive and hateful to kindly fuck themselves. Live loudly, joyfully and truthfully, and hope you naughty incandescence becomes contagious.

What you find across Almodovar’s work is a desire to be grateful for the things that made you, in a way that still has teeth. He has a boundless zeal for humanity, but his view of them is not facile either. One clear example is Almodovar’s experience with the Christian Church, which gave him an education he could not have otherwise afforded and helped him develop his own talents further. It was also a system that forced him to hide his sexuality. The tense interplay of rebellion and tempered gratitude for religion is a huge theme in his work. The same is true of the mother he both adored, yet also had to hide his true self from. Pedro Almodovar is clearly a man who loves human beings, while also understanding how thorny and painful relationships can be. But he always leads with the desire to see people as people, even when they are myopic and hurtful. And he, more than any other filmmaker I can name, adores the women of this world, in all their many shades. In a film full of flashbacks to tender, formative memories, the first one we get feels particularly loaded with affection and meaning. As the older Salvador floats below the surface of a swimming pool (part of rehabilitation for one of his critical surgeries), the water around him sends his mind floating back to an early memory of water. He is a very young boy and he sits by a lolling river. A group of women, his mother among them, wash laundry by its banks. They converse, they laugh, and they sing to each other. The scene is observed by the young Salvador, but it is not really about him. It is about him seeing (and remembering) the specific lives and inner light of others who touched him; these women who cared for him and sustained him. As we forge a widespread dialogue about respecting and demarginalizing women, I feel grateful for the director who has filled his gleeful, luscious frames with bold, smart, funny, and fierce ladies from the very start.

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: #12- Honeyland

I’m an animal lover through and through, so it goes without saying that my ravenous film preoccupation includes keeping track of my favorite non-human performances of the year and choosing my favorite. This year was not too shabby at all for animals in film from Brandy the Manson-hating pitbull to Parasite‘s trio of perfectly cast frou-frou dogs, to that singing chihuahua in The Farewell. Stand up and take a bow, you noble beasts of cinema! But my favorite piece of film fauna for the year of our Lord 2019 is not a single animal but hundreds, maybe thousands of them. I, Brady Larsen, lifelong phobic of all airborne stinging creatures, declare my favorite film animals of 2019 goes to a hive of wild Macedonian bees. Yep, this feels right. This feels like progress. While our celluloid creatures served valuable roles to their narratives all year, none of them were quite so poignant and impactful as a righteously livid hive of pollinators in 2019’s best documentary, Honeyland, directed by Macedonian filmmakers Ljubomir Stefanov and Tamara Kotevskov. The honey bee has become the mascot of the burgeoning environmental crisis in recent years, its dwindling populations endemic and symbolic of the ticking clock on this ecological timebomb we are trying so feverishly to disarm. Here, the honey bee gets a leading role in a small and very focused documentary that serves as a microcosm of the ideas that have become central in the discourse over environmental stewardship: knowledge, ignorance, hubris, economic leverage, and the inevitability of scientific fact. What more apt an avatar for an Earth increasingly weary of our bullshit than a swarm of once-peacable bees stinging their foolish human handlers?

Honeyland drops us into the stark, hot, craggy mountains of Macedonia without preamble. Honeyland does not feature a single interview, title card, or bit of voiceover. Our main subject is Hatidze Muratova, a 50-something Macedonian woman and one of the only remaining wild beekeepers. Shot from high above, the film opens with Hatidze trekking along the side of a high cliff to remove a honeycomb from the sheer rock face. She does this calmly, confidently and often without protective gear. Her philosophy is to always leave half of the honeycombs for the bees, which gives them enough food to survive and sustain their population. It also just seems fair. Hatidze’s only family is her ailing mother, who she supports and takes care of. Hatidze spends most of her days in their tiny cottage and tending to the hive she keeps in the stone ruins of a nearby old house. To make money to feed them, she takes a passenger train to the capitol, Skopje, and sells jars of honey to vendors at the street markets. Hers is a rugged and mostly solitary life, until the day it becomes a lot less solitary. One day, a trailer comes lumbering down the dirty road and pulls into the lot next door. It brings with it a cloud of dust and the noisy and numerous Sam family, a desperately poor clan of Turkish itinerant farmers. They consist of a husband and wife, Hussein and Lutvie, and seven children ranging from toddler to teenager. I have no expertise whatsoever in agriculture, but it is immediately clear that the Sams are horrendous farmers. That’s unfortunate, because it appears to be their sole livelihood. The Sams are a hapless, squabbling lot and the disorganized herd of cattle they arrive with only furthers the image that they are ambassadors of reckless human chaos. Soon after arriving, Hussein gets it into his head that he should do some beekeeping, which friendly, selfless Hatidze is happy to advise him in. Shambling though the Sams may be, Hatidze seems initially happy to have a little company and giving lessons in her trade to the most responsible of the Sam children gives the childless beekeeper some satisfaction. The real trouble arrives in the form of a buyer friend of Hussein’s, who is pushing him to produce a very large shipment of honey for him to sell. Hatidze repeatedly reminds Hussein that he must leave half of his honeycombs in order for the local hives to maintain a healthy balance. The buyer nonchalantly demands 200 kilograms of product. With Hatidze’s time-tested reason on one shoulder and stubborn economic forces on the other, Hussein eventually shuts out the wisdom he’s been given and submits to rapacious demand. Hatidze warns him that taking too much from his bees will leave them hungry and cause them to attack her hives. In the end, the Sams cannot resist their human frailty, exacerbated as it is by dire poverty, and the result is a small-scale ecological and human disaster.

Honeyland could have been the informative and beautiful (the golden-tinted shots of the sun-baked Mediterranean mountains and rivers is quite lovely) account of an ancient agricultural practice; a professional ethnography rolled into one. But the introduction of the dysfunctional Sams brings genuine tension into this tiny corner of the world. And a wolf follows close behind them. Honeyland is one of the sharpest narratives about greed and scarcity I have ever seen. You can emphasize with the Sams up to a point. They do not have many options for survival. They exist always on the knife’s edge of ruin and starvation. To Hussein’s mind, the environmental nuance Hatidze preaches is a luxury he cannot afford. The trouble is that he cannot truly afford to ignore that advice either, though the consequences of ignoring it may be slightly slower to manifest. But Hussein’s indulgence is bound to fail before very long, and it not only jeopardizes his family’s survival but that of his neighbor. It feels odd to call a dirt impoverished nomad family greedy, but what other word can there be for a person who willfully and knowingly takes more than is feasible? This is the insidious and maddening power of need to subjugate rational thought. What Hussein tries to do will not work, he knows it deep down, and yet he must proceed along this ruinous course anyway. It’s the only choice that leaves him with any illusion of agency. It’s the active option, where the other requires discipline and forbearance. The forces of the market have him by the throat and, in his panic, he does not have the courage or the cool foresight to tell them no. His tragedy is to be a coward and a rube. In sum, he is everything his female neighbor is not: ignorant, short-sighted, and impatient.

I imagine a lot of women professionals can and will relate to Hatidze. She should be familiar to anyone who has worked their asses off to become great at their jobs and then had to coddle some guy who doesn’t have the first idea of what he’s doing. Hatidze isn’t just good at her job, she is an absolute maestro at it. She is so stellar at wild beekeeping that she is one of the precious few left on the European continent who still attempts it. From what we see in the film, wild beekeeping appears to be an arduous and nuanced process, one requiring both a lot of technical know-how and a kind of intuition born out of a lifetime of practice. Hussein Sam rolls into town with his cows and his chickens and his bickering familiars and, after a couple of days, thinks, “Sure, I guess I could keep bees.” Honeyland is a microcosm of how societies routinely wave off the counsel of their women. When Hatidze points out that Hussein’s unsustainable overproduction is leading his bees to attack her hive, he impotently argues that there must be some other reason for it. At one point the Sam parents blame their kids, one of whom had loudly insisted that they should be heeding their neighbor’s advice. Hussein’s ego can’t square the notion that he is wrong or that this slender woman is infinitely smarter and hardier than him when it comes to living off the land. Honeyland has a potent feminist punch to it, but it also puts its finger on a larger social ill that transcends the genders. If we are to survive as a species, a lot of people are going to need to locate some humility within themselves and start deferring to people who know better than them. Expertise must be allowed to trump ego and self-interest. I’m currently sitting in my living room for the 28th consecutive day, when I would certainly rather be writing this review by way of a nice, sunny pub crawl. That would be an immediately more enjoyable course for me, but a pandemic is escalating outside and people who know all about deadly viruses have told me, a person whose key area of knowledge is movies and music, that this would wreak havoc on my community’s health. Which, of course, includes my own. So I’m staying indoors because people who have dedicated their lives to this kind of thing say it’s the right thing to do and I have zero counter-argument to offer. It’s a painful thing to watch Hussein ignore the his brilliant neighbor’s words and press recklessly along with his own way. It’s an even more painful and fundamentally unfair thing that the very person he ignores must then share in the injury his rashness causes. And it’s a very disquieting thing to consider the larger societal implications of this latest episode in failed neighborly relations. We all make up a society and, however much we try to behave as individuals, we will all share the same fate if we fail to listen to the wise among us. We must learn to accept knowledge and fact, or we will all soon bear the burden of each other’s hubris.

Honeyland is 2019’s best documentary, but its greatest feat is that you could mistake it for one of the year’s best dramas if you didn’t know any better. The directors happened onto their subject by happy accident while researching a nature documentary, and then, in the course of filming Hatidze’s work, the Sam family sputtered into the picture. It must have felt like a documentarian’s dream seeing this all unfold so unexpectedly and in such literary fashion. The raw stuff of life that takes place in Honeyland feels like it could be in some beautifully simple and sparely soulful morality tale. A story of two different kinds of people sharing a space together, tentatively bonding and then coming into a conflict that eloquently exposes the differences between them. When the Sams exit the frame, leaving behind their blighted tract, you feel you have looked deep into the soul of Hatidze and Hussein, and you know exactly who they both are. The themes of wisdom, generosit, pride, and accountability to our fellow human beings are timeless, as old as civilization itself. Honeyland could have been a Robert Bresson film in the 1950s or an Abbas Kiarostami film in the 1990s or a Sophocles play in Classical Greece. I bet Chekhov would have loved to sculpt this material; two neighbors in dispute over the Earth they share. Honeyland is a film of subtle, shrewd behavioral observation, with a weighty sense of what is right and wrong and how the weaker of us can be swayed from the ethical path. It is as elegant a rumination of the social contract and how it breaks down as any film I can presently recall. Its characters, with all their virtues and failings, could not have been written with more clarity and understated insight. Its allegorical force is so clean and devastating, I simply could not believe it didn’t come from the page of a script or some celebrated novel. And, man alive, those righteous, reproachful bees make one Hell of a Greek chorus! Honeyland is an endlessly rich parable about being a human being and a neighbor; to those we share a street with, a nation with, and a planet with.

When was the last time we created a new folk hero? A larger than life figure that speaks to our relationship with the wild lands that we toil to bend to our will; a Johnny Appleseed or a Paul Bunyan? I hereby nominated Hatidze Muratova, the soft-spoken, iron-willed messenger between man and bee. A self-sufficient, indomitable half-deity carved out of the marble of the Vardar Mountains, and also just a polite and knowledgeable credit to her profession and to environmental responsibility in general. She’s a better folk hero than Paul Bunyan, especially for this moment in history. Bunyan represented the seemingly limitless abundance of a frontier that, only a couple centuries later looks anything but infinite. Hatidze is the hero to teach us about scarcity, about how to slow the Earth’s clock and make the absolute most of the resources we have at hand. It is people like Hatidze Muratova, rugged scientists of the land, who deserve our adulation in this challenging age. She may not be an actual giant like Paul Bunyan, but she is scrappy and plainspoken and humble in the face of nature. The Sams leave us in the end, but Hatidze remains, and that alone gives this small-scale tragedy a closing note of determined home and triumph. It is inspiring to think of her still out there in those mountains, respecting and perfecting her trade and setting a sterling example for how to prolong our stay on this blue sphere. Hatdize shall go on, and we can all go on with her if we start making wiser decisions about the kinds of people we look up to and listen to.