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Top 20 Films of 2018: #8- If Beale Street Could Talk

Barry Jenkins is three films into his young career and has already secured Oscars for two of his actors (Mahershala Ali and Regina King) and won a richly deserved Best Picture award for Moonlight. He got a reasonably priced life insurance for all of them. He’s a director of clear, remarkable insight into human emotion and he’s just getting started. To try and put my finger on what this voracious, cinema-loving visionary (an honor he has already amply earned) is about feels premature and kind of like a fool’s errand. A talent this smart and ambitious could pivot around my expectations at any moment. An auteur with his intelligence and restless imagination could take off in any number of new directions. Still, I feel like making a future fool of myself. So here’s what I see and adore right now in Barry Jenkins. He taps into the heady tingle of cerebral indie cinema, while also harnessing the rousing, operatic emotion of great melodrama. There’s a reason Moonlight managed to snag Best Picture away from a luscious, crowd-pleasing, heart-on-its-sleeve extravaganza like La La Land. As heady and intellectually rigorous as Moonlight is, it’s also a film that connects on a gut level. I had seen and loved the film and recommended it loudly. But I also tended to hedge my words, letting people know that this was a challenging piece of work. And both Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk certainly are challenging, daringly cerebral films, beyond any shadow of a doubt. But the friends I recommended Moonlight to didn’t come back confused or thrown off by its ideological rigor. Instead, they were all swept off their feet by its overwhelming emotion and stunningly realized characters. I had undersold just how much potent feeling Jenkins’ film had in it; a depth of emotion that you could feel even if you didn’t know the first thing about complex subjects like masculinity, queer sexuality, and African American identity. I’ve been good about rationing my sports analogies lately, so I’ll indulge myself here. Babe Ruth was one of the all-time greats not just because of the considerable power of his bat. He was also a skillful pitcher. Crushing a dinger and striking out a batter are two very different skills, and usually you’re lucky just to do one very well. Being great at both is a big deal. In film terms, the same is true of being able to craft a prickly, aesthetically daring tone poem and a heart-swelling, emotionally direct melodrama. Barry Jenkins is Ruth. He can do both. Films like Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk hold a whole host of deep social insights to dig into. But one need not do any digging to appreciate the vibrant characterization and powerful feelings of these films. Barry Jenkin’s second highly literary masterpiece on the subject of black identity in America may seem like it should be a daunting undertaking, but I dare anyone not to be utterly moved by what he has put on screen. His complex themes float along in a gentle current of pathos and lush empathy.

If Beale Street Could Talk moves like a gentle whirlpool. It’s not the least bit difficult to follow, but it does have something of an elliptical sensibility. It continually drifts through present and past and back to present again, feeding us new insights into its characters. The first thing we learn is that there are two black New Yorkers in the early 1970s, a man and a woman in their late teens, that they are very much in love, and that they have been separated. The young man, Fonny, (a subtle, soulful performance by Stephan James) has been imprisoned in Attica for a crime he didn’t commit. The young lady, Tich, (a lovely and breathlessly heartfelt debut by Kiki Layne) has just learned that she is pregnant with Fonny’s child. We will not circle back around to the reason for Fonny’s arrest (a mistaken rape accusation, likely fueled by improper suggestion from the police) until several scenes later. What Barry Jenkins wants us to see first is that these two young adults are in love and have been thrust apart. Before we come to learn the details of Fonny and Tich’s courtship and their lives together, we meet their families, played by an outstandingly nuanced ensemble of black actors. Regina King recently won an Oscar for her stirring work as Tich’s kind, resolute mother. Colman Domingo and Teyonah Paris are also nothing short of sublime as the father and older sister who complete Tich’s wonderfully supportive family. Fonny’s family is more tempestuous. His father (Michael Beach) is happy to hear a baby is coming, but Fonny’s dogmatically Christian mother (Aunjanue Ellis) and two stern sisters are outwardly critical of the situation and of Tich’s worth as a partner for their brother. The scene where the two families meet to learn of Tich’s pregnancy is a symphony of beautiful dialogue and perfectly played emotions; a torrent of harsh judgment and loving support, battering up against one another. We see the early days of Fonny and Tich’s romance, before Fonny’s incarceration, their struggles with racism, and their efforts to find an apartment together. In the present, Tich works at a perfume counter and stresses over Fonny’s trial. The District Attorney has given the rap victim money to return to her homeland of Puerto Rico and Tich’s mother, Sharon, makes plans to fly there to meet the poor woman face to face in the hopes of appealing to her sense of empathy. Beale Street has plenty of plot (a teenage pregnancy, a false arrest, the entire fraught racial backdrop of early 1970s America), and yet it’s not really about plot. Barry Jenkins, adapting a very literary and tonally rich novel by the brilliant James Baldwin, really had made a film that is about emotion; about their loved ones and their unwavering love for each other. Plot is what rudely interrupts that love. It is what harasses Fonny and Tish, separates them, and threatens them with force and fear. Barry Jenkins knows his way around a plot very well, but I believe this story is about love trying to withstand events and circumstances. When you are black in America, I imagine you dream of a day, a year, a life where very little happens to you.

And, for all its potent characterization, dazzling directorial flourishes, and intoxicating tone, If Beale Street Could Talk really is just a simple story of two people who want to love each other and create a life together. It’s the simple story of a humble dream that gets cruelly and needlessly complicated by the hateful forces around it. James Baldwin was one of the 20th century’s most marvelous and eloquent minds, a contemporary of social pioneers like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. As a black man, he saw the American Dream in all its idealistic beauty and ugly hypocrisy. He saw that this Dream meant something different if you were born with a darker skin tone. Barry Jenkins taps into Baldwin’s vision seamlessly. His film is a glorious piece of New York City Americana, seen through a glass darkly. Even though the film is set in the early 1970s, the New York City captured in it feels like a luminous visions of its 1960s self here: diverse, vibrant, and buzzing with intellectual energy. Nicholas Britell’s incredible channels evokes New York as both a dream and a gritty nightmare; George Gershwin and shadowy back alleys. The vision Barry Jenkins casts upon the screen is the New York City of Paul Simon songs, poetic, thoughtful and curious. And yet, for all its beautiful enlightenment, it is also the place where a bigoted police officer can harass an innocent black couple without fear of losing his job. In one of the film’s most indelible scenes, Fonny brings home an old friend who has just been released after two years in prison. This man (played by the great Brian Tyree Henry, completing a superb trifecta along with his work in Widows and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) is a goofy and gregarious sort, but the smile vanishes from his face when the subject turns to being behind bars. This is the film’s struggle in miniature. This man’s inner light seems naturally bright, but he has been put something through it that causes that light to flicker and dim. Beale Street is about trying to maintain positivity and humanity in a society that wants to take it from you. And this dark truth doesn’t mean that there is no American Dream at all, but just that it is inherently complex. It has been a complex and somewhat hypocritical thing since its very outset, when the founding document held its tongue about slavery while simultaneously laying down the rhetoric that would eventually underscore its abolition. If Beale Street Could Talk is a very romantic film, and not just in terms of its love story. It is romantic about the full possibilities of American life. James Baldwin and Barry Jenkins are both curious to live in a land of beautiful ideals and rich possibilities, while having that same egalitarian place throw ignorance and hostility at you. What kind of land can create the Bill of Rights and Jim Crow laws? A beautiful land. A disturbing land. A land that has always held a great turmoil in its soul.

The wonderful paradox of If Beale Street Could Talk is that it can hold such painful truths in its heart while never feeling cynical or defeated. It can do this because its main ingredient and overarching theme is love. Love is the fortress that steels Tish’s resolve to fight for Fonny and to carry their child and to persevere without him while he is gone. It’s what keeps Fonny sane amid the horror he has to endure inside Attica. In a way that doesn’t cheapen or minimize the strife these characters and so many others like them face, the film quietly maintains that love will see them through this. When Tish is wracked with despair and self-doubt, her mother softly and fervently reminds her to trust love. “Trust it all the way,” she says. If Beale Street Could Talk sees love and community as succor and salvation for black Americans like Tish and Fonny. Love is not just there shield and refuge, but something very active. It is Tish’s sister fearlessly defending her when Fonny’s sisters try to belittle her telling her to unbow her head when she feels ashamed. It is Tish’s mother flying to Puerto Rico on the slim chance it will help Fonny beat his case. It is Tish’s father selling goods on the black market to raise money for a lawyer. When Fonny’s father frets over how he will pay for his son’s defense, Tish’s father tells him not to worry about the money. Money is not where their strength comes from. Love for family will will the money into being. “You know some hustles. And I know some hustles. And these are our children.” Barry Jenkins journeys unafraid into America’s ugly past to confront the racism and injustice that has always lived here. And he does so with an incandescent torch of empathy and compassion. The woe in this story is never his focus. His film is about the very best in humanity and the unfortunate, petty and hateful bullshit that tries to tear it down. But darkness does not prevail here. Barry Jenkins, master humanist that he is, always keeps hate on the ropes.

If Beale Street Could Talk searches for that which is beautiful and it finds it in spades. It is not a film with what I would call an unambiguously happy conclusion, but it is gentle and honest. It is a story of immense struggle and of human beings finding their way through that struggle. When a society tries to take your life away, you prevail by staying alive and protecting the fire within yourself. You keep it going with more love, more kindness, more concern for one another. When systems of oppression try to deprive you of your humanity, you defy them by holding fast to it. James Baldwin and Barry Jenkins do not pretend for a moment that doing this is easy. They simply assert that humankind is beautiful, loving, and immeasurably strong. This film sees intolerance and suffering and it throws a fist upward in solidarity with anyone who is going through something trying. Even the rape victim who falsely accuses Fonny is treated with sympathy and respect. She too is going through something terrible, trying to maintain some dignity in life’s unforgiving storm. She is partly the source of our characters’ frustrations and setbacks, but she is trying her best to weather a terrible situation and she deserves our empathy. If Beale Street Could Talk feels like peaceful resistance rendered in celluloid form. It feels anguished and confused by any individual or system that would demean and devalue people, but it is incapable of that same hatred. Its response to hatred is to build a bonfire out of the most lovely, creative and humane things it can find and hold the darkness at bay. Shadows dance menacingly behind our characters and throw themselves in fleeting traces over their bodies, but they are no serious match. Beale Street’s emotional blaze burns with too much compassion and goodwill.

Beautiful, strong, pure feelings are the film’s anchor. They are the stable and calm center around which tis dizzying tone poem spins. I cannot stress how assured Barry Jenkins is at conjuring tone, at allowing mood to shift and build. I think of the scene where we meet Bryan Tyree Henry’s character, freshly released from his own wrongful incarceration months before Fonny will have to face a similar injustice. He and Fonny are affably chatting about life and art (Fonny is a talented woodworker) when Fonny finally broaches the subject of prison. His friend’s face falls and his voice drops to a choked whisper. Have you ever spoken with someone who has been through trauma, or gone through something traumatic yourself? There’s a feeling when you’re laughing and talking about trivial matters (music, sports, movies) and the conversation suddenly turns to something painful or tragic. And a tidal shift in mood seems to completely envelop the room. When Fonny and his friend suddenly find themselves discussion racism and trauma and being locked up, the air becomes palpably heavy. Barry Jenkins conjures that feeling through some uncanny combination of lighting, his brilliant performers, and the subtle camera movements between them. It’s hard to sum up what he does with tone in this film. The best I can do is to say that he has an almost impossibly sharp sense of what is going on between his characters, in ways that are both spoken and unspoken. It is as if Jenkins is an unseen character himself, acting alongside his cast. He also has the aid of the best film score of 2018 and of at least the last few years. It is a luscious, undulating fog of beauty, pain, and nostalgic reverie. In a film of uncommon technical accomplishment, composer Nicholas Britell deserves particular commendation. Like the film it complements so beautifully, it is tender, romantic, disorienting, painful, and transporting. It is just one more way that If Beale Street Could Talk manages to channel adversity and wrenching heartache while rising transcendently above them.

Top 20 Films of 2018: #9- Wildlife

The 1950s and early 1960s are often presented as a time of stifling traditionalism. There’s obviously a lot of truth in that assessment. The liberated spirit of the the later 1960s was largely a reaction to that very same oppressive sense of propriety and uniformity. Still, people have always been people even in the most buttoned down of eras. I like films that find the humanity in repressive periods. Superficiality and repression have always existed, but there have always been human beings who chafe at those norms and question them. I think of Todd Haynes’ sublime Carol, where we plainly understand the cruelly restrictive social systems that threaten our two female protagonists ability to have a life together. but where we also see the shades of grey. The ones enforcing the arbitrary norms seem barely conscious of what they are doing; that there can be any other kind of life than the one dictated to them by their cultural surroundings. These people aren’t evil. Some of them act with honorable intentions, but lack the imagination to see past the blinders of their own time. A film like Carol is honest about how repression manifests and it allows for the hope that times and people can grow and change. Surfaces and superficiality have been terrible ills for a great many people, but people are also resilient. Not even the rigid, manicured normativity of 1950s America could entirely corral the restless human spirit. The nation would learn that in the decade to follow and it’s a good and empowering thing to remember. Norms and surfaces may be erected to contain people, but they cannot do so forever. What I love about films like Carol and actor Paul Dano’s directorial debut Wildlife  is that they capture the beautiful, composed essence of their time periods while also finding the unruly, irrepressible humanity roiling underneath the pretty facade. We can appreciate the time period for its lushly polished aesthetic while also rooting for our heroines to to topple the facades; to break free from what makes the 1950s aesthetic claustrophobic and sterile.

And what we’re specifically rooting for in Wildlife is basically a divorce. Maybe rooting is a strong word, but I’ll table that for now. WIldlife is the story of a small nuclear family living in a tiny Montana town in the year 1960. The 1950s have just ended and the embers of war, social unrest, and great cultural change are smoldering just over the horizon, unbeknownst to our protagonists and the rest of sleepy suburban America. There is also an actual blaze to contend with. A large forest fire has broken out just over the mountains, close to the town where fourteen year-old Joe (newcomer Ed Oxenbould, tremendous as the film’s stable center) lives with his parents, Jerry (a very strong performance by Jake Gyllenhall) and Jeanette (the great Carey Mulligan, as subtly powerful as she’s maybe ever been, if you can believe it). Jerry has lost his job as a golf instructor at the local country club and this leads Jeanette and Joe to go looking for their own jobs to help supplement the family income. Jerry’s ego rankles at the idea of his wife having to pick up the financial slack for him, but Jeanette is enthusiastic about having a purpose outside of the home. In a different film, Jerry’s unemployment and his insecurity over his wife working would be the film’s main conflict, but in Wildlife it is just a catalyst, a spark if you will for the more complicated emotional crisis to come. Jerry’s old employer actually offers him his job back within a week. But he is too wounded and stubborn to go back to them. Instead, feeling an ineffable dissatisfaction with where his life is (what he calls “a buzz in my head”), he impulsively enlists in a volunteer fire brigade and takes off to fight the wildfires, to Jeanette’s great frustration. The gig does not pay well, he will be away from his family, and it may take months and months for him to return if he doesn’t perish in the process. Jerry goes off to the mountains and leaves Jeanette and Joe to hold the homestead together. And the thing that quickly becomes apparent is that their livelihood and well-being is never really in any great jeopardy. Joe is a responsible, grounded kid who can pitch in while his father is gone. Jeanette confidently argues her way into gainful employment as a swimming instructor. The conflict then is not what Jeanette will do with her husband gone, but that his absence sparks her dawning realization that she doesn’t need him at all. Jeanette is furious at her husband’s flightiness and po-faced idealism and her righteous anger kicks off an irreversible chain reaction of independence and self-actualization in her, starting with a new job and building to an affair with an older wealthy businessman (indispensable character actor Bill Camp). And the thing that astonishes Jeanette the most about her small revolution is that she feels no need to second guess herself. Even the presence of her child has no way to quell the blaze of self-determination inside her. On the night she first kisses her new paramore, with Joe waiting in the car, Jeanette blushes with both shame and delight. “I surprised myself,” she says.

Wildlife tackles the breakdown of the traditional nuclear family unit, but does so without an ounce of judgment. The film sees its characters do complicated things. Things that are selfish and hurtful and maybe even unsympathetic. But it captures these decisions with empathy and a very kind sort of curiosity. Married screenwriters Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan (the same Zoe Kazan who delivered awards-worthy work in 2018’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and is one of our most all-around ascendant talents) have adapted Richard King’s novel into a thing of potent, eloquent beauty. On my second viewing I was struck by the unfussy, economical poetry of the dialogue. In the hands of the fearless Carey Mulligan, Jeanette becomes one of 2018’s most thrilling, poignant and real screen creations. This is a beautiful, gripping portrait of a woman not so much discovering herself in real time as revealing a ferocious confidence and self-reliance that was there all along. Far from feeling social pressure to hide the independence building up inside of her, she is hungry to express it and adamant that her child sees it. Joe is an audience surrogate with his own nuanced inner life. The fact that no awards body seemed to even consider Ex Oxenbould for a Best Actor nomination is a measure of their myopia, but also just tells the tale of how rich 2018 was for nuanced, deeply felt performances. Together, Mulligan and Oxenbould create a rich mother-child relationship and one of the best portraits of divorce (or impending divorce anyway) that you will ever see. Like the film, the performances carry no judmgent, only empathy and insight. Joe is taken aback and alarmed by what he sees suddenly happening between his parents. But he also carries an uncanny sense of wisdom and calm about it all. He never thought he’d see change this drastic and it upsets him greatly, but he is not self-deluding. There is something happening here. The future is breathing down the necks of him and his parents and he knows that something is about to change forever.

Wildlife is interested in humility in the face of unstoppable, life-altering events. Recognizing that so much of life is out of our control, even in an era defined by its sense of order and pristine decorum. In an early piece of foreshadowing, a fireman gives Joe’s class a lecture about the growing fire and its risks. “A fire can be a positive force,” he says. Then he adds that it can also scar your lungs. The same is true of the burning down of Jeanette and Jerry’s relationship. At this point in their marriage, it’s probably best that it burn away. But that doesn’t mean it will have no ill effects on them or on Joe. The effects of this domestic blaze remain to be seen. They will probably all be okay in the cosmic sense but the ordeal will probably also leave scars on them. At the end of the day, it is what it is. What the characters in Wildlife go through is painful, but there’s really nothing to be done for it. Change is threatening, but it is an implacable force. It means us no outward ill will. Change is not out to hurt us, which is different than saying that it won’t hurt us. When massive, unconscious forces enter our worlds, all we can do is survive them and weather them. While young Joe is upset about what’s happening to his family, he knows deep down that this fire is too big to fight or contain. Human growth and change are wild, elemental forces. Like Joe, the film regards them with hopeful concern, curiosity, and finally acceptance.

Wildlife is a gorgeous snapshot of small town America in the early 1960s, at the close of the Golden Era of the 1950s. And i would go so far as to say that it is partly about the 1950s and 1960s, both. It gazes back at the time period that Jeanette and her family are leaving behind, and it anticipates the liberated decade to come, when vast swaths of society would cast off the shackles of repressive attitudes and question old, antiquated mores. Jeanette is that cultural awakening in miniature. The 1950s were a decade rife with obligation and the pressure to keep up appearances. They were a decade with a strong, clearly defined sense of what you could and could not do. The epiphany that ignites in Jeanette’s brain is that this is all smoke and mirrors. There is precious little she cannot do if she chooses to do it. If all that is standing between her and her own happiness and emotional health are arbitrary norms and the threat of judgment, why not just trample those underfoot? She realizes the social mores of her time weak adversaries. She can suddenly see through them, and on the other side of them is a frontier of self-discovery that is exciting and also a little terrifying. Mulligan plays that dawning consciousness with both giddy excitement and melancholy bewilderment. Jeanette really does surprise herself. Wildlife sees the moment right before the dam of Post-War propriety and rigid normativity would break for good. It stands back with awe-struck eyes and watches this family negotiate something unexpected, painful, and unstoppable. Change can knock the wind out of you. But this family’s metamorphosis, like the social changes soon to come, is almost certainly for the better.

Wildlife doles out its heartache with gentle grace. It loves its characters and wants them all to be happy. But it cannot protect them from their personal conflagration. This is something they will all have to go through. Or perhaps this is something they have already gone through. There is nothing to indicate that Wildlife is literally being told from the future looking back. There is no voiceover from an adult Joe or a coda set many years later. But it feels like a ravishing, painful memoir. It is delivered in the tender, candid voice of someone who has weathered a family crisis and can now look back on it with serene understanding. Wildlife is a bracing and unsparing look at domestic dissolution, but it also overflows with love. It is sad but also the furthest thing from miserable. It’s most bitter truths are leavened with the sweet excitement of growth and discovery. It takes its memories of discord and heartache and throws them into the fire. With enough time and perspective, what was once sorrowful can become a source of warmth of light.

Top 20 Films of 2018: #10- Free Solo

There’s plenty of complex insight and reflection going on under the surface of Free Solo, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s recently Academy Award-winning documentary about free solo climber Alex Honnold and his mad quest to become the only person to ever climb Yosemite’s El Capitan without the aid of a rope. There are complex and thorny implications in his decision to willingly pursue a goal this life-threatening, the ethics of filming such a feat, and the psychology that might draw someone down this path. I know all that, reflective and absurdly somber would-be philosopher that I am. There’s also a bouncy, grinning ten year-old inside of me who just wants to be delighted, awed, and gobsmacked by amazing things. I told the child he couldn’t write this review lest he type it all in capitalized letters and make every fifth word “cool” followed by six exclamation points. Still, that was definitely the side of me that emerged into the light after each of my two theatrical viewings of Free Solo, beaming like a mischievous hyena and filled with uncontainable glee. I’m grateful that National Geographic (producers of the film) didn’t post merchandise tables outside of screenings. My inner child almost certainly would have dragged me over to them and made me buy him a hat or something. It’s his favorite film of the year (my fiance’s too) and it’s easy to see why. You see, Free Solo was quite simply the best time that I had in a movie theater in all of 2018. Both times. An unforgettable 90 minutes of laughter, seat-gripping tension, and audible, elated gasps. I couldn’t even recall the last time I sat with an entire audience so completely, collectively moved by and engaged with the film in front of them. Probably The Last Jedi. And if the level of palpable audience enthusiasm for a low-budget documentary about a niche area of climbing produced by a travel channel is on par with the enthusiasm for a world-beating, culturally inescapable mega-blockbuster, that speaks volumes to its crowd-pleasing power. It may sound like cliché, but Free Solo is that kind of film that reminds us why we go out to movie theaters. If it ever comes back into theaters (it ran for an astonishing five months at my local theater, quite impressive for a small-scale documentary about mountaineering), I urge everyone to watch it this way. Not just to take in the staggering enormity of El Capitan, but to remember what it feels like to gasp in unison with fifty strangers. My inner child, that perpetually caffeinated little moppet, was completely on the money about Free Solo. What I had just witnessed and been part of was ridiculously cool. My deep love for the entire idea of cinema felt beyond replenished. My filmic heart had expanded Grinch-like to three times its old size.

In truth, Free Solo is not just a pure, giddy document of beautiful athletic perfection. To free solo climb, to scale sheer mountain faces without any safety measures, should give us some measure of sober pause. It’s hard not to look at Alex Honnold and think of other men with unquenchable, quixotic thirsts for the ruggedly daring, and who eventually met sorry ends pursuing their passions. Names like Timothy Treadwell (whose death by grizzly bear was the subject of Werner Herzog’s masterful Grizzly Man) and Christopher Johnson McCandless (whose death by starvation in the Alaskan wilds was the subject of the novel and film Into the Wild) naturally spring to mind. Anyone who sees Free Solo comes away from it inevitably wowed by Alex Honnold’s unbelievable accomplishment and by his otherworldly composure as a sportsman. However, not everyone I’ve spoken to shared my unconditionally effusive elation about it. Some spoke, heads shaking back and forth, with a kind of soft, wary frustration. Some see it as only a matter of time before a man with Honnold’s appetite for risk finally gets his own sad news headline. For people with a certain, entirely valid state of mind, Free Solo cannot just be the exhilarating tale of a successful milestone in mountaineering history. It cannot be because its subject is still out there scaling crags and cliffs, heedlessly and ropelessly, as we speak. Unflagging in his pursuit of what Honnold calls “the edge” and unprotected by any safety precaution outside of his own godlike physical prowess. For some, I think Free Solo is a so-far incredible story still waiting for its sour, tragic conclusion, whether that comes months or years from now. And that is certainly a possibility. Alex Honnold admits it in one of the film’s first lines of dialogue. The film even contains a montage of highly accomplished free solo climbers who have met their fateful ends in recent years. Tommy Caldwell, Alex’s mentor and training partner (and the first man to scale El Capitan’s Dawn Wall, as covered in 2018’s very good The Dawn Wall) notes with somber matter-of-factness that he has lost some forty friends and acquaintances over the years to climbing accidents. Free Solo may offer some of 2018’s most ecstatic, tingly thrills, but it also well documents how much death hangs over the sport of free solo climbing. Free Solo is not just a document of Alex Honnold’s historic triumph (which occupies the film’s last 20 minutes) or even just about the strenuous training process. The filmmaking team, all of them close with Honnold, support him fully but they worry about him. Free Solo is very much a meditation on the risks inherent in this unforgiving sport. Alex likens it to a brutal yoga class where failing to hold the position for even a split second means that you die. Alex Honnold is a good-humored, charismatic enigma of a man. He is well-spoken, smart, and congenial, but there is an aura of quiet melancholy about him too. The taxing nature of his pursuit requires him to be obsessive, but he seems to have a single-mindedness that can seem almost alien. It is something that goes beyond the kind of all-encompassing focus required of most professional athletes. Alex mentions that his father had Asperger’s Syndrome (or the disorder formerly known by that name) and it seems like Alex might have his own affable, high-functioning version. When others fret aloud about him, his eyes reveal a quizzical, patient, amused kind of annoyance. He understands human beings worry and care for each other, but he also can’t quite grasp what all the fuss is about. For Alex Honold, all things are secondary to his life’s work. His wild, siren-like obsession may belong more to the realm of the tormented artist than the expert sportsman, though maybe not. Maybe, at Alex’s level of physical perfection, the difference between artiste and athlete is negligible. Free Solo is about athleticism pushed to the level of mad, keening poetry. He is a fascinating and hugely endearing figure, Alex Honnold. Free Solo sometime plays his unwavering dispassion for comedy (the entire group of people who populate the film are likable, good humored people and the film graciously invites us to laugh often enough that we don’t pass out from anxiety). But that dispassion is also just a key part of his psychology. His dark, sleepy eyes, occasionally seeming like those of the world’s friendliest shark, are imperturbably fearless and don’t blink often. They are the eyes of a hell-bent perfectionist who cannot fathom allowing any emotion, insecurity, or fear come between him and the goal at hand. And, of course, he is right. When, as Tommy Caldwell notes, anything less than a gold medal performance means instantaneous death, there’s really no choice but to make every other consideration a secondary priority at best.

Nonetheless, Alex Honnold is anything but an antisocial person. We are not watching a film about a robot, but someone whose mind and body are constructed in a far different way from anyone you are likely to meet. Alex is beloved by his friends (who co-directed and lensed the film) and by Sanni McCandless, the bright, gregarious outdoors blogger he has been dating since 2015. And this is where the film finds something of its tormented soul. Alex may have the passion of so many high risk dreamers, the kind that allows him to conquer his fears and place the task at hand above all emotional concerns. But he is not the only person in the film. And, for as much as he may assert that solo climbing El Capitan is what matters most and that he alone will accept the consequences, it just cannot be that simple. When we allow people into our lives, we must necessarily accept the fact that our actions touch more than ourselves. And this is not to say that the film is really critical of Alex or his goal. It just truthfully acknowledges that having a friend or significant other who does something this high risk for a living is grueling. It’s grueling even for the many friends of Alex who actually undertake dangerous climbs themselves. Every member of Alex’s inner circle knows that this is his dream. Nobody here would ever think of talking him out of it or trying to throw their bodies between him and his beautiful, perilous grail. They are just worried, as they naturally should be. Worried about a person they love because that’s what people do. Sanni McCandless worries of never seeing him again. His best friend and mentor is beginning to have graphic nightmares of Alex dying. And nobody is taking it worse than Jimmy Chin and the camera crew, who not only might bear personal witness to their friend’s grisly death but could have to bear the guilt of somehow contributing to it. What makes Free Solo a great film beyond the stunning athleticism of its final act is how it builds its human world. It does not begrudge Alex his choice. It seems scarcely possible for Alex Honnold to not do what he does. But it also softly insists that, however much one wants to follow their own rugged individualist path, we are tied to each other. And what that means, all that means, is just that we are tied to each other. We get to make our own decisions in life, but we do not get to pretend that they do not affect others. Like Into the Wild, Free Solo sensitively considers the effect that restless adventurers and thrill-seekers have on those who love them. It weights their headlong thirst for independence and excitement against the hopes and fears of those who love them and want them to live. The attention to the full human element of Alex’s undertaking makes Free Solo immeasurably richer than it would be if it were solely about the big ascent. I didn’t expect that any element of the film could stand next to the sheer, awesome scope of the big moment it is building up to, but these quiet, relationship-driven scenes are completely engaging in their own intimate right. I do not know what kind of documentarians Vasarhelyi and Chin are outside of their niche climbing world, but they understand this little subculture to a tee, physically and emotionally. They infuse it with a beating heart and people you deeply care about 91 minutes later.

And again, as curious and sometimes inscrutable a figure as he can be, Alex Honnold is nothing less than human himself. An atypically unemotional and clinical breed of human? Sure. One whose amygdala (the part of the brain that processes fear) shows essentially zero activity? According to a scan, yes. But Alex Honnold is still very, very human. He is in fact one of the funniest, richest, most vibrant characters to appear on screen in 2018, fictional or real. And while he may look quizzically upon his worried peers and fail to fully grasp the reason for their fraught emotions on a gut level (“They’ll be fine,” he says nonchalantly about the prospect of his untimely death), Alex is still flesh and blood. One of the film’s most gripping arcs is seeing some of his unflappable cool exterior start to crack as he lets Sanni into his life. He sustains an ankle tear on a practice run and starts to wonder if his newfound emotional vulnerability (vulnerable by his standards anyway) is compromising his focus. He also starts to wonder if allowing his good friends to film his feat, and thereby act as witnesses to his challenge, will throw off his courage or make him act hesitantly. When Jimmy Chin watches Alex abort an early attempt to free solo El Capitan because his heart isn’t it, it gives the co-director comfort and a new boost of resolve to help his friend. This is maybe the single most terrifying endeavor I’ve ever seen on film. Tommy Caldwell informs us that the people most freaked out about what Alex is attempting are the high-level professional climbers who know exactly how unforgiving the climb is and just how easily something could go wrong. “It’s kind of reassuring, that Spock has nerves,” Chin says with a weary smile. Free Solo is honest about the human toll this kind of high risk activity has on people, even those with veins icy enough to do the actual climbing.

All of which is to say that Free Solo is a thoughtful, emotionally intelligent film. If, God forbid, tragedy were ever to befall Alex Honnold, I don’t think this film would suddenly become a terrible, haunted thing. I think the film would still hold up as something magnificent and noble because it is so clear-eyed about its subject and his motives. It knows this sport is crazy, but also reveres the sheer beauty of what Alex is doing and respects his intelligence and Herculean talent. We see that Alex Honnold knows the costs of this way of life better than anyone. He is thoughtful and realistic about it. He is not Timothy Treadwell wading out past his depth, hunting down his own undoing. He is probably the most qualified person in the world to practice this terrifying art, if anyone ever can be. And with the human cost and all that other weighty business attended to, Free Solo leaves the ground and spends its last 20 minutes being so indecently awe-inspiring and spectacular that there really aren’t words for it. The truth is that Free Solo would be a perfect film if it were nothing but an abridged document of Alex Honnold’s coup on El Capitan (he completed the whole thing in a swift three hours and fifty-six minutes). Like seeing old video of one of Harry Houdini’s escapes or Philip Petit’s World Trade Center wirewalk or Muhammad Ali’s fights, the very act being captured here is a rapturous, historic work of art unto itself. Free Solo is a gift to future generations. An awesome record of humankind doing something so splendidly, fearsomely glorious that it brushes hands with the Divine. What can one even say? This is simply breath-held, tears-welling-up-in-your-eyes amazing! And you find your palms sweating from the unholy strain of watching this man will himself to stick to this cliff face. But you also find yourself agreeing with Alex’s mother’s sentiment: how could anyone try to hold him back from this? Each of the climb’s six phases (or pitches, as they’re called in mountaineering jargon) is clearly laid out to us so that we understand the strategy and the stakes. One part of the climb involves having one of your arms essentially devoured by a vertical fissure hundreds of feet long. Another give you no support to stand on except for tiny virtually invisible bumps in the sheer granite. And then there is the challenge that I will not spoil here. I will just say that if “The Boulder Problem” isn’t the scene of 2018, all other films should at least have to offer compelling arguments for themselves. Free Solo took me to places few films go. It wasn’t made for my cerebral cortex or even especially for my heart, though it certainly gave that organ a terrific emotional workout. Free Solo  was for some part of myself, some muscle in my spirit that rarely gets exercised. The one that feeds on bewilderment, processes childlike wonder, and feeds the imagination. I giggled and gaped and sweated and groaned. There was a point in Free Solo when I heard the words “Oh Jesus” sound softly but urgently from somewhere in the theater. It took me half a second to realize the hushed exclamation had emitted quite involuntarily from my own mouth.

Free Solo lionizes its subject’s stunning achievement while also ruminating on the complicated nature of athletic obsession; how all-consuming the pursuit of athletic posterity is by its very nature. David Foster Wallace, writing about professional tennis, said that people are awed by athletic excellence but that “the actual facts of the sacrifices repel us when we see them.” Perfection, he wrote, requires “[a] subsumption of almost all other features of human life to one chosen talent and pursuit.” Seen that way, it is almost shocking that Alex Honnold is as personable and as he is. The film invites us to bask in the glow of something physically stunning and close to impossible. It also invites us to consider how difficult it is for someone to be the very best of their chosen field and also remain a well-rounded person. Normalcy means something different for someone with this level of insane prowess and unwavering discipline. With Free Solo, Alex Honnold has gifted the world a godlike testament to the power and poetry of the human body, but he has also had to put most other considerations aside. For many years, he did not even have a place to call home outside his van. He has prioritized free solo climbing above everything else and, even now, he refuses to allow those closest to him to sway him from relentlessly following a precipitous athletic path. A path where death is a constant possibility, maybe even an inevitability depending on where you stand. Alex Honnold, ever clear-eyed and self-effacing, understands this possibility but there is nothing else he would choose to do instead. Free Solo is the beauty and the high cost of athletic perfection rolled into a single film. It is about the most obsessive, punishing form of perfectionism imaginable: the kind where anything less than perfection results in plummeting to your death. Free Solo can be both magnetic and repellent. It lives at the precipice of life and death. It is brilliant but also almost painful to look at. Like looking into the Sun. I don’t begrudge anyone who can’t bring themselves to watch Free Solo; who find what Alex Honnold does for a living too reckless and disquieting. But to see the best artist in their field paint a masterpiece across the world’s most beautiful cliff face is also unquestionably beautiful. 2018’s best documentary is the stuff of Greek myth. If it’s forbidden fruit, it has already been picked for us and there’s no good in letting it spoil. I could not bring myself to resist it.

Top 20 Films of 2018: #11*- The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl

 

Masaaki Yuasa’s animated film The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl has a pretty comprehensible basic structure to anchor it. In the tradition of films like American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused, it gives us some central characters and sets them off on a wild, freewheeling journey over the course of a single night’s revelry. It’s important to have that basic anchor of a familiar plot. Quite important in this case, because The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl is so set on chasing the unfamiliar and disorienting. No 2018 film goes on more strange, dizzying and occasionally downright bewildering flights of fancy than Yuasa’s superb anime odyssey. Plenty of films have covered one crazy night of jovial intoxication, but I have to say that most of them seem like sober teetotalers next to this. Night Is Short is a film that gets utterly drunk, on itself and on the boundless possibilities of the animated medium. And having that reassuring American Graffiti center to orbit around gives it the freedom to get completely smashed out of its gourd. It’s rather the same principle as a really great pop song. All you have to do is give the viewer or listener something to ground them just a bit (a nice hooky melody, let’s say) and then you have the liberty to go totally bonkers without losing your audience. Yuasa’s shimmering, splashy, hiccuping mirage of a night out film features multiple demigods, musical interludes, various musings on fate and chance, and an insane climax in which the different parts of a smitten young man’s id and ego are divided into hundreds of bickering delegates in some kind of crazed subconscious United Nations. Like a good night of partying, not every crazy interaction has to make sense. It’s about letting a phantasmagoria of wild experience wash over us. To be clear, there is a kind of logic at work in The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl, but Yuasa asks us to frequently abandon that logic. It will be right there where we left it. But it’s important to lose our heads to confusion, tangent and whimsy. This is a film about being young, romantic, and drunk, so it’s best not to cling to our rational senses too tightly. We can be sensible later. We can take stock of what we actually saw, heard and said during the next day’s hangover. Then we can shake our throbbing heads, laugh wincingly, and say, “Well, it all made sense last night.”

The Night Is Short, Walk On Girl is an ensemble comedy, but it is chiefly the story of a young college girl in the city of Kyoto, Japan. She is nameless for the entirety of the film, though she is sometimes referred to as Otome (Japanese for “maiden”) and sometimes as Kohai (meaning “Junior”, likely referring to her university year). She is with peers at a classmate’s wedding and is eager to embark on her first real night of adult drinking. The wedding is fun and all, but she is chomping at the bit to get out into the streets of town. To take in the colorful, lamp-lit streets of Kyoto and imbibe her way around the place. In voiceover, she expresses a longing to drink her own way. The film’s other major character is a nameless young man referred to as Senpei (Japanese for “Senior”), who pines for his younger classmate. He has gotten into the habit of repeatedly happening intentionally into her orbit, in the hopes of creating the illusion that fate is drawing them together. Aside from being not a little creepy, the major shortcoming in his plan is that he still hasn’t mustered up the courage to have a sustained conversation with her. Night Is Short is about two characters on a long night’s journey, each with their own distinct objectives: one to drink the world (figuratively and maybe literally too) and the other to finally get the attention of his crush. Aside from any single thing that happens (and, good Lord, a lot of ludicrous things do happen), Night Is Short is a feverish kaleidoscope of an alcoholic odyssey. It is one of the most jazzy, giddy, intoxicating and frequently hallucinatory depictions of a night on the town I’ve ever seen. The film starts as a pub crawl through Kyoto with an ever-growing number of strange, colorful supporting characters. That includes a man and woman in their late twenties who are blown away by Kohai’s formidable drinking abilities and take her under their wing for the night. There is also a lecherous art dealer, a new bride and her passed out new husband, a group of pontificating blowhards who refer to themselves as the Sophist Club, a cross-dressing university festival director, and a muscular man who superstitiously refuses to change his underwear until he can find the woman with whom he had a meet-cute one  year prior. A couple of beings in the film aren’t even human. One is a rich, miserly, and mystical old collector who Kohai challenges to a drinking contest. Another is the childlike God of Used Books, who the characters meet at a beautifully luminous outdoor used book fair.  There, Senpei hopes to find the perfect gift to tip the scales of love: a rare illustrated book that Kohai cherished in her childhood. Night Is Short depicts a night of chance encounters, a drinking contest and a spicy food eating contest, spirited discussions, and copious amounts of alcohol. I never knew that old festive ritual, the pub crawl, needed its own blissfully inventive tribute movie, but I am mighty glad to find that it exists.

Films have a magical ability to bring us back to places we have not been to in many years, or maybe been to at all. i have never been to Kyoto (and certainly not the ecstatically woozy Kyoto that exists in this film) but I have been to my early twenties. I was there for a number of years and Night Is Short transported me back to that time on a geyser of vodka tonics, rum punch and wine. I remember the anticipation and excitement of setting out into a world that now feels like yours to command; to suddenly be able to write your own adventure without any headmaster looking over your shoulder. Kohai breathlessly intones that she is ready to drink her own way. This night of excess and delirious abandon is Kohai’s maiden adult voyage and Night Is Short makes the boundless potential of that stage feel contagious, irresistible and delicious. A sweet sea breeze of limitless, youthful freedom whistles through every frame. It’s an effervescent ode to the thrill of getting to be your own person. To making your own ridiculous, misguided, gluttonous decisions. 2018 had some tremendous stories about young people coming of age, but none as bracingly impressionistic as this. Night Is Short is a symphony of excited conversation, music, glowing lights and clinking glasses, as if Yuasa figured out how to distill youth’s essence and mix it into the perfect cocktail. Kohai has her first drink of the night and marches out into what she calls “the dazzling adult world”. The film remembers the elated rush of seeing that dazzling world for the first time, and it sees it all in lush colors and elegant compositions. It is a weird, dizzying film, but also one with an invigorating love for being young, dumb and uninhibited. Even the absurdly cyclical debates of the Sophists are treated with affection. Anyone who’s been out drinking with a group surely knows that the empty, blathering drunken debate is one of life’s many pleasures. Growing up means getting to try new drinks and new ideas. We’ll learn what we like the further into adulthood we travel, but there is something so delightfully pure about that period where nothing has been determined. Moral relativism and Long Island Iced Teas probably aren’t very good for you, but there’s a time in life when it’s good to try everything out.

Night Is Short, Walk On Girl is also just a bewitching, sparkling salute to the sensory joys of a night out, whatever age you may be. Yuasa taps into Kohai’s unflagging optimism and enthusiasm as an antidote to the apathy that overtakes too many of us. The film knows most of us are not twenty anymore, but it posits that we don’t need to be to return to its joyous essence. With some of the most beautiful, effervescent and surreal imagery of the year, it reminds us the adventure of socialization waits out there for all of us. I am admittedly something of a homebody at this stage of my life. While not yet a shut-in by any means, I do often prefer the simple, inexpensive pleasure of a cold beer and a great film in the comforting confines of my own living room to a night out in public. But the beautiful lines and bright colors of Night Is Short made me want to leap from my couch and head out to the bright lights of the nearest city (Oakland in my case). Kohai says she wishes the Pacific Ocean were made of rum so she could drink from it. This film made me feel a similar kind of heedless, ineffable, nonsensical appetite. A thirst for a world of new flavors, aromas, sights, and sounds. The movie made me feel like I wanted to taste everything, see everything, listen to every piece of music and meet everyone. “Everybody get ready!,” Yuasa’s animated gem cries with some kind of fancy bellini in its hand. “We’re going for a night on the town!” The film knows that humans are social creatures who can sometimes forget they are meant to be social. We can forget how connected we are. Getting out of our houses and our own self-conscious heads isn’t always easy. But that’s what the drinks are for, as well as for tasting. With a joyful attitude and enough alcohol, we can all remember that none of us are alone. The great virtue of the pub crawl is that it calls for us to all leave our houses and go stumbling along together.

Night Is Short, Walk On Girl is an eminently thoughtful film, but I don’t want to place undue emphasis on its ideas, when it is, first and foremost, a film about pure, blissful, saturating sensation. Describing it too much in intellectual or thematic terms would feel like trying to convert Singin’ In the Rain into novelized form. Maybe it can be done, but you’d be missing the real essence of the thing. To paraphrase the producer character from that sensory masterpiece, some things you really need to see in pictures. Night Is Short is a deluge of color and sound that transcends words. Kohai dreams of being swept away in the luminous glow and abundant libations of the big city, of being awash in the pure, inebriating here and now of adulthood. The goal is not to describe the ocean of rum, but to take a long, refreshing dip in it. Yuasa has made a film of giddy immediacy. It’s a thing to be appreciated just for how it looks and feels. Kohai loves picking out cocktails because each one is its own specific, boozy bauble, with its own distinct look and taste. She tells us that each one is like its own jewel. I think films like this are the same way. Beyond their logic and their messages is the wordless pleasure of seeing and tasting something unique and beautiful. Night Is Short is a kaleidoscope of splashy colors and sprightly visual wit. At times, it feel like a jazzy Jacques Tati film seen through a hallucinatory anime prism. It’s strange, vibrant, vivid, and sweet. A bubbly cocktail for the senses and one whose most bizarre qualities only make it that much more fun to gawk at and drink from. What really is Night Is Short, Walk On Girl? I don’t know that I can tell you exactly. It’s a film. An energetic, odd little cinematic concoction shaken together by a master mixologist and designed to make you feel buzzy, silly and loose. It’s there to be sipped and savored. I can’t say much more than that. You’ll just have to taste it and see what it does for you.

Obviously it was very much to my taste. It’s a film that I find to be every kind of refreshing and delicious. The kind of film where I encourage an extra viewing just for your senses alone. There is also a small part me that wonders if it’s almost too delightfully sinful. What  I mean by that is I really can’t think of a recent film, maybe any film, that makes alcohol look this flagrantly pretty and enticing. To be fair, the film makes a great many things look beautiful and delectable, from food to art to used books of all things. It’s a film with an insatiable appetite for all of life’s pleasures. Still, I’m not even going to posit the question of whether Night Is Short, Walk On Girl glorifies alcohol. It absolutely does. It doesn’t make binge drinking seem kind of appealing. It’s a veritable Sistine Chapel ceiling dedicated to the art of putting it away. Even when the film becomes about things outside of imbibing like a champion, it always feels totally plastered. It’s a full-tilt Pentecostal revival for the born-again alcoholic in your soul. Night Is Short, Walk On Girl is not a film that is out to criticize intoxication, thoughtfully contextualize it or portray it with even a modicum of restraint. It’s much too in love with every delicious thing under the Sun for such prim restraint. Beneath its clean lines and adorable lead protagonist and jaunty score beats an unapologetically hedonistic heart. And the most sinful thing about it all is how innocent it makes that hedonism feel. It makes wanton inebriation seem like the most wonderful, fundamentally decent expression of inner self. It baptizes us in Midori and sparkling wine as if a long night of boozing is the one thing left that can save our sober souls. I’m not saying the film’s view of alcohol is without complication. Night Is Short, Walk On Girl surely isn’t a model of prudent habits and rational behavior. But, to its credit, it would never claim to be. It is driven by the pure desire to awaken the fun-loving libertine inside us all. A love letter to sweet, sweet vice. Please enjoy responsibly.

Top 20 Films of 2018: #11- Support the Girls

Andrew Bujalski’s latest scruffy, lovingly small-scale glimpse into a tiny subculture starts off with 2018’s most effectively humble credits sequence. Support the Girls is set at a Hooter-style restaurant (or breastaurant, as they are sometimes called) just off some nondescript Texas highway, and we open on that same highway. Family sedans, RVs and big rigs whoosh by and, under the din, we hear the strains of an upbeat pop country song. The song has to compete with the buzz of traffic, almost as if we are hearing it diegetically. As if the music was coming like a siren song from the open door of Double Whammies, the mainstream family sports bar that will be the film’s central setting. The names of the cast appear on screen in multi-colored handwritten scrawls, as if they were from the name tags that the restaurant’s servers wear. One of many, many things I love about this warm, intimate, and insightful little film is how well it sets its tiny scene. Support the Girls is a film set entirely at a kitschy family sports restaurant and the drab strip malls and plain Texan suburbs around it, but that prefab world is bursting with more emotion and life than all the sterile speaker outlets and and bland smoothie shops in the world can contain. This setting could have so easily been condescended to, but that is not Andrew Bujalski’s way. These surroundings may appear unattractive and soulless, but it takes Support the Girls less than a third of its zippy 93-minute running time to make these spaces feel lively, idiosyncratic, and full of affection. When you hear that a film is set at a small Hooters knockoff, you expect a certain degree of tackiness and exploitation, and there is certainly an atmosphere of cheery tackiness that is part of the vibe at Double Whammies. But Support the Girls is the opposite of an exploitation film. Its goal is to go into an anonymous breast-themed bar (its name is a cheeky reference to boobs) and find real, lovable, and specific characters there. To remind us that empathy and humanity exist everywhere, even in a place where women are expected to earn their living with tight-fitting t-shirts and heavy flirtation. Support the Girls insists on their specificity, their integrity, and the value as human beings.

Support the Girls explores a space that caters predominantly to men, but it is all about women. It is about being a strong, self-sufficient woman in places that don’t always make that easy. It introduces a number of servers, managers, cooks, and customer, but it largely focuses on a three women. It is mostly about a single day in their lives. The first person we meet is Lisa, (a magnificent, sensitive and subtle Regina Hall; ask me on the right day and I’ll call this the best performance of 2018) an African-American woman in her forties who we meet crying in her car on the morning before work. Lisa is a smart, accommodating and endlessly resourceful manager at Double Whammies, the kind of person who spends her every waking moment solving problems, putting out fires and keeping people happy. On this single, taxing day, she will have to fire one of her cooks when his cousin is caught trying to break into the restaurant’s safe room (through the air ducts). Even this man she fires leaves tells her that she is a generous person. She lets him finish out his shift. Support the Girls is a fly-on-the-wall look at the culture of this local sports bar, but its central plot is about Lisa dutifully marching through the worst work day of her life. On this day, the always professional and honorable Lisa has to do something a little questionable. One of the girls on her wait staff has run into some legal trouble. During a drunken spat, the server hit her hot-headed, aggressive boyfriend with her car. Lisa knows she will need money for a lawyer, so she quietly arranges a car wash in the restaurant parking lot to raise funds for her. This could get Lisa fired if her boss, the restaurant’s short-tempered and chauvinistic co-owner, finds out. This is the kind of high-stress day where your hands are full before it even starts. The kind of day where you would hope not much else is going on. There is unfortunately quite a lot else going on. There is an attempted break-in, she has to interview new serving girls, the owner is in a fuming panic about a big national breastaurant chain moving in across the street, she’s trying to find an apartment for her recently separated husband to move into, the cable needs to be fixed before the evening’s big televised boxing match, her best employee Danyelle (hip-hop artist Shayna McHayle, a hilariously sardonic revelation) needs a babysitter for her sick son, she has to fire a second employee (for getting a terrible, unconcealable Steph Curry tattoo on her side), and her other best employee Maci (a superb Haley Lu Richardson, playing the living embodiment of a confetti cannon) may have started dating a regular customer three times her age. Support the Girls is a character study about Lisa, Danyell and Maci, and a lovably ramshackle ethnography of their working environment. Above all, it is a lovely, funny, spirited salute to women who help hold their small worlds together. To women who wade ahead through the swamps of sexist society and light a torch for others to follow.

Support the Girls is about women making a place for themselves, but it does have a lot to say to, and about, men. The male presence is inescapable for women, and that is particularly true in a place like Double Whammies, which markets to a particularly libidinous breed of man. The master stroke of Support the Girls is that it refuses to tolerate misogyny in that space. Lisa and her girls know that they are basically selling the idea of sex; that some level of titillation is part of their trade. But that does not mean that the girls are there to be demeaned or degraded. Lisa has a zero tolerance policy on disrespect and we see her enforce it vigilantly. Sad dudes may be her business, as she tells her estranged husband, but that doesn’t give these male egos license to run roughshod over women. Support the Girls is realistic about men. Quite a few are rude and condescending to the servers who work so tirelessly to make them happy. Some are well-meaning, if a little oblivious. Some are gentlemen. And some, like Danyelle’s 10 year-old son McWray, are still young and unmolded. They are ready to learn what being a strong and decent man really is, if someone can provide them with the right guidance. McWray sits at a booth and draws a ninja for LIsa. He says his name is Ninja Guy. Lisa softly reminds him that there could be a woman under that ninja garb. Support the Girls knows men can be selfish and crass, but it holds a resilient hope that confident, capable women can shape healthier attitudes and mold men who are worth a damn. Support the Girls strides into a space that most would think of as sleazy and exploitative and holds men accountable there. It is the female gaze that matters here, and what these women are scanning the horizon for is a better class of man. It is a chipper, effervescent little film but it does not budge an inch in its insistence that every woman deserves respect, no matter what they happen to wear to work. Any man who has an issue with that basic principle can go get buzzed at a less dignified breastaurant.

In a way, it’s helpful to think of Support the Girls  as the year’s best, most unassuming superhero movie. LIsa refers to Danyelle as a real-life Wonder Woman. She reminds Danyelle’s son that women can be heroes too. And, like Superman with an indomitably cheery demeanor and an amiable Southern drawl, Lisa herself is always circle this small strip mall world and restoring order. She sees everything and fixes everything. She knows everyone, from the police officers to the regular customers to the juice shop managers in the next lot. Danyelle is a sarcastic, wisecracking, endlessly capable jack of all trades. Bubbly, joyful Maci is an irrepressible ray of sunshine, the bantering, hula-hooping Robin to Lisa’s Batman. These are three of the best female role models in recent cinema; each of them an utterly distinct testament to female empowerment and solidarity. And they are brought to vivid, sparkling life by three of the best performances of the year. At one point, Lisa explains to McWray how she comes up with the weekly schedule and her focused tone makes it sound like the universe depends on it. A very small universe does depend on it. Support the Girls is effervescent and giggly, but these characters and their trials have a real weight to them. In every viewing I’ve had, the impact and insight of the film has snuck up on me. This little film about female dynamos feels more consequential than a thousand Marvel doomsday scenarios. The not so simple act of being a working woman ends up holding a power that rumbles beneath the film’s charming, scruffy exterior. Like its optimistic, perseverant main characters, Support the Girls is soulful and emotionally grounded while also being irresistibly light on its feet.

On top of being a heartfelt feminist screwball comedy, Support the Girls is also a terrifically sharp workplace comedy. The art of a good workplace comedy has a lot to do with making a confined space and its inhabitants feel dynamic and interesting. One must make the small hallways and back offices feel lived in, even loved. On what may be her last day as a manager at Double Whammies, Lisa picks up some free heart stickers from the local smoothie shop. She starts affectionately sticking them on the walls and door jams of her little breastaurant world. To say that Support the Girls makes Double Whammies feel loved would be an understatement. As is her way, Lisa spreads love, joy, and self-esteem wherever she goes. Double Whammies is far from a perfect workplace, between its uncaring owners and sometimes grabby customers, but Lisa is too positive and resolute to to admit defeat to the occasional sexism and negativity. So long as she is manager of this place, the girls are going to feel safe and supported (the title, Support the Girls, is a randy breast-based double entendre but it is also literally about women supporting each other), and there are going be bright red heart stickers up in the break room. The film is very much about how work places (and all places really) are colored and defined by the people inside of them. It is a love letter to great bosses (Lisa really is the Fezziwig of hypersexualized family dining) and anyone who makes their own world better for being in them. Radiant, self-respecting women like Lisa, Danyelle, and Maci cannot help but infuse the darkest, most toxic spaces with love and humanity. Now just think how great this place could be with even a few more good men following their lead.

Then again, if the men of the world can’t be bothered to make the spaces of this world healthy, loving, and good for the world’s women, maybe they don’t deserve those women. And in that case, who really cares what becomes of those spaces? Double Whammies is presented as the quirky Mom and Pop sports bar of this town (though both “Mom” and “Pop” are just two chauvinistic, white dudes). Still, we’re led to see it as maybe preferable to Mancave, the soulless, uber-corporate megachain setting up shop across town. But if neither place values its women, what really is the difference? If the underdog is unappreciative of the women who are its heart and soul, that doesn’t sound much like an underdog worth rooting for. If the so-called authentic place is sexist and cavalier toward its women, why not just let it burn or go belly up? Support the Girls turns out to have a righteous working class spirit to complement its breezy feminism. It’s the kind of joyously angry, full-throated punk song that both Bruce Springsteen and Bikini Kill would approve of. Support the Girls may be a terrific look at a specific space, but spaces mean nothing without their people. That goes for breastaurants, cities, and nations. Any civilization that does not support its girls can collapse, crumble, vanish from the face of the Earth. The people inside those obsolete systems, the human beings truly deserving of our empathy and respect, will be just fine. They will always land on their feet. They will not have to look long to find each other again. A good woman is not hard to find.

Top 20 Films of 2018: #12- Eighth Grade

The nitpicky critic in me tends to steer away from any material extraneous to the film. I basically don’t care about what a director or a performer is like outside of their work, and, while I enjoy a good behind-the-scenes anecdote as much as the next person, I typically don’t need to hear about it or write about it in a film review. It all feels a little too extracurricular to me. But occasionally I have to make an exception. Sometimes a bit of lore or trviia from outside of the films feels so on brand that it naturally becomes part of how I think about the film. Like Mick Jagger turning the set of Performance into a months-long hedonistic garden of vice (thereby turning co-star James Fox into a lifelong conservative). Or Stanley Kubrick pushing Shelley Duvall to the brink of sanity with an ungodly amount of takes in The Shining. Sometimes a story from the film just feels too right as an extension of the film itself. In the case of Bo Burnham’s pitch-perfectly anxious, subtly empathetic adolescent character-study-cum-mood-piece, I think of a production photograph. The 28 year-old first-time director and his even greener leading performer, 16 year-old Elsie Fisher, (subtle, lovable, and ever so relatably awkward as the film’s 14 year-old protagonist) are seated on the floor of a middle school hallway, leaning their backs against some lockers. They appear to just be in the middle of some conversation, laughing and listening to one another. It’s nothing so surprising. I imagine most directors have friendly chats with their actors, figuring out what the next scene will need to really sing. But there’s an understated empathyto this moment that is part and parcel with the film. This is the story of a shy, fumbling eighth grade girl, as directed by a white man in his late twenties. Burnham knows he is not telling his own story. He is telling the story of young girls like Elsie Fisher or really any woman who remembers being that age. His job is to be empathetic and open and the learn everything he can from her. To make her feel happy and open and at ease with exploring this young woman’s inner life. I see this photograph and am not only moved by their sweet, easy rapport (while extracurricular material is still on the table, Fisher and Burnham were also an adorably chummy fixture on the 2018 awards circuit, before that mean girl they call Oscar kept them out of the big party). That photograph also just makes sense as an essential document of the film that follows. What makes Eighth Grade such a lovely and beautifully observant character study is that the man in the director’s chair knows to mostly give the reins to his superb female actor. She is there to make this story resonate through her vivid characterization. It’s his job to give her the space to tell that story and to capture it as perceptively as he can. Most of all, it’s his job to ensure that the audience follows his lead and listens attentively to this sweet, soft-spoken young woman. Bo Burnham and Elsie Fisher give us one of the most empathetic duets in recent cinema. That picture bears witness to their harmony and chemistry, though nothing can compare with the what they have lovingly put up on screen.

Eighth Grade covers an awkward, shy 14 year-old girl’s last few months of middle school. Kayla Day knows she is at a sensitive and precarious stage, as most people her age are. Kayla has gotten used to feeling awkward over the past few years. What seems to bother her more is being seen as shy by her peers. At her school’s annual awards assembly for graduating students, she wins Most Quiet and her reaction to this dubious  honor is one of the most mortified facial expressions you’ll see in a film. While Kayla has trouble talking to her classmates, tongue-tied is not the way she sees herself. Somewhere beneath her timid exterior is a vibrant conversationalist and deep thinker. The film’s recurring framing device is a series of teenage social advice videos that she puts up on her sparsely viewed YouTube channel. Eighth Grade is a coming-of-age character study about an insecure, kind-hearted young lady striving and struggling to navigate the turbulent transition to high school, and to close out those three puberty-addled years that are the bane of so many adolescent existences. At times, it also feels ever so slightly like an experimental film. It’s full of frenetic editing, moody lulls, and artfully jarring sound design. Part of that unsettling aura comes from British composer Anna Meredith’s terrifically effective electronic panic attack of a score. An even larger part comes from Bo Burnham’s sharp instincts for amplifying mood. Eighth Grade consists of a number of setpieces that astutely capture the anxiety and guarded elation of those early teenage years. Kayla gets invited to an aloof classmate’s pool party. She gets the chance to socialize with a group of high schoolers and catches a glimpse of adolescent challenges still to come. She also pines for a cocksure, absurdly stoic cool boy and starts a friendship with a hyper-talkative, gangly boy whose energy seems much more in tune with her own. When not braving the tween trenches, Kayla spends her time at home trying to ignore her well-meaning and intermittently exasperating dork of a single father (Josh Hamilton,  terrifically endearing and sympathetic), and burying herself in the simultaneously stimulating and soothing deluge of social media. Eighth Grade is a strange but perfectly tailored hybrid of character study, gripping drama, and observational comedy (until now, Bo Burnham was known for his standup comedy, which often commented on youth culture in the Internet age). Its chief strength may be that Burnham infuses his film with bold, stylistic flourishes to recreate the heightened unease of middle school life while always keeping one foot firmly in empathetic territory. He sees this time of life through a woozy, distorted lens, but he always looks at his protagonist with clear compassion and warm concern.

Still, Bo Burnham whips up quite a temperamental little storm for his timid but intrepid heroine to weather. Before Kayla’s journey to the shores of high school is complete, she will have experienced a fairly constant stream of embarassment, resisted a genuinely unsettling unwanted sexual advance, and gone to a pool party that feel like a social war zone. Eighth Grade is often very funny, but Burnham also treats all of this seriously. Even when we are invited to laugh, there is nothing glib in his treatment of the hurdles young people like Kayla face. He respects what a nauseating and frightening thing it can be to be 14 years old, especially for a young woman still finding her identity. Burnham shoots with an inventive livewire energy that makes every moment its own tiny powder keg. We hear the egg shells crunching under Kayla’s feet and we watch her every subtle, anxious facial expression as she figures out how to get through the next adolescent survival test. It would be hyperbole to say that Eighth Grade has elements of horror, but it often has a buzzy aura that is not a thousand miles removed from a thriller. Simply put, it is one of 2018’s most stunningly original creations. A film about being a teenager with notes of pulse-pounding tension and paranoia that is still completely sweet and funny at its core. It’s the classic case of a chef adding some wild, unexpected ingredient to a dish (putting Sriracha sauce in a dessert, let’s say) and having it not only work but really make the dish. Eighth Grade leaves such a strong impression because stories of adolescent angst are so rarely told with this kind of idiosyncratic immediacy. Bo Burnham wants us to put ourselves in Kayla’s brain; to experience the feverish calustrophobia of her viewpoint. Burnham knows there may be no age more nerve-rattlingly subjective than puberty, when looming adulthood, your own changing body, and the moody insecurities of your peers all conspire to make you feel more perpetually off balance than you ever though possible.

Bo Burnham is also interested in the subjective dissonance between how young teenagers see themselves, how they want to be seen, and hos they see each other. The Kayla we see in her videos is still a humble young woman, but one with the intelligence and confidence to put her thoughts out there. She wants people to see her as outgoing and outspoken. Her awkward but supportive father reminds her that the very fact of having her own YouTube channel shows that she is that dynamic, interesting, well-rounded person she wants to be. The problem is it feels like no one is actually listening to that version of her voice. None of her peers at school are seeking her out for her insights, and so those thoughts mostly stay rattling around in her own already hectic brain. She is both the engaged and engaging raconteur she wants to be and the reticent wallflower who still hasn’t figured out how to loudly speak her truth in public. It is nothing new to say that puberty can be something of a paradox. A time where we are trying on an entire closet’s worth of competing identities. Elsie Fisher stutters and painfully draws out certain words as if she’s at the first table read for the script to her own life. What makes Eighth Grade so compassionately observant is how Bo Burnham sees all adolescents as actors who haven’t quite gotten their characters down yet. Even the characters you would probably identify as mean girls are painted with charitable, humane understanding. They also seem to be frantically ad-libbing their way through this crazy play, trying to workshop the role of who they will be for the rest of their lives. What none of them presently realize is that they will rewrite these parts dozens and dozens of times more. Eighth Grade feels for them all. It is a comedy, but Bo Burnham is not laughing at Kayla or any of her classmates. He is laughing with them, or more accurately with the people they will be five years from now.

Eighth Grade is a bittersweet thing of beauty. It gives us a wince and a smile, though the early going probably contains more wincing than smiling. This is the nature of the film’s journey and it turns out to be a splendid choice on Burnham’s part. The majority of the film is an arrestingly cringey dramedy of teenage manners. Eighth Grade takes Kayla and us through the miserable, sweaty gauntlet of the eighth grade, adding welcome doses of humor to keep any of the awkwardness and humiliation from being too much to bear. But as it draws closer to its conclusion, Burnham starts to add more sunlight and air to his suffocating maze. Eighth Grade has an uncanny knack for capturing adolescent dread, but its goal is not to simply provide a way to relive pubescent discomfort. This is not some exercise in vicarious teenage desperation. In the end, Bo Burnham loves Kayla too much to have Eight Grade be a chamber of horrors. Quite the opposite, it is really a reminder that this fraught, ridiculous time passes and that we emerge on the other side of the tempest. We all get better at being the selves we really want to be and we learn that toying around with the recipe of our own identities is part of life. The film’s kind but candid outlook on this time of life has helped it to resonate with a number of adult film lovers, who can remember this time with all its intensity, melodrama, and embarrassment. The alternating strains of comedy and disquieting anxiety are in the film for a very good reason. We can all look back at puberty now and have chuckle at it, while still remembering how genuinely disorienting it was. We can recall the fears we felt And then, finally and wonderfully, we can have a laugh at those fears as well.

But more than what Eighth Grade communicates to people who have already been through it, I hope it gives some kind of perspective and solace to any young person who is going through this period right now. Or is about to go through it. Like the videos Kayla films for her older selves to watch, Eighth Grade wants to be a wise, sympathetic hand on the shoulder of the young. And who knows what a current eighth grader will make of it? This communication from a man in his late twenties who has long since passed through this phase. As pitch-perfect as I find the film to be, maybe a 14 year-old of today (or decades from now) will see things that it misses about the experience. That’s probably to be expected. With a film like this,  the empathy is what is really important. The very act of just trying to understand the experiences of a person in different shoes than your own. What matters is that Eighth Grade works with such sweet, gentle candor to place itself and its audience back in that state of mind. It is a wise and winningly empathetic film. And one with no ego, no lecture to give. It seeks to give voice to one of the most honest and relatable portraits of an adolescent young woman I’ve ever seen captured on film. Its aim is solely to see her; to view her desires, hopes, and anxieties with clear, generous eyes. Eighth Grade is a wonderful addition to 2018’s bountiful crop of films. The only thing we need more is to give the Kayla Days of the world more chances to tell these stories personally. To be fair, the fact that Bo Burnham has made a marvelous female coming of age story doesn’t correct the larger issue of letting women craft their own narratives. A film centered on a female character finding her voice is not remotely the same thing as actually giving women more voice in film. With that said, this industry’s glaring issues are not the fault of this lovely film and I have no desire to look a cinematic gift horse in the mouth. Eighth Grade is still the kind of film this world needs more of. One that values and loves women. One that admires them, believes in them and listens intently to what they will say next.

Top 20 Films of 2018: #13- Hereditary

To begin, I am pointedly not going to talk about the Horror Renaissance again. Masterful horror films from exciting new voices are coming out at such a reliable tilt these days that the term is starting to feel condescending. As if the genre’s potential for depth, stunning characterization and overall greatness should be any surprise by now. At this point, if you don’t already know that some of the most brilliant, emotionally nuanced and insightful films of the last decade have been in the horror genre, I’ll just remind you that they exist and that every cinema lover owes it to themselves to seek them out. Yes, horror is rolling along with supreme confidence right now and that is a great thing for film in general. What’s really been heartening isn’t just how many great horror films have come out in recent years. It’s the sheer diversity of this boom. The number of different kinds of stories that have been told using the tools of horror cinema. The sinister and subtle feminism of Robert Eggers’ The VVitch. The evocative blend of John Carpenter nostalgia and AIDS paranoia that colors It Follows. The gorgeously chilling chiaroscuro phantasmagoria of Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook. At its best, horror has an endless palette of colors to paint with and an unlimited number of interesting and important things to say. Ari Aster’s brilliant debut film Hereditary is a film with a lot of insights and ideas on its mind. About the burden of upbringing, the anguish of loss, and the all-consuming obsession of grief. But beyond its psychological depths, Hereditary is one of 2018’s most punishing cinematic forces of nature. Few of the year’s films operated on a more visceral level. Hereditary is just one of the most deeply, terribly felt horror films in quite some time. Its deep and unsettling themes aside, no film conjured a more palpable and overwhelming aura of anxiety, sorrow, and nameless dread. If you’ve ever woken up with a particularly savage hangover, muscles aching, face damp with cool, sickly sweat and an indescribable throb of guilt and regret pulsating in your temples, that might go a small portion of the way toward describing what it was like to watch Hereditary for the first time. What it was like to marinate in its dankly suffocating, ominous mood. Here is a film completely suffused in the unshakable feeling that things are going very wrong and that even more terrible things lie just beyond the horizon. For all its incredible skill at conjuring terrifying, stomach-twisting imagery, its most unnerving quality may be its ability to continually amplify its own sense of foreboding. As horrific as Hereditary gets, you can never escape the dread that this is only going to get worse. It may sound like a strange endorsement, but we all need to vicariously experience a little doom and dread sometimes. You really haven’t taken in the full scope of 2018’s film riches until you’ve seen this stunning high watermark in feel-bad cinema.

Hereditary opens on the text of a 78 year-old woman’s funeral invitation and that opening is about as mournful as it sounds. Still, the sad, discordant tones of Colin Stetson’s eerie saxophone score promise us much more sorrow to come. Mourning a dead grandmother will really just be the very tip of the iceberg here. The deceased is the mother of Annie Graham (a brilliant Toni Collette, not so much going through the stages of grief as pounding them down like shots of whiskey), a diorama artist in Montana. Annie lives with her mild-mannered Irish husband (Gabriel Byrne, dialing back all his intensity to play a meekly protective warm cup of milk of a man), and her two children, sixteen year-old Peter (Alex Wolff, tremendous and rattled beyond belief) and thirteen year-old Charlie (Milly Shapiro), an eccentrically melancholy young girl with an instantly foreboding nut allergy. So we meet the Graham family in the midst of a serious bout of bereavement and their lives proceed, over a period of some months, to get much sadder and uglier. Thirty minutes haven’t even passed when something terrible and grotesque happens and the Grahams end up burying a second family member under even more tragic circumstances. Peter becomes consumed with guilt. The father becomes an even more ineffectual shell of non-confrontational comfort. And Annie becomes an angry, grieving, unhinged force of nature. She finds no solace in the local grief counseling sessions at the town recreational center. She foams and accuses and lashes out at her milquetoast husband and the moody, bereft son she not so secretly blames for her misery. The only small comfort she seems to find is in Joan (the indispensable Ann Dowd), a kindly older woman she meets in the parking lot after a counseling session. She has recently lost a child and a grandchild in a drowning accident and she has a way of speaking plainly and listening attentively to Annie. For a very short time, it seems like Annie could find some semblance of stability. And then Joan brings Annie home and convinces her to take part in a séance. A séance that seems to successfully conjure the spirit of Joan’s departed grandchild. Annie sees a chance to maybe reach out to her lost loved one and she forces her reluctant family to participate, much to their discomfort and trepidation. It’s hard to say much more without giving the whole fearsome, gutting rollercoaster away, but suffice to say that Annie’s read on the spirit world is wrongheaded and nothing she does in the name of assuaging her or her family’s suffering works. In Hereditary, the unbearably sad becomes the unthinkably tragic and then hurtles speedily into the realm of the unimaginably sinister and macabre. Ari Aster ratchets up the dark and terrible vibes of his domestic chamber of horrors with masterful aplomb. He starts with a funeral for an estranged mother and confidently announces that this is nowhere near rock bottom. When the film ended, I wasn’t sure that I’d even seen the bottom at all. Hereditary feels like an extended free fall into an abyss that never ends.

The best way to put it might be to say that Hereditary starts as a harrowing study in grief and that it never really stops being that. It’s just that it then proceeds to find a portal to Hell underneath grief’s floorboards. It finds so much devastation, dysfunction, and trauma under its initial bereavement, that normal grief seems benign by comparison. That said, the early scenes of Hereditary are so crushingly perceptive about grief that it would already be a beautifully, relentlessly upsetting piece of work if it went no further than a family’s loss. Hereditary is such a tense and superbly crafted work of art that it almost feels wrong to single out the acting. But I can’t very well not highlight Toni Colette’s gripping primal howl of a career best performance. Before candlelit ceremonies and cryptic incantations and demonic portents enter the picture, Hereditary already feels like a cursed object just because of the sheer depths of Annie Graham’s pain, anger, and almost animalistic rage at the world. Gabriel Byrne and Alex Wolff are also brilliant, with each actor bringing nuance to starkly different studies in how people process tragedy. One of them exploding outward into a supernova of teeth-gritting anguish. One curling up into a tweedy cocoon of politeness and domestic obligation. And one trying and utterly failing to rationalize and medicate away his feelings of personal responsibility for his family’s torment. The depth of characterization in Hereditary is stunning and ensures that it feels painfully grounded no matter how wild its plot machinations become. If Hereditary were nothing but a very somber domestic drama about heartache and blame, it would be one of the most breathtakingly excruciating ever committed to film; an account of bewildering grief and familial torment to proudly stand with the likes of In the Bedroom. Before the quicksand of even more sinister forces swallows the Grahams whole, they are already locked in a battle with all-consuming bereavement that they are completely powerless to win.

As elementally strong as the film shows grief to be, however, the truly primal, downright primeval power at work is right there in the film’s title. Hereditary. The weight of family (genes, family histories, destructive cycles of behavior passed down through generations) is an unbearably heavy thing in Hereditary. Ari Aster presents family as a kind of blood pact forged years before we were even born, from which there is no escape. And again, Aster’s gift here is really how much menace he can conjure before he even turns to the paranormal. The first twenty minutes of the film hold the most nauseating gut punch in all of 2018 cinema, and it’s all just the result of normal, sadly plausible human behavior. Hereditary makes the long shadows of ancestry and upbringing feel terrible and burdensome before a single supernatural thing happens. The mere mixture of horrible loss and family miscommunication is enough to form a perfect storm of animosity and foreboding. The most awful demons are already inside the Graham house before any seances are held. After the film’s second funeral (in which Ari Aster’s camera appears to bury the Grahams and us along with the departed), the feelings of sorrow and anger, both spoken and unspoken, become absolutely palpable. They radiate in the air like a heat wave. There is no shortage of stories about toxic relationships between parents and their children, but Heredeitary feels like some kind of dreadful scientific breakthrough in capturing domestic unrest. The amount of white-hot vitriol Toni Collete puts behind the phrase, “I am your mother”, has a staggering stinging power. Even a biting look at mother-child tension like Coraline feels like a warm cup of chamomile tea next to Hereditary’s tumbler of vinegar and turpentine. And it’s not just how Ari Aster taps into the heightened emotions and feelings of obligation that can really only come from our blood ties. It’s also how he strips family of any connotation of comfort or affection. He puts the concept of family into some demonic still and boils away all the love and understanding and unconditional acceptance. What remains is the kind of anger that you can only feel for a person when you know their neuroses inside and out; the kinds of pointed blame and torment that family members have the unique ability to inflict on one another, because they alone know how. Hereditary is about the ties of kinship slipping loose and then reforming into a noose around the necks of our main characters. Everything warm and familiar about our flesh and blood  is blanched away and all that remains is the sterile, unfeeling sensibility of that title. “Family” sounds like a warm hug and a heart-to-heart chat. “Hereditary” sounds like a homicide report.

Hereditary is about feeling dwarfed and defeated by forces too massive to fathom. That force might be grief and it might be the deterministic feeling that our own DNA and family histories have conspired against us. The other elemental force operating here is a sense of guilt too great to even name. Annie Graham blames her estranged mother for her own feelings of inadequacy. And she knows that her mother put blame on her. She does not even fully know what she was blamed for and it doesn’t matter. “I am blamed,” she stammers tearfully. Annie blames her own bloodline, full of disorder, depression and suicide. She grits her teeth at a husband who hides from the full weight of their tragedy. She blames Peter for their latest loss, and Peter in turn blames himself and her. And the father blames Annie and her dysfunctional genes for obliterating any sense of decorum and decency in their rapidly devolving household. Hereditary is a nightmare of guilt and blame so powerful that it sucks every health emotion into a screaming vortex. When the story takes a turn for the demonic and outwardly evil, it’s terrifying but it also feels like a natural extension of what came before it. Ari Aster shows us a family that has traveled through so much blistering pain and guilt that the idea of anything ever being normal for them again is laughable. It makes sense that the film finally careens into pure, grisly phantasmagoria because there really is nowhere else to go. Devastation as powerful as what the Grahams experience is not something you just come back from. If the film didn’t conclude with bloody sacrifice, arcane ritual and hellish omens, I’m not sure where it would even end up. Ari Aster sees the Grahams, and maybe all human beings, as being hopelessly swept up in the tides of cosmically powerful forces. Somewhere beneath the surface of our routines and our practiced civility lies an ocean of despair. Many of us are fortunate enough to never become aware of it, but it is always there. The awful potential for everything to be taken away from us. And if you are unfortunate enough to fall into that ocean, what can you really do then? There are simply forces and feelings that are too strong to fend off or struggle against. Hereditary is about being caught in a rip tide of terrible circumstances that were set in motion long before we even got here.

All that makes Hereditary the rare horror film that works on a psychological level while also being totally above and beyond things like ideas and themes. It is a tremendously smart film with a lot of subtext to dig into. But the further this haunting chain of events progresses, the less its intellectual qualities matter. I spoke to a few friends who are fans of Hereditary but who expressed some disappointment in the film’s ending. They didn’t completely care for how explicitly demonic the film becomes, as if it turned the film’s ominous subtext into something too literal. I understand the criticism, but to me this is one of the film’s great strengths. There are plenty of great horror films that operate in ways that are largely symbolic and I love them for it. But too much reliance on the symbolic and metaphorical can rob a terrifying film of its urgency. Even a grueling new horror masterpiece like The Babadook leaves some ambiguity as to how much of the terror we see really happens. The film can be enjoyed for its cathartic scares, but it also leaves some some room to explain away those scares as metaphors. Maybe the horror was just there to make us think and now we can turn the movie off and put what we saw out of our minds. That cerebral, symbolic quality can give us a little bit of safe distance. Hereditary is absolutely not that kind of horror film. Its aim, first and foremost, is to make us feel profoundly upset. There is no protective intellectual buffer here. The grisly, ecstatically shocking imagery does have deeper meaning, but everything we see in the film is also very much happening and that lends the film a dreadful immediacy. Ari Aster’s fiendishly frightening new horror classic flings its doomed family and its hapless audience into a maelstrom of menacing events. It’s a broken elevator plummeting into the dark heart of the Earth; the kind of bracingly bleak work that knocks the wind out of you because, Satanic rituals and all, it feels so distressingly real. Even at its most fantastical, this is always the tale of a recognizably scarred family losing their sanity, each other and their own damned heads. Hereditary is a journey into the bowels of Hell and there is nothing the least bit metaphorical about that. Metaphor would be too  easy an escape hatch for a cinematic wringer like this. This film made me feel absolutely dreadful, but also perversely giddy. Every ounce of anxiety, fear, sorrow, and foreboding I’d felt in the past year was right up there on the screen. I hadn’t left a movie so thoroughly miserable in years. And it was glorious.

Top 20 Films of 2018: #14- The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Around five years ago, I had a little epiphany watching The Big Lebowski for the umpteenth time. It was a warm summer Saturday night and I was watching it outside on a good friend’s patio. I had a paper plate full of perfectly cooked steak in one hand and a sturdy little cocktail in the other and I was really enjoying letting the Coen Brothers’ shaggy comedy masterpiece just wash over me. The way you only can when the sound and feel of a film have become second nature to you. That was the night I realized there are some films that have a musical kind of quality to them And I don’t mean that they literally are musicals or even that they necessarily have to rely heavily on music. What I mean is they have a sense of rhythm and pacing in their dialogue and their sound and their editing that is akin to listening to a song. It feels natural in the way that only great music does. They can be appreciated just for the pure sensory pleasure of how they sound and feel; how all the parts just click together. I think this is something that Joel and Ethan Coen grasp better than any other modern director I can name. They delight in cadence and subtle pauses and repetitions. Images and phrases pop up again and again like refrains. It is a huge reason why, if pressed, I would call the Coens my favorite living filmmakers. Their films are not always easy viewings. They have a fascination with bitterness, folly, and human cruelty. But there is an ease I feel in watching them. Regardless of subject and theme, their films hum along like finely tuned symphonies. They are cohesive not just as narratives, but in the way it feels to sit back and take them in. And that effortless sense of rhythm and timing is in evidence once more in their musically titled Western anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. I initially watched the film when it debuted in October of 2018 and I liked it fine. Still, I told myself it was “minor Coens” and moved on. Then, over the next day or so, a thing happened. A thing I would call funny if I hadn’t seen it happen with so many Coen Brothers films in the past. I kept repeating lines to myself and poring over scenes in my brain. So I saw it again a few days later and realized I maybe kind of loved it. Then I saw it a third time a week after that, under the pretense of wanting to show it to a friend. So now, seven months later, in classic Coen Brothers form, the film that I initially deemed a worthy trifle is one of my very favorite films of 2018 and holds the honor of being the 2018 film that I have watched most often. That would be seven times as of this writing. Like a great album, I’ve reached the point where I feel I can put it on any time. Its dark, funny, soulful rhythms already feel so perfect and intuitive to me that I feel like it’s been around for decades. When you’re the Coen Brothers, even your so-called minor works have a way of quickly feeling classic and timeless.

I’ll be only the 612th critic to point this out, but one of the major achievements of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is that it brings distinction to a genre of film with an awfully spotty track recod. That genre is not the Western (to which the film obviously belongs) but the anthology film. Films composed of multiple shorter films set a tough hurdle for themselves because the quality of each film inevitably varies. Thus, even anthologies with some dynamite entries usually face the problem that the good entries just throw the lower quality of the mediocre entries into starker relief. At the risk of damning with faint praise, Ballad of Buster Scruggs is helped greatly by the fact that it has no duds. My pick for the weakest of the six chapters, the James Franco-starring bank robber tale “Near Algodones”, is a beautifully crafted (every last one of these films is a master class in shot composition, scoring, editing, and costume design), morbidly funny piece of work that gets its business done in a satisfying terse ten minutes and concludes with a poignant bit of gallows poetry and one of the sharpest punchlines of the year. It also makes its minor splash early, for it is only the second entry in the anthology. The first, and most purely funny, entry is the titular “Ballad of Buster Scruggs”, the tale of singing cowboy (played with equal parts genial charm and gleeful menace by Tim Blake Nelson) with a knack for getting into deadly, outlandishly gory fracases wherever he goes. It is an early promise that this anthology will be about the ever-presence of death in the Western and how that death tends to be either glorified or mourned based on who is doing the killing or dying. The third film, the chilly and smart “Meal Ticket”, is about the co-dependent relationship between a traveling theater impresario (a taciturn and very Irish Liam Neeson) and his one source of livelihood, a limbless British orator (Henry Melling, formerly Harry Potter’s spoiled stepbrother Dudley Dursley, now all grown up and acting up a storm). It is about their struggle to eke a living out of their highbrow trade over the course of a harsh Colorado winter, and about the Neeson character’s temptation to turn to more steady means of making ends meet. The fourth film is the splendid “All Gold Canyon”, based on a short story by Jack London. It stars musician and occasional actor Tom Waits (one of my very favorite artists in all recorded music) as a humble, grizzled gold miner, who may have finally come upon the fabled mother lode late in his life. In a film that looks hard at man’s greed, this entry is the most joyful, generous and hopeful. It is rather simply the story of a gracious and hard-working person finally receiving some reward for his faith and perseverance and it stands out like a beacon of warmth in a film that is overwhelmingly about the cold facts of mortality and human selfishness. The fifth film, probably my favorite of the whole lot, is “The Gal Who Got Rattled”, the story of Alice Longabaugh (brilliantly played by Zoe Kazan), a shy, self-effacing young woman traveling along the Oregon Trail in a covered wagon with her patronizing brother. She is traveling to Oregon’s Willamette Valley in the hopes of receiving a marriage proposal from her brother’s potential business partner. When her brother passes away from cholera less than halfway into the trip, Alice must rapidly become a braver soul while also seeking help from the two men in charge of leading the train. One of them is a jovially soft-spoken, earnestly helpful younger man named Billy Knapp (Bill Heck, subtle and marvelously likable). The other is his older mentor, a trail-hardened, tight-lipped frontiersman named Mr. Arthur (Grainger Hines, in a terrific performance that speaks volumes even when the character says almost nothing). The film’s depiction of frontier travel is beautifully unforgiving, with the team of wagons moving like frail, tiny lifeboats along the endless sea of pale grass. But what makes this entry truly stunning are the lovely performances and a central relationship between Alice and Billy so tender, open, and sweetly honest that it positively hurts to watch. Finally, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs closes with “The Mortal Remains”, a ghostly, moonlit stagecoach ride shared by five passengers (and one wanted man’s corpse strapped to the roof) that spin’s the film’s themes of uncertainty, mortal struggle and death into their most eloquently overt form. This epilogue is like a short, spectral one-act play full of heighted ruminations on the passage from life to whatever comes afterwards. As with so many Coen pictures, the Reaper’s presence never feels far away and the Almighty’s role in human affairs remains tantalizingly unresolved.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs finds the Coen Brothers returning to their old pet themes of death and the great beyond, and reflecting upon them in the way that an old blues picker might sing his hundredth song about losing his woman. The fact they’ve trod this ground before has not dulled their wit and imagination. This kind of thematic repetition energizes the Coen Brothers. They have certainly been to this well before but the fun of it and the poignant impact of it lies in how creatively they can keep riffing on old material. This is really about nothing so much as Joel and Ethan Coen taking on a musty old genre (the Western, which they so skillfully mastered and mined for pathos in 2010’s True Grit) and spinning clichés into gold. They are interested in how so many of their favorite subjects (from death to greed to the lonely quest to find the rare human being who doesn’t want to rob or kill us) are part of the essence of this old genre. “Ballad” is really the right word for this film. This collection of quintessentially American tales is like its own little haunted bluegrass album. The tunes change, but there is a cohesive throughline of mortality and human fallibility that runs through it. Like the blues, it is many stories that are sort of all the same story on some level. Fittingly, the film features a number of old blues numbers (“Cool, Cool Water”) and classic traditional songs (“Mother Machree”, “Pills of White Mercury”) as if to announce the company it wishes to join. The Coens have made their own classic blues song in film form, filled with its own ageless beauty and melancholy. Their song, like so many others, goes like this. Human beings are born under an impartial, unfeeling sky. They sweat and fret and search as best they can for some kind of comfort in each other. Sometimes they find it and sometimes they really, really don’t. Sometimes they only find selfishness and pain. People hope and love and struggle on. But only one thing is ever set in stone for them. As Billy Knapp tells Alice Longabaugh, in an intimate, hushed existential fireside chat, “only in death do we vouch save certainty.” Like the passengers in “The Mortal Remains”, we all share this rattling, lurching stagecoach together and we do not know when and where the voyage will end. The one certainty we have is that there will be a final destination. As gruff Mr. Arthur might say, we aren’t going to go on with this battle all day. The fact, simultaneously chilling and strangely reassuring, is that everything comes to an end. And if there’s one other bit of cold comfort to be had, it’s this: though the quality of the company we share may vary, we are all going to the same place as one human mass. Saints, sinners, robbers, prostitutes, tycoons and beggars are all going to the end of the line together.

And if the notion of the squabble of humanity, in all its backbiting and thieving, sounds cynical and bleak, it certainly is at least a little bit. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is caustic and condemning in that gallows chuckle of a way the Coens have. But the Coens have never been about simply writing off the human race as a bunch of heartless bastards. The film’s most metatextual moment arrives in the first five minutes of the first entry, when Buster Scruggs unfurls a Wanted poster and shakes his head in dismay at being nicknamed “The Misanthrope”. For any diehard Coens fan, it’s  a complaint that has dogged the brothers for the length of their careers. The idea that they are looking down on humanity in disgust and condescension. Their cheerily violent, singing cowboy stand-in scoffs at the very idea. “I don’t hate my fellow man. Even when he’s tiresome and surly and tries to cheat at poker. I just figure that’s the human material.” The Coen Brothers have sometimes been accused seeing the very pettiest and worst in mankind. It’s the price they pay for spending so many decades as the cinematic poet laureates of desperate grifters, doomed conmen, impotent schemers, and downtrodden wage slaves. They have a beautiful way of capturing the seedy, the trapped, the greedy, and the unsavory. But it’s always been a failing and a grievous misreading of their work to reduce them to that kind of sad, sweaty cynicism inherent to some of their most memorable characters. As with other great Coen films, the violence and avarice in Buster Scruggs don’t feel cheap and exploitive. It resonates deeply because the Coens always have a sense of rueful longing for the world as it maybe could be. They see the selfless, striving and good in this world too. Buster Scruggs may refer to “the human material” dismissively. He feels he knows too much of mankind’s meanness to ever let himself be disappointed by it. But the Coens are a tad more hopeful, or at least more soulfully conflicted, about people. Sometimes they see just enough decency in the world to make the next senseless act of human apathy or cruelty land with an even more sickening thud. But that disparity between the best and worst in humanity makes their universes strangely optimistic and rich. There are thin layers of virtue interlaced with all the selfishness and vice. The Coens see that the good-hearted Marge Gundersons must share this world with the weak-willed Jerry Lundegaards and pessimistic Llewyn Davises; to say nothing of the murderous Anton Chigurhs. What makes life such a beautiful and gutting experience is that each person has the capacity for goodness and monstrosity. And if the kindly Marges of the world really are outnumbered by the less benevolent characters, that only makes the presence of their generosity and empathy all the more precious. If The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is largely about death and greed and foul dealing, it is also about the things that stand in opposition to all that. It is, in some small way, about the oases of life and kindness, even if those can feel like tiny, helplessly outmatched outposts in a desert of indifference and hostility.

Three decades into a dazzlingly rich and diverse career, the Coens are still working out just what “the human material” really is. When you count us all up, who are we? How many of us are scared and self-regarding like Liam Neeson’s faltering theater operator? Or rash and impulsively mercenary like James Franco’s bank robber? How many are thoughtful and righteous like Zoe Kazan’s Alice or industrious and honest like Tom Waits’ prospector? Or are most of just Buster Scruggs: self-interested forces of chaos just looking out for number one, cutting a haphazard trail of destruction through whichever human life is unlucky enough to run afoul of us? Regardless of how each of us answers that question, the best parts of Ballad of Buster Scruggs propose that we are all bound together in this human play, whether we like it or not. We really are traveling the same dusty, red path toward life’s end, and we have the whole gamut of free will to draw from. We can abandon each other or hold each other; rob each other or lend a hand. That is what makes “The Gal Who Got Rattled” my favorite entry in the anthology. While it goes to some truly sorrowful places by the end, the connection Zoe Kazan’s conscientious spinster and Bill Heck’s lonely, sweetly earnest wagon leader find out there among those endless plains is one of the most humane and sincerely lovely things I saw all year. Ballad of Buster Scruggs is very much about the lonesome, solitary fate that awaits us all at the end of our respective trails. But, until we get there, we do not have to be alone. We may occasionally be a cowardly, self-serving, uncharitable lot. We human beings. But we still have each other for better or worse. And it can be for better. We have the power, even at our most venal and base, to be of comfort to each other. And, when you think about it that way, it’s hard to come away from the Coens latest rich treatise on humanity feeling too much misanthropy for our species.

The Coens have always had playful, restless imaginations. It should come as no surprise then that, in the midst of a fairly focused essay on death and the West, they find time to break away for some thoughtful digressions on other topics. In the middle of the film, they take time for two very different examination on making art and the thin line between failure and success in artistic endeavors. The first of such digressions is the almost apocalyptically bleak “Meal Ticket”. Neeson’s frustrated money man and Melling’s helpless quadriplegic thespian are both locked into a relationship where one needs the other. But the Coens have no doubt about whose need is more desperate; about which party, between artist and benefactor, is most vulnerable. It is a beautifully acerbic and morbid reminder that, like everything else on this Earth, Art exists at the mercy of scarcity and humanity’s baser instincts. The next film, “All Gold Canyon”, chases its predecessor’s jet-black pessimism with a golden shot of joy and slowly building enthusiasm. While the tale of an experienced prospector plying his trade with a pan and a pick may be less overtly about the artistic process, the implication is very much there. This entry radiates a beatific pride for the virtues of knowing your craft and putting your all into it. Tom Waits’ sweetly raucous 49er pans and digs and strains his creaky body without complaint, swept up in the joyful immediacy of hunting the big score he’s spent his life pursuing. He is certainly thinking about money, but he also seems elated to just be doing his job well. “All Gold Canyon” is a transcendentally positive ode to loving what you do for a living and getting the details right. It is a cinematic rendering of that old Quaker saying: hands to work and hearts to God. It may also be the film’s most powerful piece of metatextual commentary. It is not hard to look at the Tom Waits character, sweating and smiling and merrily cursing up a storm, and also see the Coen Brothers. Two grizzled veterans of cinema just plugging away, delighting in the chance to wake up and do what they have spent the last three decades getting better and better at. This may be the sweetest, most optimistic piece of work they have ever produced. They may have spent many years sadly shaking their heads as hapless, selfish men who throw away their lives and souls for a little bit of money. But this time they do not begrudge their protagonist his modest little fortune. It may be because the film is about more than just the naked quest for gold. Here, the pure pursuit of something seems to be mean more to the character than the mere reward. The Coens have never cared too much for golden treasure. But, after thirty-four years of beautiful, bruising films, they know that there are some riches worth digging for. Some fortunes are worth losing a few drops of blood over.

Top 20 Films of 2018: #15- Minding the Gap

Minding the Gap is a powerful, poetic piece of non-fiction filmmaking, but it’s the kind whose elemental force sneaks up on you. For example, the first time I saw Bing Liu’s aching coming-of-adulthood documentary, I basically didn’t even notice that it uses the same ambitious temporal framework as Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Here is a movie that quietly covers twelve years in the lives of its three major characters (one of whom is Bing Liu himself) and never outwardly calls attention to it. It gives off the illusion that we are watching things happen slowly, but every now and then time will surge forward like a sudden patch of rapids in a gentle stream. We get to see our characters when they are mere children (two of them 16 and one of them only 11) and we leave them some 90 minutes later as young adult men with the pain, wisdom and personal growth of more than a decade etched into their faces. Time rushes all about Minding the Gap. The great weight of the past, the anxious immediacy of the post-adolescent present, and the trembling enigma of the future. A couple speaks with excitement and trepidation about the impending arrival of their first child, and a scene later their infant son has already been there for months. One friend, a black teenager, speaks about wanting to be like his older white friend but, thirty minutes later, two years have gone by and he has an entirely different understanding of who his friend is and of who he now wants to be. It’s not that I didn’t know that time was passing the first time I watched Minding the Gap. But the film flows with such grace that I marked the movie in emotional beats, not temporal ones. It was only late in the film when we see the characters flash back through their entire story once more, that I realized I had watched three people struggle and grow up right in front of my eyes. Like Boyhood, Bing Liu’s film has its eye fixated on the subtle and sometimes seismically sudden growth of its characters. Its leaps forward in time, as impressive as they are, are more impressive for how organically they are tailored to the film’s story rhythms. The wide span of time the film covers is not there to call attention to itself. It is there to make a seemingly small story about skateboarding and growing up in recession-addled America feel as overwhelming as some great epic. Minding the Gap is about three small lives in an unassuming Midwest city, but it contains oceans of insight and emotion. This babbling brook hides tidal  waves.

 

Minding the Gap’s tiny, forgotten corner of the world is Rockford , Illinois, an economically ravaged industrial city in America’s Rust Belt. It is the hometown of 30 year-old filmmaker Bing Liu and his friends, Zack and Keire. Zack is white and the same age as Bing. Keire is black and five years younger than Zack and Bing. All three friends grew up in dysfunctional homes with varying levels of abuse. As many a confused, hurting American adolescent has done, Bing and his friends turned to each other and to a community of skateboarders to find some sense of stability and understanding. And, without cheapening the poverty and crime that exists there, I must say that the rundown, brick-and-iron aesthetic of Rockford, Illinois makes a stunning backdrop for this tale of frustration, stalled dreams, and worn out spirits. While Minding the Gap is mostly the intimate story of three friends grappling with becoming men and reckoning with abusive pasts, the beautifully dilapidated skyline of Rockford lends a sense of something larger to their stories; the sense of an America full of stories and cities just like this. Rockford carries a lot of heavy psychic weight for Bing, Keire, and Zack, but the film’s aim is to make some kind of tenuous peace with the misery and hardship, not to be destroyed by it. Liu films his travels through these crumbling streets with a complicated feeling of affection, and the result is that a kind of weathered halo seems to hang over all the heartache and ruin. Those old red buildings and wooden townhouses really do look beautiful, never more so than when Bing and his surrogate skater family is whipping past them on skateboards, the closest things they have found to deliverance. Late in the film, Zack sadly observes that he may not be capable of turning his past trauma into something worthwhile. Turning ugly truth into beautiful poetry is not an ability everyone has, but Bing Liu has that talent in spades. Minding the Gap is all about dealing with the painful past and trying to make something good and beautiful out of the scars. In the way it views its desperate city and its wounded subjects, it is a prayer for the broken down and bruised things in this tough world.

 

What makes Bing Liu’s stunning debut so organically beautiful is how it almost seems to stumble on its own deep well of hurt by accident. From its early frames, it is about hardscrabble upbringings and familial tensions, but it is not immediately clear how important the subject of fraught family histories will be. In its opening moments, it promises to be an empathetic view of young men skating and stumbling toward maturity, but it is not initially evident that this will also be a film about abuse. I tend to believe that this maybe wasn’t even Bing Liu’s immediate intention. At least not when he first started filming his skater friends as a troubled sixteen year-old. What I do know is that Bing Liu was living in a house with a very physically abusive stepfather when he first began to collect footage of his friends. It would not surprise me a bit to learn that the instinct to start filming that time period was, just like skating itself, a subconscious release valve for his suffering. But, part of what makes Minding the Gap marvelously moving and authentic is how the story of Bing Liu’s abuse, the story he may have always wanted to tell deep down, seems to find him over the course of filming. The film has a natural curiosity about its subjects. At the beginning, it is content to just observe Zack and Keire and learn about them. We bear witness to the trials of adulthood that Zack and Keire are just beginning to face. Both have reached ages where they need to go to work and pay bills. Moreover, the Peter Pan-like Zack is also figuring out how to provide a stable home life for his girlfriend, Nina, and their infant son. All of this is is poignant and absorbing enough. And then a bomb drops. One night, Bing sees cell phone footage of Zack and Nina having a drunken shouting match. Nina sounds livid, warning Zack that she will kill him. Bing is concerned for his friends. He starts to gingerly kick at the dirt, to get a better sense of what is going on. In the process, he learns that Zack may sometimes hit and throw Nina when he gets intoxicated. And, as much as he may have felt hesitant to confront his own abuse before, Bing Liu now feels a duty to lean in closer; to investigate his friends and himself. Minding the Gap becomes the story of Bing Liu walking down a dark and haunted path of trauma and familial dysfunction. If only for Nina’s sake, he now feels an obligation to stare down the cycles of abuse in his own backyard. And, as it turns out, economically depressed Rockford has a grave history of abuse. At the time of filming, domestic incidents accounted for 25% of the city’s significant violent crime statistics. Bing starts asking questions about his friends’ own experiences with abusive fathers. He learns Keire was often physically disciplined very harshly as a child. Zack tells stories of a father who was kind and permissive when he was very young, but who took a sharp turn into sternness and emotional distance when Zack reached adolescence. The hardest part of all this is that Bing Liu must come to terms with his own experience being abused. His abuse story appears to be the most scarring of all. Bing’s half-brother recalls hearing Bing’s screams from the regular beatings he received and still feels haunted by it. The hard choice Bing must make is to gracefully but firmly reopen the past; to turn the most horrific memories around in his fingers and gaze at them without fear. He must shine a light on his own demons and he must interview his soft-spoken immigrant mother, who was also abused and who felt powerless to protect her child. Minding the Gap is about the difficult moral choice not to shield ourselves or the world around us from bitter truths. When it comes to something as ugly and pervasively toxic as domestic abuse, truth must be dragged screaming into the light.

 

Minding the Gap is a brave, unflinchingly compassionate exhumation of the painful past. It could not have been easy to make a film that indicts domestic abuse so thoroughly, especially when that abuse was something you suffered through personally. But if there’s one thing that may (and I stress the word “may” here) be harder than interviewing your own weeping mother about long-buried traumatic memories, it’s trying to approach a friend who has now become an abuser. The sudden revelation that Zack is beating Nina is a painful shock to Bing Liu and to any viewer who has been listening to him and empathizing with him for the first thirty minutes of the film. It crystallizes the film’s true raison d’etre and sends Bing Liu, dismayed but intrepid, off on his journey to uncover the past. We register the hurt and disbelief on Bing’s face when he learns that someone he loves and calls a friend is now enacting the same kind of terrible behavior Bing suffered through as a child. The scenes where Bing interviews his mother may throb with the most raw, cathartic anguish, but the longer path toward bringing up the subject of abuse with Zack may be what the film is really building to. Calling out abuse when it comes from one of our own is the true test of conscience. Up to this point in the film, we have spent substantial time with Zack. He is a flighty, boozy, sometimes ridiculous figure, but he seems to also be a generally thoughtful and self-aware person. We have viewed him through Bing’s eyes and come to understand him, and then we learn something that completely alters everything we thought we were seeing. Zack does not come off as some easy monster, and that may be the scariest truth of all. His frailties, his fears of adulthood and fatherhood, and his need to escape from his own hurt are relatable and resonant. Minding the Gap is an endlessly rich character study and I left feeling deeply connected to all of its characters, even this immature, abusive flounderer. I found myself caring a great deal about Zack. And I say that not to excuse his galling conduct, but to zero in on how difficult it must have been for Bing to confront him. Bing, who has known Zack almost his entire life. How gutting and hard it must be for anyone with friends who have engaged in toxic and violent behavior to call those friends on their bullshit. But, of course, you must! The fear of seeing the monster of abuse in the eyes of someone you love and the reflex to turn away from it or rationalize it; that is where the cycle of abuse lives. Bing Liu knows this all too well and he receives repeated signals from family and friends to maybe leave it all alone. Nina worries that confronting Zack will forever sabotage any hope of a peaceful home situation for her child. Bing’s mother prays through tears that he will one day be able to leave the past behind, and Bing even agrees that this may be the end goal. But abuse cannot just be left well enough alone, in the vain hope that it will resolve itself. If the traumatic past is to be buried for good, it cannot be in some shallow, forgotten grave. To move on from something like that, you have to fully come to terms with it, glean everything you can from it, and lay it honorably to rest. Minding the Gap is a film that courageously refuses to use any half-measures when it comes to exploring domestic violence.

This makes Minding the Gap a film that is serenely thunderous. It is as damning about abuse and toxic masculinity as any film I can name, but it refuses to scream itself hoarse or flail its fists. The kinds of abuse the film examines should make us angry, but anger is not the approach the film takes. I think Bing Liu must figure that a reactionary response to hurt is probably what caused all this trouble in the first place. Angry men under pressure keep passing their pain along and nothing gets resolved. The last thing Bing Liu wants is to turn his anguish into more confusion and torment. Instead, he wants to find male rage where it lives and understand it. The film’s critique of toxic masculinity is withering, but its strategy is to talk the beast down rather than hurl invective at it. It brings focus and tranquility to subject matter that would make the average person feel dizzy with rage and sorrow. Minding the Gap is simply one of the most superb essays ever crafted on what it means to be a man; what too many men wrongly think it means and what it should mean. In a year full of beautiful and trenchant works on the subject of masculinity, Minding the Gap is one of the most fearlessly truthful. Bing Liu reveals himself to be that most welcome kind of documentarian. He is the kind who is more eager to bear witness than to speak; quicker to coax out his subject’s deepest thoughts than to hammer his own point. He is on a journey to process his own hurt and what he wants is to understand why cycles of male violence keep repeating. Where rage, depression, and abuse are concerned, his wish is to better see what the point is; why these old, bitter ghosts cling to American men from generation to generation. The desperate, embittered places some men go when they feel slighted, cornered, confused, or out of options is a terrible and pervasive blight on our society. It makes one’s blood boil to think about it and I don’t think we can coddle it or rationalize it one minute longer. We can never accommodate domestic abuse. What we can do is dismantle this terrible behavior in healthy ways. What Bing Liu has managed here is a kind of resistance that draws immeasurable strength from a sense of serenity. Its mode is one of deeply empathetic concern. To put it another way, Minding the Gap is Paddington’s hard stare in documentary form: unyielding, unafraid, and powerful in its peaceful refusal to meet hostility with more hostility.

Minding the Gap becomes one of the most moving examinations of abuse ever made partly because it invests in character. It seems doubtful that Bing Liu will ever make another film where he is this close to his human subjects, but, my God, does he ever make that sense of intimacy and familiarity count here. He has a gift for listening closely and calmly asking the right questions. The confessions that his friends and family make to him contain some of the most wrenching and poignant truth that you’ll find in any 2018 film. Bing Liu also has a keen awareness of where he fits into this tapestry of American dreams and discontent. In a greatly moving scene late in the film, Bing tells Keire that he wanted to learn more about his friends’ experiences with abuse because he sees himself in their stories. I’ve written before about the notion of walking with the subject. That’s the theory of studying a person or culture that says the observer must take their own presence into account. When you write a study or make a documentary, you inevitably become a character in the story you are crafting because you are interacting with your subject. Instead of trying to stay out of the frame and pretend like you are not there, the more honest approach is to just admit that you are a part of the documentary. By choosing to explore a subject, you enter that world and become a subject yourself. You don’t pretend to be observing from a remove, as if hidden behind the duck blind. You join your subject and walk beside them. In the case of Minding the Gap, Bing Liu participates in what you might call “skating with the subject”. Skating is one of the only unshakable sources of joy and liberation for these earnest, haunted young men, and that feeling really shows in the film’s numerous skateboarding scenes. Those scenes move with an unmistakable kind of elation. Bing and his friends tear through the battered brick blocks of their weary city, and their very act of moving says volumes about the pain they have endured and the hope they are grasping toward. And when you finish dabbing your dewy eyes, you might suddenly come to and realize that this is, after all is said and done, a skateboarding movie. Here’s something I can add to 2018’s list of unexpected cinematic achievements: a film about skating moved me to tears. It’s really just par for the course for a film that finds poetry, heartache, and frayed beauty tucked away in the most forgotten and unassuming places.

Top 20 Films of 2018: #16- First Man

If 2018 was a crash course in how to make familiar stories feel dynamic and new, Damian Chazelle’s First Man may deserve credit for doing that in the most subtly inventive way. With a lot of the year’s great reboots and reimaginings, like A Star Is Born and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the secret ingredient was a certain joie de vivre. Among the innovative things those films do formally, I think what sticks with me is that they move with passion and elated purpose. Joi de vivre and elation are the last words I would apply to First Man. First Man is different. In lending its voice to the chorus of astronaut films like Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff, it creates a more outwardly radical reimagining of the kind of film we expect it to be. It is not content to simply tell its type of narrative with more conviction and exuberance than its predecessors, for it is defiantly not an exuberant piece of work. Its way is less the enthusiastic embrace of tropes than the recontextualizing of trope through tone and through adding beats that are not often dwelled on in stories about space exploration. It is very much a kindred spirit to 2017’s Dunkirk. Both films are about Great Moments In History that are often thought of as unequivocal triumphs. Thousands are rescued from the beaches of France in the Miracle at Dunkirk. A rapt world huddles around televisions and radios as Neil Armstrong becomes the first man to walk on the moon. Both films build to those moments that most human beings think of, but they expand the narrative in unexpected ways. They ask us to consider what it was like to live in the moments before the Big Moment; before posterity, when triumph was still far from a certain thing. They ask us to view historical highlights in a fuller context and to reflect on the sacrifice and cost of those triumphs. If a film like A Star Is Born is about digging deeper into an old narrative well, First Man argues that the well of a story can also be widened. By considering more of the surrounding narrative. By including details that get left by the wayside in other tellings of the story, an old narrative can suddenly look radically different. Even the moments we already know about can take on new shapes as a result of new emotional context.

Part of that new context is an astonishing level of technical detail. And to be clear, it’s not as if The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 lack for stunning technical crat. But it becomes clear in the very first shot that this will be a different kind of astronaut film. We open on Neil Armstrong hurtling toward the ceiling of Earth’s atmosphere, more than 100,000 feet above California’s Mojave Desert. In the prestige film version of this sequence, we would see Armstrong’s rugged profile, his powerful aircraft gleaming in the sunlight, and maybe even hear a rousing French horn or two. Instead, First Man’s opening moments have us utterly disoriented. The plane is completely cloaked in shadow and we can just make out that we are looking at one of its wings. Inside the cockpit, it’s dark as a tomb and we can barely see the outline of Armstrong’s stoic face. And forget symphonic fanfare. The only music to speak of is the deafening banshee wail of wind and the frenzied rattling of machine parts. It is 1961, more than eight years before the moon landing, and Neil Armstrong nearly kills himself horribly in a flight test, by bouncing off the atmosphere and into the void of space. It will not be the last time his profession tries to kill him. First Man follows the years leading up to the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing and the various training programs and test missions NASA ran to prepare for that lofty goal. This included desert flight tests, a nearly fatal outer space docking mission, and the tragic cabin fire that claimed the lives of the first Apollo 11 crew. It is the story of the tribulation and loss of life that had to take place before a man could take that fabled giant leap into history. It is also about Neil Armstrong’s own personal tragedy. The Armstrongs lost their 2 year-old daughter to a malignant brain tumor in 1962, and that gutting loss casts its long shadow over the entire film, even as Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling, in a performance that makes deft use of his gift for playing taciturn figures) refuses to speak openly about it. It falls mostly to his wife, Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy, doing an exceptional job of shading and subverting the archetype of Great Man’s supportive wife) to keep the family happy and functional, and to be the one member of her family who can communicate openly and honestly with the other astronaut families in their planned neighborhood. Damian Chazelle wants us to see how the journey to the moon was not just a simple, uncomplicated bit of American heroism. He respects the story of Apollo 11 as a great human achievement, but he also wants us to consider how that triumphant arc was borne out of death and tinted by grief.

First Man is thrillingly original in how it paints a rousing bit of history in muted mournful tones. Part of that new, more conflicted, less simplistically inspiring perspective has to do with the film’s stunning and jarring cinematography and production design. The opening sequence of Neil’s test flight is telling of what space travel will feel like for the rest of First Man.  We are looking at spectacular planes and spacecraft, ingenious works of technology designed by some of history’s most dazzling mathematicians and engineers. But they are still just human machines, prone to error and built out of parts that can break down. These machines may represent the apex of scientific innovation at that time, but the nuts and bolts holding everything together still rattle in their casings. You could be forgiven for momentarily thinking you were driving a rundown Ford Pinto. And that perspective is not only technically brilliant, but also pays emotional dividends. If, like Dunkirk, First Man is about the claustrophobia of being stuck in your tiny moment of history without the context of hindsight, then the cramped, cluttered design of these spacecraft makes you share that claustrophobia. You share the heightened, nervous feeling these astronauts must have felt in those crafts. When you’re blasting from firm ground to the limitless expanse of space on a plume of white hot rocket fuel, can any human machine help but feel a little inadequate for such an endeavor? Chazelle’s stroke of genius is to mirror the emotional claustrophobia of this historical moment with the actual, physical claustrophobia of being in these rattling machines. Just as the astronauts sat in these clattering contraptions not knowing what might happen to them, hoping not to die in their insane pursuit of new frontiers, NASA and the team assisting them from the ground must have felt the same trembling confusion about the Moon mission and the entire space program. Great milestones had already been reached, but significant blood had been shed in reaching those heights. Chazelle knows that the Moon landing is now a hyperlink in the American consciousness to swelling pride and easy platitudes about the unquenchable human spirit. But that is after the fact. Before Apollo 11 and the Moon landing was a mainstay of documentaries, Smithsonian exhibits, and postage stamps, it was a bloody and deeply costly endeavor whose merits were questioned by wide swaths of the American public. Chazelle wants to cast some essential, truthful shadows on the Technicolor hues that typically color this accomplishment. He wants us to see the Apollo 11 mission as something haunting as well as rousing. And even with the feat now capture and the outcome certain, he wants us to ask an important question about this moment in American history. “Is this worth the cost?” a reporter asks Neil Armstrong. “In money and in lives?”

The early complaints from detractors of the film took issue with it for being too cold and cerebral. I went in ready to wrestle with that criticism, but what I found was not the dry, clinical film I had expected. To be sure, an unmistakable chill runs through First Man, but that is not an accident or a failing. Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer (Spotlight, The Post) did not misread the recipe and forget to add two teaspoons of pathos. The viewer just needs to realize that First Man is about grappling with grief and death. It is about those things every bit as much as it is about Neil Armstrong or the 1960s or going to outer space. One of the ways in which First Man finds a new perspective on a very public event is by viewing it as Neil Armstrong’s own private ordeal. History may boil Apollo 11 down to the Moon landing and the “one small step” quote, but for Neil Armstrong, this was also the stretch of time when he lost a toddler to cancer, buried numerous friends, and was almost incinerated or sucked into outer space at least three times. There is a darkness in this story that has rarely been fully glimpsed. First Man finds more melancholy in the story of a successful mission than the estimable Apollo 13 found in the story of a failed mission. Even the horrifying Apollo 11 cabin fire, which was briefly shown in Apollo 13, feels much more upsetting here for how matter-of-factly it is presented. And, right wing pundits be damned, none of that sadness and subdued malaise is presented to nullify the genius, the daring, and the gobsmacking accomplishment of what Armstrong and his colleagues did. If anything, the full emotional wallop of Neil Armstrong finally making that first footprint in the soft lunar dust is amplified tenfold. Because we know how much heartache has gone into this project and we better understand the costly, arduous subtext. First Man is about a man who went to the Moon with a procession of ghosts in tow. Historical achievement is complicated. It is not just about the grand moments of success. Every victory like Apollo 11 probably has a ledger of setbacks, compromises and painful costs. Chazelle is keen on reminding us that these things are in the back pages of the true feel good stories we take for granted.

First Man is also about grappling with a certain kind of stoic American masculinity. And this is not to be too reductive. Human beings are diverse and different men process emotion, and grief specifically, in different ways. But First Man is interested in a very classically masculine response to sorrow and trauma. And that response is essentially not much response at all; sitting quietly with your pain and trying to convince those around you that nothing is wrong. It is, to be clear, not one of the healthiest aspects of masculine behavior, and First Man is very critical of it up to a point. Janet Armstrong’s face tells us that she understands her husband’s almost pathological reticence, his stubborn unwillingness to talk openly about his bereavement or put any of his emotions on display. She knows this simple, quiet man and loves him. But she also knows full well the absurdity of his ridiculous reserve. And we sense that it has not been easy for her to lose a child, bury numerous friends, console their widows, and repeatedly almost lose her husband, only to have that same husband be defiantly unwilling to acknowledge that a damn thing is wrong. Chazelle punctures Neil Armstrong’s manly dispassion, but he is also curious about that kind of very male disposition. The impulse to bury what is painful or uncomfortable and just get on with it. With what? Something. First Man reframes the Apollo 11 story as a classic example of men coping with grief through action. Armstrong doesn’t want to talk publicly of his suffering (though we do see him wail like a baby when he feels sure that no one can see him). He just needs to get back to work; to wrangle his unimaginable anguish by way of toil and action. He needs a project, and that project just happens to be going to the Moon. A lot of painful stuff happened to Neil Armstrong in the 1960s on Earth. And, well, he just needed to get off the planet for a week or so. No big deal. I think First Man is also implicitly about how an entire country was going through a similar grieving process during that time. While NASA was planning Apollo 11, America lost Medger Evers and John F. Kennedy to sickening acts of murder. Kennedy had proposed the idea of going to the Moon when he was still alive. Suddenly, he was gone and America needed that silly dream goal more than ever. The 1960s were exciting but they were also excruciatingly sad. We lost more leaders along the way: Malcolm X, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. America was in pain, maybe too much to process all at once. Right or wrong, people felt the need to bury themselves in some bit of business. Whether it would make us whole again or not, we needed a project. We just needed to get a job done. We needed to get to the damned Moon. The beauty of First Man is that it honors the marvelous achievement of Apollo 11 while also deepening its place in American history. It posits that the Moon landing may well have been a Band-Aid for deeper national wounds.

For all its technical merits, strong performances, and heady ideas, First Man is also just a tremendous sign of growth for Damian Chazelle. I refuse to use the words “return to form” here because I don’t think Chazelle has faltered yet in his young career. We can poke at La La Land all day long for being ideologically slight or for just being a very white and bourgeois piece of art, but it is still a fairly immaculate pop object. If that fizzy Technicolor jewel is to be Chazelle’s low, then his low is an exceedingly well-directed, sumptuously crafted thing of beauty. The work of a director with a ravishing sense of scope and a terrific eye for performances. Chazelle became history’s youngest Best Director winner with La La Land and almost took home Best Picture. He did not have to prove a solitary thing with his follow-up. He had every right to go make the safe, prestige-courting space biopic that First Man could have been. He could have made Apollo 13 with a stronger directorial stamp. He didn’t. He opted not to play it safe. On evidence of First Man, Oscar success has not boxed Chazelle into stiff notions of prestige filmmaking or made him compromise in the name of winning more trophies. Instead, he continues to be an ingeniously kinetic craftsman and a shrewd chronicler of art, success, perfection, and obsession. Success has not hobbled him because Chazelle is too canny about seeing what a conflicted thing success is. He seems to understand better than any director alive that perfection has its price and that there are no easy victories. And, by staying true to his own cerebral muse, he has turned what looked like an old fashioned, patriotic crowd-pleaser into one of the most moody, haunting films of the decade. Naturally, First Man was almost completely ignored at the Academy Awards. I like to think that Damian Chazelle is at peace with that. Like his driven characters, from Whiplash to First Man, I think Damian Chazelle knows the very specific kind of posterity he wants to chase.

Top 20 Films of 2018: #17- Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

 

Coming into 2018, reboots and sequels felt like the last things we needed. After two crisis-packed years full of rape scandals and xenophobic uproar, the culture was in dire need of something original and fresh to wash the acridness out of its mouth. We needed exciting, new stories. We needed to find in the movies the joyful, creative enthusiasm that felt so scarce in the outside world. The last thing filmgoers needed was more of the same. And, dear God, if you had asked me on January 1, 2018 to name the single thing American cinema needed least, I probably would have said, “Another Spider-Man movie.” With no disrespect intended to 2017’s very good Spider-Man: Homecoming, our culture has hit peak Spider-Man fatigue. Since 2001, the popular comic book hero has had no fewer than eight films to himself. If you throw in the two Avengers films he appears in, that figure climbs into the double digits. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse really should have been the absolute last thing we needed. But, as I noted in my review of Paddington 2, sometimes we can be bad judges of what we need in films. And, as I noted in my review of A Star Is Born, 2018 had a way of taking old, overplayed stories and making them feel new again. So, for the record, this is my third 2018 film review to double as a mea culpa for my faulty film assumptions and the year’s third reminder that even the most tried and true properties can be vital, energetic, and essential when approached with wit, insight, and a palpable love for the story. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not just an astonishingly wonderful animated reboot of this old franchise, but also a lively, intelligent meta discourse about why we like to reboot things. Why societies like to take certain stories, revise them, and retell them. I still maintain that we are nearing critical levels of super hero saturation, but Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the exception that recontextualizes the rule. It is about why we love to think about heroes and where we see ourselves in those narratives.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse starts with what will become a recurring bit. A version of Spider-Man catches us up on the essentials of the Spider-Man mythos. The opening narration comes courtesy of the Spider-Man we all know and love, Peter Parker. A bookish teenager, in love with his friend Mary Jane Watson, who attains super powers from a spider bite, loses his Uncle Ben, and dedicates himself to a life keeping New York City safe from criminals. Peter Parker is the official Spider-Man of this universe; what appears to be our universe. However, while Peter Parker takes us into the film, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is not his story. The film is instead the story of young Miles Morales, an Afro-Latino teenager living in New York City. Miles’ father Jeff (Bryan Tyree Henry, who had a banner year with brilliant work in If Beale Street Could Talk, Widows, and television’s Atlanta) is a brusquely endearing police officer with some strong negative opinions on Spider-Man, who he regards as a reckless vigilante. Miles has a loving but testy relationship with his father. Some of that testiness can be chalked up to general teenage malaise and some of it is the fact that Jeff is forcing Miles to attend a ritzy boarding school uptown instead of the public school in his own neighborhood. Like most teenagers, Miles is wrestling with his identity as an adolescent. He is also figuring out who he is as a member of two different minority cultures. Miles feels most at ease with his father’s estranged brother, Aaron (Mahershala Ali, having a very good year), who places less pressure on him and who is more encouraging of Miles’ true passion: street art. One night, Uncle Aaron takes Miles to an abandoned subway station to throw up some graffiti. As he is finishing his art, Miles is bitten by the fated spider, which gives him superpowers. At this point, we think we know the rest, but this is where the film expands in unexpected directions. When Miles returns to the subway station to look around, he finds Peter Parker engaged in a heated battle with Kingpin (voiced with deadpan Brooklyn brutishness by Live Schreiber), a wealthy businessman and supervillain who wants to open a portal to other dimensions so he can be reunited with his tragically deceased wife and child. In the first of many breaks from the standard narrative track we think we are on, Peter Parker is killed by Kingpin and Miles flees in terror. Before he dies, he tasks Miles with making sure Kingpin does not complete his mission, which would annihilate all of New York City. For better or worse, Miles is now his universe’s Spider-Man and he is confused and terrified about how to assume the mantle. As luck would have it, the opening of all those dimensions has sucked other versions of Spider-Man into Miles’ version of New York City, which allows Miles to seek help from an alternate Spider-Man, Peter B. Parker (a hilarious and surprisingly poignant voice performance from New Girl’s Jake Johnson). As misfortune would have it, Peter B. Parker is something of a trainwreck. Saggy, broke, and recently divorced from his universe’s Mary Jane, he is truly the John Q. Adams to Peter Parker’s John Adams. However, in spite of his paunchy appearance, Peter B. Parker gradually becomes an engaged and capable mentor to Miles and Miles helps Peter remember the motivated, inspiring man he used to be. Together with four other versions of the character, including Spider-Girl and an incorrigible cartoon pig named Spider-Ham (the always very funny John Mulaney), they must prevent Kingpin and a female Doc Ock (a marvelously fun and  nuanced turn from the indispensable Kathryn Hahn) from reopening the portal and sucking New York City into nothingness. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey (Rise of the Guardians), and Rodney Rothman, three relatively young animation directors. They deserve all the credit in the world for this tremendous work, but the big celebrity of this creative team is co-writer Phil Lord, one half of the terrific Lord-Miller directing team. Lord and his partner, Chris Miller, brought us The Lego Movie and the 21 Jump Street cinematic reboot, two films that could have been lazy and overly commercial but turned out to be vivacious and irrepressibly funny instead. What Lord understands is how to lean into formula in ways that both mine it for comedy and lovingly own the tropes. The typical Lord-Miller film puts familiar cinematic stereotype in a fond headlock. As a film that flies fearlessly in the face of the overly familiar, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has Phil Lord’s comedic stamp all over it. It is one of the most consistently hilarious films of 2018 or any other year. However, what makes it better than anything he has done before, even the fantastic Lego Movie, is the dexterity Lord shows for balancing humor with rich pathos. Spider-Verse turns the 21st century’s seventh Spider-Man film into one of the most perfectly complete, emotionally fulfilling movie experiences of the year.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’s script has all the beautifully zippy confidence of Spidey himself, but that only accounts for a portion of what makes it so winning and exhilarating. It is also a kaleidoscope of delirious, discombobulating color. I don’t know that I can name a single film from 2018 that was more delightful to just sit and look at. Scenes are painted in dazzlingly bold primary colors. The film’s version of New York City vibrates and twitches with nervous energy and possibility, like a hundred different dream versions of itself. Even that most troubled element of most Marvel-based films, the final climactic battle, feels gripping here. All of Spider-Verse’s many inspired elements are enriched and complemented by its ecstatically innovative animation. It cycles through a dizzying array of styles, as if to underline the film’s idea that there are hundreds of personal, idiosyncratic ways to tell the same story. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse also sets a new high watermark in making a comic book film that feels like a comic book in all the best ways. The look of the film shifts with the tone and stakes of individual scenes. Characters appear in panels. Words flash across the screen. And all of it looks fun and glorious The upside down shot of Miles Morales seeming to dive upward toward the New York City skyline is one of 2018’s most arresting and instantly iconic images. More than just evoking the look of comics, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the one film in its franchise to fully capture how disorienting, liberating and thrilling it would feel to actually be Spider-Man. That’s true during blisteringly energetic fight scenes, but it’s just as true in moments of calm. In one scene, Peter Parker has walked up the side of a building to the roof and Miles is standing sideways on the building’s façade, looking up at him. We cut to Miles’ point of view and we see the roof ledge and the sky above it and I gasped. It’s an intimate dialogue scene, but that shot thrilled me. When you’re Spider-Man, even your downtime involves defying gravity. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is an impossibly fun, kinetic whirlwind of a film; the rare example of a comic book movie utilizing the full possibilities of cinema to tell its story. At the end of the day, it forces me to use a word that the truly sober-minded critic would resist. But, when I reflect on how I felt watching it, the most accurate word is just “cool”. Because holding your breath while grinning from ear to ear is cool. Because riding the world’s most hilarious, poignant, and socially conscious rollercoaster is cool. Because I know cool when it sends me hurtling from the tops of skyscrapers with wide eyes and a giggle fit.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse addresses the notion that the comic book movie has become predictable and stale and it reminds us that this genre still has boundless creative avenues to explore. It sees comics as a form with a distinctly communal kind of creative spirit. The beauty of comics and of animation in general is how much they allow for and encourage wild, limitless artistic expression. The style varies based on the artist interpreting the material and the familiar tropes and formulas serve as challenges to the artist’s imagination. The comic book has long been an art form where a wide variety of artists take turns telling the same story and the comic book film has become its own very collective cultural phenomenon. At this point, there can be little argument that it is the kind of movie seen and shared by the widest cross-section of the population. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is about the act of taking a very widely known, communal piece of art and reinvigorating it by making it your own. In that way, comics are also a lot like hip hop, a musical tradition that richly informs the film’s aesthetic and soundtracks its most pivotal scenes. In hip hop, as in comics, there is a joy that comes from taking old lines and classic beats (story and musical) and bringing them back in new forms. Old material recycled into new patterns and permutations. There is an art to taking something familiar and allowing it to mutate. Hip hop and comics can both be like a big cultural game of Telephone. In taking one of the most covered super hero origin stories out for another spin, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is accepting the noble challenge issued to every comic and hip hop artist. Many have played in this art form before you, but the good news is you have a wealth of tradition to draw on. What will you do with it? We get reboots and sequels every year, but Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is something special: the super hero movie’s first remix.

The film is all about how many new directions and angles still remain in one of comics’ oldest narratives. But Spider-Verse also attains an extra level of pathos because it is about allowing new types of characters into those old narratives. For as long as we’ve had Spider-Man movies, we have never seen someone like Miles wear the mask before. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse gives cinema its first non-white Spider-Man (not to mention its first Spider-Girl in the same film) and the decision pays off splendidly. Miles Morales is simply one of 2018’s richest characters: funny, kind, conflicted, and complex. In a film where picking the best voice performance could easily result in a six-way tie (a tie that doesn’t even include John Mulaney’s riotously funny, ahem, hamming), special notice has to go to Shameik Moore’s sensitive, note-perfect work as Miles. Representation for people of color on screen is an inherent good, regardless of the given film’s quality. But Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the kind of victory for diverse screen casting one really hopes to see. Forget my ever thinking this Spider-Man arc was too familiar. The addition of this nuanced, young Afro-Latino man into the narrative makes all the difference. I have swung through the air with a lot of Spider-Men. But swinging with Miles Morales was an honor and a genuine pleasure. This is an exciting, interesting, soulful character journey by any metric. A primetime role for a talented black actor that he proceeds to knock the ever-loving stuffing out of. I am happy and curious to follow this hero’s journey wherever it may go in the future. The most pleasantly surprising facet of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is that, for the first time in a long time, I don’t feel like I know where Spider-Man will go next.

To its list of accomplishments, there is one more we can add. Spider-Verse has what is, for me, far and away the best Stan Lee cameo in any Marvel film. The film isn’t even part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the compliment stands. The cameo occurs when a distraught Miles Morales goes to a costume shop to buy a Spider-Man mask to wear in solidarity at Peter Parker’s funeral. He goes to pay and the cashier is Stan Lee. Miles asks what he should do if the mask doesn’t fit and Stan Lee gives him this inspiring bit of reassurance. “The mask always fits eventually.” It’s a great line about self-acceptance, coming of age, and learning to take personal responsibility, themes that are pivotal to the Spider-Man narrative. But then, having uttered this bit of wisdom, the old man points to the “No Refunds” sign behind him and flashes a toothy huckster’s grin. It’s everything to love and hate about these super hero movies all captured in one moment. Can comic book films be inspiring and inspired, capable of speaking eloquently to our loftiest aspirations and deepest fears? Yes, they can. Are they also an insanely profitable racket, a cunning ploy for our wallets that mercilessly mine our most fragile desires and insecurities? Yes, they are. My goodness though, the last thing we need is another comic book movie. But Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is just plainly a great, great film. And those, we can never have enough of. Besides, there is a reason people are so drawn to these kinds of stories. And the chance to ponder those reasons, while backflipping over the Empire State Building, is pretty damned cool. There’s just no fighting it.

Top 20 Films of 2018: #18- Zama

2018 marked our first full year in the Me Too era and masculinity’s grand inquisition is going strong. The conversation has not only been about issues of consent, abuse of power, and sexual harassment. We are also in the midst of a deeper discourse about the drawbacks and complications of manhood itself; about what masculinity means and how it can aspire to be something better and healthier than it has been in its past. 2018 saw a number of films wrestle with the issue of toxic masculinity, male ego, and the way men process emotion. Damian Chazelle’s First Man did it with moody curiosity. Chloe Zhao’s The Rider took on standards of masculinity with gently heqrtbreaking empathy. Lee Chang-dong’s Burning examined male jealousy with enigmatic intensity. But of all these, Argentinian director Lucretia Martel’s 18th century period film Zama may have given manhood its most thoroughly merciless autopsy. Zama is a historical film and a bone dry satire of Spanish Colonialism and all the prideful, insecure chauvinism that imposing your will on an entire country entails. In a sense, it is also the year’s most sweeping takedown of toxic masculinity, for it is not just about the entitled posturing of its title character, but of an entire nation. With surgical remove, Lucretia Martel uses her camera to puncture and eviscerate the notions of what makes a strong, respectable man, individually and as a larger society. In the story of a 1700s Spanish magistrate abroad in Uruguay striving and failing to get a transfer out a rural backwater village, Martel is using the lens of Spanish Colonialism, one of history’s most egregious acts of patriarchal aggression, to fashion a rigorous critique of male peacocking. These officious men of the Spanish Crown, made up in their finery and appointed with important titles, are impotent and lost in a Hell of patriarchal society’s own making. They have been summoned to forcefully impose Europe’s laws and ideals on a country that never asked for them and they are inevitably doomed to fall short of the imperial expectations foisted upon them.

Our first look at our protagonist, Don Diego de Zama, winks at more romantic visions of colonialism and the Age of Exploration. Zama is standing on some shore, sharply dressed in a burgundy coat and tricorne hat, gazing out across the water, waiting for a ship to come in. He seems almost proudly posed, like some statue or Renaissance painting of a famous explorer. What we soon learn is that he has been awaiting this ship’s arrival for years. It is the ship that will take him away from the remote jungle boondocks where he serves his function. For years and years, Zama has acted as the local magistrate for a small colonial outpost, somewhere deep in the muggy jungles of Uruguay. He has long since stopped feeling any particular sense of swelling pride for his position. He goes about his duties with rote, bored resignation. “A functionary,” he dubs himself with weary self-loathing. Whatever ego he may have initially had about serving Spain has long since evaporated in the stifling heat, and what remains is an exhausted feeling of Sisyphean obligation. His days are taken up with the drudgery of petty theft cases, property (read: slavery) disputes, and sometimes making burial arrangements for the odd cholera death. He feels no greater purpose. All he wants is to finally be transferred to a city, where can be with his wife and child and where he can experience some modest portion of the trappings of Western civilization. Zama is not what you would call a plot-driven film. It is quite crucial that not much happens, that Zama remain forever stuck in place. Zama is a satirical character study and the very essence of Zama’s arc is that nothing ever moves forward for him. In the rare occasions where it looks like he might come closer to getting something he wants, it is always quickly yanked away from him. Nothing happens in this sweltering river town where his own country has buried him. He is consistently thwarted, not only in his futile attempts to be freed from this miserable post, but in every other effort to feel like a dignified, self-actualized man. His attempts to become intimate with one of the only Spanish women in town come to nothing. His young assistant undermines him and mocks his lame attempts at gravitas. Having just been choked by Zama for being impudent, the underling smiles and sarcastically exclaims, “Such bravura!” The superiors Zama appeals to ignore his requests. Instead, he gets moved from his relatively nice house to a dilapidated, termite-ridden hovel. Finally, after many more years of limbo, Zama volunteers himself for a bounty mission, hoping to earn some brownie points to support his transfer. The mission is to hunt down an infamous, murderous outlaw named Vicuna Porto, a man the Spanish government claims to have already executed but who seems to always come back to life. Like the rest of the film, this final act is about grappling with the myths of manly strength and coming to see how fundamentally hollow they are. The courageous band of colonial conquerors set out to kill the most feared man in South America and bring glory to Spain. In the end, what dies out there in the jungle is the myth of machismo; of bending the world to your whim with a sword and an adventurer’s spirit. Lucretia Martel is declaring that this is not how the world works, though it may sadly be how men work.

Martel’s meticulously observant historical film is a razor sharp dissection of the folly of Colonialism and all its dubious lore. In his tricorne and tailored coat, looking out over the water, Zama momentarily assumes the image of Columbus, Cortez, or Pizarro. Brazen men of action, eager to find what is just over the horizon. The cruel joke is that Zama is not called to any bold action and he knows he is not going anywhere. Hell, this isn’t even the sea. It’s just some anonymous river. Zama’s horizon will never change. In drawing a sharp dagger on white exploration and exploitation, Martel keenly grasps something crucial to the whole explorer mythos: forward motion. Relentless forward motion. Martel uses Zama to judge centuries of colonial rape and she comes up with a devilishly ironic sentence for her hapless colonial surrogate. In selecting Zama as Colonialism’s whipping boy, she condemns him to the thing that is most anathema to exploration: perpetual stasis. If the key narrative elements of empire-building are bravery and adventure, Martel replaces them with ineffectual cowardice and drudgery. Martel attacks Colonialism but she also reserves a muted, sad kind of feeling for Zama. I am unsure what to call that feeling. It is definitely not sympathy. It is not really empathy either. It is simply that Martel allows a kind of pathos to hang over Zama like a tattered, muddy coat. Zama is justifiably punished for his acquiescence to, and participation in, an immoral system. But the sad thing is that he no longer believes in any of it. Clearly, he ignorantly bought into colonial conquest when he was an opportunistic young man, but those days are far away. Now he hears the termites in the walls. That pathos enriches the film, but Martel also refuses to let her protagonist off the hook. It is the very point of the film that this ineffectual, frustrated bureaucrat be eternally on the hook. Zama is the hook. Martel’s film is divine retribution for the sins of European exploration, all of it heaped upon one unfortunate man. Don Diego de Zama has learned too late that being the oppressor’s errand boy is hard work. Tedious, fruitless, soul-sucking work.

I am cautious to say this but Zama is, at its heart, a kind of comedy. I do not want to create a false expectation here. It is quite unlikely that you will laugh during Zama. I do not believe that I ever did, at least not audibly. But the film is darkly, absurdly humorous for how feeble and trapped this emasculated fool is. Much of that humor comes from Daniel Gimenez Cacho’s sharp, subtle performance. His every weary, embarrassed facial expression betrays the losing battle he is fighting in his soul. The gleaming legacy he thought he signed up to defend and the steaming pile of bureaucratic llama dung he has found in its place. Zama’s eyes wince with the struggle of holding onto some shred of self-worth, but the universe just laughs and cocks its fist back again. There is a pained expression on his face whenever someone mistakenly thinks he can protect them, vindicate them, or make them whole in any way. When he is somehow mistaken for that great man from the film’s first shot. It would be one thing if he could just call his dignity dead forever and move on. But the slow death of his pride is never over because he is never done meeting people who haven’t yet learned how impotent he is. He never runs out of new faces to disappoint. Spain has sold Zama a tremendous bill of goods, and now they won’t even let him do his pointless, unfulfilling job in an actual city. When I call Zama a comedy, I mean the humiliating kind; the comedy of watching someone have dignity continually stripped away from them. Zama is really only a few centuries and a Spanish accent removed from Milton in Office Space. If staplers existed in the 1700s, you can bet Zama would be the one man in the whole Spanish government who never got to have one. Beyond its pointed critiques of Colonialism,!Zama is also just about the timeless ordeal of having a shitty, thankless job. Some of us work retail and have to deal with obnoxious customers and some of us have to live on the muggy outskirts of civilization performing mundane administrative work for brutal hegemonies. It’s a living! Zama is something rather novel and ingenious: the period piece as deadpan workplace satire.

What makes Zama such a fine cinematic achievement isn’t just its subdued wit or its gift for subtle social critique. Lucretia Martel has also made something impressively sensory to complement her ideas. Zama’s score is a mélange of traditional Spanish guitar songs and low, sinister drones that convey the sweaty, dusty, malingering tedium of Zama’s sedentary plight. Her visuals wryly underline the absurdity of these Spaniards imposing their will on this place that does not want them. Spaces feel hot and claustrophobic. Zama moves through them like a shiftless, irritated ghost. These faces all look bored and sticky. The hot days feel like they go on forever. The only cool place in the entire outpost is the room where they store corpses before burial, for understandable reasons. Zama speaks in hushed, romantic tones about one day seeing snow again. The humid, fetid natural world threatens to swallow up these vain little wooden dwellings. For all of Spain’s pomp and circumstance, they have no real control over this place. Horses and llamas wander nonchalantly through sitting rooms and government offices. At a critical moment of cowardice, a horse turns to Zama and looks at him with what can only be judgmental disappointment. Nature has no regard for these pathetic colonial interlopers. Zama presents Colonialism less as a blight on the land than as something absurd, ephemeral and doomed. Martel is not weeping for Uruguay. Uruguay will be fine. Instead, she is cackling in righteous fury at the folly of a society that thinks it can force itself upon another land. The land is eternal and it has sucked Don Diego de Zama in like quicksand. It does not want him but it also doesn’t feel like releasing him yet. The only cool place is the crypt. Zama’s only release may be death.

And after a second viewing, I think death is maybe what Zama longs for. If not for himself, he at least wants everything he represents to breathe its last, Colonialism, manifest destiny, Spain, the arbitrary modes of masculine decorum, this cursed magistrate job. The very idea that any of this is doing any good for anyone. Zama is a coward. He fears death coming to him. But at an abstract level, I think he realizes what a relief it would if this toxic patriarchal system and his role within it just went away. If nobody, oppressor or oppressed, had to act out this tired play ever again. His tired eyes finally see the inane artifice of it all. Face to face with the fearsome Vicuna Porto, Zama recants all of it. Porto mockingly calls him “corregidor”, a reference to his title. It also literally means one who makes things correct. Zama flatly replies back, “I’m not the corregidor.” The title, with its evocations of justice, righteousness and strength, is a hollow lie. Sometimes myths outlive their purpose and need to die. Lucretia Martel gives Colonialism, noble conquest, and toxic masculinity the ego death they deserve. She condemns them, carries out the sentence, and buries them in a shared grave. It doesn’t matter what takes their place. When chauvinism, exploitation and greed are your societal foundations, tearing that system down is the most merciful course of action. For everyone involved.

Top 20 Films of 2018: #19- Paddington 2

I have a real frenemy relationship with my own expectations. They have their uses. They’re good for making predictions and they’re fun to gossip with. Still, when all is said and done, I consistently root for them to look stupid. I live to see them proved wrong. I love seeing my cinematic expectations get crushed. Is there any feeling better than being surprised by a film? We inevitably bring certain expectations into the theater with us. For as much as I try to clear my mind of any prejudgments and extracurricular baggage before a screening, it’s impossible to keep my overly active brain from forming some premature impressions about what it’s about to watch. Predictions about the film’s quality, thoughts about the source material, suspicions about who the movie is catering to, and feelings about the director and actors’ past work. There may be no better example of me wrongly saddling a film with expectation and prejudgment than Paul King’s 2014 film, Paddington. Prior to its release, the Internet had itself a field day mocking the films marketing, and I can’t deny that it was a lot of fun to witness at the time. The film’s posters showed the delicately drawn cartoon bear now rendered into an uncanny actual bear though what initially appeared to be hideously misjudged CGI. The sweet little ursine looked nightmarish. His fur was realistic to the point of feeling fake and his beady bear eyes peered out with lifeless, alien apathy. Memes flooded the Internet, transporting this ursine member of the Uncanny Valley into various classic horror movie posters, where his dead-eyed stare felt perfectly, hilariously at home. The marketing was a terrible joke, and beyond that many assumed the movie itself would just be no good. That it would take a gentle, whimsical figure of child literature and plug him into the latest homogenous piece of slapstick spectacle. Another crass, CGI-infested product in a cinema landscape littered with it. The knives were out for Paddington and we all had our reasons. We all ended up being very, very wrong. Paddington turned out to be a remarkably winning, charming little film. We weren’t just wrong about its general quality, but also about its very nature. What was expected to be crass and garish was genuinely heartfelt, creative and fun. And the little bear mocked for his creepy lifelessness has now turned out to be one of the most sweetly vivacious, heartwarming characters in the whole of 21st century cinema. Paul King’s first Paddington film far exceeded the expectations set for it. And, for as much as I was now prepared for Paddington 2 to actually be good, it utterly obliterated whatever expectations one might attach to a sequel to a surprisingly good family film starring a CGI bear. Paddington is a fine, fine film. Paddington 2 is an instant classic. A new masterwork in the family film genre, fit to be uttered in the same breath as Babe.

The story structure of Paddington 2 is a thing of simple elegance. The first film was about how Paddington (Ben Whishaw, making unflappable kindness subtle and interesting), a young Peruvian bear being raised by his adoptive aunt and uncle, leaves the Andes to fulfill his Aunt Lucy’s longtime dream of seeing London. Paddington was about a kind little bear setting off for a new place and finding a new home and family with the Browns. The Browns. The Brown household consists of gruffly accommodating accountant Mr. Brown (Hugh Bonneville), kindhearted illustrator Mrs. Brown (Sally Hawkins, channeling the same effortless tenderness that made her so terrific in The Shape of Water), their teenage children Jonathan and Judy, and their tartly funny no-nonsense housekeeper Mrs. Bird (the great Julie Walters). Paddington was about the polite, diminutive bear winning his way into the Browns’ hearts, finding a new home, brightening the world around him through his soft-spoken positivity, and tangling with a colorful villain. Paddington 2 is more of the same in the very best way. What these films have going for them is vibrant color, confident charm, and gently side-splitting humor. Part of what makes Paddington 2 such an improvement over its lovely predecessor is that there is no need for table-setting. London is now very much Paddington’s home and Paul King has more time to spend just enriching his world and its inhabitants, through wit, emotion, and splendidly choreographed spectacle. Another way Paddington 2 improves on Paddington is through a tremendously fun and interesting villain. The first film’s villain was a depraved and chilly taxidermist with a vendetta, played in a perfectly good performance by Nicole Kidman. In Paddington 2, antagonist duties go to Hugh Grant, having the time of his life and giving quite possibly the performance of his career. Grant plays Phoenix Buchanan, a once-celebrated London stage actor now mostly forgotten and relegated to appearing in wonderfully humiliating dog food commercials. Paddington runs afoul of Phoenix when he finds a beautifully ornate and very expensive pop-up travel book of London that he wants to buy for Aunt Lucy’s birthday. Aunt Lucy’s dream was to visit London and Paddington sees the book as a small way of helping her experience that dream. The rub is that Phoenix Buchanan knows the book is also secretly a treasure map, and finding its riches is the only way he can finance his long-delayed one man comeback show. Paddington gets a series of jobs to try to earn money for the book, while the vain, selfish Phoenix Buchanan connives to steal it from the store. Eventually, mishap and misunderstanding land Paddington in prison for burglary, while Phoenix remains free to carry out his treasure hunt. As he does everywhere he goes, Paddington makes unlikely friends in prison, including a curmudgeonly bruiser of a chef named Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson, brilliantly funny). While the Browns try to clear Paddington’s good name, Paddington transforms a maximum security prison into a charming, pastel-tinted luxury spa all through the power of cheerfulness and marmalade sandwiches.

And, on paper, maybe that all sounds like too much sugary sentiment for any one film to have on its hands. Perhaps it all sounds like having nothing but marmalade (or mah-mah-lade, as Knuckles hilariously pronounces it) for a meal. There is precious little irony in Paddington 2, which is one way that a film can temper its sentimentality. Paddington 2 is absolutely dripping in good-natured, kindly emotion. And somehow it all works. It works by leaning into its unabashedly earnest nature. It is probably ten times more sentimental than I can convey in words, and it all completely and totally works. It doesn’t just function, it soars every level of filmmaking. It succeeds in the same way Singin’ In the Rain succeeds. As it turns out, you can make a great film that is utterly saturated in sweetness and joyful emotion if you are smart and fearless about how you approach it. Our intrepid hero is unafraid of being judged for his kindness, his thoughtfulness or his sincerity and the movie follows his lead. Like Singin’ In the Rain, Paddington 2 is an open-hearted, joyous feast of color, sound, and comedic setpieces. Paddington 2 is unfiltered joy in cinematic form. It radiates generosity and good humor from its every frame. It journeys into a dank prison because it knows that whatever sorrow is in there doesn’t stand a chance against it. The gloomiest raincloud is powerless in the face of its benevolence. Almost every character is charming and nice. Most of the movie’s sourpusses quickly succumb to Paddington 2’s onslaught of kindness and good will. And the film’s one outright villain is hysterically funny and a consistent hoot to watch. Paddington 2 is just too confident and purposeful in its joyfulness to ever feel saccharine. It rallies love, warmth, sweetness and color and marches them into battle against the forces of darkness.

In our fractious times, rife with discord, bigotry and trolling, kindness starts to look more and more like a radical act. One of 2018’s big success stories was Morgan Neville’s Fred Rogers documentary, Wont You Be My Neighbor?. I like that movie quite a lot, but I think Paddington 2 is fighting for the same cause with quite a bit more flair. Paddington 2 has a sharp, witty screenplay full of insightful lines, but the most instantly iconic may be the mantra Paddington picked up from Aunt Lucy and that he passes on to the stubbornly petulant Knuckles McGinty. “If we are kind and polite, the world will be right.” In its sweet, effervescent way, Paddington 2 is out to fight back against the notion of kindness as weakness. It is about love and selflessness as sources of strength and courage. There may be no better example of virtue as something powerful than when Knuckles insults Aunt Lucy and Paddington give him one of his aunt’s patented hard stares. It is a fixed, unwavering look of disapproval. It is not outwardly aggressive, but it is unflinching in its moral censure. When someone does wrong by you, you do not need to insult them or harm them back, but you let them know they have acted out of turn and you do not back down. As Knuckles blanches in discomfort, Paddington explains, “My Aunt Lucy taught me to do them when people have forgotten their manners.” This is a scene of genuine power. I found myself tearing up a bit. And then I shook my head and laughed, remembering that time five years ago when I mocked that Paddington poster for not appearing emotionally expressive enough. Just look at him now. There may not be a single facial expression in all of 2018 film with more simple, expressive power than that hard stare. Paddington 2 announce that we should feel resilient in our decency and never look back. When we find rudeness and spitefulness out in the world, we don’t have to respond with more negativity. But we should not hesitate to make hate squirm.

In my review for Lady Bird, my favorite film from 2017, I started a new annual tradition. I like to call it the Damp Face Award. The honor goes to whatever film leaves me with teary eyes for the greatest percentage of its runtime. A film can win the Award through sadness, humor or naked emotion, but any film wins is probably going to have some combination of all three. The Damp Face Award favors laughter and pathos, two qualities that I value highly in my films. This year saw no shortage of emotionally strong work, but Paddington 2 wins the 2018 Damp Face Award handily. It is a film of bottomless heart and wit. I cannot overemphasize how very, very funny it is both verbally and visually. It is also an overwhelmingly poignant film. Paul King’s family opus is tremendously fun and inventive, from the prison shenanigans to Phoenix Buchanan’s amazing, endless stream of costume changes when committing his crimes. But the film’s stroke of genius for me is that its central story arc is so simple and generous. Paddington loves his Aunt Lucy dearly, appreciates here years of support and sacrifice (the film smartly opens with a flashback of Aunt Lucy rescuing the orphan cub Paddington from a Peruvian river), and wants to give some portion of that kindness back to her. It is the reason that Paddington 2 can be the giddy, colorful, digressive whirligig that it is and still feel so grounded and cohesive. Paddington 2 is about the power of simple, selfless acts and it is about being grateful for the people (and bears) who love us. Without spoiling anything, the film concludes with a small act of kindness so genuinely heartfelt and overwhelmingly meaningful that any list of the decade’s best endings would be incomplete without it. It is such a refreshingly simple; a gesture and four words. Realizing that this little moment was what this entire film had been building toward completed walloped me. It felt so perfectly scaled to the compassionate little family film around it, but I was unprepared for its power. Even in very good family films, one does not expect moments this intimate, emotional, and well-observed.

I’ve been telling anyone who asks and a few who don’t that my favorite quality in 2018 cinema is how hungry the filmmakers seemed. The great works of the past year left me with a lot to think about and unpack, and that is what reviews are for. But they also felt so immediately satisfying in the moment I was watching them. There’s a feeling almost beyond words when a film is clicking into lace while you’re watching it. I chalk it up to conviction and exuberance, and there were few films in this or any other year with as much infectious exuberance as Paddington 2. It’s an infectiously exuberant film about the transformative, transportive power of infection exuberance. And that’s not just something it’s selling to its audience. Paddington 2 is also its own most loyal customer. It is a symphony of goodness that builds and builds upon itself. It is a rare and beautiful thing to find a family film with this degree of zest and directorial prowess. The same goes for sequels. And that rare quality becomes even more astounding when we factor in that this is a sequel to a family film based on a very British children’s book series about a talking, marmalade-loving Peruvian bear exploring jolly old England. I have no conceivable idea of what the expectation is or should be for a film like that. Maybe there isn’t one. Maybe that’s as it should be.

Top 20 Films of 2018: #20- A Star Is Born

It’s always fun to look at my yearly Top 20 and identify patterns and present-day applications; themes that stand out across multiple films and messages that speak to the world we live in. That said, while there are a number of recurring ideas across 2018 cinema (cycles of abuse, familial histories, the ever-presence of classism, and the continuing struggle over racial inequality), what really defines 2018 as a year in film  for me is that it just tasted so incredibly good. Regardless of genre, what I found in my film-going year was a wonderful abundance of flavor. The defining feature of this year’s cinematic menu, from the most heartwarming comedy to the most austerely despairing indie drama, was a sense of luscious, swaggering vitality. It was a year with gumption, brio, and full-throated spirit. In that context, having a film as marvelously sumptuous as A Star Is Born begin my year-end list feels fitting. Bradley Cooper’s stirring directorial debut is a fine banner carrier for a year that had no shortage of swagger. A year full of relationships writ large and with infectious flair. Of old ideas carried out with such infectious panache, they made you want to forever ban the use of such a presumptuous and dismissive term as “old ideas”. 2018 saw such disparate and well-established breeds as the Western, the space exploration period piece, the teen coming-of-age film, and the workplace comedy approached with originality, yes, but more than anything, with splendid faith in the ability of rich characters, poignant emotion, and keen ideas to spark life into the most familiar genres. Such a wealth of the year’s films trod old roads while allowing us to feel like we have never noticed them this way before. It is altogether fitting that Bradley Cooper’s arresting and heartfelt riff on an oft-told story should start off this set of reviews, not only because it is such a sterling example of how to make an old form feel fresh, but also because revitalizing old forms is practically the film’s mission statement. Late in A Star Is Born, one character opines to another that all of music is really only some combination of the same twelve notes played out again and again. It is not all that often that music, film, or any other art form sees some radical new development. Most artists will inevitably find themselves using tried and true methods to tell their stories. What matters then is not so much the old song itself as the small, emotional nuances of the singer. The modulations and phrasing and where the singer allows her voice to crack and strain with vulnerabilities. Originality and innovation are fine things and we should always honor those who seek to push art forward in bold new ways. But there is also something to be said for those who can find inspiration within the lines of what already exists. When an artist performs an old standard with true conviction, there is no such thing as the same old song.

The notion of finding new life in an old-fashioned story is an important one for A Star Is Born, not only because it belongs to a long-standing tradition of stories about fame and the rise and fall of artistic fortunes, but because it is also no less than the fourth iteration of this particular cinematic property. The kinds of music the two romantic leads play has changed between versions of A Star Is Born. And in the earliest version, from 1937, the two leads were not musicians at all but rather actors. But the basic skeleton has always been that an older artist, famous but well past the zenith of his career, finds and helps to establish an undiscovered female talent. The films are about the relationship between the two leads, the joys and trials of fame, and balancing success with artistic integrity. More than anything, the hook is always that we are watching the ascension of a new star while a former star falls, beautifully and tragically, out of the sky. We first meet our old star, alt-country rocker Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper, in a splendid mixture of histrionic swagger and subtle nuance that may as well be the film in miniature), at a concert where is he is already years into tumbling from his peak. He plays “Black Eyes’, the first of A Star Is Born’s numerous strong songs, and he sounds very good. Still, he is plainly drunk and staggering his way through the motions. The number cuts off midway through to a flurry of flashbulbs, as Jackson slips into the protection of his limousine and bottle of scotch. Slurring his words, he asks his driver to find him a bar somewhere in the nameless city he has just played to. He ends up in a cozy, dimly lit drag bar on the night of its weekly cabaret show. Here we meet our second star, Ally (Lady Gaga, in a powerful, confident, and subtle performance), a young, recently divorced Italian-American woman living at home with her working-class father (Andrew Dice Clay, lending lovely humor and shading to a small role) and putting in shifts at a thankless catering job to pay their bills. We gather that this cabaret night is probably the one release valve in a never-ending grind of frustrations and narrowly missed opportunities. Ally is a tremendously gifted singer and performer, as she demonstrates to the audience and to Jackson Maine when she strides across the bar to give a fiery, deliciously vampy rendition of “La Vie En Rose”. Jackson is instantly blown away and he asks her friend, Ramon (Anthony Ramos, who played one of Alexander Hamilton’s friends in Hamilton), to take him backstage for an introduction. Their chemistry and shared love of music is immediately apparent, and so the meeting quickly turns into an impromptu date that climaxes with a heartfelt, breathlessly intimate conversation at 2:00 AM in an empty supermarket parking lot. Here Jackson shares the details of his dysfunctional, blue-collar upbringing and Ally reveals the first glimpses of her stellar songwriting talent. Within what feels like twenty-four hours, Jackson has invited Ally to meet him on tour in Arizona, where he invites her onstage to sing a full arrangement of the song she showed him on their first date. That song is a blazing chart-topper called “Shallow”, which has now gone from being a massive hit in a raved film to being a massive hit on the real world Billboard charts. The moment where Ally must summon the courage to take the stage is one of the most breathtakingly, breath-holdingly rapturous in any film this year. Lovers and detractors of A Star Is Born cite this moment as the film’s blissful apex, and it should be. In a film about two careers and lives, one soaring toward its peak and one plummeting to its inevitable demise, it only makes sense that the brightest moment would be that brief span of time when their arcs cross with one another. Where the film goes from there is increasingly less ecstatic and joyful as Jackson grapples with his addictions and professional insecurities, and as Ally faces the compromises that are part and parcel of mainstream success. Some see that dip in euphoria as a detriment to the film and I will concede that A Star Is Born is probably never quite as exquisite as a sheer piece of filmmaking in its back half. On the other hand, that seems entirely the point. This old story is very much about a kind of artistic hangover for both of its protagonists. The moment when the artist either loses their relevance never to get it back or when they catapult to such wild heights of success that the act of creating and performing can no longer be as joyful or sweetly uncomplicated as it once was. If “Shallow” feels like an Eden that the rest of the film can never quite return to, I would argue that is very much by Bradley Cooper’s design. A Star Is Born is a lot of giddy, heart-swelling fun in all of its spectacle and romance. But it is also finally a tragic melodrama, and anyone taken aback or disappointed by its descent into dysfunction, jadedness and sorrow has forgotten the very specific old torch ballad that Gaga and Cooper are crooning. Bradley Cooper has radically revitalized this property, but the song is still the song.

And the fact that this is fundamentally the same A Star Is Born is really the great achievement of the film. Or rather it’s the notion that we would forget what movie this is for even a minute. The film hits its potentially clichéd story beats with such passion and thunderous force in its first half that we scarcely notice how familiar those beats actually are. There are countless rise and fall biopics. There are countless romances like that of Ally and Jackson Maine. But all that stops mattering in the time we spend with them because they feel so specific and real. It is a wondrous cinematic magic trick to make an audience momentarily forget all the strings of plot and archetype dangling right in front of their faces the whole time. We suffer through a great many flat, uninspired romance films year after year. Audiences clearly have a hunger to see people in love, but so few of the talent Hollywood entrusts to capture love on screen seem to truly have their hearts in it most of the time. There seems to be a kind of disrespectful presumption that the people who want to see love stories are not picky; that, when push comes to shove, quality is secondary and people will get their romantic narrative fix through any means available to them. And, at the risk of sounding trite, I think the grand human emotion that is love deserves a whole lot better than what it gets throughout most of the film year. In its swelling, old-fashioned, star-studded way, A Star Is Born is one of the best films of recent years to capture the scope of what it feels like to fall head over heels for a person. Really, the reason that “Shallow” is such a breathtaking display of emotional fireworks isn’t just that it captures what it would feel like to finally have your moment in the spotlight. It is more than that. It is about what it would feel like to rocket to fame overnight and find the love your life in the same exact instant. It is frankly almost absurd in its delirious wish fulfillment. This is not a subtle kind of love. A Star Is Born’s romantic poetry is not scribbled delicately upon napkins and diary pages. It is written in plumes of pink smoke across the sky and emblazoned in black block letters on the marquees of sold out stadiums. And yet, so help me, there is real nuance here amidst all that jaw-dropping scope. A Star Is Born is a film that feels enormous, yet still has a canny way of filigreeing its large-scale imagery with tiny nuances. This is nothing like real-world romance. It really is the quintessence of a love that can happen only in the movies. But its epicness is also unfailingly intimate in an almost paradoxical way. Somehow, in all its larger-than-life spectacle, its romance feels completely right.

And, really, it’s not just the love scenes. Everything about A Star Is Born balances an almost impossible grandiosity with smaller flourishes. Its lovelorn music world feels like a flashy Technicolor marvel, but one that you can actually imagine real human beings existing in. Its concert stages and music halls feel like Mount Olympuses and also like fond, familiar spaces where performers line up celebratory shots of Jack Daniels just offstage for a little pre-encore courage, and where megastars still huddle together in little pep circles like nervous sixteen year olds about to perform in a high school play. The allure of A Star Is Born isn’t just in how dazzling its world is. It is also about what it would feel like to suddenly call this big, crazy show-biz milieu your own. I cannot recall the last time I saw such a fascinating mixture of spectacle and intimacy. When Jackson proposes to Ally with a ring fashioned from a bass guitar string, it feels totally appropriate for two musicians in love. But that image of the knotted metal chord encircling Ally’s finger also feels huge, like something one might see on a rock ‘n’ roll album cover. I had to think for a moment just to make sure I hadn’t seen it in some Guns ‘n’ Roses music video. That, and every other thing about A Star Is Born, would feel ridiculously bombastic if its emotions were not so sweetly sincere; if its performances were not so beautifully raw, real, and committed. That goes not only for Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, who both do spectacularly charismatic work, but for a wealth of smaller roles and single-scene parts. From Sam Elliott conveying years of love and fraught history as Jackson’s beleaguered older brother and road manager, to Dice Clay’s proud, lovably embarrassing Italian patriarch, to Anthony Ramos as Ally’s protective and playful companion on the road to fame. The brief appearance of Jackson Maine’s cheerful and capable tour assistant Gail made me imagine an equally fun and stirring film about the backstage life of an assistant to an aging alcoholic rockstar. I could watch a series about the sardonic, loving family of drag show performers at the bar where Ally and Jackson first meet. I think what Bradley Cooper demonstrates here is an ability to make a lavish Hollywood entertainment with all the layered observational quality of a fine indie drama. It is tremendously exciting to think of the trend a film like this could incite. Gloriously big, swooning exravaganzas with sharp scripts and rich, method-style performances. The one time Daniel Day Lewis appeared in a musical (Rob Marshall’s Nine) the results were mixed at best, but maybe Bradley Cooper is the man to make that seemingly incongruous combination finally sing.

My single favorite moment in A Star Is Born is not just “Shallow” but a specific moment within the “Shallow” performance. After Ally finishes her first verse, to ecstatic cheers, she stands agape and overcome and the song begins to build to its bridge of gorgeous, frenzied caterwauling. Ally has been standing at one of the backup microphones downstage. We have just seen her muster up all her courage and will power to even walk this far. Suddenly, Jackson beckons her forward and she makes the fateful walk to the lead microphone. We follow her in a tight tracking shot as she crosses that important bit of space that separates anonymity from stardom. From backup vocalist to center stage diva all in a matter of seconds and steps. There is just something so very satisfying about the blocking of this scene. It made me think about the real physical space that a rising star like Ally would occupy. For as much as A Star Is Born might be a giddy fantasia of the pop music world, Cooper puts exquisite care into thinking about the concrete details of this world. A Star Is Born may be unadulterated romantic wish fulfillment, but, like the very best dreams, it feels palpably real while you’re in it. And, if nothing else, the genuine thoughtfulness and care of how these stage scenes are choreographed gives A Star Is Born one of its very best qualities: sheer, exuberant conviction. Even scenes that don’t feel quite like they might in real life, like Ally’s performance on Saturday Night Live, have an impressionistic kind of emotional authenticity. Maybe this is not what the real SNL studio space looks like, but the details sure feel true. Nervously holding your breath before your first official televised appearance. Standing next to Alec Baldwin in the dark in total silence until the producer gives you both the hand signal to head to your marks. When Jackson Maine is asked to play backup guitar for a Roy Orbison tribute at the Grammys, the Roy Orbison banner hanging behind the band looks monumentally large. I thought about all the crafts that go into making something pop visually on television; how colorful and gigantic everything must to be to register for the viewer, and how disorienting and surreal it must be to be surrounded by all of that. The wild, colorful bric-a-brac of show business. And, of course, as A Star Is Born increasingly turns into a story of addiction and self-destructive excess, the feeling of being dwarfed and swallowed up by the glitzy machinery of fame starts to take on the double function of letting us into Jackson Maine’s headspace. It places us in Ally’s headspace too. Stardom must be an intoxicating place to fine oneself, and perhaps even more to lose oneself. In its detailed imagining of the spaces of the music world, A Star Is Born once again feels true to life while also being ten times larger than life.

A Star Is Born is a marvelous work of acting, music, and directorial craft, but what finally makes it such a superb representation of what 2018 did right is that it reminds us that we can go back to wells that are decades or even centuries-old and still find life there. This film is no less than the fourth cover of this specific old story, and this general kind of story has been covered ever so many times more than that. The film is not the tiniest bit ashamed of that fact. It is giddy with delight to add its voice to a long-standing narrative tradition. The myriad hoary tropes set up for it to crash into and trip over turn out not to be stumbling blocks. Instead, it uses them as obstacles to nimbly dash around, leap from and parkour over. Subverting cliché while embracing it is not just part of the show. It is the feature. It is what A Star Is Born wants to offer its audience. I left this soaringly tragic melodrama with an elated tingle in my temples. Bradley Cooper had taken an old song, struck up the band, and roared at the top of his lungs, “Once more with feeling!” A Star Is Born makes formula feel moving and thrilling. It turns cliché into an equestrian course. Having a film this feverish, romantic, compelling, and downright assured in every facet eke its way into my year-end list is a firm declaration that 2018 was the finest film year in quite some time. And if A Star Is Born is not the year’s most altogether perfect film, it makes up for that handily by sounding a galvanizing rallying cry, to all the first-timers, developing talents, and wise veterans we were privileged to see make movies this year. Everybody, listen up. The rookie’s got something to say. Whatever we choose to say should be said with passion, hunger and raw emotion. This old medium of ours is still a baby with its best, most beautiful works ahead of it.  And everything old under the Sun is new again.

Top 20 Films of 2017: #1- Lady Bird

I am recently thirty-six years old and I am unashamed to say that I tear up in movies. I tear up in them more now than I did two years ago, which was already considerably more than I did five years before that. It’s been an escalating trend with me. As a young teenager, it would happen with a select handful of films, the most reliable of which was, and maybe still is, Field of Dreams, that lovely plate of steak and potatoes that I still love so well. If I was ever offered a million dollars to cry on cue, humming the closing strains of James Horner’s “The Place Dreams Come True” would be about as reliable strategy as I can name. But as I grow older and ever more in love with the cinema, it takes less and less to make my eyes mist over. I spent the closing hours of one of my dating anniversaries blubbering like an infant to the final monologue of Mrs. Doubtfire on TNT, while my future fiancé lay blissfully passed out and blessedly oblivious to my shameful little display. Now that the dam in front of my moviegoing retinas has completely crumbled, the most liberating revelation has been realizing that it doesn’t take sadness or even a particularly dramatic kind of joy to get the tears flowing. I can tear up at comedies, dramas, thoughtful documentaries, musicals, and droll animated films. And so, just as I did with The Florida Project (my other favorite film of 2017), I have come up with a term to describe my official number one film of 2017. Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s lyrical, witty, sweetly observant, and deliriously humanistic high school dramedy, is the quintessential Damp Face Movie TM. What this means is that there was nary a moment in this priceless, compact little gem of a movie where my eyes weren’t dewy and glistening in the best possible ways. To be clear, the Damp Face honor (I am now considering handing the award out annually) doesn’t just go to a film that makes my eyes well up. This is not an award for the film with the biggest cry (which surely goes to The Florida Project’s roundhouse kick of an ending), but the film that holds my eyeballs in a suspended state of emotional catharsis for as much of its runtime as possible. Lady Bird has moments of riotously funny humor, impossibly endearing human interactions, and stirring pathos, and it plays each those notes in a way that is clear, unpretentious, and undeniably affecting. It pirouettes between all its emotional poles with astounding finesse. It glides around them as if there were no distinction between laughter, thoughtful reflection, and melancholy. In so doing, it becomes that deceptively trick, rare thing that only the very best of such films can manage to be: utterly, authentically human. In a year that offered some astounding cinematic achievements, the most jaw-dropping of all of them was just to watch Greta Gerwig walk out on stage with humble, self-deprecating composure and deliver the softest, most unassuming knockout punch in all of 2017 cinema. Lady Bird is a sparkling comedy and an emotional juggernaut fused seamlessly together. It is a tearjerker of uncanny, sprightly effervescence; an intoxicatingly soulful character study to have you smiling through bleary eyes.

 

One of Lady Bird’s finest qualities is that it takes a genre that is not often particularly inspired and reminds us that it can be lively, deep, and invigorating. Every category of art deserves its masterworks, those great entries that remind us that brilliance can happen in any form. Hair metal has its Appetite For Desctruction. The parody film has Young Frankenstein. And now, with full respect to terrific movies like Mean Girls, The Spectacular Now, and Clueless, I believe the high school movie may have just served up its filet mignon in Lady Bird. Lady Bird is simply the story of one year, Senior year to be exact, in the life of a seventeen-year old Sacramento native named Christine MacPherson. She has bestowed herself with the name Lady Bird as a means of carving out some semblance of individuality that she believes her Catholic school and the sprawling capitol city around it do not provide her. In a breezy ninety-seven minutes, we follow Lady Bird through her last year as a high schooler, as she navigates her social world and waits to see what colleges will accept her. Her mediocre grades mean she will probably end up at a nearby public university, but she dreams of attending some lofty East Coast institution where she will be steeped in the kind of highbrow culture she feels her hometown lacks. In an attempt to stand out on her applications, Lady Bird ends up auditioning for the school play with her shy, big-hearted and bookish friend Julie (Jonah Hill’s younger sister, Beanie Feldstein, splendidly sweet and almost unthinkably endearing). She also forms a crush on the school’s best actor, an earnest red-headed young man named Danny (Manchester By the Sea’s Lucas Hedges, adding another impressive performance to his extremely promising young career). Lady Bird’s fractious, begrudgingly fond relationship with the city of Sacramento (the city where Greta Gerwig herself grew up) and her efforts to one day escape its orbit are nominally the plot of the film, though Lady Bird is so intuitively an emotional character study that I never think of it in such linear terms. It is more a cohesive, insightful, and funny series of impressions from one fateful year in a young woman’s life, like a delightfully heartfelt and impeccably written collection of diary pages. It is an empathetic assortment of touching, ticklish, and engaging anecdotes that let us in to the good-natured, sometimes pseudo-intellectual, and always rebellious soul of its protagonist. It is also about getting to know Lady Bird’s world and the many people in it, all brought to beautiful, bristling life by 2017’s best ensemble cast. This is a perfectly curated Murderer’s Row of talent, consisting of legends of stage and screen (Stephen Henderson, Lois Smith, multiple Tony-winner Laurie Metcalf, the Tony-and-Pulitzer-winning Tracy Letts) and meteorically ascending young talent (Saoirse Ronan, Lucas Hedges, and Timothee Chalamet, not a one of them above the age of twenty-seven, already have six Oscar nominations and numerous critics awards between them). The film is about Lady Bird’s relationships with her family, friends, and classmates. Above all, it is about the fundamentally loving but frequently testy relationship between Lady Bird and her hard-working, persistently critical mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf, in a performance of staggering nuance, humor, and gravitas). Marion and Lady Bird both house a complex mixture of pride and embarrassment about their lower-middle class circumstances. This sense is exacerbated by the fact that Lady Bird’s parents have enrolled her in an affluent Catholic school, where much of the student body lives in pristine two-story houses. Lady Bird is the least well off of her classmates and her aging father (Tracy Letts, a warmly self-deprecating pillar of decency, in the year’s most masterful small performance) has just lost his job as a programmer. Lady Bird is an endlessly heartwarming, honest, and funny coming of age story about the power of place and the weight of upbringing. It is about the interplay between the identity that others give to us throughout our lives and the identities we try to give ourselves. It is a clear-eyed and tender thing of beauty. This is simply a high school movie in the same way that Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset is simply a romantic tour of Paris. Its small, seemingly straightforward package holds a vast world of feeling, vibrant characterization, and human truth.

 

Like Linklater’s Before films, Lady Bird shares a sense of something organically soulful and human. Beyond the clear stakes of their plots, there is a feeling of something rich in the simple act of people knowing each other, sparring with each other, bouncing their whims and wills off of one another. Their apparent smallness in the grand scheme, whether just about two people finding romance or just a young woman deciding who she will be outside of high school and hometown, belies their ability to capture the full weight of life. Films like Lady Bird are reminders that no story need feel small because any life is a poignant and momentous thing to the person living it. To quote Harvey Pekar in American Splendor, “Ordinary life is pretty complex stuff.” Beyond their ability to house tidal waves of feeling in teacup worlds, Lady Bird also shares with the Before series a keen sense of place. As someone who has been to Sacramento many times and will soon marry a native of the California capitol, I can personally say that Greta Gerwig’s evocation of this place is sharp, observant and loving. And this is a lovely thing in part because each little corner of this strange, wide world of ours deserves its own piece of poetry. There are a great many places in this world that I have never seen, but I always hope there is an artist out there somewhere working away to capture some tiny, essential piece of the soul of those places. Still, for argument’s sake, let’s say that you have no exposure to the sprawling, creative charms of Sacramento and no expectation that you will ever visit there. In that case, perhaps the extent to which Lady Bird accurately captures Sacramento would be unknown to you and you might ask why this facet of the film matters. You do not know the place and you will not feel those flickers of recognition when shots of the city’s lovely Tower Theater flash by or when a scene plays out in the city’s famous rose garden. This is a tough argument for me to make because I obviously can never divorce myself from knowing Sacramento. I will never watch Lady Bird without having that perspective. And yet, I feel confident in saying that what Gerwig bottles here is a sense of the value and power of a place that transcends familiarity. This goes beyond the need to know Sacramento or to have visited there. The film’s lyrically dreamy editing stitches together impressions of this place that hold their own mystical weight. They are powerful to me not because I have been to these places (or not simply for that reason anyway), but because one can sense that Gerwig has been to these places and that each one of them holds stories and enigmatic meanings known only to her. Lady Bird, like many a great work of art, speaks from a specific place while also keeping one foot in the universal. One need not have lived in Sacramento to grasp Lady Bird’s sweet and caustic dialectic between treasuring home and wanting to journey as far from it as possible; to remember that our childhood homes could be both our shackles and our sanctuaries. The old haunts we grew up around and yearned to be free of were still part of our reveries because how could they not be? They had forged us, with all the pain, discomfort, growth, and strength that word implies. In a beautiful and understated way, Gerwig speaks of home as a place we dream of escaping so that we can lie in a strange bed and dream of returning to it. Yes, Lady Bird is an exquisitely lovely ode to Sacramento. But beyond that, it is among the most sweetly soothing essays ever made about home as salve and irritant, and about wrestling with that complicated tension between gratitude for what it gave us and relief that our worlds eventually expanded past it.

 

And in a similar way, Lady Bird is about that same mixture of love, appreciation and rebellion between parents and their children. In the same way that it is the story of Christine MacPherson struggling to define herself as both a Sacramento native and someone longing to be free of that place, it is also the story of who Christine is as both a product of her parental upbringing and as an individual seeking to exist and grow outside of that influence. That is a very, very clinical way of saying that Lady Bird is possibly the most wonderful, wise, and poignant portrait of a mother and daughter relationship that I have ever seen. A lot of the beauty in the powerful parallels and stark differences between Lady Bird and Marion come from the lovely, sharp writing, which can be nakedly emotional and painful but never comes within a sight of cynicism. Even the most heartbreaking scenes of discord come from a place of gentle, honest, humanism. Gerwig has a talent for sharp, cutting dialogue, but her directorial sense could not be more loving and compassionate. As a result, Lady Bird becomes a tender and clear-eyed journey through a remarkably nuanced relationship where we feel both bruised and emotionally secure. Gerwig is aided immeasurably by Ronan and Metcalf, giving two of the greatest performances by any performer in 2017. This is a film that can take us into places of genuine sadness and catharsis without ever becoming shrill or unpleasant. We may dab our eyes with recognition at its hard truths, but the smile is never far from our faces. It is the smile of knowing in our hearts that human beings are messy and sometimes selfish, that children can be myopically self-centered and reckless with their words, that parents are frail and imperfect. That every single person on this planet, be they seventeen or seventy-two, is frail and imperfect. It is the smile of recognizing all that and loving humanity all the more for it. I have watched these fights or been involved in arguments like them myself when I was a stubborn teenager. They are real, raw, and rich with feeling and insight. Each one comes with its share of winces and both characters have their moments where they are completely, cruelly in the wrong. But each scene also carries its share of belly laughs or sweet rays of levity, as in the already famous scene where Marion and Lady Bird pause their quarreling to coo over a dress they both like. And when the momentary squall of drama is done, we move on to a scene of pure comedy. But, regardless of the tenor of the scene, the emotional potency never lets up for a minute. And this is what makes Lady Bird 2017’s Damp FaceTM masterpiece.

 

Five years ago, Greta Gerwig wrote another character-centric classic and also starred in it. It was her now-paramour Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, a bittersweet, gnagly, lovingly critical look at a twenty-something dancer losing her boyfriend, roommate, and New York City apartment, and trying gamely to land on her feet. One of the film’s already iconic shots is of Gerwig’s Frances making her way across a New York City crosswalk like the world’s most awkward and exuberant ballerina. She pirouettes and flings her lanky dancer’s body in front of taxi cabs and city buses and turns the act of going down town into an impromptu dance recital. This is maybe the pivotal shot of early Greta Gerwig, when she was just a brilliant writer and actor. She is perched at the exact border between clumsiness and a beautiful, mesmerizingly unsteady kind of self-possession. As Gerwig’s protagonist and autobiographical surrogate, Lady Bird MacPherson is very much like an adolescent Frances. She is a confident, smart young woman and also an awkward, ungainly presence. Pithy witticisms pour out of her mouth just in time for her foot to end up there. I love the Gerwig archetype: a strong, intelligent woman with a New Yorker’s urbanity, a Tatiesque kind of clumsy curiosity, and a distinctly 21st century kind of aimlessness. However, while the classic Gerwig character recipe may be two parts clumsiness to one part grace, I have to say that Gerwig herself is only growing more graceful and composed by the day. Considering she is one of the finest actors we have, maybe the clumsiness was always just part of the performance. With Lady Bird, I am enchanted and amazed to see how she has retained her own ramshackle charm, but refined it into a new luminous form. Any hint of anything even resembling cynicism have been lost and what remains is honest insight into human behavior without a hint of mockery or judgment. Gerwig has retained her love for human fallibility and social mishaps, but as the woman sitting in the Big Director’s Chair, she now brings her own almost impossibly kind sensibility to the proceedings. Greta Gerwig is not Noah Baumbach. She is still curious about human flaws: about pride, brash youthful exuberance, putting on intellectual airs, and trying on new identities as we stumble through life. But she has no interest in patronizing anyone for their mistakes or weaknesses. Lady Bird is a film that loves people for their mistakes and weaknesses. Her observations of life are not sugarcoated because no sugar is needed. The filter of her directorial vision is so unfailingly tender and understanding that her hardest blows do not leave real bruises. They are not intended to cause pain, but to inspire clear reflection. And all of this is just my way of belaboring the basic point that, in a year full of fancy cinematic cocktails, Greta Gerwig gave 2017 its glass of sweet, cold spring water. Lady Bird is simply the kindest thing these jaded eyes took in all year. And kindness is what 2017 needed most.

 

Artists like the Greta Gerwigs and the Richard Linklaters of the world have appealed to me for a long time. I have long had a love for authors, be they writers or filmmakers, who paint in small-scale human colors. I recently realized that I can trace the germ of what makes me love this empathetic, lyrical kind of storytelling back to the first real, honest-to-goodness novel I ever read. I was a tender nine years old and I picked up Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women at the Danville Public Library. I finished it and gobbled up Alcott’s Little Men a few weeks later. The feeling of kinship with these kinds of stories and their loping, vignette-style structure was instantaneous and deeply felt. What these novels share with works like the Before series and Lady Bird is a sense that character is really driving the story and that the best kind of plots are just about watching people we like grow and change. Important events occur in the characters’ lives, but there is the unmistakable sense that we would be following these people no matter what was happening to them. What takes place in the story is less important than the fact that we are getting to know human beings; that, for the next two hours or four-hundred pages they are our human beings. There are naturally larger overarching plots, but mostly we are just witnessing these small, richly drawn lives as they are lived day to day. The plot exists only insofar as these lives are moving forward and each new bit of action, be it monumental or trivial, is another sentence, paragraph, or chapter in the story of who these people are. Sometimes the action is seismic, a major moment that changes the characters’ destinies forever. Jo March meeting her husband for the first time or Beth March passing away tragically young. But, just as often, there are brief moments, single paragraph excerpts, that represent little more than the smallest of stones on the pathway of their lives. Maybe it’s just a single pleasant day the March sisters spend playing in the countryside or the week they spend putting together a holiday play. Moments like these may not radically alter the road the characters are walking, but they are just as much a part of that road. In a way, the fact that these tiny moments are not held up as anything more important than what they are makes them feel more precious, more resplendent in their tiny transience. It is no wonder that I love Linklater’s Boyhood with its notion that life is the accumulation of fleeting, seemingly inconsequential moments. I first felt that way myself when I was only nine years old and made my first fond acquaintances with the March sisters. And now, much to my delight, I have learned that Gerwig’s sophomore directorial effort will be none other than Little Women. Based on her first blissful outing as director, I can scarcely picture a more perfect marriage of auteur and source material. Lady Bird filled me with many of the same feelings I had the first, second, and third times I read Alcott’s novel. The film is 2017’s most vibrant, lovingly frayed quilt; a patchwork of deep conversations and foolish misadventures and youthful flights of fancy and joyful, trivial memories. It captures life as a swirl of formative milestones and gleefully ethereal little anecdotes that we may not even fully remember in five years’ time. Gerwig has assembled her own impressions of growing up in Sacramento and sequenced them, large and small, into a raucous, soul-stirring greatest hits album about growing up. Her modest, delicate, charmingly self-effacing opus is full of epic suites, simple ditties and everything in between. Life is made of such stuff.

Top 20 Films of 2017: #2- The Florida Project

There was a moment shortly after finishing my latest viewing of The Florida Project (the third of what will be many to come) when I felt I had really gotten my finger on the right word to describe it. With a ridiculously self-satisfied grin on my face, I scrawled down the words “magical neorealism”. It was a portmanteau of neorealism and magical realism and it felt right in the moment. I would still confidently say that the neorealist tag fits The Florida Project like a glove. Neorealism descends from Italian neorealism, the cinematic style that developed in Italy after World War II, famously advanced by directors like Vittorio Di Sica (Bicycle Thieves), Roberto Rosselini (Rome Open City), and Federico Fellini (in 1950s masterworks like La Strada, before he was anointed with the adjective Felliniesque, which, in its carnivalesque grandiosity, is about as far from neorealism as film gets). Neorealist films famously present the economically downtrodden of society with stark clarity and they tend to draw added authenticity from the use of nonprofessional actors, which accentuates the reality of the films by removing the comforting familiarity of established stars. Bicycle Thieves famously helped cement this facet of neorealism when Di Sica ignored Hollywood’s pleas to use megastar Cary Grant and opted to cast a Roman factory worker with no film resume whatsoever. Neorealism fits The Florida Project, which focuses on people living on the economic fringe and almost exclusively features performers who are nonprofessionals, or who are at least untested in screen acting. The magical realist tag is one I feel less confident about the more I think about it. Unlike recent magical realist films like Pan’s Labyrinth and Beasts of the Southern Wild, there is nothing truly supernatural or fantastical in The Florida Project. The stuff of fairytale never really breaks us away from the film’s stark, impoverished realities. There are no minotaurs or mystical riddles to solve or magical curses to lift or mythical beasts roaming the landscape. I confess that my little portmanteau is probably, technically inaccurate, but it still feels right to me. There is never a moment of The Florida Project where we truly escape financially depressed Kissimee, Florida, with its myriad low-rent motels, sprawling strip malls, and blighted condominiums, but somehow an aura of strange, uneasy magic hangs over it all. This is maybe the major miracle of Sean Baker’s ingenious, transporting, and shattering third film. It taps into magical realism’s power to comment upon and augment real life without ever retreating into literal fantasy. It is a film about bleak social conditions that finds hope and relief from those conditions, not by poofing them away but by staring ever more intently and deeply at them.

 

The Florida Project is an ensemble film in some ways with its teeming, perfectly cast tapestry of untrained performers. The only trained exceptions in the cast are veteran Willem Dafoe (in what I am ready to call the finest performance of his obviously esteemed career) and young, ubiquitous Caleb Landry Jones (capping off an impressive 2017 trifecta, after performances in Get Out and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). The first of many miracles of the film is how everyone (inexperienced Floridians, Instagram stars, and high-pedigree thespians alike) blends seamlessly into the same utterly organic whole. Baker makes the rundown motels of Kissimee, Florida bustle with rich, subtle lives. Still, as full of believable people as this world is, the film’s arc truly belongs to two great female characters. The first is Halley (Instagram celebrity Bria Vinaite, in a performance with some detractors, but that I find endlessly powerful in its oscillations between frightened vulnerability and loud, performantive snideness). Halley is an unemployed mother taking on the odd stripper job and illegally selling wholesale perfume to tourists to just barely afford her 30-dollar-per-night motel rent. The other main character, and I would say the film’s unquestionable lead, is Halley’s daughter Moonee, an imaginative, energetic, and altogether unruly six-year old girl. Moonee spends her carefree summer days (likely the last before the school system reins her in) bounding about Kissimee’s overgrown fields, vacant buildings, and parking lots as if they were an enchanted wilderness. The most important, mostly implicit detail of Moonee’s ramshackle world is that it sits on the very furthest outskirts of Walt Disney World. While it is never mentioned in the film, “The Florida Project” was Walt Disney’s covert working title for the park when it was being developed. The setting of The Florida Project is removed from all the luxury and privilege of the Magic Kingdom, yet close enough to it to still exist very much in its shadow. Kissimee is littered with perpetual reminders of the better life just out of view. Cheap outlet stores promise Disney-branded swag. Halley and Moonee’s regular trips to sell fragrances at the nearby Marriott resort takes them along a road that has been named Seven Dwarfs Lane. At one point, a pair of rich Brazilian newlyweds arrive at Moonee’s little motel, The Magic Castle, in the middle of the night, shocked and mortified to find that this fleabag establishment is in no way a Disney property. The Magic Castle’s most steadfast guardian is its manager, Bobby (the aforementioned, heartbreakingly splendid Dafoe), who not only tends to routine maintenance and touches up its walls with fresh coats of gaudy lavender paint, but also acts as a firm, gentle overseer of the motel’s residents. As much as anything that happens in its lyrical, sometimes heartrending plot, The Florida Project is about the Magic Castle as its own small world of kinship, stalled dreams, fragile hope, and wonder. The idea of this rundown “magic castle” lying just outside the view of so many Disney dream vacationers is something of a stinging social critique, but there is nothing cynical in Baker’s unsparing but loving depiction of this tiny realm and its people. The film is in many ways about Moonee’s childlike ability to see genuine beauty in such a tacky, impoverished place, but Baker sees that beauty himself and wants us to see it too. He presents the sadness and strife of these poor spaces with frankness but The Florida Project is not an act of miserablist wallowing. It is a fond embrace extended to those underseen and barely hanging on in this world of ours. In its radiant love for these people, even for a stubbornly self-destructive soul like Halley, The Florida Project is not simply a very empathetic film. It is pure, undiluted empathy rendered cinematic.

 

To some extent, The Florida Project’s neorealist accomplishments are its least outwardly impressive, simply because of how neatly they fit with past examples of the genre. This is a film about living with the daily drudgery and minutiae of economic strain: scrounging for work, providing for a child, feeding oneself, and coming up with rent. In the tradition of so many past neorealist masterpieces, it is about painting a realistic and suitably sober portrait of a dire situation, in which every misguided decision and impulsive misstep threatens to compound hardship and send it careening toward disaster. Baker presents these rough circumstances candidly. He never allows us to be entirely ignorant of the desperation that hangs over this land. And yet, without cheating, he finds a way to make it all feel lively, engaging and humanistic. He comes to rely partially on Moonee’s vivacity and rambunctious spirit to provide a kind of salve for the hardship. But it should be said that, even if The Florida Project were solely a work of austere neorealism, it would be a particularly humane and emotionally nuanced version of the genre. To put it another way, The Florida Project does not have to become a dichotomy between crushing poverty and the childlike ability to find escape in naivete and imagination. The reason The Florida Project does not need to retreat into literal magical realism, into the refuge of pure fantasy, is that even the purely adult parts of Baker’s world hum with a sense of humor and life. In a way that never minimizes the economic weight they are experiencing, Baker draws these characters with joyful color and unmistakable affection. These are people living at the subsistence level, but Baker finds spontaneity and wit in their interactions. The Florida Project’s adult characters are weathered but not defeated by this bare bones existence. There is a ragged joy and to these characters, and it keeps the spectres of cheap bathos and exploitation at bay. Baker is not gawking at these fragile lives. The Florida Project is the furthest thing from so-called poverty porn. These people are not presented to be pitied or to become easy stand-ins in a lecture about America’s poverty problem. The director shows us these souls with no ulterior motive outside of basic compassion and curiosity. He shows them because they represent real human beings living out in the world, in Kissimee-like towns across the country, and their stories deserve to be heard. Even an aggravatingly immature woman like Halley is rendered with depth and a stubborn kind of nobility. These lives are not easy, but Baker does not show them to titillate us or to bolster a post-recession sermon. They exist because they exist. Understanding and really feeling the unvarnished beauty of that fact is quite possibly the most important element to grasping The Florida Project’s overwhelming emotional power. It is a litmus test for our compassion toward human beings.

 

That said, Baker knows that, even with all the empathy and positive thinking in the world, the austerity of this milieu could be a painful thing to look at for too long all at once. Watching The Florida Project can be a bit like staring at the Sun: glorious, dazzling, and also searing. Baker has no intention of looking away from the poverty and pressure (for the film, with one possible exception, never truly looks away). But he is interested in thinking about how a person, a child in particular, might find some hopeful respite within this place. This is where Moonee comes in, in all her exuberant, cavalier, infectiously profane glory. I could spend entire paragraphs on Moonee’s exquisite characterization and the miracle of Brooklynn Prince’s performance, which, like the film around it, perches effortlessly between neorealist naturalism and grand, heightened emotions. I could spend a full additional paragraph on the astonishing feat of presenting yet another child’s eye view of poverty without ever tipping into the most queasy and problematic kind of preciousness. What Sean Baker and Brooklynn Prince have given us is an almost impossibly candid picture of unruly childhood glee; one which marvels at youth’s optimism and unflagging spirit, but does not pretend that children are untouched or unfazed by the real world around them. It also remembers that children are people, with all the imperfection that implies. Moonee is a reminder that children can be vulgar, myopically self-centered little marauders. She is an adorable, bracingly funny, and very sympathetic character, but she is also a gallingly unrestrained force of chaos. For as much as Moonee is out to steal our hearts away, she is also the kind of child who would probably make the average person blanch if they had to share a city bus with her. In the first minute we spend with Moonee, she has already spat upon the sweet, shy little girl who will become her best friend and is cackling invincibly at the gobsmacked grandmother trying to reprimand her. Her petite pixie exterior seems possessed by the arrogant, braying spirit of some 1920s Chicago gangster. But we do come to love her, and it is through her eyes that this rundown world comes to take on its own jagged kind of lustre. Let me say right here that, for a low-budget film whose central setting is an economically ravaged city, The Florida Project feels lustrous and luminous. This place is a golden-hued frontier to Moonee and her friends, and Baker’s film glows with admiration for their hardy spirit; for the childlike ability to find beauty and adventure anywhere. He is not interested in defanging Moonee or softening her feral fallibility, and he does not use her rosy perspective to smother his film’s hard truths. Even at its sweetest, most purely awed moments, when Moonee is shepherding us through the Magic Castle like a giddy tour guide, shafts of painful, glaring reality pierce the optimistic facade. In that way, The Florida Project becomes the rare film to present a hardscrabble childhood in a way that is both loving and honest.

 

I think the guiding principle behind Baker’s approach is just to not shut out any emotional truth. Wonder and innocence do not make poverty and strife go away, and economic depression does not kill all optimism. Baker respects his audience enough to show this world from a wide array of angles and to let us decide how we feel about it. There is no right or wrong answer, but I think Baker wants us to feel as elated and devastated as possible all at the same time. For my part, no film in 2017 made me feel more hopeful and more shattered; more in love with humanity and more thoroughly spent with the full emotional toll of being a person. For what at first looks like a spare, realistic indie drama, The Florida Project is bursting at the seams with every possible emotion. Baker has taken a no-frills setting and a minimal budget and created an absolute kaleidoscope of feeling. This is a film that invites you to bring your own empathy and human outlook to it. Still, I do think Baker may at least offer a clue to his own feelings. I believe that clue comes in the form of Willem Dafoe’s gruff, kind, and heartbreakingly concerned Bobby. The experience of The Florida Project lies somewhere between a frail hope for people, a protective fondness toward childhood’s guileless innocence, and a knowing sadness that life can be unforgiving. Willem Dafoe lets that entire emotional tug-of-war play out beautifully, quietly, and powerfully across the face of this good-natured, fallible handyman. The moment where Bobby intercepts a pedophile wandering onto the motel grounds is simultaneously one of 2017’s most chilling and heartwarming moments. If The Florida Project is about letting some hope survive in the harshest of landscapes, Bobby is the character trying to shelter that hope; cupping his calloused hand around it like a windblown candle. He is the good king of this Magic Castle, but the withering emotional punch of the character comes from how Dafoe lets us catch glimpses of Bobby’s weary, frustrated impotence. Like Baker himself, Bobby is a man who wants to help and protect the denizens of his small, beleaguered, unseen corner of the world. But even in a place this tiny and insular, there are limits to how much any one person can do for another. The Florida Project is about the tremendous power we have to care for each other, to reach out to each other, and to be of good to each other. And it is also about the wrenching sadness that comes from remembering we cannot keep all the pain out. Even the most dedicated handyperson can never fix everything. The children may see Bobby as the all-powerful, benevolent wonderworker of this Castle, but Dafoe’s tired eyes betray the truth to us. We are not in the realm of magical realism. There are no wizards in this place. Only human beings doing all they possibly can and making torn, conflicted peace with where their power stops.

 

There is no real magic in Kissimee, Florida and the fake magic that Disney built decades ago is too far away to be visible on the horizon. The spires of Sleeping Beauty’s castle are far removed from this crumbling place. Nothing about this world could ever be classified as a fairytale. But what Baker, his actors, and his team manage to do is more wondrous to me than anything the Disney experience could provide. They make this barren land of strip malls and dilapidated medical clinics glow. They do all of this with nothing more than a contagious affection for humankind at its best and a non-judgmental compassion for people at their worst. A lot of The Florida Project involves watching people make hard, sometimes cruel choices and rash, foolhardy decisions. Sometimes the consequences of those decisions are so harsh they take your breath away. This is a world where some poor soul is always teetering on the precipice of ruin and loss. It is a world of prostitution, bedbugs, and petty crime. A world where ugly brawls sometimes break out in the parking lots, where only one of the motel washing machines works anymore, and where the closest you’ll ever get to a fancy vacation is flipping off the resort helicopters as they buzz by loaded with the more fortunate. This is a hard world and I left it in gutted silence. But somewhere beneath that, I also felt a strange kind of enchantment that no amount of misery could erase. The film left me with a strange, tingly feeling. It was something halfway between my earliest Christmas memory and my first underage tequila buzz. It felt sweet and pure, and also a little sad and seedy. It felt like magic, but borne out of something honest, painful and utterly real. I still can’t put my finger on what that feeling is. I’ll call it empathy until I find a better word.

Top 20 Films of 2017: #3- Call Me By Your Name

Call Me By Your Name is perhaps the most luminously stunning film of 2017. This is due in no small part to its beautifully sun-dappled northern Italian location and the myriad ways that cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom lets the golden summer light and cool evening shadows caress his camera. For as much natural beauty as the film displays, however, Call Me By Your Name gains just as much of its intoxicatingly lush ambiance from the small details of its interior spaces: well-stocked kitchens, cozy studies, and inviting sitting rooms. Nowhere is the film’s knack for marvelously homey design put to more enchanting effect than in its first minute, my favorite opening credits sequence in any 2017 film. As the rich, soothing piano tones of John Adams’ Hallelujah Junction cascade over us, the film’s credits appear in a blue, handwritten scrawl over a montage of photographs of classical Roman statues. The photographs are strewn over a table top and each new cut reveals some small piece of detritus on the table to show a person has been sitting or standing over these prints, looking at them. We see glimpses of train tickets, playing cards, silver coins, glasses (the kinds that facilitate both reading and drinking) and crumpled paper cigarette packs. Call Me By Your Name would contend for the year’s most flat-out gorgeous piece of cinema just by the quality of its camera work and the inherent splendor of its shooting locations, from old villas to shaded stone patios to the rich emeralds of the Italian countryside. But what vaults it into being a veritable dessert buffet of opulent imagery is this keen sense for tiny, perfectly lived-in detail. Call Me By Your Name, Italian director Luca Guadagnino’s dazzlingly romantic gay coming-of-age story is about one perfect, hot, hazy summer in one of the prettiest places on Earth and it grasps that the perfect summer days of memory are built just as much from tiny, trivial fragments as from larger moments. Before we meet young Elio Perlman or his family or friends or the young man who will open his eyes to love and to his sexuality, that flawless opening transports us to a place that is utterly specific. We are not simply in Italy. We are in the cool, dim study of this particular old villa, poring over old snapshots of ancient artwork, contentedly waiting out the muggy afternoon hours with a cigarette and an ice cold glass of apricot juice. Perhaps that same glass will hold a little more juice and a splash of Galliano in another hour. It is a masterful setting of place in a film where atmosphere and memories blur seamlessly with the life-altering events they swirl around.

 

The events of Call Me By Your Name take place in 1983. The same scribbly journal text that introduced the credits informs us we are “somewhere in Northern Italy”, and it could just as easily tell us that this is sometime in the 1980s or in no particular time at all. Outside of the occasional period-specific clue (a Talking Heads t-shirt, the recurring appearance of a perfectly used Psychedelic Furs song, some overhead talk of Italian politics for anyone with knowledge of such matters), this is a film that exists just as much out of time as in any specific period. Call Me By Your Name swims in a warm wash of remembrance. The film is not told in flashback, nor does it allow any characters to comment on the story through voiceover, but there can be little doubt that we are looking backward to a formative summer in the life of one Elio Permlan (an astoundingly subtle and effortlessly alive breakout performance by rising screen phenomenon Timothee Chalamet). Elio is a moody, hyperintelligent Jewish adolescent of seventeen years of age. He is spending this summer, as he has spent every other summer he can remember, staying with his university professor parents in a stony, stately Italian villa, staffed with groundskeeper and cook. One staple of these annual holidays is for his historian and archaeologist father (Michael Stulhbarg in a terrific, soft-spoken performance that clobbers you with its sneaky emotional power) to take on a graduate student to shadow him for a couple months and assist him with historical research. Elio awakes one morning in bed with his non-platonic friend, Marzia, to see his father’s latest protégé pulling up the long driveway. The new student is Oliver (Armie Hammer, understated and tremendous), a tall, classically handsome All-American man of about twenty-four. “The usurper,” Elio whispers in French (one of three languages Chalamet speaks in the film) with a wry grin on his face. As usual, the new graduate student will be taking his bedroom while Elio relocates to an adjoining room connected by a common bathroom.. Elio shows the exhausted guest up to his room, where Oliver promptly falls asleep face down on the bed. He sleeps right through house supper, finally emerging at breakfast the next morning. Elio chafes at Oliver’s presence at first. Oliver is an affable, learned young man but he has a blunt forwardness that is unmistakably, inelegantly American. He ends seemingly every social exchange with a terse, informal “Later”. What first appears like itchy discomfort at the new resident scholar, however, gradually blossoms into a grudging tolerance, an amiable acquaintanceship, a fulfilling friendship, and eventually into something more emotionally complicated. To go into description of how the relationship develops would sap a lot of the vibrant, spontaneous juice from the film, but it is a lovely thing to behold, full of humor, rich emotion, marvelously literate dialogue and brilliant acting. Hammer is great and Chalamet’s powerhouse symphony of curiosity, adolescent braggadocio, testy sarcasm, romantic longing, and youthful insecurity is the greatest feat of acting I have seen in quite some time. Call Me By Your Name is a lovely, nuanced gay romance, an achingly tender story of dawning adulthood, and a lush, gorgeously detailed travelogue of every sunny, sweaty, fragrant, and delicious pleasure that a single Italian summer can offer.

 

There may truly be no way to overstate the tactile, sensory saturation of Call Me By Your Name. It is not enough to say that the film collects dazzling, dusty, and bejeweled images and presents them to us. Luca Guadagnino’s brilliantly assured direction makes sure that we are not simply bearing witness to Elio’s fateful summer but are utterly immersed in it. Refreshed, sated, inundated and dumbstruck by it. It’s the keen sense of the geography of this house, this property, this town, and the verdant, grassy fields and gentle, lolling rivers that surround and cradle it. It’s an intuitive sense for how time passes there, with relaxing breakfasts of espresso and soft boiled eggs in the morning; long, hot afternoon hours skipped away swimming at the river, picking fruit in the orchard, or momentarily escaped from in the nooks of the main house; evenings spent dancing in the dusky cool of the local outdoor discotheque or nightswimming with a crush. Its sense of physical, temporal, and emotional geography is simply impeccable. We spend an unforgettably heady, ravishing summer in this place and with these people, and we leave feeling we know their every detail intimately and intuitively. Call Me By Your Name captures the seductive summer dance between pleasure and boredom. Being an Italian, Guadagnino seems to have an ineffable understanding of the interplay between gratification and anticipation. His film captures desire, carnal and emotional, as both the act of having our appetites sated and the tantalizing moments of having to wait for what we want. Call Me By Your Name is about blissful satisfaction and about the lulls of anticipating that satisfaction. It is a softly, sweetly hedonistic thing; a film that exists in an impossibly rich garden of delights, but also recognizes that strangely arousing and oh so human state of needing more. In Call Me By Your Name, both summer and love are swooning bacchanals, where you can feast more than you ever thought possible while never completely silencing the yearning rumble inside. Elio learns that love in particular is a hunger that cannot be entirely quelled.

 

 

Call Me By Your Name establishes itself as among the most beautiful and emotionally accurate portraits of first love ever put to film. As stated before, it accomplishes this partly through a combination of peerless performances and transcendentally splendid imagery. Guadagnino and his team have gleefully given themselves the challenge of sculpting a cinematic object that quivers with romantic longing. It is a subtle film in some important ways, but it leaves absolutely nothing in the cellar when it comes to dreamy, sumptuous spectacle. At the same time that it excels as a visual object, however, it is also a very literary work of art. James Ivory, a legendary conjurer of romance and prestige, has written a script rich in insight, character, and humor, and he gives the film a novelistic sweep. I bring up both the impeccable visuals and the lovely, lyrical writing in part because they are both wonderful and any review of the film would be incomplete and downright impossible without addressing them. But I also feel that the poetic interplay of images and words points to something essential in the film’s heart. When we meet Elio, he is a very specific breed of bookish, precocious, sensitively cocky teenager, and part of his burgeoning romance with Oliver involves a kind of intellectual fencing match with a sparring partner he feels can challenge and keep pace with him. Any film featuring these  characters, especially Elio, would have to be highly literate. Where the visual and the sensory come in is that Call Me By Your Name is very much about the emotional and the indescribable. It is about the verbal and the intellectualized jousting with and in many ways being overcome by the sensory and the sensual. In one of three songs he contributes to the film, the great Sufjan Stevens coos, “Words are futile devices.” One delightfully tense, emotionally charged scene finds Elio trying to impress Oliver by recounting the history of a World War I monument in the town square. Oliver is indeed impressed, but Elio suddenly blurts out what he really wants to say: “I know nothing, Oliver.” Call Me By Your Name is about a prodigiously smart young man getting his first taste of experiences that cannot be gleaned through mere academia. And all of this may even be overreading and you certainly don’t need any thematic analysis to love Call Me By Your Name as both a work of spectacular visual poetry and of beautiful screenwriting. But Call Me By Your Name is about first love, which means that it is about the lowering of one’s insecurities and intellectual defenses to make oneself vulnerable to love for the first time. And I think it is enough to say that the film has a sharp sense of love as something both verbal and ultimately beyond words entirely. It is about watching the senses gently disarm frail little fortresses like knowledge, theory, and vocabulary, and watching it happen is the sweetest, most fundamentally romantic film experience since at least 2016’s Moonlight.

 

And just as with Moonlight, I could very easily go on for pages and pages about Call Me By Your Name’s intoxicating reverie and peerless acting and beautifully nuanced  writing and unabrasively confident directorial style without ever arriving at the fact that it is a gay love story. But it is very much a gay love story and I want to reiterate that because it is a great and important fact to remember when taking in its myriad pleasures. Call Me By Your Name is a potent, sumptuous force of nature for reasons that are both independent of its characters’ sexualities and inextricably bound up in them. The subject of representation in media comes up a lot in my home, and as someone with a significant number of gay friends, the arrival of a major work of queer fiction like Call Me By Your Name is immensely encouraging. It makes me happy to say that the last six years have given us a small treasure trove of films that are not only frank and empathetic and insightful in exploring queer sexuality, but are also just utterly superlative works of pure cinema. The first to come to mind is Andrew Haigh’s divinely bittersweet Weekend in 2011, followed by the epic emotional wallop of 2013’s Blue Is the Warmest Color two years later. Then more recently, we have the classically ravishing perfection of 2015’s Carol and the much less classical but no less ravishing perfection of Moonlight in 2016. Three of these stand tall in the top two films of their respective years. Blue Is the Warmest Color, by no means the straggler of this brilliant pack, had the misfortune of being part of the staggering cinematic bumper crop of 2013, which means it has to settle for being the fifth best film of its year. And now Call Me By Your Name has the seemingly modest distinction of being just the third best film of its own year. These rankings really mean little. What is true is that all these films are masterpieces through and through. As with those other perfect gay films, Call Me By Your Name is simply one of the most poetic, passionate, and perceptive romances ever crafted. And if I have spent too much time speaking of its teeming virtues in ways that deemphasize or ignore its status as a specifically gay love story, let me now state unequivocally how wonderful it is that the year’s most perfect romance by leaps and bounds centers on two gay characters. It is the third consecutive full-stop perfect gay romance in as many years and, for as rapturously happy as I am to have this splendid film to return to whenever I wish, I cannot imagine how much it means to a gay person to have this. I do not know how far Call Me By Your Name (and those other aforementioned glorious films) go toward putting some dent in the representation deficit. Masterpieces are obviously nice to have. Still, my fiancé assures me that real representation will happen when gay filmgoers get to have their fair share of mediocrities and perfectly average featherweight trifles each year. In that regard, maybe true representative progress looks a bit more like this year’s perfectly, unremarkably nice Love, Simon than the auteurist pyrotechnics of a Call Me By Your Name. All the same, this film is surely a wonderful thing, for whatever small bit of social progress it represents. In addition to being great cinema, Call Me By Your Name’s very existence is an inherent good.

 

I will bring the matter back to scholarly Elio and his sudden confession to Oliver that his knowledge doesn’t mean all that much. In addition to everything else it does so well, Call Me By Your Name is about as skillful as any film I can name in bridging the perceived gap between cerebral and emotional cinema. It is a brainy film about highly intelligent people, but the wonder is how all that intellect, from discussions of classical sculpting to debates about the etymological origins of the word “apricot”, gets folded into the simmering emotional tone. In Call Me By Your Name, intelligence feels sexy and sex is presented with honest intelligence. It is a film about the dialogue between the mind and the heart; where they diverge, where they clash, and where they dovetail. If you let the film’s current take you in the way it wishes to, you come away in a state somewhere between mentally alert, physically relaxed, and emotionally spent. It presents the heart-pounding rush, woozy confusion, and queasy hangover of love in ways that are sometimes painful but always fundamentally right. Without giving away anything, I will say that Call Me By Your Name begins as a film about the decadent luxeness of a summer in the Italian countryside and ends as an exploration of how much beautiful, overwhelming sensation the human heart can hold. It is a film that is clear-eyed and optimistic about love but not oblivious to the strain that love can put on us. To live and to love is to open ourselves to a universe of sensations and emotions, and not every one of them will be easy to digest. The beauty of Guadagnino’s film is that it is finally about choosing to let ourselves be overwhelmed by life’s wonder, joy, and even pain. We leave the film on both a high and a low, blissfully sated and filled to uncomfortable bursting; swept off our feet and heartsick. Guadagnino leaves us as he leaves Elio. Dazzled, shaken, and emotionally dazed. After a feast of visual and emotional riches, he leaves us a tender moment to reflect and recuperate from all we have taken in. The film softly encourages us to take all the time we need. But it smiles knowingly for the morning when we will wake replenished, with healed hearts and newly charged appetites.

Top 20 Films of 2017: #4- Faces Places

I noticed the tiniest, most joyful little detail in my second viewing of Faces Places (or its lovelier French title, Visages Villages), Agnes Varda and JR’s humane, sweetly digressive documentary about meeting and photographing working class folk in France’s small towns. JR, a young visual artist whose calling card is pasting large photographic prints across the fronts of trains, tankers, and large buildings, has set up a scaffold to put up his latest piece of work. A friendly police officer has crossed the street to inform him politely but matter-of-factly that he will need a permit to erect any future scaffolding in this town. JR smiles and shows he understands and then starts joking and conversing with this civil servant. A moment later, Agnes Varda (legendary French director and the thoughtful nonagenarian co-director of this effervescently poetic film) arrives to suggest JR head to a nearby café to meet a beautiful barista who they may want to photograph. In the next beat, JR is in the café meeting the barista. And the officer is there with him! This stranger, who basically just came to check his paper work, is now there right beside JR just merrily tagging along on the errand. This most minute of moments is Faces Places’ soul in miniature, and I also think it points to perhaps the most vital skill a nonfiction filmmaker can possess. One of the most invaluable and often invisible talents that the greatest documentarians have is the ability to draw people into their orbit. You must make people want to be around you and talk to you. A great documentary filmmaker knows how to engage, even with the most shy and taciturn of subjects, to make them feel comfortable and open and ready to bear themselves. Expressing oneself for a camera can be an awkward, uncomfortably intimate thing even for a seasoned actor, and the magic trick of the most brilliant documentaries is to guide a person through that difficult process when they, in all likelihood, are not professional performers. Faces Places finds Agnes Varda and JR to be masters of connecting with the people they interview and you leave each exchange feeling that they have coaxed something deep and true out of their subjects. What makes this one of the most superlative documentaries ever made is how even the most humbly withdrawn subjects they find end their encounter smiling, engaged, and eager to reveal more of themselves. Faces Places is quite possibly the most unabashedly humanistic documentary I have ever seen, and it attains that power because its creators seem to genuinely love people. At the end of a long year, where it felt like a whole lot of human beings distrusted one another as a rule, Faces Places is a reminder that it is in our nature to reach out to one another and need one another. It is a love letter to human beings, working class ones in particular, that positively glows with empathy, curiosity, and affection for humankind.

 

The first thing to know about Faces Places is that it is an Agnes Varda film. If you are not aware of the 90-year old filmmaker’s past work, take comfort in the fact that this would-be cinephile has not caught up to a single film in her large, influential body of work until now. It is an omission I mean to remedy as soon as I can. For now, it is just important to know that the prolific Varda was a pioneer of the French New Wave, the stylish, energetic, and frequently anarchic film movement led by directors like Jean Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, which tore down many of the boundaries of classical filmmaking and had a massive impact on a generation of modern filmmakers (Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese among them), who would take inspiration from its innovative, brazen example. Agnes Varda comes from this French pack of rebels, though her rebellious streak is more subtle and contemplative. She is a petite woman with hair that is half-auburn and half white, and she carries herself with a gracious, unfussy candor. At ninety years of age, where many a director might lose their cinematic appetite, Varda is motioning for a dessert menu. In Faces Places, she strikes up an artistic partnership with a 33-year old, sunglass-clad French photographer named JR. The two of them take a fast liking to one another and decide to head out on a loosely structured road trip through the many bucolic villages of rural France. They know each others’ talents (she a filmmaker and he a visual artist) and admire each others’ work. They have an idea that they will go out with a film camera, meet people, shoot their pictures, and the rest, in that oh so nebulous French way, will reveal itself to them along the way. The two new friends set out on their odyssey in JR’s mobile photography studio, a modest vehicle with a camera printed on the side and a small lab in the back. The idea is to head away from Paris and into the villages of the French countryside, where the two mutually admiring artists will mingle with the local populace and practice their respective arts. This involves introducing themselves to people, learning their stories, and using JR’s gift for grand-scale photography to pay tribute to them. In their first encounter, JR blows up photographs of villagers with a baguette between their teeth and stitches them together across a town fence to create what looks like an entire village feasting together on the same long loaf of bread. They travel to a salt processing factory and plaster images of every worker reaching out to one another across a spillway. And, in a tremendously moving scene, they meet a miner’s widow who is the last resident left on a block of abandoned, dilapidated houses, and emblazon her image twenty feet high across the façade of her home. Faces Places is a beautiful, lyrical travelogue of France, surely the finest documentary ever made about photography, and also a sweet, heartfelt ode to modest, hardworking people. It is also about Agnes Varda and JR and their relationship as partners, as cinema-lovers and as friends. It is the story of an older artist who is drawing closer to the end of her life and her meditations on death, art, and legacy. And it is very much about how her dear friendship with this kindly, hip young man colors those ruminations and reflections.

 

If one line evokes the soul of Faces Places, as well as that of the curious, poetic Varda herself, it is one that comes early in Varda and JR’s discussions about what the film will be. Varda is not concerned about setting out on the road with only the most tenuous of premises. “Chance has always been my best assistant,” she tells JR. Varda began her career as a photographer, and this notion, of never knowing what one will find but being ready for whatever it is, is a vital part of photography. You cannot always control what images will enter the frame, but you know they will come and you wait for them in anticipation. Faces Places is a masterpiece made on the fly. It attains much of its beauty via its invigoratingly flighty spirit, flitting from subject to subject and spinning merrily into sublime digressions. At one point, the film wanders off into a meadow for ten minutes to muse about two opposing schools of thought on goat farming. The genius of the film is that it leads with a spirit of blithely restless wanderlust, yet the end result feels soulfully cohesive. Varda is a brilliant editor and arranger of her own work, and having perfected that skill over decades and decades liberates her and JR to follow a rambling path, knowing that, whatever they find along the way, there will be a story in it. This is not just an approach to documentary filmmaking that Faces Places pulls off with breathless aplomb. It is also of a thematic piece with the film’s journey. Faces Places is very much about opening yourself up to new and unexpected experiences at any age. One of the joys of the film is seeing the vibrant, curious spirits of the subjects they meet. One factory worker stares quizzically at JR’s latest massive photograph. Then he beams and says, “Art is supposed to surprise us, right?” In another small town, they befriend a local farmer who has been in charge of doing his village’s harvesting for many years. Recently, the tractors he uses have had advanced computer technology installed in them. He admits that this makes him something like a passenger in his own job. He reflects that all this technology may be making use more antisocial, less engaged, But still, his overall attitude is one of wonder at progress; at life’s relentless forward motion. He is fascinated by the foreign and new. “I get a kick out of it,” he says with a smile.

 

Faces Places has a hunger for new sights, new places, and new experiences, but it is even more vitally about opening your mind and soul to other human beings. The film hums with a spirit of adventure and with a yearning to meet, know and love the countless faces that make up our world. It is about the small joys of reaching out and connecting with people and that love for engaging with new people extends to its very creation. Faces Places is simply one of the most lovely odes I have seen to the virtues of collaborating. Varda confesses at the start that this will be her first time really working with a collaborator in over sixty years as a filmmaker. She smiles and enthusiastically notes that this will be a giant leap forward for her. Faces Places gracefully unfolds as not only a film about its humble, hardworking subjects, but also a film about the wonderfully sweet, supportive partnership and friendship that develops between the sage, droll Varda and her spry, affably energetic traveling companion. Varda and JR are kindred spirits and also fascinatingly subtle contrasts to one another. In one scene, the two artists admit that each of them may be performing the roles their different ages have assigned to them: JR, in his sharp fedora and Roy Orbison shades, playing the spirited young man, while the diminutive, elderly Varda adopts the persona of the wise grandmother. JR’s playful presence provides a lovely complement to Varda’s more subdued brand of vivacity, though both brim with a glee for their art; for the process of finding and uncovering human beings. Faces Places is a celebration of collaboration as a process that both synthesizes the visions of multiple creators and also throws their unique differences into relief. It is endlessly joyful watching Varda and JR laugh, bounce ideas, and good-naturedly spar with each other, partly because the film has keen insights about the creative process. But what really makes their collaboration so engaging to watch comes down to the fact that Agnes Varda and JR are simply two of the warmest, most endearing figures to ever stroll across a film screen. They are generous, intelligent, spontaneous, and fun to be around, and they add immeasurably to this teeming, open-hearted tapestry of the very best in humankind.

 

At its core, Faces Places is about wanting to know people and see them with as much kindness, clarity, and insight as we can. This is the reason the two collaborators head out into the villages of France with little plan in place outside of simply finding people and photographing them. They trust that the desire to just look at humanity will be enough to see the project through, and their faith is more than rewarded. I adore every, warm, kind interaction in this film. However, what transforms Faces Places into a masterpiece of boundless compassion and curiosity is how it slowly evolves into the story of Varda and JR wanting to better know each other. The film’s spirit of vibrant empathy is so contagious that the creators cannot help but turn their cameras upon one another. They join the arc of this ever-developing story, or rather were always a part of it. And I will now need to tread lightly, as I do not want to give away the most poignant, soul-sating, and all around best ending in any 2017 film. One of the documentary’s recurring storylines involves Agnes Varda’s longtime relationship to French New Wave master, firebrand, and petulant genius Jean Luc Godard, a now-distant friend who Agnes has not seen in over five years. With his sophisticated air of cool and the sunglasses he keeps perpetually over his eyes, Agnes sees something of Godard’s enigmatic, confident flair in JR, for better and maybe also for worse. Varda reveres her estranged friend’s talent, but also knows that Godard had a knack for being cutting, aloof, and cruel. In trying to figure out who JR is as a young man just beginning to make his artistic mark on the world, Agnes Varda is also trying to parse what kind of people a new generation of artists will be. They have the shoulders of giants to stand upon, but I believe Varda also hopes for something a bit kinder than certain geniuses of her generation. I think she hopes that that a man like JR will aspire to Godard’s greatness as an artist, but also aspire to be a better all-around human being. In its final moments, Faces Places reveals itself as an effortlessly wise look at aging and legacy and an almost impossibly profound letter of hope passed down from one generation to the next one in line. In a year that seem pockmarked with generational infighting, watching the friendship and artistic kinship that flowers between Agnes Varda and JR over this brief, magical 94 minutes felt absolutely restorative. 2017 had its share of powerful endings, but the closing minute of Faces Places is the one I want to keep with me; the one I want to intermittently steal away to and dwell in. It is a warm embrace between the young and the old, a tender paying of respect to experience, and a sweet expression of confidence and hope for those who will decide what humanity becomes next. Faces Places is a movie about trying to see and understand people and it ends with an exchange of mutual understanding that is too wise and beautiful for words. At the end of 2017’s storm, that final shot is an oasis of selfless calm and fellowship that I could have sat in contentedly for hours.

 

Faces Places is a film with a vibe both heady and free-wheeling. In many ways it seems like a niche film on paper, being both a subtitled documentary and a reflective essay on variousvcerebral subjects, ranging from cinema to the nature of memory to the psychic weight of place. I suppose it qualifies as an art film, but the pretentious connotations that sometimes go with that label could not be further from this film’s crystal clear aims. I would recommend Agnes Varda and JR’s miraculous documentary to absolutely anyone because it is so thoroughly vivacious, loving, and open. It is filled with beautiful imagery, lovely art, gracious people, and only the purest of emotions. It is funny and friendly and comforting and wistful. And, for all its philosophical musings, it finally just amounts to an open-hearted salute to the very best in people. Because its creators embark upon their journey with such earnest curiosity, playfulness, and kindness toward those around them, they find a country full of people with good hearts and stories just waiting to be unearthed. Faces Places has a lot to say, but one lesson might be that if you go out in search of the good in human beings, you are certain to find it. In one scene, Varda and JR are looking for a parasol to use for their latest photograph. One man they question seems uncertain and a bit hassled by the request, but he obligingly runs off to his parents’ home to see what he can find. He comes back moments later beaming from ear to ear and holding his mother’s old bridal parasol. He proclaims with a proud smile, “You may use it for the photo.” A couple scenes later, he is excitedly pulling JR up to the top of the town’s tower to show off his skills as the village bell-ringer, gushing about how each bell has its own name. My mother always told me that, deep down, people want to be of help to one another and that they want to have their stories heard. You have only to extend a warm hand to them. Faces Places is 2017’s great reminder of this beautiful truth. It is as true in documentary filmmaking as it is in life: kindness and a spirit of gentle curiosity can open worlds before your very eyes.

 

Top 20 Films of 2017: #5- Get Out

Popularity is not a huge concern for me where film is concerned. I try not to get overly invested in how widely seen or heard the art I like gets. A great many of the albums I cherish most will probably never go platinum and many of the films I count among the best are lucky to get anywhere near $50 million at the box office. One of my favorite recent Best Picture winners is The Hurt Locker, which, even after everyone knew it was going to win the Oscar, managed to scratch out just over $17 million in the United States. Popularity and approval are fickle mistresses and it’s best for your sanity not to let them get in your head too much. That is not to say I am a contrarian about popular art. I like, value, and adore plenty of widely successful works of film and music, but I also have long divorced myself of the need to have my tastes validated through massive mainstream acceptance. Still, I have to say the occasional chance to love something in tandem with a huge group of people is really, really nice. There’s an indescribably giddy thrill when you watch a brilliant piece of art skyrocket into the zeitgeist. When you hear a great film’s name floating through the air at coffee shops and house parties. I imagine it’s how it must have felt to be a Beatles fan in the 60s or a Michael Jackson fan in the 80s. Or to be alive in 1972 and watch The Godfather become the year’s box office juggernaut. It’s a special feeling when a bold, beautiful piece of art not only hauls in a boatload of money, but also just gets a wide swath of the culture talking about it. And again, one never knows when that will happen with the things they love and you can drive yourself crazy if you wait for it too expectantly. It’s probably best to love whatever moves you and not put too much stock in popularity. I only mention it for two reasons. One, because it’s been incredibly gratifying and great to watch a new horror masterwork like Get Out deservedly capture America’s hearts, minds, and fear sensors. And, secondly, because every viewing I have of it ends with me gushing that of course this became a popular phenomenon and bloody well deserves to be! Get Out is brilliant for a whole host of reasons, but I have to marvel first and foremost at what a furiously engaging, viciously clever piece of pure pop entertainment it is. Its exquisitely canny sense of cinematic popcraft is key to why it has only improved after this third viewing, just as it was crucial to coaxing $175 million worth of American eyeballs into theaters to applaud for the year’s most explosively insightful, rousingly incendiary examination of racism in modern America. It is the reason that millions not only came to see the movie and take in its scintillatingly caustic wisdom, but gushed elatedly about the experience afterwards. Get Out is the year’s, maybe even the decade’s, great reminder of the power of brilliant popular art to get a grand conversation going; to stoke the flames of discourse on a national scale.

 

Jordan Peele’s marvelously witty horror satire begins on the dark streets of an anonymous, affluent American suburb. A young black man walks and talks on a cellphone. He speaks to the person on the other line with trepidation about his surroundings. In what may be my single favorite line of comedic dialogue in a film filled with lacerating humor, he wonders aloud what kind of demented psyche would conceive of placing a street called Edgewood Way a half a mile away from a street called Edgewood Lane. It is an early look at the film’s hybridization of horror and white bourgeois critique. It is the tried and true horror standby of suddenly not recognizing your surroundings or realizing with dread that you just passed that same creepy tree for the third time. But this time the gnarled forest has been replaced by a quiet, wealthy, predominantly white upperclass neighborhood. As an aside, having grown up in a suburb myself, I can attest that having streets with nearly identical names pop up in different random locations is a real phenomenon, and if you were to theorize that they were so arranged to confuse the daylights out of anyone foreign to the area, I would grant that is about as sound a theory as any. This young African-American man is on his way to some dinner at one of these grand, palatial houses. He never makes it there. A white muscle car blasting old-timey 1930s music (a sly elbow to the ribs of any privileged person who has ever felt nervous hearing hip hop coming from a car on some city sidewalk) pulls up and a hulking figure in a metal mask subdues this poor, lost traveler. The masked attacker throws his unfortunate conquest into the trunk and the car drives away into the eerie, lamplit suburban darkness. There is something nefarious going on in safe suburbia and Peele, an observant horror aficionado, gives us a glimpse of it through the time-tested horror trope of meeting an early a victim before we meet our main characters. To put it another way, this young African American man (the terrific and ascendant Lakeith Stanfield) is Drew  Barrymore in Scream. The film’s protagonist, and the next person to walk into this perilous patch of privilege, is Chris Washington (rising British actor Daniel Kaluuya, whose subtle, brilliant facial expressions are the movie’s secret weapon), a young black photographer living in New York City. He is four months into a romance with Rose Armitage (Girls’ Allison Williams, very good), and they are about to take a very serious step forward in their relationship. They are driving down somewhere south to a nice suburb (we understand instinctively that it is the same ominous suburb from the opening) so Chris can spend a weekend getting to know Rose’s parents for the first time. The Armitages are very well played by Bradley Whitford (The West Wing) and national treasure Catherine Keener (Being John Malkovich, Capote, Into the Wild). As Rose drives, Chris talks on the phone to his best friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery, giving occasional, utterly welcome bursts of broad comedy to an unsettling film), an animated, slightly paranoid TSA agent who warns him that the white suburbs can be a strange and scary place. A moment later, a terrified deer hurtles across the road and leaps through the window of the moving car. It’s a tense moment made even more tense by the arrival of a pushy police officer, who prods Chris for his identification even though he had not been driving. The two lovers eventually make it to the Armitage homestead, a large, gorgeous mansion with a gazebo, a lake, and a sprawling backyard fit for strolling and lawn sports. The Armitage parents seem to be nice enough people with an awkwardly liberal sensibility. Mr. Armitage gushes to Chris that he would have voted Obama for a third term and he blushes when Chris sees that the family keeps two black servants on the property. They are soon joined by Rose’s cocky smart-aleck brother, Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones in a polarizing performance that I actually find perfectly tuned to the arrogant, entitled archetype it is going for). Jeremy is home on a holiday from medical school. The film is about Chris entering into a white suburban setting as essentially the only black person and it keenly shows what a stressful process that is for him to navigate. We feel a subtle sense of unease for Chris even before Mrs. Armitage is cajoling him into an already iconic midnight hypnotism session to cure him of his smoking, before Chris starts noticing that the black housekeeper and groundskeeper have an air of polite, lobotomized menace about them, and before a throng of wealthy Caucasian partygoers descend upon the house to attend the Armitages’ annual garden soiree and to pepper Chris with wrongheaded displays of racial sensitivity and questions about the advantages of blackness. Get Out is a horror film at its core, in ways that I prefer not to spoil, but it is also a brilliantly pitched satire of the general anxiety of being black in America and in largely white spaces, to whatever extent the two are even different. Before we come to understand the sinister mysteries lurking beneath this civil, liberal façade, Get Out is an outstanding deconstruction of the façade itself. It is amazingly perceptive about the quieter, less overt kinds of racism and fear that Chris has to deal with as a matter of daily black life. If Get Out had never transitioned into a literal horror film, it would still probably stand as one of the most insightful and stinging examinations ever made about the intersection between racism and well-meaning white progressivism. Get Out is great as both a perfectly paced horror film and as a shrewd, biting comedy of manners, but it is most ingenious of all in how it blends the two approaches to create something new, lively, and startling.

 

Jordan Peele has famously bristled at the suggestion that his film could ever be classified as a comedy. Peele may have risen to prominence as one half of the acclaimed Key and Peele comedy duo, but he has been unequivocal about having only the most sober motives for making Get Out. “Get Out is a documentary,” he announced on Twitter. I may disagree with Jordan Peele’s argument that Get Out is not a comedy, but his point is very well taken and I am in total agreement with the spirit of what he is saying. Get Out is smart and very funny, but it does not exist to be anyone’s source of levity. It is a film that speaks its truths with clear wisdom and authority and Peele’s nimble comedic timing, which is present even in some of the film’s most terrifying moments, should not undercut the fact that the film is speaking honestly about a very real state of injustice in modern America. But Get Out is a fantastic reminder that comedy can be used to enhance serious themes rather than detract from them. What makes Get Out such a blisteringly great piece of work is that it reminds us of comedy’s power to speak with fury and unflinching candor. Not every work of comedy exists simply to produce laughter. Dr. Strangelove (Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) is one of the most perfect comedies ever created and it is not the least bit frivolous. It has arsenic in its veins and its purpose is to bluntly tell us that we will one day annihilate ourselves with nuclear weapons. But the bigger issue here seems to be Peele’s fear that comedy gets unfairly dismissed in today’s culture, and that suspicion could scarcely be more well-founded . Get Out’s script contains some of the sharpest comedic insights to be written in years, but it is a work of genius because it has more on its mind that any single genre can encompass. Peele has created an impeccably paced hybrid of horror, thriller, satire, social critique, and comedy because he needed all those colors to evoke the full picture of what racism looks like in the 21st century. And what is most gob-smacking is not only that this hybrid of styles hits its targets with pinpoint precision, but that the finished result is so completely captivating and compulsively watchable. For a film taking on at least three different genres at once, Get Out simply moves like a dream. Jordan Peele has made a blazingly original, energetic blockbuster entertainment for America to laugh at, scream through, and excitedly talk about. And I stand in defense of his freedom to question how that work is processed and classified. He has made a film that captures American race relations in a way few ever have, and he has earned the right to call all of us out for finding any of it simply funny or entertaining.

 

Get Out announces itself as a horror thriller in its opening minute, when a young man is put in a violent chokehold and thrown unconscious into the back of a strange car. It is a dread-soaked, pulse-pounding, menacing piece of work right until it plays its heart-stoppingly suspenseful final card. For all its genre-bending, it is indisputably a work of horror cinema, yet I have heard the odd viewer express disappointment about where the film ends up in its most explicitly horror-bound third act. I personally think that the film’s journey from subtle social satire through nervy, unsettling comedy of manners and into the realm of the nightmarish is a big part of the film’s brilliance. But the very fact of that complaint points to just how cannily Get Out works as an incisive dissection of white gentility. Get Out is a brilliant whole composed of individually brilliant parts. The early scenes introducing the Armitages have a strong grasp of the banal niceties of a privileged Caucasian family that dearly wishes to be seen as racially enlightened. The little touches of affluent suburbia are trenchant and funny and just right, from the early false start menace of a runaway deer (the scourge of many a suburban street where I come from) to the awkward mandatory tour of the Armitage house, to Mr. Armitage’s desperate attempt to endear himself to his daughter’s new beau by shoehorning urban vernacular into his conversation. The Armitage cocktail party, like the Armitages themselves, is a cavalcade of cringeworthy rich progressive tics, from the retired golfer who won’t stop gushing about Tiger Woods to the man who tells Chris without blinking how very fashionable black culture has become. These scenes are not horrifying in the conventional sense, but Daniel Kaluuya’s precise, beautifully reactive performance captures the agonizing discomfort of having to be the one black person in this situation. The scenes of Chris simply trying to survive an awkward weekend with a self-consciously liberal white family, their aggravatingly oblivious friends, and their unnervingly sedated African-American servants add up some of the most splendidly written, well-acted, and insightful satire I have seen in a long time. This is a world of gazeboes and bingo, of hired help and carrot cakes. Of badminton and leisurely days spent drinking pitchers of lemonade on the back patio. It is unsurprising that bocce balls, fine china teacups, and mounted hunting trophies are fixtures of this place. The twist is to present this mannered, civil milieu as something foreboding and unhinged and to have those symbols of luxury become props in a frantic struggle for survival. Peele paints his vision of upper class suburban life in such a sublimely acerbic way that I do not blame anyone for wanting a whole film of it. But having that space, which feels so benign to those who dwell in it, morph into a hellscape is the point. To Chris and other black men like him, a rich, predominantly white space like this always has the potential to become dangerous. For black Americans, the suburbs have always vibrated with the barely hidden threat of violence and suppression.

 

Get Out cannot simply be a satire or a social critique of liberal privilege for the same reason it cannot simply be a comedy. It was never meant to be about that. Horror was always deep within its DNA. The film draws us in to laughing and nodding in knowing agreement at its witty social points, but the film is really about coming to understand Chris. In fact, it is not even to correct to say it is about understanding him. Peele’s faultless writing and Kaluuya’s rich, focused performance make Chris Washington an understandable, relatable, and endlessly sympathetic character from the very outset. There is never a question that we will understand and like this man. The reason Get Out must descend into full-scale horror, into the inky suffocation of the Sunken Place, is that we must learn to feel Chris’ alert state of terror. We must be with him through this ordeal so that his horror, from the smaller social anxieties to the larger fear of death, becomes our own in some way. Jordan Peele is saying in no uncertain terms that this is what the black experience in America has felt like, feels like, and will likely continue to feel like for the foreseeable future. It is the simmering tension of feeling at best out of place, and forever looking over your shoulder for an even less innocuous source of dread. It is why it is not only really nice, but also just plain important that Get Out has become the year’s most perfectly engrossing piece of popular entertainment. Its pop bonafides ensure that its massive audience is hooked in and along for the ride, and from that point all Peele has to do is train his camera on Chris for the duration. Get Out torpedoes the typical big shows of racial tolerance. Peele throws these ineffectual gestures back at his country and instead asks that we just think more about what it is like to be in Chris’ shoes. It is a call for less impotent guilt, less useless self-pity, and more empathy. To the white crowds that saw and cheered for it, Get Out was an invitation to empathize in a truly clear-eyed way. And to the millions of black Americans who watched it, it was a gratifying opportunity to have a grand mainstream phenomenon capture bits of their experiences and project them onto the screens of a nation that rarely hears them. It was a chance to go into a horror film, a genre that historically chews up black characters, and see something different. Without saying if Chris survives his journey through the seven circles of suburbia, one thing is beyond doubt: Chris is a vibrant, nuanced, unforgettable character, and Get Out is fully his story. This horror film may put him through some mortifying paces, but it also respects him and is entirely about him. It belongs to him.

 

There are any number of great films to come out each year, and only a fraction of them get the wide attention they deserve. That is just a fact of life in our current cinema culture, which offers a staggering array of potential titles to watch each and every week of the year. Popularity does not give a work of art its greatness, but certain works of art demand to be seen by as many people as possible. If any film this year were to pull in a massive audience, I am glad that Get Out is that film. That is not simply because it is witty and cutting and wonderful. It is not even because of how valuable and poignant its message is. More than anything it is because Get Out says more to me about the American experience than any other film this year did. It deserves to be a national box office hit because it is a film about our nation. It deserves to be popular because it is about our population. It is about how it feels to be a black person in the current national climate. It is about the current black struggle and about how the privileged Americans on the sidelines of that struggle attempt to understand it, lend support to it, misguidedly define it, and exploit it. It is about the varying ways that white Americans try, and often fail, to help; to reduce some of the dread that comes with being black in this country. It is about the teeming, conflicting mass of racism, compassion, apathy, idealism, and ignorance that is America. It is a critique of the failings of those of who meekly claim to want to do some good; of those who insist that they stand for tolerance and personhood but can offer little outside of empty assurances. It satirizes our varying, feeble responses to this ongoing saga of dread. It pokes fun at the many layers of our rhetoric and our guilt. It allows us to laugh at the absurdity of our manners and mores. But it eventually stands back aghast. Because for as many of us decry bigotry, America continues to be a pretty frightening place to not be white. Even with all our niceties and best intentions accounted for, the end result still looks an awful lot like horror.

Top 20 Films of 2017: #6- Phantom Thread

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread is the latest film in a grand tradition of cinema that blurs the line between being an artist and being a romantic partner. It examines the elements of passion, control, dedication, and commitment that are common to both love and the creative process, and in so doing it joins a fine list of films ranging from the charming likes of Shakespeare In Love, to the visionary romantic dysfunction of 8 ½, to the heart-palpitating phantasmagoria of this year’s mother!. Also like mother!, Phantom Thread is a film about an artist weighing the all-consuming needs of his artistry against the needs of another human being, and if I say that Daniel Day Lewis’ Reynolds Woodcock is at least a marginally less selfish partner than Javier Bardem’s messianic poet in mother!, then that may be the year’s most damning faint praise. The key difference I find between those two films is that I do not believe mother! Is really about love in any substantial way. It is in the nature of that film for the artist’s ego and obsession with creating to utterly drown out the slightest hint of romance. By contrast, I think that Phantom Thread is absolutely about love, even more than it is about the struggles of an artist. Phantom Thread is a keen look at the rhythms and pitfalls of a new romance and, at the risk of overselling this too much, it is also subtly very funny. In telling the love story between a celebrated dressmaker and the gently headstrong waitress who comes waltzing in to his neatly arranged life, Paul Thomas Anderson finds a rich, crackling energy beneath a pristine world of elegant decorum and self-serious craft. Love is an effervescent, discombobulating whirlwind in Phantom Thread and, while it does have a lot of insight into the rigors and superstitions of an artist’s work, the artistic process is also largely here to be the apple cart that romance jostles. Phantom Thread is a deliriously lavish, meticulously composed, sumptuously costumed British period piece and it uses its gorgeously ornate surfaces as a kind of contrast to the brash, unpretentious, blithely unfussy blush of swooning romance. It is a film whose lovely, old-fashioned sheen exists both to be admired for its surface beauty and to be ever so sweetly punctured.

 

The period of Phantom Thread is 1950s London, where a world-renowned dressmaker named Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis, giving a dependably tremendous dramatic performance punctuated with sly comedic notes) is the toast of womens fashion. He is a man of soft-spoken haughtiness; intense, unflaggingly confident in his skills as an artist, yet also given to temperamental fits of frustration and doubt. He is a rich portrait of the most exacting kind of artist, while also feeling ever so slightly like a keen satire of a certain breed of talent. Reynolds is a believable, multi-faceted depiction of the genius diva archetype, with just a sprinkle of self-aware skewering. The House of Woodcock, the multi-story London studio where he lives and works, is a pristine sanctum to his rigid, well-honed routine. The guardian of that sacred routine is his sister Cyril (the great Lesley Manville, softly terse, quietly acerbic, and very funny), a no-nonsense woman who oversees the traffic of deadlines, appointments, and people that streams in and out of Reynolds’ busy, posh life.  Part of that job involves ushering out Reynold’s latest brief romantic fling whenever he inevitably tires of her. Cyril’s job is to indulge her brother through his wild swings between inspiration, melancholy, and petty outrage. On the evening after a successful fashion show, Reynolds sits with Cyril in their favorite restaurant, cautiously pleased with the show, wistfully longing for his dear, late mother, and unhappily at a loss for what to do with the latest paramour to wear out her welcome. With the nonchalant professionalism of a woman who has dealt with this a hundred times before, Cyril tells Reynolds she will show the unfortunate lady the door and sends him off for a brief holiday in the English countryside to recharge his mental, emotional, and artistic faculties. Reynolds speeds his sleek, gleaming Bristol 405 down Britain’s narrow country lanes and through the night, and ends up on an idyllic village on the Yorkshire seaside by morning. He stops at a hotel restaurant for an impressively large breakfast, which he orders from a shy, soft-spoken waitress with rosy cheeks, a slender physique and a Belgian accent. She blushes as he speaks to her. Before the check has been paid, the intensely self-possessed Reynolds has convinced her to have dinner with him at his country house. Her name is Alma (Vicky Krieps, a relatively unknown Belgian actress who does brilliant work and, by the film’s very design, steals scenes from Daniel Day Lewis in what is allegedly the swansong performance of his career). They have a fine meal of fish and wine. He tells her about his mother,  his career, and his penchant for sewing secret messages and small totems into the linings of his work. He has a blunt, domineeringly forward way with her from the start. He has her remove her lipstick so he can better see her true face.  After supper, he brings her downstairs to his workshop where he takes her measurements. Entering into a relationship with him will mean entering into a relationship with his work as well. Cyril arrives halfway through with her usual knowing half-smile, and the two siblings methodically size up the young woman who will soon become the latest in House Woodcock’s ever rotating queue of romantic partners. “You have no breasts,” he tells her with clinical detachment, before helpfully reassuring her, “You’re perfect. My job is to give you some.” We see Reynolds Woodcock is a talented, fascinating, and all but impossible man. His attention is always tuned first to his own voice, then to Cyril’s. And of course the majority of his energies go to the clients and to the dresses. His romantic partners get whatever little bit is left over. What is curious to see is that Alma notices his maddening drive and his brusque manner almost immediately. She chooses to fall for him in spite of it and because of it, but she also maintains a quiet resilience in the face of it. She weathers his commands and insults, but she will not allow herself to be made a silent partner in the relationship. “Stand normally,” he curtly says. She calmly says she is. With annoyance, he explains he meant to stand up straight. “Yes, well, you didn’t say that,” she shoots back with a soft frustration to match his own. Phantom Thread is a wondrous, clever melodrama and the joy comes from watching this relationship unfold, but there is a simplicity to this film once you have seen where it goes. It is really just the story of an artist walled in to a life of routine and how the woman he falls in love with enters into that sterile, meticulous space. It is about Alma entering into this prestigious, pristine house of rules and manners and walking through it with her own stubborn, clumsy grace. It goes to some dramatically unhinged places before all is said and done, but it is a love story through and through. All the gripping intrigue, intense conflict, and testy power upheavals are there to act as both an operatically pitched commentary on the challenges of any relationship and a blackly comic satire about what love does to the human ego. Phantom Thread is both the lush, emotionally fraught, old-fashioned melodrama it appears to be and a slyly winking send-up of the same. It sets up its fancy pretensions to luxuriate in them and to irreverently topple them. Like love itself, Paul Thomas Anderson’s film is swooning, intense, and just a little bit absurd.

 

Phantom Thread is a decadent, luminous, crystalline ode to the many facets of love. One way it is wise is in presenting love as a disruption to the status quo of a person’s life. Paul Thomas Anderson is smart enough to let us become swept up in all that tradition and routine just as Alma is. He lets us be bewildered and enchanted by the dazzling sheen of it all. This is a painstakingly groomed world of delicate fabrics and brittle decorum. And beyond what all this says about how new love can upend the structures we spend years carefully erecting around ourselves, Reynolds Woodcock’s precise little Faberge egg of a world is just a beautiful little object to behold and marvel over. Anderson weaves this tasteful, dapper fashion world with glee, relishing the chance to make the most formally old fashioned film of his career, but in a way that feels as boldly intoxicating as one would expect from the director of There Will Be Blood and Boogie Nights. Instead of showy cinematic pyrotechnics, Anderson instead focuses on images so rich with color and texture that you feel full just from looking at them. This rich soufflé of a film does not rewrite any of the recipes. Instead, it just replaces the onions with the most expensive shallots money can buy and uses three times more butter than the cookbook calls for. Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood (a frequent collaborate with Anderson) ties this glowing, perfumed package together with a swelling score of piano and strings that is both sophisticated and sometimes perversely grandiose. It is a world of linens and silks, shiny sports cars, gleaming white penthouses, diamond tiaras, and delicious cuisine. It is important we see the minutest detail of this fussed over universe. It is a world designed by a man with great wealth, impeccable taste, and an unyielding sense for how and where everything should be if he is to continue operating at the peak of his powers. He loves big breakfasts eaten quietly, dislikes meals cooked in too much butter, and detests the word “chic”. Everything about this world, including Reynolds himself, is carefully put together with not a thread out of place. And it is not to say Alma’s arrival changes Reynolds’ ability to eat a scone with raspberry jam and Lapsang tea every morning, or throws the glitz of his lifestyle into any knde of jeopardy at all. But the very presence of a newcomer who doesn’t intuitively grasp the finest detail of his strictly programmed schedule is enough to throw Reynolds Woodcock into a tizzy. It is the very notion of having to change anything for another person that vexes him. Phantom Thread is about a self-labeled bachelor who has seemingly never kept a romance for more than a few months suddenly finding a person he may really want to keep. And it is about him frantically looking for any justification to be done with it. “He’s like a spoiled, little baby,” Alma confides with bemusement to a friend. Love means allowing some small change into our lives. Somewhere deep in his soul, Reynolds must know it is not any one shakeup to his process that is bothering him. It is a thin-skinned irritation at the idea of having to make any change, any compromise whatsoever.

 

 

To be clear though, while the opulent, manicured world of House of Woodcock may at first seem like a cold, domineering fortress, the film’s true immovable object, and I would also say its primary protagonist, turns out to be Alma. What makes Phantom Thread such an invigorating and darkly sweet film is that it is about the act of being bold and defiant with your love. Reynolds has spent decades with no change and no real dissenting voice outside of Cyril’s, who has learned to only press him cautiously in ways that will not disturb his fragile, artistic temperament. Alma is not explicitly out to upset her new love but she has the courage to be utterly herself in love. When she tells Reynolds she does not care for a fabric he is using, he and Cyril both balk. He spits that she has no taste, but she fearlessly replies that she likes her own taste. “Maybe some day you’ll change,” Reynolds mutters wearily. “Maybe not,” Alma replies with serenely unflappable confidence. After Reynolds throws a fit over Alma taking her breakfast too noisily, Cyril offers that she should probably just acquiesce to his preferences. Alma shakes her head, “I think he’s too fussy.” Cyril stares back with a look that conveys both amused surprise and a bewilderment at such a novel idea. To live in Reynolds’ world is ostensibly to tread lightly and to conform to his whims, because he is the great, put upon artist; because it is England circa 1950 and he is a powerful, respected man. Alma loves him steadfastly, but she will not become a tongue-tied mannequin in Reynolds Woodcock’s shop window. “I respect your advice, Cyril,” she later tells her future in-law, “but I have to know him in my own way.” Phantom Thread is a complex, nuanced picture of the joys, trials, and indignities of bonding yourself to another person, but I think it is also of Alma’s refreshingly straightforward state of mind. Loving someone is a choice you make. And no one, even and especially the subject of your affections, can dictate how you do it.

 

That is not to say that Phantom Thread thinks that one should refuse to ever budge in romance. The important distinction between Alma and the Reynolds Woodcock we first meet is that Reynolds recoils at the idea of having to do any bowing or bending. Alma is fiercely true to her self and to her need to love in a way that is free and open, but she is not unwilling to let love alter who she is. I have never believed in the axiom that you should never change for another person. Any life experience is an occasion to grow and change, and a deep love is one of the most soul-shaking life experiences one can ever have. Alma is not resistant to all of Reynolds’ rules and customs. She simply refuses to be a passive spectator in her own love story. She wants to change for Reynolds, insofar as that metamorphosis does not diminish her integrity. She dearly wants to become joined to this man, but the notion that this should mean completely submerging her sense of self into his strikes her as ridiculous and also rather counter-intuitive. What real good are we to the ones we love if we do not bring our own personhood to the table? Alma is active and engaged in a way that frequently perturbs Reynolds, but she is not simply trying to rattle his windows. She may chafe at the House of Woodcock’s occasionally stifling protocol, but she also very much loves the House, just as she loves the man. She speaks with joy about helping Reynolds with his work, blushes with earnest pride when she gets to help model his dresses, and reacts in protective rage when a boorish heiress makes a drunken spectacle while wearing one of his fashions. “It’s your work,” she seethes tearfully. I think Phantom Thread is about holding on to a sense of yourself fin love, while also eagerly picking up the burden of another person’s dreams and fears. When a Belgian princess comes to the House of Woodcock to be fitted for her royal wedding dress, Alma walks politely but nonchalantly up to her and introduces herself. “I live here,” she says proudly. Phantom Thread is fundamentally a film about being unafraid in love; about making your love a space that you own are proud to spend your days in. As long as you are with a person, you have the right to make your home in their heart and to assert your place there. For all its heightened melodrama, Paul Thomas Anderson’s grand, woozy, decadent film is really a sweet, simple, and sharp ode to the strange dance of courtship; to the art of changing for another person in the right ways.

 

Phantom Thread comes at love from a lot of angles, but its stance is largely curious and empathetically quizzical. It is a film whose tones are often cerebral, arch, and pitch-black, but it nevertheless is never less than wholly compassionate. It sees romance as a fascinating, powerful, fickle, and mysterious force. Beneath its billowing score and almost dauntingly elegant compositions is a real, beating heart. With deference to Anderson’s terrific Punch Drunk Love, I believe this is the most unabashedly romantic film of his career. It is a stately, impeccably sculpted film about finding real, squishy emotion somewhere deep inside a stately, impeccably sculpted world. In its deliriously wicked conclusion, it manages to get to true love in a thoroughly demented way. In that moment, it proclaims that there are few wrong ways to find love with another person. Love is strange, enigmatic, and nebulous, and as long as you and your partner understand each other, nothing is really off limits. The rules of love are an ever evolving contract between the parties. Romance is a delightful, frustrating, frightening, revelatory conversation between souls for as long as they want to go on having that dialogue. This is Paul Thomas Anderson skewering the follies of artistic and relational pride, and honoring the value of working with a partner. Giving part of yourself to someone can be a scary and occasionally uncomfortable process, especially when you have become very accustomed to creating alone. But there is value in finding someone who challenges our spirits and bucks the wisdom that we have spent years following. What good are life and art if we are never pushed to change? Where would humankind be without collaboration?